Your brother believes the world could end soon, that one day we will wake up and see nothing and hear no one and find our cities stretched out before us, wastelands. He is preparing himself, chopping wood, learning which plants grow best from English river soil. No more Asda, but a pear tree sprouting from ruins. The screaming of birds in the tinned soup aisle. One man and his white dog against the world.
How this vision comes to be reality isn’t really clear – Russia, or a pandemic, or The Bomb, or the next crash on Wall Street – but it doesn’t matter. The end of the world is something to talk about when I come over, during ad breaks between episodes of The Great British Bake Off. Have you read The Year of the Flood? Have you read Earth Abides? Have you read The Road?
“Is that a Dutch book?,” he asks me. I don’t think the Dutch ever wrote much about the end of time – maybe we lack imagination. Maybe it’s something to do with our collective history of almost-drownings, the dams breaking and finding ourselves eight feet below sea level.
Unlike your brother, I probably wouldn’t make it three days past the collapse of civilization. Nevertheless, there’s something romantic about the idea. If there are no countries, borders no longer matter. Tipping back our heads, we might see stars.
But of course the books we read represent fear too.
In The Road, there is one scene that frightens me the most. A man and his young son are walking across America looking for food and a safe haven, after some unnamed disaster has blanketed the world in ash. When the pair finally makes it to the far shore, they spot a luxury sailing yacht washed up and tipped over onto its side like a whale’s carcass.
In the hope of finding preserved foods on board, the father strips naked and swims through the freezing water to get to the boat. He enters the ship “half expecting some horror but there was none”, just the dark and the cold and the mattresses floating in the cabin, sopping wet. As he searches, the tide is coming in: whenever he tries to stand up in the half-submerged cabin, the deck rolls away from beneath his feet.
These days I feel the same, as if the world is slipping away from me. When I look out the window the horizon is all tilted and wrong. There’s nothing much I can do about it but wait, powerless, for the tide to change.
I’m not the only one who’s afraid, either. Evan Osnos of The New Yorker recently wrote about Silicon Valley millionaires arming themselves against doomsday. Motor cycles (to weave through traffic jams in an emergency) and canned foods are for newbies: those who take the end of the world seriously buy remote islands or build underground bunkers in California, not even a hundred miles from the building site of President Trump’s Great Wall.
Women marching against Trump in the US and in Canada carried signs that read ‘Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again’. Atwood is famous for her dystopian visions: her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is about a dictator who tries to control women’s reproductive rights – who gives birth, when and to whom. Sounds familiar?
Reading about both movements I realized something else: everyone’s end of the world looks a little different. Tech CEOs fear an electricity blackout and that half of their employees strand at the border. Those in low places know the polar ice is melting. Fear is a shapeshifter, it lives in the womb and in the belly and how can anyone be wrong? It’s the end of our world and we can’t hear a word you’re saying over the roar of the flames.
When I visit Britain now, I sometimes see scenes from these novels in the streets – nothing dramatic, just small details. Wandering with you through Ipswich on the mouth of the river Orwell, a sailing ship waving back and forth below a grey sky.
Hollowed out warehouses, paint peeling and the windows shattered. There’s an office for general iron mongers whose tools no one has used since 1837. The red phone booth you see on postcards is still here but the cord dangles uselessly from its hook, the phone itself stripped of its wires and gone.
The bookstore is in the basement of a former hotel built from limestone. They sell Cadbury’s chocolate buttons and the Harry Potter 2017 calendar, and DVDs about trains, and even some books. The shoppers don’t meet my eye. In the market square outside, old men in tweed jackets buy pumpkins and haggle over the price with a man who speaks English with an Eastern European accent.
Now I understand Brexit better, I think. It’s the ship, the motorcycle, the get-out-of-jail free-card. It’s a chance to turn the page and shine in another story. It’s fiction.
You pause and rest in the shade underneath a bridge. The reflection of the sun in the water ripples on the bridge’s concrete underside, highlighting purple and silver graffiti and the dripping moss. You look up at me and smile.
I think of your brother with the black soil under his fingernails and also of my brother, his eye pressed to the lens of a telescope. He points out Jupiter to me, we’re both wearing rubber boots in our parents’ garden and we say how small we are and how, anyway, nothing lasts.
Why I read: to escape from everyday life, certainly, but also to believe in another sort of truth. That ideas and individuals come and go, history moves on, and nothing is ever really the end. There’s only one constant in fiction: the people, who – most of them, most of the time – turn out to be better than what we expected. Other writers have said this better than I can. Cormac McCarthy – who also wrote the terrifying Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men – writes in The Road:
“He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said that if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different.”