"Even the safest room in your house is not safe enough"

It is May 1980 and Kate Bush is in the top twenty, with 'Breathing'. You have just spent sixty pence on a booklet called 'Protect and Survive', which has been in the news lately. You are scared out of your mind. You do not want to die like this, your poisonous corpse wrapped in plastic sheeting, buried in a shallow grave in what remains of your garden. You have decided not to have children, because in the grim future of 'Protect and Survive' there is only war. It will be better for them not to have been born.

'Protect and Survive' was a brand, and a booklet, dating from the mid-1970s. The booklet had been available to local government from 1976 onwards, the idea being that in the run-up to nuclear war it would be distributed en masse to the population. By May 1980 nuclear war was a sufficiently plausible scenario for the government to offer 'Protect and Survive' for sale to the public, at a price of sixty pence. It became an immediate media sensation, entering the mental fabric of early 1980s Britain. CND and the anti-nuclear industry had long profited from the public's ignorant opposition to nuclear enlightenment; 'Protect and Survive' did nothing to turn Britain's citizens on to the notion of a winnable war. The booklet was a terrible public relations failure. It was terrifying in its bluntness. It was distressing in its lack of detail. It was comical in its assumption that the public would be willing to sit still, listen to the radio, and die in silence. "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". It was not as ridiculous as the infamous American 'Duck and Cover' films of thirty years before - in 1980, so much more was known about the effects of nuclear weapons, particularly fallout - but it was distressingly vague in other areas. How long were we supposed to spend, frightened in our 'fall-out rooms'? When was it safe to emerge? And what then?

The booklet was not, however, nearly as frightening as the concurrent public information films. These twenty slices of animated terror were, wisely, kept from the public until the 1990s, at which point they were quietly sold to a stock film library. They combined the information in the booklet with bleak, animated schematics and the reassuring voice of Patrick Allen, a familar television continuity announcer. Clips of the films were frequently shown on television news programmes and Allen was later hired to deliver similarly awful messages for Trevor Horn's production of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'Two Tribes'. "Mine is the last voice that you will ever hear", said Allen, "don't be alarmed". This line was written specially for 'Two Tribes', but it encapsulated 'Protect and Survive'.

Nonetheless, the British public had been bombed and killed before. In the 1930s it was widely supposed that endless waves of unstoppable German bombers would lay chemical and explosive waste to London and the other cities. With the outbreak of war, everyone was issued gas masks and taught to build bomb shelters; children were sent out into the countryside. The failure of the blitz to destroy Britain, and more importantly the failure of the blitz to destroy the morale of Britain's population, came as a surprise. We promptly bombed Germany back again. By the mid 1970s the blitz had become a comfortable memory, a nostalgic period in Britain's history populated entirely by cockneys and right-wing Alf Garnett types. Even today, the British victims of aerial bombardment are ignored or overlooked in favour of endless soul-searching over Dresden, or lamentation on the destruction of Coventry's fine old buildings. The writers of 'Protect and Survive', beavering away in 1974, knew that there was no chance of the contemporary government splashing out on gas masks or evacuation or shelters, because there was no money and no-one could muster up enough enthusiasm to face the abyss. Their advice left everything up to the individual. If you could not afford fourteen days of food and water and a radio and sundry other items, and if you were not prepared to rip up your furniture in order to build a shelter, if you did not have a basement, if you lived in a city, good-bye. The government was not going to help you. If you survived, the government was going to force you at gunpoint to work for it.

Page 5 of 'Protect and Survive' had a drawing of a house being blown to smithereens by a pressure wave. Page 6 had an intact house being menaced by radioactive dust, which "cannot be seen or felt. It has no smell, and it can be detected only by special instruments. Exposure to it can cause sickness and death". The booklet contained information on how to build an 'inner refuge', a 'fallout room' in which you and your family were to remain for at least forty-eight hours, notwithstandingt that Strontium 90 has a half-life of 29 years. "On hearing the all-clear", said the booklet, "there is no longer an immedate danger from air attack and fall-out and you may resume normal activities". Weeding the garden. Going out for a curry. Watching television. The booklet became a staple topic of alternative comedians, many of whom were socialist CND/Anti-Nazi League communists.

Page 22 of had a drawing of a man pouring a bucket of water on a small fire which had broken out in the man's curtains. The next page had a drawing of the same man, head bowed, herding his family into the inner refuge, a construction of sandbags, tables and doors designed to protect one's family from fallout. Good-bye, Man of 1980, head bowed.

That the booklet was an official publication of Her Majesty's Stationary Office was both surprising and the key to its impact. CND had prepared plenty of pamphlets warning of the dangers posed by unrestrained nuclear war. Dr Carl Sagan and his wealthy intellectual cronies had prepared scholarly reports to the same effect. But they were cranks, easily dismissed. 'Protect and Survive' was an official government document, like the Highway Code or the Radio Times or the BBC's 'The Archers'. Its tone was measured, dry, formal. It was both too specific, and not specific enough; aside from detailed information of a variety not usually seen outside hard-core survivalist websites, the sum total of its advice was (a) listen to the radio for further instructions (b) your local authority will tell you what to do.

Your local authority. In 1980 it was widely assumed that The Powers That Be would, in the event of a war, vanish into underground bunkers. These bunkers were a favourite topic of science fiction authors, but they were real. There were no bunkers for the general population. One was left to wonder what kind of social order would develop when the authorites finally re-emerged from their hideaways. It would be a world made up of people too useless to get jobs in the private sector. 'Protect and Survive' had no mention of work parties, looters being shot, local government functionaries transformed into little Hitlers - deputy outreach diversity co-ordinators, intake facilitation managers, executive ethics officers, useless people who will one day be shot into space - it had no mention of traffic wardens and binmen with rifles, but it did not take the mindset of a paranoid anarchist to imagine that something fishy was going on, that 'Protect and Survive' was not the whole story.

The booklet's insistence that you should listen to the radio for further instructions was perhaps the most knuckle-whiteningly bleak, awful thing about the enterprise. Listen for what? What if the radio never, ever came to life, ever again? A vision of Britain's poisoned huddled victims listening to static, waiting for help that was never going to come, slowly dying, that was the thing which stuck with us the most.

Selected sources


Duck and Cover:

The Bomb was a force that gave us meaning: