I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb. My parents were married around the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963, not knowing if there would be a world left to bring kids into. Those Roman Toga Party days at medical school must have seemed so long ago. We lived in fear of the four minute warning, and had a copy of Protect and Survive to guide us through the worst Reagan and Brezhnev had to throw at us.
It was a world of Mutually Assured Destruction. If anyone was damn fool enough to start a war, it was more or less acknowledged that civilisation as we knew it was doomed to fry in its own fat. Hence, a nuclear war was, by this logic, well nigh impossible. Try telling that to a fifteen year old kid having nightmares of firey nuclear destruction on a regular basis, his school exercise books filled with doodles of mushroom clouds. Two nuclear establishments within a few miles of Twyford, and NATO Command just up the road in High Wycombe, meant the Soviets knew exactly where to target their biggest, shiniest warheads.
I could just about live with this, if it weren’t for the fact that I saw a TV programme about witches. One of the stories featured an old hag who lived in a cave in the North of England several hundred years ago. She made several uncannily accurate predictions, the last of which before they threw her on a great big bonfire was that the world would end in 1981. You know what that meant: I was going to die a virgin.
My brother’s best mate Richard had seen this programme too, and claimed to have read in Mad Old Bastard’s Almanack that Armageddon was due on 12th September. Just to make matters worse, this would be a Saturday. The world didn’t even have the decency to end the world on a school day. Richard was so confident in his boast, that he bet us 50p that he was right. We happily shook on it, and it took him several minutes to realise it was a wager he just couldn’t win. Not only that, his Almanack still had entries for October, November and December, confidently predicting second favourites to do well in National Hunt races.
As the End of the World approached, was I worried? Was I terrified at the thought of facing destruction on Biblical proportions with my cherry still intact? Too bloody right I was. For starters, my attempts to leave this mortal coil without my virginity were foiled by two simple factors:
a) none of the girls I approached on this matter believed a word I said, leaving me with a post-armageddon reputation of lacking marbles; and
b) I was a teenage geek of huge never-gonna-lose-that-cherry proportions.
I was blissfully unaware of point b.
Come the big day, I was a bag of nerves. Ironically, it was actually Battle of Britain weekend, commemorating the one time in the twentieth century where we managed to save the known world without American assistance, and we went on a day trip up to RAF Abingdon for the airshow.
The cream of NATO’s airborne fighting forces screamed overhead in close formation, when they really should have been preparing to face the Red Menace that was pouring over the German border as we spoke. Richard was still confident, yet the forces personnel present looked decidedly unruffled about the forthcoming call to arms.
I watched planes.
I took loads of photos (can’t think why - it would have been hell finding a chemists in the radioactive rubble of British civilisation).
I went home.
I went to bed.
I woke up on Sunday 13th September 1981.
I was still alive. The world had not ended. Presidents Reagan and Brezhnev, senile pair of lunatics that they were, had both stubbornly kept their fingers off the button. It was, I remember, a rather pleasant sunny day, and I took the dog for a walk down by the River Thames. It felt good to be alive.
On the other hand I felt bloody cheated. All those years of worry utterly wasted. I hadn’t bothered doing my school homework either, on the grounds that there wouldn’t be a school to go to on Monday. I spent a whole Sunday afternoon, nose to the page, writing a compare-and-contrast essay about My Family and Other Animals. Somebody was going to pay.
And the next day, at school, it was Richard. To be honest, he paid up his bet with remarkably good grace for someone who’d been nailed in his first lesson for not doing his homework. He was rather proud of the fact that Mr Wallis (son of the inventor of the bouncing bomb, celebrity spotters!) had told him “That’s the worst excuse I’ve ever heard, boy”. As for the end of the world: “Give it a couple a days. These things take time.”
I’m still waiting.Some twenty-five years later, when doing a bit of background research on my book, I found out that Mother Shipton, the mad old witch mentioned in this story, had predicted the end of the world for the year 1881. I had, it turned out, misheard her prediction on BBC Nationwide and had subjected myself to years of unnecessary terror. I just hope that when the baying hate mob came for the crone, they toasted her good and proper.