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Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Whoops! No Apocalypse...

I was born on August 25, 1949: four days later, the Russians successfully tested their first atom bomb, and deterrence was in place. So I had those four carefree days, which is more than my juniors ever had.... Even as things stood, I was born in a state of acute shock.

Martin Amis, in Einstein's Monsters.

With unerring (although, it has to be said, unwitting) prescience, I bought a first edition hardback copy of Einstein's Monsters on ebay last week, little knowing that before I'd even have a chance to unwrap the thing from it's jiffy bag, the Richter scale would begin to reverberate with the latest demonstration of virus-like proliferation as North Korea joined the not-quite-as-exclusive-as-it-used-to-be nuclear club. Weird too, that my (as it turns out) hubristic smugness towards Mardy when, a mere two years after the book was published, the Cold War that had sustained his and my nuclear nightmares for so long, began to thaw should start to look a bit premature. A good time then to revisit the book's stunning opening polemic - as I duly did last night. [note: I've searched for an online version but I'm afraid I can't see it - the paperback should be readily available if people want to read the essay - anyone who comes across a link to a full text version, please let me know....]

Anyone who was fortunate enough not to grow into consciousness under the obvious shadow of nuclear extinction may suspect on reading 'Thinkability', the introduction to Einstein's Monsters, today that they are partaking of Amis' usual blend of hyperbole and flashy pyrotechnics when he describes the paranoia he experiences at his writing desk in a flat a mile from his home at any loud noises or unusual urban whines and explsions. These lead Amis to picture the grim walk home, through the nuclear fire storm, back to to his wife and children to wrestle with the grisly business of killing them and putting them out of the miseries awaiting them in a post-nuclear world. Put like that, it does sound preposterous and overblown. But that really was the deal - it *was* scary in a way that - and here, I know, I will sound like my father did when he used to go on about living through the blitz - the current "terror" is not. Some things may well become collateral in the war against terror. In our war, the cold one, *everything* was liable to be lost.

As Amis is quick to point out, the very premise of global extinction seems beyond language itself. The ludicrousness of the very idea is enshrined in concepts such as "retaliating first"; "deaths in the lower tens of millions are called acceptable". And then there's AWDREY - not quite as nice as she sounds, I'm afraid - "Atomic Weapons Detection, Recognition and Estimation of Yield". (The yield doesn't quite sound right when applied to corpses, does it?) It is "as if the language itself were refusing to co-operate with such notions", much as Orwell demonstrated how words and sentences could be mangled by dogma.

Amis's prose, whilst not free from his trademark swagger - it's sometimes as if he's puffing himself up in the face of a punch-up with a much bigger and more powerful adversary - is bang on the moral money. The bomb (meaning "the lots and lots of bombs") is "an anti-baby device. One is not referring to the babies who will die but to the babies who will never be born, those that are queueing up in spectral relays until the end of time". And the still pertinent question, and one which might almost function as an encapsulation or distillation of the grand theme he has been pursuing throughout his career - "how do things go when morality bottoms out at the top?" Nevermind the "instant fascism" that would accompany the post-apocalpse. Think of the damage these things are doing just sat there, secure in their silos.

The missiles are almost humanised - "with what hysterical ferocity; with what farcical disproportion do nuclear weapons loathe human life." But then we as much as they are Einstein's Monsters.

There's an intriguing illustration of the generational divide occasioned by the nuclear era in the insight we're afforded into Amis's arguments with his father Kingsley on the subject. "I suppose you're against them", deadpans KA, before Mardy lets us in on the standard denouement of their exchanges:

MA: Well, we'll just have to wait until you old bastards die off one by one...

KA: Think of it. Just by closing down the Arts Council we could significantly augment our arsenal...

The mercifully brief and - given the might of the weapons - understated description of the likely effects of an all out war (even a small local exchange is *unthinkable*) gives pause for thought still. But I concurred most with Amis's analysis of the *real* effect of the contents of all those silos, that "Manhattan of missiles" in which we stumble around. Amis quotes Jonathan Schell: "the anxiety, the suspense, is the only experience of nuclear war that anyone is going to get". And that was grim enough. For Amis, nuclear weapons take morality "out of our hands". "I believe", he says, "that many of the deformations and perversities of the modern setting are related to ....this massive pre-emption." And then the emotively simple question that seems to get right to the heart of it all: "since when did we all want to kill each other?"

