To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture.  >

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  1. ‘Outside World’ (Moginie), 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Sprint/Columbia/Sony, 1982.*
  2. ‘US Forces’ (Moginie/Garrett), 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
  3. ‘Minutes to Midnight’ (Moginie/Garrett), Red Sails in the Sunset, Sprint/Columbia/Sony, 1984.
  4. ‘US Forces’.
  5. ‘Read about It’ (Hirst/Moginie/Garrett), 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
  6. ‘Maralinga’ (Moginie/Garrett), 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
  7. ‘Minutes to Midnight’ (Moginie/Garrett), Red Sails in the Sunset.
  8. ‘Scream in Blue’ (Rotsey/Moginie/Garrett), 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
  9. ‘Ask’ (Marr/Morrissey), The Smiths, Rough Trade, 1986.

Minutes to Midnight

Simon Castles

Simon Castles debates which was scarier: young love or the Cold War.

In 1984 the Doomsday Clock kept by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was moved to three minutes to midnight, its most dire position since the invention of the hydrogen bomb. Midnight Oil released Red Sails in the Sunset the same year, an album whose cover shows Sydney after a nuclear strike. And though I can’t be sure, I feel it was these two events that had much to do with a third I recall from around that time: me, aged about fourteen, sitting down to write a letter to my girlfriend telling her the end of the world was near.

As a teenager I spent a lot of time staring at that Oils album cover. It shows the harbour dry and scarred with craters, the bridge mangled and destroyed near where Luna Park should be, downtown Sydney desolate and falling away to desert. The image is by Japanese artist Tsunehisa Kimura, but I could never see it as art. To me it was a postcard from the near future. From a place without a postcard, to borrow the title of another Oils album. I would stare at it and imagine nuclear holocaust as the Oils played on my tinny oversized tape deck and formed an ominous soundtrack to homework I wasn’t doing. ‘It’s the summer of another year,’ sang Peter Garrett. ‘A little world weary, a little more to fear.’1

Midnight Oil were massive in the 1980s, and to young Australians they had an authority as awesome as Garrett’s towering frame in full flight across the stage. And one thing they sang about a lot—particularly on Red Sails and the album that preceded it, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1—was the terrible unease of living during a particularly hot phase of the Cold War. ‘In the shadow of Ban the Bomb we live,’ went a line from ‘US Forces’, a song on an album whose title was a countdown to some terrible moment.2 The Oils never gave any false hope or comfort that the Great Southern Land might be spared in a nuclear war either. Our support for the United States meant that when the superpowers began exchanging warheads, we were toast. It would be, to quote another Oils album, species deceases.


The author dressed for his school’s fancy-dress disco, 1984

And the feeling at that time among many young people was it could all happen at any moment. ‘I look at the clock on the wall,’ went one Oils song. ‘It says three minutes to midnight / Faith is blind when we’re so near.’3 I had never heard of the Doomsday Clock until I got into the Oils, but soon all clocks, if their hands were close together and pointing roughly north, made me think of the end of days. Which made me want to listen to Midnight Oil. Like great bands have always done, the Oils provided solace by reflecting my angst.

What seems obvious to me now, but didn’t then, is that my fear of nuclear war and my love of Midnight Oil were bound together. The one fanned and reinforced the other. The Oils were a salve to fears they helped provoke, and I dug them for it as they filled me with more terror. It was a perfect arrangement for feeling intense all the time, which is of course an unspoken aspiration of teenagers everywhere.

But I must have been feeling particularly intense around the time I planned to write this letter to my girlfriend Amy. Writing a letter to her wasn’t out of the ordinary, though I realise that now sounds ludicrously old-fashioned. Back then, before mobiles and email, a page torn from the middle of an exercise book and a well-chewed Bic pen were important communication tools. Particularly if you were at an all-boys Catholic school and your girlfriend was at the Catholic girls’ school across the road and you didn’t see her often on account of parents who put limits on these things, for reasons you could only put down to them having forgotten, or worse never known, what love was. So Amy and I scrawled letters to each other that passed between us—sometimes with the help of intermediaries—when school broke for the day.

