Nuking Sheffield - and the North Shore
Inspired by news reports of nuclear arms races and superpower proxy wars in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, by rambling but vivid stories about 'the last big one' from elderly relatives, and by a long series of movies as different as Red Dawn, which showed a bunch of all-American teens taking to the hills and waging guerrilla war after Soviets parachuted into their school, The Day After, which presented the results of widespread radiation poisoning in coruscating detail, and Konstantin Lopushanky's Letters from a Dead Man, which showed that nuclear war wouldn't be much fun for the Russkies either, I spent my twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth years waiting for the outbreak of a Third and - I assumed - final World War. By the time I'd reached my mid-teens, the departure of Ronald Reagan from the White House and the reform of Soviet domestic and foreign policies under Gorbachev had taken much of the chill out of the Cold War, and made the prospect of nuclear armageddon seem suddenly remote. It's no wonder that members of Skyler's 'generation', let alone children of the eighties and nineties, find my youthful anxieties so hard to understand.
After an idealistic but callous teacher showed our Standard Four class Peter Watkins' classic docu-drama The War Game, which imagined the effects of a quickfire 'nuclear exchange' on an almost comically unprepared 1960s England, my friends and I began considering the specifics of the coming conflict. We debated whether or not the nearby Papakura Military Base, a set of semi-derelict huts thrown up for American troops during World War Two, would be a high or low-value target for Soviet missiles, and wondered which parts of the Drury Hills might make useful bases for guerilla warfare. Weekend adventures in the Hills, which were a short bike ride from my parent's farm, were soon filled with our earnest arguments about military strategy and tactics. When we encountered a series of horizontal shafts left in the side of the gorge of Waihoehoe Stream by nineteenth century coal miners we debated whether or not they would make useful ammo dumps, and when the tracks we followed out of the gorge narrowed we talked about the possibility of 'ambushing the Soviets', and discussed the relative merits of the kalashnikov, which we assumed all 'Soviets' carried, and the slug guns, .22s, and deer hunting rifles we had access to. I find it obscurely comforting to know that my obsession with nuclear warfare wasn't only shared, in the mid-80s, by gung-ho playing companions and the entertainment industry. One of the pieces which I will be including in Private Bestiary, the selection of Kendrick Smithyman's unpublished poems Titus Books plans to launch later this year, is full of the same fears that I remember feeling in the chilly last years of the Cold War. On the 24th of September 1986, the sixty-four year old senior Kiwi poet sat down at his typewriter and produced the following text:
The living room is
almost entirely glass. In event of
a nuclear attack, walls of this room
will melt like milkbottles, we are not all
that far from
situated naval base which must, we like
to think, be designated as a prime
target in the event. Household cats sleep
fronting up to a heat source
beside the television set showing
a film of what would happen to
- well, Sheffield's the place they fixed on.
Cats of Sheffield in the event,
they...I don't want to recall what happened
to Sheffield cats. It was
convincing and I am
to Sheffield, very cold, very cold indeed,
burning cold, met by
an academic Australian poet,
went to stay with him a night or two.
Sheffield is/was not an exciting to be in
but reasons may be advanced for destroying it.
At the environs, a lot of garbage.
Which no doubt came in handy.
How improbable, to be met by and go to stay with
an Australian academic in Sheffield who was
a poet who had been (putting himself through
college) a randy boundary rider
back of the black stump,
how more probable
what was on the screen: at prospect's end
between tongue-by-jowl Victorian
housings a mushroom
cloud tumour burgeoning,
such imaginable chaos coming into bloom
while household cats slept.
Counter-strike jets flared away from some
where near Doncaster, remembering
fiction, remembering how
when I went back to what we for a time only called
"home" each night, about ten, the flat sounded
to late-night-to-dawn bomber flights going
over, climbing from take off.
