Small Eruptions

This evening, after spending all day presenting what we’d worked on all weekend, I got to take the evening off and get something to eat. I was taken out to Etna, an Italian restaurant on the East Coast side of Singapore, where they served me a burrata as big as a cricket ball. You can serve me a burrata of any size and I’ll be happy, but this was particularly creamy and delicious. Unfortunately, I had to accompany it with a bottle of wine, a pint of beer and three gin and tonics, but nobody ever said that life would be easy.

I stayed up until past one o’clock this morning, because I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep because I’d worked too late and stared at a computer screen, but my choice of reading material, Command And Control by Eric Schlosser, was probably not helping me to sleep either. It’s an account (with a good write-up in the London Review Of Books) of the American nuclear weapons programme since the Second World War, with particular concentration on incidents where we were almost all blown to smithereens, usually because of something as prosaic as somebody dropping a spanner at an inopportune moment.

I remember, even at the age of nine or ten, of being fairly sure that we’d all die soon in a nuclear apocalypse. It seemed pretty inevitable in Eighties England that sooner or later something would kick off between the Russians and the Americans and we’d all go up in smoke. We had cheery cartoons like When The Wind Blows to discourage any optimism, we had Edge Of Darkness to pollute our souls where we might otherwise have had some hope, and we had very little awareness that we’d already dodged death in 1982 when Able Archer hadn’t provoked the Soviets to nuke everything. So, so far, so good, as we keep saying on the fall from the fiftieth floor down to the first. It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.

The silliness of nuclear missiles almost detonating just because some exhausted labourer didn’t follow procedures to the letter after working for ten hours is hard to grapple with. When you read about the enormous scale of nuclear missile silos, with multi-hundred ton concrete doors and blast shield upon blast shield, these things seem like works of fiction too probably to exist even singly, not even as batteries of weapons across the American countryside. I wonder what it felt to be on one of the construction crews building these enormous monuments to mutually assured destruction across the heartlands of America.

But mostly, I try to avoid thinking too much. It’s got us so far, after all.

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