Essays: Reality and the Bomb |
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Reality and the Bomb

LAST week’s non-appearance of this newspaper deprived you of, among other things, my thoughts on Hiroshima. In a soberly fashioned thousand words I compared and contrasted the respective messages of To Die — To Live (BBC2) and of Professor Bernard Williams in the Peter Jay Interview (LWT).

The gist of the former programme was that we would need to remember Hiroshima in all its vividness if we were to prevent it happening again. In the latter programme, one of the many interesting contentions-of Professor Williams was that questions about what ought to be done are largely meaningless if it is inconceivable that we would be in a position to do them.

My conclusion was that the first argument was effectively undermined by the second. ‘To Die — To Live’ had been sepulchral in tone for the good reason that it was mechanically pious in intent: it won’t be remembering Hiroshima that stops Hiroshima recurring. As the programme itself incidentally succeeded in demonstrating, not even Hiroshima itself is up to the task of remembering exactly what happened to it. But even supposing that it could, and that all the world, including President Ford, could as well, that would not necessarily prevent nuclear weapons being used.

Appeals to humanity are largely without practical value where Governments are concerned. Appeals to practicality, on the other hand, occasionally secure humane results. For example, it is probably not the thought of inflicting suffering which has so far stopped the great Powers from employing nuclear weapons, but the thought of being unable to control the subsequent conflict. If we had to rely on Ford’s or Brezhnev’s poetically vivid awareness of Hiroshima to prevent either of them from staging a new and larger version of their own, we would be dead meat. In the light of this interpretation, programmes dedicated to mobilising our compassion stood revealed as impolitic, however worthily conceived. Our compassion, no matter how ennobling in private, would be the last force to have a public result.

The above argument needed careful framing if one was to avoid being branded a paradox-monger, and many a false start was ripped from the typewriter before I finally came up with something that seemed to me hard-headed without being callous. There were potent images to keep faith with — painted lips in a face of grafts; gamma-blasted foetuses floating in bottles. Having done my level best, I handed in my copy on Friday, and spent half of the Saturday night cursing the fact that Melvyn Bragg’s excellent interview with the Los Alamos physicist Philip Morrison (Second House, BBC2), had been transmitted too late for me to talk about it, since most of what I had just spent ages sorting out for myself was at least touched upon, if not debated. As it was, the next day’s paper failed to appear. My philosophical disquisition on the atomic threat had been lost to history. Kismet. It is written. And it is not published. Hiroshima faded from the tube and was replaced by Auschwitz (Thames).

After telling you that I was going to talk about Hiroshima last week, let me tell you that I am going to talk about Auschwitz next week. This week I want a holiday. Neither the higher brain centres nor the prose style (and I like to think there’s a connection) can handle two questions of that magnitude on the trot. Here, however, is a preliminary quiddity. It is no good people telling us to remember history if they themselves are not up to the task of evoking it. Criticism, even at the risk of being thought irresponsible, should never hesitate to flay those who fumble big themes.

Cannabis (BBC2) is only a medium-sized theme and ‘Horizon’ did a reasonably good job on it, although the vocabulary of the commentary (joints were called reefers) tended to recall the dated dialogue of the narcs in Gilbert Shelton’s marvellous comic-strip ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.’ Pot is a field in which I can claim a certain amount of expert knowledge, since at one period of my life I was high for about a year. I smoked the stuff by the pound, and on one famous occasion ingested, with the aid of two fellow dope-fiends called Jeff and Andy, the contents of the world’s largest joint. (They held the other end of it.) This passionate love-affair with the killer weed was the only time I have ever knowingly broken the law, but the mere fact that I, a devout square, could contemplate doing so was enough to show that the law in question was a bad one.

‘Horizon’ checked up on current research into the effects of the dreaded shrub. The evidence that it can hurt you still looks small to vanishing, and one medico made the telling point that similar research into alcohol, supposing that booze was in pot’s place as a new drug on trial, would have uncovered an overwhelming mass of contrary data by this stage. Sensitive to the way the smoke is blowing, some American States, such as Oregon, have already down-rated holding from a felony to a misdemeanour. (The programme unaccountably chose to soft-pedal what is still going on in States like Texas, where people have pulled 30-year sentences for being busted with a stash no bigger than your thumb-nail.)

Apart from the drawback that there is as yet no equivalent of the breathalyser to detect whether a driver is high, cannabis is surely an ideal social drug. It makes people boring, but then so does booze. I speak as one who no longer uses it, or alcohol or nicotine either. But that’s a separate question.

The Likes of Uri Geller (BBC1) showed the pixillated fork-warper to have another side to him almost as unappetising as the one we normally see. He plugged his new album, read some of his deadly poetry, and generally promoted himself as spurning material things — it seems that as long as he has unimpeded access to a penthouse, pretty girls and fast cars he’s happy. ‘Freedom to me means being my own self.’ The programme crapulously played Uri’s game instead of turning him on a spit. When he claimed to have seen Chopin’s death-mask crying, we got a shot of Chopin’s death-mask crying, instead of one of a horse laughing. ‘I pray to God In my heart. You ask me what God? I think God looks like a man with a long white beard.’ Why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.

The Observer, 17th August 1975