In the course of my meanderings I had, you see, come across an article about the 1980s and the ever-present threat that the cold war posed to global well-being. I was still a child (but only just) as the eighties began, and while it was certainly an interesting decade in many respects (the dawn of colourful clothing in Britain!), the continuing threat of very silly people pressing buttons and bringing death down upon us remained very real.
I first became aware of the threat of nuclear conflict/obliteration in the early to mid seventies, mostly through the things that occasionally popped up on TV and snippets of discussions overheard in the family. Phrases such as 'the four minute warning' and being ready to climb under our desks became part of our lives in those days. Occasionally, old World War II air raid sirens, still in use for much the same purpose, would be tested, and send a chill of fear through us all for several minutes. I grew up on a small peninsula within sight of the once bustling but still important port of Liverpool, a few more miles from one of the country's largest oil refineries, and forty five minutes from two airports. It was reasonable to assume that if some grey-suited idiot thousands of miles away chose to kill us all, our part of the world would be among the priority targets for the enemy (whoever that really was).
It's hard to convey how that felt - as a child, in particular. It was certainly unlike anything my parents faced as the high explosive and incendiary bombs fell around and upon their homes during the Second World War - we didn't have that shocking reality of immediate death and destruction to deal with. My generation only grew up wondering...wondering if the leaders of the world were really that stupid, and if one day a mushroom cloud over Liverpool would herald the end of everything. We never had to face the horrors of ‘total’ war on our own doorstep as my parents had done, we didn't have to witness the real barbarism of humans willfully murdering others. What we dealt with was not knowing, and in my case, not trusting stuffy old men (and one very strong-willed woman in particular) in suits, who said silly things and rattled sabres with gusto while knowing full well that their families would be safe in bunkers if all hell broke loose.
Famously, we in the general population had been fed the line that told us all to - in the event of the alarms going off - rip off an interior door, lie it against an interior, load-bearing wall of the house, provision it for up to two weeks of survival and then climb underneath. Writing it now has me chuckling at the ludicrous prospect of anyone trying to do that. A family, plus provisions for two weeks under one door - and by the way, that was to be accomplished within four minutes. I don't how many people bought that nonsense (I know that I did at the age of eight or nine, at least for a while, until I began to think critically) but it was all that the government of the day offered for advice. As a young police officer I was entrusted with certain information about local civil defence, public order provisions and survival infrastructure. Without breaching any security protocols, I can reveal that what was envisioned and planned for the population was not exactly encouraging.
My memories of the 70s and 80s, filled with the stuff of childhood and adolescence as they are, remain tinged with the shadow of real fear that loomed over me even as I used to walk my old dog along Hoylake beach, stare apprehensively at the distant waterfront of Liverpool and wonder if that day would be THE day when the world went mad; if that was the day when I might blink and open my eyes upon a towering mushroom cloud.
It may seem strange to say it, but I’m glad that I have these memories. Dark though they may be, I wouldn’t wish them away, for they give me a perspective about where I now find myself. I’m an ocean and a continent away from my old home town, and half a lifetime away from those days of fear and foreboding. I live among beauty, and peace. My horizons today are filled with mountains, and hope. Even allowing for the nonsense of modern politics, we have come through those days with an intention never to return. We have produced a generation which may learn from our mistakes without repeating them (and boy, did we – and do we still - make some mistakes). I have faith in an educated society which may learn from the past, from our growth in knowledge and which may fulfill the hopes of its under-achieving parents (i.e. myself and anyone else willing to accept responsibility).
The future looks much brighter to me than the past (even though we really did have some very colourful clothing in the 80s), and sometimes it’s nice to have that contrast to help me appreciate my good fortune.