I Will Survive

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Emergency: One Man's Story of a Dangerous World, and How to Stay Alive in it By Neil StraussIf you had asked me a week ago what one thing I would most want if I was about to live through the collapse of Western civilisation, my answer would almost certainly have been “Ray Mears”. As a life-long urban dweller who has only once been camping, my only means of survival should we lose all the comfy trapping of civilisation that most of us have come to depend on for food, warmth and safety is a battered old Swiss army knife dating from the days I went on archaeological digs; a pair of hiking boots (ditto); a torch, and a husband who was once a boy scout. Thinking about it now, it seems quite a trivial haul to last until rescue comes (you will be on your own for 3-5 days is case of a major disaster according this book, if help comes at all). In an emergency, people apparently respond in one of three ways, known as to 10-80-10 rule: 10% would be utterly useless and a potential liability to their fellow survivors, 80% would be too shocked to think or act rationally, and 10% would remain calm and become the leaders of the group. A sneaking suspicion that I would definitely fall into the second group if not the first suggested that it would be no bad thing to read Neil Strauss’ “Emergency”; it may not make me into a Ray Mears, but I might just pick up something useful from it.

At first glance, “Emergency” – “one man’s story of a dangerous world and how to stay alive in it – appears to fall firmly into the genre of stunt books. Stunt books – in which the author does something strange/unusual/insane in order to get a book deal out of writing about their experiences – are nothing new. Danny Wallace, Dave Gorman and A J Jacobs have written some notable examples, which can be an enjoyable source of vicarious pleasure and even a way of picking up a few nuggets of new information. Neil Strauss, music journalist by day, scored a bestselling hit in his previous stunt book “The Game” in which he infiltrated the world of pick-up artists who teach geeks algorithms for picking up women. Needless to say I haven’t read that one, although I do believe it has something of a cult following now. His latest offering “Emergency” appears to offer something similar, only this time he is heading into the territory of survivalist culture.

Strauss’ starting point was the turn of the millennium, when apocalyptic predictions seemed to abound (because naturally, the apocalypse wants a date as beautifully rounded as 1/1/2000 to occur) and a lot of people where seriously concerned about what the Y2K bug could do to cripple civilisation – we are reminded repeatedly throughout the book that we are only ever nine meals away from chaos. Empires that once looked mighty and impenetrable have of course collapsed before, and Strauss gets to wondering what would happen if the same thing happened in America during his lifetime, given his country’s new vulnerability to terrorism and economic disaster, and the government’s inability to protect and assist its citizens effectively in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “If the system ever did break down” he muses, “the only useful skill I had was the ability to write about it”. What follows is a distillation of the eight years that Strauss gradually become more worried about the future of America, and increasingly learned new skills and abilities that would stand him in good stead should we reach TEOTWAWKI (that’s “the end of the world as we know it” in survivalist jargon). Eight years is a long time to be setting up a stunt book, which makes me think that either the “orientation” section which describes his motivation to learn these skills and the key dates that drove him towards this project are either a convenient retrospective to give the book structure or else this book isn’t a stunt and Strauss is now genuinely a survivalist. I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on that one. Certainly, the promise at the end of the prologue that the contents of the book may save your life and that, “when the shit hits the fan, you’re going to want to fine me. And you’ll want to be doing whatever I’m doing. Because I’ve learned from the best” sets the book up for an intriguing read.

“…I will applaud the author for managing to avoid being alarmist and for not sounding like a conspiracy theorist…”

Emergency” is structured into three main sections – escape, survival and rescue. Starting out as a man with no useful skills in the wake of a disaster, Strauss starts by positioning himself as a runner in the fight or flight response choice – if something bad happens in the US, the ability to leave the country quickly and have a ready-prepared hideout to escape to would be useful, he reasons. If there are going to be a lot of people wanting to leave the country in the wake of something terrible, then it would pay to have a second passport and offshore assets to flee to before borders were closed – and it appears he was far from the only person to think this. On the day that George W Bush was re-elected, for instance, the New Zealand immigration service received over 10,000 hits on its website from US citizens, more than 4 times the normal daily rate. Strauss’ tale of how he goes about the tricky process of acquiring a second citizenship and the difficulty he experiences in getting a private offshore bank account due solely to him being a US citizen made for very interesting reading; it was an unexpected inclusion in the book, and having read it I don’t think I have ever felt so glad to be the holder of an EU passport.

Moving on to “survival” we reach the more expected contents – how to go about surviving in your own country if something bad happens and you can’t get out immediately or at all. If you were expecting this to read as a how-to of what to do should the worst happen, though, think again. While we are treated to amusing accounts of his camping expeditions and training courses in areas such as tracking, identifying edible plants and urban evasion, Strauss largely glosses over the detail of what he has learned. You pick up the odd interesting fact (such as if your clothes become contaminated with chemicals during a terrorist attack, remove them quickly by cutting them off, never by pulling them over your head) but learn little of practical use other than a few names of trainers is the US that you might want to google for further information on taking the courses yourself. I’ll admit I got a little bored of this by the end of the section and began to skip sections in search of more concrete information than, “I went on this course, this is a photo of the certificate I got at the end”. It was entertaining to start with, but by the time you get to the nth course it starts to get a little repetitive.

The final section sees Strauss learn first aid skills and sees him join up to local emergency volunteers to get practical experience of what to do in a crisis. In California, where Strauss lives, there is a corps of trained volunteers who are intended to help their local communities in the event of an earthquake – Strauss joins up on the selfish premise that having the corps’ uniform would be a useful tool come the apocalypse, but ends up finding real satisfaction and fulfilment when he does end up assisting at a rail crash. This section proved to be a much better read than I had anticipated by this point, and I ploughed through it all in one absorbed sitting. Maybe it was because I have been a first-aider (so I started to feel a bit less useless) or maybe it was that it was just that this was one stunt that proved to have real value to both Strauss and others.

Although containing much interesting content, “Emergency” can be a frustrating read at times. This is a book that seems to be aimed at people who don’t normally read books; it is written like a light magazine, with a high number of incredibly short chapters and lots of personal content, and several graphic novel-style illustrations showing a more handsome and rugged version of the author doing manly things with shoelaces and turning Coke cans into lock-picks. While this presentation meant the book can be read quickly and easily by pretty much anyone, the frenetic voice that sets a fast pace through the narrative meant I quickly reached the end and felt I hadn’t really learned a great deal along the way – I think this was designed very much for an audience with a limited attention span, as survivalism for the Twitter generation. Equally the referencing to photographs using “this is what it looked like” statements got annoying and felt quite juvenile – I think captions would have given the book a more grown-up and professional finish. Having said that, I will applaud the author for managing to avoid being alarmist and for not sounding like a conspiracy theorist – this is probably the only rational explanation of why there are survivalists that I have ever come across, and they are not all the gun-toting right-wing extremists they are often portrayed as being (there are some left-wing extremists too).

Having reached the end, do I think that this book will save my life? Well, no. But it has reminded me that I need to update my first-aid training sometime soon.

“Emergency” by Neil Strauss

Published by Canongate Books (2009), 418pp
Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a free review copy of the book.


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Emergency
by Neil Strauss

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Written by collingwood21
collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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