I had a lovely letter recently from reader Edith Bennison who has been a long-term follower of my dad’s Countryman’s Diary, and now my own column.
Following my recent piece about litter, Edith recalls the days when most villages still had their own street sweepers, and we had one in the village where I grew up. You’d see him, with his orange high-vis vest, flat cap and cart, out in all weathers keeping the pavements, verges and roads clean. I’m guessing the tale Edith tells must have occurred during the late 1970s or early 1980s when concern about the nuclear threat to the West from Russia was at its height.
The threat was taken extremely seriously, and Margaret Thatcher’s government implemented a public information strategy known as ‘Protect and Survive’, a series of leaflets and TV and radio broadcasts informing us of what to do in case of an attack.
This included creating a ‘fall-out’ room within your home to protect yourself from radioactive dust. You were told to seal all windows and doors and block them up with thick materials, like bricks, books, or furniture filled with clothes. You were also told to create an ‘inner refuge’ within that room where you would be expected to shelter for at least the first 48 hours after an attack. This would be made out of something like a dining table, which again would be surrounded on all sides, including the top, by heavy items, such as sandbags, mattresses or earth-filled chests of drawers.
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I was able to take a look at a ‘Protect and Survive’ leaflet myself. It does make pretty alarming reading, so it’s no wonder we were all a bit on edge about it. I remember my school educating us about the possibility of nuclear war, and I also remember writing an essay about the pros and cons of nuclear power, which of course is a separate issue. But I ended my essay with a paragraph explaining that there was nothing to worry about with nuclear power, but then I stopped mid-sentence and my pen left an illegible scribbled trail across the page which ended in a little drawing of a mushroom cloud.
Needless to say my teacher was not very impressed, and I was chastised for associating nuclear power with nuclear war, and for concluding my essay in such a silly way.
But my little drawing did reflect the worries that were in many minds at the time, and the news outlets were full of the negotiations between Reagan, Thatcher and Brezhnev. The culture of the day also reflected the mood of the nation. Pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood used the sinister voiceover and warning siren from the government Protect and Survive public information film on their single ‘Two Tribes’. And graphic author Raymond Briggs, famous for writing ‘The Snowman’, published ‘When the Wind Blows’ in 1982, which describes the impact of a nuclear war on an ordinary couple.
In dark times, we Yorkshire folk are known for our typical ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude and our down to earth sense of humour. I have a feeling that Edith’s sweeper was rather fed up, not only with endless depressing news bulletins about the nuclear threat, but also with thoughtless people closer to home who persistently dropped litter. She tells me in her letter that he had written a message on his cart which made me giggle: ‘If there is a nuclear attack, hide in a bin, because nothing ever hits it.’
She also recalled meeting my dad at a book signing in Dressers of Northallerton, which sadly is no longer there. Although Edith couldn’t remember the year, the book was Constable by the Stream, published in 1991. Dad was always thrilled when fans turned up to his signings, and also when people wrote to him in response to his column, as he describes on 30th June 1979, where an earlier column about bees had attracted discussion. Someone had responded that ‘telling the bees’ was important because it was believed the bees were once the souls of the recently departed.
I’m delighted to hear, as would he, that Edith still has quite a collection of his books, and receiving letters and messages like this shows that he touched many peoples’ lives. It fills me pride knowing that his legacy is set to go on for many years to come.
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