Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Come, friendly bombs?

Afternoon all. It's afternoon because I've been busy doing actual teaching today, rather than simply lecturing you lot over the interweb. And what a schedule it's been. Last night, I popped along to the Unpopular Texts module which kicked off in sunny style with that feel-good classic, Threads. Written by Barry Hines, socialist author of A Kestrel For A Knave and other delights, it details with unflinching horror the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the UK. Set in Sheffield, it follows the fortunes of the local emergency committee and two linked families, though to be honest they're reduced to one broken woman before very long. 'Bleak' and 'harrowing' don't cover the half of it. The story is harsh enough, and the style merely adds to it. Long periods of silence broken only by the wind howling over smashed cities, or the sobbing of our heroine reduced to exchanging sex for a couple of dead rats. There isn't a chink of light or hope in the whole thing.

Threads and The War Game (suppressed by the state and the BBC for decades: I saw it in a nuclear bunker and it scared the hell out of me) are partly why I joined and remain a member of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The UK's 'independent nuclear deterrent' isn't independent (it's owned and controlled by the USA), nor a deterrent. It's a weapon designed not to knock out enemy military materiel, but explicitly to kill millions of civilians and poison the earth for generations. As a peace campaigner in Threads points out, there is no victory in a nuclear war. The winning side doesn't get to expand its borders and loot the homes of the losers. There will be no homes, and no loot. The earth will be dead, the wind toxic and the rain poisonous.

British nuclear policy is to launch 'first strikes'. That means that our government will kill millions even if the enemy hasn't launched nuclear weapons. The claim is that this will 'deter' attacks on us. But if you know the British will nuke you, you may as well nuke them too, rather than using conventional weapons.

I won't go on: either you're happy with the holocaust or you're not. Aside from the principles, last night's class was astonishing because of the students. After the first five minutes, the phones were ignored. Nobody twitched, fidgeted, whispered, texted or updated their status. They were stock still for two hours. When the film ended, they got up and left, in silence. No chatting, no hanging around to talk to us or their mates, just a sense of shock and oppression. I wondered how affected they'd be, having been born a decade at least after the end of the Cold War. Their apocalypses (judging by the shelves of the stuff in the YA Fiction aisle) are environmental.

I felt it too: I went home alone and found myself wondering how my flat would protect me, what the locals would do, how long I'd survive for and what I'd do. By and large, I'm with the Soviet president, Nikita Kruschev, who said of nuclear war that 'the living will envy the dead'.

Here's the entire film. It starts early with some interesting soap-style scene-setting, then rapidly descends into pitiless, scientifically accurate, horror.

I like Threads precisely because of its bleak honesty. It rejects all preparation and defence as useless and self-deluding. It's an antidote to the holocaust-as-thrill discourse prevalent in so many (particularly American) post-apocalypse texts. Britain's John Wyndham, for instance, depicted fallen worlds in which upstanding sensible chaps overcame the horror through moral courage and Boy Scout skills. I recently read Peter Heller's The Dog Stars which – while having a serious side – did seem to see the general depopulation of the world as an opportunity for Daniel Boone/Thoreau types: his hero rather enjoys hunting, walking his dog and flying his plane in the absence of millions. Then there are the countless post-apocalypse survivalist fantasies which allowed readers to revel in gun lore and dreams of throwing off the veneer of civilisation required in a dense urban situation: many of them are deeply fascist and seemed to welcome the End of Days. Not that this is simply a gung-ho American instinct: Betjeman's 'Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough / It isn't fit for humans now' is funny, but does display a certain level of contempt for those denied the social lives of his own circle.

Still, there's always humour to be found in the total annihilation of civilisation, as Mitchell and Webb discovered:

Compared with that, today's Renaissance class, followed by Media, Communications and Ethics, were a doddle!


Dave Moreman said...

I remember being scared to death by 'Threads' when it first aired. Years later 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy had the same effect, even though the precise cause of apocapalypse in the latter is never really explained.

Dave Moreman said...

Or even "apocalypse", with my glasses on ...