The Catastrophist (Revisited)

I’ve not blogged for a while, mostly because life has kept getting in the way.

But I was going through my computer the other day and came across an old story I wrote, way back at the start of 2009 (2009! It’s almost unimaginably far back, isn’t it?) and because I like it – despite its faults – I thought I’d put it up here for fun.

It’s not the first time it’s been online, although I’ve given it a very quick once over with a lump-hammer since (don’t expect polish. More a sort of… rustic dented effect). It was published in a small online magazine, although I can’t quite remember the name of it – I’ll look it up.

I’m a very different writer now – better, I hope – but it’s nice to look back at the baby version of myself and make tutting noises and say “Wow. You actually did that. Huh.”

So here you go. In all its apocalyptic glory:

 

THE CATASTROPHIST

 

Did you ever play that game, you know, the one where you could create a little city inside your computer? You laid the roads, assigned the housing, built the schools… and then, when you tired of it, you could let loose monsters – or start an earthquake or wildfire? Well, that’s sort of my job. You have to understand: it’s just what I do for a living – it doesn’t make me a bad person. You can look at it as destruction testing on a grand scale if you like. If it makes it easier.

There’s a few of us in the department. We all work on the same floor, in Cluster 3. Harry does Europe, Sarah takes care of Asia, Dan is Australasia and Antarctica. I’m the Americas (North and South). There’s a new guy working Africa; apparently the last one we had just didn’t pass muster. Some of us are busier than others. It’s not as easy as you might expect – there’s nothing as simple as pressing a button and sitting back to watch the marauding spaceships blow up a city. It takes weeks of planning to get it right: you don’t want two events clashing, so there’s a lot of team meetings, a lot of co-ordination. You have to share a lot in this job.

The man-made things? That’s not us, by the way. Not our union at all. Any time you’ve got a plane crash, bomb, nuclear meltdown: that’s someone else’s remit. We’re much more your volcano – earthquake – superstorm type of catastrophe. The ones that will have everyone marvelling at the awesome power of nature, not realising that it’s just the awesome power of last Thursday’s brainstorming session taking effect. And that’s the way it should be.

I’ve always said you need to be a people person for this job – and it’s true. A bit clichéd, maybe, but true none the less. We’re not just creating disasters, you see – nothing as trite as that. We prefer to think of them as “communal life-altering events”: there’s nothing like a landslide to make people pull together, as it were. What we do isn’t about destroying: it’s about creating – new friendships and alliances, new communities, new life, new hope. Wherever there’s ashes, there’s a phoenix. Only last week we were working on a flood. I have to admit, they’ve always been one of my favourites; there’s something poetic about the slow, inevitable rise of the water building up to that final moment – the moment when flood bursts through the levee or the river wall. It’s a thing to see. And afterwards, when there’s people stranded or who need help as the waters fall – it brings out the best in so many of you. Not always, I’ll admit: when you get the wrong type of people in with the wrong type of weather it can all get a little uncomfortable. We had an experience of that not too long ago. That whole mess wasn’t down to us. Turns out someone in Man-Made hadn’t done their due diligence.

I was offered Asia a couple of years ago. I was covering Europe at the time, and I suppose even with things as quiet as they were, I must have caught someone’s eye. Asia’s not for me, though. Too hectic, too rushed. I’ve always worked much better on a slow burn and Asia just needed something different. Sarah’s exactly right for the role: she’s always full of beans – even first thing on a Monday! That’s the kind of person you want running Asia. Maybe I’m just getting old but I like the slower pace in the Americas. So many of the things that happen there are Man-Made’s department, a lot of the time I’m only needed for oversight or auditing.

Auditing – now that’s one of the things that makes this job so special. All our work has to be audited: you could say it’s a form of quality control or customer satisfaction. At least one of us always has to be there on the ground to monitor in real-time, and it’s usually one of the Natural team. It’s not exactly challenging – you head to the site, sit out the event and then a collection team comes for you. There’s a bit of paperwork afterwards; filling out questionnaires, the odd interview. But it’s still a chance to get out of the office – and if you’ve a mind to look at it that way, it’s excellent fieldwork. You get to see people reacting first-hand: the good, the bad, the ugly. All the trappings of civilisation gone….

In a disaster, you get to see how people really are. Alone in the darkness, afraid, lost, heading back to help others or running like hell in the other direction: it’s the only way to study them. You get to see how their insides work.

They say no-one survives a disaster. Not really. Not even the people who walk away from it: the people they were before are gone; lost forever. They come through it as new souls – or not at all. And you can never predict who’ll go to the good or bad. It’s usually not the ones you imagined who turn survivalist, and it’s the ones you least expect to lead who become the heroes. Not like in the films, where the man with the vest and the sullen attitude is the one to follow. In my line of business, this all makes for very useful research: you make notes – mental or otherwise – and you take those notes and experiences and use them in your own events, make them better. Make them sing. Because a disaster is only a disaster once there are people at its heart. When was the last time you heard of a landslide on an uninhabited island in the Pacific being referred to as a disaster? When was the last time you heard of it at all? Quite. For it to work, you need people – my old boss used to tell me that for human interest, first and foremost you need humans. I want my work to be life-changing, to bring men and women together. To make them see themselves for all that they can be, bad and good. I prefer the good, naturally, but you can’t force these things. I want to go home at night feeling that I’ve found my phoenixes.

