‘By 10, I knew all about the impact of a nuclear blast’: growing up in the shadow of the bomb


Show caption Composite: Guardian Design; PA; Allstar/Channel 4; BBC; Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho; Mirrorpix; Evening Standard/Getty Images; Photofusion/REX/Shutterstock Nuclear weapons ‘By 10, I knew all about the impact of a nuclear blast’: growing up in the shadow of the bomb From CND marches, to books, films and music, fear of the bomb was everywhere in the 1980s. Now, for many, the war in Ukraine has brought back that sense of dread Zoe Williams @zoesqwilliams Wed 16 Mar 2022 06.00 GMT Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter

Share via Email

Across the years of 1983 and 84, I thought every plane going over my head contained a nuclear bomb that would be dropped, or not dropped, according to the mood of the pilot. It was an absolutely pure terror, a literal chill darting around my body, from my heart to the balls of my feet. Last week, due to the war in Ukraine, I felt that same freezing feeling for the first time in almost 40 years.

The first time, I would have been about 10. Thanks to Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows, the brutal 1984 apocalypse drama Threads and various clergymen-orators at CND marches, I knew a huge amount about the impact of a nuclear blast. I was all over the skin peeling, the radiation sickness, the nuclear winter, the relative horrors of being at the centre of the blast radius (ideal) or on its outer edges (you would limp on for a few weeks with your teeth falling out of your gums, creeping toward death). But I didn’t have a clue about the nuts and bolts of the matter – the fact that a nuclear war would probably be preceded by at least a small amount of conventional war, and even then, commercial airlines wouldn’t be equipped with warheads.

Hilary Wainwright, a sociologist, activist and the co-editor of the socialist magazine Red Pepper, remembers her similar anxiety in the early 60s – vivid but impractical. “I was camping out in the garden at home, sleeping in this tent, I must have been eight years old, and saying, ‘I think we’d better go in, there might be a nuclear war.’ This would have been the Bay of Pigs.”

John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev c 1960. Photograph: MPI/Getty Images

That tussle for Cuba, between the US and the USSR, flourished into the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 – during which time it was quite reasonable to go to bed at night wondering if you’d see the morning. The author Michael Rosen recalls his father having anxiety dreams and that he’d woken in the night, thought the room was 45 degrees and that nuclear war had already started. Also around that time, it was commonly believed that the world had come quite close to nuclear annihilation – and this was borne out by documents released later, remembers Tariq Ali, an activist and historian. “The Cuban leadership was in a slightly crazed, ultra-left state,” he says. “When Nikita Khrushchev [the USSR’s first secretary] informed them he was going to stop the ships and withdraw the missiles, both Fidel [Castro] and Che [Guevara] said, ‘What’s it to you? Wouldn’t it be a great gain for the world? We’re prepared to sacrifice our tiny island of Cuba if it will destroy the US.’”

While the cold war and the nuclear threat were very real in the 80s, very few people alive in 1962 remember that decade with anything like the same fear. “We were so terrified in 62,” says Rosen. “You just get anxiety fatigue.” The psychotherapist and author Julia Bueno, who is in her late-40s and remembers seeing When the Wind Blows in the cinema, explains why: “As a general rule, if you’ve been through a trauma, it leaves an imprint. I’ve had conversations with people around the same age as me. It’s made a lot of us a bit robust in the current situation, a bit ‘been-there-done-that’. I have spoken to people in their late 30s, who didn’t go through that, and they are so depleted and anxious, and untethered.”

That resilience was hard won. If the cold war ramping up with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was your first introduction to the nuclear prospect, the decade that followed was absolutely petrifying. Stephen Brotherstone and David Lawrence have co-authored a series of books called Scarred for Life. Volume three, Pop Culture in the Shadow of the Bomb, is out next month. “I remember that Afghanistan invasion – I was 10,” says Brotherstone. “I didn’t know what it meant, but I saw what it meant to my mum – she started crying. After that, there was this revolving door of Russian premiers, all of whom seemed mad. It was the Reagan era of tough-guy politics. By 83 and 84, it felt that nuclear war was going to happen. Not could happen, but was going to.”

