When the Sirens Sound

As I pressed the Publish button on yesterday’s blog, comfortable in the kitchen of my flat in Prague, sirens began to wail in the streets outside. I checked the time. It was precisely twelve noon on the first Wednesday of the month. Nothing to fear.

It is a curious anomaly of life in Prague that so long after the end of the Cold War when so little evidence of it survives amongst the Gothic, Baroque and Cubist glory, the sirens still sound to test our preparedness for disaster. After a couple of minutes, as the sound fades, a deadpan voice reassures us that it was only a test. I confess I never wait for that reassurance in fear and trembling, and I’m quite sure that if it didn’t come, no one would actually notice.

Prague, and every other town and village in the country, is riddled with public address loudspeakers. Look up and you’ll see them strapped to lampposts here and there. In the bad old days they broadcast the inarticulate nonsense of the incumbent Communist leaders. Except, perhaps, when they announced the arrival of shipments of basic commodities, they were then, as now, ignored.

I’m not sure, actually, what we’re supposed to do if the sirens sound for real. I know that Prague’s Metro was built with fall-out in mind. You can still see the vast doors that are supposed to seal off the system in the event of nuclear war. And I understand there are huge troves of tinned sardines to feed 400,000 for four or five days, and cisterns full of water (still, not sparkling)  But I also know that when they closed the doors to seal out the floodwaters of 2002 the doors simply failed and the water gushed through. Rather you than me. Expiring underground with the taste of sardines in the mouth doesn’t attract me in the least.

I lived through most of the Cold War, but never in fear, and never sensing that incineration was imminent, or a lingering death from radiation sickness, or, worst of all, a descent into barbarism as survivors fought over what remained. Was fear justified? It always seemed unlikely to me that anyone at the top would actually press the nuclear button. And so it transpired.

Perhaps, if I remember accurately, which is unlikely, I sensed a frisson of fear in the adults around me (by which I mainly mean my parents) during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I was just five. As when the announcement of Kennedy’s death came some months later there was a gravity of tone to the television newsreader that seemed out of the ordinary, even disturbing. In any case, politics and war were out of nearly everyone’s hands. It would be just one man or woman, our Prime Minister of the time, who would actually, metaphorically, press the button.

This sense of the ordinary man or woman’s dislocation from dangerously threatening events was never better or more poignantly captured than by Raymond Briggs in his graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982). Its protagonists, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, are an ordinary elderly couple coping inexpertly with the aftermath of nuclear war, dying helplessly and hopelessly, and bickering affectionately to the last. (It’s hard to believe it comes from the same crayon as the joyous and more famous The Snowman.)


When the Wind Blows (the beginning of the film version).

The Government broadcast in the event of nuclear war that begins the story is completely realistic. Until the early 1990s most Governments around the world developed elaborate plans to deal with the aftermath. I worked in the Presentation department of BBC Radio 3 in the early 1980s and my colleagues, the announcers, knew exactly what to do in the event of war. There was a cabinet in every continuity studio containing the Government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ instructions (alongside what to say in the event of the death of the Queen Mother) which they were to read out as calmly as if announcing a symphony by Mozart. Of course, in reality, the BBC’s studios in central London were likely to be liquefied by thermonuclear explosion long before any announcer could reach the bottom of the first page. But I never saw the text. Perhaps all it actually said was ‘Pray’, instructions no less futile than any others.

Protect and Survive

Members of the Government, I understand, would scuttle away to a deep bunker in Basingstoke. A fate worse than death, you might think.

In retrospect, we are told, 1983 was a dangerous year. The KGB feared Reagan’s more aggressive stance towards the Soviets, and mistakenly interpreted a vast NATO exercise as preparation for a preemptive nuclear strike. The Soviet Army, it seems, had better sense and cautioned against mutual assured destruction. And there was a tricky moment in the same year when the Soviets’ early warning systems erroneously detected an incoming missile. The good sense of Stanislav Petrov who had a hunch that his equipment was at fault, saved the world.

It seems odd that after so much danger has passed the sirens of Prague still suggest we live on the precipice. I think we don’t (discounting the arrival of meteorites or other ‘Acts of God’). There are dangers, but I fear they are not of the kind that any siren will save us from. In any case, when the sirens sound in earnest, what are we actually supposed to do that would make the slightest sense?

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