The letters were much the same in content—school sucks, sad I can’t see you today, miss you heaps—but their similarity never stopped me reading each one I received about a thousand times. I studied them as if they were the rarest parchments ever discovered. Whole worlds opened up in the curl of a g, a dot above an i, something scribbled out and started again. Her handwriting was a kind of magic—its finest trick the conjuring of great longing in me. The letters were always signed off with love and a string of kisses. Which was sweet and no doubt an expression of real feelings—well, mine at any rate. I was smitten. If it wasn’t love it was, for me, the first flood of worship, which is an awful lot like love, only with more pimples and blushing and bad hair.

But there was something slightly out of place about me filling my letters to Amy with all the love and kisses I could fit on a scrap of paper. For I had at this point done nothing more than hold her hand, and I had hardly even done that. I hadn’t had a ‘pash’, which to me was just a wonderful word for some kind of wonderful I knew nothing about. As for sex, it happened in another universe from where I sat chewing the end of my pen.

So my letters had an element of play-acting about them. I was much more passionate on paper than in person. Face-to-face I had too many other things to think and worry about, beginning with how to occupy my limbs and when was a good time to breathe. Only safely away from Amy’s radiant presence would my nerves calm enough to allow me to express anything I was thinking or feeling.

That explains the letters in general, and the letter I wanted to write in particular. For what I wanted to say in this one I could never have said to her face. It was this: if the world comes to the brink, if we hear it’s minutes to midnight and the bombs are about to fly, if Ronald Reagan moves to usher in the Armageddon he clearly believes in and perhaps secretly longs for, well, if all that happens, could we maybe get intimate in a way we haven’t, which is to say any way at all? Could we, or you know, um, should we, get closer before a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile lands in our vicinity and we only have time to mutter ‘holy shit’ before our eyeballs melt and run down our cheeks?

Yep. This is what I imagined I would say, or something like it. Of course, were I to write such a letter I would follow in the steps of countless million boys and men before me who have used any pretext imaginable to try to get into a girl’s pants. But I don’t think this occurred to me at the time, or perhaps I just like to believe it didn’t. What I did know was that I planned to make the letter so full of equivocation and qualification that the central point would almost be lost on the page. This I hoped would allow the question to be asked but give me plenty of wriggle room if Amy reacted negatively or with complete bafflement. ‘Oh that,’ I would say, if she suggested I was suggesting what I was indeed suggesting. ‘I was just joking around. You know how thinking about Reagan and the largest nuclear weapons build-up in history always puts me in a silly mood.’

Which it did. But it also put me in a mood of impending doom, a mood captured in lines that jumped out at me from Midnight Oil songs I played over and over: ‘Bombs and trenches all in a row’;4 ‘Hammer and sickle / The news is at a trickle / The commissars are fickle / But the stockpile grows’;5 ‘In the wind / The ashes fly / Not much time / But time to try’;6 ‘ICBMs, SS20s, they lie so dormant, they got so many’;7 ‘Come to me now, this is the final hour’.8

In the latter half of Midnight Oil’s career, when they enjoyed their greatest international success, the band’s songs revolved mostly around issues of land rights, corporate greed, the environment, even love and spirituality. For this reason it’s easy to forget just how apocalyptic the tenor of their work was in the early eighties. In retrospect it’s not surprising that the Oils featured in several scenes of John Duigan’s 1984 film One Night Stand, which was about four Sydney teenagers who hear that nuclear war has broken out in the Northern Hemisphere and together face what might be their last night on earth. I felt an instant connection with the characters in this film for the simple reason that they, like me, had Midnight Oil as the background noise to their fears about the end.

