Archives for category: Apocalypse

This is my latest article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine. This is the un-edited edition for the next issue (with different illustrations).

Spring sun beat down through the cloudless blue, its rays warming yellow rapeseed fields and lifting their soft invisible fumes. It seemed impossible that only minutes before I was taking in the magnificent shining architecture of the City of London’s skyline from the North Circular. But I was. This was England at her best. Spring had brought wild garlic and early bluebells into the shady woods and it all seemed so unnaturally calm to be making my way into the fenced area of the Government’s emergency Regional HQ for nuclear war at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.

The façade of Kelvedon Hatch RGHQ and its surround are unsettling in their beautiful secrecy. Here a nuclear bunker was built especially in the style of a brick farmhouse, complete with a British brick veranda to its frontage. It sits snug amongst the trees and looks like a typical 1950’s brick cottage, not much larger than your average bungalow. But behind the standard white-framed windows lie steel shutters while its false roof hides a reinforced ceiling made from concrete 18” thick. Deeper inside is the 3-ton steel blast doors; a decontamination room; a BBC emergency broadcast studio and enough servicing equipment, supplies and machinery to keep 600 government civil servants, military commanders and scientists alive for up to 3 months after a nuclear attack on Britain.

khatch1
Kelevedon Hatch has been a part of the post-war preparedness for a soviet strike on the UK throughout many governments and their varying approaches to civil defence and early warning. It was a R4 radar station and remained the RGHQ mentioned above right up to the 1990’s when it was sold privately. Today it is a self-service museum open to the public.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of the bunker beneath, much in the same way someone who is new to the extent of post WW2 civil defence is likely to be astonished at the sheer amount of infrastructure that makes up UK Cold War architecture with its bunkers and monitoring posts numbering their hundreds across the entire country. The exterior Guard House/cottage is smaller than I thought, but the bunker much bigger than anticipated. The access corridor beyond the initial entrance and holding room is a mammoth 120yds long/deep on its own, and the whole bunker runs across three floors.

khatch2
The power generators are run by 2 diesel Rolls Royce engines and the fuel storage holds enough for those 3 post-nuclear war months, by which time it should all be over. Shouldn’t it? It has always amazed me that there has been a gaping blind spot for Civil Defence and Emergency Planners. On one hand they advise us how to prepare for a nuclear blast (remove your doors, paint the windows white and sit under the kitchen table) and when it’s ‘safe’ to bury granny in the garden in between raining fallout. They insist we stay at home precisely because they say nowhere in the UK is safe from radioactivity. But then they go on to believe that after 3 months everything will be fine. Civil servants can return to their county council desks to carry on with the day-to-day of getting Britain working again. There won’t be any office and nor will there be much left of Britain as we know it, let alone any infrastructure. Einstein made this point clear when after considering World War 3 referring to the war after that being fought with ‘sticks and stones’.

Perhaps more senior figures in Civil Defence knew better, or was all for show. In room 110 at Kelevedon is the ‘strong store’ (in military jargon). This is where they keep the rifles for any internal judicial issues within the bunker (once sealed it cannot be opened for those 3 months), but also contains the cyanide for those not able to make it or – more likely – to deal with the reality of what they behold when those doors are finally opened after 3 months.

As a museum today I must say that the audio tour is excellent. It’s ideal both for those who know little about civil defence and its context within government and military protocol but also for those who want more detail on the equipment, its use and construction – some of which are particular to this R4 generation of bunker.

TripAdvisor has some poor write-ups where some guests seemed to take offence at the number of signs warning of having to pay to take photographs. But I feel this is misplaced. With so much of our Cold War heritage being destroyed, these museums of doom are being lost for whole generations. There’s a real need for independent museums like this to obtain income for the vast upkeep any way they can. For sure Hack Green in Cheshire is probably more hospitable and well organised but the Kelevedon audio tour and its unique setting more than make up for its basic approach. Other activities now attached to the site (quad biking and an amongst-the-trees rope climb) seem to be doing well so perhaps those ventures help to keep Kelevedon open, unlike Gloucestershire’s own Ullenwood which has been sold privately, had a big house built on the land while the bunker is apparently moth-balled.

The only disappointment was in locating the stand-by generator building which is located away from the main site but, like to the guardroom/cottage bungalow is built in a manner so local people and more importantly an enemy could not distinguish its use: this time with a modern chapel-like design. What a pity there’s not even a mention of it in the museum or its literature. Luckily it features in English Heritage’s superb publication ‘Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989’ which I thoroughly recommend.

It would be immoral to sign off this piece without mention to the blindingly obvious fact that while the bunkers, the Royal Observer Corps and Civil Defence is all a thing of the past: the nuclear arsenal remains. And is to be renewed if Mark Harper MP and this Tory government get their way. Join CND to help us stop it. While ‘Protect and Survive’ is now merely of archival interest ‘Protest and Survive’ still rings true.

This paper is loosely based on a talk given at the Heritage Open Days in September 2013 for the Dean Heritage Centre.

In all the euphoria that came with the liberation of the suppressed people of the Eastern Bloc, it is easy to overlook that when the Cold War ended, the threat of nuclear war did not.

Today there remain some 12,000 active nuclear warheads in the arsenals of just 9 countries [a]. Perhaps less surprising is the fact that it is the United States and Russia who harbour over 90% of these [b], shared roughly equally as it was during the Cold War.

The battle of ideology might have come to an end with the dissolution of the USSR, yet the destructive armaments which made the abstract of political and economic doctrines a terrible, threatening reality remains.

But of what importance is this to the people of the Forest of Dean, then or now?

