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Remembering Cold War Eighties with innocence of youth

By Gail Walker

Published 09/02/2016

The entrance to the underground nuclear bunker
The entrance to the underground nuclear bunker

Looking at those pictures of the top secret nuclear bunker and command centre in Ballymena I must confess to a rather mixed bag of emotions. First of all, a visceral Pavlovian repugnance: the huge blast doors, the decontamination rooms, the cold and seemingly endless corridors, the desks where "big decisions" would have undoubtedly been made if history had turned out slightly differently.

Even the tins of processed peas look sinister, stashed away to keep local bigwigs going while they made the aforementioned big decisions. (Who, though, would have been whisked away to north Antrim to maintain the local chain of command? Walter Love? Roy Walker?)

And yet... and yet...

Memory is a strange thing, and I can't also help but feel a sharp stab of nostalgia. Ah, yes, the prospect of nuclear Armageddon. It could only be the Eighties.

Post-Berlin Wall fallers may find it hard to credit, but for those of us who came to maturity (or in some cases immaturity) during this decade, the Atom bomb was - to mix and mangle metaphors horribly beyond recognition - a sword of Damocles dangling over our permed and spiky-haired heads.

And this is where all those scissors-and-paste clipfests get it so wrong. Against a soundtrack of Wham!'s Club Tropicana, the hapless viewer is bombarded with images of mindless hedonism, yuppies and City traders making millions in seconds.

But that wasn't my Eighties. It was hard to be a happy hedonist when a) living in rural Northern Ireland, and b) awaiting the end of the world.

So, yes, while the Eighties had the New Romantics such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, it was also an era of "spirited" discussions (for which read ill-tempered shouting matches in sixth form study rooms and student bedsits) about the efficacy of deterrents, Nato and wondering about "Oppenheimer's deadly toy" and what "if the Russians loved their children, too". In other words, not a lot of mindless fun - just like Sting. But at least it was serious. Thoughtful even.

CND or no, Thatcherite or devotee of Red Wedge, the bomb was self-evidently important. Oh, the nights spent turning away from Marlborough's battle plans to listening once more to Kate Bush's Breathing ("Last night in the sky/Such a bright light/My radar send me danger/But my instincts tell me to keep/Breathing ..."). Which, of course, only seemed to drive home the futility of A-levels. Why? Why? When we were all going to die anyway?

And then it was onto Frankie's Two Tribes, or Prince's 1999, strangely uplifting takes on the apocalypse.

That feeling of impending doom was everywhere, though (a friend brackets me and two others as great pessimists, but is it really any wonder given what we came through?).

On TV the brand new Channel 4 churned up controversy by showing The War Game. And then there was Threads, a terrifying TV film about a couple living in Sheffield after the blast that I had to secretly watch on a flickering black-and-white portable TV in my bedroom. I don't think I could ever watch that again. The utterances of Bruce Kent and CND were pored over as if holy writ. Young people were engaged. True, that engagement may occasionally have contained a hint of smugness and amounted to little more than donning little badges on ridiculously oversized coats. But still... we KNEW WE WERE DOOMED. And let's face it, we'd no idea about the Ballymena bunker.

Ridiculous, perhaps, but I prefer it to today's crudely sexualised pop culture that sees every female pop star strip down and leer into the camera, not to mention the "indie" whinniness authenticity all marinaded with a Fairtrade sanctiminousness.

Not for us. Oh no. Our lives were imbued with the approaching end of time. Put on the TV and there was Z For Zachariah, Survivors, Edge Of Darkness. Nip out to the Curzon and it was Matthew Broderick outfoxing Pentagon computers in War Games.

Post-nuclear musings were the bread and butter of the new, rather serious C4 with its After Dark open-ended debate show. We were glued to Frankie's Two Tribes video, believing it to be a major contribution to our debate. We even took Boy George's War Song ("War is stupid/And people are stupid") and Nena and her 99 Luftballons seriously.

It was also a time of clarity. Thatcher or Kinnock? US or USSR? East or West? Red or Dead? For us or against us? It didn't matter where you stood, it was a time of conviction, of certainty (and, no, for all my horror at the idea of a post-apocalyptic world, I wasn't with Bruce Kent and the merry gang). Even today I can't resist an apocalyptic book - The Road anyone? - film, or TV series.

The bomb also help smooth out a little local kink. I suspect that for many of us here it provided a welcome relief from our neighbourly murders as, in our heart of hearts, many of us knew that after the bomb had been dropped and the cockroaches had taken over the world, the few hunched hopeless survivors here would soon begin arguing whether that heap of smouldering rubble up there in the north west used to be called Derry or Londonderry.

And what do we have today? A more confused universe of faceless terrorism, a hundred mini wars, baffling and beyond comprehension. Uncertainty. Helplessness.

No wonder many of us would feel a warped nostalgia looking at those images from the Ballymena bunker. They were a reminder of our youth.

Foolish. Not so foolish. And, like the Eastern Bloc and ra-ra skirts, gone.

Follow me on Twitter @GWalker9

Belfast Telegraph

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