The great Norwich bouncy castle debate

A toddler, on the wrong rampart at the wrong time, might be catapulted with tragic consequences
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The Independent Online

Suddenly the relaxed, civilised city of Norwich has become the focus of the great debate about freedom and political correctness. Last year, you may remember, there was the great window-box furore. The Labour-controlled council had concluded, rather sensibly, that should a window box or similar item of horticultural display happen to fall from a council tenant's high-rise dwelling and flatten a passer-by, then the council would be liable for damages. A ban on window boxes was put in force but later, in the face of widespread ridicule in the media, rescinded.

Suddenly the relaxed, civilised city of Norwich has become the focus of the great debate about freedom and political correctness. Last year, you may remember, there was the great window-box furore. The Labour-controlled council had concluded, rather sensibly, that should a window box or similar item of horticultural display happen to fall from a council tenant's high-rise dwelling and flatten a passer-by, then the council would be liable for damages. A ban on window boxes was put in force but later, in the face of widespread ridicule in the media, rescinded.

Then there was a fuss over Norwich's bouncy castle directive, which pointed out that these apparently innocent contraptions conveyed a hidden danger. Should a plump child be bouncing too enthusiastically, there was the risk that another toddler, on the wrong rampart at the wrong time, might be catapulted into the air with tragic consequences.

Finally, and most famously, the council put a felling order on a row of horse chestnut trees in Bluebell Road after a safety expert suggested that a falling conker might cause a cranial injury to a passing pedestrian. It was this apparently that prompted the heir to the throne, a sincere man troubled by the way things are going, to write to the Lord Chancellor, referring to "an increasingly over-regulated society" and "the degree to which our lives are becoming ruled by a truly absurd degree of politically correct interference".

As it happens, he may have a case about the regulations – I'm overseeing the building of a house near Norwich and hardly a day goes by when I am not made aware of complex and exhaustive rules concerning the width of a stairtread or the wheelchair-friendliness of light switches – but the Prince of Wales's deployment of the tired, overused phrase "political correctness" betrays a certain laziness of thinking.

There is nothing new in the politically correct idea, but somehow it has become confused and meaningless over time. During the mid-1980s, those in the vanguard of alternative comedy would muse earnestly over whether a routine, joke or reference was, in a phrase frequently used by Ben Elton, "politically sound". Soon, perhaps as a reaction against a general brutalism of the time, left-wing councils and the more thoughtful librarians, teachers, publishers and, even, journalists became aware that certain phrases, long taken for granted by those in positions of power, conveyed all sorts of secondary connotations and assumptions.

Inevitably, the trend was vulgarised and distorted in the press. Stories, almost always false or distorted, began to appear, suggesting that an idiotic and comical oversensitivity was being used to curtail civic freedom. Children were being forced to sing "Baa-Baa White Sheep", and black refuse bags had been banned. When a children's author complained of censorship – her publisher was unhappy with the line "Things were looking black for Johnny" – her case was sympathetically reported.

Yet it is now clear that she was one of the first of many to miss the point about political correctness. For certain readers, deploying the adjective "black" in that context would be confusing, or at least distracting. Why should gloom and bad news naturally be associated with blackness? The publisher was merely suggesting that the author might transcend her own particular view of the world and show a bit of politeness towards her readers. She was being asked to write better, in other words.

Of course, there have been occasions since then when this new self-consciousness has been taken too far. A great army of scolds and disapprovers are always on hand to tell the rest of us what we should be reading, watching, saying and thinking, and for them this vague new code of appropriateness was a useful weapon when it came to stifling awkward messages and debates that they found unpalatable.

But the general effect of what is called political correctness has been beneficial. There is a greater awareness of the feelings of minority groups. Even if, as has been reported this week, a large proportion of Scots still find nothing racist in referring to "chinkies" or "pakis", the trend has been to isolate the bigots. While various forms of racism were once common at some football grounds, it is now unthinkable that an English crowd would behave in the way Dutch fans did this week whenever one of Arsenal's black players was on the ball.

This, rather than the conker trees of Bluebell Road, is the true legacy of the debate surrounding political correctness. It is still a complex business that stirs up disagreements every week. Was the senior nurse right to resign after her reference to Ten Little Niggers? Should Tessa Jowell have been carpeted for joking about "fat chemistry teachers"? But the fact that the rows and discussions take place at all is a small indicator of a society growing up.

terblacker@aol.com

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