But while the Oils were the dominant background noise for me in this respect, there was other music in the mix. In the eighties there was a stack of pop songs about the bomb. To name just a handful of tracks on a list that ran long, as if to a mushroom cloud on the horizon: ‘Breathing’ by Kate Bush (1980), ‘1999’ by Prince (1982), ‘Seconds’ by U2 (1983), ‘99 Luftballons’ by Nena (1983), ‘Walking in Your Footsteps’ by The Police (1983), ‘Two Minute Warning’ by Depeche Mode (1983), ‘Forever Young’ by Alphaville and then Laura Branigan (1984–85), ‘Two Tribes’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984), ‘Russians’ by Sting (1985), ‘Guns in the Sky’ by INXS (1987) and ‘Everyday is like Sunday’ by Morrissey (1988). There was also a Smiths song that, while mostly about Morrissey’s deep feelings of inadequacy (and what Smiths songs weren’t?), included a line that summed up my thoughts at the time almost perfectly: ‘If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb that will bring us together.’9

The Frankie Goes to Hollywood track was the biggest hit, pushed to the top of the charts with the help of an entertaining film clip that showed caricatures of Ronald Reagan and the Soviet president Konstantin Chernenko fighting in a ring, with the United Nations a crazed audience cheering the madness on. It was the Cold War as world championship wrestling. The video ends with the earth exploding. Asked about the song years later, the band’s frontman, Holly Johnson, said: ‘There was paranoia in the air. There was the uncomfortable feeling that it could all happen at any time.’

What made Midnight Oil stand out for me from the other acts was the uncomfortable feeling they gave that it could all happen at any time right here. By bringing the fear closer to home, they made it more real. The Oils were Oz rock, and to Oz kids in the seventies and eighties that was important in a way that is hard to explain and almost impossible to overstate. Oz rock signified a rough integrity, a ballsy honesty, an us-versus-them (‘them’ being an umbrella term that covered, among other things, soft rock, techno music, pop acts that were posed and pseudo, users of too much hair mousse, and, in some overarching sense, those cultural imperialist invaders the United States and Britain). Oz rock meant a sound that was guitar-heavy and genuine, and an energy and attitude that couldn’t be manufactured because it had its roots in a thousand sweaty and beer-soaked gigs in pubs across the land.

Midnight Oil showed fans a country they recognised, even if they didn’t always want to see. In their songs was the Australia of red dirt, blue sky and dry creek beds, but also the Australia of sunbaked suburbia, the bus to Bondi and McDonald’s outlets from here to the horizon. In their songs, too, was a country dangerously on the skid from casual and comfortable to acquiescent and apathetic. As novelist Tim Winton said about the Oils: ‘The music contained an unmistakable atmosphere of the suburban Australian life I was part of. Underneath the bland, safe surface, a jerky agitation, an itch I recognised … Australia seemed about to stop thinking and just go shopping and here was a band anxious about our communal future.’

So great was Midnight Oil’s dismay at where things were heading that they even flirted with calling it quits for the greater good. In 1984, just as Red Sails was hitting record shops, the band threw its support behind Peter Garrett in his run for the Senate as a Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate. Had he won, that would probably have been the end for the Oils. But he lost, and I remember being secretly happy about it. As much as I wanted a world without bombs, I also wanted Midnight Oil never to die.

But I could understand Garrett’s and the band’s sense of urgency. I felt it too, and I contributed to the global call for action by worrying more than ever before. By 1984 the superpowers were essentially behaving like teenage girls after a falling out and weren’t talking to each other. A Time magazine cover had an illustration of Ronald Reagan and then Soviet president Yuri Andropov with their backs to each other, both looking as icy as death. Inside was a warning that the leaders ‘share the power to decide whether there will be any future at all’.

The future seemed to hinge on the success of deterrence strategy, also known as mutual assured destruction (or MAD). This was the theory that one power would not launch a strike against the other in the knowledge that retaliation in kind would shortly follow. But even as a teenager I could see the flaw: there was no real way of being sure it worked until a nuclear exchange demonstrated that it didn’t. It relied on the leaders of those two nuclear-armed states being rational and sane. And where was the evidence for this? To me, the Soviets seemed scary and crazy for all that wasn’t knowable about them, the Americans for all that was.

