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Sulphur-laced stories

Everyone’s world ends. Sometimes I wish mine would. Crashing bores at dinner parties, long-haul flights, school prizegiving, Christmas church services with my grandparents when I was a kid and all I wanted was to open my presents.

Those sermons seemed to stretch on for days, while I imagined commensurate cheerless, icy landscapes. I had no resilience for droning homilies or windbag ministers. Far better to be at school. At least in Religious Studies we were kept alert by Mr Burgess, a local Baptist preacher-turned-teacher who based his curriculum on the Book of Revelation. The trouble was his thundering, sulphur-laced rendition of the final showdown between God and the Antichrist kept us awake at night, convinced the seven-headed beast’s arrival was imminent. Would we be ready?

Mr Burgess was a tall, bow-legged man whose love of Bible-bashing was matched by an keen interest in the exquisite pain of running ultramarathons. Surely a man like Mr Burgess would be in training for the End of Days? I can still see his animated features, the bow of his hollowed-out chest, the jutting tips of his hip bones as he locked eyes with his young flock, enunciating the word “apocalypse”. Sometimes, he’d stop to catch his breath and reach down to pull up socks over his strangely wide calf muscles. Could he outrun the beast? I wondered.

My parents complained to the headmistress about Mr Burgess. Other parents were also alarmed that their children’s heads were being pumped full of plague, pestilence and hellfire when the only Day of Judgement they were keen to hasten would result in his termination. He had gone too far. Mr Burgess was discreetly instructed to peddle tribulation elsewhere.

Yet the scales had fallen from my eyes: our days were numbered. Everywhere there seemed to be proof that Mr Burgess’s crazed visions genuinely lay in store for us – Armageddon was an actual thing! You could fire the Baptist preacher but not the Four Horsemen.

You could fire the Baptist preacher but not the Four Horsemen

At that time a book we had at home assumed greater significance. The detail in the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder had always been compelling and I would spend hours stretched out on the carpet, my eyes roving over the landscapes and busy scenes of late medieval life. How had I never before noticed the torture and barbarism so terrifyingly rendered in his Triumph of Death? And how sinister the dark shapes cresting the white hill appeared in the The Hunters in the Snow. Together with the circling crows, the bare trees, the icy, lifeless wasteland – it all went into my little head and fed the tightly twinned concepts of ice and doom. And there was more to come.

Growing up in the early to mid-1980s, we were all convinced of the inevitability of nuclear annihilation. In this we were splendidly encouraged by adults, of course. There was the school librarian who was on a doomsday jag, Sting on the radio keening about the Russians loving their children too, and prime-time television programming that favoured documentaries explaining plutonium, shockwaves, heat blasts and radiation. When Greenpeace’s protest ship The Rainbow Warrior was blown up by the French in Auckland harbour a few kilometres from my family home, the atolls of French Polynesia where nuclear testing took place felt as though they were on our own doorstep.

In English class we were treated to the movie When the Wind Blows (1986). Up until then, I had associated Raymond Briggs with his poignant story of the The Snowman, who perishes in the warmth. This movie’s cuddly couple, Mr and Mrs Bloggs, find themselves in a hellish reality. Lucky enough not to melt in the Soviet strike, they face the certain death of a nuclear winter. The bleak irony was not lost on me.

The climate crisis is now what keeps children up at night. For most adults too, global catastrophic risk is seen purely in terms of the warming of the planet and the follow-on collapse of ocean- and land-based ecosystems. Yet nuclear strikes are once again on the cards. Ash clouds obscuring the sun, crops dying, water rendered undrinkable. An unending nuclear winter and incipient famine would bring out bloodthirsty tendencies in humans far more swiftly than slowly rising temperatures. One day we’re suffering a bore at a dinner party, next we’re being hacked to pieces in a Bruegel painting.

Given my writings about the hardships experienced by polar explorers, it is hardly surprising that the frozen wasteland scenario presents a highly imaginable prospect. The cold, the hunger, the empty vistas, the snow and ice and nothing at all nice to rest one’s eyes on. What a way to go.

Nuclear war is not the only way to obscure the sun. The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 sent ten billion ton of material into the stratosphere, causing a volcanic winter. The entire planet was affected. Over vast swathes of the Northern hemisphere the sun dimmed and a persistent “dry fog” turned the sky red. When crops failed, snow fell in August and famine ensued; the Horsemen’s arrival seemed imminent.

At least Mr Burgess would have been in heaven.

Joanna Grochowicz is a polar historian and author.Her latest book “Shackleton’s Endurance: an Antarctic Survival Story” is out now (Murdoch, £7.99)

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April 2024, Life, Serendipity

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