I have forty-two cans of beans, ten cans of tuna, twenty-five mars bars, seven rolls of duct tape, five rolls of Bacofoil, twenty batteries for the torch and the wireless radio. In the special box I have three four litre water containers, two first aid kits, a penknife and a plastic bucket and forty-two toilet rolls. I worry that I don’t have any iodine tablets and my mother won’t let me pile mattresses and twenty bags of earth on the stairs, like the instructions recommended, but I’m pretty confident that when the siren sounds, I’ll manage to get my little sister, mum, dad and dog Sandy into my home-made nuclear bunker under the stairs just in time.
There is just one problem: Grandma. She just won’t take my warnings seriously. She says, ‘there’s no way I’m going in there and doing my business in a bucket.’ So I guess when the nukes fall we’ll just have to accept that Grandma is one of the millions who refused to prepare for the end. It makes me sad, thinking of her upstairs in her big chair before the blank TV, exposed to the gamma blast through the shattered windows. But it’s her choice. We can’t save everyone.
Plus there is one other big problem, my mother is really mad that I’ve dumped the hoover, the mops, brushes, rubber boots, and all the coats out of the under stairs closet. But I know she’ll thank me, when the heat blast hits, because our family will be the only one in this town to survive.
This is my inner mind, aged eleven. It’s 1979 and I did not know at this time that these actions would teach me how to live in a fantasy world and obsessively create fictions over many years.
Why did I build that bunker?
Well this began one day after my father – an eccentric man who was known as the local hippie – took me to see some illegally distributed films about nuclear war.
In the 1970s, in Great Britain, the government created a series of short public information films called ‘Protect and Survive’ along with matching ‘how to survive a nuclear war’ pamphlets. The films were supposed to be screened on the BBC in the event of an attack on Britain, just after the 6pm news each day.
These four minute films were to teach the populace about what nuclear fallout is, how to make your home safe with white paint and duct tape or how to make a shelter out of a table or under the stairs, and they were deeply strange. The BBC in its wisdom thought that it would be best to use animation, and so they picked one of the top animators of the time, the maker of ‘Crystal Tips and Alasdair’, a TV show that was stylistically not a million miles away from Sesame Street. The result were surreal and doubly traumatizing.
How did I get to see them?
Well the BBC changed their mind about these films and decided to hide them away in an archive, and there they stayed until some employee stole them and snuck them out into the hands of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). CND were then a worldwide organization attempting to ‘Ban the Bomb’ and they proceeded to make 16mm copies of the stolen film and to tour them round local halls all over the UK, to secretly expose the horrors the Govt was hiding from us.
The Protect and Survive films that my dad took me to see, in that little town hall with its 16mm projector, scared me so much that I felt my limbs freeze. In clinical terms this state of fear is called ‘Tonic Immobility’. Rabbits get it when they stare at approaching car headlights.
Terrified to my core after seeing the cute apocalypse animations, I signed up to become a member Youth CND that very night, and started building my bunker under the stairs the next day. I didn’t know it but these films set off a chain of events that would lead me to writing a book of apocalyptic fiction forty years later.
Writing fiction is a strange art; I wouldn’t claim it’s cathartic as much as a necessary steam valve for those of us who walk about in a fantasy world anyway. And I wouldn’t say that novelists tend to have wonderful imaginations, as much as they tend to have obsessive and sometimes morbid ruminations on ‘what if’ scenarios. Or at least that’s the case with me.
So without realizing it, I was ‘creating fiction’ at the age of fourteen when sitting in maths class. Other kids were doing trigonometry or flirting with each other, but I was drawing circles on my jotter, calculating the blast radius of a twelve megaton nuclear explosion when dropped on our local nuclear power station. A power station that – I was the only person in the class to know – was secretly manufacturing weapons grade plutonium and was actually ‘target number two’ in our country after London. Fact.
What if the nuclear siren went off during English class? Would it be best to take shelter under the teacher’s desk or to run under the stairs? It was too late to explain any of this to the other kids so they were all goners. How about if I threw myself into the school swimming pool, would that protect me from the gamma rays?
These were not so much daydreams as urgent calculations of ‘what if’ alternative universes. Episodes of fiction that lasted hours and then days, then considerably longer.
There is one other aspect in which my nuclear fantasy turned me into a writer: alienation from my fellow inhabitants of the town. You see, when you are sixteen and a member of CND in a town in which two out of three people have a family member who works in the aforementioned nuclear power station, it’s really not such a great idea to walk round town with a petition, trying to get signatures to shut down the power station.
So yes, rejection, being shunned by neighbors, social isolation – all of these factors greatly assisted in feeding and honing my fictional fantasizing. People tend not to become writers if they have healthy, fruitful and satisfying communication with everyone around them. No, they have to sneak away and write to some higher power, be it an appeal to humanity, a plea to God, an ode to the muse, or whatever.
In those teenage years I spent an immense amount of time alone in the ‘flow state’ ruminating about apocalypse scenarios and making art about it. For two years I made one painting over and over again of a nuclear explosion wiping out a city. Some thought it beautiful, others thought I should maybe get outside and try to get a girlfriend or play football.
That choice to be anti-social and to enter into obsessive, focused and prolonged ‘flow states’ got me into art school. From art school I went on to make films, and films needed scripts. From scriptwriting I came to short story writing and then to novels and in a sense the same process of cutting off from the world and obsessing about a deeply troubling alternative scenario in an aesthetic form – ran all the way from my very first nuclear bunker under the stairs to my novel How To Survive Everything, forty years later.
In the novel, we have a teenage hero called Haley whose father is a doomsday prepper or survivalist. His apocalypse is not a nuclear one but a virus from the newly emerging ‘pandemic era’ and he’s taken shelter building to an extraordinary level, by building a safe house in the wilderness, with deep bunkers, razor wire fences, boobytraps and food supplies that will last years.
It was only when I started kitting out their fictional supply bunker that I realized where this had all begun – they had seven hundred cans of beans, four hundred cans of tuna, two thousand mars bars, eight hundred rolls of duct tape, two thousand-two toilet rolls, four hundred batteries for the torch and wireless radio….
I felt a strange sense of having come home.
I think themes can haunt you for a lifetime, and when you enter that unselfconscious flow state of writing or making art, subconscious images can surface from the things that moved and changed you most deeply. In this sense I started writing How to Survive Everything, not in 2019 when the pandemic began and the majority of the writing took place, or in 2013 when I first came up with the concept but actually back in 1979 when I built my little bunker under the stairs.
Hold on, Grandma gets left behind in the novel too!