My memory of the Soviet leadership in the early eighties was of a man who appeared dead, and soon was, being replaced by a man who looked like the man who appeared dead and who soon croaked as well. None of it inspired great confidence that the world would exist much longer than the latest decrepit Soviet leader.

The Reagan administration meanwhile put the fear of God into everyone, which I think was party platform. In 1980, the year he was elected president, Ronald Reagan told an interviewer that ‘we may be the generation that sees Armageddon’. He then set about making this the goal of his first term. He called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ and committed his country to the development of a space-based nuclear weapons defence system that became known as ‘Star Wars’. It all seemed about as connected to reality as a game of Space Invaders.

I found the blurring of the distinction between the real world and the world of computer games and movies terrifying. That a nuclear exchange might be started by accident because of some breakdown in what was fact and what was fiction seemed entirely plausible to me. I had seen War Games, the 1983 film in which a game-playing computer geek almost triggers nuclear Armageddon through misadventure. At the time it didn’t seem that far-fetched. For teenagers of the eighties, just as for the president, what was on the screen could easily be real and perhaps was. Annihilation was just a red button on a joystick away.

Martin Amis has written that ‘your feelings about nuclear weapons depend among other things on your date of birth’. And certainly for the youth of the eighties, the bomb was a unifying fear, in the way terrorism and climate change are for the young today. Perhaps the threat of nuclear war also transfixes certain types more than others—with the young and the anxious (and maybe Midnight Oil fans) at or near the top of the list. I have no recollection, for instance, of my parents or any of my teachers being concerned. Did they, to steal the subtitle of Dr Strangelove, learn to stop worrying and love the bomb? As Einstein wrote in The Menace of Mass Destruction: ‘Most people go on living their everyday life: half frightened, half indifferent, they behold the ghostly tragicomedy that is being performed on the international stage …’

Age probably has something to do with reaching this state of half indifference. As people get older a big childhood fear can lose its grip, partly because it has been present for so long that it becomes familiar, and partly because a thousand other fears crowd it out. The boy who expressed his dread of the bomb in the 1950s with the words ‘Please, Mother, can’t we go some place where there isn’t any sky?’ presumably grew up to accept living under it wherever he was.

Adults also lose a lot of the creative and imaginative power they had as children. The adult thinks, don’t go there, but the child is already there, looking around in wonder and alarm. As the US Institute of Medicine put it in their 1986 publication The Medical Implications of Nuclear War: ‘To contemplate the threat of nuclear war requires an act of the imagination which is difficult, if not impossible, for most adults. It requires young people to venture into an unknown and uncertain territory, into which many of the adults around them will not travel.’

I wasn’t surprised to learn that as teenagers many of my friends had ventured into this unknown and uncertain territory. What was surprising was the thinking and planning they did in response. As their parents went about day-to-day affairs, seemingly unconcerned, they were considering the practicalities of protection and survival. Where is the best place in the house for a fallout shelter? How can a door and boxes be used to make a lean-to inside a bunker? Which materials create the best barrier against radiation? Which windows should be sealed and painted white to reflect the heat? How much water and tinned food is needed to make it through a nuclear winter, after toxic clouds of dust and smoke block out the sun?

I didn’t think about such practical stuff much. Surviving a blast seemed too unreal to me, being a goner too certain. Martin Amis remembers how his teacher instructed students to use the desk lid to protect themselves from a nuclear attack. ‘I sensed violence and absurdity that lay beyond contemplation,’ he writes, ‘and I expelled it from my conscious mind.’ I think I felt something similar, even if I couldn’t have put it into words.

What was in my conscious mind, however, as I contemplated nuclear war, was my letter to Amy. For a period that was probably only weeks but in my memory seems longer, as if it encompassed at least a term of the Reagan presidency, the idea of writing the letter bounced about my brain. It absorbed my waking hours, which came to include many of the dark and silent ones before dawn. The other things in my life—school, footy training, homework, telly, pimples—went on as semi-usual, I attended to them, but only with what can best be described as steadfast inattentiveness. I was preoccupied. In my head was a bigger picture, and it had Amy in the foreground and a mushroom cloud ripping up the horizon.

