My childhood Cold War fears are back

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

On the day before my seventh birthday, which I spent at my grandma’s in Yorkshire, a young man named Raymond Jones walked into North End Music Stores in Liverpool and asked the guy behind the counter for a record on which an obscure local group called the Beatles provided the backing track for a song titled ‘My Bonnie’. The guy behind the counter was the shop’s manager and the son of its owner. His name was Brian Epstein, and as a restless budding entrepreneur he felt he should be alert to what was going on around him. Because of young Raymond’s evident enthusiasm, Brian made a note on a piece of paper saying: ‘The Beatles? Check on Monday.’ Which he did. Intrigued by what he saw, he wondered if he should become their manager.

Forty-eight hours after Raymond’s purchase, on the day after my seventh birthday, while I was still in Yorkshire, the Soviet Union tested a thermonuclear device that proved to be the most powerful ever created. It produced by far the largest manmade explosion in history. It was more than a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. It was more powerful than all the munitions exploded in the 20th century combined. It was almost certainly more powerful than all the munitions exploded in all of human history combined. Its shockwave circled the world three times. It was one of nearly 60 nuclear tests carried out by the Soviet Union in the year I turned seven.

A year later, on the day of my eighth birthday, which I spent at home in Birmingham, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended. I don’t remember much about it. I have a memory of my parents acting tense and weird for a while, but I thought nothing of it. They were in their late thirties at the time, busy, stressed, not well suited, and they often acted weird. But in retrospect I realised they hid the newspaper from us, which was unusual. They liked us to keep up with the news. But not that week. I imagine my dad was conflicted. He had been grateful for the 1945 bombs. He had survived combat in Europe, and had been given embarkation leave prior to sailing for the invasion of Japan. His commanding officer, who had seen the casualty estimates, told him to go home and say goodbye to his parents because he wouldn’t be back again. Now the invention that had saved him looked like turning on him, and his boys.

Just over a year after that, less than two weeks after my ninth birthday, I saw the no-longer-obscure Beatles at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I loved everything about the experience. I was immediately intoxicated by the joy and the passion and the energy. I felt my life had changed, and afterwards it seemed like the whole world was changing with me. The grim black-and-white Cold War fears were falling away into the past, and the future was beckoning, loud and raucous and fun. It stayed that way for a long, long time. The Beatles had beaten the Bomb. The Wall came down, felled, it was said, by LPs and Levi’s as much as anything else. All my subsequent birthdays, from my tenth to my 67th, felt like they were taking place in a new world. Now it feels like we’re right back in the old one.

It feels like inflation is back too, and this time I’m on the wrong end of it. The 1970s version suited me fine. My first annual pay rise was 40 per cent. In seven years, admittedly with length-of-service and promotions, I went from earning less than £3,000 to more than £60,000. Old debts became trivial. When I started work, the talk of the place was a guy named Pete, who had bought a house with a crippling, insane, ludicrous mortgage. He was sure to be broke for life. He owed… £18,000. It was a great time to be young, and a borrower, not a saver. But now I’m old and semi-retired, and I owe nothing, and I depend on the cash I have squirrelled away in the bank. I’m also the world’s least sophisticated person when it comes to money. If I could, I would keep it all in a coffee can buried in the back yard. If I was forced to diversify, which seems to be a word people use now, I would get another coffee can, and bury it in the front yard. Some years ago, I read Hans Fallada’s novels. Some of them touched on the middle-class experience during the Weimar years. My strategy doesn’t seem ideal.

My first book was published 25 years ago, which means I finished writing it about 27 years ago. Which means at the time I was doing my final revisions on the final draft, a tiny online bookseller was starting up in Seattle, named Amazon. My book will have been among the first they shipped. I dropped by to visit them on my first promotion tour, and met everyone who worked there in one afternoon. Since then they have grown somewhat, and diversified – there’s that word again – into a behemoth that includes a TV division, which just made a streaming season out of that first book, under the title Reacher. It was a hit – their biggest ever, I think. A nice outcome, after being in business together since both our beginnings.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Lee Child’s latest novel, Better Off Dead, is out now.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments