Come, Gentle Bombs


I am glad to see that Armageddon is coming back into fashion. Nuclear holocausts were a tremendously important part of my childhood. I can't imagine how we've managed without them for so long.

What must it be like to grow up without ever crawling out of your inner sanctum (constructed by piling sandbags around the dining room table) into the wreckage of your home; burying your parents in the garden; walking through the deserted rubble to Sainsburies to see if the looters have left even a tin of baked beans; realising that, on the plus side, school has probably been cancelled, but, on the minus, there probably won't be any more issues of Spiderman; feeling your hair falling out in handfuls and realising that, even though you obeyed Protect and Survive to the letter, you have somehow contracted radiation sickness and are about to die a slow and lingering death--before waking up, realising that it was only a dream, but knowing that, one of these days, it will not be? What do today's children use as raw material for their nightmares? Failing their accountancy exams? It is healthy for an adolescent to picture his mortality in terms of a nuclear fireball sometime before his thirtieth birthday; it keeps the untidy, depressing future firmly off the agenda.

The sad demise of the nuclear bomb is also to blame for the chronic decline in Church attendance and religious belief. Am I the only person whose first serious prayer was "Please God don't let Mrs Thatcher start a nuclear war, however much she might want to"? Having accepted our own mortality, religion followed naturally. Deprived of the threat of global annihilation, what motivation is there for the little buggers to learn how to pray in the first place?

The end of the cold war has severely scrambled everyone's understanding of history. In the old days it was simple, and yes, I know I really, really, really must stop using that phrase. We all understood that history started out with dinosaurs and cave men discovering fire and we knew that it ended with the human race being blown out of existence in a nuclear holocaust, and we knew where we were in the narrative: terribly, terribly near the end. There was a committee of scientists who looked after something called the Doomsday Clock. I don't know whether this was a real clock hanging on a wall, or whether it was a conceptual entity, a virtual clock in the minds of newspaper editors; but I do know that its hands were placed at six minutes to midnight. Every time Mr Reagan did something stupid (about twice a week), the scientists grimly issued a press release saying that they had moved the doomsday clock forward by a minute. At midnight, the fireworks started. Quite what would have happened if it had reached 11.59 with no holocaust in the offing, I don't know. Maybe they would have said "Sorry, did we say midnight, we meant one in the morning" like the Jehovah's Witnesses. But knowing that it was six minutes to midnight gave one a sense of confidence. One felt privileged, having missed so much of the Great Human Movie to have arrived in time for the closing credits.

The theologian Rudoph Bultman talks about the problem of mythological eschatology. Christians have always believed that the world is about to end, even though it never actually has. St Paul writes as if everything is contingent, short term, only really in force for the next week or so until the world ends. Jesus Himself, in the most perplexing passage in the entire Bible, appears to say that His own disciples would live to see the Second Coming. One still comes across clergymen who add the phrase "If the Lord tarries" to their pulpit announcements--because, of course, there is a real danger that the Boy Scout's Jumble Sale might have to be cancelled due to the onset of the Apocalypse. Bultman says that Christians have never really believed any of this; but that it is an important component of Christian spirituality to live as if you thought the world might end on Tuesday. It's a metaphorical way of saying that the physical world isn't very important; that everything is to be done with a sense of urgency; that you should live in the moment and spare no thought for the morrow. Naturally, the churches I grew up in didn't preach about anything as messy as the Second Coming. But our certain knowledge of the nearness of the end of the world had a similar, spiritually enhancing function. It encouraged us both to value the here-and-now, and to recognise its fragility. No adolescent is particularly inclined to plan further ahead than next weekend, certainly not beyond his "O" levels. But we, knowing that the future was simply not going to be there, had an excuse. The fact that we were living through the last few years of history created a pleasingly intense sense of importance, and, at the same time, a reassuring sense of our own powerlessness. The world was going to end whatever we did, so there wasn't much point in worrying about it. Keep in mind that our parents actually did live through the Cuban Missile Thingy, and before that, many of them really did have the experience of sitting in bomb shelters wondering if they would still be alive 30 minutes hence. And the men had the experience of waiting for papers to arrive in the post telling them to report to some corner of a foreign field; so did our grandparents. The present generation is the first in a century to have had to live with the very real danger that they might live to a ripe old age. We see the results all around us.

The loss of the Bomb has also made politics hugely more complicated then it was when we were growing up. We knew who were the goodies and who were the baddies, and what had to be done to make the world a happy place. There was The Bomb, and the Bomb was bad; and there was Peace, and Peace was good. Peace was achieved by getting rid of Bombs. It was only necessary for the silly-pig-headed generals to get out of bed one morning and say "Bombs are horrid; let's all be nice to each other" and throw them in the sea and the flowers would come out and everyone would sing songs about rainbows and hug Russians in the street. We're not talking about peace-and-love hippies here, let alone dangerous, dirty Greenham Women. This sort of pacifism was all quite mainstream and safe, the sort of thing your headmaster, your Sunday School teacher and the cast of Blue Peter approved of. It was quite all right for Girl Guide choirs to stand up in church and sing songs about the world agreeing to put an end to war; and for the story-teller on Play School to recite an edifying narrative about two villages separated by a big wall, and the grown ups on both sides of the wall hated each other but two little boys (one called Ivan) managed to find a hole in the wall and make friends through it. It was no unheard of to sing "I'd Like to Teach the World To Sing" in morning assembly, on the grounds that it was about peace and therefore religious. CND badges were a terribly common fashion accessory.

Interestingly, when Michael Foot actually made "getting rid of all the bombs" part of his election manifesto in 1983, no-one voted for him.

It was as if all the evils of the world had been sucked into the atom bomb. If you thought the world was a horrible place, that the grown ups were not always out for your good, that it would be better for everyone to be nice to each other and that the family of man kept growing, then you wore CND badges. I even went on a CND demo once. It had distressingly little to do with nuclear disarmament. It was two demonstrations; a "we're anti-everything" demo, run by the Socialist Workers, which involved chanting "maggie, maggie, maggie, out, out, out" a lot, and a "we're in favour of niceness" demo, run by a lot of nuns, old people and children in push-chairs. There were also a large number of pro-abortion, anti-vivisection, women's rights, anti-unemployment placards. If you were against the nuclear war, you were against everything else.

Without the bomb, it is very hard to be unequivocally against anything. Now that they have stopped threatening to blow us out of existence, we have lost our faith in the intrinsic evil of politicians. There have been a few rather heart half hearted attempts to replace the Bomb with Land Mines, Drugs or The Tory Party; some of the Niceness movement has focused on Lady Di and, rather more worryingly, Tony Blair. But I fear that, without the Bomb, people are inclined to think that the world is a mix of good and bad; that politicians do their best but sometimes mess up, and that there are two sides to every issue. They do not really believe that getting rid of land mines or beggars would make the world a happy, cheerful place. Winning the National Lottery, looking forward to the Millennium Dome and getting a job at McDonalds at only slightly less than the minimum wage is as close to a world of rainbows and pretty flowers as they ever hope to get.

But now, due to tremendous effort and self-sacrifice by the peoples of India and Pakistan, we've got our bomb back. Children will fathom their mortality, realise the contingency of existence and start going on demonstrations again.