Monday 18 November 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Party like it's 1989! Why Cold War nostalgia is all the rage'

Suits you: A British Guide to the End of the World dealt with the UK’s preparedness for Cold War Armageddon Photo by Ewan Bauer
Suits you: A British Guide to the End of the World dealt with the UK’s preparedness for Cold War Armageddon Photo by Ewan Bauer
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

I was channel hopping the other day when I came across the first attention-grabbing programme.

A British Guide to the End of the World on BBC4 dealt with the history of Britain's preparedness for nuclear Armageddon.

Spoiler alert - they weren't very well prepared at all.

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Then it turned out that the channel seemed to be dedicating this week to the Cold War.

Rich Hall's Red Menace saw the American comedian look at how the Russians were portrayed in movies and popular culture during the Cold War. Then, for good measure, there was a series of documentaries about nuclear submarines, the various spying games that went on at the time and a brace of brilliant documentaries about the Berlin Wall.

Welcome to Cold War nostalgia, where we can all party like it's 1989.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the demolition of the Berlin Wall and while there are a smattering of shows, such as the ones mentioned above, I've been rather surprised by the lack of fuss over what was the greatest event in Europe since the end of World War II.

We often hear people say that we're currently living in an age of anxiety (well, I've often said it myself), but watching these shows was a visceral reminder of how we lived back then - when it came to The Bomb, it wasn't so much a case of anxiety as barely suppressed panic.

Of course, to people who weren't born in 1989, the fall of the Wall and subsequent collapse of the entire Soviet Union must seem similar to how people my age viewed the Cuban missile crisis - a moderately diverting piece of history where nothing actually happened.

But many of us who became teenagers in the 1980s when the Cold War was at its height and nuclear hostilities could break out at any moment didn't just grow up in that decade, we were scarred by it as well.

That's why I have some sympathy for the grim, doom-laden visions of so many of today's more emotional, climate-obsessed teenagers - not necessarily because I share their apocalyptic feelings, but because Gen-Xers also know how it feels to be freaked out and helpless.

Like all self-respecting, serious young men, I was a member of CND but I reckon that was as much to do with the fact that their literature was more terrifying than most horror novels and who doesn't love giving themselves a scare? Particularly when that scare wasn't a killer clown coming after you at night, but a very real and very plausible possibility.

Prompted by these documentaries, I rooted out my old copy of the 1984 nuclear war classic, Threads. If you weren't around back then, and would like to get an insight into the fear and paranoia of the time, then you should check it out (it's available for free on the BFI website).

It was at the time, and remains to this day, the single most terrifying film I have ever seen.

In fact, rewatching it was like a flashback - but a flashback to a simpler time. Why do so many of us who grew up under the shadow of the bomb secretly miss those days? After all, the arms race was the climate change crisis of its era, except this particular threat would have changed the climate rather dramatically. Raising the temperatures by several millions degrees in a millisecond will do that.

It's not just nostalgia for the music or the fact that so many of us look back fondly on our teenage years. No, this sense of nostalgia runs deeper than that and it's because, even though we faced instant obliteration, people knew where they stood.

The world was a much more binary place - those of us in the West knew the Soviet Union and its vassal States formed an evil empire.

I learned that as a kid during my first foreign holiday to Ceaușescu's Romania (I'd a commie father, what can I say?).

You could see the fear in the locals' eyes and the way they constantly looked over their shoulders when they spoke to anyone from the West. That point was made starkly when we went to a bustling football stadium one Sunday afternoon hoping to see a match. There was no match - locals simply gathered there because there was less chance of them being overheard by the dreaded Securitate.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to signal the start of a bright new future and imbued young people with a sense of optimism which is simply not present in many of today's kids.

The changes were immense. All of a sudden it felt as if the world could let out a deep sigh of relief and breathe again. Countries which were once just a strange name on the map became more accessible.

The events of 30 years ago this week also kick started the greatest decade of the 20th Century - the 1990s.

The years between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the September 11 attacks of 2001 saw an age of prosperity and safety (as long as you didn't live in the Balkans) that had never been experienced before and will never be experienced again.

There was a sense that having come close to complete global annihilation, everything was now going to improve and for a decade it did - then, as we now know, things just got worse again. So to the kids who can't sleep at night because they're worried about the climate? Well, you're not the first generation to lose sleep over events outside your control. Sorry if that's cold comfort, but it's a lot better than the possible outcomes from the Cold War.

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