33 Years Ago This Week, The World Nearly Ended…


What I didn’t know was I was already cosmic – John Lennon

I have been writing a short story set in 1983…

To try and make the story (it’s going to be called The RootFly) a little more authentic, I did some research. So now there will be references to the last episode of M*A*S*H*, the death of Carolyn Jones, the publication of the Hitler Diaries and the simultaneous publication of two separate articles positing a theory on the existence of HIV/AIDS. All of this I kinda knew already, but what was completely new to me was the fact that on the 26 September 1983, thirty-three years ago this week, the world very nearly ended.

This was one of the very coldest periods of the Cold War. In March, Reagan had made his first proposals for the Star Wars Strategic Defence Initiative, and at the start of September the Soviets had shot down Korean Air Lines civilian flight 007, killing 269 people. At the time the US were playing wacky “psy-ops” with their players on the other side – flying military planes towards Soviet air space and breaking off only at the very last minute…

That level of detail may have flown over my head at the time (I was eight, a few months older than my eldest son is now) but When The Wind Blows was published the year before, Threads was broadcast the year after, and WarGames was released that spring: there was already psychic fall-out in the air, and of course little children breathed it.

Shortly after midnight on 26 September 1983, the Soviet Union’s nuclear early warning system malfunctioned twice. It wrongly reported that the Americans had launched 4-5 Minuteman Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles.

The Soviet Union was on a hair trigger alert, and their policy at that time would have been immediately to launch a counter-attack.

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty. He had turned 44 just a couple of weeks before.

The early warning system was new, he argued later, and the fact that it was reporting only 4-5 missiles was suspicious. If you’re going to try and obliterate your enemy in atomic fire, he reasoned, you’d fire more than five missiles.

So he held back and did not report the alerts to his superiors in Moscow. No counter strike was launched. The error was eventually confirmed – sunlight on high altitude clouds. And we all woke up the next morning.

This wasn’t publicly known until the nineties, but both sides knew what had happened. The USSR didn’t commend Petrov, because to do so would have meant admitting problems with their system, but in January 2006 he was honoured at a meeting at the United Nations.

These days we don’t think that the world will end with super powers annihilating everything with a couple of big red buttons. Instead it’s going to be escalating terror strikes, dirty bombs, pandemics, rogue states overtaken by death cult ideologies… I read what Donald Trump comes out with and I watch horrifying news reports from cities closer and closer to where I live and I shudder and I think that now we really are in for it… testicles will be worn retracted this season – it’s never been this dangerous before… But of course it has. New monsters inhabiting old threats, picking up old masks, licking us in all those same, insane familiar places we’ve only forgotten about.

Anyway. In 1983, just three days before Stanislav Petrov saved the world, Souxsie and the Banshees released their cover version of Dear Prudence. It’s gorgeous – her voice is low and urgent and scary, echoing out from under an electrogoth harpsichord in what was inevitably a deserted ballroom the morning after the masque of the red death.

The original was released by the Beatles in 1968, when Stanislav Petrov was 29 and John Lennon was 28. Lennon said that the song came about while the band were off with the Maharishi in India. Apparently there was this woman who had gotten so into meditating that she wouldn’t come out of the little hut she was living in.

Lennon said: She’d been locked in for three weeks, and wouldn’t come out, trying to reach god quicker than anyone else. That was the competition in the Maharishi’s camp: who was going to get cosmic first…

The song was Lennon’s attempt to tempt the girl, who was Mia Farrow’s sister, as it goes, back out into the world.

I like the idea that there was this incredibly creepy, crazy compelling version of an amazingly beautiful song floating around in the same air as all these weird destroyer-of-worlds radio signals. A song all about forgoing massive existential weight and just enjoying the moment…

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?

Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day

The sun is up, the sky is blue

It’s beautiful and so are you

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?



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