Sally Hall: The Cold War and the futility of that four-minute warning

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In the remote Duddon Valley in the western Lake District last weekend, I revelled in the peace of a glorious sunny day. Until a shattering blast shocked me out of my reverie – the sonic shock of a fighter jet soaring above the craggy terrain.

Growing up in the Yorkshire Dales, the roar of fighter jets was a regular feature of my childhood.

Terrified by Cold War fears of nuclear attack, the noise was a harbinger of dread for me.

It’s been a long time since I’d heard one of those jets, and the experience was unnerving.

It seemed to indicate the likelihood of impending military action – especially when I heard the same sound three more times in different parts of the Lakes over the next few days.

As a child, my mum was an active member of CND (The Campaign fur Nuclear Disarmament), and we joined her for numerous protests and peace camp visits.

At the height of the Cold War, CND was a huge organisation with millions of members across Europe.

In 1983 alone, CND coordinated protests involving more than three million people across the UK and Europe on one single day.

We joined the march at Barrow – something I vividly remember, as all the children were encouraged to lie down on a bridge and cover themselves with bandages soaked in fake blood, then en-masse pretend to be dead.

While I’m sure this made a truly stirring photo opportunity, I wonder if the organisers thought about the impact this might have on the impressionable minds of those involved?

A rather sensitive child at the best of times, this experience did nothing to ameliorate my already vivid fears of nuclear annihilation.

For years I was obsessed with the four-minute warning – a public alert system conceived by the British Government in 1953. Representing, at least in theory, the duration between release of a nuclear weapon in Russia and its detonation in the UK, the four-minute warning remained officially in operation until 1992.

At first I obsessed with great solemnity about what could be achieved in the allotted four minutes. I studied the 1980 civil defence guide ‘Protect and Survive’; with its instructions to tape up windows and huddle beneath a propped up old door (painted white to repel blasts of heat), pre-selected what cuddly toys I would bring to this makeshift shelter, and fretted about whether my brother could be recalled from his habitual activity of tree-climbing in time to get under the door.

Then, influenced by Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows, I realised the futility of this approach.

Instead, the four-minute warning became a jokey conversation point, the subject of amusing escapades in Only Fools and Horses (in an episode called The Russians Are Coming), and a tool for flirtation.

Such a pervasive cultural concept in the Eighties, I was surprised to learn my boyfriend had never heard of the four-minute warning.

As a child in East Germany, he had just as much reason – probably more – to fear imminent nuclear attack. So I was intrigued to discover the lack of a warning system in the DDR.

Then again, Germany unsurprisingly focused on more practical strategies, which might actually have worked. For a start, each schoolchild was issued with a gas mask and participated in regular evacuation drills.

My boyfriend’s parents live in a house with a massive cellar, sealed with a three-foot thick metal door – a fairly normal household fixture, apparently.

Seeing those fighter jets at the weekend, I wished forlornly that we had one of those doors too.

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