20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
PART 5: The Nuclear Age

 
     
     

 

 

 

CONTENTS
  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
August 6, 1945  GO
Apocalypse  GO
Your Attention Please 
Talk in the Dark  GO
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voices

Your Attention Please by Peter Porter

The Polar DEW has just warned that
A nuclear rocket strike of
At least one thousand megatons
Has been launched by the enemy
Directly at our major cities.
This announcement will take
Two and a quarter minutes to make,
You therefore have a further
Eight and a quarter minutes
To comply with the shelter
Requirements published in the Civil
Defence Code - section Atomic Attack.
A specially shortened Mass
Will be broadcast at the end
Of this announcement -
Protestant and Jewish services
Will begin simultaneously -
Select your wavelength immediately
According to instructions
In the Defence Code. Do not
Tale well-loved pets (including birds)
Into your shelter - they will consume
Fresh air. Leave the old and bed-
Ridden, you can do nothing for them.
Remember to press the sealing
Switch when everyone is in
The shelter. Set the radiation
Aerial, turn on the Geiger barometer.
Turn off your television now.
Turn off your radio immediately
The services end. At the same time
Secure explosion plugs in the ears
Of each member of your family. Take
Down your plasma flasks. Give your children
The pills marked one and two
In the C D green container, then put
Them to bed. Do not break
The inside airlock seals until
The radiation All Clear shows
(Watch for the cuckoo in your
Perspex panel), or your District
Touring Doctor rings your bell.
If before this your air becomes
Exhausted or if any of your family
Is critically injured, administer
The capsules marked 'Valley Forge'
(Red pocket in No 1 Survival Kit)
For painless death. (Catholics
Will have been instructed by their priests
What to do in this eventuality.)
This announcement is ending. Our President
Has already given orders for
Massive retaliation - it will be
Decisive. Some of us may die.
Remember, statistically
It is not likely to be you.
All flags are flying fully dressed
On Government buildings - the sun is shining.
Death is the least we have to fear.
We are all in the hands of God,
Whatever happens happens by His will.
Now go quickly to your shelters.



   

INFORMATION

   


The poem is in the form of an official radio announcement.
'DEW': Defence Early Warning system, designed to pick up electronically the signals of a fired nuclear missile
'megaton': unit of power equivalent to 1m tons of TNT
'shelter': nuclear air-raid shelter, intended to protect people from radioactive dust (fall-out). In some countries shelters were taken very seriously. In Switzerland, for example, a law was introduced in 1950 according to which every new house or public building must incorporate a nuclear shelter. The law was scrupulously followed. Large reinforced concrete structures were built into the foundations of every building, designed to protect people from blast and fire as well as fall-out.
'Civil Defence' (C D): organised civilian activities in the event of attack. In the UK during the Second World War air raid shelters were set up for the public (and also privately in back gardens and cellars); civilians ran air-raid warnings, firefighting, supply lines of food and other necessities, local communications, and an ambulance service.
'Geiger barometer': the Geiger counter, which detects and measures radioactivity, was named after the inventor Hans Geiger (1882-1945)
'plasma': the liquid part of blood
'Valley Forge': a site in America where George Washington's army spent the winter of 1777-8 during the American Revolution. They experienced extreme hardship and deprivation.
'instructed by their priests': part of a Catholic priest's duties is to give the 'last rites' to the dying. In the nuclear shelters and under nuclear attack, it was unlikely a priest could be summoned.

   

HISTORY

   


In 1949 the Soviet Union test-exploded its first atomic bomb. In the same year the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded, a military alliance of some Western European countries and the USA in the face of the Soviet Union's establishment of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The Cold War between East and West was well under way.

In January 1951 the US President announced that research on the making of a hydrogen bomb was continuing. The first US H-bomb was exploded on Enewetok Atoll in the Pacific on May 8, followed by another on November 1.