'Sheffield' was inspired by the BBC docu-drama Threads, which imagined the effects of a nuclear war on a group of people living in the Yorkshire city. The first episode of Threads, which was made in 1984 but did not reach Kiwi screens until September 1986, showed milk bottles melting in the heat released by a nuclear blast, and cats and dogs dying in agony admist the fires and radioactive fallout that folowed the blast. To my twelve year-old mind, Threads seemed yet more evidence for the imminence of the 'next big one'.
As he worked away at his typewriter, Smithyman's mind moved between memories of the time he spent in Sheffield during his 1969 visit to Britain and anxiety about the proximity of his home in Northcote, on Auckland's North Shore, to the Devonport Naval Base. Historically, Devonport had been a stopping-off point for American nuclear-powered (and, probably, nuclear-armed) warships visiting New Zealand, and therefore a magnet for anti-nuclear and anti-imperialist demonstrators, who warned that the ships made New Zealand a potential target in any war between Eastern and Western blocs.
Although the Labour government elected in 1984 had effectively banned nuclear warships from visiting New Zealand, the prospect of nuclear war still worried many Kiwis in September 1986. Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan were due to negotiate face-to-face at a major summit in Iceland in October, and commentators feared that if the meeting went badly there would be a greatly increased chance of nuclear conflagration. In the event, the Reyjkavik summit was a failure, and a grim Gorbachev left Iceland warning of the danger of war.
It is notable that, like The Day After, The War Game and a number of other visions of nuclear apocalypse, Threads is set in an unglamorous provincial city. In a curious way, the era of superpower nuclear confrontation sometimes drew popular attention away from centres of economic and political power, towards regions that were remote, or politically insignificant, or both - places like the American cornbelt, the deserts of New Mexico, the Aleutian Islands, or the despised towns of Britain's rusting steelbelt. It was in these unheralded regions where nuclear weapons were often stored, and where the planners and war gamers of the rival blocs tended to focus their attentions. It is hardly a surprise that the rulings classes of the West and East preferred to silo their missiles under the corn of the Midwest and the snows of Siberia, rather than in Washington or New York or Moscow.
Although New Zealand was never permanently home to any nuclear weapons, it did, on account of its peculiar location, form an important link in the Cold War-era defences of the West. While liberal peace activists around the world were applauding the New Zealand government for blocking visits by nuclear ships, they were ignoring the role that the US-run Harewood Air Base outside Christchurch played in connecting bases in Antarctica with the rest of the American war machine. Arguably, the closing of Harewood would have been a greater blow to the American imperium than the ban on nuclear ships. America's navy had many ports of call, but there were few alternative stopover points for the planes that supplied the country's outposts in Antarctica. Smithyman was always fascinated by the obscure, unglamorous parts of New Zealand, and of the world. He wrote hundreds of poems about the Hokianga but almost none about Wellington, despite making many visits to that city. The poems he produced in Britain in 1969 focus on the villages and towns of Yorkshire and northwest Scotland, and largely ignore the metropolis of London and the dreaming spires of Oxbridge. Smithyman's negative and rather cliched view of Sheffield as a place 'not exciting to be in' seems, though, to fly in the face of his tendency to celebrate the regional and the unglamorous, and would be strongly contested by anti-traveller Carey Davies, who told me in an interview earlier this year that he was grateful to have gone to university in a 'sprawling post-industrial city urgently and uncertainly trying to reinvent itself', with 'an independent northern spirit contemptuous of London fashions'.
Smithyman's view of Sheffield would also be rejected by Owen Hatherley, the left-wing British psychogeographer whose fondness for the ruined monuments of utopian modernist architecture has drawn him again and again to the beautifully-designed sink estates that adorn Sheffield's gently rolling hills. On a blog with the fascinating name of The Sesquipedalist, a mate of Hatherley's writes about a trip to Gleadless Valley, an estate on the edge of Sheffield filled with magnificent architecture, 'shirtless louts', and 'piles of scenic rubbish'. It looks like the garbage that Smithyman reported finding in large quantities on the edge of the city never got picked up.