When the Wind Blows, by Raymond Briggs 8.0
‘When the Wind Blows’ is a 1982 graphic novel set in the UK during the Cold War. A deep black comedy, it tells the story of a retired couple preparing for a nuclear attack by the Russians. Raymond Briggs, a noted children’s books author and illustrator, was inspired to write this book after seeing a television documentary on nuclear contingency planning.
He subsequently used actual British government publications from the ’30s and ’60s to inform his satire; in fact, his book is considered a more accurate portrayal of the effects of nuclear war than those pamphlets were. The book was a bestseller at the time and was made into an animated motion picture featuring songs by David Bowie, Roger Waters and Genesis.
I knew nothing about it until recently, when I stumbled upon a second-hand copy at my local library’s book shop. It was an oddity to me (I mean, really, a comic book on nuclear war?), so it stood out from the rest. But I hesitated at first, being unsure that it was worth the purchase. After reading up on it, learning of its critical acclaim, I decided it was a must-read.
Especially in light of the movies I had been watching, such as ‘The Road‘.
At first glance, the impression it makes isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. drawn in a rudimentary fashion and coloured in what looks like crayons, it doesn’t exactly tease the eye. The lay-out is also quite simplistic, with the panels all squeezed together in neat rows. I suppose that it is a suitable parallel to the protagonists’ lifestyle: straight, narrow, orderly and simplistic.
In fact, that’s where the satire is rooted: the couple are simpletons who have never thought outside the box. I love their initial conversation, as he returns home form the library: he tries to discuss all these serious issues with his spouse, but he confuses all sorts of expressions – and she isn’t even listening, too busy as she is serving dinner. It’s rather amusing.
The book observes the average person’s ability to grasp the big picture. He is trying to to understand it all, even if he doesn’t succeed. Meanwhile, she continues to natter at him with no inkling of the dangers they’re facing. They’re both so naive. It’s both impressive and sad to see just how firmly he believes in the government’s intentions and wisdom in this situation.
This brought to mind the civil defense films that the United States government made during the fifties, such as the infamous “Duck and Cover”. It was meant to provide some form of reassurance to the population, even though they were highly unrealistic (that right, kids: ducking under your desks will protect you from nuclear annihilation!). And, somehow it worked.
I’d like to imagine that we live in a more educated and/or more cynical age and, thus, we wouldn’t buy into simplistic propaganda such as that, but recent events have proven otherwise: now we buy into our governments’ fabrications just to feel safe from “terrorism”. It doesn’t matter that the measures they suggest don’t actually protect us: they provide (false) comfort.
And that’s enough.
After the attack, our couple try to go through the motions, to live their lives as if nothing happened – completely forgetting the emergency procedures they’re supposed to follow. The story is tragic, really, but it’s made bearable by the humour, which is rooted in the language they use and their misunderstandings. It’s a one-note joke, but it’s clever enough to read well.
The back of the book is blanketed with tributes from the press and parliamentarians alike, and rightly so: it’s a realistic portrayal of such a ghastly possibility and it’s all done in a thought-provoking and entertaining fashion. Using a traditionally light-hearted medium to explore this apocalyptic scenario puts things in perspective in a way that few others would.
As gloomy and distressing as it might be for some, I highly recommend it nonetheless. Better this than “Duck and Cover”.