Book Review: “How to survive the most critical five seconds of your life”, by Tim Larkin and Chris Ranck-Buhr
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
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?