The country is going to hell in a handbasket. I think we’re all agreed on that, aren’t we? It’s easy to idealise the past. We live in a world full of very real dangers and we easily slip into the mistake of thinking it used to be easier. But was it?
Today the National Archives released a new set of hitherto classified documents from the 1980s, and among them is a chilling speech that, thankfully, the Queen never had to deliver and quite possibly never read. It concerns the immanent threat of nuclear war.
Downing Street equipped to launch nuclear weapons. Ministers dispersed throughout the country to form embryo governments in the event of the death of the Prime Minister. Looting of medical supplies. One million killed in the London area alone and NATO launching a pre-emptive strike against Soviet belligerence.
The Queen speaks in what we can easily dismiss as cliches. “Our brave country must again prepare itself to survive against great odds. I have never forgotten the sorrow and pride I felt as my sister and I huddled around the nursery wireless set listening to my father’s inspiring words on that fateful day in 1939. Not for a single moment did I imagine that this solemn and awful duty would one day fall to me.” It’s easy to sneer, but cliches can be the last refuge of comfort and certainty in a world gone mad. Ask anyone old enough to remember George VI’s words on September 4th, 1939, movingly recreated in the movie, “The King’s Speech.”
When my partner and I tell our young adult offspring about the world that we grew up in, one of the most difficult things for them to grasp is how it felt to be living with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation. You tried not to think about it, but it was always there. I sometimes think that, rather than teach kids about licking Hitler, which must seem like a comic book scenario to some of them, we ought to dig out Raymond Brigg’s devastating graphic novel, “When the wind blows.” For those who don’t know it, it’s the simple tale of an elderly couple (based closely on his parents) doing everything advised by the authorities in the manual, “Protect and Survive” and dying. Horribly, clinging to one another as they recite The Lord’s Prayer.
Strong stuff. And there was more. Neville Shute’s novel “On the beach” was a chilling story of the population of Melbourne, the world’s most southerly city, waiting for the deadly radiation cloud that had killed humanity to reach them. One of the most haunting scenes was about the apparently irrational decision made by a young woman with a small child to order a lawnmower and plant bulbs for the garden she would never see. Threads was a terrifying drama concerning the effect of nuclear war on one Sheffield family; somehow the black humour and familiar accents made it even more chilling. And there are many more.
Today we face new fears – including the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of rogue states and terrorist organisations. There are days – mercifully rare – when the news can terrify us as much as Threads scared me. Certainly there’s no room for complacency. But let’s pause for a moment and offer up a prayer of thanks, if we believe in a deity, that the Queen never had to make that speech. And hope that when our children tell theirs what it was like to grow up at the beginning of the 21st century, their offspring will find the horrors we now face equally difficult to imagine.
- National archives: Whitehall prepared Queen’s speech for third world war (theguardian.com)
- Review: Fallout – documenting On The Beach and author Nevil Shute (blogs.crikey.com.au)