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What do you think of when you think of the cold war? The answer may depend on how old you are. For the young, it is history; for the elderly it is one of the times they endured in a whole century of extraordinary violence and upheaval; for the generations in between it’s a bit of both. But for almost everyone of any age, the cold war seems in retrospect somewhat nebulous: a war without a clearly defined beginning or end, when much of the action was clandestine and the ground rules were obscure; a war of mist and fog, perhaps.
That makes it an especially interesting war from the point of view of a writer. My novel, The Long Room, is set in 1981, a time when it may have seemed that the gravest dangers of the war had already been averted, but which was still pervaded by a constant level of anxiety. As we now know, that anxiety was justified; as late as 1983, the Soviet leadership mistook a routine Nato exercise as cover for imminent nuclear attack.
Mutual misapprehension, fear, mistrust, the near-impossibility of telling reality from illusion – the features of that time make it the perfect setting for a novel that is about espionage but also about isolation and obsessive love. How lucky we are that the world survived the cold war and can afford to let it become history and fictive backdrop.
Dozens of books could have made this list. I have chosen some that seem to me to give a strong sense of what it felt like to be living through the cold war and of the fears that people had.
I realise that the list leaves out the Soviet point of view. If there is an account of how the conflict felt to an ordinary citizen of the USSR who believed the official rhetoric, I’d be glad to know.
1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Orwell takes his place at the head of this list as the first writer to use the term “cold war” in relation to geopolitical conditions immediately after the second world war (in You and the Atomic Bomb). Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the defining vision of totalitarian rule. It supplied us with a vocabulary we still use and is as relevant today as it was when Orwell wrote it. “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
2. The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis
An admirably lucid and comprehensive account of the nuclear-armed stand-off – its origins and causes, its end and what happened in between. Elegantly written for the general reader, it is an essential introduction.
3. HMSO Civil Defence Handbook No 10 (1963): Advising the Householder on Protection Against Nuclear Attack
Whitewash your windows. Equip a fallout room. Use your reserves of water very sparingly. If you have to go outside, put on gumboots and a scarf. “But even then it is still dangerous.” Was there ever a scarier concept than Mutually Assured Destruction? This little booklet, with its childish illustrations, makes Armageddon seem almost matter-of-fact.
4. When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs
This graphic novel by the artist best loved for The Snowman might look as if it were meant for children. But any child who read it would soon be having nightmares. Here is what happens when the bomb actually falls and an elderly couple tries to put HMG’s advice into practice. “God almighty ducks! There’s only three minutes to go!” But all that laying in of supplies and whitewash is to no avail. “Ooh look, my hair’s coming out. I’ve got funny blotches on my skin.” Heart-rending.
5. The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010 by Peter Hennessy
This fascinating account of secret government plans for combatting attacks on Britain is another side of the same picture. The updated edition covers the post-cold war period too: the threat of Armageddon did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The section on “letters of last resort” is chilling.
6. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
Any of Le Carré’s cold war novels could have made the cut. But I think this, an early one, is the most effective. It brilliantly depicts a bleak, amoral world and it set the benchmark for the many other novels exploring the same material.
7. The Book of Daniel by EL Doctorow
An extraordinary novel. Utterly unsparing, brutal and compelling, it fictionalises the Rosenbergs, the couple executed in 1953 for conspiring to pass US atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Seen through the eyes of their son, it gives a view from another side of the cold war – that of the committed American left. But it is no polemic; instead, it enters completely into the heart of a damaged man and asks important questions about loyalty, betrayal, and political engagement.
8. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Paranoia about “Reds” led in the 1950s to the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunts. Himself a potential victim of the purges, Miller wisely chose to protest against them indirectly, using the 1692 Salem witch trials as metaphor. In doing so he delivered a masterclass in the creative use of history and wrote one of the most powerful plays of the 20th century.
9. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
The cold war as comedy. Wormald, a vacuum cleaner salesman and inadvertent spy, sends British intelligence into a spin with his scale drawings of the parts of “the Atomic Pile Cleaner”. Greene called this novel an entertainment, but like all the best jokes it has a serious side, and is a reminder that the cold war was not only waged between superpowers but also sucked in a lot of smaller nations.
10. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Shute is an unfashionable writer now, but he was hugely popular in the 1950s and 60s. This 1957 novel, set in Australia, tells of the time after a global nuclear war. Week by week a radioactive cloud is sweeping southwards, bringing with it inevitable death. Slightly clunky, it would win no prizes for literary style – but its artlessness and proliferation of seemingly inconsequential detail somehow make this story of ordinary people waiting for extinction both credible and affecting.
Source: The Guardian
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