Gary Day

September 7, 2007

Would you like to know the angle of an erect penis? Well, more of that later. First, I'm just dying to tell you that books have been branded a health and safety hazard. Yes, that's right. It sounds absurd, even for a university. But it's not what you think. Staff aren't having their shelves swept clean of suspect works, nor are students being stopped from going to the library. On the contrary, they are positively encouraged to visit it at least once in their three years.

So it isn't the fact that you may get a headache from trying to understand new ideas or become upset at having your views challenged, that has brought books to the attention of Health and Safety. Not even they would be so foolish as to regulate how best to make your synapses flash.

Of course, it could be that they haven't got round to it yet. They may be too busy writing safety manuals on how to sit in a reclining chair or issuing instructions on how to pass through a revolving door.

But let's be charitable - unlike the security firm that reportedly sacked a security guard for preventing a suicide. He scaled a scaffold and stopped a mentally ill man, with a noose round his neck, from leaping to his death. Being as his action was in "serious breach of health and safety regulations", though, the only thanks he got was his P45.

Still, as I said, let's be charitable and assume that officials have no objections to the faint possibility that books may make you think.

Is it, then, that you may injure yourself by dropping one on your foot? Or that you may draw blood turning the pages? There is a very real risk of doing both, as Swindon Council is well aware. In February this year, author Mark Sutton was told that he needed £5 million worth of insurance to sell copies of his book on council premises. A spokesperson said it was necessary to protect against potential claims from readers crippling themselves or slicing off their digits. I wonder if you can sue if a book bores you or if it annoys you so much you hurl it across the room and hurt your arm? One day, hopefully.

Books may also be dangerous because they accumulate dust. And the dead skin of colleagues, customers, computer engineers and space auditors always seems to settle most heavily on those volumes you really did mean to read. Somehow, though, life got in the way and the relationship was never consummated.

Hmm... Time for a clear-out. Do I want this old tome? No. This one? Yes. Only bought it 15 years ago; there's still a chance I may read it. Eventually a little pile develops. I leave it outside the office, a neat stack with a note reading "Please Take".

And, here at last, is the rub. Books become a health and safety hazard if left in the corridor. You may trip over them. Especially if you are walking sideways, your back flat against the wall, looking in the opposite direction to where you are going. But if we are going to take accident prevention seriously, we need to be consistent. Here are two modest proposals.

One, ban noticeboards from corridors. They are pimpled with drawing pins. If I prick myself, do I not bleed? Two, ban people. There is a danger of bumping into them, particularly when distracted by colourful posters advertising the Faculty Conference. If that is impractical, then at least ensure the corridor is padded. Not to make the place more like an asylum, but to prevent broken bones, should we bounce off a person and crash into the walls.

Issue staff and students with masks to minimise the spread of disease. Otherwise someone will make a claim against the university for failing to protect them against catching a cold in the corridor, that place which, as Geoffrey Boycott tells cricket fans every summer, is fraught with danger and uncertainty.

But let us look to the log in our own eye before removing the speck in Health and Safety's. Which brings us back to the male member. In spring I met a scientist who had a received a huge grant to study its exact angle in the state of arousal. Sorry to disappoint, but it's never quite at attention.

And have you ever wondered about the meaning of breathing? There is a forthcoming conference on the subject in November. Potential contributors are asked to consider matters such as why respiration is a sign that we are alive. Why nothing on flatulence though? That's an example of exhalation if ever I smelt it.

It all just goes to show that the silly season is not just for August, but for life. Or that for occasional riches you need lots of rubbish.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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