The Brink of Apocalypse

Saturday, January 5, 2008 by

What were you doing on 8 November 1983?

It was a Tuesday, so chances are you were probably at school or work. I was seven years old, and probably spent most of the day busy with a piece of creative writing, some SMP multiplication exercises and a swimming lesson. Later I would have watched SuperTed, Rentaghost and Record Breakers, had my tea and, given it was dark outside, gone to my room to read a book.

By 9pm I would’ve been in bed. I would have gone to sleep oblivious of the fact the world had almost ended that very day, and the last thing I would have done on this Earth might have been watch Norris McWhirter talking about how fast a cheetah can run.

Had Armageddon come to pass as I switched off my light, it would have been not a little ironic for me to perish lying directly beneath a drawing, pinned to my bedroom wall, of a nuclear bunker. Moreover, a self-designed nuclear bunker to be constructed in our back garden, to all the correct dimensions and with room inside for me, my sister, my mum and dad and a week’s worth of tinned food.

Next to the drawing was a map of Europe, personally annotated with a thick black line running from the Baltic to the Adriatic: the Iron Curtain.

This was life, for me, in 1983. This was the bedroom, and hence the world, in which I lived. I assumed everybody else was doing much the same. For this was the Cold War, suddenly heated up again after decades of lukewarm nonchalance. And it was a war that, on 8 November, came the closest it had ever been to boiling over into mutually assured destruction since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Channel 4′s account of this near-inferno, scheduled stubbornly, if a little forlornly, in the middle of peak-time on Saturday night, was a strangely glossy affair.

In bombastically-staged reconstructions, browbeaten officials scuttled down endless corridors; battalions of lights winked on colossal control panels; secret agents played cryptic messages down public telephones using tape recorders hidden in pocket calculators. Lots and lots of important people gazed out of windows into the sky looking very very worried. Look, there’s Nena singing 99 Red Balloons. The inevitable footage of a mushroom cloud appeared. The soundtrack rumbled like a very obvious thunderstorm.

Yet, for this reviewer at least, there’s something voraciously fascinating about this period of history, a curiosity that even the most Hollywood of treatments cannot stain. Perhaps it was because they were, literally, my formative years. Perhaps it is because the older you get, the more concern you have with events that, at the time, simply passed you by.

But maybe it is really, ultimately, to do with Cold War nostalgia: that daringly illogical yet tuggingly acute sensation of wanting to be back in a world where there were two sides to everything, where you knew the difference between friends and enemies, where spies were spies, where George Smiley would try to unearth a mole in MI6 while endlessly walking round London parks, and where troublemakers could always be silenced by the taunt, “If you like Russia so much, why don’t you go and live there?”

It was in capturing and sustaining the mood of those perilous years this documentary excelled. The specific reason the Soviet Union came close to pushing the button – a NATO war game it had erroneously assumed to be real – turned out to be not nearly as absorbing as the context in which the KGB arrived at the conclusion that World War III was about to commence.

Particularly startling was to be reminded of how much of a black and white world existed in 1983, something the programme-makers took great delight, if little objectivity, in pointing out. In the red corner: a “ruthless” leader, Andropov (bad), suffering from complete renal failure and trying to run the country from a hospital ward (very bad), presiding over a jittery military who two months earlier had shot down a Korean civilian jet thinking it was an American spy plane (appallingly bad) and feared US retaliation, presumably in the shape of the 10,000 warheads currently aimed directly at their homeland. In the blue corner, a “folksy” leader, Reagan (good), who had recently called the USSR the “evil empire” (very good) and who was planning an intergalactic defence system, dubbed Star Wars (sensationally good), to blast out of space each and every missile the Soviets sent his way.

The shades of grey in this resoundingly monochrome vista were represented by, in classic Le Carre tradition, a handful of double agents, along with some junior staff including, crucially, a technical adviser who was forced to manually override a computer that had ordered an attack after somehow mistaking five clouds – that’s five ordinary clouds – for five American nuclear weapons.

Such were the actions and reactions upon which the fate of the world turned, and thoroughly engrossing they proved to be. But once the nostalgia rush had subsided, 21st century cynicism kicked in.

Surely the reality was far more complex, and probably far more boring, than this 90-minute extravaganza of intrigue implied? After all, what was once, to a seven-year-old furiously sketching a blueprint for a homemade bunker, the most fascinating and terrifying thing on the planet, with the passing of time invariably reduces in significance to merely a great deal of sound and fury. The stuff of which television spectaculars are made.

Ah well. The world may not have come to an end on 8 November 1983. But it didn’t come to an end on the 7th or the 9th either. Or, indeed, any other Tuesday in any other month at any other point during the Cold War.

For the grown-up in me, there must still be countless stories of near-annihilations to be told. And for the child, countless visions of what might have been, waiting to charge headlong into the darkness whenever I turn out the bedroom light.


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