Firstly, our incumbent MP for the Forest, Conservative Mark Harper, is a strong supporter of nuclear weapons [c]. Secondly, it probably less well known that in the early 1980’s, our county – Gloucestershire – was THE most targeted rural county in the UK.

Why? The answer is simple, but chillingly as relevant today as it was in 1980: GCHQ.

2013 saw Cheltenham’s Government Communication HQ feature regularly in newspaper headlines thanks to the revelations of US intelligence whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. He uncovered GCHQ’s pervasive role in an array of scandals over internet privacy. GCHQ was implicated in covert deals with internet service providers and the developers of computer operating systems to guarantee ‘back-doors’ into everyone’s private data. Their success in this work saw them re-sell their services to the US government. GCHQ has of course been at the forefront of intelligence, surveillance and code-breaking for over half a century and it is for this reason it undoubtedly has always been and remains a very high-value target.

Back in the 1980’s British Civil Defence and NATO-wide exercises predicted a range of nuclear attack scenarios to make their war games theoretically more relevant to how war might actually play out. These games were influenced by the strategic thinking of the British Government who at the time believed that a nuclear war was both survivable and ultimately winnable. This philosophy was based on the idea that there existed such a thing as ‘limited nuclear war’. But the Soviets rejected this concept entirely. They believed that once nuclear weapons were used in the theatre of war, there would be an unstoppable cycle of retaliation and escalation. Indeed, their systems were automated based on that very premise as to ensure a retaliatory strike would occur even after receiving a surprise attack.

At this time Brezhnev was ending his term as Soviet leader and nearing the end of his life. He was thus easily influenced by his paranoiac head of KGB, Yuri Andropov. Together they launched a secret international surveillance project called ‘Operation Ryan’ to find out when and under what auspice the West was to launch their surprise attack on the USSR.

The world will never know how close we were to an automatic nuclear war when the West ploughed on with their exercise ‘Able Archer’ in 1983, but the Soviets were certain that the exercise was the very cover they had suspected would be the trigger for that surprise launch by NATO forces. And this was also the year US cruise missiles was went ‘live’ in the UK.

It is with this polarisation of the British strategic view compared to the Soviet stance which lead a team of British academics (Openshaw, Steadman and Greene [d]) to build a body of evidence to counter the British idea that the ‘Protect and Survive’ attitude meant we’d prevail in a nuclear war.

Together the academics built a computer program to collate all the grossly over-optimistic British attack scenarios and compare them to US war games and planning and all available Soviet data on the subject. They’d supplemented this with analysis of strike impacts from peer papers from the likes of the British Medical Association in order to build a more realistic view of what might really happen.

They had no need to exaggerate their claims. The 11 attack scenarios they built from this deeper review of the data spoke for themselves: the picture was far less optimistic than the Thatcher government would have us believe. And it was for those of us living in Gloucestershire, Openshaw et al predicted that in even in the most limited attack our county would endure a predicted casualty rate of 70%.

Even when putting aside their concerns for Russian rejection of the British notion of a limited nuclear war, their scenarios ranged from the lowest probable strike to a massive, total attack. Over half of the 11 attack scenarios posed by Openshaw et al saw Gloucestershire shoulder a 97% or higher casualty rate.

Other rural counties only saw that level of destruction at the total-war end of the spectrum. On the other hand, Cornwall never had more than 17% in all scenarios. Somerset peaked at less than 30%. These figures were based only the initial blast and immediate radioactive fallout casualties. Wider fallout would of course travel with the wind so even Cornwall and Somerset would not have been safe.

At this point the idea of a ‘nuclear winter’ was only just being more widely accepted as a probable outcome of a sizeable nuclear exchange. This foresees a prolonged winter lasting years where sunlight would diminish but skin cancer rates rocket through the destruction of the ozone layer. A nuclear winter would devastate the environment with the obvious impact of our food supply and agriculture. Perhaps the blinding flash of the 97% wasn’t so bad after all.

But there’s more to Gloucestershire than GCHQ. There’s also the USAF base at Fairford (you may recall Stealth Bombers left Fairford bound for Iraq in the 2003 war), plus the secondary targets of 2 civil nuclear power stations on the Severn. One of these is still being decommissioned today while at the same time being re-developed to 3-4 times the size. Back in the 80’s though there was also a National Grid Strategic Reserve Depot in Cirencester and our Civil Defence Sub-Regional HQ bunker at Ullenwood which had the extra role of being the national Anti-Aircraft Operations Room.

In 1966/67 the Joint Intelligence Committee drew up a revised list of probable Soviet targets, which included GCHQ [e]. They expected it to receive two 1MT bombs (a direct ground strike) plus two 500KT bombs (air-bursts). Air bursts are used to knock-out electronic, communication and radar devices. So 4 nuclear strikes on GCHQ alone, but for comparsion please remember that the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in WW2 was only 12.5KT. Our county was predicted by the optimistic British to receive almost 3,000 times the destructive power.

Yet incredibly, another exercise conducted in the same late 60’s period, ‘Grass Seeds’, saw Civil Defence and Council planners consider Gloucestershire as the ideal place to receive nuclear war refugees from Birmingham and London. Both the attack scenario papers and what is presumed to be the Chief Executive’s review of the exercise written months later are available for review at the Gloucestershire Archives. This demonstrates that Openshaw et al were right to question the logic of British defence planning. On one hand Gloucestershire was being played as a safe haven for refugees (although there is some pretty grim reading in the document, with the docks used as a makeshift prison camp, and the old market as a rest area) on the other hand central government were writing us off with 4 nuclear warheads.