When the Wind Blows. Photograph: Channel 4/Ronald Grant Archive

The academic and activist Mary Kaldor was a towering figure in the British peace movement and one of the founders of End (the campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament). “What I think is really weird about nuclear weapons is that we go through phases of worrying about them intensely, and then we can’t bear to think about it any more, so we just stop,” she says.

That cycle has been there since the invention of the bomb and the second-world-war-ending first deployment in Japan. There have been times when the threat completely eroded popular trust in government, and the fear permeated everything, from civil society to culture.

In the 50s and 60s, being a peacenik didn’t disbar you from the mainstream; there was a folk troubadour tradition, embodied by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. But active anti-death proselytising was considered subversive and niche – Pete Seeger and the Weavers ended up disbanding after they were brought in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the US. Essentially, as far as the US was concerned, not wanting to be annihilated made you a communist (although, to be fair, they were pinko-adjacent).

In the 80s, however, there were pop songs, comedy sketches and even board games about nuclear war. Brotherstone and Lawrence have made an apocalypse Top 10, whittled down from 100 chart-toppers about the bomb. “Strawberry Switchblade, a young couple deciding on suicide after a nuclear war,” Lawrence says. “UB40, The Earth Dies Screaming,” Brotherstone adds, “David Bowie, Eve of Destruction, a song from the second-most depressing film of all time, When the Wind Blows. Ultravox, Dancing With Tears in My Eyes – the video is about him rushing home to be with his wife and kid before they’re vaporised.” “The Specials, of course,” Lawrence adds, “with Man at C&A” (this begins with the line, “Warning, warning, nuclear attack”). “Men at Work did a song about a lower-ranking army offer and his nuclear anxiety, and accidental nuclear attack,” Lawrence continues. Brotherstone adds, “I only found out recently that in Nik Kershaw’s I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, the sun he refers to is the flash of the mushroom cloud. Then Kate Bush did a song about an unborn child’s thoughts as it floats in its mother’s womb, wondering whether it’s going to be born into a world of radiation and death.” In with a bullet at No 1: Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Two Tribes. It’s video is a parody of the Protect and Survive public information campaign.

The writer Charlie Brooker was an absolutely top-tier nuclear neurotic in the 80s, but remembers as a child being comforted that people could laugh at the idea of a nuclear war. “If they’re making jokes about nuclear war on Spitting Image, it’s going to be OK,” he says. That is until he became a satirist himself. “I remember doing the 2016 Screenwipe, after Trump had been elected but before he’d been inaugurated – he started casually talking about a nuclear bomb. I was in the position then that Spitting Image was in when I was a kid – funny and reassuring, saying: ‘It’s all sort of going to be OK.’ But I was shitting myself.”

Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko lookalikes tussle in the Two Tribes video. Photograph: Youtube

Meanwhile, a brief timeline of civil society: in the 50s, those who opposed nuclear weapons had a huge battle just to get the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki recognised. Rosen says governments internationally “pretty successfully sat on the effects – the immediate impact and the half-life were concealed by huge effort”. Nuclear testing on Christmas Island, the release of strontium-90 and the possible cancers it could cause, subsequent birth defects across the Polynesian islands, all this information went through a tango of suppression by authorities then awareness-raising by peace activists.

Before the Cuban missile crisis, there was also fear a war might be triggered by accident – a flock of geese alerting a missile defence system, or a power station blowing up (given Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island, these hypotheses were ahead of their time). Early peace activists Canon Collins, the first chair of the CND, and Bertrand and Dora Russell were preoccupied by the idea of accidental war. They were part of a drive to disrupt the cosy consensus that a nuclear war couldn’t possibly happen because it would simply be too dreadful. In 1962, however, the phrase “mutually assured destruction” was coined and became military doctrine over that decade – the idea that neither side had the incentive either to escalate or disarm, so holding nuclear weapons was safe, actually.

“Before the fully articulated M proposal,” Rosen says, “you would get people claiming that we could have a limited nuclear war and win it.” That (completely deranged) idea was given new energy in the Reagan era with the notion of a great nuclear shield, which would allow the US to nuke the USSR without a counterattack (would it shield Europe as well? Not so much).