So I audit. I audit as often as I can. I’ve hauled myself out of a burning train, wiping the soot and the smoke from my face, brushing the glass from my hair. I’ve woken to find myself in a field, the lap-belt of my plane seat still fastened. I’ve flung myself from the tenth storey of a burning building and I’ve slipped from the edge of a crumbling cliff. I’ve seen mushroom clouds bloom, and breathed the cloggy ash from a volcano. I’ve heard the hiss of the sea before it becomes a roaring wall and the hum of air before the lightning strikes. I’ve seen cats spit and run moments before an earthquake, felt my feet torn from beneath me by the pitch of the ground. I’ve watched the numbers spin on the screens as the market crashes, I’ve outrun the avalanche. I’ve heard the gunshots and fled the burning wreckage. And each time, I look around and I see their faces, I hear their thoughts. Suddenly – for just a moment – they share the same hopes, they feel the same fears. Everything that they are or hope to be comes down to that one moment.

Perhaps it’s not the same being in my position. Actually, I should be fair: it can’t be the same. How can they know what’s happening, how many hours of work and preparation and planning have gone into this one event? And even if they did know, would they care? Could they – not knowing for certain that they will come through it in one way or another? I’ve tried so many times to see events as they do, to feel them as they do, but I don’t think I can. After all, I know there will be someone coming for me, to collect me and clean me up, to give me forms to fill out, boxes to tick and debriefing instructions to follow. Perhaps it’s too easy for me. Perhaps. Can I ever lose myself in the moment, the way they do? Do they have any other choice? I doubt it –if my years in this job have taught me anything it’s that instinct is all. That cuts both ways, too: my instincts tell me when something is wrong, too much or too little. The details are everything in my events and one misplaced touch is like a flat note in a symphony: soon forgotten, but inevitably marring the elegance of the whole. A flaw is a flaw, whichever way you look at it. Instinct is the only guide we have.

I like to think I give them hope. Not only do they see me walking unscathed in the wreckage of another’s event, a survivor; they see the strength of the human spirit in the aftermath. How can one fail to draw hope from that? I try my hardest to give them that, at least. It’s why I do my job, it’s why I set such store by my instincts. All my work, without humanity, is nothing: number-crunching by another man in a suit. But with them involved, with them at its heart, it becomes so much more. Catastrophe becomes catharsis.

It’s a word that should carry weight in your mouth, that. Catastrophe. An overturning, a denouement, overthrow or ruin. A catastrophic failure is just that. Without pain, there can be no birth. No fortitude without suffering, no hope without fear. Just as catastrophe brings an ending, it brings a beginning. New souls, remember. Nor is it anything if not subjective: who’s to say, after all, that your catastrophe is the same as mine, or as that of your neighbour? An event which makes your colleague unravel before your eyes might be nothing more than the headline you scan in your lunch-break. Three weeks of thought and planning and work on my part may mean nothing more to you than the bulletin you watch while you wait for the kettle to boil in the morning. On the other hand, it might mean everything to you, more than either of us could possibly have imagined.

There’s less work for us than there used to be. Man-Made are slowly taking over the clusters on our floor: when I started, Naturals were in the majority, but over the last century or so, Man-Made really have expanded. “A period of aggressive growth,” they call it. I call it madness, and short-sighted madness at that. A good event should flow, like poetry, like the rising waters. It should rise and peak and ebb. That’s where the work really lies. It’s art, and we are the artists; Harry, Sarah, Dan and I. We break the world to remake it in glorious new colours and shapes. Restore, recover, renew is the mantra. An event is not the end of the world – rather, it’s the beginning of a fresh one. Born from fire or flood, from silt and ash.

Man-Made, they can’t understand that. With them, it’s all or nothing – fire and brimstone, shock and awe. There’s no grace, no poise. What used to take weeks of planning can now be rushed out in a day, an hour. They think nothing of piggybacking events, of crushing them together, of mirroring them across the world. It isn’t the way things used to be done, certainly. There’s no space to breathe, no pause, no time to regroup or gather strength. No time for the heroes to shine and the cowards to flee. It all simply… is.

I suppose I’m just old-fashioned. I remember the way things used to be, when the Naturals were, to all intents and purposes, gods. The world turned on our whim, mankind tore itself apart and rebuilt itself in a shining new image. There was an elegance to the cycle as it was but now, chaos prevails. The world turns. It simply turns on someone else’s whim.

Still. There’s some life left in the old dog yet. I’ve been doing some work sketching out a new event, and although it’s still in the early planning stage – too early to say anything definite – I think it’s one of my best ever. It’ll bring the whole team together again, the way things used to be. There’s never been anything quite like it, you know, even though I do say so myself, and it will take everyone in the department to do it justice. I’ve no idea how I’m going to get the personnel or the budget for it, if I’m entirely honest – they’re certainly not going to like it down in Finance, but they never do see past the numbers; never see to the heart of things. That’s the problem with this place now: they always want case summaries, budgets, tenders, timesheets (“Why half an hour?” they ask. Why not?), it’s endless. There’s no art to it their way, no style. And this really will be something if I can get it approved… Oh, don’t you worry: you’ll see it. Everyone will. You might even survive it – although I have to tell you your odds aren’t particularly good, not given where you live. I’ve always wondered why you all choose to live in such unstable places, and so close to one another.

If you’re lucky, of course, or you’re in the right place at the right time – and with the right people, the right kind of people – it’ll be a whole new world, and if you don’t… well. What a way to go. And you won’t be alone.

You’re going to love it… and I’ll be with you every step of the way.

 

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