The shape of danger throughout the ages

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I SEE no danger of my being executed at the Tower and my head displayed on the street. In other words, I do not feel that monarchs pose any threat to me. In this I am not alone. If you watch any Shakespearean production that wishes to emphasise the modernity of the material, you will see courtiers joshing the king, treating him as one of the lads, putting an insouciant arm around his shoulders, quite unaware of the risks of such behaviour that would have been horribly obvious to any Elizabethan.

In this matter - seeing the king as a dangerous man - the Japanese versions of such productions (in which the lower classes prostrate themselves before lords of varying degrees) give us a much more authentic period feel, though there is never a doublet or a ruff to be seen. Coming from a society closer to feudalism, they understand the danger of the court.

So danger has a history. Danger changes shape. Somebody said to me, talking of books that would seem true to a child, that stories in which parents encourage their children to run off and play in the woods are a problem now. Of course, these adventure books were about dangers surmounted, but their idea of what might constitute an appropriate danger for a child has had to be seriously rethought.

Until Friday, a game of tennis did not seem dangerous, and when the stabbing of Monica Seles was first announced it was suggested that it had something to do with her being a Serb. The revised version had her being stabbed in order that Steffi Graf might not be upstaged - a theory that made one think: 'I see, it is not mad politics that has made tennis dangerous, it is just plain old madness after all.'

The sports themselves have redistributed danger, so that there are categories of fatal accident with a very short cultural history - those involving skiing and mountaineering, for instance - whose circumstances would have been difficult to explain to our ancestors. And, for this country at least, it is within the context of a sport, rather than a journey across water, that one is most likely to be drowned.

Not that great ships do not go down. But it is quite foreign to our experience and therefore it taxes the imagination when we find it in literature, to picture mentally the experience of travelling as of necessity, by ship, as a non-swimmer, with a good chance of being wrecked.

Foreign, too, seems the fate of Sir Clowdisley Shovell, returning from an expedition against Toulon in 1707. His ship went down by the Scillies, with a loss of 800 men, but he reached the shore, only to be battered to death by an aged crone in search of loot.

Smugglers, wreckers, pirates and highwaymen (members of professions perceived as obsolete) provided good material for the writers of adventure stories, as long as the details were properly cleaned up (Stevenson himself had difficulty in conveying a pirate's language without the use of obscenity), and the dangers of Cornwall seem an inexhaustible source of romance.

But there is nothing romantic about today's pirates in the South China Sea, preying on refugees and merchant shipping. Here is a danger that has - whatever the word is - de-obsolesced. Highwaymen, too, have come back, in the sense that a wrong turning taken by a hired car out of Miami airport may lead to great danger. But there is not much sense of opportunity for adventure there.

The writers of the old imperialist adventure stories liked to put a child in the centre of the action. Imagine that approach now: Jim's father is serving in Bosnia, so Jim stows away on an aid convoy in order to be near his dad. 'What, you little ragamuffin]' says Captain Harbottle, sternly, 'and may I ask who gave you permission to follow me here?' But his face took on a grim intentness as Jim recounted his adventures with the Chetniks, and the curious conversation he and his sister had overheard in Split.

No, I doubt my little adventure story will find many takers. I've already overdone the seasoning of danger.

It seems that danger is in a state of permanent redistribution, so that it is impossible to give a short answer to the question: is life more dangerous now than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago? Some dangers remain in potentia but have been effectively surmounted by virtue of the whole population's acquiring new skills: not stepping eagerly in front of steam trains, learning to handle fast cars and displaying subliminal expertise in the matter of crossing a road.

Some dangers are filed as Tolerable And Insurmountable, some as plain Intolerable. The situation in Northern Ireland is like this: the government of the day continually seeks to file it under Tolerable, while the IRA finds new ways of putting it in the latter category.

After the Bishopsgate bomb last weekend I thought there was an edge of panic in the official response, backed up by all those invocations of the Blitz. And it is surely worth asking how many such bombs the City can take. For the answer is not in the gift of the Government. Individual businesses and foreigners have their own ways of voting on the matter. One could be left with a situation in which everyone is agreed that the Spirit of the Blitz must rule as ever, but in the meantime, one by one, the international businesses go tiptoeing off to Frankfurt.

Inexperience is dangerous (it was through inexperience that Huskisson walked in front of the steam train) while experience may be entirely misleading. For an experience of great danger, such as the experience of war, may pre-set rather than inform our subsequent responses.

So when we listen to the older generation of politicians taking sides in the dispute over what to do about the Balkans we cannot simply say: there speaks an experienced voice. We have to ask whether the experience in question is informing or misleading the speaker.

We can see, I think, that the Balkans are not the Falklands, nor indeed the Gulf. But is it right that the Vietnam precedent should squat on the shoulders of the US chiefs-of-staff? And what about those of the Second World War generation, who spy such danger? What about the vehemence of the Heaths and Healeys?

Does it spring from an analogy correctly perceived, or from a powerful misapprehension? Or does it arise from a general feeling of nie wieder Krieg, never war again? And would it be right to scoff at such a spirit, if that was what it was?