In recent weeks, our two sons have asked me what we would do in the event of a nuclear strike. We don’t have a cellar, so where would we go? Should we build a shelter? Clear out a cupboard? Their earnest questions brought home to me just how unstable our world feels right now and reminded me of how different my own teenage years were to theirs.
Back in the eighties we had the Cold War, the Falklands War, the threat of a Nuclear War and the actual fall out from Chernobyl. I assumed responsibility for studying the various pamphlets and articles on What To Do In The Event of a Nuclear Strike, choosing the cupboard under the stairs as our designated shelter (although my mum refused to paint the door white). I regularly stored water in pots and pans around the house and kept supplies of tinned food under review. I even had the foresight to purchase kelp tablets from Holland and Barratt for protection against radiation sickness (although sadly I was on a school trip to Wales when the Chernobyl fallout actually happened, sans kelp tablets). Some might have thought me an anxious child, but I was just WELL PREPARED. And if my brothers and parents mocked me, well they would be thanking me on their knees once disaster struck. (In fact, if disaster ever struck, we would all be on our knees, as the cupboard under the stairs was really quite small).
In what would become a life-long trait, I coped with the apparent threat of destruction by trying to control my immediate environment. But also, I read. Not just survival books (although the SAS Handbook was a firm favourite) but fiction: huge, sweeping family sagas that told inter-generational stories of love and loss against the back drop of war and disaster. Until recently, I thought it was just me. YA didn’t exist as a genre back then and I borrowed a lot of books from my mum and nan. But looking back at the charts from the eighties, it seems I was part of a bigger trend. Alongside horror (Stephen King) and spy novels (John Le Carre), the eighties charts were dominated by the likes of Danielle Steel, Barbara Taylor Bradford and Collen McCullogh. On Sunday nights (when I wasn’t collecting supplies for the shelter) our family would gather around the only screen in the house to watch The Thorn Birds, A Woman of Substance, Roots and Shogun: love stories, family sagas, call them what you will; huge, epic dramas with people at their heart. However, somewhere along the line, these books were dismissed as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘romance’ and I’m sorry to say that I followed the implicit snobbery and sexism inherent in these views and dropped them like an embarrassing friend.
I was reminded of my love for this genre when I read Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey and more recently, Island in the East by Jenny Ashcroft, both moving love stories set against the back drop of war. I devoured both books as they filled a need in me that most crime and thrillers just cannot reach (although the very best thrillers such as Rattle by Fiona Cummins are ultimately about love). There is a lot of talk in the industry about ‘the next big thing’ and although I think there is no one answer, I suspect that as in the eighties, we may be about to see a resurgence in epic love stories and family sagas. Now as then, the world feels unstable, led by almost cartoon-like bad guys with the power to plunge us into war. At times like this, I feel an urge to read sagas not as a form of escapism, but as a reminder that people can and do survive terrible things, particularly the women. Decades later, I still recall the quiet strength and suffering of Fee Cleary, the fierce drive and determination of Emma Hart.
These books are not just ‘uplifting’, they are stories of hope, strength, rebellion and resilience. They are the stories of our mothers and grandmothers; they are the stories I believe we need now.
So when I build my nuclear fallout shelter, I will ensure we have a good supply of epic love stories and family sagas, alongside the water and kelp tablets. For as Larkin once wrote, in the end, ‘what will survive of us is love’.