Thirty years ago Boris Yeltsin was elected President of Russia, the Soviet Union soon fell apart and if there had been a referee he would have stopped the bout. The West had won the Cold War.
In an unconnected event I had just been appointed managing director of BBC television and inherited an office which contained a safe. Within a day or so, an ex-marine officer whose role in the BBC was unspecified, arrived to instruct me on the safe and its contents. Inside , he said conspiratorially, was the War Book.
I had heard rumours of plans for the BBC in the event of what the reading of my youth would have termed the balloon going up. I was of a generation the papers liked to claim dramatically had “grown up under the nuclear cloud”. Pamphlets and short films about nuclear war had told us we would get only a four minute warning of an attack, when we should hide under the table or better still the stairs. We never practiced it at school, let alone at home. It was like today’s young being told not to spend too much time on their screens or consume fizzy drinks. You knew the theory but it wasn’t life.
My books and comics immersed me in the crimes of the beastly Huns and the frightful Nips. In time stentorian voices on the newsreels helped us realise that the Commies were a horrible lot too. By the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 I knew what we were up against.
It followed that I was only too happy to join the combined cadet force at school graduating io the chic and cushier option of the RAF section. I was not cut out for the aerial defense of our nation and threw up successively in a De Havilland Chipmunk, Handley Page Hastings, Vickers Varsity and state of the art NF11 Night Fighter. Somehow I prospered and joined those taken for a week in the officers mess at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, once home of the Dam Busters, now base for Britain’s most glamourous Cold War bomber, the delta winged Avro Vulcan. The high point was when we were solemnly led out onto the tarmac to watch a green bulbous H-bomb , so shiny you wanted to stroke it, driven out on a trailer for loading.
Within a year I had switched sides and joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I had no great fear of imminent conflagration, more a woolly headed notion that the world would be “a better place” without nuclear weapons and we should lead the way. I sported a CND badge when I went up to Cambridge and not so much nobly bore as luxuriated in the insults of my rugby team mates. I was saving the world was I not?
The following Easter I boarded a chartered bus which took me to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire, there to join the march on London. Duty called. My uncle Ron was so inflamed by discovering a Bolshevik in the family that he drove the length of column in the opposite direction with his cine camera to record his traitorous nephew in flagrante
At our billet on the first night, a school, marshals with clipboards came recruiting for what was termed a “Student Flying Column”. This appealed to my sense of self-importance. A special campaign ribbon might result. I put my name down.
We were to canvass streets in West London near the route of the march in order to bring out cheering crowds as it moved towards its climax in Trafalgar Square. This didn’t go according to plan. We were based in Acton and I was allotted some streets near the A40, the one route to London I did know as it was the road from my home in Oxford. I spent a long day knocking on doors urging the good folk of Acton to line the A40 on Saturday morning when the heroic peace marchers would stride by. Many said they would. I hope that they didn’t. They would have seen only the usual traffic. The Aldermaston route was via the A4, a mile and a half south. I didn’t discover this until years later.
After an uncomfortable night in my sleeping bag I set off on the same errand the following day. This time my beat included a three story, grey brick block of flats set back from Du Cane Road. At the first three doors, the women of the homes listened sympathetically to my earnest spiel. They feared for their children and didn’t like the idea of the H Bomb. At the fourth I was in mid flow to the mother and baby when I heard a noise behind her. A shout of, “Who is it?” was followed by the tread of heavy boots and then the jangling of what I saw were keys. A heavily built man in uniform eyed the CND badge on my duffle coat with undisguised aggression. “Fuck off!”’ he shouted. “We don’t want your lot round here.” I stepped back and saw I was canvassing the warders’ accommodation for Wormwood Scrubs prison next door. I cut the day short.
In fact, I cut the week end short, skipped the Trafalgar Square knees up and lay low on the cold battlefield for some years. I was soon quite hawkish again. Hard not to be when one heard a television researcher snarl that she thought Ann Leslie, who had written a splendidly unadmiring piece about the Greenham Common women’s peace camp, was a “fascist”.
And now here I was, 30 years after my peacenik flirtation, with the actual War Book in my hands. A section on the state of the USSR (no surprises about the enemy) forecast no change till 1995. On to war time broadcasting which would be “a nuclear service.” In more than one sense of the word, I presumed.
A heading ,“Transition to War”, sounded altogether more threatening: the contestants jogging up and down in their corners. The government’s priority would be the flow of information, no censorship but the BBC would be instructed to transmit public announcements, restrictions of labour and movement would follow. I was uncertain as to whether to be rattled by all this or allow my chest to swell given I was to steer the nation’s broadcasting in a Churchillian hour of destiny.
Or was I? We would move, I read, to a single television channel. Code words were mentioned …a Committee on Information Policy … air attack warnings would be given by both radio and television …..eight hours notice of nuclear attack was promised ……
Hang on! What was this next? Television closed down? Planned transfer of key staff to the bunker at Wood Norton?
My eye flew to the list of those to be saved. No television, so managing director of television not wanted on voyage of heroic resistance. I would remain in the smoking ruins of Television Centre.
Eternal thanks to Yeltsin and Gorby, to Maggie and Ronnie from all of us not in the lifeboat.