Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

Some years ago I went to see the coroner at St Pancras. It was a bright afternoon, and daylight poured in from the old graveyard, a place that, in those days, had no very profound connection with the mainland of Europe, unless you consider the graves of Mary Shelley’s parents (now removed) to summon the connection between France and England more congenially than the Eurotunnel. The coroner looked at me and said: ‘You wouldn’t want to panic, but people are dying in increasingly violent ways. Especially men. Men today are subject to a great number of potentially sorry ends.’

It felt wrong to be told by a coroner, of all people, not to panic, especially at a time when panic – moral, national, dental – was becoming a professional interest of mine. But the admonition was soon lost in a general wave of panic: within half a decade one couldn’t open a can of Coke without freezing with dread. If unnatural storms weren’t about to do for you, it was avian flu, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, suicide bombers, killer bees or anthrax. Before you got to the bottom of the can you could expect, at the very least, to be shot by a ten-year-old or carried off by a wave the size of a tower block.

Some time around the turn of the last century, panic became a disordering (if stable) feature of the natural order, and now one can almost feel guilty if one manages to complete a journey on the Tube without falling victim to alien abductors or rising sea levels. A generation has come about – the sons and daughters of those who once enjoyed the lazy, hazy, crazy days of détente – which assumes that a life lived without myriad threats of imminent death would be very boring indeed. One must be seconds away from death in order to live, say the youth of today. You don’t have to go like great-granda to Normandy in order to experience the full-blown thrill of getting it in the neck: just amble down to the shopping mall, where there’s sure to be some brilliant new plague emanating from Dixons.

Personally, I feel there’s been far too little about asteroids. Who are the deniers trying to kid? It’s obvious those rocks are coming at us big time and there’s no point invading Iran or anything because we will so have had it when those babies start bumping down. The last sentence is merely a paraphrase of something I heard on the bus the other day – the bus! – where heavily-knapsacked youths sat in a huddle discussing our future. Thankfully, I made it home and was able to settle down and have a few cups of tea over the course of the evening – tea! sugar! milk! – while reading an early copy of what I initially felt might be a masterly work of non-fiction. Panicology (Viking, £18.99) is the work of two statisticians, Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams, who show signs of knowing everything there is to know about the right reasons for being afraid.

It turns out that Armageddon, like everything else, can be something of a lifestyle choice, and is considered by many people to be a must-go travel destination. ‘The tendency is certainly not new,’ the authors of Panicology write:

Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841, catalogued public obsessions with witchcraft, mesmerism and tulips, as well as fears of annihilation by everything from flooding to chemical poisons. Today, read paedophiles, radiation and blueberries . . . and flooding and chemical poisons. These topics are not ‘hard’ news or exactly fact, even if they do have a basis in fact. They live as stories because we all love to gossip, hear a tale, embellish it and retell it.

I’d been enjoying Panicology while increasingly struggling to ignore the carcinogenic air of scepticism that blows over its chapters. Can they mean to cast aspersions on the Independent’s famous and totally true headline, ‘cheese saltier than ocean’, with the opinion that seawater tastes only of salt while cheese is supposed to taste of cheese? Everybody knows that if you eat salt you’re dead in no time. And, come on boys, you can’t pretend that bird flu isn’t ready to wipe billions off the face of the earth before next summer. Au contraire, say the incrementally annoying Briscoe and Aldersey-Williams, ‘while bird flu has yet to claim a single human victim in Europe or the Americas, and has killed fewer than 300 people worldwide, it is perhaps worth adding that the familiar winter flu that nobody panics about claims at least 30,000 American and 12,000 British lives each year.’

Hmmph. How about terrorism, then? It’s clear if you go in a plane there’s every chance you’ll end up dead. There are security alerts everywhere and our governments are spending millions in an uphill struggle against the certainty of terrorists murdering innocent millions. No, say the out of order authors of Panicology: ‘In England and Wales, annual deaths from terrorism have been much lower than deaths from transport accidents (3000), falls (3000), drowning (200), poisoning (900), and suicide (over 3000) . . . It is pretty clear that, so long as you stay away from the world’s insurgent hotspots, the chances of being caught up in a terrorist event are minuscule.’

Who are these guys?

‘When public alarm is out of proportion to action risk,’ Briscoe and Aldersey-Williams write, ‘it is hard to judge the effort that should be made to address the risk.’ Well, all right, Captains Sensible, what about asteroids? The pair quote a BBC report which said that we are due to be hit by a giant rock. ‘We must invest to avert Armageddon,’ said the reliable Beeb. On the last pages of the book, we hear that this is something we shouldn’t lie awake thinking about. The Labour government, on the new millennium’s first day of business, announced that it would be funding a task force to look into the asteroid threat. And we all know how good they are at avoiding disaster.