Monday, May 08, 2006

And when I have destroyed you

This is the country where I grew up:
The half-sheet of neatly typed paper is still where it has been for the last 40 years, tucked under the perspex cover of a map table in an underground operations room beneath a nondescript suburb of York.

"Thirty minutes after the above occurrence the DC is to check Display A to see if the burst designation has been underlined in Yellow Chinagraph pencil, indicating that the first and/or amended communication has been incorporated in a MIDDD BB message. If not, enquiries are to be initiated to rectify the omission."

If there had been a failure in the yellow pencil department, that would probably have been because the observers who phoned in reports of nuclear bombs falling on the moors and dales of Yorkshire, and the operators who took the messages in the bunker, were all dead.

"This bunker was designed to contain a full complement of 60 people for up to a fortnight, but it couldn't have withstood a direct blast or even one reasonably nearby," said Kevin Booth, curator of the building, whose steel door will soon be thrown open to the curious for the first time. "It's perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I'm not sure how well it would all have worked."
It's all there. There's the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, coupled with the (well-founded) suspicion that the government's main priority in responding to this threat would be to ensure that its own bolt-holes were in working order. I was too young for the first Cold War (although I heard great things about the destruction of RSG 6), but in the 1980s Protect and Survive made radicals of us all - and War Plan UK made a lot of us into conspiracy theorists. Then there's the atmosphere of insanely detailed bureaucracy and jobsworthery (enquiries are to be initiated, indeed) - and that's coupled with the lingering suspicion that none of it, when push came to shove, would have actually worked.

It was a strange country, Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. I miss it, sometimes.

There's more on the Holgate bunker here (visiting times) and here (pictures); this page has more about English Heritage's bunker estate (and there's a phrase I never expected to write).

Some things remain from that distant post-war landscape. There's the pottering enthusiasm of bright-eyed antiquarians like Kevin Booth; small-town museums, bookshops and tourist attractions have been staffed by people like him for as long as I can remember, and it's good to hear that a relic of the Cold War will receive the same kind of care. And there's understatement - blessed British understatement.
"It's perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I'm not sure how well it would all have worked."
I do like that 'perhaps'.

2 Comments:

Blogger Rob Jubb said...

It is perfect, the perhaps, isn't it. I saw 'Threads' a couple of years ago. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything as relentlessly numbing.

9/5/06 11:11  
Blogger Chris Lightfoot said...

You should read Openshaw et al.'s Doomsday: Britain after nuclear attack, then -- I think it's roughly the source on which Threads was based. That said, there's a bit of criticism of it from the radiology community, so I'm not sure how seriously it should be taken overall.

12/5/06 16:44  

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