Friday, April 2, 2010

The Little Black Book of Atomic War

I am fourteen and my brother has just bought a new book which we'll both read - he because he bought it of course and me because I am his little brother and still not quite out of copy-cat mode. Plus it has a bewitching cover, all black save for white blade-serifed text and some orange line art. It is The Little Black Book of Atomic War, and even if the cover hadn't been so fetchingly set out I'd have probably sought the book out as soon as I'd heard of it on the strength of the title alone.

I am fourteen and it is 1984, which means that I am a child of the Eighties. Here follows a brief digression:

There's a lot of stuff about these days concerning being a Child Of The Eighties, much of it rather silly and pointless about the silly and pointless - shoulder pads, leg warmers, After School with Olly Ohlsen, Ghostbusters… I'll stop now, my point being that for the most part this sort of nostalgia plays into the reader's warm and fuzzies, or at worst the harmless cringes of looking back - they make great 'blog' topics for newspaper websites because all you need to do is blurt out a few key phrases Mork and Mindy Back to the Future Duran Duran and your target audience will torpedo themselves out of the woodwork for an extended round of "me too!", adding extra do-you-remembers like a Greek chorus with the predicted effect of making said decade look cheesy and ridiculous and hopelessly naïve. We used to do this sort of thing with the Seventies too, and the decades before that, and although it's only ever for entertainment purposes and easy copy for a salaried blogger, I fear the chance of this form of pop culture reflux overwhelming the 'other' side of the Eighties. There were a lot of really scary, bad and depressing things that happened over the course of those ten years, but for fourteen year old me, the scariest was the imminent threat of Nuclear Armageddon. It is 1984 and the Doomsday Clock has been adjusted to three minutes to midnight, the closest setting then (and since) to 1952's two minutes.

Ironically (I think) for the pooh-poohing I make of pop culture burps described above, it’s from that arena that the barometer of the times can be read. The early 80s saw the launch of the Mad Max and Terminator movies, plus Wargames ( and Red Dawn (never saw it, sounded cool). My comic of choice, 2000AD used Nuclear War as the starting point for two of its most celebrated series (Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog) and the theme ran in other stories as well (Meltdown Man, Rogue Trooper, ABC Warriors). TV mini series were made and celebrated as grim cautionary tales (Threads, The Day After - both pointedly concerned with the aftermath of a war, another sign of the times) and as a whole the mood of these pieces, though sometimes fantastic, bore testament to the prevailing mood - at least, say, from 1981 to 1985.

Marc Barasch's Little Black Book is a curious tome, its title is dead-on, being a sarcastic look back at the hopelessly naïve concerns and enthusiasm for all things atomic in the 1940s and 1950s as equally new wonder product and energy source (Atomic steam shovels! Atomic airplanes!) and device of war ("In Baltimore people will be expected to evacuate the city in sequence according to their zip codes"), and the bleaker realities apparent in 1983. It's a piecemeal, lightweight read - I would dip into it and put it away gingerly when I'd read enough, but its total effect was pessimistic, humour of the blackest kind, as its tagline promised "the last word - and the last laugh - on the war to end them all". Inside are tidbits ranging from the birth of the bomb, eyewitness accounts of the Trinity tests and Hiroshima detonation, infamous near-misses in diplomacy and sabre-rattling, the best 'bland reassurances' of modern nuclear history, and, for 1983 at least, some sobering statistics. Big brother and I got a lot out of it as far as the pencilled-in underlines and asterisks tell - I think he used it in school debating, and I got a pretty decent mark in Biology essentially cribbing a comparison chart between cockroaches and humans in the post-war survival stakes. Re-reading it now the staistics are out, the anecdotes uncited and in general the coverage itself is a piece of history as much as its archived novelty content - quotes on communal survival strategies attributed to FEMA, for example, take on an interesting aspect post-Hurricane Katrina.

I'm glad we still have the book, but in all I don't respect it as much as I did, or fear it. And I'm grateful that to some degree the paranoia of the later Cold War has subsided, even if it's been replaced by something a little more local, a little more global. I was interested to read on Wikipedia that the Doomsday Clock hasn't measured risk according to nuclear conflict for some time, and global terrorism and environmental collapse are among the new parameters. A sign of the times then, just perhaps not that much more comforting.


  1. I had no fear of a Nuclear War. I was pessimistically pragmatic about it - either we'd worry ourselves over it when it happened, or we'd be amongst the dead and that would be that.

    There was mild concern, but for the most part as it was out of my hands I just let things unfold as they would.

    I haven't changed my attitude much since, aout our current "imminent" dangers.

  2. Way to bring the tone of the blog down, man. Heavy Metal is one thing, but to talk about possible death and destruction, bummer, dude...

  3. Hey what can I say - nervous tension and morbid obession figured heavily in my adolescence - it's symptomatic of living in a small town!