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“The hot summer sun was shining lazily…” #japaneselitchallenge16 #thebellsofnagasaki

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Having spent my first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge by exploring some concepts of aesthetics and beauty, I moved into more difficult territory for my next book. A number of the books on my Japanese TBR were published by Kodansha who used to bring out some beautiful editions of ‘Japan’s Modern Writers’ and I used to pick these up whenever I came across them. One slim volume I’d never got round to reading was “The Bells of Nagasaki” by Takashi Nagai (translated by William Johnston). Having read Ibuse’s “Black Rain” and Hersey’s “Hiroshima” back in the day, I felt that “Bells…” might be a good choice for further reading. It certainly was, though it’s a painful and difficult work.

“The Bells of Nagasaki” is an eye-witness account of the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Nagasaki on 9th August 1945. The author was a young man called Dr Takashi Nagai; a nuclear physicist and dean of the radiology department in the medical school of the University of Nagasaki, he was swept into the air by the blast and buried under a pile of debris. By a miracle, he survived, and along with those colleagues who were also still alive, he set about bringing what rescue and relief he could to the injured and dying around him. With his particular knowledge, he had more idea than many what had happened; and his story is a moving, tragic and painful one.

Nagai begins his story just before the dropping of the bomb, setting his colleagues and friends in their places, conveying the mindset of people committed to supporting their country in the War (just as every nation and its people does); but it is clear that no-one is expecting anything more than a normal bombing raid. When the nuclear blast hits, the results are devastating, and it takes a while for the survivors to realise what has happened. At that point, it becomes damage limitation; parts of the area are literally flattened, others are burning fiercely and the main thing is to ease the sufferings of survivors and get them to safety. Rescues are attempted from collapsing buildings; remains of loved ones and colleagues, killed instantly, are discovered; and the pain of the ill and dying is hard to deal with.

For the first time in history atoms had exploded over the heads of human beings. Whatever symptoms might appear, the fact was that the patients we were now treating had diseases that were completely new in the annals of medical history. To ignore these patients would not only be an act of cruelty toward individual persons, it would be an unforgivable crime against science, a neglect of precious research material for the future. We ourselves were already experiencing in our bodies the first stirrings of atomic sickness.

Eventually, the surviving group move to safety and begin using the limited resources and skills they have to help those in local villages who have been affected. Nagai himself has been wounded in the blast, and becomes so ill at one point that he barely survives. With his knowledge, however, he is aware of the longer term effects of the bomb, of the cancers and illnesses which will develop; and many more people will die or will be affected than those who were initially killed. Eventually he sets up a hut in the centre of the devastation and lives his life out there until his death in 1951. He preaches a message of peace; but did the world listen?

“Bells…” is a devastating book to read in more ways than one. It’s worth noting that this edition was published in 1984 when Cold War tensions were high; I can recall the fear and uncertainty in the early 1980s, with warning siren testings taking place at weekends; and let’s not forget this was the era of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”, with its lookalikes of the Russian and American leaders fighting – Glasnost and Perestroika were still in the future. So “Bells..” was very relevant at the time, and a sobering reminder of the horrors of nuclear conflict. Nagai brings a surprisingly non-judgemental viewpoint to the issue, with his memoirs reflecting the sorrow of loss (his wife was killed by the bomb); however, he retains a relatively calm narrative voice, and it is only towards the end, where he comes to the belief that Japan has been tested by God and lost, that his writing becomes more emotive. I tend myself to think that God was not involved in this, and that the nuclear bomb was a result of man and his evil, but that’s another matter…

Empires crumble, but the mountains and rivers remain. Opening the sliding doors, I looked at the mountains. The three peaks of Mitsuyama were tranquil as ever. They did not even seem to notice the fragments of cloud that floated beneath the towering heights. All things pass. All things are like a fragment of cloud. Our faith in the eternal stability of the Japanese Empire had crumbled in a moment.

Nagai, however, also brings much knowledge of how the bomb works and affected those places it destroyed, and this was an interesting aspect of the book. But what shone through for me was the stark horror of the effects of this evil weapon; and also complete disbelief that those who took the decision to drop the bomb did so. In his introduction, translator William Johnston rather curiously almost seeks to exonerate the leaders at Potsdam who agree to the bomb’s use, saying that despite the warnings of various scientists they were carried along by the tide of events. I’m not well read enough in history to know if that’s true, but I still find the decision to use the bomb unforgiveable.

