Originally printed in The Independent as “My Cold War nights, twiddling the dial.”
In a country of political assassinations, Palestinian battles and constant political crisis, it seemed a romantic idea to send a sprig of lavender-coloured bougainvillea from my Beirut balcony to a friend abroad. The bush was covered in purple, so I snipped off a small bloom and swept it off to DHL for shipment. Nothing so simple, you may say. But that reckons without The State.
Hours later, I was summoned to the shipper’s office to be solemnly informed that there was a problem. If I took the individual petals off the bloom, I could stuff them into an envelope and off they would go. But if I left them on the stem, complete with twigs, I would need an export permit from the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture. Aaarrgghhh!
The rationale was simple, of course. However disastrous or fanciful the reality, the machinery of power must continue to exert its baleful influence over our lives, the preservation of authority infinitely more important than us, its integrity supported by massive amounts of money and labour—even though provably worthless.
I am reminded of this by a hobby in which we Kentish schoolboys once indulged: the sending of reception reports—“double-Rs”, we inevitably called them—to Eastern European radio stations during the Cold War. It didn’t matter to us that we were helping the communist serpent spread its venom into the living rooms of England.
We would listen with rapt attention to the English language service of Radio Moscow or Radio Prague or Radio Warsaw or Radio Sofia—occasionally, incredibly, even to Radio Tirana—and then send off a postcard to the Communist Beast to report on the audibility of some tedious programme about Bulgarian steelworking, Polish agronomy or Soviet collective farm production. Was there too much static? A little distortion perhaps? Or was this nonsense crossing the Iron Curtain with pristine clarity on Thursday night?
In return, the producers of these awful fictions would send us heaps of books and magazines, most of them groaning with statistics, or photographs of gaily smiling farmers and industrial slaves or beaming autocrats. Few were those of us who did not know the much loved features of Todor Zhivkov or Walter Ulbricht or, indeed, the entire central presidium of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Pity the postmen of the Warsaw Pact.
The Polish literature came by the double whammy, volumes heavy with grainy wartime photographs of the destruction of Warsaw which linked the villainy of Nazism to the supposedly fascist government of Adenauer and other western lackeys. The Czechs were by far the smartest; they sent out quite well-produced books on the masterpieces of Prague’s art galleries.
Of course, we self-important schoolboys believed that our double-Rs were being discussed at the plenary session of every local party headquarters. Perhaps they were—and heaven knows what MI5 made of this mass conspiracy by the pupils of Kent’s richest schools. I fondly imagined how—from Potsdam to the Urals—legions of Stakhanovite workers were clambering up massive transmitters under pale blue Eastern European skies (copies of my double-Rs in hand, of course) to tamper with the giant cross-pylons and beacons that were sending their socialist message to the world.
I once even sent off a double-R to dear old Radio Eireann in Dublin—only to receive back a black-and-white postcard of De Valerian bleakness, informing me that I need send no more. The Irish, of course, had got the point: the whole fandango was a complete waste of time—just as the entire billion-dollar propaganda radio system of Eastern Europe converted not a single capitalist to the cause of world revolution. The entire thing was a sham, dreamed up by communist bureaucrats to keep other communist bureaucrats happy.
I guess we played the same tune in Britain. I recall how, driving up the A1 with my Mum and Dad, Peggy Fisk would use her new cine-camera to film the forests of white-painted—but totally unconcealed—anti-aircraft missiles that lay to the right of the highway. We would even picnic beside RAF stations in Lincolnshire while Mum happily filmed away at every creaking Vulcan bomber which soared into the air to threaten the Soviet monolith (and all those radio stations) with its nuclear might. And yes, I still have the film. But what would have happened to her today—a trip to Paddington Green, I imagine—now that we are fighting the “war on terror”?
For as we all know, this particular spurious conflict is our latest version of the Cold War—as I discovered during an interview with a Spanish journalist and her photographer in London a few months ago. We had, by chance, met at Paddington and I was talking about my childhood delight in loco-spotting (the railway version of double-Rs, I suppose) and I suggested that the photographer might take a picture of me next to a locomotive. So we padded to a platform where a London-Oxford stopping train was about to leave.
Yet after a couple of snaps, two members of the British Transport Police arrived in what appeared to be flak jackets and ordered us to stop filming. One of them said that it was “not permitted” because of the “terrorist campaign”. I had vivid images of a nest of ETA militants scissoring out our pictures of the Titfield Thunderbolt and packing their explosive equipment before heading for Paddington.
It’s the kind of police tomfoolery which I enjoy most. And with reason. For only last month, advertising the brilliance of the new Eurostar terminal, almost every newspaper in Britain carried huge aerial pictures of the new St Pancras—which showed almost the entire network of rail tracks, switching points, signal gantries and marshalling yards outside the station.
I felt sorry for the vulnerable Titfield Thunderbolt over at Paddington. Because, after all, no terrorist would ever dream of attacking the Eurostar, would they, or study the tracking system outside St Pancras from the air? The words “not permitted” didn’t cross the lips of the lads in blue when confronted by the commercial campaign to launch the new Eurostar terminal.
And that’s it, I suspect. We create monsters, and then—in the interest of money or bureaucracy—we quietly dismantle them. In the face of evil and incipient civil war, we build transmitters by the thousand or rockets by the million. Our leaders are happy. They have power. And that’s what matters. So remember this morning my double-Rs and that sprig of bougainvillea on my balcony.
AP Photo / Evan Vucci