Protect and Survive

I cannot avoid the internal, soulful stirring which this nuclear proliferation brings. I don’t want to be associated with it.

I am of the generation who grew up exposed to the possibility of nuclear devastation. We were educated to realise the real and present threat of nuclear war and its aftermath. This was the precarious geo-political climate of the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The government issued a pamphlet which became a film called Protect and Survive, a public information campaign intended to instruct the British nation how to survive a nuclear strike! But the British public were not supposed to receive this information until a nuclear threat was imminent. However, the media got (the nuclear) wind of it and provoked a public outcry which galvanised the government to release the Protect and Survive booklet, radio broadcasts and TV films.

Protect and Survive, the Government booklet which came to public attention in 1980

Soon after this, Raymond Briggs – of The Snowman fame – published his graphic novel, When the Wind Blows (1982). The book was later made into an animated film. The story features Jim and Hilda Bloggs, a retired couple, who hear a radio report about “an outbreak of hostilities.” Jim falls into line with the Protect and Survive literature that he has collected from his local library and attempts to build a shelter. The couple are chronicled for their innocence and understandable naiveté. But the threatening shadow of the nuclear winter does not retreat. The couple witness the blast and share its deadly effects until, at the end, Hilda insists that Jim should pray the 23rd Psalm. He does so but loses his way and in his confusion begins to recite The Charge of the Light Brigade!

This week, I have never felt closer to Jim and Hilda. I discern in myself a deep sense of protection towards those who are attempting to survive in the current context of the Covid pandemic, of climate change and of the proliferation of nuclear arsenal. This week the government’s defence spending review was leaked with the news of a planned increase of Trident nuclear warheads from 180 to 260 which will cost the nation upwards of £10billion.

At a time when every moral and political strand needs to be set towards the building up global health, community cohesion (cf the refugee and migrant crisis), environmental preservation and climate reversal, our last word is from The Charge of the Light Brigade! Perhaps we should retreat, put on the kettle and whistle a tune? But I cannot avoid the internal, soulful stirring which this nuclear proliferation brings. I don’t want to be associated with it. I don’t want to pay for it – which I will have to do. I want to oppose it with every creative, beautiful, natural fibre that I have. Yet, none of the mainstream political parties will support me. Thankfully the Church has written defiantly against these proposals. How many nuclear warheads do we need for protection? How many people do we need to kill to survive? How much of God’s world do we need to destroy?

I feel far from living in a liberal democracy today. I feel the fear of that same child growing up in the 1970’s, the child who didn’t have a voice then and doesn’t have a voice today. Compared to the wise, educated, and powerful political elite, I am the son of Jim and Hilda. A familiar cloud seems to be overshadowing this human family and all of their friends, their Church, their communities, their soil, their hopes, their beautiful world.

Dear Lord, when in fear of attack, please help me never to forget the psalm of the Divine Shepherd. Amen.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”

Psalm 23

Author: Gavin Knight

The Revd Gavin Knight has been the Vicar of St Michael & All Angels, Summertown in the Oxford Diocese since September 2011. After serving his title at St Alphege, Solihull, Gavin became parish priest of St Andrew's Fulham Fields in London. He moved to Wales in 2005 becoming Chaplain to Monmouth School. He is married to Jo, a clinical psychologist, and they have three sons.