In the UK in the early 60s, a group of august peace activists – the Committee of 100 – uncovered the Regional Seats of Government (RSGs), advanced governmental contingency planning to keep things ticking over in the event of nuclear war. This unleashed a tide of anxiety that didn’t recede until the 90s – a government that was readying itself, with miles of secret underground bunkers, plainly wasn’t trustworthy and possibly didn’t have its citizens’ interests at the heart of its decision-making.

In 1980, Protect and Survive emerged, a series of pamphlets, radio scripts and 20 short public information films which were only to be shown if a war was thought likely within the subsequent 72 hours. Of course, they were leaked to the media just after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and they were full of terrifyingly granular details – what a four-minute warning would sound like, which bit of your house would work best as a fallout room, “life under fallout conditions”, and yet they were also kind of nonsensical.

In what conceivable world would taking a door off its hinges and leaning it against your dining room table protect you from a nuclear blast? Theories swirled that these were all strategic displacement activities, just to keep people busy so they didn’t rush the politicians’ own bomb shelter network. Details of such doors were published in panicky books such as Beneath the Streets by Peter Laurie in 1979, which identifies secret doors to the RSG tunnels. One of them was on Kingsway, which runs from High Holborn to Aldwych in the centre of London. I remember passing it on a march and someone pointing it out, the portal to the postapocalypse underworld.

Trust in political authority was, understandably, low. Unless you were going to go the way of the Swiss – where neutrality was pledged and it had been mandatory since 1963 to have capacity for its entire population in fallout shelters – it’s hard to be open with a population about a plan which will see most of them die. It was difficult to distinguish fact (those bunkers were real) from fiction (were night trains carrying nuclear waste?). But just because you were a conspiracy theorist didn’t mean the government wasn’t out to get you.

For a generation, peace marches became a family event. The first of the famous Aldermaston marches took place in 1958, covering a tremendous distance, from Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment about 50 miles away in Berkshire. Rosen “ran away from home to go on the 1960 march, which was a joke, because Mum and Dad were going anyway. My mother, as a good Jewish mother, was saying, ‘You can’t go, you can’t go! Don’t forget the raisins!” Kaldor was on the second march, aged 10: “We went on a lorry that said, ‘we want to live’.” Even those who didn’t attend Aldermaston marches found that they shaped their understanding of collective action and protest: “CND was a formative moment. It shaped a lot of our political awareness,” Wainwright says. “A sense that the world was in a really bad place.” But, she says, “the most important thing was Greenham [this was 1981]. Ordinary – well, extraordinary – women in Cardiff were so worried about nuclear weapons that they decided they couldn’t let it happen. So they marched to [the RAF base in the Berkshire parish of] Greenham, and set up this camp, which then became the most potent focal point, particularly for women in the movement.”

It was galvanising for the activists. I went as a kid and found it paralysing. You’d get the bus from Newbury station, and other passengers would be wearing badges saying “RAGE” (Residents Against Greenham Extremists) – I remember a woman with her grey hair in a centre parting staring at me and my sister with naked hatred. Then you’d arrive, and all the talk was of apocalypse. Looking back, the Greenham women were effectively on a domestic strike; some of them brought their kids, most of them didn’t. If they were there, it had to mean something. Nobody was really in the mood for small talk.

The Aldermaston march in 1962. Photograph: Manchester Daily Express/SSPL/Getty Images

But the great untold story of the CND, and this is even more true about End, is that it had a seismic impact on policy. Kaldor has told me about a senior figure in the Reagan administration who said they borrowed a disarmament demand from the placards of an End demonstration, because it was so extreme the USSR would have to refuse it: then Gorbachev accepted it, which was the beginning of the end of the cold war. This week, she’s more dispirited: “The American peace movement was very focused on nuclear weapons. We focused on ending the cold war. And in that sense, we were very successful, but maybe we could have pushed further.”

Then, as if by magic, the fear vanished. It left no trace as we hurtled into the carefree 90s, because remembering it was just too heavy. By the time Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour party, Kaldor points out we were at the stage of denial where “he was attacked for saying, if he had to press the button, he would think very carefully about it. Apparently you’re not supposed to think very carefully, you’re supposed to just do it.” Yet the weapons never disappeared, and nor did the fear. It all lay dormant, waiting to be poked awake by another madman.