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A blast from the past

The sale of a Cold War bunker in Ballymena evokes memories of an era when we lived with the real fear of nuclear extinction. But from Bowie to Blondie and Billy Bragg, the paranoia of the times had a massive impact on popular culture. Una Brankin and Henry McDonald turn back the clock to the 1980s

Published 06/02/2016

Under a cloud: an atomic bomb detonation
Under a cloud: an atomic bomb detonation

The screech of the air sirens in Two Tribes, the 1984 hit single by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, always brings back, for me, the Cold War fears that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan continually stoked up at the time.

"The air attack warning sounds like - this is the sound," went the intro.

"When you hear the air attack warning, you and your family must take cover.

"Love's gone, oh..."

As a teenager in the 1980s, I recall very real concerns that the US and the Soviet Union would one day start a nuclear war, either on purpose, or by pressing the big red button by mistake. I remember watching Reagan and Thatcher on the news and wondering how much of a nuclear warning we'd get to flee - and where we could hide.

I imagined myself and my sisters having the clothes blown off us like the little Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old depicted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken during the Vietnam War on June 8, 1972, showing her running naked on a road after being severely burned on her back in a south Vietnamese napalm attack.

And anyone who saw the footage of giant mushroom pall over Hiroshima and Nagasaki from 1945 knew a nuclear attack was going to be much worse.

Four decades on and suddenly those images were everywhere. In the same year, the trenchantly right-wing Ronald Reagan was elected, David Bowie went to number one in the charts with Ashes To Ashes and Blondie followed with Atomic.

Although Bowie's iconic hit has more to do with addiction than the Cold War, the eerie video had nuclear holocaust written all over it, while Blondie's Atomic video depicted the band performing on stage in what looks like a post-nuclear war nightclub. Debbie Harry is wearing a garbage bag as a punkish futuristic costume and footage of a horseman and an atomic explosion are intercut.

The nihilistic nuclear imagery tied in with the general pessimism of the era and its unemployment, Aids and riots.

Yes, we had fun dressing up as New Romantics and playing with Rubik's Cubes, but there the culture of fear, ingrained consciously and subconsciously in most of living through the Troubles, and compounded by the escalation of the Cold War, kept many of us on edge.

I remember a fellow student coming back from holidays in Manchester with a leaflet of advice about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, with diagrams and information about what to do if someone in your family is killed.

We thought it was a joke, but the hordes of protesters going to CND rallies across the water seemed to be taking it very seriously.

Billy Bragg's anti-war protest songs summed it up, particularly his 1985 EP Between the Wars.

"I kept the faith/And I kept voting," he sang with hopefulness and determination, "Not for the iron fist, but for the helping hand/For theirs is a land with a wall all-around it/And mine is faith in my fellow man."

Written in the midst of the massive arms build-up at the end of the Cold War, Bragg's warnings against "skies, all dark with bombers" were chilling to sensitive ears.

His live rendition of the song on Top Of The Pops - on which he refused to lip-synch - remains one of my most vivid memories from the then-unmissable Thursday tea-time show.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Reagan seemed to be leading the Soviets to believe that the US was planning a pre-emptive strike. But, as the decade progressed, I realised the emptiness of his rhetoric, with the help of my political science tutors at Queen's University and the degree's pertinent reading list.

And, somehow, with the dirty conflict going on in our own backyard, we seemed removed from the immediate danger.

We didn't have a huge CND campaign going here, or the equivalent of the Greenham Common women's camp. As students, we were more concerned with Thatcher's cuts to our student grants and, when Gorbachev came to power with his "Glasnost" ("openness") philosophy, the Cold War seemed to thaw almost overnight.

Until Mr Putin appeared on the eastern horizon, that is, and political commentators started saying that the Cold War never went away, you know.

It's interesting how it has re-emerged in contemporary culture. The last series of the brilliant US drama Homeland had a Russian spy infiltrating the CIA and manipulating the Arab-Israeli conflict and The Americans, based in the Seventies and Eighties, is doing a great, gloomy job of bring back fears of the "empire of evil".

Even Mad Men devoted a whole episode to the Cuban Missile Crisis - and when its hero, Don Draper, was scared, you can imagine the real fear at the time.

And he didn't have a bunker like the one in Ballymena to escape to.

Belfast Telegraph

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