The possible targets on the Soviet list doesn’t stop there. Our county is literally surrounded by high-level targets. The highest of these has to be the national Seat of Central Government at Corsham (only 30 miles from the Speech House as the crow flies) where the Prime Minister would retreat to at the time of war.

Then there was a Cardiff branch of the Atomic Weapons Establishment and even closer there was the huge US weapons store at Caerwent.

Nevertheless having painted such a depressing picture of our assured destruction, not all levels of British government embraced Conservative optimism and bravado. Our neighbouring council, Gwent County Council were one such example.

Gwent CC refused to do anything more than the absolute minimum when it came to new civil defence and emergency planning laws. There was no money for massive civil bunkers so the Government insisted that Local Authorities educated their citizens in ‘Protect and Survive’ and conduct civil defence exercises and prepare for council continuity. But Gwent CC exploited the ambiguity of the new law and issued a pamphlet to the public in 1983 which ‘declared its opposition to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons’ [f].

They went further stating that Gwent CC ‘will not hide its view that war planning can be used to persuade other nations of Britain’s readiness for nuclear war.’ [g] And even more candidly sought to answer the difficult question of survivability and limited nuclear war: ‘There could be survivors but the Council fears that any nuclear exchange would escalate to all out nuclear war. In that event, Home Defence measures could not prevent the end of civilisation as we know it.’ [h] Certainly not the normal council circular one might expect to find in your local library. Gwent’s position, you will note, is remarkably similar to both Soviet views on the folly of a ‘limited’ nuclear war, and in keeping with Openshaw et al on the topic of optimism. Gwent predicted a 500KT bomb for Caerwent and also cited concerns over the civil nuclear power stations on the Severn [i].

Like much of history, the facts reveal a massive topic. Even on a local level the documents available and wider literature, as well as the testament of Royal Observer Corps or peace veterans form the body of a time we think is entirely behind us. But returning to my opening words, those warheads remain or have been replaced with more accurate equivalents. And so does the most appealing target in GCHQ. Let us hope this is one of those rare occasions where humanity might learn from history. One might say that this time our lives depend upon it.

SOURCES

[a] ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’

[b] ibid.

[c] Mark Harper was previously listed as a supporter of the ‘Freedom Association’, a conservative group which believes in strong defence, including the nuclear deterrent. And, of course, this is also current and former Conservative government policy. But Harper’s own interest goes beyond this, calling and hosting his own public debate on Trident Renewal in Highnam in 2007 in which he invited specialists from RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute) to speak in support of nuclear weapons, NATO and the British deterrent. Over 200 of his constituents at his public meeting overwhelmingly voted against Harper’s support, but when the vote came in Parliament, Mr. Harper still voted for Trident.

[d] ‘Doomsday: Britain after Nuclear Attack’ by Openshaw, Steadman & Greene (Basil Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 1983)

[e] cited in ‘Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers: the passive defence of the Western World during the Cold War’ by N. McCamley (Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2002 (2009 edition)).

[f] ‘Gwent and Emergency Planning’ (Gwent County Council, 1983)

[g] ibid.

[h] ibid.

[i] ibid.

My lime and sea salt dark chocolate bar tasted more like mint. And with all its packaging and air miles, like guilt.

Last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle was lead with a talk by Prof. Herbert Giradet entitled ‘Eco-Philosophy – new parameters for thought and action’.

Giradet is well qualified on his subject. He’s a UN Global 500 award-winner for outstanding environmental achievement; a documentary filmmaker specialising in ecological and ethno-environmental concerns; has written books on these topics and acts as an international consultant on the issues; and finally he’s both a visiting professor of the University of the West of England and chair of the Schumacher Society.

In his talk he was careful not to present an argument, but rather he shared the evolution of environmental thinking as charted by the simultaneous destruction of it, which happens to run parallel with man’s spread across the globe and incessant rise in population.

But statements of even agreeable opinion can be received somewhat disappointingly for a pub-philosophy audience, even if his presentation was no less alarming and interesting because of it.

Nonetheless some good observations shone through. Man is unique in nature as the only bio-technological being. Nature creates no waste. Tourism means alienation from nature even if it means appreciation.

The case for re-habitation was also covered – something of a local touch-point with wild boar having been reintroduced into my local area (the  Forest of Dean) but with mixed opinion flying around in the local rags. For my part it made sense that anything that, as Herbie phrased it,  ‘reinstates the natural un-interfered environment’ is a logical position, but how far do we push that position? All the way until our eco-fundamentalism becomes dangerous? Let’s say it is about the reintroduction of wolves (which I recall is happening in parts of France), and there are a couple attacks on dogs or children, for example – is that too far? Or is that merely man’s penchant for species-ism as Peter Singer might have it? (Incidentally, Singer wasn’t even mentioned, which surprised me as I have heard many a commentator (from Einstein onwards) suggest that vegetarianism is one of the most effective means of mitigating some of the unravelling environmental disaster we’re idly witnessing).

Thoreau, however, was of course mentioned, but my memory has it that while his intentions and articulations were all well and good, even Henry David himself only spent two years at Walden. Out of this arose the disquieting thought: are we actually capable of the environmental breakthrough eco-philosophy strives for?

Then came the bread-and-butter of environmentalism: un-reflected use of natural resources, from the industrial age onwards. On the other side, ‘deep ecology’ proposed a world that sees the inherent worth of all livings things. But I didn’t have the gumption to ask our speaker whether he was a vegan or not.

