Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The warning bell

I had a particularly odd dream last night - short, but extremely vivid; for once, highly realistic, rather than occupying imagined settings or exhibiting surreal jumps in logic as so many of my dreams do; and very, very disturbing.

I was 'at home' - the house (not quite the same, but clearly 'intended' to be) where my parents lived 20 years ago. I seemed quite a bit younger than I am now, but my mother was very old and frail (I suppose, how I imagine she'd be now, if she hadn't died 9 years ago); my father was absent, already dead. No other characters were involved, neither physically present or impinging on my thoughts (this was quite a remote countryside spot, no neighbours within some hundreds of yards).

So, here I am, in the prime of life again, with my mother alive again, back in probably the last home I felt really happy in, and calmed by a tranquil and deserted rural setting... and I've been immersed in this peaceful idyll for all of a few seconds... when the sound of an air-raid siren - very, very distant - is carried to me on the breeze.

Yep, the end of the world was - potentially - at hand. And it was China's fault. This much I "knew", it was the automatically understood background setting to the dream. Some major diplomatic face-off had been brewing for days or weeks between the eastern giant and the US/EU, and suddenly it seemed as though nuclear war was a real possibility.

I was, as usual in my dreams (at least, the ones I remember because I've woken from them), very detached, rational, self-aware; not quite lucidly aware of the fact that I was in a dream and able to influence its development, but very astute and calmly analytical about my apparent situation. I remember wondering how far away is that siren, they don't have one here in the valley, surely? I remember thinking/hoping it's probably just a drill, or perhaps a false alarm; we don't know for sure that there are missiles incoming. I remember thinking maybe we've activated the warning just as a precaution because we've chosen to launch a first strike. I remember thinking perhaps it's just a limited strike, perhaps we'll come through this. I remember thinking how long have we got, it's supposed to be four minutes, isn't it; but it could be more; or less; it might be only seconds...

I remember assessing likely targets in our area, and concluding that our chances of surviving the initial onslaught at least (but not the subsequent insidious radioactive pollution, of course) were pretty good.  Hereford, city of my birth, 20 miles or so to the north, really just a farming market centre, little industry of note; the SAS base might possibly make it a target (or the 900-year-old cathedral, if the enemy is just being culturally vindictive, as in Hitler's Baedeker Raids).  Newport, 20 miles or so away to the south and west, a rather minor port. The nearest major targets would be Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Birmingham - all more than 50 miles distant. And we were in a steep-sided river valley: we'd be pretty well shielded even from a detonation just a few miles away. So, I was trying to reassure myself that our lack of blast protection wasn't too much of a problem: I drew curtains, thought of bracing the window panes in the room where we were taking shelter with tape or digging out a big sheet of cardboard to use as a shutter. I also began to wonder about the challenges of survival in the aftermath (the situation had developed very rapidly, and we hadn't had much chance to make any preparations). How were we off for food and water? Which of our neighbours' houses would be most likely to have a shotgun?

Yes, most of the content of this dream concerned my mental processes in confronting this scenario. There was almost no action; and no dialogue, really. I heard the siren, went indoors to find my mother, accompanied her into the small back room we'd decided would make the best shelter (partly below ground level, and only one window); brisk, but unhurried; anxious, but eerily calm. My mum didn't say a word, just lay down forlornly on a little camp-bed. I sat down on the floor beside her and held her hand. There we were, in a dark, quiet little room, in a remote cottage, waiting for the end.

Profoundly unsettling. I've had a few apocalyptic dreams before - dreams where I actually witnessed a nuclear explosion and/or its aftermath - but nothing as acutely personal and overpoweringly melancholic as this.

Yet this experience was also strangely cathartic. I suppose, after facing up to the worst thing that could possibly happen, the present troubles of your life start to seem unimportant. And there's a great relief, a flood of exhilaration to find yourself escaped from such a terror.

And it was emotionally restorative to 'see' my mother again, I think - however briefly. I've been feeling particularly lonely of late, missing my family (my mother and brother died just either side of Christmas; it's a season of unhappy anniversaries for me).

So, I see where much of the impetus for the dream comes from - craving the comfort and security of family, yearning to escape from current stresses, wishing I could turn back the clock... and having those desires tantalisingly quasi-realised, and in the same moment devastatingly frustrated. Hmm, it's the origin - and 'meaning' - of that darker element that bothers me. Where does the nuclear holocaust imagery spring from? Has "China" really become an ultimately destructive force in my life, a catastrophe from which I must try to escape?? It may be so...


JES said...

China... a catastrophe from which I must try to escape?

I couldn't presume to advise you one way or the other. But I do note that in your dream, however lucid and rational you may have been, however futile any action at all might have seemed, ultimately you tried not at all -- just prepared to let it all wash over you. In the face of an honest-to-gods catastrophe, inaction is the surest route to non-survival.

And I wonder if this is bound up at all with your concerns about physical fitness?

(Blogger's reCaptcha-like word-verification pair at the moment: the curiously half-Latin, half-Latin-suggestive tensuar reliqvis.)

Froog said...

What the hell else do you think one might do in this situation?? Build a spaceship and try to fly away?!

I think I went rather beyond just 'duck and cover'. But in this situation, there really isn't anything you can do - beyond, if you find yourself in a very exposed spot, try to get to somewhere more sheltered. Having determined that I was in about the safest spot - short of the PM's bunker - that I could possibly be in anywhere in the country, there wasn't anything more to be done; survival would depend on what you do after the bombs fall.

FOARP said...

I am not a psychologist, but I'm going to guess that just like everyone of the people born between 1945-1985-ish you are having a cold war flashback-nightmare caused by spending your childhood in a situation where total annihilation seemed not only possible, but at times just around the corner. I wonder if the modern generation has them also?

Froog said...

Well, I suppose I grew up with a lot of film and TV dramas on this theme. One of the very best was a small, little remembered American film from the early '80s called Testament.

However, in general, that threat seemed much less present by the time I hit my teens, in the late '70s and early '80s. And I don't recall having such dreams at the time - or for quite a long while afterwards.

And it doesn't seem to be a major threat today - not an all-out nuclear exchange between super-powers, anyway. The rogue state or the lone 'suitcase bomber' is a worry on a more restricted scale, but still terrifying. It bothers me particularly whenever I visit friends in DC. I sometimes feel it's hard to imagine the American capital surviving to the end of the century; it's such a prime target for the small-scale WMD.

But this dream, I'm fairly sure, is not actually about the threat of nuclear war; it's just borrowing that imagery to represent other potential disasters in my life.