Inspired, or perhaps compelled, by the unfolding events in Ukraine and Putin’s sabre-rattling combined with Russia’s apparent nostalgia for Cold War-style expansionism, I decided to put a few words to (virtual) paper regarding the fear and memories of fear this has provoked.
My secondary school was roughly 20 miles from Sellafield. Or Calder Hall. Or Windscale. Each new leak, accident or proto-meltdown initiated a revisionist gallop to rename and rebrand the reprocessing plant situated on Cumbria’s westernmost tip. As teenagers we were keenly aware that this ready-made dirty bomb would be a prime target for a Soviet SS-20 launched from some delightful wooded glade in the taiga. A direct hit would render a large part of Britain uninhabitable for millennia, notwithstanding attacks elsewhere.
Our broadly left-leaning, Guardianista, CND badge- wearing teaching staff (see, I can do clichė as well as the next, erm…thing) would propound this almost definite version of events on a tiresomely regular basis. Our ordained RE teacher showed us the terrifying BBC nuclearmentary (see, I can do neologism too) Threads and then led the discussion afterwards with a kind of weary certainty that all this would come to pass. He’d be ok though, having pre-booked a seat at God’s right hand.
We were also subjected to the pale US imitation The Day After but this lacked the necessary impact and relevance (they were Yanks, weren’t they?).
Another thing that served to remind us of imminent apocalypse was the constant RAF exercises that sent our brave boys in Phantom, Jaguar and Harrier screaming overhead on an unnervingly regular basis, the monotony only broken by the occasional sortie of Hercules transports that we were told were conveying Polaris warheads to the Faslane naval base in Scotland.
The RAF sought, by way of recompense, to ameliorate this daily intrusion of air power which served to terrify babies, horses and baby horses by staging some, erm, more flyovers. A personal appearance by the Red Arrows accompanied by their patriotic chemtrails, followed by a Spitfire and a Hurricane. Sometimes it rained and they didn’t show. Take that, Ivan.
Combine this with a torrent of media-inspired megadeath-mongering, steeped in anarcho-punk’s singalong toe-tappers such as Nagasaki Nightmare (even chart acts were muscling in on this territory cf Einstein A-Go Go and FGTH’s Two Tribes) and our fast-approaching doom seemed very real and close.
Fast forward a few years and Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin philosophies of glasnost and perestroika seemed destined to part the Iron Curtain and sweep away decades of fear and usher in a gleaming new world of business opportunities and global fraternity. Ahem. I recall vividly the tears streaming down my face as the Berlin Wall was torn down (or chipped away. See also the toppling of Saddam’s statue. Why is revolution so goddamn time consuming?) and the Ceausescus were led away to their summary execution. The tears were an expression of happiness that generations of oppression and enmity were coming to an end but I admit that there was also an atavistic element of self-preservation at play. Thank God they’re not going to nuke us now.
As the world settled down to a concerted effort to make everything like everything else and former firebrands were lulled and sustained by homogeneity and ersatz luxury, the evident need for humanity to have somebody or something to hate again rose. We are at heart a restless species; the constant need for improvement and progress , even if it kills us, is strong. Step forward fundamental Islam. Let them take up the torch. Hello 9/11.
I’m well aware that in citing global terrorism I’m telling you nothing new, it’s just that I’m not feeling particularly, well, terrorised in the same way as I was/am by the Soviet war machine or even Irish nationalist groups. The Axis of Evil was a convenient catch-all used to inform the US’s aim of Total War.
So we come nearly full circle, as Putin flexes his Photoshopped pecs and directs a steely come-hither gaze to whomever feels hard enough. It doesn’t appear that anyone, despite much chatter and anti-oligarch tipped sanctions, has the stomach to take the fight to the newly-resurgent Bear and so we wait to see if an emboldened Russian premier decides he’d like to be holidaying by the Black Sea or the Baltic come August. Just keep your finger away from that button, Vlad.