Nonetheless, one quote Herbie cited that I particularly admired but hadn’t heard before was E. F. Schumacher’s…

“In our victory in the battle against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Later, and another pint of ale, and as it hadn’t come up already, I asked about the correlation of class to environmental activism. Our speaker acknowledged that much of the resistance to ecocide had come from the middle classes, but didn’t elaborate on the fact that, IMO, that’s probably a significant contributor as to why we’re unable to procure the necessary change.

Then there’s the issue of who chooses the watershed of what is acceptable exploitation of nature? Is it the philosophers, scientists and ecologists; or is it the people; perhaps it is our government, or is it nature herself? The evening was beginning to sound a bit pedagogical: the ill-informed and self-serving ignorants needed to be taught a lesson, for their own good. Some believed that nature would do this herself, as she has with famine some have contended, but others saw this as the need to reflect and reconnect.

Most of all, as a Marxist, I was underwhelmed that the greatest iceberg in this Titanic dilemma was clearly capitalism. But Herbie argued that actually the problem was merely a certain type of affluence; unfettered materialism. Again, who chooses the watershed?

Most disappointing was an interesting aside as we stumbled into George Monbiot’s recent acceptance of nuclear power.

Prof. Giradet told us that he used to be good friends with George (someone who I admire much, though I have yet to be convinced of his support for nuclear power), but that the nuclear stance was just ‘too much’.

‘Why?’ We asked.

‘Well, George likes the sound of his own voice.  And his position is so far from where it was two or three years ago.’

Ouch.

Suddenly we seemed to be missing a big chunk of wisdom. There was a massive hole in the room which we normally fill with philosophy. I left disappointed.

Perhaps Herbie is an eco-fundamentalist after all.

But this might just be one position that no matter how fundamental, is in our own interest.

Perhaps eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism.

After all, you can’t get more fundamental than the all-omnipotent and all-ecompossassing nature of  nature herself. She is in the stars, and our neurons, our hearts and amoebas.

 

{the next meeting of the Tintern Philosophy Circle is on 15th may at 7.30pm. We are a pub philosophy circle group, and all are welcome for only £2. Prof. John Clarke will be leading the next session with a talk entitled “Philosophy AFTER post-modernism”}

I am not a fan of sci-fi: never have been and probably never will be. Or so I thought.

Like every other boy of the 1970’s I loved love ‘Star Wars’ but it wasn’t until the early 80’s with the BBC’s adaptation of ‘The Day of theTriffids’, and then ‘Threads’ did a certain breed sci-fi come to affect my whole outlook on life. Frankly, at the time I thought we were doomed. Borne of these are the beginnings of a political awakening that took another decade to bear fruit.

Both were imaginings of terrible fictions. ‘Threads’ seemed all too real and hypothesized nuclear Armageddon, whereas the BBC’s updating of the John Wyndham’s novel presented a different side to social destruction –giant, man-killing plant aliens. The genre was known as post-apocalyptic, and is an awkward addendum to sci-fi genre. They were fictions based on supposedly scientific possibilities. Indeed, ‘Threads’ was the first mass understanding of the nuclear winter hypothesis which was a debate still raging at the time – making even surviving a nuclear holocaust so terrible as to warrant questioning the point of living.

But I was slightly too young to remember the silent killer at work in the BBC’s 1970’s post-apocalyptic series ‘Survivors’.

This time it was an invisible means of destruction: disease. Watching the 70’s series on DVD today, I can see now that had I been just a bit older when it aired, it would have marked me as indelibly as ‘Threads’ would later in the 80’s.

Written by TV sci-fi supremo Terry Nation (who also gave us Blake’s 7 and many a Dr. Who storyline) it supposes the very real threat of a deadly epidemic and the social decay and terrible anarchy that arises out of the entire destruction of the state. These are topics I have written about before in The Clarion with my review of ‘The Death of Grass’ (by John Christopher) and to a degree in my explorations of modern utopian writing (all share communes and different social codes among their defining features). Nation, however, was at pains to distance his new series from his sci-fi work stating that “Survivors has its roots in the future, as it were, but it’s not science-fiction. It’s not going into the realms of the impossible; it’s skating very close to the possible,” which I guess is why the series still holds my interest, despite Nation’s other portfolio.

Indeed, the Radio Times write-up for ‘Survivors’ (it was shown on BBC1 over 3 series from 1975) cites a line from the show which sums up perfectly its preoccupation: “Incredible, isn’t it? We are of the generation that landed a man on the moon and the best we can do is talk of making tools from stone.

‘Survivors’ is at its best when it questions our assumptions about how stable our society really is. How civil we might truly be under great duress, and what happens when we peel away the froth of our consumerist lives? It pokes around in moral dilemmas not usually broadcast in BBC dramas at 8pm on a Wednesday night. Today or in the 70’s.

Jenny, Abby & Greg (L to R). The face Jenny is pulling is because they've just found the body of a man hanged for looting a supermarket.

Lucy Fleming is the likeable constant, but where as heroine ofseries one (Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant) is admirably driven she remains fairly impenetrable and one dimensional. What is to be commended, particularly for the age – as this still happens too infrequently today – is that the producers accepted a female as the lead character in what was on the face of it an adventure series. Granted, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was also around at the same time, but they were impeccably hair-sprayed icons drawn by men of what women heroes ought to be like (and with a male for their boss, no less). Even ‘Wonderwoman’ was busty and pouted silky lip-gloss. By contrast Abby Grant crops her hair as she sets out on the road into a post-apocalyptic British countryside, her dead husband sprayed across the lounge sofa.

