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24 January 2017

Why I find the prospect of an apocalypse comforting

It’s easy to view the idea of the world ending as a “cosy catastrophe” – something retro and nostalgic that has returned to the zeitgeist.

By Sarah Ditum

“Cosy catastrophe” is the nickname the sci-fi writer and historian Brian Aldiss applied to the works of John Wyndham, author of The Midwich Cuckoos and The Day of the Triffids. Aldiss did not mean for it to be flattering: “The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.”

In other words, the cosy catastrophe is a cop-out. It’s safe. Bad things happen, but they don’t happen to people like us. Whether it’s a fair way to describe Wyndham doesn’t really matter, because while the name caught on, the pejorative intent didn’t. Aldiss had reached for sick burn and accidentally struck deep truth: there is something comforting about the apocalypse.

Nostalgia is part of it. The idea of everything ending was the background radiation to my childhood, and the anticipation of nuclear inferno has a retro charm, like a Fifties circle skirt or a pair of Eighties-style chunky plastic earrings. Watching the 1984 Sheffield-set nuclear drama Threads when the BBC rescreened it in 2003, the world that I saw being obliterated was a world that I recognised: pubs and Woolworths and women with headscarves pinned over their ’dos.

But besides that, there’s also the enormous, gratuitous satisfaction of destruction: there go the windows, there goes all the flesh scorched off the bones, there goes the old eggbox city hall. What a thrill! No wonder the music of apocalypse had so much strut and swagger. The Clash dancing down to the river in London Calling as the flames roll over; Frankie Goes To Hollywood welcoming the new gods of sex and horror on Two Tribes and sounding every bit as randy as they did on “Relax”.

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After all, what’s the worst that could happen? According to Threads, you could be slowly poisoned under a pile of mattresses that didn’t – despite the promises of Protect and Survive – keep the fallout off.

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You could suffocate in the bowels of the city hall with the rest of the council while the civilisation you sacrificed yourself to protect dies outside.

Or, perhaps worse, you could survive in the ruins: a grey and hungry hell on earth like the one Russell Hoban imagined in Riddley Walker (published in 1980) where, 2,000 years after “the 1 Big 1”, the remaining population speaks a deformed kind of English and refers incredulously to a time when humans had the technology to put “boats in the air and picters in the wind”. If that devastation is possible, why wouldn’t you just leather up and go dancing?

And then, for just a little while, it didn’t seem possible. That’s not to say it hasn’t been possible – the number of countries with nuclear weapons has grown, not fallen, since the end of the Cold War – but it hasn’t felt like a routine political reality to be accommodated. That’s the only explanation for the UK’s attachment to Trident, which is by now a fairly rickety echo of a deterrent. We have enjoyed a quarter-century interval when the inferno did not appear to be imminent.

The withdrawal of that shadow changed the way we thought about ourselves. When Al Alvarez wrote his study of suicide The Savage God in 1971, it made as much sense for him to mention “the possibility of international suicide by nuclear warfare” as it did for Jennifer Michael Hecht to make no mention of it at all in Stay, her 2013 book on the same subject. Four years later, it’s the Hecht that seems strangely dated by this, while the Alvarez comes across as consolingly frank where just a year ago it felt kitschy.

Of course we could blow ourselves up. The ability has never gone away, and now the White House contains the shortest of short fuses, a blunt little orange hand hovering over the button, attached to a man whose few days of power have already disturbed everything about the delicate international balance of power that has kept the unthinkable in the realm of the unlikely.

That’s true not only of nuclear war, but also of climate change, which Trump is apparently determined to pretend isn’t happening even while his energy policy escalates it. This is 2017’s big revival: the end of the world is back, and we’ll have to decide how we face it.