What should we do in the event of a nuclear war?
Patrick Freyne consults the apocalyptic fiction of his youth
Where's the kitchen sink gone? David Brierley in the 1983 nuclear fallout drama Threads. Photograph: BBC
Now that we’re all terrified of nuclear war again thanks to Kim Jong-Un, this piece I wrote a few years ago about the nuclear apocalypse in the books, television and film of my youth suddenly seems useful once more.
You kids don’t even know you’re born. Look at you with your Hunger Games and zombie uprisings and meteor shower-based apocalypses. When you go to mammy and daddy with these fears, they tell you there’s nothing to worry about. When I went to adults with my fears of nuclear annihilation, they comforted me with the fact that, because Ireland was neutral, we wouldn’t be blown up immediately but would die slowly from nuclear fallout. (One April Fool’s morning, I woke my parents to tell them America had fired nuclear warheads at Russia. It wasn’t funny).
I was raised amid peak atomic dread. Nuclear apocalypse wasn’t, in those days, a hypothetical thought experiment or metaphor for millennial unease, but an immediate probability. Initially atomic energy was, as a Disney film put it, “Our Friend the Atom”, and in pop culture it produced not radiation sickness, cannibalism and a scorched earth, but Incredible Hulks in short-shorts and Japanese lizard monsters (Godzilla) who wandered around cities like some sort of metaphor.
Even civil defence ads featured adorable cartoon turtles who suggested that the best defence against a nuclear strike was to roll into a ball with your hands over your head. This is, frankly, how I respond to most crises to this day.
There were darker depictions. George Orwell’s post-atomic war totalitarian dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four, now looks quaintly optimistic. Neville Shute’s excellent 1957 novel On the Beach was bleaker. In it, the people of Melbourne await the arrival of the fallout that has killed the rest of humanity. Spoiler alert: everyone dies.
In the 1970s and 1980s, with a policy of mutually assured destruction solidly in place, writers for young people got in on the act. Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien (1974) sees a young girl face a rapacious fellow survivor. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1980) trails a Huck Finn-style scavenger hunt around the ruins of the old world, while in Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells (1984) a teenager reckons with post-warfare martial law, concentration camps and radiation sickness.
None of this was fantastical. The BBC first approached the subject with Peter Watkins’s docudrama The War Game, made for the Wednesday Play series in 1965. In it, an eloquent narrator talks us through the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Britain. It depicts forced evacuation, the immediate death of at least a third of the population, overcrowded hospitals filled with the irradiated, blind, burned and dying, the establishment of martial law, summary executions, state euthanasia and middle-class housewives scrabbling for food near the corpses of murdered policemen.
“It is now more than possible what you have seen will have taken place before the year 1980,” says the narrator, who frankly seems to think it’s good enough for us.
The War Game was judged by the BBC to be “too horrifying” to air in 1965. Instead, it was first broadcast, perfectly timed for my generation, as a two-night double bill with Barry Hines’s Threads in 1985. The latter is a kitchen-sink melodrama about two families who are to be joined by marriage but are instead cooked, irradiated, scarred and then starved by the nuclear bombing of Sheffield. Characters die horribly, disappear without explanation or scavenge amid the ruins for edible rats.
It’s quite good on the bureaucracy of post-apocalyptic Britain, with underground command centres giving way to a nuclear winter, autocratic rule, rationing, a pre-industrial farming society, feral children and, in its final scene, the birth of a mutant baby. It’s not at all like the recent Sarah Harding pop single of the same name. As far as I know.
Lest, as a child of the 1980s, you remained unterrified by these programmes, Jimmy Murakami adapted Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel When the Wind Blows in 1986. In the same aesthetic style as The Snowman, it follows an elderly couple (based on Briggs’s actual parents) who, with the can-do spirit of an earlier war, obey civil defence instruction, build a shelter, listen to the radio, then slowly die of radiation sickness.
Not all doom and gloom
Other depictions made nuclear holocaust look like great craic altogether. Johnny Alpha of John Wagner’s Strontium Dog in the comic 2000AD gained weird mutant powers from in-utero exposure to the radioactive isotope Strontium 90, which is a much preferable response to fallout than starving as your hair falls out.
Both Zardoz and Planet of the Apes suggested that nuclear winter would be followed by effete immortals living in a bubble or a planet run by dirty apes (spoiler alert: it was Earth all along!). Both were united in their certainty that there would still be macho men marching around in nappies (Sean Connery and Charlton Heston). It was the 1970s.
Mad Max promised post-apocalyptic car chases. Akira predicted psychic bikers. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century suggested that nuclear war in 1987 would lead eventually to a society of tight-fitting jumpsuits and camp robots.
In the 1990s, the Cold War was receding into the past and so was the fear. In the finale of Dinosaurs (1994) the protagonists face death in an approximation of nuclear winter (bleakest ending to an animated family sitcom ever). And The Postman (1997) depicts a post-apocalyptic America in which Tom Petty, playing himself, survives a nuclear wasteland, which seems accurate, but in which Kevin Costner becomes a postman, which does not (I wouldn’t trust Kevin Costner with my letters).
In recent times there’s been a resurgence of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, but most of the scenarios are built on vague fears and anxieties about individuality and control, rather than real fear of a specific thing that genuinely might happen at any moment (most of the new dystopias avoid the very real threat of climate change).
People aren’t scared of the nuclear apocalypse any more (though Eric Schlosser argues that we should be) so now it rarely features in pop culture. Hearteningly, the one exception is Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time, a magical children’s show set 1,000 years after humanity’s destruction in the “the mushroom wars”.
As I watch the skulls and warheads in the opening credits, I feel the familiar chill of terror in my spine. It feels like coming home.