Endangered Species Feburary 2018 Briefing



The recent half term for once became more of a joy rather than a chore. With some rare early planning we had organized the family and were all spending five days in one of Europe’s great capital cities, Vienna. As an Irish family, and myself being of a certain generation, we christened the city O’Vienna, cheesy I admit, but some how appropriate. Breakfast daily was in my case freshly baked Rye bread with the cheese, a typical ‘Mittel Europe’ snack and courtesy of our host Dr. Robbie, a prominent academic at the Austrian Institute of Advanced Studies. 

Over the years I have worked in or visited most of the ‘Grand Capitals of Europe’ and although having much in common, in particular a river and the Italian/French Neo-Classical architecture. Oh, and also a fair spattering of men on horseback mounted on plinths, and epic memorial stone works erected ‘in memoriam’ of fallen hero’s and the like. However, the most striking aspect of Vienna for me was space. The sheer width of the boulevards allows you to walk in space and light, and to approach beautiful buildings from distance, the view and detail revealing gently as you approach. I have always believed that the site and relationship is as important as the architecture, and nowhere have I seen it more elegantly and effortlessly demonstrated than on the streets of Vienna.

The end of the 19th century for Vienna saw a bit tree shaking, in art, architecture and in authenticity. Klimt and Schiele led the revolution wielding paintbrushes and poking at convention, and Sigmund Freud was playing with the furniture of the mind down the road. (For my foodie friends, Freud was a fan of Rebhun, a St. John ‘esque restaurant near the museum, Schnitzel heaven, do visit.) An Architect called Albert Loos joined in the fun, and created not a gem, but a jewelry box of a space, a direct snub and finger in the eye to the surrounding pale stone Baroque meringue like structures, called America Bar. 

Completed in 1908, and now really called Loos American Bar, this place literally shook me to my boots with joy. We visited on a Thursday night, a romantic tram ride of four friends to get there, and walking through the door was akin to the first time I walked into a dimly candle lit cathedral, no less inspiring for a space smaller than my kitchen at home. Everything, and I mean everything is here. From the fascia sign in back illuminated Kaleidoscopic onyx, the typography in black and white, the floor in green and black check, the bar, back-bar, seats, infinity mirrors to reflect the sculpted ceiling in every direction, the glowing bottles and shimmering labels, and finally the smiling faces of the safest hands that create bowls of liquid magic. Phew.

We smoked our cigars Robbie and I, they had been planned for the walk home, but Austria has its own rules. I drank a Manhattan, amber rich with a luminous cherry, and for the first time in a long time, felt totally immersed in an experience of pleasure. It was a moment captured, to be treasured, from a ‘high day or holiday’, so rare now, so threatened. I vowed then to gently push back against the grim reaper who has us in his gaze and brandishes his rulebook called ‘The Death of Pleasure’.



Earlier this week I was speaking at Packaging Innovations at the NEC in Birmingham. I am also booked to speak in Europe and the US in the next month or so.

If you think my insight is of value to your business, more than happy to do a 30 minutestand-up. Just contact me and I will make it happen.

Could have used ‘The Snow’ as an excuse for the late delivery of this issue, but no!


Among the joys of being a child is that you see fun and adventure where adults sense hassle and danger; that the unexpected is relished, not feared; and that enthusiasm and energy hold sway over caution and fear. So when it snows, as it is currently doing all over Europe, children everywhere have only one thought: let’s get out and play; build snowmen, have snowball fights and slide on makeshift sleds. Because, it is just plain fun. 

Step forward Ges Smith, head teacher of East London’s Jo Richardson Community School, who has not only banned his pupils from having snowball fights at school, but even “touching snow”. “We’ve got a duty of care,” argued Mr Smith, explaining he was worried that children might place grit or a stone into a snowball to deliberately hurt each other.

This daftness is but the latest in a long series of events where, under the “health and safety” catch-all, well-intentioned rule-makers impose disproportionately draconian measures upon activities, pastimes and products that may contain some element of risk to those enjoying them. Or being more sceptical: acting to pre-empt potential lawsuits in case of mishap. 

Let’s be clear. Kneejerk criticism of health and safety initiatives is lazy, sometimes cynical and ignores the huge improvements to our lives in areas ranging from the industrial work environment to the building of our homes. Britain has one of the best health and safety at work records in Europe across a range of measures, which is something to be proud of – as is the United Kingdom’s position as one of the safest countries in the world in which to drive. The change in our collective attitudes to, for example, drink-driving over the past decades is entirely commendable.

But it is a small leap from these manifest successes to the easily mocked examples of “elf ‘n’ safety” gone mad. How else to explain the scourge of the modern packaging warning? The OTT alarm that sees packets of peanuts carry the warning “contains peanuts”, or washing machines that caution “do not put any person in this washer”.  How to explain the need for “do not use while seeping” on a Vidal Sassoon hairdryer; “may cause drowsiness” on a packet of sleeping pills; or the infamous “do not eat” on both the printer toner cartridge and the original Apple iPod Shuffle box?

In a world where we need to be told not to hold the wrong end of a chainsaw, packaging is the tip of the iceberg. It is the ostensibly laughable restrictions on everyday life that collectively form an insidious assault on our freedom of choice and ability to live freely and without fear. It is why in the past, the Health and Safety Executive itself has criticised unnecessary or extreme health and safety initiatives. The ridicule they inspire alters the context in which necessary measures are received.

When a lollipop man is told to stop high-fiving children as they cross the street in case others cannot see him; when pupils are banned from playing conkers, marbles or leapfrog in the playground; when plasters are removed from first-aid kits for fear of allergies and Butlins bans bumper car drivers from, “bumping”, it is clear that we are losing sight of proportionality.

Hard cases make bad law is an adage central to the health and safety debate. An extreme case is notoriously a poor starting point for introducing more general legislation or regulation that encompasses less extreme cases. Look at the growing debate about the nature of trauma, particularly head trauma in football. Whatever our sympathies for the family of the late, great Jeff Astle, does the WBA legend’s death from degenerative brain disease mean we should ban all heading of a football?

For football, read other everyday activities: eating unpasteurized cheese or steak tartare, skiing, the use of ladders, police chasing moped gangs, rescuing those in water, the rugby scrum. Already some aspects of life – notably air travel – have been rendered almost unbearable by the need to demonstrate safety measures are in force, rather than the measures themselves making us safer.

`Many issues lie behind this creeping over-protectiveness: a genuine desire to improve public health and safety; the concept of proportionality; our human right to take risks; legal liabilities and the litigation culture. What place does common sense hold in society and what about our freedom to choose that which may just possibly do us harm? Is risk assessment to be solely the preserve of government, corporations and the legal system?

That leads us to a place where Abellio East Anglia enforces a mass cancellation of trains in anticipation of a dusting of winter snow that doesn’t actually materialize and America allows teenagers to acquire assault weapons freely, but bans the sale of Kinder Eggs and haggis. Health and safety culture may not have “gone mad” but it is increasingly going rogue; losing sight of its purpose: the invaluable contribution it has made to saving lives and making them healthier. It is instead in danger of stopping us living them.