On March 1 1954 an even more powerful H-bomb (codename 'Bravo' and equivalent to over 1,000 Hiroshima bombs) was detonated on Bikini Atoll, whose population had been removed ('the option of staying was not a realistic alternative'). On this occasion radioactive dust was blown by the wind on to three of the Marshall Islands, whose inhabitants became the first victims of fall-out. They immediately suffered burns, nausea and hair loss. Later, women who became pregnant experienced an unusually high number of miscarriages and severely malformed infants, many of whom died. It was established in the following years that even low level radiation can endanger a foetus; it also increases the likelihood of Down's syndrome. Marshall Islanders in the following decades also began to develop leukaemia and tumours of the thyroid gland. The number of people with cataracts of the eye and diabetes increased, and skin problems were widespread. In 1986 radiation survivors were paid compensation but banned from taking their cases to court.

At the time of the 'Bravo' test a Japanese fishing trawler called the 'Lucky Dragon' was catching tuna just east of Bikini. It too was deluged with fall-out. The crew began to experience radiation sickness almost at once. When their illness, and the death of one of them, reached the headlines in Japan, the news spread world wide. The public were now alerted to the dangers of radiation.

People in the NATO countries and in eastern European countries (which with the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955) also learned more about the dangers of nuclear warfare.

The Frisch-Peierls memorandum (see the introduction to this section), having described the 'properties of a radioactive super-bomb', went on to say that 'it must be realised that no shelters are available that would be effective and could be used on a large scale'.

Nevertheless, in the mid-1970s the British government commissioned films and a leaflet to advise the public on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. The leaflet was called 'Protect and Survive'. (It can be seen on the internet.) The idea was that it would be issued to every household if nuclear war looked likely to break out. The advice provided is both terrifying and absurd in its failure to recognise the real nature of a nuclear attack, and came in for strong and scornful criticism. People were advised to build an 'inner refuge', using tables, doors, bricks and bags of sand, inside a 'fall-out room', a room with the fewest outside walls. The room was to be stocked with food and water for 14 days, and a first aid kit (aspirins and bandages). Other items included a mechanical clock and a calendar, and a portable radio with the aerial pushed in. The radio was vital, to get news of when it was safe to leave. Nothing was said about broadcasting systems being destroyed in the attack (though, interestingly, nowhere in the leaflet is a telephone mentioned). 'If a death occurs while you are confined to the fall-out room, place the body in another room and cover it as securely as possible. Attach an identification.' One of the actions recommended after the attack: 'minor repairs, to keep out the weather.'

That leaflet was prepared well over 15 years after Peter Porter had written his poem. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament published a leaflet if its own, called 'Protest and Survive'.

Official assessment (drawn up in 1955) of Britain's likely fate in a thermonuclear attack was considered so sensitive that it was not published until April 2002. 'Blast and heat would be the dominant hazard, accounting for 9 million out of 12 million fatal casualties.' The other 3 million would die from the effects of fall-out. The initial attack would be followed by a period during which the survivors would struggle 'against disease, starvation and the unimaginable psychological effects of nuclear bombardment.' Emergency plans were drawn up to allow for military authorities to take over from local government.

   

IDEAS

 

 

 


Unlike 'Protect and Survive', 'Your Attention Please' is almost as fresh today as it was in the early 1960s, though in real life the likely notice of an attack was shorter (at least in Britain): four minutes. What's more, its satirical approach can still be applied to the curious way in which governments give information (and instructions) to the public. Nowadays, however, the nod to religion would extend beyond two Christian sects and Jews. What other changes and refinements might there be?

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the poem are those that slip out of the 'official language' net.

Why 'well-loved' pets? A contrast with the next line - 'Leave the old and the bed-ridden, you can do nothing for them'? 'The sun is shining'. Then 'Some of us may die': the official spokesperson feels the fear. Finally, what world is this, in which 'death is the least we have to fear'? So, surviving nuclear war is worse than dying in it. That's almost certainly true, and human beings have made it so. They can't pass the buck to God.

 
            
     

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