Sunday, 8 September 2013

Two birds with one (radioactive) stone

So you're a super power, you've got all those expensive nuclear weapons sitting around, and no one wants to play ball with the whole "let's fry the planet" idea. What to do? It really boils down to variations on one thing; making bloody big holes in stuff (see picture, credit wikipedia: the largest man made crater in the US).

There were various schemes for using nuclear bombs to make artificial harbours and canals, but the idea that beautifully sums up the bare faced hubris of humans is using nuclear detonations in a process I understand to be vaguely similar to todays fracking. I think you would be hard pressed to come up with a single better example of why humans do not deserve stewardship of the planet.

The concept was to use the force of an underground nuclear blast to crack open gas bearing rock and mine the results. Just the symbolism alone is enough to make you wonder how this actually got to the testing stage; "hey guys, lets poison our soil and water so we can get at this natural resource and use it to poison our air!"

I may not be a mining engineer, but it also strikes me that the possibility of radioactive natural gas burning out of control isn't something you want to be messing around with? Anyway, people realised after a while that this probably wasn't going to end well and gave it a miss, going back to desecrating the ecosphere in more conventional ways.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Turnstile: or, in case of nuclear apocalypse, please find tea trolleys and fish forks provided...

One of the fascinating things about the Cold war is the way it formed an underlayer to everyday life, in a geographical and psychological sense, having effects in the most unlikely places. The constant paranoia that typified the era was in some senses justified: in 1961, a ring of Russian spies was discovered in an unassuming bungalow in Ruislip, a commuter area just down the road from me in North West london (see below). They were found to be in possession of information regarding Britain's first nuclear submarine, and a high power radio transmitter for contacting Moscow.

In fact, it seems that my area was a bit of a hotbed for this sort of thing. Just the other side of my local park in another suburban street in Cassiobury is a vets surgery, which I have been to on many occasions, never noticing the semi sunken nuclear bunker in the back garden! This was a Royal Observer Corps outpost, which would have received and relayed information regarding Russian bombers as they approached UK airspace.

Incredibly, every day thousands of train passengers on the West Coast Mainline sped past one of the most important Cold War sites in the country, known variously as Turnstile, Subterfuge, Peripheral and Site 3 (got to love some good spy novel style codenames). This huge 240 acre bunker, hidden under the same hill which the railway's Box tunnel passed through, was officially named the Central Government War Headquarters, and would have housed whichever parts of the Government made it there in time in (dubious) safety in the event of a Nuclear attack. This was effectively a small town, equipped with everything necessary to house 4000 people for three months, featuring 60 miles of roads and its own subterranean lake to provide drinking water. The BBC has a great interactive map of the bunker (see below) the full version of which can be found at

Going into detail about the contents of the bunker is a bit beyond the scope of this blog, but some of its features mark it out as a charmingly British preparation for the apocalypse. A pub was considered in the original plans, but was dismissed on the grounds that it might be a bit weird to be sipping a pint when everyone you love had probably been burnt to a crisp above you. As I discovered at, the inventory specified that 1160 table forks should be provided, and an equal number of fish forks (God forbid being forced to eat fish with incorrect cutlery). A potato chipping machine and 11 tea trolleys were also provided. I'm being semi serious when I say most British people would, in all probability, give up hope if deprived of tea.

One final item of interest, again noted from, is the wonderfully eclectic literature requested by the BBC for use in its on site broadcasting centre. As well as the obvious choices like the Bible, the OED and Roget's Thesaurus, the dear old beeb also asked to be provided with "Cassell's guide to literature", the "Guide to the House of Commons", a volume named "Titles and Terms of Address" and a copy of "Who's Who". So, if any Lords, Dukes or Senior church members requested shelter from the Nuclear inferno raging on the surface, they could politely be denied admission with use of the correct title, and the survivors would emerge into the blasted nuclear wasteland with full plans for re-establishing a working House of Commons.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Appendix: Soviet arcade games

The subject of this week’s mini post didn’t really fit into consumer products, but I thought it was too charming to pass up. The device you see in the picture below is the “Morskoi Boi” (sea battle) arcade machine, and as an avowed video game geek, I can say that they sure don’t make them like this anymore.

It’s not what we would recognize as a modern arcade machine, being more like a traditional fairground machine in function. Instead of an electronic display, the player peers through a periscope viewfinder and fires “torpedoes” at metal cutouts of ships moving back and forth on a chain. It’s the little touches that really make this something special. At the bottom of the cabinet is a pull out podium, so that even the shortest and youngest comrades can have their go at sinking some capitalists. When you fire a torpedo a trail of coloured lights shoots off to the horizon, and if you score a hit you get a blazing flash of fire and a satisfying crashing noise.

