Vladimir Putin’s decision on Sunday to put his ‘deterrence forces’ – code for nuclear weapons – in a high state of readiness revived a fear in me that I haven’t experienced since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As someone who spent his teenage years during the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war was never very far from my mind. Indeed, one of the biggest political battles back then was between unilateralists and multilateralists and I was firmly in the latter camp, even starting a local anti-CND group called ‘A Sensible Approach to Nuclear Questions’. But the two sides were united in their fear of Armageddon, only disagreeing about the best way to avoid it.
Peak anxiety for me occurred in 1980. I was a 16-year-old living in south Devon and this was not long after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. It was a Saturday afternoon and an older boy from Dartington Hall, the trendy private school down the road, had given me some magic mushrooms. These grew wild on the nearby hills and were the drug of choice for the local teens. They tasted disgusting and often gave you a tummy ache, but the resulting ‘trip’ could be a lot of fun provided you got the dose right – which wasn’t easy. The recommended amount was between 30 and 40, but they came in many different shapes and sizes, so that rule of thumb wasn’t terribly helpful. On this occasion I swallowed too many, which made for a bumpy ride. But that wasn’t the main reason I had a bad experience.
No, that was because the boy who’d given me the mushrooms – let’s call him Milo – waited for them to ‘come on’ and then told me war had broken out between the superpowers and a quiver of nuclear missiles were arrowing their way towards us. He said he’d found this out earlier and had arranged to take shrooms with me because it was on his ‘bucket list’. All highly implausible, but God help me I believed him. That was mainly because my brain was scrambled on psilocybin, but also because back then there was no immediate way to check stuff like this. No smartphones, no Google. Had I been at home I could have turned on the radio or the television, but we were up on Dartmoor miles from anywhere. In fact, the location helped Milo persuade me he was telling the truth because RAF fighter jets kept roaring past.
‘They’ve scrambled the air force,’ he said. ‘Can’t leave the planes on the ground or they’ll be destroyed by the first wave of intercontinental ballistic missiles.’
The terror I experienced was indescribable. This was a textbook ‘bad trip’, always a risk with hallucinogenic drugs even without a trusted ‘friend’ telling you that you were about to die a horrible and painful death. The way to manage it is to take antipsychotic medication like Thorazine or, failing that, drink copious quantities of orange juice. But there wasn’t so much as a pub within a five-mile radius. I later discovered that Milo was a CND supporter and had planned the whole thing. He strongly disapproved of ‘A Sensible Approach to Nuclear Questions’ and wanted to bring home the folly of opposing unilateral disarmament.
Happily, after what must have been the worst hour of my life, we bumped into some other people we knew, also on magic mushrooms, and one of them – let’s call him Robin – decided to nurse me back to sanity. It sounds completely mad in retrospect, but the way he did this was to teach me Cartesian scepticism. That is, rather than try to convince me that nuclear war hadn’t broken out, he got me to doubt the existence of everything apart from my own thoughts. If I had no way of knowing that Milo wasn’t a figment of my imagination, Robin pointed out, how could I possibly know that his story about nuclear war was true? Admittedly, this was a slightly roundabout way of persuading me the world wasn’t about to end, but it did the trick. I expect it helped that Robin seemed to care about me – he was a nice fellow, unlike Milo.
My revenge was fairly juvenile. A few months later I discovered that Milo and his pals had hired a coach to take them to a big CND demo in London and I called up the company an hour beforehand and, doing my best Milo impression, cancelled it. I then hid in a bush overlooking the rendezvous point and photographed the protestors milling about, clutching their homemade placards, waiting for a bus that never came. That made for a good picture story in the next ‘Sensible Approach’ newsletter.