Like many readers, you may have taken self-isolation as your cue to get stuck into War and Peace. But after hours of beavering you may now be simply stuck. What you need is a book that speaks to the great themes – the long night of the soul, the triumph of the human spirit, how to fix a carburettor when all you’ve got is a pair of nylon stockings – which is pocket-sized and fully illustrated: Tolstoy-lite. What you need is the SAS Survival Guide.
This multi-million-copy-selling classic was written in 1987 by John “Lofty” Wiseman, a man whose terrifying achievements include becoming, aged 18, the youngest ever recruit to the SAS, and setting up the SAS Counter-Terrorist Team (the ones from the Iranian Embassy siege). Now 80, he makes Bear Grylls look like Paddington. His memoir is called Who Dares Grins.
Coronavirus has pushed us all a bit further along the prepper-anxiety spectrum. If you need a reality check, treat yourself to a long, hard peruse through the SAS Survival Guide. It could be so much worse. This is a book that literally tells you how to make a grass skirt to shield your groin from predatory birds.
Here’s a drawing of a man (with a luxurious, croissant-like moustache) self-administering the Heimlich maneouvre with the aid of a tree stump. Here’s how to prepare shark for the pot: soak for 24 hours to remove the taste of ammonia. Wiseman stops briefly to address “emotional trauma”, before moving swiftly on. “Can you cope? You have to.”
I am thumbing through my childhood copy of the SAS Survival Guide now. It’s very dog-eared and, if push came to shove, I’d pick it as a post-apocalyptic companion over any dog (and I say that having learnt from Wiseman exactly how you’d go about eating your dog: “Remove anal glands. Boil thoroughly.”).
Whether it’s making your own safety matches (dip the tips of regular matches into molten wax), lashing seal carcasses into a raft or midwifing a baby, there’s no scenario the SAS Survival Guide doesn’t prepare you for. As Wiseman put it, without false modesty: “What I have written has saved lives.”
In all honesty, I have never put Wiseman’s advice to practical effect (apart from making one den, which my brothers and I abandoned because our camouflage netting smelt with great intensity of feet and burning tyres), but that’s not the point of the book. It’s a reliably brilliant armchair read, like a condensed version of all the best adventure stories you have ever read: Willard Price in stock-cube form.
The writing is wonderful, sometimes deadpan Hemingway pastiche (“You are only as sharp as your knife”), sometimes excitable (of wild boar: “Some have thick hair, and all are pig-shaped, with snouts and tusks. Listen for snores and creep up on sleeping ones!”)
It’s the book we all need, not because there’s any imminent requirement to fletch our own arrows (page 135, if you’re keen), but because it’s a cheerer-upper of weapons-grade effectiveness. When Wiseman tells you that, in 48 degrees heat, “without water, you will last two days [...] if you sit in the shade and do nothing”, you will thank your lucky stars that you aren’t bouncing over some sweltering desert in a plane with an as-yet-undetected engine fault, but instead stuck at home near a delicious cold British tap.
10 things I learnt from the SAS Survival Guide
1. Caribou 'can be lured by waving a cloth and moving on all fours'
You should start practising this now in a communal area, ideally without explanation. Other gems from page 44: “Kissing the back of your hand makes a sound like a wounded mouse or bird and attracts prey.”
2. Get the Arctic smoky-eye look
Snow glare can cause blindness, so you should wear goggles in polar regions or -- failing that -- a strip of bark with narrow slits for eyes. Wiseman adds: “Blacken underneath the eye with charcoal to reduce glare further.” In other words, if you’re going to be wearing sunglasses 24/7, you may as well commit to full glam rock.
3. Men naturally float face down, women face up
4. The way you kill an octopus defines WHO YOU ARE
Wiseman gives three alternatives for octopus execution: “Turn it inside out: place hand inside the flesh hood, grab the innards and pull hard. Alternatively, stab it between the eyes, or bang it against a rock.” If you didn’t spot it, there’s an odd one out here. Only a certain sort of person actively prefers to turn an octopus inside out, like a Marigold glove post-washing up, when they could simply bang it against a rock.
5. Polish metal with sand to make a signalling mirror
This will help you perfect your Arctic make-up (see item 2.) Other oddly queeny moments in the book: "You can foretell rain by increased humidity. If one of your group has curly hair, they will begin to find it unmanageable."
6. Mayday comes from the French for “help me”: M’aidez!
7. Crocodile tail meat is “very tasty”
8. If a gull ever stole your chips, here’s revenge
Wrap food around a stone and throw it in the air. The seagull will gulp down the weighted bait and then crash to the ground. The economy of means here is very pleasing: a tragic error of Aristotelian perfection for the gull.
9. If you’re thirsty, you can get liquid out of an animal’s eyeballs
10. The SAS Survival Guide really needs an index
If this had been a real emergency, like a black mamba snaking up my leg, I'd have had no chance of finding the right page in time. But for an armchair, it's perfect.