Monday, 14 March 2011

An Uncharacteristic Crisis Of Conscience, And The After-Effects Of Too Much Rolling News.

God, I'm tired. I've become a 24-hour news junkie, completely incapable of tearing myself away from the coverage of what's going on in Japan.

I knew I'd lost it last night when I was still sitting on the sofa at 3:30am, watching open-mouthed as reports came in about the second reactor at Fukushima having exploded. As the newsreader spoke, a red banner ran along the bottom of the screen, saying that a three-metre wave had been spotted off the North-East coast of Japan. How much more can one country take?

I just can't get my head around what I'm seeing, the scale of it, or the numbers presumed dead. And I want to slap everyone who phones today to complain about what I'd usually consider to be legitimate problems. As for those with totally imaginary ones, don't even get me started on them. It would be all too easy for me to become an axe murderer, and massacre a whole swathe of the usual suspects.

I'm not the only one, either. After a particularly pointless conversation with Mr Franklin about the "bloody unreasonable behaviour" of his GP who has apparently had the temerity to warn him about his (40 stone) weight, Greg slams the phone down and kicks Mr F's case file across the room. It doesn't go very far, though - the damn thing's much too heavy for that.

"These f*cking people," says Greg, while hopping on one foot. "I listen to them and I wonder what the hell kind of society we've created. Look at how the Japanese are behaving compared to our bunch of whingers. It's a bloody good job Mr F doesn't live there. At the first mention of a food shortage, he'd start eating passers-by. And complaining if anyone even tried to object."

"I know," I say. "When Steve Ellington just tried to tell me a tsunami joke, I wanted to kill him - very, very slowly. So now I'm going to have a cigarette."

"I'll come with you," says Greg, as he switches the answer-phone on. Which just goes to show how disaffected we feel today - seeing as we almost never turn it on, except in emergencies, or when we think the only alternative would be to resign with immediate effect.

We sit on the low wall outside the office, Greg eating Haribos as if they're going out of fashion, and me chain-smoking. It's odd how global disasters affect you that way. Instead of causing you to feel that you should do everything you can to take care of yourself and to make the most of the life you're lucky to have, they make you feel so powerless that you just don't give a sh*t about being sensible.

"Are Haribos made in Japan?" says Greg, chewing more slowly now.

I give him a filthy look - at which he raises his hands in a helpless gesture and then says,

"Sorry, Mol. I feel a bit hysterical for some reason. I can't seem to think about the bigger picture - it's just too big. How on earth do the people who have to deal with the clear-up cope?"

"I don't know," I say. "Imagine being the first on the scene in Minamisanriku. I'd just stand there, frozen. How would you even know where to begin? And, as for what's going on with the nuclear reactors, how did that happen?"

Greg stands up, ready to go back inside, but I remain sitting on the wall. I'm not capable of dealing with more constituents yet.

"What do you mean?" he says. "It's obvious. The tsunami and the quake; loss of coolant; then overheating. I thought you said you'd been watching the news 24/7?"

"I have," I say, lighting yet another cigarette. "That's not what I mean. I'm thinking about how a country that suffered so much as a result of nuclear bombs came to depend on the same process to generate their power. And what the hell has happened to my thinking on this stuff? Maybe there's such a thing as being too cynical and too bloody pragmatic by half."

Greg looks blank, but then he's entitled to. He's never read Hersey's Hiroshima or Where The Wind Blows, and he's never even heard of Protect and Survive.

He's too young for any of that - or to have any detailed recall of Chernobyl. He wasn't even born when Three Mile Island happened, and would still have been in nappies when I was wearing a beret covered in CND badges and campaigning for Northwick to become a nuclear-free zone.

The highlight of that episode was when I was promoted to sit on the regional committee of CND - which was when funny things started happening with my phone. It would ring, I would answer and, lo and behold, there'd be another committee member at the other the end of the line. So what, you might well say. That's what Alexander Graham Bell intended all along.

And you'd have a point, if it wasn't for the fact that then there would follow a confused conversation during which it would become clear that neither of us had called the other - or anyone else for that matter. Both our phones had just rung at exactly the same moment - many times, over weeks, if not months - purely by coincidence.

I know I'm starting to sound just like The Boss, what with his obsession about the office phones being bugged, but I was pretty *convinced mine really was at that time. I was also equally sure that I was near the top of the list of people the authorities intended to round up and imprison at the first sign of a nuclear war. And utterly convinced that the anti-nuclear cause was well worth fighting for.

I try to explain this to Greg, who asks how old I was when all this was taking place.

"Probably not much younger than you are now," I say. "But where the hell did that Molly go? When did I become the sort of person who reads all the bumpf we used to get sent when we were in government telling us that nuclear power was now the only way we could provide for the UK's energy needs, and just nods in acknowledgement instead of going and chaining myself to a fence somewhere?"

"Well, that stuff was true," says Greg. "We were going to run out of power if we didn't face up to the situation. And you know better than anyone that reality has a nasty way of f*cking with political principles. Even Nick Clegg's managed to grasp that concept since the General Election."

"I know," I say. "But what scares me is that I didn't even notice it happening to me."

*convinced - I was - and, to a certain extent, these fears later appeared less crazy than you might think, as per: this and this. See? I told you I wasn't as bonkers as The Boss. Not that he need have worried if he'd been an MP during that time. He'd have had his nice warm bed in a nuclear bunker guaranteed.


  1. Oh the idealism of youth!

    I well remember being an active member of the local CND, marching through London and idolising the Style Council.

    Where did it all get us? No wonder we have all become old cynics Molly....

  2. I know. It's sobering how acceptance just creeps up on you, though, isn't it? Wonder whether there will now be a backlash about the UK's plans for new nuclear reactors....

  3. And good choice re the Style Council, too!

  4. The problem was that CND's followers like yourselve could not distinguish between disarmament and civil nuclear power. It would be a shame if possibly justifiable questions about locating nuclear reactors on seismic fault lines were to demonise all nuclear power.

  5. That's rather rude of you! I was and am perfectly capable of making the distinction - at least to the degree that any lay-person can be. However, I was of the opinion even then that a leak of radiation from a power plant could have serious if not deadly consequences, and that such installations would be vulnerable to terrorism. I regret that more recent and tragic events at Fukushima have not yet reassured me on either point.

    With regard to nuclear weapons, my objection was different, and was largely based on the fact that, at that time, possessing them was as likely to make a country a target, as it was to act as a deterrent. This was because everyone was aware that, at that time, the only way to stop a nuclear weapon was to destroy it while it was still on the ground in its home country.

    I trust that, whilst I am sure you still don't agree with the views I held at that time, you can now see that my objections were at least based on a reasonable understanding of the differences between nuclear power and nuclear weapons ;-) If not, and/or if you have specialist knowledge of the situation that pertained at that time, please feel free to comment again.