The camera follows Abby in what could easily have turned outto be classic Twilight Zone territory (“Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one.”) only to reveal to the audience the parallel story of Jenny Richards (Fleming) and then separately again the incredibly annoying Jackanory-esque tramp-comes-good storyline of Tom Price (played in a ridiculously Dickensian turn by Talfryn Thomas). But once modern viewers adjust their grins at the tragic fashion and 70’s BBC acting, the strength of the stories and other characters comes to the fore.

My favourite, for example is that of super-bitch Anne Tranter and Vic who she leaves for dead in a quarry once she realises he cannot supply her with riches now that he’s tragically crippled by an accident. Then there’s the poetic child-killer in series two and capital punishment episode in series one, both of which feel like Amnesty International had a hand in the writing.

Of course, one of the recurring themes is the nature of community and the role of leadership, be it within our ragtag group or across the other surviving communities and bandits the characters stumble across. Alongside this is the pressure that “Our civilisation had the technology to land a man on the moon, but as individuals we don’t even have the skill to makean iron spearhead”. The realisation that scavenging will only last so long comes to the fore and without a sign of a state forming any time soon, there’sa quick return to self-sufficient agriculture, with all its pitfalls and trials. This is not ‘The Good Life’.

Upon completing production of the pilot episode, contracts were drawn up in January 1974 and the show commissioned around the theme: ‘Bubonic plagues sweeps the world, killing all but a handful of people who escape to the country with absolutely nothing and who start civilisation again from scratch.’ But the response to Nation’s series was mixed.

The Times was expecting classic sci-fi in the Dr. Who mould from Nation and was therefore rightly disappointed. The Guardian for its part was just underwhelmed (‘a perfectly passable pastime’). The Daily Mail, however,got it on the nail when it compared its greatest strength to HG Wells’ War ofthe Worlds in which ‘extraordinary events are set in actual, small-scale landscapes’ – which is why the work reminded me of ‘The Death of Grass’ (and toa degree, John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’) – all of which seem set in a comfy version of the British countryside which we’ve come to love through thelikes of Betjemen, the Hovis ad or ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. And that is why so much of it is so simple yet effective.

Some of this is owed to the ‘feel’ of the work. While the opening title theme is infectious (ahem) and the titles sequence explains all we need to know about the origin and spread of the disease, it is interesting to note that it wasn’t a clever directorial instruction to omit incidental music, but a BBC strike, which lead to a very tight production schedule and hence no budget or time for music. This probably inadvertently adds much to the silence of dead Britain. It obviously works, because there’s still no incidental music by the end of the final third series.

It is also with some interest then that I discovered that much of the farm the group settles in during series two is not far from Monmouth. In fact, there’s quite a local link. Series one saw shoots in Evesham, the Pitville Circus in Cheltenham, various locations around Ross-on-Wye, Llanarth Court in Monmouth but was mostly shot in Herefordshire’s Hampton Court. By series two Callow Hill Farm near Monmouth came the setting for the fixed commune.

Alan W. Turner’s biography of Nation lays the departure of the shows’ creator to a split with co-writer Jack Ronder. The two had differences over the series’ direction and once Nation had also fallen out with the producer, Nation withdrew from his own project altogether. Besides, by this point Brian Clemens, who Nation had worked with on shows like ‘The Avengers’, filed court proceedings stipulating ‘Survivors’ was his idea in the first place’. The project seemed diseased on every level.

Somehow it survived. A second series was commissioned and Nation penned a novelisation of his version of the story – now a collectors’ item. For TV, Series two (1976) sees the departure of Abby Grant and a change of setting and I think it is all the better for it. It does suffer from the problem in TV series where one remarkable thing has to happen after another for fear of losing audience interest (but that could also be said of ‘The Archers’, albeit on a slightly smaller scale and perhaps less deadly). This sadly misses the point, of course, that ordinary post-apocalyptic life had itself WAS extraordinary to us viewers watching from the lap of technological luxury and leisure.

Series three took the show to its conclusion (1977). It still had the essence of what Turner commented was Nation’s premise, a “western, the struggle against nature and the attempt to establish a morality in a lawless land.” But now it was more about adventure than character and smaller domestic struggles. The search for engineer Greg Preston becomes more than annoying and dampens the effect of the ‘Survivors’ as a whole.

Of course ‘Survivors’ received the inevitable modern BBC remake. And like many updates it revels in sensation, where remarkable things have to so exciting and bombastic as to be inane. Zombie-apocalypse movie and video games are now ten a penny and with them, the danger of something as benign as a disease just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In many ways, however, the real world is more frightening. Remember BSE, driving past foot-and-mouths bonfires, bird-flu? And the impending influenza epidemic we’re due?

Yes, ‘Survivors’ is old-fashioned. But it is a unique piece of British TV history, trapped in time in this vast DVD box set.

SOURCES: ‘Survivors’ the complete series on DVD; ‘The ManWho Invented the Daleks: the strange worlds of Terry Nation’ by A. W. Turner(Aurum Press, 2011); http://survivors-mad-dog.org.uk/

The Tintern Pub Philosophy Circle met the other night to discuss How We Might Get Human Rights. The discussion was lead by Tim Cross and covered the development of Human Rights as a concept from Hobbes, Locke, the US & French Revolutions and finally to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The premise for the inception of these articulations of rights was that life was for many people pretty cruel and a bit crap, but that we could make it less so.

To me, this seemed an iterative problem. If you consider recent human rights catastrophes (say Rwanda, Sudan, Chechnya or the gassing of the Kurds) then the various evolving declarations of what constitutes human rights appear like a utopian contrivance with serious failures (those catastrophes just mentioned). It is probably precisely because life is pretty cruel and a bit crap that we have failed to guarantee these rights and apply them universally.

