Excerpt from How to Live Dangerously


Why It’s Never Your Own Stupid Fault

At an advertising agency where I used to work, one of the more high-powered account executives slipped, one day, on the stairs coming down from a fifth-floor meeting-room and came down several steps rather quicker than she had anticipated, on her backside.


This came as a bit of a surprise to her.


She slipped on those stairs not because she was clumsy, or because she was wearing expensive high-heeled shoes, and certainly not because she was trying to find her wafer-thin mobile phone in her oversized patent-leather handbag while not paying enough attention to where she was going, but because of the stairs themselves, which made her fall, on account of being unduly shiny or slippery or something.


She was quite sure of that fact; and if it was also a fact that lots of other people had managed to get down those same stairs on that day in the normal way without any trouble, then that fact was neither here nor there: the fact was that she had fallen. More than this, in falling she had suffered Soft Tissue Damage.


Soft Tissue Damage might sound like a fancy word for a painful and embarrassing bruise, but it is not the same thing at all. Painful and embarrassing bruises go away by themselves, in the end, but Soft Tissue Damage only goes away through a course of expensive private physiotherapy, the bill for which was duly presented to the Managing Director some days later.


It's worth knowing this. 


I wish I'd known it myself a couple of months before when, at the age of forty-five, I thought it would be a good idea to learn to ride a BMX bike.


There are a lot of things you can do on a BMX bike at my age, besides looking really stupid.


One of the many things you can do on a BMX bike at the age of forty-five, or indeed at any age, is what's known as a manual. A manual is a kind of a wheelie, where you go up on your back wheel. It's called a manual, if you want to know, and not just a wheelie, because instead of pedalling, as in a normal wheelie, you pull the front of the bike up manually, while leaning back and down over the back wheel. So anyway, you do this pulling and leaning until you reach a crucial balance point, riding along on your back wheel, and you shift your weight and touch your back brake to keep yourself in balance. Or at least, that is the theory of it.


What I discovered, in trying to learn this manual thing one lunchtime in Central London, is an addition to the theory: what happens if you keep on pulling and leaning back beyond the balance point, at speed, and beyond the point at which you can get your feet down on the ground and run out of it.


What happens is that you topple over backwards. If you topple over backwards on a bike with your hands still on the handlebars and your feet still on the pedals, what happens is that you land with all of your weight on your backside, watched by appreciative passers-by, and then your bike shoots off without you and smacks into the side of a parked car, denting it on impact and then taking a big gouge out of the paintwork as it skids away. I also discovered that when you try to get up after something like this, it sometimes happens that one of your legs decides it doesn't want to comply, and you find yourself mouthing the same swear-word over and over again to yourself out of pain and humiliation as you struggle to your feet and limp over to pick up your bike. You will experience difficulty in walking for some days afterwards, I found, and your leg will seize up if you sit still for any length of time, so that to get up again you have to brace your arms against a table or something solid and pull yourself to your feet. After few days of this, there will appear what you might take, at first glance, to be the most monstrous black bruise you have ever seen. That, at any rate, was what I took it for; but if I had known then what I know now, I would have known that it was not, in fact, what I took it to be. What it was, was Soft Tissue Damage; and Soft Tissue Damage is something for which someone else is always to blame, and for which someone  else  ought to have paid compensation.


And this, it seems, is another of the great emerging themes of modern life. If it is true that we worry more and more about bad things happening to us, it is also true that when, or if, bad things do happen, we try to avoid responsibility for them wherever possible. We blame others for getting us into the mess we are in, and we expect others to get us out of it, and make everything alright.


Let me give you some other examples of what I mean.


Imagine that you have booked an exotic holiday, to the Dominican Republic, and you are laying there on your towel under a coconut tree on the white sand beach (or whatever colour sand they have over there) under the cloudless blue sky, listening to the waves lapping against the shore, or, at least, to the sounds of your fellow holidaymakers, when all of a sudden a bloody great coconut falls out of the tree, as coconuts are wont to do, and lands smack on your chest, or thump-crack on your chest, as the case may be. Whose fault is that, eh? Is it your fault for lying under a tree heavy with coconuts, or is it someone else's? And, in the circumstances, what do you do? What you do – or at least, what one holidaymaker did, according to a BBC investigation into the ‘compensation culture’ in November 2000 - is you blame Airtours, the holiday company, you sue them for damages, and you receive a large out-of-court settlement.


Got the hang of that? Another one - an easy one, this time. You are what the Americans call a Young Person of Size, or a 'lard-ass kid' - depending on what sort of American you speak to - and you got that way by stuffing your face with cheeseburgers, Quarterpounders 'n' fries, Chicken McNuggets and extra-large, extra-thick chocolate shakes. However, for most of your life neither you, nor any member of your family, have any idea that your size has anything at all to do with the amount of junk-food you've been pigging. Suddenly, one day, you discover the truth. The scales fall from your eyes. Eating like a glutton makes you put on weight and threatens your health and wellbeing! Not to mention your ability to walk through doorways without turning sideways. Who would have believed it? So what do you do? Yep - you sue McDonald's. You sue them for millions of dollars, in the hope of outdoing Stella Liebeck, the woman who managed to get $2.9 million out of them after she put a cup of McDonald's coffee on her lap in the car without realising that it might be... er, hot. Or stupidly and precariously placed. And then, when it inevitably spilt and scalded her, she sued and won.


It's quite a fun game, this. You could turn it into a competitive sport for the Olympics, and it would easily hold its head up alongside the likes of synchronised swimming and beach volleyball. You could build a stadium for it, at vast public expense, and then knock it down after the week or so it's used for, and then blame someone else for wasting all that money. The aim of this game, competitive suing, is to give as breathtaking a performance as possible, aiming for the highest levels of audacity and shamelessness you can manage, combined with the lowest possible levels of irony and self-awareness.