Longing for a more innocent time of nuclear apocalypse
And so now we’re selling uranium to the Russians. Juggling the morning madness of kids, breakfast, dogs and work, the news item relayed via my tinny trannie was easy to miss and at first didn’t register. And then the irony of it all hit me like a shovel between the eyes.
It is very, very, hard to convey to Gen Y what it was like coming of age in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties - before we were called Gen X, before mobile phones and before the internet.
It’s hard to make them understand what it was like living everyday thinking that it could be your last, thinking you were seconds away from being annihilated in atomic cataclysm launched by those Godless Soviets.
Every future plan you made – about study, a job, marriage, family, where you would live and whether you would retire up the coast and play golf had a footnote: unless we’re all killed tomorrow. There was a prevailing community neurosis, a prevailing sadness and prevailing recklessness – “I thought about giving up smoking but we’ll all probably be dead tomorrow, got a light?”
This neurosis was constantly reinforced by art and culture, and it must be said this period of Apocalypse Art was one of our most vibrant. The Day After, a telemovie starring a taciturn Jason Robards, screened the year I did my HSC. It was part fiction, part documentary, and scared us witless. The BBC gave us the outstanding mini-series, the Edge of Darkness, starring Bob Peck and Joanne Whalley (which has recently been remade as a Mel Gibson vehicle).
Speaking of Mel Gibson, Apocalypse Art spawned fine local films such as Mad Max, Peter Weir’s evocative The Last Wave and the outstanding New Zealand production of The Quiet Earth starring Bruno Lawrence. Although set in a 1960’s American college, National Lampoon’s Animal House and in particular the over-the-toppedness of John Belushi tapped into the self-destructive gallows humour of the period.
Literature too fuelled our fear of imminent demise. 1984 and Animal Farm were, of course, standard texts. For those of us of the X generation, Apocalypse Art probably started with an Australian-domiciled pom, Neville Shute, whose novel On The Beach had since been rendered to the big and small screens.
But it was in popular music the Apocalypse Art found its true voice. Everyone from Johnny Rotten to Kate Bush and Ozzy Osbourne railed against the bomb. Nena’s 99 Luft Ballons captured the vacillating hopeless/hopeful mood beautifully. At home Midnight Oil and Goanna tapped into the pervading consciousness. Redgum’s Beyond Reason from Frontline, the album that gave us I was only 19 was probably the finest, if least recognized example of the genre.
And we fought back too. We voted for Peter Garrett and his Nuclear Disarmament Party. We marched on Palm Sunday and we bought unread books on Trotsky and Lenin from funny little men in The Domain. In our spare time we stopped the dams, saved the forests and tried to feed the world.
And then something happened. They blew their horns, and the walls came down. As Berlin partied, people tizzed their hair, put on white moccasins and matching white belts, danced The Locomotion and drank big blue and green drinks in brandy tumblers. We joined the Young Liberals and talked about the New World Order on mobile phones the size and weight of bricks and with the range of a short par 4.
It’s impossible to convey the gloomy mood of the Cold War era to Gen Y. Their mouths feign empathy yet you can see the emptiness behind their eyes. Sure there’s terrorism now but that’s random and happens to someone else – not the helpless, mutually assured self-destruction we lived with. Climate change might be a worry but, really, it’s a long way off and somebody is sure to fix it.
Perhaps that’s why The Greens are being so successful. It’s easy to pitch to Gen Y that the troops should come home from Afghanistan when the conflict is so far off, so anonymous and ambiguous. After all, the Taliban don’t threaten me do they? And it’s not as if I’m ever going to go there…..um it’s not near Bali is it?
And yet in the same breath Bob Brown says we shouldn’t sell uranium to the Russians. On the one hand we can down tools and walk away guilt-free from Afghanistan but must work ourselves into lather of panic about the supposed cunning plan of the Russians to get square for Ronald Regan. On one hand we can shut our minds to the consequences of leaving a real conflict but be worried about a fantasy.
Call it a paradox and breathtaking hypocrisy (considering the charge oft-laid against John Howard). But appealing to the lazy good intentions of a younger generation while stoking the paranoia of an older one? Now that’s cynical political genius on a grand scale.
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