Police in Seattle were recently called out to a local park, where they discovered a shirtless, hammer-wielding man hanging upside down from a basketball hoop, who thrashed around wildly until firefighters released him. If you change “shirtless” to “trouserless”, “hammer” to “secateurs” and “hanging upside down from a basketball hoop” to “trapped under the roller shutter of a looted and partially destroyed Waitrose”, it’s how I imagine I would end up after a few days of trying to survive in a war zone or post-apocalyptic future.
When I think to myself: “Have I got what it takes to survive?” I always think back to the Reading ’95 music festival, when I set aside an hour every morning, ahead of the day’s performances, to walk to Reading train station to have a poo in the comparative luxury of their toilets. As long as I wasn’t occupying the cubicle at 11:30am every day – when someone called Terry apparently used it as an office in which to “suck ballz” – I would be fine. It was a risk worth taking, especially given the state of the festival facilities.
Each portaloo had its own ‘shitberg’, a towering monument of filth made up of crushed beer cans, used sanitary towels, whole toilet rolls, cheap sunglasses, and lager and noodle-based vomit. I tentatively entered one toilet to find a mountain of shit with a small flag planted on top and a single flip-flop poking out from a lower slope. I assumed a festival-goer had made the ill-judged decision to conquer the summit but got their foot tangled in a discarded lanyard, sending them plunging headlong into the warm, fetid, suffocating embrace of a thousand bowel movements. The thought of the stricken festival-goer, tightly cocooned in noodles and sinking rapidly to the muffled and increasingly distant sound of Teenage Fanclub, was too much to bear.
I wasn’t going out like that. And I certainly wasn’t going to spend a long weekend peeking behind umpteen portaloo doors each morning – like opening up a vast, shitty, depressing advent calendar – to find the least hazardous option in which to relieve myself. So if you assess my survival skills purely on my ability to circumvent unpleasant toilet facilities, I’m Bear fucking Grylls.
I recently played a survival video game called This War of Mine to see if I had the nous to survive in a war zone. Inspired by the 1992–96 Siege of Sarajevo, it’s a bit like a bleak version of Ade Edmondson’s How to be a Complete Bastard. But instead of hurling a bin lid at some yuppies and urinating on the kitchen floor, I led a small band of besieged townsfolk in an effort to survive the war zone that our neighbourhood had become. It didn’t go particularly well. At one point, I sent a man off into the night to steal food and supplies from a local elderly couple, which left him so full of remorse that, on his return, he curled up on the floor of an empty room and eventually starved to death. Within two weeks, I was the only one left in the house. (Well, me and the rotting corpse of Marko.)
On reflection, I’m not sure I have what it takes to survive, existing on scraps and having to make some truly awful decisions to cling to life. Whenever I think about what my Saturday Kitchen ‘food hell’ might be, I always think about the film Alive. Food heaven? Probably seared scallops and chorizo. Anyway, why am I blathering on about survival? I’ll tell you why: Russia.
The Cold War brinkmanship that haunted me growing up in the 1980s has returned and is even scarier than before. There seems to be a report about Russian ‘Bear’ bombers probing UK airspace every other week, which wouldn’t chill me to the bone so much if the aircraft was called something slightly less terrifying, but equally alliterative like, maybe, the ‘Dormouse Dirigible’. And even today, as I write this, Vladimir Putin has opened ‘Patriot Park’, a military theme park in which visitors can handle rocket launchers and playfully try to annex other theme parks. The disturbing footnote to this occasion was his announcement that Russia was adding 40 new intercontinental missiles to its nuclear arsenal.
With each worrying news report, my mind typically lurches to the worst-case scenario: a Threads-style escalation of East-West military chess, swiftly followed by hostilities and a nuclear winter. I sometimes drift off during meetings and imagine the horror of surviving such a scenario.
In the 1950s, the BBC and the government set out a strategy for broadcasting programmes to boost morale and help the public cope with nuclear catastrophe. A BBC briefing paper written in 1957 stated that: “To enable such programmes to be added to during the course of the war, the necessary artistes, facilities and staff should be dispersed to … [existing] BBC premises [outside of London].”
Today, instead of morale-boosting BBC programmes such as Round The Horne, I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue and Hancock’s Half Hour being broadcast, I imagine a troupe of YouTube vloggers would be deployed to towns and cities to entertain and distract survivors from their miserable existence. Alfie Deyes would probably arrive in a devastated village to raise morale with the ‘Advert Theme Tune Challenge’ in which he plays various jingles on some bongos made from skulls. “Washing machines live longer with Calgon?” croaks a voice from the back of a weary crowd in the hope that a correct answer might secure some much-needed rations. “Correct!” shouts Alfie, through the breathing apparatus of his NBC suit, as he hurls a signed copy of The Pointless Book at the winner.
Meanwhile, other bewildered and dishevelled survivors are captivated by the unboxing of an irradiated fox with a hubcap melted into its face, while Zoella shows a haggard gathering of women how dipping a finger into their bloody, weeping sores works wonderfully as a makeshift blusher. And like Tom Petty in The Postman, Tay Zonday then arrives to deliver an uplifting performance of ‘Chocolate Rain’.
But unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Tay’s singing can’t mask the fact that the townsfolk are being soaked by viscous and dangerously radioactive black rain, and they have no shelter. As the crowd starts to turn violent, the vloggers are swiftly evacuated in a convoy of armoured government vehicles. The next day, they will all arrive in another obliterated town with their unique brand of inane YouTube bullshit.
Christ, the future could be even darker than I first thought.
As I now view everything through the prism of fatherhood, I hope my fears aren’t realised. I want my son to have a future. Tell me I’ve been overthinking this! Tell me we’re going to survive the Putin years. Please tell me it’s all going to be OK! It is, isn’t it?