The Big Boom, with English Reserve

England has a long tradition of dystopian prophesy in literature and cinema. The likes of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, and Ridley Scott all seem to revel in presenting doomsday scenarios. Films such as 1961’s “The Day The Earth Caught Fire,” and the 1965 BBC docudrama “The War Game,” depicting a Soviet nuclear strike on England, as well as books like Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows, a deceivingly innocent tale of untold horror, are among the works that underscore the British fascination with and fixation on with nuclear devastation.

Fascination? More like well-earned trepidation. After all, during World War II, London was blitzed nightly by German bombs and rockets, its citizenry enduring what most civilized beings could barely imagine. If Hitler had developed the atomic bomb, England would have suffered the same fate as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

England was forced to develop a sophisticated civil-defense apparatus, which included publishing cautionary guides like this handbook “Advising The Householder on Protection Against Nuclear Attack.” With the same kind of low-key narrative that a “householder” might read on how to survive a bug or rodent infestation, this “training publication for the civil defense, the police and fire services” addresses protective measures, needed equipment, what to do after an attack, and how to “manage” life “under fall-out conditions.” The text is reservedly quaint, underplaying the tragic impact of nuclear war, and the illustrations lack the slightest hint of horror. Indeed, by Jove, it is actually kind of comforting.

Similar handbooks in the United States were shrill by comparison. While they suggested that survival was possible, the magnitude of a nuclear attack was never minimized.

This handbook was republished by the V&A in 2008—for what purpose, other than nostalgia, is unclear. I reproduce it here as a curio from a time when our biggest enemy was the Soviet Union. With all the natural and man-made potential catastrophes at our doorstep, one almost longs for those days.

5 thoughts on “The Big Boom, with English Reserve

  1. Craig

    Germany’s Bear Family Records sells a fab box set called “Atomic Platters” with reproductions of various and stunning civil defense handouts and guides in a lovely hardcover book.

  2. Deborah Sutherland

    The V&A reprinted the HMSO Householder book at the time of the 2008/2009 exhibition Cold War Modern.  The exhibition website http://www.vam.ac.uk/microsites/cold-war-modern/ states: “Art and design were not peripheral symptoms of politics during the Cold War: they played a central role in representing and sometimes challenging the dominant political and social ideas of the age”.  I think that the design is as clear as a government publication can be and, as you note, the illustrations are “actually quite comforting”.
    In retrospect this seems almost more horrifying.  My favourite official response to the nuclear threat is described in Lydia Millet’s Oh pure and radiant heart: an educational film strip You and the atom released in the 1960s advised “The Atomic Energy Commission says the best defence against an atom bomb is to BE SOMEWHERE ELSE when it bursts”. (Caps in the original)
     
     

  3. Deborah Sutherland

    The V&A reprinted the HMSO Householder book at the time of the 2008/2009 exhibition Cold War Modern.  The exhibition website http://www.vam.ac.uk/microsites/cold-war-modern/ states: “Art and design were not peripheral symptoms of politics during the Cold War: they played a central role in representing and sometimes challenging the dominant political and social ideas of the age”.  I think thet the design is as clear as a government publication can be and, as you note, the illustrations are “actually quite comforting”.
    In retrospect this seems almost more horrifying.  My favourite official response to the nuclear threat is described in Lydia Millet’s Oh pure and radiant heart: an educational film strip You and the atom released in the 1960s advised “The Atomic Energy Commission says the best defence against an atom bomb is to BE SOMEWHERE ELSE when it bursts”. (Caps in the original)
     
     

  4. Kellie

    I recall as a child having “bomb drills” where we crouched in the hall or under our desks and covered our necks, tucked our heads down. How totally naive…

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