I expected “The Bells of Nagasaki” to be an emotional and difficult book to read, and in places it was. To read starkly just what nuclear weapons can do to the human body is pretty horrible; and to hear of people’s suffering is awful. But this is such an important book, as the eye-witness account (composed, I believe, by Nagai on his deathbed) is a vital reminder of why we should never again use this kind of bomb (or frankly any kind of bomb – but that’s another story…) Nagai was obviously a brave man, his report of his experiences at Nagasaki is compelling and the book is unforgettable. Not a joyful read for the Japanese Literature Challenge but, I think, a very vital one.

*****

A few further thoughts:

I’ve written before on the Ramblings about the subject of nuclear conflict, as unfortunately since the human race developed the bomb the risk really hasn’t gone away…

Back in 2018, I read a book called “Gods of Metal” by Eric Schlosser; published in 2015 to make the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, it’s a sobering look at the state of the nuclear industry in the USA and just how close things are to a Chernobyl-like accident. It made stark reading, and had been brought about by another post of mine in 2018, when I examined a fascinating radio programme…

That Radio 4 show was a half-hour which really packed a punch. Professor Richard Clay’s “Two Minutes to Midnight” examined our attitude towards nuclear confict, whether we still had any fear of the bomb being dropped, and how close the ‘nuclear clock’ was to midnight. It was a fascinating, thought-provoking and rather worrying show which I highly recommend, and which you can still listen to here (thank you, BBC radio…) The programme had reminded me of those seminal books I had read on the subject of the WW2 use of nuclear bombs, particularly the aforementioned “Black Rain” and “Hiroshima”. As you can see from the image above, I had put my copy of “Bells…” with those other books and it has taken me this long to read it. The subject is one we tend to avoid, though with conflict breaking out all over the world I really do think it’s something humanity needs to address. In the meantime, I do recommend any of these books, and also Richard’s radio programme which really is powerful and fascinating.

As for my Japanese reading, I intend to read at least one more book for the challenge, although I suspect I will probably choose something a little lighter…

 

Some Christmas gifting recommendations @shinynewbooks

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I’ve been happy to be a contributor to Shiny New Books since the online mag first started up getting on for five years ago; and last year the editors decided it would be nice if we made some suggestions of books that we’d recommend as gifts to people at Christmas, an idea that’s being repeated this year too.

I seem to have had quite a successful reading year in 2018 and it was actually difficult to make my choices. However, I managed to select three titles in the end which really made a big impression on me during the year. Inevitably there are Russians…

The whole feature has some wonderful ideas for Christmas shopping – or indeed for books you might like to suggest people get for you! So do pop over to Shiny and have a look – you can never have too many book ideas to my mind… 🤣

“The burden of knowing” #TwoMinutesToMidnight #armageddon

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Gods of Metal by Eric Schlosser

Have gone to the trouble of ransacking the shelves to find the Eric Schlosser book I own (see my post here!) I felt it was only fair to actually *read* the book reasonably soon, particularly as it’s been languishing on the shelves for over three years. The timing felt opportune after listening to Richard Clay’s stimulating programme on the nuclear threat, “Two Minutes to Midnight” (which I blogged about extensively) and I was in the right frame of mind for some hard facts. And Schlosser certainly provides those.

“Gods of Metal” was published in 2015 as a Penguin Special, alongside a new edition of John Hersey’s seminal “Hiroshima”, to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Schlosser is an investigative journalist, probably best known for “Fast Food Nation” (although “Two Minutes…” referenced his book “Command and Control” which also sounds fascinating); those journalistic skills are certainly on show here. “Gods…” explores the world of nuclear resistance in the USA through the Plowshares movement, and their actions are brave and terrifying in equal measure.

The fact that an eighty-two-year-old nun had broken into a high-security nuclear-weapons complex seemed unbelievable. But to some people familiar with the security arrangements at Y-12 the intrusion was the logical result of mismanagement that had plagued the facility for years.

In 2012, a small group of people broke into a high-security weapons complex in Tennessee; unfortunately, they gained access unimpeded; fortunately they were peaceful protesters. Schlosser relates the history of the Plowshares group, a movement inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker newspaper, and which has spawned dissenters over many decades. Their belief in peace and disarmament is paramount, and they’re willing to be jailed in the most shocking conditions for their cause. Schlosser follows the three protesters from the moment of their break-in to their eventual imprisonment and aftermath, whilst considering the state of nuclear control in the USA as well as the increasing arms race from developing countries. And it’s really scary stuff…

Little Boy [the bomb dropped on Hiroshima] – a crude and highly inefficient atomic bomb, designed in the 1940s with slide rules – contained about 140 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and almost 99 per cent of it harmlessly blew apart as the bomb detonated. And, when that happened, two-thirds of the buildings in the city were destroyed and perhaps 80,000 civilians were killed. The amount of weapons-grade uranium needed to build a terrorist bomb with a similar explosive force could fit inside a small gym bag.

