Aside from prophecies, fiction is the only way to render the apocalypse concrete; to look directly at the end with a suitable veil of denial, or to at least refract contemporary anxieties through fantastical accounts. Searching for a guide to surviving in what seemed like a desolate landscape of my own making, I turned to the only reliable source. For a year, I waded through post-apocalyptic novels, films, bad movies that can’t possibly be described as films, and possibly worse television. I wasn’t quite particular about parsing post-apocalyptic and dystopic, the genres are similar enough that they often arrive at similar insights; rupture coupled with survival was good enough. At first, it was a morbid joke and then, at some point, acquiring knowledge about survival felt like a necessity.
There are no specifics on how to survive the apocalypse—no truly usable guidelines for how to inhabit the post-apocalyptic landscape, not even a clear way to navigate the apocalypse’s cousin, dystopia. The apocalypse is personal, too close to suffering to provide any real universal guideline. What exists instead are a series of tropes that capture individual and collective anxieties played out on a universal scale about everything from gender to climate change, government overreach, and reproductive coercion. Here are some takeaways from the end of the world.
Bustling preparations for a car journey take time: the need to check on children, belongings and provisions, to make certain of the route and the vehicle, and to calculate quite when to leave. In the 1960s driving from London to Stratford-upon-Avon took three hours. For two little girls, such a period could be delightful given that their father, Richard Adams, who was my grandfather, would come up with fantastical tales en route. “It was spontaneous,” he recalled, “but if you have to go a distance of any length in a car it is important to make children enjoy it.” Enlivening the day mattered; my grandpa wanted Juliet and Rosamond to learn to love both Shakespeare and Stratford. “I actually don’t think there are that many good stories in Shakespeare, and he borrowed a lot of them,” he added, “but the characters are so powerful”.
If we notice our surroundings rather more in the next few months, it is because they will soon change. This is our last Christmas in a tower that was created for us. Next summer we will move into the Adelphi building, a renovated 1930s hulk near the Strand. The change is exciting and disorienting. The modern, global version of The Economist was created in the tower, and has been shaped by it. This sublime slab of the 1960s is the only home it has ever known.
But for two German bombs, everything might have worked out differently. The first, which fell in 1941, destroyed The Economist’s offices in Bouverie Street, near Fleet Street — the old heart of British journalism. The newspaper fled to offices near Waterloo Bridge. In 1947 it moved to St James’s, into a building that was vacant because it, too, had been bombed. Number 22 Ryder Street was not London’s smartest address. It had been an upmarket brothel before the war; Nancy Balfour, the United States editor, shocked a taxi driver by asking to be taken there. It was, say the few who remember it, a pleasant jumble of offices and corridors. But by the late 1950s it had started to pinch, and The Economist decided to do something radical.