Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that


Friday, 5 June 2020

Hooptedoodle #369 - Doomsday Obsession

A number of threads - of childhood nightmares, and of my failed career as a political activist...


This story is partly prompted by a piece of old junk I found when I was clearing my mother's house a few years ago - a sort of souvenir of my early teenage years, from a time of no little uncertainty and personal anxiety.



I've been watching the goings-on in the USA and elsewhere on TV, and, I'm afraid, I've always had a tendency to expect the worst. Usually, over the years, I've turned out to be unnecessarily pessimistic, but I guess I must be a slow learner.

I've always had some kind of Doomsday syndrome, I think. I was born in Liverpool, a city which was very badly smashed up by bombing during WW2. When I was a little kid in the 1950s, on the bus with my mother, travelling into the city centre to buy shoes or something, you could see the damage, still very much in evidence. Liverpool did not have a lot of money to rebuild, and these areas would have been a low priority anyway - there would be plans somewhere to demolish the whole lot for redevelopment as soon as possible, but all I could see were the gaps in the streets - if you travelled from the Dingle to the Pier Head, along Park Road or Mill Lane, which ran parallel to the river, within half a mile or so of the Southern Docks, every 5th, 6th, 8th, 12th house would be missing. These blitz sites gave me the horrors. Real nightmares.

Liverpool took a pasting in May 1941, when the Luftwaffe had bases near enough to put on massed raids - destruction of the port and the docks would have been a big strategic blow against the UK as a whole. The local defence chaps did their best, with searchlights and barrage balloons and AA guns and all the toys, but they stood little chance. The bomber crews would fly in over Warrington, and on a clear night they could see exactly where the targets were, as the river reflected the moonlight; they just flew along the East bank of the Mersey. Easy.



The actual air-raids were years before my time, but that whole story made a big impact on me - I guess I was a rather insecure child anyway, but the idea that some outside force could turn up and drop bombs on your house - I mean your kitchen, your toys, your mum, all the comfort in the known world - that was just devastating. I was really very obsessed with this stuff for years.

When we moved to Mossley Hill, a little further out into the suburbs, Saturday morning trips to the shops in Rose Lane now took us past the district Civil Defence HQ next to the railway station, and they had signs up on the walls telling you what you would have to do when the nuclear alert came - where to go, what position to assume, what you should take with you, what would happen. Not "if" the alert came - "when". This was like the WW2 blitz on an even more nightmarish scale. And there was no end of public information films on TV - all my school pals knew how near to the blast you would have to be to be vapourised, and we all knew that if you were not vapourised then things would be particularly grim thereafter. No wonder some of us grew up a little strange?


I remember going on holiday with my family - my dad hired a motor car, a real treat for us (it was a Morris!) - and we went down through the towns on the Welsh border, spending a week in Cornwall. At that time, I wasn't interested in anything - there was no point - we were all going to be vapourised anyway, so what could possibly be the point? My schoolwork was suffering, I had given up all my hobbies. On the holiday, at one point we reached a key moment - we were in the car park at Land's End. It was blowing a gale, it was cold and there was horizontal rain. My dad told me that for goodness sake I should cheer up a bit - this was a famous place, and I should enjoy being there - I might never have the chance again (in fact I've never been back). I was unimpressed - I knew that, like everywhere else, one day soon there would be a big flash in the sky (it might be over there, or it might be over there) and everything would be vapour and rocks.

Eventually I got over it, but I've always been a staunch pacifist, given the chance. I was at school when the Cuban missile crisis boiled up, I was at school when Kennedy was assassinated - I always had a good idea what was going to happen next...

At one point I took advantage of a free period at school, sagged off, took the bus into town, and visited Progressive Books in Mount Pleasant, up the hill from the Adelphi, towards the old University, and bought a small supply of CND badges for me and some fellow pacifists at school. I believe they were one shilling and sixpence each, by the way. The badges disappeared like the proverbial hot cakes, and I was commissioned to return to the "Commie Bookshop" for a further supply. No school uniform this time, either - anarchists didn't wear school uniform. The people in the bookshop were very kind to me, and obviously tried not to embarrass me, but they produced some leaflets (political - oooh...), and asked would I like to take some of these for my friends, and they were having a meeting the following Saturday if we would all like to come. I imagine I left at a good, brisk trot, without the leaflets. I delivered my load of CND badges, and the world moved on.

