Brian Viner: Yes, but can you laugh inside a gas mask?

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The Independent Online

Despite the reports that every third person is buying gas masks, applying for planning permission to build a nuclear shelter or stockpiling Frosties, I haven't actually met anyone who is doing anything other than continuing to live life as normal, albeit punctuated by expressions of horror at the fine mess humankind seems to have landed itself in.

Clearly, though, some folk have got themselves into a terrible tizzy. Last weekend nearly 200 people visited a former RAF hidey-hole in the east of Scotland, a tourist attraction 100ft underground, known, with rapidly diminishing aptness, as "the Secret Bunker". Some have asked how much it costs to reserve a place, while a Mr Mike Parrish, owner of a large nuclear shelter in Brentwood, Essex, has reportedly offered refuge at £30,000 per person. One wonders whether, as the first head pops up, it will be possible to tell whether Armageddon has passed, or whether that's simply what Brentwood – which has not been subject to the most felicitous of planning strategies over the years – looks like after a long period underground.

Still, I suppose that Essex is as good a place as any to begin a post-apocalyptic life. And perhaps, instead of questioning the sanity of anyone prepared to shell out £30,000 to survive a bomb that has wiped out all branches of Sainsbury's, every Premier League football ground and the female members of the Corrs, I should instead be finding out where to buy a £50 gas mask. As it happens, I do have friends whose neighbour in their remote East Anglian village has taken, apparently without embarrassment, to carrying a gas mask to his office in the City every day. And, of course, he might have the last laugh, although how advisable it is to laugh inside a gas mask, I'm not sure.

The experts, meanwhile, are saying that gas masks are next to useless. "The most likely agent terrorists would use is sarin, [as] used by the Aum Shinrikyo sect in the Tokyo underground," says Dr Simon Whitby, of Bradford University, cheerfully. "It affects the skin, so masks would be no good. They would be no good, either, against bacterial agents such as anthrax because you would not know when you were inhaling it, so you wouldn't know when to put the mask on."

Frankly, I'm not sure whether this makes me feel better or worse. Better, I think, because you have to find something to chuckle at through the gloom – and people lugging gas masks through Liverpool Street station might as well be it, especially now that we know that they are seizing entirely the wrong initiative – rather like the villain in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who pulled a knife on Paul Newman, only to be kicked in the balls.

But I would hate to come over too scornful. Perilous situations like this affect all of us in different ways, and it ill behoves any of us to scoff too loudly at the chap next door – the more so as there hasn't been a perilous situation like this since, so they tell me, the Cuban missile crisis. I was about the same age then as my youngest child is now, and I imagine my parents hugged me just a little tighter during that episode, as I do him every time I watch the news.

Speaking of which, I am most disappointed that the BBC, so-called public service broadcaster, has not responded to the international emergency provoked by the World Trade Centre massacre by restoring the Nine o'Clock News? If ever there was an appetite for Peter Sissons, rather than Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, it is now.

And something else puzzles me. Where has Kate Adie been since this imbroglio began? Not 100ft undergound, surely? Now that would start a stampede for nuclear shelter; in fact, I reckon I might even lead it.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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