The peaceful scene below is an Autumnal view of Port Meadow in Oxford. I first put it up on this site on 11 January. Ten days later a 15 year old boy fell off his bike at dusk into the river Thames at the far left of the picture. I write this three days later and he has not been found despite extensive searches.
For a place only a few hundred yards from the edge of a city, Port Meadow is a place where you feel very close to the elements. In summer it resembles a prairie, with cattle and horses grazing by the sluggish river. In winter it becomes a great inland sea, sometimes glass-like as in the photograph, sometimes blown into choppy waves, sometimes frozen into a a giant ice-rink. At the moment, the flood-water is as high as I have ever seen it, the river rushing past, the border between stream and meadow indistinguishable.
I was down at the spot a few hours earlier with the dog. There is a footpath there, now flush with the top of the river. I did not stay long. The dog likes to plunge into water, and I had sub-consciously decided that if he did so now he could take his chance alone. I would not attempt a rescue in that rushing water.
The news of the boy was close to home in other ways. He is the second of his school (my son’s school as well) to be lost to Oxford’s waters in a few months – the Inquest on the first one was taking place even as the search was in hand for the second. It brings home that set of decisions which parents make all the time, balancing a child’s freedom, and the pleasure and benefit that gives, against the risk which comes with the exercise of that freedom.
Events like this always bring out the hand-wringers who insist that something must be done and that someone must be to blame. There will be calls for notices, barriers and bans, almost certainly from someone not connected with the people or the place and with no interest but the pleasure of complaining and finger-pointing. A risk-averse official will advise that there is a danger of claims or prosecutions. Money will be taken from another budget, and poured in a hurry into some ill thought-out works whose purpose is effect – the appearance of doing something – and whose effect is to diminish the place.
The diminution will be in two forms, visual and (for want of a better word) cultural. Visually, Port Meadow has escaped the suburbanisation which council officials like to impose where they can. It remains a wild place. There are not many wild places left in our hemmed-in culture (that is, the culture made up of the physical environment and state-sponsored over-protectiveness) where young people can escape to, and those who can – who have access and are allowed to go – are privileged.
This does not diminish by one jot the appalling nature of what has happened. The lesson is not, however, that the state should interfere to remove or protect us from all the hazards of life, but that life is hazardous. We are growing a generation incapable of thinking for itself, incapable of making its own pleasure and, like council officers, unable to distinguish between a hazard and a risk.
A fast-flowing river is a hazard. The decision to go near it is a risk, relative, say, to sitting at home watching television. Risks – natural risks, gambling risks, commercial risks – require the ability to assess a hazard, and offer the reward of success or pleasure and the possibility of failure, ruin or death. We are breeding that ability out of the coming generation.
Mourn the boy, but do not use this as an excuse to restrict his peers.