Not quite - I've always had that ability to see the Apocalypse coming over the hill - yet again - here it comes - 3rd time this week. That's why, when everyone was excited, watching the Berlin Wall come down, I was watching through my fingers, waiting for the shooting to start.

That's also why, when the fat fools who are in charge of the USA and North Korea were threatening each other with extermination recently, I felt that old, familiar sinking of the heart, and wondered why they couldn't get some grown-ups to do these jobs. I do hope Mr Trump doesn't frighten any little children in the world - being a child is scary enough as it is.

That's not much of a story, probably, but a lot of the shaping of my views is captured right there, however silly it may seem. That is how we were brought up - maybe I was a good boy, and reacted the right way. Maybe not. Whatever, I've always been a mug for any casual Doomsday story.


In passing, many years later, when I was married, with a young family, and striving to make ends meet, one birthday time I was given my Annual Appraisal at work by my boss of the day, who was a nice old boy - I liked him. As we finished the discussion of what I hoped to achieve, and how the professional exams were going, he said to me, "You're not still involved in the political stuff, are you?".

I was completely bewildered - I assured him I was not the slightest bit interested in politics, never had been, and he made a brief note on my file. I forgot all about it.

Many more years later, by which time I was a rather more important member of staff than I had been, something happened (was it the start of Data Protection?) and I was given the opportunity to see my personal staff file, by the same employer. I took the chance, and didn't think much about it, but in the miscellaneous section at the end was a handwritten note:

Active member of Communist Club at University and possibly a party affiliate of some sort - started at school?

I was dumbfounded - no basis for this at all. Untrue, in fact - not even close. Next to the note, in red ballpoint pen, my old boss, Bill (who had subsequently retired and was probably dead by then) had written: no evidence of this now, and that seemed to be the end of it.

Red Herring
 It doesn't matter now, but I have sometimes wondered where that came from - what on earth was it about? I guess I'll never know - probably a mistake. Yes - let's assume it was a mistake. At least they haven't vapourised me yet, though I suspect they are working on it at this very moment.

25 comments:

  1. Excellent.
    I think they need to keep you alive mate. Though fairly horrified by the HR record.

    Your CND badge and chat did remind me of an incident at school in the 80s.

    Being a Heavy Metal fan and a player of D&D, I was a 'High Profile Target' for the Scripture Union (God Squad)... (it's kind of a thing over here, religion)

    Many times they told me of my folly, of my route to hell etc. I of course, being the precocious teenager loved the attention of the better looking women that attended it (they were older than me ;P ).

    But one day, when talking with my mate who had joined CND, they warned me again (ironic if they had worn brown shirts ...but no) of the folly of said organisation - as even their badge was 'dangerous'.

    Intrigued of course, I asked why, and was informed that the symbol was an inverted cross with the beam broken, which was a symbol of Satan.

    There may have been a torrent of abuse in response, but safe to say, I've never listened to their b.s. since. With age of course, comes the realisation that they were just another group of easily lead purposeless waifs, who thought they had the answers...based on a martyr with a fake narrative.

    There's a lot of that about.

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    1. The broken inverted cross is bollocks - it's semaphore for "CND", superimposed, I think. Your CND involvement sounds like more fun than mine - I knew it would.

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    2. Correction - the old CND logo is the semaphore letters N and D superimposed - it's as satanic as that!

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  2. I was born a decade later. My earliest fears was passing apparently broken down vehicles at the roadside. I always thought they were IRA bombs.
    I had a secondary school teacher who very actively supported CND in the classroom but he had awful breath and greasy hair. I never signed up to it as a result. Sod humanity; if you smell bad who wants to survive I supposed at the time.
    Looking back over the years (I am looking at pensionable retirement in the next 9 months) I have seen the very best and very worst of humanity. I can only conclude that we, as a species, have survived ourselves despite our very best efforts.
    I suppose all you can do is hope you did your best, looked like Robert Mitchum at times and hope your kids do a better job than your own generation!

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    1. Agree with all that - I believe we in the UK have been sadly handicapped by the fact that we never actually got the hang of having been on the winning side in WW2 - in many ways, many people are still fighting it. Churchill reckoned that the object of war is to win it and live at peace with the losers, not win it and then just carry on making films to kid ourselves it's still going on.

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  3. Always expect the worst. Once in a while, things might turnout better than you expect. Sage advice from, of all people, my mother, who would very likely still advise the same now at 75. By and large, I think she's onto something.

