YOU remember where you were when you first catch certain pieces of headline news. I was getting ready for school when I heard a radio downstairs announce John Lennon’s murder.

I’d been working outside and when I came indoors wondered why radio announcers were talking about Princess Diana in the past tense. I was in The Press’s offices when I saw a TV screen showing smoke pouring from one of the Twin Towers.

On Friday morning, I’d missed the radio news so turned on the TV to call up Teletext, but was stopped by an image of a dark grey curtain sweeping across a landscape with almost unbelievable speed. Nothing could impede its progress as it simply blotted out manmade features as though they had never been. It was implacable, unstoppable and terrifying.

Later that day we would see much more aerial footage of the post-earthquake tsunami hitting northern Japan; arguably some was more shocking than what I’d seen, showing people running or in cars, trying to flee the wave bringing massive amounts of debris, a ship and even, ironically, fires to smash into any obstruction in its path.

But that first image will stay with me for a long time.

With probably many thousands dead and nuclear power plants in trouble, small wonder the Japanese prime minister called this his nation’s worst crisis since the Second World War.

As the newsmen reminded us, Japan has long suffered the effects of being on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and is among the best-prepared nations in the world for disasters of this kind.

In truth, nothing could really prepare for such a happening, but the Japanese people have proved remarkably resilient in the face of similar catastrophes and will probably do so again.

Resilience is often the only answer when such calamities occur. I was recently given a book to review called A Disastrous History Of The World, by John Withington, cataloguing the various kinds of mass misery to beset humanity down the centuries.

Some of that horror is manmade; I felt sadness and anger at the suffering caused by warfare and genocide, at the avoidable accidents facilitated by folly, hubris and greed, and at the activities of the “we-know-best brigade”, who lacked the humility to discard their ideology when such disasters as the Irish potato famine or collective farming in the former Soviet Union and China made it clear to all but them that their big ideas weren’t as universally beneficial as they’d imagined.

But what use is anger in the face of powers which dwarf even the human capacity for self-destruction?

The movement of the earth’s tectonic plates has previously wrought even greater devastation than that we are now witnessing in Japan and, for me at least, earthquakes and tsunamis aren’t the scariest part, terrible though they are.

No, if you want all-encompassing catastrophe then factor in a volcano. Their eruptions can be accompanied by earthquakes and tsunamis, so the damage is spread across land and sea. But volcanoes take it into another dimension, because they can pour their destructive forces into the air itself.

Mr Withington’s book argues the disaster which came closest to wiping out humanity was a volcanic eruption more than 70,000 years in what is now Sumatra, which some scientists believe reduced the world’s human population from about a million to 10,000.

The huge amount of debris thrown into the atmosphere caused, it is thought, a six-year, worldwide volcanic winter, as well as dumping vast ash deposits as far away as India.

The effect of such an eruption on today’s overcrowded world can only be guessed at; if I were a science-fiction writer, I would envisage a future featuring the likes of Charlton Heston or Will Smith, looking noble and, above all, lonely.

It’s a humbling and frightening thought to contemplate such destruction that is so completely beyond our control; a bit like the feeling I got watching that dark shroud spreading across the land.