The story of Britain's secret nuclear history

16 Jul 2020

Britain has a secret nuclear history and carries an invisible legacy from the Cold War conflict. Gordon Murray, Senior Lecturer in Drama (Community Theatre & Media), explains in our latest blog post.

Between 1952-1958 the British Government tested nuclear bombs at various sites around Australia and surrounding islands.

Conscripted personnel were engaged to work at the sites and to witness the bomb blasts. Working on the sites involved men being made to fly through the mushroom clouds immediately after detonation or swim unprotected into the sea to fish out radioactive materials and hand them to scientists who were wearing lead protected aprons.

The chilling intergenerational legacy of these events is a narrative of terrifying apocalyptic traumas, sudden deaths, slow pedestrian declines, cancers, skeleto-muscular disintegration, dreadful birth defects, paranoia, conspiracy theories, and chronic pain, all undercut with a strange intangible relationship with change that may or may not be taking place in the body at chromosomal level.

How do you tell a story that is too big, too complex, too horrific and too long? Even if you could find a way to tell it, how would you get anyone to listen?

I've been considering this for some time now whilst working with veterans who created and witnessed the British Nuclear Bomb tests in Australia and the Pacific Islands in the 1950's. I've been trying to tell their stories through theatre in different ways. Many men witnessed at close quarters bomb blasts many times greater than those at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

The legacy of this British nuclear history is a grim one; cancers, birth defects, battles with the Ministry of Defence, claims for compensation, campaigns for recognition, all intermingled with an increasing desperation to get the story told before the last veteran is no longer with us.

At one extreme the story is too massive, too broad, too full of horror and power. Stand as far back as you can and you still cannot comprehend the story whole. We could borrow from Kant and Burke and say that the story is too sublime - analogous with terror and unfathomable magnitude. Numbers and figures will not do justice to it; the number of megatons of TNT of a blast, the amount of Sieverts of radiation created by a blast or received in the body of an individual, the percentage of children born with ill health or birth problems to nuclear veterans, all become misty distractions in an ever busying signal to noise ratio that obscures the story.

At the other extreme the story is too tiny, too imperceptible to trace any changes. Peer in as closely as you like and you still cannot perceive the stories individual components. A tiny alpha particle can't penetrate the skin but if ingested (say by drinking contaminated water) can begin the process of a painfully slow destruction of the body's cells and very slight mutations of the chromosomes, one lone DNA reaching out in the wrong direction to cause chromosomal translocation. The beginning of an undetectable, unprovable chain reaction which will affect many generations.

Stories however are all that the test veterans have; sublime experience that must be turned into anecdote and testimony. Journalists can tend towards wanting to draw out the spectacular moments. Most accounts that we read will mention the moment of the blast itself, the x-ray vision that the men were momentarily gifted that allowed them to see their own skeletons, their own bones beneath their own skin. Often they use these accounts to frame the report on the nuclear veteran's campaign for justice with additions of stories of personal ill health in veterans or their children.

Again, somewhere between signal and noise the story is lost. Lost further is the experiences of the descendants of the veterans, the nuclear children. The nuclear children have no story as such, no moment before or after the bomb blast. For them the experiences their fathers endured on the other side of the world before they were born live imperceptibly in the chromosomal aberrations in their bodies. Rare diseases, cancers, muscular and skeletal decay are constant, every-day, tedious reminders that they are caught within the enormous sublime terror and the minute imperceptible detail of the nuclear story.

Our most recent work with the nuclear community involved working with the descendants of the veterans to create Fallout: Portraits on Nuclear Children. These are audio pieces that mix personal testimony with narrative poetry and dramatic fiction. These are something between stories and portraits. They are concerned with change, but with change is which is imperceptible. The experiences of the nuclear children are drawn out by looking not at them but elsewhere. They are found in the sound of the sanctus bell marking transubstantiation during the Eucharist, in the world of theatre and the work of Samuel Beckett, in the difference between radiation biology and reiki healing.

The audio pieces were designed to work like messages in bottles, not delivered to a live audience but passed along and made to float around the world wide web and washing up at the feet of interested listeners. One recently washed up at the feet of a BBC producer and hence the idea for Archive on 4 After the Fallout.

You can hear Fallout: Portraits of Nuclear Children here.

You can hear Archive on 4: After the Fallout here.

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