I was fourteen and the world was going to end. Four minutes, that was all we’d have, and then we’d be atomised: nothing between us and the bomb except a stupid understairs cupboard or a stupid kitchen table. Every time the Soviet Union and the States went head to head over Afghanistan, say, or Nicaragua, it meant High Wycombe was one step closer to being wiped off the map. Wycombe – I went to school there, I lived three miles away – was Strike Command, and we all knew it would go first. My friend Morna’s dad was in the RAF. At hers for a sleepover one night, I asked him (trying to make it sound casual) whether he thought there would be a nuclear war. Afterwards, Morna said: ‘There you go – a distant possibility’. But he’d said ‘a distinct possibility’, and after she went to sleep I lay awake, thinking and thinking about whether I might have heard wrong, and how much he really knew.
I went on a CND march. I read harrowing books set in post-apocalyptic landscapes, I looked at terrible pictures of what a nuclear bomb could do. I fantasised about the sorts of disaster which wouldn’t wipe out whole cities: illness, IRA bombs, car crashes. I set targets: could I survive long enough to go to University? Could I survive long enough to fall in love? For several months I was gripped by the sort of anxiety which today would receive a diagnosis. But I didn’t have clinical help. Instead, I had Douglas Adams.
My mate Melanie didn’t have a telly; her family listened to a lot of Radio 4. She told me about The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and soon we were both listening to it. Then we read the book and adopted its language as our own (things were ‘hoopy’, people were ‘froods’. I see now how astonishingly annoying this must have been.) Arthur Dent is saved just moments before the earth is destroyed – the first in a series of close shaves, his reliable pessimism (‘So this is it: we’re going to die’) trumped reliably, as he continues to survive against the odds.
I read that book so many times, I think I must have internalised the dynamic: certain death succeeded by survival. At fourteen I was Arthur Dent, sucked out of a Vogon airlock and moments from annihilation. So this is it, I told myself, every time there was a hot piece of cold war rhetoric, every time the bomb was about to drop: this is it, we’re going to die. And then the Infinite Improbability Drive would engage, and – like Arthur – I would live. After a while, the anxiety released its grip on me, and I was free to get on with ordinary teenage obsessions. I grew up and the bomb didn’t drop, I went to University, I fell in love.
Improbability sum now complete.