Ruth Scurr

October 6, 2006

"Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!/ It isn't fit for humans now,/ There isn't grass to graze a cow/ Swarm over, Death!" I grew up in Slough and was pleased that John Betjeman's daughter visited the town during her father's centenary celebrations last month to apologise for his violent poem. Betjeman told his children he regretted inviting bombs to blow Slough to smithereens. He didn't really mean it.

The poem ( THAT poem, as it is known in Slough) was written in 1937. In the 1980s, we read it in class and discussed the Blitz. Our teachers were too young to remember the Second World War, but one had lost her mother and all her siblings during an air raid. It was obvious that Betjeman had not wished bombs of that kind on our town.

At that time, the word "bomb" had an even worse association. We believed that at the flick of a finger "The Bomb" might drop and the last thing we would see was a mushroom cloud filling the sky, unless we were unlucky enough to survive. Nuclear war was more imminent threat than remote possibility, generating fear among schoolchildren and students in the 1980s.

When I read Betjeman's lines "It isn't fit for humans now,/ There isn't grass to graze a cow", I thought of irradiated scrubland crawling with deformed life in a post-nuclear holocaust of unimaginable horror. On this bizarre reading, the poet had done us a favour: if the Russians aimed directly at Slough, we'd be wiped out instantly.

Was the 1984 BBC docudrama Threads a good idea? It was the source of most of our information and imaginings about the aftermath of nuclear war. It was hard to dismiss as just a horror film because we watched it on video at school and because it included documentary-style facts and narration.

It started with a voiceover: "In an urban society everything connects; each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable." The story began two months before a nuclear attack on Britain and ended 13 years later with a screaming child giving birth to a genetically mutated stillborn baby. Threads was set in Sheffield, but, so far as I know, no one has apologised to the city.

My school-age daughter seems blissfully unconcerned about atom bombs and the long-term consequences of radiation. But when we were listening to the radio last month, she said: "Please change the channel - I don't like hearing things about the twin towers." For her generation, the scenario of extreme menace has shifted. She worries not about The Bomb bringing Armageddon, but bombs on trains or aircraft blasting random holes in everyday life.

We cannot stop adult fears filtering through to children, but we can think about the resources we make available to enable them to understand. Threads was a bleak but responsible contribution, for all the sleepless nights and nightmares it caused. Emphasising human vulnerability and interdependence, the film's underlying message was: treasure the civilisation of your society. After Threads , every glass of clean water, every morsel of non-radioactive food seemed precious.

It is hard to imagine a comparable educational film today exploring the disastrous consequences of eroding the trust and goodwill between Muslim and non-Muslim in this country. In its own way, prejudice is as poisonous as radiation to the fabric of society. But it is far trickier to confront, more insinuating and divisive than the obvious menace of The Bomb. Our children need help understanding the threats to their security because, ultimately, they must overcome them to live in peace, not war. The way to provide such help may not be clear, but the responsibility to do so is blatant. It is difficult to think of a more urgent subject for reflection among those responsible for education policy and their advisers in academe.

In Slough in the 1980s, there were agnostics, atheists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Roman Catholics and Sikhs at my school. We had some disagreements, and we even disputed the relative status of Jesus and Muhammad, but all within a framework of tolerance and shared aspiration. The main thing, aside from The Bomb not falling, was to avoid spending your life in the Mars-bar factory.

When I read Betjeman's Slough poem now, I feel nostalgic for those "air-conditioned, bright canteens" he so hated. Anywhere that has been home to happy cross-cultural friendships takes on a new radiance in the atmosphere of fear and suspicion overtaking us. I like to think that, were he here, the poet would agree.

Ruth Scurr is an affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and a fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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