Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Survey the Scene

A couple of years ago, when I was still working for Reuters, I was sent on a hostile environment training course taught by a former marine in Bangkok. We practiced first aid on various Reuters bureau chiefs, found our way out of a minefield using only a pencil, and got kidnapped by Thai actors who were covered in fake blood.

The reason I'm writing about this is that I'm staying in a hotel in London this week, and hotels always remind me of some of the more peculiar lessons I learned on that course. The former marine - let's call him Brad - had a lot to say about hotels. For example, don't pick a room above the lobby: if someone is going to blow up the hotel, they'll probably do it by crashing (or throwing a bomb) into the lobby. Also, always remember where the fire exit is. Brad blindfolded us to simulate the effect of smoke and made us crawl around the hotel on all fours in search of the exit. It did make we wish I had checked.

The oddest lesson, however, was the one about securing your hotel room.

"Think about the staff. Of course it's nice when they do up your room," said Brad, standing in his suite, a dozen journalists at his feet. "But you never know. They might use your toothbrush."

The thing is, I had never even considered the possibility of hotel staff using my toothbrush. I mean, why would they? Then again, I'd never been a marine.
As a marine, Brad had learned to be aware of all the risks all the time. His guiding principle was survey the scene, closely followed by situational awareness. "Survey the scene" was reasonable enough: look around you to see if there's anything fishy, eg a sign saying you're in a minefield. "Situational awareness" was much harder to attain. It was a state of mind that basically involved booby-trapping your hotel room to prevent the cleaning lady from using your toothbrush.

This is the second reason why I was thinking of Brad (who actually showed us the portable burglar alarm to secure the door of his hotel room) this week. I'm in the Quaker library, reading pacifist Quaker magazines from the 1930s as part of my research for my next novel, and I was thinking about the contrast between the world of Brad and the world of the average Quaker.
The remarkable thing about Brad's "survey the scene" philosophy was that it involved constantly thinking about potential threats and hazards and how to ward them off - all the time, even if you were in an apparently benign environment, like a pleasant room in a Thai hotel. Quakerism, on the other hand, is all about maintaining a calm and peaceful mind, at the risk of underestimating threats.
This meant that in the run-up to the Second World War, many Quakers refused to participate in air raid preparations. Just after the outbreak of war, it turned out that the caretaker at the Friends' Meeting House on Euston Road in London had converted the cloakrooms into air raid shelters. The Quakers felt rather annoyed:

"The ... decision had been a great shock to them, and they regarded it as an invasion of the stronghold of the Peace movement. If war came the situation would be changed, but we should pray for peace and not pre-suppose war," said Frederick J. Tritton on behalf of several young Quakers at a meeting on Sept 1, 1939, two days before Britain declared war on Germany.*

With the benefit of hindsight, that can sound a little naive. In the weeks it took the Quakers to discuss the pros and cons of reinforcing their cloakrooms, Brad would already have built five air raid shelters and secured them with portable burglar alarms. However, there was something touching about this little group of believers clinging to peace right up until the outbreak of war, and I did find the concept of the peaceful mind very compelling. And certainly less nerve-wracking than situational awareness.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering how to get out of a minefield using only a pencil: you take your pencil and gently insert it into the ground at a 45 degree angle, which exerts apparently just enough pressure to detect the metallic surface of a mine, but not enough to set it off. You do this in a widening circle around your body, millemetre by millimetre, marking the safe spots and the mines with coloured bits of paper as you go, until you've marked a safe way out. Good luck.)  

* From: The Friend (Quaker magazine), September 8, 1939.

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