But not many would argue that the "deformations and perversities" have gone away, even as the weapons have (seemingly) receded. And this, I suppose, is what intrigues me - *have* they gone away? Or have we all grown, as Amis declares himself to have become by the age of 38, when he wrote the book, "sick of them". Only our sickness is not the visceral one Amis envisages as he rushes back to his nuked-out home with his attitude of "suicidal defeatism" to do away with his loved ones. No, ours is a sickness of boredom, of tuning out, of being unable to go on with the effects of the nightmare on our nervous systems and psyches - saying "whatevah" to it all. Rather than the stark choice Amis posited in pre-fall-of-wall 1987 between nuclear conflagration or nuclear disarmament, have we not - in a manner typical of our times - opted for a third way of our own? Out of sight is out of mind. And as seems to be the way with third ways, isn't this current nightmare, if anything, worse than that it replaced?

So, have a look at the introductory essay, if you can track it down, and ponder whether we really ought to start getting scared again. How many localised theatres and limited exchanges are "acceptable", and that's before we even look at issues like the security of the big boys' arsenals and our vulnerability to opportunistic nuclear terrorism. For some, there's a political dividend to be had by sustaining a climate of fear and, like many of you I would imagine, I've spent much of the last 5 years attempting to innure myself to this process. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be scared of. As Howard Devoto sang in "Because You're Frightened", "maybe it's right to be nervous now?"

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  1. Very thought provoking. I will have to have a little think about that. I'll let you know what I come up with later

  2. Kim Jong-il is clearly a dwarf in a David Lynch dream sequence, and should be treated as such.

  3. Thanks Tim,

    I'll sleep soundly now...


  4. 'sickness of boredom.....saying whatever' is the answer I'm afraid Robert. And a kind of hopeless powerlessness. The genie is out of the bottle...wish I could be more cheerful about it.

  5. "In heaven... everything is fine..."

    Oops, wrong Lynch film.

  6. My entire knowledge of Kim Jong-il I have gathered by watching "Team America: World Police".

    I'm quite proud of that.

  7. Kim Jong-Ill??

    Get well soon, Kim...

  8. This is brilliantly written Bob. I think you've captured the feeling of terror and the uncertainty of these times. I still can't help being filled with ice-cold fear whenever I think about these weapons.

    I'll say it again though, brilliantly written.

  9. Hello Bob, sorry I haven't commented in a while, I have been reading though.

    What an excellent post. Brrr, I'm with Molly, just the thought of those weapons gives me chills.

    Oh for the day when mankind can stop being preoccupied with killing each other.

    You really can't think about it too much though or you'd just end up going insane.

  10. How come it's always the small ones that are the dangerous buggers? I'm only 3ft 6, and I've never felt the need to test a nuclear device. Is this a record?

  11. I don't know how old you are but I expect you're about my age.

    I remember the Eighties when the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction seemed omnnipresent. Conversations like "What if I died in a nuclear holocaust and you didn't, what will you do during the four minute warning?" But I was an impressionable and immature teenager.

    When I first moved to the South East and then London, there were bomb scares, terror alerts etc almost everyday. I felt ground down by the daily tedium of it, pre-mobile phone days having to make plans B & C for meeting a friend on Saturday nights.

    I don't feel either of these emotions now, but I can't be sure it isn't just because I'm older, wiser and more jaded; I've had a reasonable crack at life, although I'm far too young to die - I don't believe I'm yet halfway through my life.

  12. "I can't be sure it isn't just because I'm older, wiser and more jaded"

    That's sort of how I feel Gert - and I wanted to make the point about Mardy's father being a lot more stoic about it all - well, flippant, actually, but you know what I mean. I just could n't express it at the time. That maybe you get less easily hyped into fear as you get older. e.g. I don't feel an ounce of the "terror" we're currently waging war on.

    Yes, you never want to go, but - at the risk of sounding too WWI about it - I'd rather spend what time is left free from fear. I think the body can only take so much stress.