Book review: Risk Wise - dose of sanity in an often crazy world
Risk Wise: Nine Everyday Adventures
by Polly Morland
Ours is an increasingly risk-averse society. It has become a conversation point to wax nostalgic about the days when children walked unaccompanied to school and played marbles in the street. Aged not quite five, I was put on a train, with a label in my buttonhole, and sent from London to Liverpool to visit my grandparents with no adult supervision beyond the guard. And psychologists say this nannying produces a society of anxious, unconfident adults with low self-esteem and a dangerous inability to trust their own judgments.
Polly Morland's brisk and thought-inducing book takes a forensic look at nine examples of modern risk, and on the way delivers acute and entertaining insights. Her first foray into an environment of contemporary risk-taking is one of the book's most cheering chapters. It describes a play experiment in north Wales where, rather than the specially laid "soft" flooring and tasteful wooden or brightly painted apparatus of most play areas, the kids are let loose in what is essentially a junkyard.
Morland's descriptions of juvenile customers hacking away with rusty saws and throwing themselves off heights made me keen to join in. She quotes play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith: "The opposite of play is not work. It's depression."
What is so enlivening about this book is the way Morland careers from, for example, children's play to life on the slopes of Vesuvius - her next example. The accounts of first a volcanologist, who believes that the catastrophic consequences of another eruption are woefully underestimated, and the elderly couple who have contentedly spent their life on the shoulders of this sleeping enemy provide a fascinating insight into human psychology. At one level we are profoundly risk-averse, at another we are almost stupidly risk-blind.
It is known that successful people are less risk-averse than the norm, as Japanese businessman Tetsuro Hama, restaurateur and car salesman, exemplifies. Morland is clearly a sympathetic interviewer, and Hama's story of flight from an economically depressed Tokyo to become a brilliant entrepreneur, basically busking as he went along, is rags-to-riches satisfying.
Morland balances her examples with an absorbing description of the characteristics of air traffic controllers, where obsessive risk-aversion is a mortal necessity and communal responsibility displaces individualism. Air traffic controllers exhibit "collective mindfulness". "They 'worry chronically' about what can go wrong and feel a shared and individual accountability for ensuring that it never does."
This is a delightful book. A dose of sanity in an often dotty world. It should be required reading for the next education secretary, and I shall give it to all the parents in my family.
Guardian News & Media