So I’ve been thinking about the Cold War a lot lately. Perhaps that’s because of the recent spate of diplomatic expulsions and now, Russia’s surreal sub-aquatic landgrabs, perhaps it’s down to a number of movies I’ve seen lately – The Good Shepherd, The Good German, and, for good measure, Good Night and Good Luck spring to mind – or perhaps it’s because I’m finally old enough to be able to process the concept without having some kind of an anxiety attack.
When I was about nine, my family moved back to the UK after an eight-year stint in the States. And, I was told, we were moving to a town called Beaconsfield, at the time a place famous primarily for its model village and pretty much nothing else. To be honest, it’s not really famous for anything else these days either, and it’s quite happy in its own comfortable conservative anonymity.
I was happy to be moving there. Not because of the model village and its fascinating level of detail (which I’m still very fond of), but because I’d worked out that we were close to High Wycombe and thus NATO Strike Command, which put it in the top five Soviet targets in the event of a nuclear strike. There was even a base right next to Beaconsfield itself, so I’d worked out that there was a decent likelihood that if we weren’t within the vaporisation radius, we were certainly within incinerating distance, and would be thus spared the horrors of radioactive fallout and subsequent nuclear winter.
I’m not joking. I was nine years old and this made me happy.
And for the next five years or so, it’s about the only thing that did. It was difficult to think of much else – the local library provided me with When the Wind Blows, James Herbert’s Domain, and Z of Zachariah, and at some point I watched Red Dawn (WOLVERINES!!) and, of course, the BBC’s utterly terrifying dystopian kitchen sink docudrama Threads.
I was obsessed. When I wasn’t thinking about blast yields I was wondering about the effectiveness of fallout shelters. How did they work? Would the filtration systems function properly? How deep did they have to be? And when I wasn’t concerning myself with fallout shelters I was thinking about building up a supply of canned good in case the unthinkable happened and I actually survived. Did everything become radioactive after the blast, or was it just the things the fallout fell upon, the bitter cousin of Peter Pan’s fairy dust? What would be ruined by an EMP? Was it all electrical items, or just the ones that were on at the time of the blast? Would watches work? What would people use as currency? Would my pocket money be best invested in gold sovereigns, just in case?
Anyway. I guess the real reason I mention all this was that I was listening to an interview with Don DeLillo the other day in which he compared public perceptions of the Cold War to today’s “War on Terror”, suggesting that the former didn’t have such an intimate effect on people as they go about their everyday lives, that terrorism today is somehow more pervasive.
And I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s because I also grew up with the mundane, urban threat of IRA bombs on Oxford Street at Christmas that the prospect of bombs on trains and in taxis and at the office is somehow familiar. A suspect parcel left behind at Warren Street tube becomes, for the most of us, an inconvenience rather than something ominous; you clearly take the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus and double back, or better still, the Northern Line to Goodge Street and cut up Charlotte Street if they’ve closed the top of Tottenham Court Road. These cavalier negotiations are made not to show that the terrorists have not won, not to demonstrate, I think, that We Are Not Afraid, they are made So I Can Get To Work, or Lunch, or The Pub. There’s nothing grand in it. We Are Not Bothered, perhaps. We Have Other Things On Our Mind. We Are Knackered And Just Want A Pint.
But the Cold War was different, and even now any such renewals fills me with dread. Perhaps it was the branding that was different. The images were better. The Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall. The Warsaw Pact. These things seemed alien, hidden, almost religiously mysterious – the faceless totality of the threat made it greater in my mind. I think in its lack of intimacy lay its power. And it’s imagery the Tories drew on, in many respects, in 1997, with their now famous New Labour New Danger poster – piercing eyes staring at us from the folds of red curtains. Perhaps it was that poster which, more than anything, subdued any of my remaining fears of the Cold War; what was once to be feared had by then become the stuff of pantomime. It was all going to be okay.
But maybe not. All I know for certain is that I really shouldn’t have watched Threads again the other night.