Cold war ghosts: legacies in concrete and film

At dinner last night, we talked about the way that the experience of war imprints itself on the experiences of individuals and societies differently, according to the war and the immediacy of its domestic impact.

Reflecting on that conversation, it struck me that growing up with the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction hanging over us left its own imprints. Less immediately dramatic, perhaps, than the years of evacuation, rationing and lights out of World War Two, but no less terrifying in its own insidious way, the Cold War offered plenty of sleepless nights to this over-active imagination.

I remember panicking when we were told that total annihilation was just four minutes away. Whenever the sirens were tested I found myself wondering if the radar I now know was based at Jodrel Bank had picked up inbound enemy missiles that would destroy my school and my family and the small world of Langdon Hills that I inhabited. I imagined Soviet tanks trundling through my childhood stamping ground of the Fränkische Schweiz and rolling across Western Europe, destroying everything in their path.

Television films like Threads and the Day After depicted the horrors of a nuclear Armageddon in chilling detail. I remember lying awake for nights, terrified of what would happen.

I also remember taking the bus to Romford to see Rocky IV in 1985 and being reassured that we would always beat the bad guys. How could we not be? Our plucky little hero was avenging his friend’s death and completed his training montage in the frozen Russian countryside with just a few logs at his disposal.

Drago on the other hand, his giant of an opponent, was wired up to the most sophisticated computers and pumped full of steroids – yet our man still triumphed and, in doing so, won the admiration of the Russian President.

Gloriously awful nonsense, but now, looking back, the parameters seem so much safer. In much the way that my father’s grandparents reflected on the unique camaraderie of the Second World War, the sense of social obligation and national community, I catch myself thinking back fondly to the geo-strategic certainty of a time when two superpowers leaned in on each other. The USA and the USSR were the hammer-beam roof of our geo-politics, creaking and immobile under the weight of their respective nuclear edifices.

In this changed world of terrorist cells, underground bombers, dirty bombs and cyber-warfare, such certainty seems oddly nostalgic. For me, that surreal stalemate of infinite nuclear escalation has woven itself into the fabric of memory, mischievously tangling itself with normative childhood archetypes of safety, and I find myself prompted to rueful reflection by the architecture of redundant physical structures or the clumsily amateurish animation of public information broadcasts.

They each harbour the childhood ghosts of lingering summers spent wondering on the end of the world.

The Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch is a local example of such a building. I find a certain poignancy in the way that this extraordinary structure, disguised beneath a simple cottage and chillingly significant in its original purpose, has been reduced to such a level that it can now be hired out for parties. If you click the picture below you might see what I mean in the gallery that I have pulled together on Flickr.

Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker

In a similar way, the series of Protect and Survive public information films retain their ability to shock, despite their amateurishness. I still wonder if hiding under some doors and suitcases would ensure my survival in the event of a nuclear strike.

But perhaps the greatest reminder that this period in our history is dead and gone is the strange news that Latvia recently sold Skrunda, an entire Soviet-era town, now completely deserted. Click on the photo below and you will be transported to an eerie gallery on Flickr that paints a haunting picture of decaying urban sprawl  – its architecture, posters and purpose abandoned to the past.


Here the ghosts of my childhood nightmares can still play amongst the radar stations and the tower blocks and the crumbling, brick-strewn classrooms.

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