    Best Regards,

    Stokes

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    1. Expressed like that, it is a bit of a downer, but Expectation Management was a big part of management of change in the 1980s and 90s, as I recall. Trump didn't get as far as that part of the course.

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  4. A friend of mine went through a bit of soul searching in his 20s; as well as all the usual distractions that young men explore, he became a Buddhist, but prior to that joined the Communist party of the UK (yes I know...extreme contrast).
    Anyway at some stage a younger brother of his applied to the Police. He did well in the initial application, but then was told "sorry, we cannot offer you a place". He maintained it was because of his brother's flirtation with communism. At the time, I was sceptical. However I do wonder whether they had actually given him this reason on the QT. Your story makes me wonder whether it was true......they ARE watching you after all.....you know now I think about it, that car HAS been parked there a long time.....;-)
    Neil

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    1. I have always assumed the information was passed on to my employer when I started - it can't have been the University, I wouldn't have thought, since they hardly seemed to be aware I was alive when I was there, so maybe it was some kind of agency. Dunno. Unless some bastard tried to SHOP ME, of course - yes, that's more like it....

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  5. Interesting bit of social history, it is worth capturing how we lived then. The little things tell the story.

    Regarding your HR file I'd suggest you have a look at the Economic League. Their info was seldom accurate but they had many paying subscribers.

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    1. Economic League - thank you, sir - I shall do a little reading.

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  6. Interesting parallels. I grew up in the '80s with parents who were active in the anti-nuclear movement. There were meetings in various houses and pins and badges and facts and figures and speeches and marches and placards and pamphlets.

    I remember being about six and hearing a plane come low over our house and thinking that it must be the Russians come to nuke us.

    I pity the youth today with the climate doom speak that they are being fed. It's a hard thing to be told that the world as we know it is going to end and that it's up to you to do something about it, while there's really nothing you can do. Small wonder that our young people suffer from anxiety and depression, struggle to find purpose, and a proportion simply despair.

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    1. Some of this may be facing up to real risks, some of it may be politically spun, some of it may simply be an industry to keep journalists and pundits in a job. I've been astounded how many staff the BBC and the papers still seem to have to give us really terrible news, and to keep the unrest simmering. I wonder if the BBC have anyone on furlough? - hmmm.

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  7. Pessimism is good. You only ever get pleasant surprises.

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    1. I have a lot of sympathy with that, except it's kind of dangerous - assuming that you're only going to get pleasant surprises may be over-optimistic, leading to complacency. A friend of mine used to have a sign on the wall over his desk, which said "Life is Crap - deal with it". He was a jolly soul.

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  8. Our pro CND teacher made us watch “threads” in general studies at school. Changed my world view permanently

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    1. Peter Watkins' "War Game" is pretty heavy going too. As for "Threads", I may be living the main theme now.

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  9. Intersting stuff. I was a teenager and student late 70s/early 80s during an intense 'cold war' period, I remember reading 'future histories' portraying likely World War 3 set in, say, 1985 ( General Hackett etc ). At the same time being a wargamer I remember having several board games covering potential Soviet/NATO conflict. SPI seemed to have a large range, I had 'Fulda Gap', 'BAOR' etc and even 'Nato Division Commander' - now that was a monster, and never played. So we were steeped in it, and even gaming it - the odd thing is, I can't really think that I actually believed it would happen. This may have been simple denial, as perhaps now happens with climate change.. I suppose the possible results of such events were just too huge to be able to grasp? Maybe I was saved by my lack of imagination..?



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    1. Personally, I could never raise any interest in playing games based on WW3 - even a conventional war in the 1960s and 70s would have been unimaginably horrifying. I'm not even too comfortable with WW2 as a tabletop entertainment, to be honest, and certainly not Vietnam or Afghanistan. Too immediate, too identifiable. I realise that horse and musket warfare was not exactly humane either, but somehow the passage of a couple of centuries makes it into a recorded fact rather than something I am still involved in. Matthew Brady's photos of dead young men in the ACW are heartbreaking to me - shadows of humans burnt into the walls of Hiroshima even more so.

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    2. I received an email from Dan S, who makes the point that at one time there was an industry in the US to convince themselves they might "win" a nuclear war, which implied someone might survive it in a capable state to understand it and do something about it. Did the spread of the games have anything to do with that mentality? Professional military strategists used to play games - still do - to develop their ideas and test theories - did that culture reduce the threat of warfare to something that many of us could handle intellectually? Thank you Dan - I feel much better now.