To put it another way without a morally and actively courageous state, law and global governance this roadmap to civility will be challenged if not overrun by the weakness of those state governments, as we have seen in those very same examples.

This can be observed by the impotence of the United Nations over Iraq etc. but is probably best illustrated by Linda Polman’s seminal work on the topic ‘We Did Nothing – Why the truth doesn’t always come out when the UN goes in’.

The floor of our pub philo circle seemed to agree that such declarations were merely political posturing and generally not worth the paper they’re written on.  I was not so sure. While I raised my former observation, I qualified it with the fact that we ought not to slip into binary thinking here. That is, some expression of human rights is better than none, despite its failures. To qualify this I cited Amnesty International’s work on both individual cases of prisoners of conscience and Amnesty’s pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a tool by which we can hold signatories to account. It’s no guarantee but, it’s better than nothing – for the reasons just cited.

A little later the debate took a very un-philosophical and strange turn where different members of the floor argued on the original of human rights, not least since Tim had started only with Hobbes. He conceded that of course, the notion of rights and welfare existed prior to this but qualified his starting point as the point of the modern rise of Human Rights as we know it today (by the UN declaration), and the fact that we only had 2 hours. Undeterred, some cited Christianity as the original while other argued Hinduism. I thought this was a flawed distraction to the point at hand but still offered – in an attempt to deaden the avenue – that IMO rights probably arose in an evolutionary sense from the first days of society – probably at group level – where co-operation met language to form a consensus to the general good of all members of the group (within a certain hierarchy). I think we can map that through to today’s articulations of Human Rights consistently from this. Certainly it appeared to kill that part of the debate off, either from ridicule or reason – you decide.

So back to the main debate. In conclusion the most perplexing thing about human rights is that, philosophically, it is a paradoxical notion. To gain rights one has to relinquish certain liberties. By policing rights we absolve ourselves of certain rights.

From a Practical Philosophy point of view Chris Gifford observed that in his teaching of Amnesty’s work with young children, they demonstrated a universal and unsolicited innate sense of fairness and justice. This runs counter to the long-running argument as to whether rights can be natural or are only conferred. Indeed, Chris’s point means that that debate takes a new direction: about who creates these rights. Again, from a pragmatic approach, consensus and co-operation take the lead here and, while people die, it is an arbitrary debate.

My personal summary was that declarations of human rights offered the wrong answer to the right question, but that this answer was better than none at all.

Perhaps human rights is an expression of civilisation which while best informed by reason is, philosophically, above logic – so far – or at least so far as its paradoxical reasoning, on the whole, eludes us. It is a mechanism which, at best, sometimes works. But its failure is deadly. Its non-existence apocalyptic.

REVIEW: ‘A Nuclear Family Vacation (Travels in the World of Nuclear Weaponry)’ by N. Hodge & S. Weinberger

There were tests on living creatures as well. Because pigskin is remarkably similar to human flesh, the U.S. government experimented on live pigs. Tests in 1957 exposed some twelve hundred pigs to atomic detonation.

This is a strange book. Much like the Missile Defence Programme itself, it is presented as one thing but is, in fact, something else. Whereas Missile Defence was sold to the world as a defensive measure, in reality it was an offensive means of getting one’s enemy to believe you could withstand a first strike and thus break the M.A.D. doctrine which guaranteed mutual destruction to your advantage. And therein lay the end of deterrence.

Here, I detect the heavy hand of the Bloomsbury marketing office: ‘A Nuclear Family Vacation’ has no family about it and as such is a rather lazy play on words, and it is hardly a travelogue as the sub-title and ironic cover of my edition would have you believe. Instead what we get is an extended journalistic foray into the development of the United States nuclear defence programme. And it reads like the kind of article one might expect in the Sunday supplements, albeit stretched over some 285 fairly laborious pages.

The most despicable line these Cold War enthusiasts reveal is the deadly lamenting of the end of the Cold War itself. Engineers, scientists and contractors seem to openly regret the end of so-called hostilities between the US and the Soviet regime. With funding removed there was, before 9/11, no role for development in a world where mutually-assured destruction guaranteed jobs for what seem like unashamedly candid hotheads who believe in the myth of the great American dream.

Initially, nuclear weapons were delivered by bombers lumbering through the skies and, like any aircraft, could be shot down. The advent of the ballistic missile changed the entire calculus: A nuclear attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles was nearly unstoppable. The ABM Treaty, adopted in 1972, helped preserve the Cold War’s nuclear balance of terror by ensuring that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would (with certain exceptions) deploy active defences against ICBM’s, thus guaranteeing mutual assured destruction. The treaty was seen as a landmark of arms control, limiting the need for new offensive nuclear weapons and reinforcing a key point of nuclear deterrence: the only defence against nuclear attack was massive retaliation.

Following 9/11 the Bush Presidency quit the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty and the military got the renewed funding it had been searching for since the end of the Cold War. Now missile defence had a new role with Iran and North Korea. Though, as the authors point out in a rare moment of rightful scepticism, not a single missile has been halted by Missile Defence Programme in realistic test conditions – the above passage suggests an acceptance of M.A.D. as a legitimate tool for peace (as opposed to eradication of nuclear weapons, which simply isn’t entertained throughout the book).