This had to end, of course. It ended when I stopped wrestling with the idea of writing the letter and instead sat down to write it, whereupon I quickly found I could not. I had no words, and words are required for the composition of a letter. Even with Midnight Oil playing on the stereo, ramping up the intensity, pressing home the urgency of now, inspiring me to action, nothing came from my pen. Words failed me, as if words too had taken refuge from a threat. My attempts at getting the letter down repeatedly foundered, usually after the ‘Dear Amy’ part, which, however strong an opening, couldn’t make up for the lack of anything below it.

So why did I have such trouble writing the letter when I had thought about it so much? Why the block when I had already written it in my head? Why had I stalled when the superpowers still had 40,000 warheads ready to fly at any moment?

Sitting at my desk, nervously tapping my pen along to drummer Rob Hirst’s pounding rhythm, I found I wasn’t able to put what was in my head onto the blank page without hitting a snag. And the snag, paradoxically enough, was fear. This was fear not of nuclear war, but of everything related to the idea of writing and sending the letter. The fear of embarrassment, ridicule, change, judgement and guilt. And what if I did manage to write and deliver the letter, and got the reply I wanted, or imagined I wanted? The more I thought about this the more I realised that not only did I fear Amy would reject my sexual advance, but also that she might not. In fact—as my pen hovered shakily over the empty page—it struck me with some surprise that the latter scared me considerably more.

I was, you may recall, a Catholic. I had even been an altar boy. And this is a problem when your mind is on the cutest girl in school. For a Catholic upbringing tends to make you believe that whatever you’re thinking or doing is most likely wrong or bad in some way. Which of course makes thoughts about attraction and sex completely fraught, and opens up new avenues of fear as adulthood nears. So my fear of nuclear war was trumped by my fear of sex. Compared to physical contact with a real flesh-and-blood girl in all her wonderful mystery, nuclear cataclysm seemed not quite so scary after all. A big fear was diminished by being eclipsed.

In trying to write the letter I had raised the spectre of adulthood, and the sight of it had sent me running for cover, as if from an atomic blast. All at once I wanted to remain a child for as long as possible, to back away from life’s epicentre until it sucked me in. And if nuclear war broke out in the meantime, and a bomb was dropped on my city, well … so it goes. It wasn’t as if I would be around to rue the things I hadn’t done. In a flash of blinding light and heat too intense to imagine, I’d be ashes in the wind, if that. Time would stand still and I’d be forever young. Amy would be too. The thought was almost comforting. So I scrunched up the letter and threw it in the bin.

I still find myself thinking about these things, and about that time, when I play my old Midnight Oil albums. It’s as if the memories are retained in the songs, and are released the moment Rob Hirst brings his drumstick down hard on the snare. There’s a secret history captured in this music: of suburban adolescence; of skinny and sunburnt Aussie teenagers, in singlets and flannies, full of restless energy and anger and dismay as the Cold War superpowers faced off one last terrifying time. Midnight Oil also rocked. To me and my school mates, they were a reflection of great angst, but also a wonderful release from it.

Around the time I was contemplating the letter, there was a disco at my school, and Amy was there. I don’t remember much about the night, but at some point the DJ put on a Midnight Oil song and announced a competition to see who could do the best impersonation of Peter Garrett dancing. A bunch of us entered—our duty as Oils fans—but none of us got very far. None of us, that is, except Amy, who, despite being only half Garrett’s height and having a full head of golden locks, blitzed all comers. She got Garrett perfectly, as if she’d channelled him. The jerky convulsions, the stiff and sudden electrocutions, the arms thrashing the air, the hands outstretched, the whirling like a rogue dervish. Under a school hall disco ball, Amy danced to Midnight Oil like there was no tomorrow. I stood there and watched in awe. I watched her spin away and then back again, the walls and floor showered with a thousand lights like stars. And for a moment I didn’t have a worry in the world.

© Simon Castles 2012



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