The name Taras Young seems familiar and I don’t know why. I haven’t googled the name to figure out how, why or even if this familiarity has a discernable and knowable cause, but I kinda like that, as it matches the sense of strangely pitched near-familiarity that exists throughout this book, the truly beautifully-put-together Nuclear War in the UK, released 2019 (so, pre-pandemic) by Four Corners Books.
(What has probably happened, let’s be honest here, is that I’m projecting the book’s vibe back onto the author. Or I will look up Taras Young in fifteen minutes and realise that I’ve known them since childhood.)
Nuclear war, widespread nuclear war, has never yet happened.
There have been – of course of course, they’re happening right now – proxy wars between nuclear states, and there have been nuclear bombs unleashed on civilian targets (war crimes for which no one has ever been punished!) prior to nuclear proliferation, and there have also been nuclear weapons tests on previously inhabited islands and locations in remote parts of the world where the original inhabitants were deemed to be moveable and their own homes replaceable… but never has there been nuclear war.
Mushroom clouds have not been seen on the horizons of London, Marseilles or Geneva… Fallout has not wiped out crops across the Costa del Sol, the Riviera or the Alps… England’s areas of outstanding natural beauty have not been burnt to a crisp by the heatwaves emanating from the dropped wads of war planes’ nuclear payloads as they skitter into every last settlement of more than a thousand head …
Nuclear war hasn’t happened.
It’s probably closer to happening now than it has been for a long time (ever since the nuclear-armed Russia began an unpretentious and bluntly colonial war of aggression close to – though not yet over – the borders of nuclear-armed NATO), but nuclear war is not something we worry about in the way that people worried about nuclear war fifty years ago.
Then, nuclear war was a new threat. Now, it’s just one threat of many, and in many ways it’s a less terrifying threat than the others …
It’s quaint. It’s retro. Like the I-Ching and yo-yos and hope for the future, it feels a little dated. It feels a little cute.
The quick release of nuclear war (even the slower nuclear war death of radiation poisoning) seems less terrifying than total climactic collapse, than the waves of increasingly virulent coronaviruses, than the fascistic genocides that no one worth living with will be permitted to survive… These other Armageddons all seem worse, they all seem more likely, they all seem… inevitable.
Nuclear war feels like a danger from another age… Like the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs, like the mythical flood from Genesis, like deadly school shootings in any country that’s had a deadly school shooting other than the USA, it just feels like a threat whose time has been and whose time has gone.
Given the proliferation of these weapons around the world, though, it is far from an impossible thing.
We probably should be worried about nuclear war.
We probably should be better informed about the dangers of radiation and the repercussions of exposure to it. There are many people (albeit probably no one you or I know) who didn’t watch the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, and there are even a small handful of people who haven’t even read Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer; the knowledge of what happens when the body is exposed to massive levels of radiation cannot be presumed. Radiation is just like [insert something funny I think of later]: We cannot see it, we cannot smell it, but it can kill us in very horrible ways.
Nuclear War in the UK, then, is a collection – with sober, informative, commentary – of images and text from the many government issued books, pamphlets, videos and poster campaigns that were used in the 1950s-1980s to raise awareness of the risks of nuclear bombs.
There is, of course, the infamous early material of Protect and Survive (you will recognise this if you’re brittushh, it exists in echoes throughout all of our melancholic culture since the era of The Bomb began) which regularly offers advice that amounts to little more than misjudged reassuring nonsense. If there’s a major nuclear strike on the UK, we’re all fucked, especially those of us normal enough to live in London (or one of the other cities, yes, of course, you’re real, too, sure, whatever): we’ll all be dead immediately, or dead soon after. Dead dead dead dead dead. Come friendly bombs innit.
Taras Young, in this genuinely beautifully-designed, laid out and printed text (design is credited to John Morgan Studio), traces then the changing ways in which the British government tried to (errr?) help, to reassure and to avoid panic, with increasing provisions for what amounts to martial law in the event of a nuclear strike (laws which are probably still on the statutes, as if there’s one thing England hates more than anything else it’s changing things for the better!).
Young looks at the weird quasi militarised nuclear bomb watch squads that were a weird government funded weekend activity people used to do in the 1970s between (I imagine) bouts of racist rioting, wife swapping and not having the internet (I don’t know much about the seventies).
It’s an interesting book about the history of public information, about propaganda, about populist and popular design, and also – of course – about the sociocultural reaction to the sudden understanding that humanity had not only invented a machine that could cause its own complete destruction within a matter of minutes, but it had then made sure this technology existed in nearly every fucking corner of the world.
I’d recommend it, definitely!
Order direct from Four Corners Books via this link.
And I did google Taras Young – we have some shared followers on Twitter so maybe that’s it? No other echoes
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