Why I'm relieved I was a spoilsport mother

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The Independent Online
THE WEEK has echoed to songs of dead children, none more haunting than that of the Dorset canoeists. The police inquiry will concentrate on the whys and wherefores of the delayed rescue, but the more fundamental question is why we ever let schools organise these adventure holidays at all.

Just think for a minute. Would you go canoeing on the English sea in March? In March - when any fine morning can whip up a gale by lunchtime? I used to canoe or, more accurately, kayak on the Thames at Twickenham, but even there, in sheltered water, I would expect to capsize most times and, since it is impossible to get back into a capsized kayak, this meant that canoeing was usually a prelude to swimming - fine in the Thames in summer, but not in the sea in winter.

Every time there is one of these school trip disasters - four children drowned at Land's End in 1985, four lost in the Alps in 1988 - new safety guidelines are issued, with the result that there are now 122 separate sets floating round schools in Britain, but they are obviously quite useless.

The St Albans Centre was not registered with the British Canoe Union and its instructors were not qualified to take children canoeing, yet the local education authority approved it. The fact is that we just don't know how dangerous these adventure centres might be because they don't advertise their near-misses.

The Evening Standard had a letter about a similar school canoeing accident which luckily was not fatal because the children were rescued, but unluckily received no publicity so did not serve as a warning. And the trouble with school trips is that everyone always assumes that everyone else knows what they're doing so it becomes harder and harder for the lone voice of sanity to cry, 'This is foolhardy.'

Adventure means danger, it means taking risks. Obviously many people find risk exciting and I don't want to spoil their fun, but let them do it as families or as individuals, not through schools. It is very hard to say no when your children claim that 'everyone' in their class is going abseiling or scuba diving or paragliding; refusing makes you seem a spoilsport or mean. My children are now inured to my response - 'I didn't raise you at vast expense all these years so that some gung-ho berk could drop you off a cliff' - but I imagine if I'd had boys instead of girls, or if my husband reproached me for being over-protective, it would have been harder to resist. There is always someone to say that you can't wrap children in cottonwool and they are more likely to be killed crossing the road. Of course they are - but the difference is that they have to learn to cross the road; they don't have to learn canoeing. Anyway, I hope that a few brave headteachers now will have the courage to say that they won't be fixing any adventure holidays in future. Many parents will howl - but I am sure that many more will quietly heave great sighs of relief.

ON THURSDAY I went to the evensong dedication of a memorial to Anthony Trollope in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. Never having been to evensong before, let alone in Westminster Abbey, I was stunned by the gorgeous singing, the fabulous robes, and some intriguing men dressed in morning coats who looked like wine waiters with medals round their necks.

The endless 'processing' and bowing and genuflecting meant there was never a dull moment, and an additional excitement was that I was sitting in the same row as Godfrey Smith, who is certainly the biggest of newspaper columnists. The chairs were all anchored to a bar of wood underneath, so every time we had to stand or sit, the whole row bounced in unison. After evensong we were ushered out and back again and I noticed some dogs sniffing round the altar which I thought was just another of those strange rituals ('the Hounds will now process through the Quire') till I noticed the priest beside me had what looked like a black plastic lobster clamped to his ear and was muttering into it.

At this point the Trollopians began whispering that John Major must be coming, and sure enough, there he was - looking if possible even duller among all the swishing soutanes than he does on telly. I was more excited to see Sir Robin Fellowes, the Queen's much-criticised press secretary, and tried to psych myself up to ask him if he'd enjoyed Fergie's interview in the Sun, but I quailed. Anyway, it was all good weird fun.

Why was I invited? My enthusiasm for Trollope remains tepid; I am inclined to agree with Roy Hattersley that he is 'the novelist for people who don't like novels'. But John Letts, the society's president, explained gently that Trollope was nothing if not worldly, and he would be the first to understand the need to cultivate the press. Letts himself has done his cultivating to such good effect that Trollopianism is growing, as he says, 'like ground elder'. His next project is a book of Trollope quotations: there are pithy, memorable epigrams in those 47 novels, he assures me, and if anyone can find them, he will.

ISABEL WOLFF writes entertainingly in this week's Spectator about the terrible proliferation of author's acknowledgements in the front of books. Women, I regret to say, are the worst offenders, being inclined to list everyone they've ever had coffee with. But I came across a real horror from a man this week, in Steve Turner's biography of Cliff Richard. It says: 'Melanie Watson has ensured that the manuscript is politically correct and helped me to spell words such as occasional and commitment.' Yuk]