Look at the anger Bush’s policy has awoken in Russia. Even if, as the book claims, Russia missiles wouldn’t be the target of the Missile Defence in Poland and the Czech republic (as they are convinced their missiles would fly north across the Pole as the shortest route to the USA), the political message cannot be ignored. In kind, long-range Russian nuclear bombers have re-started their run-up against UK airspace (as – let’s face it – with Fylingdales, we’re little more than a radar outpost for the US military and it’s NORAD).

Hodge writes for Jane’s Defence Weekly and has also featured in the FT and Foreign Policy magazine. His wife, Weinberger, writes for Wired’s national security blog ‘Danger Room’ and has also appeared in the Washington Post. But their journalistic qualities need to be held into account. These people are definitely nuclear tourists and while they clearly know their subjects well and write on the history with authority, they seem to portray an ugly fascination with their topic and, like the military hotheads they interview, metaphorically rubs their hands with glee at the thought of a new generation of nuclear R&D. Not quite the un-biased, scientific view they should have presented. Perhaps Bloomsbury’s editorial team have themselves been nuked. To be fair, they rightly raise an eyebrow at the survivability argument of the US side and also point out that post-‘duck and cover’ the general consensus appears to be that protecting the civil population wasn’t really on their agenda. But these points paradoxically run counter to their implied view that the presence and continuity of nuclear weapons is not to be questioned, whereas the jobs of its committed servants re-appears in almost every chapter. If only they cared so much about humankind.

But I have to ask myself why did I buy and read this book? And why did I continue to read it when the repulsive lamenting of the good old days of Reagan and Star Wars became clear? What then is the appeal of nuclear weapons? The answer is simple: war fascinates. Its history and its depiction of the worst of human kind. From All Quiet on the Western Front and the poetry of Sassoon or Owen to movies like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. From the War Game to Threads. Only by recognising the worst in human nature can we hope to change. This book is a despicable reminder that, despite what the history books tell us about a period of time we’ve called ‘the Cold War’, US military staff sit round-the-clock, trigger-ready and morally bereft in their underground missile silos with 10,000 warheads at their disposal (with 400 more in Europe, many in the UK). Or humming around the oceans, waiting for politicians to fail, British sailors maintain Trident and its capability to leash death unto millions of innocent civilians. The authors end by stating that ‘It took a trip around the world for us to question the rationale behind the nuclear arsenal,’ – frankly they appear to be lacking in imagination. They sleep-walked around the world just as many people sleep-walked out of the Cold War not realising the nightmare was still a reality. What’s missing here and in the wider Trident debate is the child’s question – ‘Why?’ to which the response could be left to Albert Einstein when already too late he commented on the destructive power of the atom: ‘If only I had known, I would have been a watch-maker.’

I’ve been reading the 9/11 Commission Report (which you can read for free in this PDF).


On the morning of the attacks, as you will probably have seen, President Bush was visiting an Elementary School in Florida. At 8:46am the first plane had hit the North Tower of the WTC, followed later at 9:03 by Flight UA 175 hitting the second, South Tower.

Of course, by the time the President was informed (9:05am) of the second plane it was clear this was no accident.

At 9:35am the Presidential Motorcade departed the school and not long after the President learned of the attack on the Pentagon.

At which point the President calls the Vice President stating: “Sounds like we have a minor war going on here…We’re at war…somebody’s going to pay.”

And a lot of  innocent people have been paying ever since.

This tells us a lot about the mindset of President Bush. Rather than a defensive position, his first thoughts are offensive, and thus we can see how we quickly arrive at bloody wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile the actual instigator of the attacks – a non-state agent – remains at large: Usama Bin Laden.

I am looking at the topic of ‘communes’ or, to use the modern moniker ‘intentional communities’ – though I’ll refer to the former. With 32 years between two texts (Tobias Jones ‘Utopian Dreams‘ see below and ‘The Survivors’ by Patrick Rivers’), one might expect the cultural and political changes to leap out at you. But in this case they don’t.

The very thing that drives the study undertaken by Tobias Jones in his modern book is the same reason why all communities in Rivers’ 1975 book came into being. Quoting from ‘The Survivalists’ this being the observation that…

“Within our imposed society we concentrate on stimulating wants – which can never be satisfied – to the neglect of satisfying needs. Denied this basic satisfaction, we try to forget the loss – by chasing after more and more wants.”

To counter this, as one of the commune-starters states, they instead envisage a community which would…

“…seek to provide new technology for people who wish to live in harmony with their environment, in peace with their neighbours, and in control of their lives and their technology.”

The focus on alternative technology is far more pressing in the Rivers’ book but I imagine that these people would have been the vanguard of the new green technology. Of course, by the time we reach the communities that Jones’ visits in his 21st Century book, these technologies have created a growth sector of their own and are even courted by government to bolster their green credentials (while, I sardonically note, also pursuing nuclear power as a green alternative!) and, thus, they are accepted as the norm. Indeed, there’s no need to even mention it once we’ve established that part of the philosophy for the very being of a community is to reduce one’s impact on the environment and opt-out of ‘the system’.

Oddly, however, the title reveals an urgency in the need for breaking away from straight society in ‘The Survivors’ whereas with ‘Utopian Dreams’ that urgency is dealt with as a matter of fact, but with enough room to build dreams.

You may recall that my admiration of the Jones’ book was limited. Unfortunately, Rivers’ text is no more compelling but, like the Jones book, the topic enough keeps one going. In fact, I slightly favour the passing glimpses of reality in the ‘The Survivalists’ missing from ‘Utopian Dreams’. Take this example where Rivers is impressed by…

“…the intense and strenuous 7-days-a-week activity, but I suspect that there may be too much of it; for although the pressures of straight society are noticeably absent, people admit to feeling guilty about taking time off. If a member wants to relax, in his room, or in one of the communal rooms, or on a hillside, even though he is perfectly entitled to do so, nevertheless it is difficult for him not to feel that he is shirking, and he sense that the rest of the group feel that he ought to be doing something.”