However, the rather stern soviet government would never commission something as frivolous as an arcade game without an ulterior motive. As noted in the fascinating “unsung icons of soviet design”, edited by Michael Idov, the game was issued by the Orwell-couldn’t-make-it-up Committee on Amusement, which I can vaguely imagine tying people to chairs in basements and forcing them to laugh on pain of electrocution. The manual claimed that the game was no mere exercise in frippery, but would raise the next generation of soviet sailors, improving “visual estimation and shooting skills”. An interesting parallel can be drawn here with western attitudes towards video games. The communist state embraced the medium as a way to help the young develop skills that would be useful in the future, whereas western media has tended to ignore any possible positive effects of video games and sensationalise the negatives.

You can even play a simulacrum of the original game at, and find pictures of other soviet arcade games, all of which look pleasingly industrial and unbreakable.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Cold war consumer products part I, the Soviet Union; Optimism and indestructibility

Russia seems to elude definition in many ways. It occupies an ancient cultural and geographical intersection between east and west. The Cyrillic alphabet is a wonderful, enigmatic emblem of this cultural confluence. It doesn’t look as alien to western eyes as, for example, Chinese, sharing as it does several recognizable characters with the roman alphabet. Some of the letters appear to be reversed roman characters, such as я and и, and some are intriguingly outlandish, like ж and д. Spoken Russian is at once familiar, infused as it is with a soft, lilting cadence sounding vaguely like a lullaby, and full of romantic mystery. So, Russia is not as separable from western culture as the oriental nations, rather it occupies a gradated space of difference.

In the midst of this cultural maelstrom Russians share a surprising amount in common with the English, our mutual love of tea being the most obvious thing. They also share our slightly mythological stoicism, but instead of our rather meek ethos of “make do and mend, musn’t grumble” they display an entrepreneurial knack for adaptation to limited resources. Essentially, most Russian consumer products are a bit crap but completely indestructible, creating a wonderful plethora of devices that forgive the owners optimistic attempts to modify them out of crapness, and will carry on functioning to a completely mediocre level long after their delicate western counterparts have fallen apart.

All of these items embody an enchanting creed of minimalism, practicality and an often ruthless disregard for the safety of the user, the extent of the latter defying belief. This made perfect sense in the context of a poor, developing country like the Soviet Union that sought to quickly transform itself into an industrial society. Indeed, to ease production, consumer products were often made in the same factories as heavy machinery or military equipment, by workers used to constructing trucks designed to run for hundreds of thousand of miles in the most hostile environments imaginable; thus durability and functionality were the orders of the day. The boiling wand (see below) is a perfect example of this- why charge the workers for an entire kettle, when they can have a bare electrical element on the end of a handle? The variety of ways you could harm yourself with such a device is truly mind-boggling. It seems the soviet citizen had a penchant for exposed pieces of red hot metal, as also found in the “reflector” heater, which used a polished metal dish to project the heat of an element into a room with fearsome force. The utilitarian, rugged nature of Soviet design was often dictated by the environment itself, as seen in the Vyatka scooter. Whilst it vaguely mimicked the styling of Italy’s Vespa, there was no room for the graceful, light bodywork of the original in a country where roads were often little more than mud tracks and winter temperatures plunged well below zero. Due to the need for a heavier, more damage resistant chassis, most russian vehicles became squarer, slower and more angular compared with western equivalents.

The soviet drive for simplicity sometimes produced whimsical results though, as in the case of “krugozor” magazine. Noting the popularity of western magazines that included vinyl singles on their front covers, its creators decided to make their publication out of nothing but records, filling it with an eclectic collection of exotic music and programs from around the world. This magazine is a truly fascinating artifact, conceptually and materially; some garishly bizarre examples of the cover art can be found at In the covers from 1972 onwards, Technicolor workers labor in psychedelic socialist wonderlands. However, even this most light hearted of Soviet enterprises serves as an exemplar of the ways in which Russia defies understanding by outsiders. As gaily coloured as the images may be, they can't help but seem slightly earnest or sad, reflecting the hardship that was an undeniable part of Russian life.

Whilst Soviet citizens had to make do with dull, second rate or often downright dangerous products, Americans were revelling in a consumerist orgy. Americans in the 50's lived in the richest nation the world had ever known. They drove the most powerful and ostentatious cars, danced to the sexy, driving rhythms of rock and roll and brought the space age into the home, more of which next time...