If you’re after a sense of the probability of crime, then the last people you ask are the police, because that’s all they see. A similar folie à deux was what the geographer and urban explorer Bradley Garrett risked when he spent three years talking to preppers – those preparing for various doomsday scenarios. To write Bunker, Garrett was determined to saturate himself in disaster. The result is a kind of apocalyptic Super Size Me, in which the author force feeds himself a steady diet of paranoia, conspiracy, eschatology and end-times architecture.
Garrett’s first book, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City (2013), was an account of his hair-raising urban (and submarine) explorations with fellow “urbexers” the London Consolidation Crew, and a brilliantly heady mix of gonzo journalism, critical theory and activism. Though his winning gregariousness propels him once again in Bunker, there is a significant tonal shift. Where there was a controlled fearlessness that pervaded his “edgework” escapades in Explore Everything, there is disquiet here, and it’s obvious why.
After an introductory tour d’horizon of the history of bunkers since Cappadocia in 1200BC, Garrett charts the “first doom boom” in the early 1960s in which Americans built millions of nuclear fallout shelters in their backyards after a speech by JF Kennedy and an edition of Life magazine featuring a prefab shelter kit made it clear that individual citizens were on their own. He brings us up to date with the various modern types of bunker and their technologies and, more importantly, the sellers of these visions and the people who buy them. From a luxury eco-fortress in Chiang Mai, Thailand (“the logical escalation of a suburban gated enclave”), and the largest community of doomsday preppers on Earth at xPoint, South Dakota (“a monstrous escalation of disaster architecture”) to PrepperCon in Salt Lake City, it’s not so much the bunkers themselves that disturb Garrett as the fear that the world is about to be remade in their image. “By the time I got to a booth selling bulletproof backpacks for schoolchildren, my unease had started to bleed into despair.” Prepper technology is marketed by “dread merchants” – fear is really what they are selling.
In the US, he writes, “40% believe that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter is a wiser investment than saving for retirement”, and about 3.7 million Americans are thought to be prepping on some scale. Garrett claims that when Covid-19 hit, “preppers closed their blast doors and watched the chaos unfold from a safe distance with wry amusement” – is that still the case after five months underground?
He concludes that prepping is a sane response to an unstable world, at least at the practical lower end of the scale; though he also tends to go fairly easy on some of the more swivel-eyed doomsayers he meets (no doubt partly, as he admits, for fear of upsetting them). He also writes engagingly about his “rocky” childhood east of Los Angeles “scarred by turf wars” and the background to some of his own anxieties. After Garrett and his partner, Amanda, take an 18,000km desert road trip in Australia in a Jeep Wrangler equipped for “bugging-out” (leaving quickly in an emergency), he reveals that he reverses it into his garage for a quicker exit and that they have even bought kayaks to escape by sea if the Sydney traffic becomes choked after an “event”.
There’s a thrilling, chilling coda to Bunker when the author goes on an illegal four-day walk into the ultimate apocalyptic heart of darkness at the Chernobyl exclusion zone, with the Geiger counter clicking up and up … the “logical terminus” of his trip. The self-destruction of our species haunts this book: we realise that all along Garrett has been more interested in exploring human limits than human spaces.
• Bunker: Building for the End Times is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.