As Schlosser is at pains to point out, the nuclear threat comes not simply from a conflict (and a really big war is going to end up with Mutually Assured Destruction, so one would hope that the major powers are still trying to avoid this – although that wasn’t necessarily the case when this book was published). There is the fact that smaller countries are developing nuclear capability, but without necessarily the proper controls; and the more weapons there are, the higher the probability of an accident. Then there’s the ideal of a nuclear terrorist threat which is mind-bogglingly awful, and when you consider how relatively easy the carnage of 9/11 was, the concept doesn’t seem so unlikely.

By Lgmelby [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

But possibly the likeliest threat (and this was highlighted in “Two Minutes…” as well) is from incompetence or accident. As Schlosser reveals, the various nuclear sites are run by a series of commercial agencies (G4S at one point, FFS!!!) and these are shown again and again to be totally motivated by money and to be failing the most basic security tests. What is particularly terrifying is the ease with which the Plowshares activists gained access to the sites; the security was abysmal and had they wanted to actual take drastic action, they really could have.

For nearly forty minutes, I stood on the shoulder of a dirt road within throwing distance of a Minuteman complex. I didn’t see another car on the road, let alone a security fence with guns drawn. The short-grass prairie that stretched before me was windswept, gorgeous, dotted with small homes. You would never think that hidden beneath this rural American idyll, out of sight, out of mind, were scores of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just yards away from my rental car, sitting not far below my feet, there was a thermonuclear warhead about twenty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, all set and ready to go. The only sound was the sound of the wind.

“Gods of Metal” (the phrase is how the activists refer to the missiles) is a stunning mixture of the factual and the personal, which makes it particularly compelling and very affecting. Schlosser writes beautifully, and whatever you might think of the Plowshares activities and beliefs, you can’t help but admire their commitment to their convictions and their willingness to go to jail for them. And Schlosser’s slim book (120 pages) packs a real heft (I wonder if it’s perhaps “Command and Control”-lite, and whether I need to explore that book too…) The facts are stark and Schlosser’s warning of the real danger we live with every day is chilling. After listening to “Two Minutes to Midnight” (which will still be here on the iPlayer for a little longer) I was convinced we were walking around with blinkers on; I’m even more convinced of that fact after finishing “Gods of Metal” and I can see why it was released alongside “Hiroshima” (kudos to Penguin Books for that). It’s a worthy companion piece to that work, and it’s about time that more people read these works and started paying attention to what’s going on in the world around them.

Three Things… #3 – “…the clock is ticking…” #richardclay #armageddon #bbcradio4 @thMnsandthInstr

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I’ve already had a couple of turns at Three Things, the meme created by Paula at Book Jotter; this is where we post things we are reading, looking (at) and thinking. I’ve been pondering a lot over the weekend and so I thought I would share a few thoughts via the meme, though I’m going to be bending one of the categories slightly so you can follow where my thoughts are coming from…

Reading

I’m back to work after the summer break and so of course my reading rate has instantly slowed down…. 😦

However, I’m currently spending some interesting time with this title – “Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar” by Yuri Tynianov, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Tynianov is a Russian modernist author from the early 20th century who’s new to me, and he seems to be rather under-translated. So far, this historical novel is proving to be fascinating. The author appears to be best known for his “Lieutenant Kijé” which inspired the famous Prokofiev suite of the same name. However, this novel hasn’t been translated in full before, and was rendered by Susan Causey before her untimely death. Look Multimedia have rescued the translation from obscurity and I’m very glad they have – I’m picking up shadows of Bely in the writing style, and the story itself (of diplomat and playwright Alexander Griboyedov, friend of Pushkin) is intriguing. Such a shame I have to work for a living, as I’d rather like to spend a day or two exclusively reading this…

Looking/Listening

“Looking” for me is more often than not at art, or the world, or documentaries: the latter have been a bit of a sanity saver in recent years, although we’re in a lean period at the moment suffering from a dearth of documentaries and I am only being sustained by watching repeats of Lachlan Goudie’s “History of Scottish Art”. But! BBC Radio 4 and Professor Richard Clay to the rescue! 😀

