The Curmudgeon


Friday, July 30, 2010

Personal Apocalypses

During the 1980s, when the Reagan-Thatcher nightmare was at its proto-Blairite height, I entered my teens convinced beyond all doubt that Armageddon was just around the corner. I could not seriously believe that we would reach the new millennium without a nuclear war taking place either by accident or design. As an Air Force family, we lived close to an RAF barracks; once a siren went off there, sending me into a paralysed, sweating, stomach-jumping panic. Fortunately I was alone at the time, and did not have to face the scorn of my loved ones as well. On another occasion there was a minor but detectable earth tremor around breakfast time; I was able to conceal my terror (this time probably aided by indignation: my mother seemed to believe I was responsible for the quake, though I can't imagine how she thought I did it), but I spent most of the morning expecting news of catastrophe.

I distinctly remember seeing several TV programmes about what would happen in a nuclear war, most of which the family sat through in the same depressed but dutiful spirit as it sat through televised Remembrance Sunday ceremonies and royal weddings. The first, which probably had the greatest impact on me by virtue of being the first, was a Horizon documentary about the Protect and Survive propaganda which the Government used to try and persuade people that "civil defence" would be able to pick up the pieces and help the country briskly back onto its feet after V-USSR Day. Like every British schoolchild, I knew about the Second World War; I knew about the Luftwaffe raiding London (the bombing of lesser cities, other than Coventry, was rarely mentioned) and that people had to shelter underground, in specially built bunkers or in the Tube. Protect and Survive advised people to cope with the effects of weapons hundreds or thousands of times more destructive than those used in the Blitz by painting the window-panes white and making lean-to shelters out of household doors.

The second programme was a QED documentary called "A Guide to Armageddon". It postulated the detonation of a single, rather small nuclear weapon above St Paul's Cathedral and examined the likely effects. I saw this twice, once at home and once at school. It took a fairly forthright stance: the heat wave from the explosion was depicted with an endless, unbearably high screech, and the blast wave with shots of shattering windows and walls intercut with still photographs of human faces. One could tell that the idea of a nuclear detonation was not one the makers agreed with; at least not above St Paul's. There seemed (to me, at least) some doubt as to whether being Red would have been worse. The whole business was enough to put you off your Trident, and therefore would probably not be tolerated in today's peace-at-any-price culture at the BBC.

Some time later we weathered an atrocious American TV movie called The Day After, which presented World War III as neighbourhood soap opera. Those who die in the attack are shown turning into cartoon skeletons before disappearing cleanly into thin air, while the effects of radiation lead to a scene in which a pair of all-American lovers are touchingly reunited in mutual baldness. I read Nevil Shute's nauseating On the Beach, in which a community of Australian civilians, awaiting delayed doom from the terminally poisoned global weather system, plays more or less cordial host to its executioners in the shape of an American submarine crew. Everyone is just simply awfully civilised about it; the captain has a Brief Encounter with the heroine before sailing off into humanity's sunset, and good riddance to the lot of them.

Far more traumatic was a drama-documentary film called Threads, perceptively discussed here by the admirable Owen Hatherley. It depicts the effects of a global holocaust and the subsequent nuclear winter on the English city of Sheffield, from the point of view of two families and the city's chief executive officer. There is some black humour: the chief executive, having abandoned his wife to the fallout with the time-honoured excuse about picking up the pieces, ends up trapped with his colleagues under the ruins of the town hall. There is also some regrettable silliness: a decade and a half after a devastating nuclear war, we are shown a society where human ingenuity has resurrected the jolly traction engine and children gather to watch old videotapes. This latter scene is undeniably poignant (they see a recording of an infants' programme about skeletons which shows the structure of various animals; of course these children have never seen most of the animals, though they may well have seen human skeletons in, so to speak, the flesh); but in context it is quite ridiculous, as if the little available electricity in such a post-war society would be used for the edification of its mentally stunted serfs, or as if the worst things the BBC could imagine about a below-subsistence economy with mediaeval population levels were inefficient mechanisation and the lack of good quality VHS tape. For the most part, however, Threads is as relentless and harrowing a depiction of human myopia and degradation as you are likely to see, and by far the most frightening and depressing film I have ever forced myself to sit through, not excepting Pasolini's Salò. It was only on the third or fourth viewing (I think of it as a form of inoculation, an infrequent painful necessity) that I realised one of the statistics quoted - twenty million unburied corpses and too few slaves fit to dig - explained the genuine, eminently practical purpose of Protect and Survive. A few doors don't make an ideal grave, but they are better than nothing; particularly when a prospective corpse can be induced to bury itself before the unpleasantness starts.

Nobody rioted, and the BBC was thus emboldened to broadcast The War Game, which had been made by the brilliant Peter Watkins in the 1960s and promptly banned for making our weapons of mass destruction look like a Bad Thing. The War Game depicts the effects of a limited nuclear strike, pointing out that even this would require more than the whole emergency resources of the entire country to deal with. It also (through a mildly convoluted opening commentary) associates the catastrophe with US aggression in Asia, and even mentions the taboo possibility of a first strike by NATO forces, which doubtless contributed to the looseness of the BBC's corporate bowels. In Threads, as per the doctrinal requirements of the day, it is the evil Soviets who intervene in the Middle East, the evil Soviets who detonate the first nuclear weapon and, the commentary implies, the evil Soviets who are first to launch an all-out attack against the major population centres in the west.

It changed nothing, of course; the first broadcast of Threads was followed by a discussion during which a Protect and Survive enthusiast extolled it as an advertisement for the effectiveness of fallout shelters (a couple of teenage looters are shown being arrested and shot by police, who evidently cannot conceive of death in a fallout shelter being anything other than the result of a murderous hoodie attack), and no doubt a priest of deterrence was there to point out that the horror of nuclear weapons was exactly what was protecting our market forces from the evil Soviets and that was the Whole Point. All of which served to confirm, by the time I was fifteen, the initial revelation of that Horizon documentary: namely that the world I lived in was not only unfair and unpleasant, but insane. The nature of this insanity, of course, is the theme of the greatest of nuclear war movies, Dr Strangelove. It was a very long time before I could laugh at Kubrick's masterpiece, and I still have not learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb.


  • At 3:36 pm , Blogger Consider Everything said...

    Well good for you! The question of course if whether one can start to love the Dr.

  • At 11:47 pm , Anonymous Madame X said...

    I grew up in the height of the Cold War (duck and cover, 13 Days and all). My father declined to build a bomb shelter, saying we would not want to be around afterwards and anyway our neighbors might try to kill us to use it in our stead. Now I see impending catastrophe in environmental terms. I will likely not live long enough to see the worst of it, about the only advantage of growing old. Not having kids I wonder how those that do not think about the world we are bequeathing. A world of food riots, flaming rivers and no wild tigers. It's a wonder their children don't kill them while they sleep.

  • At 1:41 am , Blogger Philip said...

    People - especially parents - just don't think that far ahead. I'm convinced that being a parent releases some sort of hormone that destroys the perspective in otherwise relatively intelligent and rational human beings; first in favour of an obsession with the sacred infant, and later in favour of an obsession with taming the dreaded adolescent. It could be argued (I'm sure it must have been, somewhere) that the present generation's legacy will be the ultimate subconscious revenge of our collective Laius upon his upstart son.


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