The problem is that passages such as these are in the minority and the narrator tends to wander through communities, his interviews and even his own points so casually as to render the majority of his observations instantly forgettable.

This is a pity as there are little gems in here. Some which present the case for community living elegantly, like the interview with Berkeley University architect Sim van Der Ryn who says:

“…a home you’ve made yourself is like home-baked bread is to bought bread. It’s all part of a need people have to create more of the substance of their lives.”

Well put.

Then, at a different juncture a defender of communes tries to contextualise the move from straight society to communal living. Hence, (paraphrasing here) remove from your own home all furniture but a few blankets, a mat, table and chair. Then remove virtually all the food from the pantry leaving only a small bag of flour, some sugar, salt, a few potatoes and a handful of dried beans; dismantle the bathroom; disconnect all electricity; cancel all papers and move the family to a tool shed. They may as well add get the neighbours to move in too – and yet, this communard reports from their Californian retreat that despite these reduction in possessions, comforts and services happiness abounds as does a lack of all the diseases of modernity: depression, anxiety, loneliness, restlessness and misanthropic tendencies.

Really? I think this naïve exchange demonstrates the penchant for early commune-dwellers to strive for a reduction to medievalism; a reputation which I feel has blighted the movement ever since. Secondly, I’d like to see evidence to back up the assertions purported here that communal living clears one of all those anxieties. Although I’d like to think it true, my scepticism is raising alarm bells. It’s not proper journalism but mere opinion.

Another problem with the communes discussed in both books is that the main-players all seem middle class. Take this passage from ‘The Survivalists’:-

“The group which set up the commune comprised two architects, a management consultant, an advertising agency executive, an interior designer, a computer systems analyst, a civil engineer, two teachers and a medical laboratory technician….”

Not a single prole among them.

And this isn’t inverse class prejudice but an observation of those discussed in both texts. This suggests that communes of this nature are mostly started and run by a certain section of the middle class. Probably of, I imagine, a certain intellect and persuasion. For they have the means, the education and the profession to make it do-able, but it calls me to question the sincerity and longevity of such projects. Indeed, all the communes I Googled from the 1975 book no longer existed, whereas all those in ‘Utopian Dreams’ communes did. But will they in 2040?

‘The Survivalists’ is definitely a book about building new communities with those seeking to escape the modern technocratic society. ‘Utopian Dreams’ isn’t utopian at all – I suspect it was the name assigned the project by its publishers – but it too seeks to escape though it parades as trying to build anew. Such is the positivism of modern era, which I often find hides some of the actual truth of a situation.

I favour ‘The Survivalists’ more pragmatic approach, but ‘Utopian Dreams’ was a better source of intellectual ideas and justifications for communal living. So on this journey of these two books have I learned much?

Yes – but probably nothing conclusively. Answers to the big questions just aren’t that easy, I guess.

Although John Christopher is popularly known as the man who brought us ‘The Tripods’, this seminal 1956 work in the cannon of apocalyptic fiction needs to be disassociated with the authors sci-fi credentials, deserving a much wider audience. Just as the William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ offered a grotesque analysis of the potential of cruelty of humanity, so ‘The Death of Grass’ offer us a taste of how civilisation can quickly crumble. And with it, all that makes up society.

The premise of the book is one now familiar with anyone who considered the possibilities of swine flu, BSE, foot and mouth, aids or avian bird flu. In fact, in 1999, a form of stem rust appeared in African crops which quickly became an epidemic spreading from Africa to Asia and the Middle East and destroying a large amount of cereal crop with it.

Anyway, take bird or swine flu – here is a direct correlation to Christopher’s terrible prognosis just as ‘Threads’ posed the interconnectedness of things – Christopher sees a rampant disease among grasses as the first domino which sets the path to the destruction of modern civilisation.

Things start as a distant rumble, in China. But soon the BBC news reports that the rioting for food (rice and wheat or barley make up the genus that is in the family of grasses) begins to spread Westwards through India and then into Eastern Europe. The Western world begins charitably – sending supplies, but soon the mass begin to question this policy as scientists fail to find a way to stop the virus from spreading.

John Custance – our protagonist – and his family make an early break for his farmer-brothers Lake District valley farm, where he too has been watching the virus intently and switched to planting only root vegetables. They escape just as London is sealed off by the Army. However, things turn quickly nasty at roadblocks or the roads to villages, now arming themselves defensively against the masses rioting in the cities. I guess this does sound far-fetched but Christopher reads like John Wyndham: characteristically British and reserved – both in content and style. And it is that British reservation which increases the terrible frankness of murder, rape, looting – the juxtaposition of the English countryside with its dead grass but profoundly ordinary provincial setting that makes it such haunting reading.

Although I found the opening annoying (there’s a poorly written segment where he said / she said / he said / someone said comes over as rather amateurish – it’s as if Christopher struggles with openings), once the pace quickens, so does the fluidity of the writing and I’m certain most readers will become compelled by the protagonists struggle for survival in a speedily crumbling world. Penguin reissued the novel under its Modern Classics banner – so it’s claims on our time as readers comes with good recommendation.

The Death of Grass’ does the social decay and lawlessness of an holocaust at least as well as the leading examples of apocalyptic film – ‘Threads’ or ‘The War Game’. As such it is chilling warning of how fragile our world might actually be.