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    3. I entirely take your point about gaming current/modern wars, and I too am not very comfortable with say, games set in contemporary Afghanistan (I believe that in some cases the players are veterans of that conflict, which is hard to grasp). It's interesting to me that the 'founding fathers' of our hobby included men such as Featherstone and Young who had foguht in WW2 and were happy to game it - perhaps it gave them a way to 'process' their experience, in the modern parlance? Perhaps we all have a 'line' in time that we don't like to cross, different for each of us. In my case I think my WW2 efforts are actually about nostalgia for my own childhood and the airfix figures etc - and having grown up in the generation that Harry Pearson captured so well in his lovely book. I might also try to distinguish 'future WW3' games in the 1970s from 'current/recent war' games, since the former were basically fantasy, 'what-if' games on a scenario that did not actually happen. But maybe I'm pushing that too far. Anyway thanks for your post, it has been very thought-provoking - and we all need to think more, I suspect, about many things!

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    4. I wouldn't like to think that anyone was unduly stimulated by my personal hang-ups, but thank you! Your point about Featherstone and Young (and Grant Snr and a few others) is a good one - just to be awkward, might I also mention HG Wells, was a very firm pacifist (and had maybe the bloodiest melee rules in history - maybe there's a correlation?).

      AS we've discussed here before, there are few things which give you a clearer idea of the hopelessness of being a soldier than playing games with toys - especially anyone that finds himself with me in command!

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  10. The opictures of the damage suffered by Liverpool in WW2 are interesting. Regualr air raid/nuclear attack drills were standard in the US in the 60's; I was happuy when they stopped all that in the 70's, but I do recall the occaissional nightmare about a nuclear attack.

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    1. Hi Peter - Liverpool's WW2 Blitz damage was second, I think, only to Hull of the British cities, in terms of percentage of buildings damaged. Some parts were especially badly hit - the area of Bootle, right next to the North Docks, had very few undamaged buildings. I have a book which was published fairly recently, which was written secretly as a private memoir during the war by a journalist on the Liverpool daily newspaper. He was running a big risk - the UK Govt was determined that the Germans should not be informed of how successful the raids were, and he would have been in big trouble if this stuff had come to light - BIG trouble. This was also true for Portsmouth, and Hull, and other cities which had a strategic importance. Newsreels of Churchill and the King and Queen touring London with Union flags were OK for boosting morale, but factual information about the destruction of the ports was heavily censored. There was a lot of publicity concerning the bombing of Coventry, as an act of Hun vandalism, and of course it was a tragic event, but since Coventry was the heart of the British motor industry it must have been an obvious target, I would think, and the bombing of the Cathedral was overplayed, I think, in comparison to the civilian casualties. There is no good news in this, I guess - selective publicity is going to misrepresent something, miss the point somewhere else.

      As for London, I understand that Mervyn Peake (he of "Gormenghast" fame) was removed from his job as a war artist, and locked away in a sanitorium for a while, because his drawings of the London blitz did not give the right messages. It's OK, there was a war on, but many of the true stories about the UK Blitz have only emerged long afterwards.

      There again, I have seen the museum model in Frankfurt of what that city looked like after it was bombed. Ouch. My English work colleague who was with me just said, "Well, they started it". Right - all those women and children and old people - they started it. Serve the bastards right, eh?

      As for nuclear attack drills - I can remember two taking place when I was at primary school, we all had to sit on the floor under our desks, and keep quiet for five minutes. Apparently silence was important. The Russians would have stood no chance. I also remember that John Hogan, who shared my desk, smelled very bad. My Cold War memoirs.

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  11. Considering Gormenghast, which I could only finish the second time around, perhaps the authorities judgement was spot on in his case! :-)

    I think considering the circumstances of WW2, the authorities had better reason than most times for censoring news coverage to a considerable degree, both from the standpoint of intelligence to the enemy and preserving morale on the home front. A fine line at best, for sure, but understandable.

    The damage to some German cities in the later phase of WW2 was horrific - Frankfurt, Cologne, Dresden. Vonnegut's rather strange novel, Slaughterhouse-5, highlighted the firebombing of Dresden.

    I rather preferred "The Siren's of Titan", or perhaps even more so the Al Stewart song based upon same! :-)

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