I am sensible. I’m the one who arrives early, the friend who won’t lose the tickets – and will get you home – the one wearing a vest, with a raincoat and sunscreen in her bag. I’ve always been sensible. A word used with purring approval by friends’ parents and teachers alike.
Yes, I was Head Girl. Obviously. And I’ve continued making largely sensible decisions after weighing up all the risks before doing anything. Or, more likely, doing nothing. And that’s the thing. After 53 sensible years I’m wondering if I’d have had more success, more experiences and simply more fun if I hadn’t been so bloody sensible. Very few of the people I admire seem like me – they’re cool, brave, edgy and dynamic. In this programme for Radio 4, I’m really asking if it’s sensible to be sensible? Of course, I blame my parents.
“You’re sensible because you have a sensible mother,” my mum, Jan, tells me. My dad, Geoff, agrees: “You’re practical, you plan, you get on with things and also you’re very good at being on time.” “But not necessarily boring,” adds my mum, not quite quickly enough. And my sensi- ble parents blame their own parents. “I was brought up by a sensible mother,” says Mum. “She was a woman alone during the war – my father was away five years – and she coped with all of that. Some women did flap, but she didn’t.”
If you had your time again, I ask Dad, would you take more risks? “Yes, I would, but if you come from a background where there’s no money at all, you’re inevitably more cautious in making decisions that involve nance and long- term prospects.” Is that sensible? To worry so much about risks and the long term? I’d say so, but then I am my father’s daughter.
Gerd Gigerenzer is the director of the Centre for Risk Literacy in Berlin and an advisor to Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. (A sensible place, Germany.) Gigerenzer says that “vernünftig” (“sensible” in German) is a compliment – he’s flattered to be thought sensible, doesn’t see it as boring and “in a world in which politicians are no longer good managers or good people, and where the general public is mostly risk-illiterate”, he says it’s something we need more of.
Why are we so bad at understanding risk? “Think of 9/11. After the attack many Americans didn’t fly. For 12 months after the attack the number of miles driven increased up to five per cent.” As a result, he says, around 1,600 more people lost their lives on the road, believing they were doing the sensible thing. He calls this “Dread Risk” – anxiety caused by situations where many people die suddenly. It’s understandable, but not sensible.
And there are cultural differences, too – “Take Christmas,” says Gigerenzer, who worked in the USA for many years. “In Germany we couldn’t think of something more lovely and peaceful than a real Christmas tree illuminated with wax candles. My American friends got into hysterics, seeing the tree in flames – and the house.”
But that same Christmas, one of Gigerenzer’s American friends proudly showed him the gift that he’d bought for his 16-year-old son. “It was a Winchester rifle. So, you can see the differences in what cultures fear.”
I’ve had my less sensible moments – a mixture of wine and high heels once led me to lie in a gutter singing – and no one can pretend that a freelance career in media is wise. In my defence it is plan B. Plan A was to act but I realised early on I just wasn’t good
enough. Or was that just a way of avoiding the scary risk? Anyway, as media goes, I’m at the sensible end; I present on Radio 4 and on BBC1’s Countryfile. It’s not Love Island… My parents are retired but were both librarians. Surely the epitome of a sensible job? On a glorious summer’s day, producer Chris Ledgard and I went to Birmingham to test the theory.
I took a hat, Chris didn’t.
“I’ve been known to go to work in my pyjamas.I’ve worn a headband with pink pompoms. I’ve taken my teddy bear,” says Allie, who works in Bridgend library and isn’t quite what I was expecting. In the baking sun on a terrace at Birmingham’s central library I chat to her and Gill and Liz, two other librarians free of stereo- typical half-moon glasses.
But I’m among friends – modern, sensible women. And Liz is happy to embrace the word. “We work really well under pressure, with the unpredictable, we try to be prepared… I’m the sensible friend, and perhaps a lot of librarians are.”
“We’re very useful for signing passport forms,” adds Gill, to much laughter. It seems that Allie, Liz, Gill and I are the vanguard of a new trend. Various surveys show that young people are less likely to smoke, drink, get pregnant or break the law – sensible! But not cool? The words that keep coming up – organised, prepared, punctual, reliable… Oh God, am I really this tedious?
This past year I’ve tried to say yes when every sensible fibre of my sensible being is screaming NO! It’s not been comfortable. I’ve attempted to sing and dance on Children in Need as part of Countryfile Does Country. I’ve tossed a caber. I’ve… well, now I can’t think of another example. I’m trying to be more like the brave, dynamic types I admire, to be spontaneous, unpredictable, but not, to be honest, late. That’s just rude.
Charlotte Smith is sensible, but I’m working on it.
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