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Book review: This is London - life and death in the world city
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Book Review: “How to survive the most critical five seconds of your life”, by Tim Larkin and Chris Ranck-Buhr

The late Mrs P was a rational pessimist. She used to say;

”Pessimists like me live a life full of pleasant surprises. Optimists like you live a life of unpleasant ones”

As I blundered around places in Eastern Europe whose dangers I didn’t even trouble to evaluate, she used to tell me off about it. I’m a big guy - 2 metres tall and 140kg - and though I’m gentle by nature and have no fighting experience it was always a fair bet potential predators would choose softer targets. So I never had a problem and used to pour scorn on her loving concerns. She used to say that such thoughtlessness would get me in trouble one day when the predators began to evaluate me as “big, yes, but old and slow.”

I remembered those warnings as I read interviews with dangerous criminals in the last book I reviewed. They took place in places I pass frequently as I wander around London taking photographs and otherwise enjoying my leisurely life — places I never considered dangerous. I also now subscribe to various local news services and to the Metropolitan Police’s OWL messaging service These also tend to give a darker picture than is apparent to my still-optimistic eyes.

In consequence, as I advance into my sixties, I have started to look around me nervously as I make my way home at night. I bought this book in response to that unaccustomed feeling and frankly it’s made things worse.

It encourages the reader to forget all morals, to dispense with any lingering sense of John Wayne-style fair play, and to be prepared to respond ferociously to threats. It encourages the law-abiding to assume that any attacker will be a ruthless sociopath and to act (if there’s no option to escape) with unhesitating and relentless violence. All this, in order to mitigate the criminals’ advantages of surprise, youth, strength and endurance. 

By way of encouragement, the authors assure us that, if we cast off our fears, we all have it in us to act thus. They scorn the study of martial arts and methods of self-defence that are inherently rules-based because the criminals know no rules. They use violence thoughtlessly, naturally and in keeping with humanity’s essential nature. The authors insist we can (if we shed our scruples) do the same. A key advantage of that is the more respectable we are, the less our attackers will expect it.

Consider these words of “encouragement” for example;

“You are a predator born, with stereovision for hunting prey and teeth for ripping and tearing flesh. You are a member of the only species that makes an art of war. The average human body is an awesome engine of destruction, driven by the most dangerous thing in the known universe: a human brain. You are a survival engine, the descendant of winners; your ancestors didn’t get you here by laying down and giving up. They made the losers do that. Violence is your birthright.“

Call me a sissy, but I’d rather believe my “birthright” is (a) the Rule of Law and (b) the protection of the police force here where policing was invented. The authors’ scorn for that rather echoes the long-ago warnings of the late Mrs P.; far gentler soul than them though she was. 

I hate this book or rather in my naivety or high ideals (you decide) I hate that it needed to be written. It forces me to look at a world I don’t want to be real.

In many other countries I could carry a concealed weapon to give me a chance if attacked. In Britain (though the criminals have all the guns they need and more — a young man was shot outside an East London hospital only yesterday) that would make me the criminal.

As for the police, I am more likely to hear from the world’s first police force for having written this incendiary review, than at any time I actually need them. I don’t want to accept the authors’ advice as to how to act in the face of danger but I can’t argue with their assessment that the cops likely won’t be there until it’s far too late. I’ve never seen one in the nine years I’ve lived in London. Apart from at football matches, demonstrations I’ve attended or happened upon, I’ve never seen a Met Officer at all other than in a car passing by.

I accept the bona fides of the average London constable without hesitation but I know in my bones that the Met’s leaders don’t give a damn about the likes of me. Their most likely involvement in my life story would be in offering hypocritical “thoughts and prayers” over my corpse, while telling the press that the incident in which I died was a “one off” and “untypical”. 

I don’t want to think of the pampered body that carries my brain (and camera) about as “a survival engine.” I don’t want to evaluate every passerby as a threat and assess how I would gouge out his eyes with my thumbs if he attacked me. I really don’t. But as I age and London remains more dangerous than New York, the late Mrs P.’s warnings are in my mind’s ear.

Are they true? Are they wise? The optimist in me resists the authors’ answers. Gentle readers, what do you think?

Comments

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Bill Sticker

Tom, having spent over three years of my working life walking the streets of several British market towns of various sizes, I'm moved to observe that most violence happens between males of a specific age range (12-25). Also certain places will be risky to move through for very short windows of time. Think chucking out time at a pub or club or outside a sports ground after a poor home team performance. Or anywhere before 1pm because the predators tend, at least in my experience, to be late risers.

Most of the many threats of violence that I have been on the receiving end of, and they were fortunately only empty threats, happened on weekends after 1pm. Although I have also found a little martial arts training will help anyone develop a non-victim way of moving that acts as a big subconscious 'hands off' to any would-be predator.

These books I find tend to dramatise risk. Because drama sells. Who would buy such a tome if the blurb did not make these doom laden claims?

However, as you rightly observe, being well over six feet in height helps too. People tend to leap out at you from dark alleyways only to say "Whoops! Sorry mate, thought you were somebody else."

Tom

Thank you. That’s an interesting insight about the Death Wish remake. I didn’t know that saying, but will use it in future!

David Bishop

I appreciate your dilemma on this – balancing the rule of law against the instinct for self-preservation. The cynic in me suggests that the rule of law is fine if all sides stick to it … though arguably no law would be needed of we were all so gentlemanly!

There has been a recent re-make of Death Wish, with Bruce Willis in the role originally played by Charles Bronson in 1974. Does this perhaps exemplify something of a return to ordinary folk deciding that enough is enough and taking on the bad guys. It’s perhaps indicative that Hollywood felt able to produce such a film in the age of ‘woke’.

