We’ll all go together…

Approaching a couple of events in which I’ll be talking about attitudes to the future, not to mention the advent of the Rapture (due sometime this weekend – May 21 – I gather), I’m put in mind again of how difficult it is to recapture that time, not long ago, when people really did think the world was about to end.

There’s an eloquent brief evocation of this in Richard Hoggart’s fine book Promises to Keep, on which he reflects on life, age and ageing. One of the great changes he remarks on is the end of the Cold War, which had politics in its grip when he was raising his children. He writes:

The ever-present Soviet threat has, more or less, gone away…  Yet for more than four decades it hung above us; and for those bringing up children it could be felt as a constant threat. One wife of a professor, not in any way a congenital worrier, confessed that she never settled down to sleep without wondering whether her four children would survive to grow, marry and have children as she had. On some evenings, before driving to my adult class, I had time to bathe the children. Every time this happened it crossed my mind to wonder if I might see them again. For those, relatively few, who saw the film The War Game, the likely effects of a nuclear strike shown there, were as of something which might well happen any day. 

This threat, this fear, lasted then for almost half a century, and like a curse hung over those who recognised it.

At the same time, he emphasises that these night thoughts were only part of the mood. They (he, and I’m guessing this went for many people)  also hardly believed it would happen – and that everything would somehow turn out for the best – a belief which has in a way turned out to be true…   I still think there are things to try and understand about the effects of all this. Do people who lived through this period think that the thing to do with worst case scenarios is to learn to live with them? Does that have corrosive effects on the culture, or is it the only feasible response, or both? Does it have anything to do with our response to climate change now?  

 I don’t have answers, but the questions make studies of cold war culture more interesting to a 21st century person. The best one I’ve actually read is Margot Henriksen’s brilliant Dr Strangelove’s America: Society and culture in the atomic age, from 1997, but there have been lots more since. And this recent effort looks especially interesting. Now on order…

Meanwhile, a bit of Tom Lehrer evokes the mood I’m worrying away at here. The combination of gleefully apocalyptic rhyming and the uneasy, muted  laughter of the studio audience here still sends a shiver down my spine, at least.  

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