In the 80s the horror of nuclear war was brought home by CND, Raymond Briggs and Threads. That moment is worth remembering now we have two monsters threatening global mass murder
I cant remember exactly when I stopped dreaming of nuclear annihilation. It must have been the 90s, when my fear of nuclear war was subsumed by other fears, maybe even some optimism. This fear was huge during the 80s. When the great storm of 1987 hit, I remember all the trees crashing and electricity going off and thinking: Well I suppose this is it. Something to do with Iran, and going back to sleep. Slow environmental collapse took over from the imagining of a nuclear winter. Now I fear terror and robots more. Both on the same day sometimes.
It is remarkably easy, though, to resuscitate that old fear because it was all-engulfing at the time. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction was its highest goal. Those were the days, my friend. We thought we would all end.
And here we are back again with Trump, who is forever warning us that the world is hell but threatening to make it more so. Does he really have the little plastic card known as the biscuit that has to be snapped in two to reveal the nuclear codes? Strange times indeed when half the world is wishing it could be taken away from him. Presumably in a military coup.
Fire and fury is an attempt at biblical language to describe mass murder. This is being said while people remember Nagasaki and recount the details of the aftermath. A place, we are told, where the living envied the dead, where skin hung off children like cloth, where victims lay in darkness, their wounds full of maggots.
Yet anyone who opposes nuclear weapons is accused of being naive beyond belief. Disarming in a multilateral world is an impossible ideal. As that ideal gets further away, so, until recently, has the idea of nuclear war.
This was not always the case. In the 80s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was huge and multi-generational. Indeed, on the huge CND march in 1983, when a million people came out on the streets, some of us were frustrated by how polite it all was. I had been at Greenham Common and wanted more direct action. CND seemed too woolly, and indeed there was a lot of criticism of Greenham as a women-only space from within its ranks.
Nonetheless Michael Heseltine, minister of defence in 1983, was absolutely determined to undermine CND by spying on and bugging activists. CND was seen as a threat in itself. Not to want nuclear proliferation was, and remains, a challenge to the status quo. As Martin Amis said in Einsteins Monsters: How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons. By threatening the use of nuclear weapons the intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves. Amis was derided at the time for his apocalyptic visions because this was 1987, and negotiations between Reagan and Gorbachev would result in the non-proliferation Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1988. Membership of CND fell, people felt safer.
But that moment is worth remembering now we have these two narcissistic monsters (the other being Kim Jong-un) threatening each other with warheads. How can this be de-escalated? Nuclear war. LOL, as Twitter would have it. We will all be gone in a flash. No we wont. Only the lucky ones will.
I know this because the horror of nuclear weapons was brought home to us in the 80s. The terror was domesticated, and it was domesticated through the culture. This was extremely important. The protect and survive leaflets of 1980 were seen as a kind of joke by many. The peace campaigner EP Thompson, of course, produced Protest and Survive as a response. The government had suggested that you could construct a fallout shelter out of cardboard. Or get under the table.
In Raymond Briggss When the Wind Blows, Jim and Hilda build such a shelter, but when they leave it they are exposed to radiation. Their hair begins to fall out, their gums bleed, their water is contaminated, they start vomiting. When they go outside, they smell burning meat the corpses of their neighbours.
Threads, shown on the BBC, was even darker. Sheffield town hall is hit as warheads burst over the North sea. There is looting, cholera and typhoid. A year later, some of the smoke and soot clears but cancer is everywhere. Ten years later, life is returning to a medieval barbarism, with the government communicating to its small population only through radio.
There was no duck and cover from the early propaganda films. The cheerful advice on how to survive a nuclear war was meaningless. This imagining of the darkness was crucial, but since then the fear has faded, replaced by other horrors perhaps.
Nowadays, CND and its aims are regarded as slightly out of step. You can buy lovely CND earrings on Etsy. The peace sign was designed by Gerald Holtom, a conscientious objector during the second world war. I was in despair, he said and drew that despair and formalised it by putting a circle around it. He had drawn himself, hands palm outstretched and downwards, in the manner of Goyas peasant before the firing squad.