One of the two real-life radio personalities which the film uses to elicit public comment on the revenge attacks speaks of the danger of people “taking the law into their own hands”, to which one riposte is, “In whose name is the law supposed to apply?” Or when the powers that be have seen fit to disarm the general populace, at least here in the UK, how are they supposed to protect themselves? As the saying goes, ‘When the seconds count, the police are only minutes away’.

CherryPie

Recently I have been more adventurous in going for walks on my own.

A couple of weeks ago on a local path that I walk frequently a man exposed himself to a woman. The worrying thing is that route is a pathway where school kids walk..

Today something more alarming happened in a place I walked on my own last year and more recently with walking friends. It is half term holiday so families are enjoying the park.

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/crime/2020/02/20/three-teenagers-arrested-after-16-year-old-boy-stabbed-in-telford/

When I discussed this with someone else they interrupted what I was saying with 'it is a drug related crime'!

Tom

I used to wander about in bits of Eastern Europe immediately after the fall of the Wall, when they weren't as prosperous as they later became – often wearing foolishly ostentatious watches that represented several years of then local average income. That I never thought about it may have been to do with growing up in the safety of rural Wales, my build or perhaps just stupidity and dumb luck.

frank shattuck

The first time I was in Cuba, in the 1980s, the official exchange rate was so bad, that most humans exchanged money on the street with local exchangers. When I was changing some US dollars, a thief ran by and snatched my wallet. I yelled LADRON (thief) and chased him. Just as I was almost to him, he tossed my wallet in the air and leaped over a fence. Caring more about my hundreds of bucks, I stopped and retrieved the wallet! Next exchange was done with mucho CARE!

Tom

You may well have a good point.

Lord T

I’d rather believe my “birthright” is (a) the Rule of Law and (b) the protection of the police force

Perhaps the move for people like yourself from predator to your birthright is why we are in the state we are now. If the rule of law and everyone was a policeman concept that was in place 100 years ago where you could arm and defend yourself was still here there would be a lot less crime and violence and more adherence to the ROL.

The more that good wolves turn to placid wolves the more the bad wolves take over as they have less to fear.

It'll change again. These things go in cycles. Pity our children though as they are the ones that will suffer our hubris.

Tom

The book is well meant, I think, but disturbing. It’s a sad fact that women generally need to be more aware of their surroundings. That was what used to annoy the late Mrs P about my insouciance I guess.

Even boyish fun shouldn’t encompass threats of strangling, I would have thought. Even in that past which very much was another country.

CherryPie

The book sounds awful!

As a woman I have always had level of awareness to danger. There were a couple of incidences that honed my self awareness of my surroundings in my teenage years. One was late at night when a couple of drunken men sitting on the curb at the end of my road were yelling at me to gain attention. I had just been dropped off from a school event I ignored them but they followed me. I crossed the road into the shadowy part of the street so I couldn't be seen so easily with plan B being knocking on one of house doors.

Prior to that occasion I had been walking home from school via a short cut. An alleyway where two boys trapped me. One at either end of the alley (no escape). As I tried to exit the alleyway one of them threatened to strangle me with his rucksack. Shy and timid as I was my Adrenalin kicked in and even though he was bigger than me I pushed him away (much to his surprise) and I was able to exit the alley and continue walking home. Looking back on it I think the boys were probably just having boyish fun, but that really isn't the point when at the time I was feeling scared.

Oh... then there was the incident of someone I thought was stalking me - quite often when I opened my front door he was standing on the doorstep.

These incidents taught me to be aware of my surroundings (which includes People). Part of (true) Martial Arts training is not all about attack and defence but also about teaching you to be aware of your surroundings. Being aware of your surroundings gives advanced warning of a potential problem which may be avoided. For example stepping onto the other side of the street.

Tom

My umbrella is a tiny one that fits in my camera bag. I guess my tripod might stand in for a walking stick in a pinch. It’s usually safely stowed though. I could always try weaponising my DSLR though my instincts would all be to protect it. When I took a tumble on the street in Jaipur I contorted myself on the way down to protect camera and lenses! I don’t have the self-protective instinct it seems! I did respond quite well defensively when some louts tried it on with my wife and daughters in Liverpool once, but I’m not sure I would react the same way if it were just me. Here’s hoping I don’t find out, eh?

Tom

A reason to renew my subscription? I used to love The Economist but goodness knows it’s a better weapon than a periodical now.

Tom

You make a good point about the authors’ interests. “Don’t worry” wouldn’t sell many copies. “Vivid” is a good adjective but in this case “lurid” might be even better.

Sam Vara

With regard to policing, things may not be as bad as you think. A few years ago, I read an account of a journalist who had his bag snatched at a London terminus. The thief didn't get far before he was brought down by a plain clothes copper. There were several of them about, mainly because of the terrorist threat. If you stay on the beaten track, you might be close enough to a fit capable bloke who is in your side.

Adding to the "legal weapon" stock, I knew one bloke in Dagenham who favoured a small canvas bag with a full jar of jam in it.

Overall, I wouldn't worry about this type of thing too much. People selling books have a vested interest in overestimating the threat. We are all more likely to crash our cars or trash our health through poor diets and lack of exercise, but it's harder to write vividly about safe driving or food.

Bloke in North Dorset

When I travelled I lot I also happened to read the Economist and I would carry a copy of it rolled up. Jabbed in to the solar plexus it would take anyone down. Jabbed up in to the nose it could kill someone. Would I have ever done it? I've no idea but it gave me comfort in some fairly dodgy places.

For all that the only place I was threatened and scammed was in the centre of Madrid and my guard was down! No physical harm but it cost me £100.

I feel safe round here so don't bother but if I did I would take one of my hiking sticks, as Hector says.

Hector Drummond

Cads and bounders are generally deterred by a good sturdy umbrella or walking stick.

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