___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________


We saw it coming in over the water. Moving slowly. Something that looked old and heavy. A plane, obviously, flying low, lower than you’d usually expect to see something of that size flying.

It scudded above the clipped waves from Dungeness Point towards Folkestone, leaving a fat trail of dark exhaust like a radiation leak. It wasn’t until it drew near that we realised it was a military craft. Too big for a fighter, though it had a bubble cockpit mounted a little way back from its nose, it wasn’t large enough to be a transport or operational support plane. We watched it haul itself across the waves, almost lumbering like a tired old boxer too many years in the ring. It passed by and we watched it with some wariness, but the sound of the sea and fast winds from the West covered any engine noises.

It wasn’t until it tipped on its edge to bank over the port and we saw that thick profile of its swept-back delta-vee wings that we realised what it was, and why we had felt an involuntary shudder at its appearance.

This was a Vulcan Bomber we were watching, a highly symbolic part of the dark seam of preparations for death in the 1980s.

If you grew up in the 1980s, you’ll remember the warnings, the pop culture immediacy of nuclear war, from some of the highest selling records of the decade – “99 Red Ballons”, “Two Tribes”, “I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” – to the big selling popular books of the age – Domain, Warday, Einstein’s Monsters – and to teenagers like us back then, it wasn’t a question of if there was going to be a nuclear war between the East and West, but simply a matter of how soon it would occur. It was the decade of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, and you can bet we were convinced of it and a little bit mad ourselves because of it.

We watched the Vulcan, made to carry nuclear bombs and flatten cities and lift poisonous clouds to cloak the world, disappear from view and realised it wasn’t just the wind that had left us cold.

That night we saw on a regional news programme that the plane we’d seen was the last flying Vulcan in the world. It’s decommissioned, an artefact of the past, kept going by enthusiasts. We could ask, “enthusiasts for what?”, but I think I understand. For all the uncertainties of the certain end we were threatened with in the 1980s, in its own way the Cold War was as clear-cut a confrontation as the one between the Allies and Axis powers of the Second World War. Now we stand in conflict again, perhaps decadently apart from it all, but with foes and supposed friends sometimes all but indistinguishable. This is no Cold War, and it’s too soon to tell what will come from the Arab Spring, but whatever the future is now, it seems to waver and shimmer above desert sands like a mirage. Whether it’s a real oasis or a deception made of seeing what we want to see, we’ll eventually find out.

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