Friday saw the broadcast of an excellent and thought-provoking half hour, tucked away in a morning slot and entitled “Two Minutes to Midnight“. In this, the Prof took a look at our ever-changing views on nuclear weapons, from Ban-the-Bomb days through to our current seeming indifference about imminent armageddon. Drawing on a wealth of information, the programme packed much into its half hour slot to ask some uncomfortable questions about why we don’t seem to be bothered any more. Which set me…

Thinking

“Two Minutes to Midnight” was a very timely programme and brought home to me how we need reminding about the dangers we face from a nuclear conflict. Tracing the evolution of our attitude to nuclear war since the testing of the hydrogen bomb, Clay reflected on why we seem to have lost the sense of what these weapons can do. A number of experts pitched in with a variety of viewpoints, from sociologists to RAF Fylingdales’ artist in residence Michael Mulvihill to author Eric Schlosser (I own a book by him. Do I know where it is? No….)** They came up with many interesting discussion points; one that resonated particularly was the desensitizing effect of video games and films which are not as realistic as the programmes and movies produced during the Cold War (“Threads” and “War Games” were referenced, and I can recall their impact). The fall of the Communist Bloc and the end of the Cold War meant a shift away from the focus on the concept of global conflict and there is much less public awareness or discourse surrounding the issue, with CND membership numbers plummeting. We also have much less distrust of technology than we used to; however, it’s worth bearing in mind that we are generally a much more politically disengaged race nowadays, and in fact the greatest risk of nuclear problems nowadays could well be from accidents rather than a war…

But we forget too easily nowadays how long the Cold War went on and how seriously we thought armageddon was possible. I can recall the nuclear warning sirens being tested every Sunday morning, as well as the arrival of the Protect and Survive booklets advising us what to do in the event of a nuclear strike. Both of these were stark reminders of the hopelessness of any attempts to survive the fallout, and as the programme points out, the advice given was absolutely pointless.

Images c. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

It’s shocking really to realise how we simply accept that emerging nations, which may not have the necessary safety controls in place, are developing nuclear capability. And we live in a busy world, with endless trivial diversions to distract us from reality. Back in the Cold War days, popular culture was much more engaged with issues generally, understanding what the consequences of nuclear war were. It’s no coincidence that the subject made it into pop songs – Ultravox’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” springs to mind, and of course the “Two Tribes” of Frankie Goes to Hollywood featured voice-overs with examples of the “Protect and Survive” advice. Nowadays, we’re so distracted by who’s in the jungle, or the high-profile high jinks of preposterous politicians which ooze all over our broken media, that we forget the real issues and threats. Yes, climate change is menacing the planet and has to be taken seriously, but it’s not so instant and brutal as a nuclear event would be. It’s almost as if we’ve become resigned to the inevitably of MAD…

As for the title of the programme; well, that refers to the Doomsday Clock. As Wikipedia says, this is “a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. Maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, the clock represents an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war”. The nearer to midnight, the higher the danger of destruction. In December 2017, the clock was placed at two minutes to midnight, which is the first time disaster has seemed so close since 1953 when the US was first testing its H-bomb. So here we are on the edge of a precipice, and no-one seems to be taking any notice – which is pretty scary in itself….

I could go on a lot more about how good “Two Minutes…” was, and the different cultural strands on which it drew (Clay wears his erudition lightly); but instead I recommend you all go off and listen to the programme here while it’s still on the iPlayer, and reconnect with the real world and real issues. This quietly subversive programme makes sobering listening and really packs a punch; it definitely deserves to be widely heard, and in fact could have been twice as long. Hats off to Richard Clay for producing another stimulating piece of programming; he has another documentary in the pipeline, so watch this space as I’ll no doubt be rambling on about that too!

(As a coda, I thought I’d share another song from the 1980s about annihilation – by a long-lost band I used to love, Young Marble Giants. Their “Final Day” is short, but unbelievably chilling…)

** After writing and scheduling this post, I decided I would go and have a proper look for my Eric Schlosser book, and lo and behold I found it! It was actually where I logically thought it should be – alongside my copies of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and other related literature:

I picked it up in 2015 with a special reissued edition of “Hiroshima”. Yes, I know I have three copies of Hersey’s book, and I don’t care. It’s such an important book that everyone should have at least one copy, and reading it alongside “Black Rain” is a salutary experience. Perhaps the introduction of Hersey’s seminal work on school syllabuses all over the world would be a useful exercise…

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