Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 16th October 2017

HARD to think now, but it’s 50 years since the first roadside breath tests came into force. Some sections of society in those days were outraged by what they saw as an infringement of their civil liberties.

The first roadside test was carried out on 8th October, 1967. Transport minister Barbara Castle was subsequently heckled by publicans who accused her of damaging their trade. Prior to the breath tests, methods of determining whether people were fit to drive were distinctly crude. I bet a few retired coppers who are still around recall hauling boozed-up drivers back to the station only to find they were rock steady when it came to treading a white line, standing on one leg and putting their index finger to their nose.

I recall going to local courts to report some of the first cases. The breathalyser was surrounded by quite a few urban myths in those early days. One particular chap I often bumped into liked a couple of pints at lunchtime. Said it set him up for an afternoon back at work. He assured me that you could drink three pints of beer and still beat the test.

Not long after this unwise advice, I saw him cycling into town lashed by the wind and rain. Yes, he’d failed a test and been banned from driving for 12 months. Any words from me would have been superfluous.

It’s a far cry from those blow-in-a-bag tests to modern technology. Suspected drink-drivers now have to provide an infra-red test at the police station. Given that in 1967, 1,640 road deaths were blamed on alcohol, it was high time something was done to cut the carnage. Since then there’s been an eight-fold reduction in alcohol-related fatalities, despite a dramatic increase in car ownership.

Not that there’s any room for complacency. Indeed there’s an argument for zero-tolerance when it comes to drinking and driving. More than 200 people a year still die in crashes where at least one driver is over the limit.

I remember, as a young reporter, attending functions where people drank heavily and, at the end of the evening, got in their cars to drive home. I even recall one well-known local magistrate, looking worse for wear, being poured into the driver’s seat by his pals and told to take it carefully as he only had a couple of miles on back roads to get home. Perhaps the press was more discreet in those days.

Of course the more stringent approach to drink-driving did affect some country pubs. Many started serving food to encourage a different more family-orientated trade. For a while it was good news for taxi firms. Nowadays people buy booze from the supermarket and drink at home. Perhaps some of the convivial community of the pub was lost, but more lives were saved and it’s hard to argue with that.

But 50 years on, it hardly seems that long since I sat in Shap and Appleby magistrates’ courts listening to policemen giving evidence about how Joe Bloggs poked his eye out trying to touch his nose, and how he wobbled and fell flat while negotiating a chalk line in the interview room. Ah, but Bloggs said in his defence, yes, he may have necked a dozen pints, but once he took the wheel he was sober as the chairman of the Bench.

A REALITY SHOW CERT

I BET right now the researchers from one of those ghastly TV “reality” shows — the ones where they stick a dozen dimwits in a house for a month, or send them to a desert island in the hope some will team up for a spot of you know what — will be talking to Jade about signing her up.

Jade, a 23-year-old fashion assistant, is the bad mannered “princess” who downed tequilas, ate the bloke’s dinner and then bailed out without paying at TV’s First Dates restaurant. You couldn’t help feeling sorry for Jade’s date. Poor chap had to endure her constant texting and answering calls on her phone, and her brainless chat about how she wanted to be “treated like a princess” and always got her own way.

Whether so-called “reality” programs — there’s no connection with reality as I know it — are about exposing the dreams of stardom shared by a procession of talentless youngsters, or simply promoting mock outrage in the showbiz columns of the tabloid newspapers, they’re not my cup of tea at all.

Okay, I might watch the opening of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, just to see which vacuous B-listers have been roped in for a stay in the jungle, but as for Love Island and Big Brother, what a waste of time.

Initially reality shows amused the psychologists who studied examples of human bullying and weakness under the spotlight of the cameras which were trained on victims 24 hours a day. It was like some twisted social experiment. The theatre of cruelty. I think it’s sick and demeans us all.

Now it’s just wannabes, show-offs and a few plainly disturbed individuals. Jade, our lovely fashion assistant, being exactly the sort they need to charm her fellow housemates or island dwellers. There’s a word for it. Sadly I can’t use it in the Herald.

AN UNLUCKY PM

IN general I’m not a great believer in luck. “Lucky” people tend to be the ones who have made their own luck by skill and hard work.

But there are times when I have to reconsider that view. The bloke who won the lottery twice in three months. And we all know someone who invariably wins the bingo or the first prize in the raffle. Effortless success.

We also know people who seem to court misfortune. Walking under the hanging basket just as it decides to break free and fall on their head. Always buying a ticket for good causes, but never winning a bean.

Which poses the thought is Theresa May an unlucky Prime Minister? As if Brexit and rebellion within her own party were not enough, her conference fate became a collection of disasters — the coughing fits, the prankster and the falling letters on the board.

Being Prime Minister is a rotten job anyway. They all leave office with their reputations sullied and the public hating them. Why are May, Corbyn and Cable so darned keen? In May’s case, she’s never looked right for the job. She has all the presence and inspirational qualities of the England football squad, and she has no natural sense of humour. The Tory Gordon Brown, who wanted the top job but, having got it, wasn’t up to it.

Will they ditch her by Christmas? Well, who really can convincingly succeed her? Rees-Mogg, too bizarre. Amber Rudd, not experienced enough. Boris? A busted flush.

No, there’s only one potential leader who would have Jeremy Corbyn quaking in his shoes. She’s Scottish, feisty, smart, young and in a same-sex relationship. What’s not to like about Ruth Davidson?

All boxes ticked except one. She’s not a Westminster MP. It looks like the Tories are stuck with Theresa. But having a flawed, unlucky PM is not good for the country when, more than ever, it cries out for credible leadership.

DISAPPEARING MONEY

A PENSIONER who handed over his first pay packet to his mother 62 years ago has just been reunited with it. Mum kept it safe for a rainy day and it came to light when she went into a home and the money turned up as her house was being cleared.

Reading the disarming tale in the papers a small — very small — disparity between the words and the picture of the pay packet struck me. The difference? A whole halfpenny.

The reports said the packet contained £2 15s 9p. But the picture added that halfpenny which would, 62 years since, not exactly buy you a night out at the pictures followed by a tuck in at a cafe, the bus fare home and a farthing change, but would still be worth spending.

Talking to a much younger person the other day, I mentioned the halfpenny and was met with a perplexed expression. “Aw, come on old timer, we ain’t falling for that one. Half an old penny? You must be joking.”

In 1955 it was still 14 years before the halfpenny ceased to be legal tender. Death by decimalisation. The farthing went the same way in 1960, but I can remember, aged about five, having one in my piggy bank.

Two possible explanations for the missing halfpenny in Michael Doherty’s pay packet. Perhaps modern computer keyboards won’t actually write the figure, or could it be the reporters who covered the story thought it was an error and didn’t believe such things as halfpennies ever existed?

And now it’s time to hand in those old pound coins. A penny — or two halfpennies — for your thoughts on how quickly our money loses its value.