Death was treated as a subject at school. Two poems resonated which brought home this difficult idea, an idea that for most of us is fraught with terror. The first provided a reminder of the real threat we lived under, during all that time of man on the moon,of the summer of love, of hippies and boot boys there were missiles aimed at us, and we’d only have minutes to decide.
Your Attention Please by Peter Porter
The Polar DEW has just warned that
a nuclear rocket strike of
At least one thousand megatons
has been launched by the enemy
Directly at our major cities.
This announcement will take
Two and a quarter minutes to make,
You therefore have a further
Eight and a quarter minutes
To comply with the shelter
Requirements published in the Civil
Defence Code – section Atomic Attack.
A specially shortened Mass
Will be broadcast at the end
of this announcement –
Protestant and Jewish services
Will begin simultaneously –
Select your wavelength immediately
According to instructions
In the Defence Code. Do not
Tale well-loved pets (including birds)
Into your shelter – they will consume
Fresh air. Leave the old and bed-
Ridden, you can do nothing for them.
Remember to press the sealing
Switch when everyone is in
the shelter. Set the radiation
Aerial, turn on the Geiger barometer.
Turn off your television now.
Turn off your radio immediately
the services end. At the same time
secure explosion plugs in the ears
Of each member of your family. Take
Down your plasma flasks. Give your children
the pills marked one and two
In the C D green container, then put
Them to bed. Do not break
the inside airlock seals until
The radiation All Clear shows
(Watch for the cuckoo in your
Perspex panel), or your District
Touring Doctor rings your bell.
If before this your air becomes
Exhausted or if any of your family
Is critically injured, administer
The capsules marked ‘Valley Forge’
(Red pocket in No 1 Survival Kit)
For painless death. (Catholics
will have been instructed by their priests
what to do in this eventuality.)
This announcement is ending. Our President
has already given orders for
Massive retaliation – it will be
Decisive. Some of us may die.
It is not likely to be you.
All flags are flying fully dressed
On Government buildings – the sun is shining.
Death is the least we have to fear.
We are all in the hands of God,
Whatever happens happens by His will.
Now go quickly to your shelters.
‘Protect and survive’ was published over 15 years after Porter’s poem. There was something different about hte concept of you, yourself dying and everybody ‘abody’ dying at the same time. What was worse, dying alone, lying alone or everybody that ever mattered to you getting incinerated in a flash?
While spies were out there, attacking and counterattacking on our behalf, we, in reality HQ were forming visions of the last panic – the last minutes before the carnage would start. The results of that missile’s explosion are the instant blinding of those who see the explosion – if you were walking at the front that day, a massive light many times brighter than the sun would open over the sea – it would be the last thing you would see…ever. Then what would come forth would be kinaesthetic – the resultant firestorm caused by the blistering heat wave, and the blast front which would knock the hell out of your squishy body; later, we would look forward to the collapse of society, because of radiation sickness, psychological damage, and utterly destroyed infrastructure; all this accompanied by the usual dystopian scenes of British Army burns corpses, honest bobbies reluctantly shooting looters during food riots.
The four minute warning, more like three minutes in practice, was a public alert system conceived by the British Government during the Cold War and operated from 1953 until 1992 when the system was dismantled. Derived from the approximate length of time it will take from confirmation of Soviet missile attack against the UK and the actual impact of those missiles on their targets. We all discussed this issue and sincerely hoped that we’d be able to get drunk, I mean paralytic, before the bomb fell, we also spoke of who we’d murder and who would we rape, what would we do? Our fear of this was compounded and reinforced by media of course and the poem “Your Attention Please” by Peter Porter, whom we had read at school. We wondered, I pondered as a school boy in my beloved English class if death and dying in a nuclear war was in fact worse than death and dying in the First World War. Suffering from bronchitis as a youth I would drive my girlfriend insane reciting this poem in a low wheezy voice.
Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime. –
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
This was nasty.