hold on tight
Sugarloaf Point lighthouse
Hold loved ones close, help your neighbours, practice patience, let go of petty hurts and be kind to yourself.
and a little rant I wrote earlier
I was going to dig out my 1986 diary and recount my growing fears in late April and early May that year. But I don’t need to. I remember exactly how I was feeling.
On the 26th of April I was in Amsterdam. The weather was cool and the art galleries were warm. As I’d stayed in that glorious city before I bypassed the space cakes and Heineken brewery. Instead my housemate, her small baby, two of her friends, myself and the boyfriend (who later was referred to in diary entries as “Shit Face”) had crammed into a medium-sized sedan, taken the overnight ferry and ensconced ourselves in some acquaintance’s small apartment in the artisan quarter.
The greyest cloud that weekend was Shit Face, who out of his familiar environment was sullen and petulant. He really was a monumental pain in the bottom but being surrounded by a bunch of stimulating ex-pat kiwis made up for the sulky Brit and I didn’t let his moods dampen the trip.
Heading home the news began to filter through that there had been an accident at a nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. Buoyed by the holiday spirit it didn’t sound so bad.
Over the coming days more news filtered through. From memory it would take 10-14 days for the radioactive cloud to make its way to Britain. Quietly the government banned the sale of Geiger counters. Most people went about their days in total ignorance but unfortunately that was something I found difficult to do. After all I was a kiwi, from nuclear-free New Zealand – I had the badges, t-shirt and lifelong blisters from the marches to prove it.
But more than that, I had Shit Face. His role at a London polytechnic became rather useful. It gave him access to up to the minute radiation levels, recorded just across town from where I lived. Each morning I’d get a call. Often his voice sounded tight and controlled and then before we hung up would soften as he implored me to not go out in the rain that day.
Covens of kiwis met in dank pubs throughout the city. We’d plot our escape if Chernobyl fully blew, the quote at the time was that the current amount of radiation blowing our way was a breath of fresh air in comparison to what was coming next. For those of us with itchy feet, not ready to head back to the Antipodes, Canada was a favourite option, somewhere in the mountains. I don’t know why.
One of my practical housemates (there were six of them, plus two babies, a toddler and three chickens) hit the books and decided we needed to take iodine. I headed with her to the local chemist. The assistant looked at us strangely and got the older pharmacist who patiently listened to our request. Iodine, he informed us, was very dangerous. Exposing our thyroids to iodine may be worse than what the radiation could do he intoned. The practical housemate stayed on track, demonstrated a bit of medical knowledge and finally he relented. We had our little bottle of iodine, a dosage guide for each person in the household and we had to swear on our grandmothers graves that we’d not take a drop more than he’d calibrated.
Iodine is reputedly a foul tasting substance. I have no memory of its bitterness. Just some relief that I was doing something, anything, that might stop me from developing an unnecessary cancer.
The Brits kept calm and carried on. They appeared to have no fear of the substance in the air that they could not see. There’d been through worse in the Blitz and it had never hurt them.
Years later, working in Melbourne with a Polish doctor he recounted the litany of adult cancers, birth defects and childhood leukaemias that skyrocketed in his homeland in the late ‘80s There was tales of super crops, fruits and vegetables growing as if on steroids. I remember seeing cheap jam from the tiny principality of Liechtenstein in a local supermarket, and giving it as well as the Perrier water a wide birth. French wine vintage 1986? Forget it. Even champagne lost its allure.
Twenty-five years on I cannot believe the world is facing another nuclear emergency; that Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had been so easily forgotten by governments who commissioned nuclear reactors. Even in countries colonised on stable ground, let alone one on the Ring of Fire.
I’m angry that the nuclear industry is getting so much airtime to defend itself, up sell it’s product and downplay the real dangers. Why isn’t Greenpeace and CND getting equal space in the media?
But most of all, I’m sad that millions of people are being exposed to increasing levels of radiation, that governments fudge the truth at times of danger and that we haven’t learnt from history.