Monday, 19 December 2011


‘With short hair and shiny boots you can achieve anything.’ So went the advice of Arnold J Rimmer, a martinet cleaning supervisor with military pretensions and one of the central characters in the nineties sci fi comedy, Red Dwarf.
His philosophy on life bore a striking similarity to that espoused in a much more serious work, The SAS  Survival Handbook, namely, that with the right attitude and only minimal kit you can survive anywhere.
Written by SAS veteran John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman and first published in 1991 it was less a manual on survival, more an essential ‘must have’ for the generation that never went to war. There were instructions on how to light a fire with a bullet, how to gut a deer, build a cabin, cure meat, or how to make a compass with a battery and although its practical applications for the modern man were almost non-existent, it enabled the reader to talk offhandedly about the correct way to sharpen an axe or conserve body heat in an emergency as if they’d actually done it.
At the same time it was a book that could be appreciated purely for what it was – a beautifully presented collection of wisdom with great illustrations, and on this level it was just like The Joy of Sex.
You might not try all those positions demonstrated by the bearded hippy and his girlfriend, but if conversation in the pub should ever turn in that direction you could hint at tremendous expertise without the slightest chance of being called on to demonstrate.
The illustrations in the SAS Survival Handbook were pretty useful on their own and one in particular that stuck in my mind depicted how to surround your campfire with rocks to protect it from the wind. On a balmy summers evening, in the Brecon Beacons I recreated this nugget of woodsmanship using  rocks from the nearby stream, of which there were a plentiful supply.
There was no wind but as I settled down beside my now neatly enclosed fire, it was with the satisfaction of expert knowledge, expertly applied.
The first rock exploded after about twenty minutes sending jagged fragments buzzing past my ears and, grabbing my gear, I was forced to retreat hastily to the safety of the trees.  From here I was able to still smell the aroma of pine branches burning on my now useless but lethal campfire as the remaining rocks cracked and shattered in the gathering dusk.
If I’d actually bothered to read the text which accompanied the pictures I’d have learned that rocks which have been submerged in water for any length of time are prone to explode when heated, often with lethal consequences.
A wealth of knowledge resided between the covers of the SAS Survival handbook and that was always where I left it because the moment I strapped on my rucksack and set forth into the hills I’d forget the lot and later, bungling about lost, or feeling a mounting sense of rage, as one by one my damp matches sparked and went out, I’d curse myself for ignoring the advice on waterproofing them with candle wax or for skipping the chapter on navigation altogether.
Lofty Wiseman’s work has been largely eclipsed now by that of the more people-friendly Ray Mears or the more HD friendly Bear Grylls, but for me, Lofty with his trademark droopy moustache, and woollen hat pulled well down, still remains the quintessential survival expert.
In the summer I’m planning a hiking and kayaking trip from Glasgow to Inverness and this time I won’t be leaving him on the bookshelf, he’ll be coming with me because the SAS Survival Handbook is now available as an app for your android.

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