Cold War babies and the atomic bomb: why the UK’s failing relationship with Russia feels grimly familiar for my generation

Manchester, a nuclear free city
Manchester, a nuclear free city

On a plot of wasteland, four little boys fashion a makeshift shelter out of discarded wooden pallets and a tarpaulin sheet. They climb inside to eat crisps and biscuits and discuss what would happen if the Russians were to launch a nuclear attack.

Somehow they imagine that while their families and homes would be flattened, and the air filled with poisonous radioactive dust, they would survive to have further adventures within the wreckage of the town they call home.

They would break into the local shops for treats, take cars for a joyride and help themselves to whatever they desired. Somehow, an unwinnable war between the superpowers would wipe away all authority figures and they would survive, safe within that makeshift wooden den. 

For a certain generation of men who were once little boys, there’s a grim familiarity about the simmering tensions between Russia and the rest of Europe, as highlighted by this Guardian articleEven as small children, we understood the implications of increasingly tense relations between east and west.

It is a reminder of an era when it felt like a certainty, rather than a possibility, that a nuclear war would destroy everything we knew and fill the skies with radioactive dust. The end of the first Cold War, brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union, made it feel to me as though the bogeyman of my childhood had gone away. The spectre of militant, radicalised and extremist Islam has filled the void but the difference has largely been nuclear capability. 

But Russia is back stalking the shadowlands, flying missions at odds with our ideologies and putting on a show of force in the English Channel. How much if this is media madness is hard for me to say but it’s a good story that’s going to run and run at this time of heightened anxiety. And didn’t Obama warn us we were on our own if we decided to Brexit? Thank heavens we live in a city which doesn’t agree with nuclear war, I say.

A nuclear free city

I’m now proud to properly comprehend  that this was the era when Manchester first declared itself a Nuclear Free City, as if that meant that the Russains would aim their missiles elsewhere. In spite of the sentiment, kids then “knew”, or at least felt,  that the nuclear holocaust was inevitable, rather than a possibility.

Mainly it was about the way that popular culture reflected the political atmosphere, and children were not immune to that. Films like Threads and When The Wind Blows were far more than period versions of a Die Hard movie. They vivid and frightening and nothing like today’s all action dramas with bad guys cast in the of whoever is the political enemy of the moment.


No, those films were more like docudramas of what to expect – propaganda warnings of what we should prepare for. We knew what to expect and it was the worst. Barry Hines’ 1984 film Threads – featured above on the cover of the Radio Times – was a truly chilling vision of post-apocalyptic life in Britain. It made Walking Dead look like Sesame Street. When The Wind Blows achieved a similar impact with a cute Snowman-esque cartoon portrayal of an older couple preparing for the bomb to fall and then coping with the consequences. Then there was the recently remade Red Dawn, a boys own adventure film about a small American town invaded and held by Russian paratroopers. It’s fair to say that the atomic age – and the paranoia it spawned – became almost glamorous, with movies like 1993’s Kalifornia partially set within an abandoned nuclear testing facility in the United States. The iconography of the day remains attractive.


Music charted the mood

Perhaps more powerful was the music of the day. Frankie Goes To Hollywood provided a grotesque glimpse of what it might look like if the superpowers fought for supremacy in a boxing ring, the anthemic Two Tribes foretelling that there could only be one outcome – carnage on both sides. The more sensitive Stewart Copeland, aka Sting, sang about his hopes that the Russians lived their children too. German singer Nena scored a hit in two languages about the 99 Red Balloons – poetic shorthand for the Russian missiles that would bring our destruction. We were scared rather than defiant, and music reflected the mood.

Fatalistic wordsmiths fronted bands whose very names and album titles referenced the shadow of the bomb. There were the B52s, and a song from Orchestral Manouvres In The Dark celebrating Enola Gay, one of the American aircraft that dropped an atomic weapon over Japan. War was a long time over but for the children of the sons and daughters of Second World War servicemen, the prospect of conflict did not seem far away.

Fashion followed suit too. CND adges would give way to cool CCCP badges as the iron curtain started to corrode.

The Manchester City Council website explains how the city first voted to become a nuclear free city in November 1980. Many local authorities followed Manchester’s example and a national nuclear free local authorities (NFLA) organisation, under the city’s leadership, was set up. It was a Moston councillor, Bill Risby, who died in 2009, who first led the move to declare Manchester a nuclear free city. The council called on the government “to refrain from the manufacture or positioning of any nuclear weapons of any kind within the boundaries of our city”. We later learned that the region had numerous hidden cold war nuclear bunkers, including one underneath Oldham civic centre.

Presently over 75 councils across the UK support NFLA policy work coordinated by a secretariat hosted by Manchester City Council. NFLA priorities include pressing for existing binding international agreements to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons to be fulfilled.

Ironically, Manchester is perhaps still coming to terms with its place in the history of nuclear warfare. Forty years before that declaration of nuclear free city status, scientist Ernest Rurherford was working at the University of Manchester on a project that would lead to the splitting of the atom. Sadly, a city renowned the world over for compassion and peace was the birthplace of the atom bomb. That will always be the price of innovation.


Nuclear tensions continue to this day. Despite its nuclear ambitions, Iran has been brought in from the cold. Relations with Russia have reached renewed lows. The Doomsday Clock is still set at three minutes to midnight. Even so, for the first time in my lifetime, we are now contemplating a future without a nuclear deterrent. Those who ridicule Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s thoughts on the subject should at least accept that his naive idealism is at in line with the dreams and ambitions of the many, even if those same people would most likely accept that to lower our nuclear shield could leave us vulnerable in future.

Corbyn’s argument is rational given that the enemies we face today are more likely to unleash a dirty bomb than to drop a nuclear weapon. I’m saddened that my own children might have their own shadows to fear – terrorism, global warming, economic instability and the grim prospect of a digital meltdown bringing everything they know to a standstill. For people of a certain age, however, the shadow cast by the bomb will always be a prominent childhood memory.

Credit: Nuclear Free Manchester sign – M Luft, Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives