Do you remember the Dr Pepper TV ads in the early 2000s? The fizzy drink from America made its way over to the United Kingdom and for those of us who hadn’t got a clue what it was, the brand’s catchphrase, “What’s the worst that could happen?”, worked perfectly. The ads showed seemingly innocuous teenage situations turning into social nightmares after a sip of Dr Pepper.
I really like those adverts, mainly because “What’s the worst that could happen?” seems to have become my catchphrase.
After I was taken to Yad Vashem at a very young age — far too young to process what was I was seeing — my childhood innocence evaporated. I saw the worst that could happen. I’m not alone in this: most of my generation are Holocaust obsessed. Like Chicken Licken, we grew up looking over our shoulders at the sky, waiting for it to fall in. Child psychology wasn’t high on parenting checklists circa 1970.
We all had grandparents, great-grandparents, parents and great-cousins who were affected by the Holocaust and the pogroms that came before. We grew up with these stories. I remember sitting with friends of mine (we must have been about ten years old) having a heated conversation about which one of us would survive if the Nazis came to power again — who had the bluest eyes and blondest hair, whose name was not so Jewish?
What’s the worst that could happen? We knew it. We could describe it intimately. “Cheer up”, others would say, “it can’t be that bad”. Oh but it could.
When it came to escapism books, films, TV — the world of candy canes and fairy tales and romances always seemed mawkish. Utopian fiction showed us a world of perfection, of social harmony. It’s an improved version of life. Think Gulliver’s Travels or many of HG Wells’ stories. Even Star Trek tried episodes of pure utopian delight in far-off planets. But even as a kid, any form of utopia was absolutely a nowhere land for me. I couldn’t tolerate it in books or films. Not in a world where Auschwitz could be thought of as an idea, let alone built and put into action, run by hundreds of people and maintained with regular visits from engineers and troubleshooters to make sure the Final Solution never stopped for a second.
As I say, no childish reveries for me. I wanted to lose myself in fiction where authors knew that the worst could happen.
My world changed when, on a sleepover at my grandma’s, I raided my Cool Uncle Philip’s bookshelf. In between Monty Python, The Goodies and Immanuel Kant I found Animal Farm, 1984, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. The whole world of dystopia opened up to me. Here were visions I could relate to and lose myself in nightmare futures to serve as warnings. Others were reading Judy Blume but I was nosedeep in Brave New World.
I was born out of my time. Today’s tweens have the Maze Runner series, The Hunger Games, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and so much else. There’s now a whole of teenagers with the same outlook as me: the worst can happen and it invariably does.
But even in my darkest moment I couldn’t have written the following dystopian scenario. A terrorist organisation breaks into a country that its charter has long declared it will destroy. This country is deemed unbreachable, with top security and intelligence far exceeding other nations. Yet the terrorists find the border effectively ungoverned. It infiltrates a music festival full of young, beautiful people where it kills and rapes young girls and women, whilst filming it all on camera phones and GoPros. It invades kibbutzim and burns babies, mutilates parents, plays football with heads, tortures indiscriminately and ratchets up kills as if in a computer game. It takes hostages, some as young as nine months old, some in their eighties. All of it is filmed proudly to show on social media.
The trauma is profound. The hostages disappear across a border into their hostile environment where they mysteriously disappear into tunnels under hospitals and schools and places of worship where apparently no one sees a thing.
Yet in the immediate days that follow, the free world’s most respected news services refuse to use the word “terrorists”, while journalists for progressive outlets who are normally the first to condemn violence and suffering speak of their doubts that the violence they have seen on video is as it seems. Human rights watchers, international women’s organisations and globally famous feminists who normally lead the way in condemning atrocities stay silent. And when families and traumatised people connected to this heinous attack speak out in pain and shock, they are ignored, belittled and misinterpreted by friends and colleagues.
Around the world there are marches and demonstrations in support of those who carried out the terror. The cries that the terrorists chant ring out around the world as a show of solidarity all while a huge rise in hatred against anyone associated with the religion of the attacked land are vilified verbally and physically.
The title of this dystopian novel is Gaslit.
What’s the worst that could happen? Since October 7 we are starring in it. Let’s pull together and try and find a way out. Maybe not to Utopia but away from Dystopia. Our love for each other is stronger than anything they can do to silence us.