Hang on - do princes need helmets?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
good grief. From the reactions to 13-year-old Prince Harry's exploits on an abseil rope on a dam in Wales, you would think that he had been caught eating beef on the bone or something. No safety helmet! yelled the tabloids. No safety rope! No safety boots! (Do they mean antigravity boots? Are they now in shops?)

My own reactions to the teenager's day out were rather different. They were: nice to see somebody having fun for a change; pity it's abseiling, which barely requires a skill level above having a pulse; and what a relief that he isn't encumbered with all that dorky, useless stuff like a helmet and back-up rope.

We learnt from the inevitable "royal sources" that the boy's father was furious that his sons' lives were "put at risk". Would that furious person be the same Prince Charles who has broken various bits of his body while horse-riding, and has narrowly avoided being killed while skiing off- piste, then? The air is thick with the smell of hypocrisy. What's worse is that it's not even well-informed hypocrisy; and the ultimate effect might be that not only Prince Harry but, by example, many other children across the nation are condemned to live a life wrapped in cotton wool.

The misinformation surrounding Harry's bit of fun is remarkable. Abseiling may look daring, but if you have the right set-up - a good anchor and suitable location - it's safer and considerably easier than crossing the road. One "safety expert" informed The Daily Mail that Harry should have had at the very least a helmet "in case of falling rocks". Tosh. You find no rocks atop pedestrianised Welsh reservoirs. And had he fallen the distance, no helmet on earth could have saved him from death.

No "safety line"? Actually, the set-up used would have acted as a natural brake even if the prince had slipped: the weight of the rope below him would have provided friction in his abseiling device and slowed him down, while the gentle slope of the dam would have offered a relatively soft landing. He would have been bruised and banged, but not dead.

But it's the very absence of a back-up that obviously made this important to the young boy. Harry wanted what any teenager wants: to have full control of his life and death. He didn't want to be mollycoddled, and it's to the credit of those who were looking after him that day that they let him have his head, unencumbered by a useless helmet, which would have made him feel like a twit, and an umbilical cord to an adult.

What's more amusing about all this to rock climbers (such as myself) is that everyone who is working themselves into a lather over this seems to think that to abseil implies that you spit in the face of Death and have nerves of steel. Actually, all you have to do is keep hold of a rope in front of you. Everything else is taken care of by friction and gravity. It's as complex as holding a doorknob.

Personally, I hate abseiling. It requires no particular skill yet somehow gets promoted to the status of an "activity" by eager outdoor centres. Second, it can kill you, notably when you're going backwards over the edge of a rope-cuttingly sharp cliff attached (one hopes - I once met someone who forgot to connect his rope to his harness before stepping backwards: he spent six months in hospital) to a rope 11mm thick, which is anchored to a couple of aluminium wedges lodged in a piece of manky-looking rock. That's when you fret, and double-check things. But not when you have a stonking great knot attached to a dam. That's when you run down face-first yelling "Whee!"

Yet one can see an awful outcome from this daft panic, in which Prince Charles will insist that abseiling means boots, helmet, back-up rope, no running down the cliff. And ditto for other "dangerous" sports. Parents across the country will follow suit.

But why should we make Boredom a national pastime? I would prefer children to get to know what they're really capable of. It would have been quite enlivening for Harry if he had slipped halfway down and had to fight to keep his grip on the rope. I think in another age we might have called it character-building. One would think it was useful for someone who might become King.

Perhaps Charles is right. Perhaps he correctly perceives that the society Harry might come to rule will be so terrified of open risk, so ready to yowl when the slightest statistical pimple implies that some food or pastime carries a heightened element of danger that its ruler should think the same. Expunge that daredevil. Create a frightened child who sees a paedophile lurking outside the car on the school run. And always, always wear your safety helmet and safety shoes.