Ten years ago I read a book. “A book?” you say, with all the incredulity of a reader accustomed to tweets and Post-it notes. Yes, that’s right, a book, an arcane object found often in libraries (although I hear those too are fast becoming extinct). This particular book – if you’ll kindly stop interrupting – was one which influenced me greatly throughout the turbulent period of my preadolescence, albeit for all the wrong reasons. It was neither Harry Potter nor the Bible (both of which I considered overrated), but a markedly less influential work entitled ‘Horrible Histories: The Angry Aztecs’. An informative and irreverent book, it endeavoured to portray Aztec civilisation in a way that was both historically accurate and appealing to children. While of course this meant that undue emphasis was placed on Aztec toilet habits and their murderous proclivities, I – then a ten-year-old boy – had no objections to crudeness (a testament both to the author’s skill and my ongoing immaturity). Though full of exciting insights such as how the Aztecs invented chewing gum and worshipped a god dog named Xolotl (the bloody idiots), the most striking chapter in the book was one concerning their apocalyptic predictions, which, for those who don’t know, were essentially stolen from their predecessors, the Mayans. I read with morbid fascination until I came to a passage which declared, in no uncertain terms, that though many had tried and failed to predict the apocalypse, it would be taking place on 21 December 2012.
This news, if it can really be called as such, came as quite a shock: ‘Ten years? That’s only 500 Beano comics away, and I’ve still so many sweets to try.’ As an anxious child, thoughts of extinction played quite heavily on my mind, and I would frequently envisage, with an increasing sense of futility, the various ways in which the world might be destroyed: meteorites, supervolcanoes, enormous man-eating bedbugs – you name it, I panicked over it. Needless to say this Mayan revelation didn’t help, especially since it was written in Times New Roman (the most serious of typefaces). It was not so much that I was unfamiliar with irony, but rather that this spurious prophecy accorded with a more deeply entrenched belief that fate was conspiring against me, encouraging girls to speak to cooler boys and preventing my future happiness. Now it had decided to take things one step further by wiping out humanity. Just my luck. Over time this obsessive brooding proved detrimental to my well-being, culminating in a premature mid-life crisis in which I purchased a model Porsche Boxster and tried to grow a moustache (a somewhat ambitious feat for a prepubescent child). My mother, to whom I eventually voiced my concerns, tried to assuage my anxieties, reassuring me that what I had read was in fact a facetious comment on the reliability of such predictions and not a credible hypothesis. But her attempts were in vain, for I had already accepted my fate: I was to die at twenty, sad and alone (this last part was my own prediction). What I previously thought would be happening in four and a half billion years was suddenly happening in ten.
Those ten years have now passed and I’m considerably less anxious about the Mayan prophecy as I was then, but the world is no less frightening. Employment is scarce, the price of living is up, and I’ve more chance of finding a decent programme on Channel 5 than affordable accommodation. Yes, bouts of existential despair are still reasonably frequent, but for the most part they’ve been superseded by practical anxieties – concerns about money, relationships, and career opportunities. At the age of ten I never would have imagined that I’d go through university and still have little chance of getting a job. I imagined I’d be better off – wiser, stronger, maybe even more confident. But I’ve turned out to be none of these things. As you grow older, the world becomes stranger and more ambiguous. There are no epiphanies, just the gradual realisation that the things you expected to happen in adulthood probably aren’t going to. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for this uncertainty is part of life’s beauty. Now that it’s apparent that we’re not all going to die before Christmas, we can expect more things from the future, and those things might not be so terrible as the total destruction of humanity. Perhaps the Eurozone crisis will be resolved. Perhaps the UK economy will eventually stabilise. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to grow a moustache.