John Summers


How to Survive and Like It

by John Summers, published in the Sunday Telegraph, 17 October 1965

I see that tomorrow is going to be published an interesting work by one Cord Christan Troebst, entitled The Art of Survival (WH Allen, price 35s). Easy to see it’s originally intended for the American market because of words like ‘meager’ and ‘color’, and that bit of advice on how to survive the effects of severe sunburn is evidently not for British readers.

This survival business interests me. Mr Troebst is good on surviving the hazards of deserts, ice floes and oceans. And I’ve done a bit of surviving here and there too. I even survived drinking a glass of Australian ‘plonk’ wine still warm from the vats (if you don’t think that’s surviving, you’ve never been to Australia).

And there’s the time I survived the bitter depths of a Canadian winter, hungry and moneyless, and the only job I was offered was, on account of my prowess with a shotgun, helping to hold-up the Bank of Nova Scotia.

Instead of doing that I went to Sault St Marie to join the Canadian lumberjacks. Armed with my razor-sharp axe to do battle with the Douglas firs that tower all of 180 feet against the blue Canadian winter skies. I marched across the frozen snow with my fellow jacks, raw-faced and clomping on spiked boots, hacking into frozen timber in the sky.

In the first five seconds my spiked boots slip from under me, and I fight desperately with clawing fingers for a hold on the frozen bark … The foreman rigger crunches across the snow and puts his capable hands under my arms to take the strain and bellows: ‘For heck-sake, Limey, if you gonna be this giddy when you’re still at the bottom of the tree, what are you gonna be like when start actually climbing up?’

A couple of years ago, when I went to rent a house on the African veldt to finish writing the great English novel (not quite finished yet) ... While the estate agent is in the house I stroll out into the alfalfa grass and come back with an interesting species of lizard on a piece of wood. When I go to show it to the estate agent he is handing on to the door knob tightly and shouting through the keyhole that I am holding a young sand viper ‘and for God’s sake, don’t let it go!’

But Troebst is particularly fascinating explaining the hazards you have to survive in this machine age – plane crashes and whatnot. In the chapter ‘What Man Can Stand’ an American survival expert threatens: ‘We shall succeed in so changing Man that he can survive even the most unusual situations.’ I class surviving in journalism under that heading.

The jungle of Fleet Street, prowled by roaring literary lions (looking for you after you wrote that last book review), has just as many leeches, vipers and parasites. I managed to survive even my first remarkable day in this wilderness.

I strode into it with my college scarf wrapped three times round my neck. Within half an hour somebody ordered me: ‘They’re a man short over at the Assize Courts so phone for a taxi and get over there fast as you can…’

I phone for the taxi and gallop three flights of stairs to the street and I bundle into the taxi there, round to the Assize Courts.

In the Assize Courts I am faced with a maze of door, so I try the one nearest me ... What comes next sounds better the way I heard it told afterwards, as seen from the Press benches.

A door opens, and there they see me sitting down with the judge. Waving arms and policemen with white gloves motioning desperately.

They see me go out. Then another door opens, and there I am in a row of policemen. I disappear again and another door opens, and there I am standing in the dock with the prisoner.

They hold up the court long enough for me to find my way, treading toes, to the crowded Press benches. The chief reporter has just bought a new hat and he’s put it on the seat beside him, and I sit down on top of that.

But I survived, Mr Troebst.

Oh, I nearly forgot. That taxi I bundled into in the street outside the newspaper office turned out to be just one that had been cruising by, and the one I ordered was still there waiting for me when I got back to the office, with three and three-quarter hours on the clock...

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