Tuesday 20 November 2007

Always look on the bright side of death

I’ve got a face which inspires people to say, “Cheer up, mate! It may never happen!” This always sets the conversation on a downward spiral, since I react very badly to being addressed as “mate” by people I don’t know from Adam. Just ask any van driver who has ever paused to ask me for directions.

Yet the curious thing is that, as I grow older and more miserable, I find myself less inclined to hearken to the prophets of doom. I read here only yesterday that the greatest threat we currently face is the replacement of President Musharraf by religious fanatics who would target Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal on Israel.

I regret to say that my only reaction was to smirk about the jealousy this would cause in Iran, whose regime has been working so industriously to develop its own bomb for that very purpose.

It actually feels quite cosily nostalgic to start worrying again about nuclear Armageddon. It takes me right back to the 1960s. Since then, we’ve had the great Ice Age scare of the 1970s, and the predicted end of electricity through the imminent exhaustion of world copper supplies.

In 1987, the Government sent every household a leaflet entitled “Aids: Don’t Die of Ignorance”, implying that anyone who had sex with a stranger was signing their own death warrant. I’ve followed their advice through two decades of strict abstinence, but can’t help wondering whether it was worth it.

Less than ten years later, we were told that consumers of British beef in the 1980s had probably had their chips. By now, half a million of us were forecast to have died of new variant CJD. Do you know even one of them?

All this paled into insignificance compared with the Millennium Bug, which was going to wipe out civilisation as we knew it. Apparently some $300 billion was spent worldwide on counter-measures. Far be it from me to suggest that this was a total waste of money, given that a sort of civilisation is still with us.

Then there was SARS, necrotising fasciitis, MRSA and bird flu, especially “the deadly H5N1 strain”. This certainly proves deadly to the poultry which contract it, because men in ludicrous white jump suits come along and gas them. Human victims, however, seem to be remarkably thin on the ground.

Every day brings a new food scare, so that by now eating almost anything can be expected to result in painful and premature death. If we don’t expire first from an asteroid impact, or the supreme terror of “irreversible” global warming.

The good news is that “experts” are onto all of these things. The Government apparently has detailed contingency plans for a flu pandemic, including warehouses full of coffins. The climate change intelligentsia are all going to slash their carbon footprints by getting together in Bali to save the planet.

The bad news is that the key feature of disasters is their unpredictability; otherwise there would have been no passengers on the first voyage of the Titanic or the last train over the Tay Bridge.

I don’t believe many people were sitting at their desks in the World Trade Center on 9/11 saying, “Aha! Just as I expected!”

I’m going to die pretty soon in the normal course of events, and I wouldn’t mind at all if everyone else went at the same time. It would avoid that niggling feeling that I might be about to miss something really good, like the episode of Coronation Street in which one of his family finally snaps and bludgeons David Platt to death.

But whether humanity ends with a bang or whimper, sniffle or sizzle, I’ll bet you anything you like it won’t be down to something the “experts” predicted. I do hope we’ll have the strength of character to smile as we draw our last breaths, and say, “Well, who’d have thought it?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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