Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mind the blue touchpaper

We must cherish the traditional celebrations on November 5th for I fear they will soon be no more. The decision to prosecute Geoffrey Counsell, the organiser of a fireworks display at Taunton Rugby Club in November 2011, with seven charges of manslaughter will, if he is convicted, mean that nobody will dare organise another. For it is claimed that it was the smoke from his display that drifted across the nearby M5 motorway and led to a multiple pile-up of vehicles in which seven people died. The Crown Prosecution Service, which authorised the charges, said with, it seemed to me, some reluctance that there was insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction of the rugby club and, with rather less reluctance, that no driver would be charged.

The process of neutering such displays is, of course, already well under way. We used to have an excellent evening on our village playing field, always on the 5th regardless of the day of the week it fell on, with a vast bonfire on which much unwanted material such as old beds or matressses was piled during the morning by anyone who could drag it into position. The heat from the blaze was terrific but nobody ever got burned, children waved their sparklers, there was a collection to pay for the fireworks, hot dogs in the village hall and good business in the pub. Now there is a carefully monitored eco-bonfire, tickets are sold at the gate, sparklers are discouraged and a barrier keeps everyone so far from the bonfire that you can't get warm. The crowd gets smaller each year. The front page of the Oldie magazine ( summed it up admirably two years ago.

We have resorted to a DIY celebration: no bonfire because trees, both ours and our neighbours', are far too close, but a few fireworks, all the more special for being home-detonated. We have mastered the science of directing the rockets through the gaps in the trees, and this year had a new addition to the arsenal, a brightly coloured box about the size of a melon, marked TNT in garish letters. Oh, the anticipation. The instructions said to retreat to at least 25 metres after lighting the fuse at which, I am happy to say, my grandson, properly brought up in the sceptical tradition, snorted with derision. We watched from five or six yards, which was ample.

I have the impression that manslaughter charges of this type are on the increase. One could argue that this is right in that some shameless operators have been getting away with a lack of proper concern for people's safety for far too long, or that it is an insidious development of the blame and victimhood culture and our reluctance to accept that anything with a bad outcome might simply be an accident. There is often an unsavoury tinge of a desire for revenge in the behaviour of the families of the victims that must make it very difficult for a jury to reach a sound balance in its verdict and I would hate to have to decide where an unforeseeable circumstance, quite reasonably not provided for, ends and gross negligence, rightly to be punished, begins. I am developing a nasty feeling that the more such cases go to prosecution the further the boundary creeps towards assigning blame where it does not properly belong.