A memory returns: one day, I suspect around May 1980, I asked my dad a question. The question had been on my mind for some time as a result of things that I’d heard and read and seen, in books, newspapers and on TV. The question was this:
“What will we do if there is a nuclear war?”
I didn’t mean ‘we’, the country, or ‘we’ the people of the world; I meant us, my family; my mum and dad, my brother. Our dog.
I remember the exact moment I asked this question; it was a Saturday morning, I was passing my dad in the dining room, the wallpaper was as orange as a mushroom cloud, and I remember the brief pause before my father answered. The pause alone told me that what I feared was coming was indeed coming.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘we’ll do… something.’
The look on his face, the hesitancy of the words; it was obvious to me there would be nothing we could do. Many people can remember the moment they realised their parents were not omnipotent. This was mine.
‘What we’ll do, Dad,’ I thought but didn’t say, ‘is die horribly.’
Looking back now most of what I feel is how sorry I feel for my dad that he had to have that question asked of him. I was 12 years old, fragile and impressionable, though maybe no more than any child of that time. What can he have felt as he looked down at me and heard me ask a question that he knew there was no real answer to, no answer that he could give his frightened son?
I’m estimating that this was the summer of 1980 because it was in May that year that the UK government had published the infamous leaflet known as Protect and Survive. Yes, my parents had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis back in ’62 when the whole world famously held its breath, but this was the painfully crass 1980s; we had a power-crazed, swivel-eyed jingo for a Prime Minister in the UK, and a feeble-brained retired actor most famous for being upstaged by a chimpanzee in charge in the White House. Gorbachev’s détente was years away, and every single day I wondered if we would be blown to pieces, or yet worse, die slowly and painfully from fall out.
The whole thing was similar to America’s Duck and Cover campaign which originated in the 1950s. Yes, that’s right, ducking; well known to be of assistance in avoiding a nuclear blast.
What could one say to all this, what could one do? The only thing was to laugh, and darkly, as Raymond Briggs was to do in his 1982 response to the Protect and Survive; When the Wind Blows.
It’s interesting to see that of the two sources: government information and cartoon strip, it was the latter that more honestly told the truth about the horrors of nuclear conflict. And that was apparent to me even back then, and surely, I thought, to everyone?
No, not to everyone. I recall arguing with boys at school about nuclear weapons, their dangers. I remember arguing with one utterly irritating boy about the possible resulting nuclear winter that could engulf the Earth should such a global conflict ever occur. He answered ‘Well, we’ll be okay, we have double glazing.’ For a moment I thought he was joking; then the look on his face told me he truly thought everything would be fine.
Maybe it was my parents’ fault (after all, what isn’t?) for making me an inquisitive child, maybe I was just born that way, but it seems that wilful denial of catastrophe is something we are still prone to. Hilariously, wikipedia still claims: ‘As a countermeasure to the lethal effects of nuclear explosions, Duck and Cover is effective in both the event of a surprise nuclear attack, and during a nuclear attack of which the public has received some warning’. Right. Good luck with that.
And what about now? Now that the threat of global thermonuclear war has been mildly eclipsed by the threat of global climate disaster? What stories do we tell ourselves now, and what stories do we tell our children? What is appropriate? What is helpful? What is the right approach; how do we balance truth against expediency, and perhaps above all, what do you tell your 12-year-old child who asks you what you’ll do if climate breakdown hits hard?
My first book, Floodland, depicted Britain in the aftermath of a climate induced rise in sea-levels. That was 20 years ago. I’ve written other, different stories since, but pressing matters remain pressing matters, and I frequently find myself asking what is the responsibility of the writer, especially the writer of books for younger people, in how we address such issues.
The truth of the matter is that it is not a question of ‘don’t frighten the children’ – the children are already frightened. Any of them that have thought about this for more a few minutes, that is. Children have that open-mindedness and curiosity that many adults have been taught, or taught themselves, to set aside.
Meanwhile, the children are sufficiently scared that many of them have been inspired to take to the streets and protest. We can argue about how hard climate disaster will hit, or when it will really take hold. If you’re on the fringes of the accepted science you can even try to argue it’s not happening at all, and of course, if you do that, the world will look a little bit safer to you, you will be less anxious, you can go on burning aviation fuel and eating meat and running your AC, and not feel worried about any of that. That idiotic boy I argued with at school over his double glazing probably now works for Exxon Mobil or Halliburton or Monsanto or some equally monstrous organisation. And he can go on looking at a world in which beach holidays and petrol-powered cars still exist, alongside animal diversity and healthy populations of pollinating bees, polar bears and ring-tailed lemurs, and pink fairy armadillos.
Meanwhile, meanwhile, what do the rest of us tell our children? What stories do we tell? If the experience with my dad all those years ago is to be trusted, what it showed me is that the one thing we must do is be honest. This may come as a surprise to many adults, but children are not stupid. They always know more than we think they know, and the only surprising thing is how many adults have forgotten what they were capable of thinking as a child. The corollary to this is that young people always know when they are being lied to, they know when adults are ducking and covering, so to speak. It does nothing to reassure.
So for my part all I can do is go on telling stories, as honestly as I can, even if they run the risk of frightening the children. Some people may not like that, but personally I’d rather let the children decide. And when we need to laugh, we can laugh, darkly.