Children of the 1980s recall the pervasive atmosphere of imminent nuclear devastation which we somehow survived. Not unlike Daniel Kalder with the naval base warning siren, I found that the sound of jet engines could trigger a cascade of apocalyptic anxieties. We read – in the various worthy books for serious children in the library – that the world could be destroyed over and over again by the US and USSR’s arsenals each considered alone.
Those of us old enough to remember the Cold War are privileged to have known, in acute form, the terror of the real and imminent threat of nuclear Armageddon. It was a peculiar psychological state, and one for which I feel a curious and inexplicable nostalgia: that awareness that at any time the entire human race could be wiped out at the flick of a switch.
For children, of course, the terror was even more profound, as it was so much harder for us to understand why we all might suddenly die by fire. I lived near a naval base in Scotland and the regular tests of the 8-minute warning siren, an eerie wailing audible as I played in my garden, instilled in me a cold panic: Am I really going to burn?
By contrast, today’s most prevalent doomsday scenario- climate change- unfolds slowly, and offers us an escape route so long as we switch to renewable sources of energy and eat more organic carrots. In its sense of imminence, nuclear Armageddon was closer to the terror of the Last Days as felt by the early Christians, but far more capricious, and infinitely more hopeless. A sublime ultra-violence from the sky would kill us all, and whatever unlucky remnant did survive would succumb to slow death by radiation poisoning.
And what exactly was it we were fighting over? Coke vs. Pepsi? Whose skyscrapers were the tallest? Something about noble proletarians and top hat-wearing villains? That, I think. Like Manichaeism, which once reached from the streets of Rome to the endless steppes of Asia it’s all gone, although moth-eaten copies of the sacred texts can still be found. Pick one up, however, and the threat we lived under makes even less sense. I mean, have you read The State and Revolution?