Leeds and the bomb

I have a little project that I’ve been putting off for quite a while as it involves a little work (!). I did most of my growing up in the 1980s. For the most part that was a decade of mullets, leggings and the first wave of banking types making an absolute bloody mint then buggering it all up. More importantly though, the 1980s were a period when people were legitimately afraid that the world might imminently end in a nuclear fire ball. At various times during that decade, we really did come very close to the missiles being let loose.

Leeds, a city of (then) around half a million people in the North of England played host to a faded football team (now freshly faded following an all too brief return to success) and a lot of dead industries. It also had a council which like most outside the South of England was run by a vaguely left-wing (note for modern day conservatives, when I write “vaguely”, you may read, “rabidly”) Labour council which insisted that Leeds was a ‘nuclear free zone’. However silly a designation this might have been (and it was silly as there was not a nuclear power station within 100 miles and the river Aire isn’t suitable for sailing nuclear submarines), it did mean that the council put considLeeds and THE BOMBerable effort into explaining the precise impact on Leeds that a putative nuclear strike might have.

The result of these efforts was the production of an amazing pamphlet called, “Leeds and THE BOMB” [original emphasis]. This thing was a wealth of horror for a young boy – I absolutely loved it. Between incredible graphs and diagrams (using a design that is absolutely of its time but which still looks great today) showing estimated casualties and fatalities were interspersed descriptions of the injuries that people would likely suffer. For an eight year old, these were quite clearly the stuff of nightmares. Consequently, I couldn’t stop reading it.

For years, I forgot about it, then recently had a discussion with a friend where we discussed ‘Threads‘. This film, a fictionalised account of post-nuclear-holocaust Sheffield (another Yorkshire town – I wonder to what extent the inherent ‘grimness’ of England’s North contributed to an obsession with nuclear destruction) was another great source of nightmares, albeit in my teens. The upshot of this conversation was that we both remembered this brilliant pamphlet but could find simply no trace of it on the internet.

This was a bit of a surprise frankly. How could something so brilliant not be available online? I intend fixing this frightening omission and plan over the next few days to finally get scanned copies of the pamphlet’s pages up onto the Web in all their horrible glory. Luckily for posterity, my mother found a copy lurking in a box somewhere and has been kind enough to scan the pages. Sadly, her scanner isn’t much cop and when I’m back in Europe I will get better versions done. For now though, they are legible and a great reminder of quite how bloody terrifying it could be growing up in the 1980s.

Leeds and THE BOMB 007

Just to whet your appetite, this two page spread shows the likely impact of blast, burn and fallout damage across Leeds resulting from a (comparatively small) one megaton bomb. To get a feel for how I felt about this diagram at the time, I lived right, bang, smack in the middle, where it says ‘University’.

More to come over the weekend. Hopefully, over time I will be able to get together some of the history behind this pamphlet including who produced it and what discussions were had about its likely effect (including on impressionable young science fiction fans like my young self). I might also do a few comparisons between the diagrams in ‘Leeds and THE BOMB’ and some of the more modern simulators such as HYDEsim.

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Edit (10th January 2011): I have now put the full version of the pamphlet on-line.

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17 thoughts on “Leeds and the bomb

  1. Thx for that. I was discussing this at work and people didn’t believe we spent hours in class discussing whether Rufforth or Tockwith were legitimate targets as they have/had airstrips. The other thing I remember was that it was based on Hiroshima rather that what was currently deployed in the age of “when you hear the air attack warning you and your family must take cover”

    • Ta. You’ve reminded me, I really need to get the rest of it online.

      A friend reminded me the other day how he planned to go sit on top of Hyde Park and wait for it to come. He reckoned that was the best bet to ensure instant death. Gruesome.

  2. My name is Bryan North . I was a Leeds City Councillor1979-20032 ,Chairman of Planning and a former Lord Mayor of Leeds.The booklet was my idea . I devised and Edited Leeds and the Bomb . The booklet sold 60,000copies worldwide and went into 3 print runs. Reproduced in Holland ,Germany ,Japan ,USA,.

    • Hi Bryan,

      Well. All I can say is thanks for enlivening a chunk of my (and a lot of other kids of 80s Leeds) childhoods :D.

      Quite apart from the gruesomeness, this thing was beautifully designed. The diagrams are memorable for their clarity and impact and I remember spending hours gawping at them as a kid. They were ahead of their time and got me interested in design. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person they had that effect on.

      Beyond all that, the pamphlet was also effective in what it aimed to achieve. It broke the ‘Protect and Survive’ spell for everyone I knew.

      Ta for making a Leeds childhood more colourful (and terrifying).

    • Also, when my mother is across in Amsterdam next, I hope to have her come with her copy of the pamphlet to get a proper scan of it. I’ll be getting those posted once I have them.

  3. My grandfather served in the 1st world war and often told me of the ignorance of the troops fighting the war . My sole intention was to educate the people on the facts of a nuclear war and to leave them to make EDUCATED decisions . I was under tremendous pressure to slant the booklet pro CND or pro Home Office .I wanted the booklet to be unbiased,factual and truthful I brought in Water,Electricity,BMA,etc to a point that they all agreed that our findings were based on fact and information at the time.It then could not be challenged on its conclusions .I took the first copies to various houses in Leeds ,total strangers ,left them a copy and asked if i could call them for their views .A full set of a4 posters became very collectable. I produced a sequal ,Leeds under a Cloud . Copies should be available in the library and Planning Dept ,Leeds . I released copyright as i was aware if we (Labour)lost political control the opposition would block its reproduction . It was reproduced in Zandamm (Holland), Boulder Colerado, Numerous other .cities worldwide .I have met many people who were given the booklet to study as part of GCSE exams etc . I was born in Leeds ,went to school in Sth Leeds ,no secondary education . I retired from the Coucil in Dec 2003 ,i now spend a lot of time travelling abroad . It was really nice to happen onto your blog . It ,in part vindicated what i set out to achieve . The Lord Mayors office in Leeds have my contact details . Kind Regards to all readers . Bryan North

  4. Hi Matt!

    I have been looking all over for this leaflet, I was at school in the 1980s and we were made to watch ‘Threads’ one afternoon and ever since I have been morbidly fascinated with nuclear apocalypse. I knew about this leaflet at the time and I have trawled the web trying to find it to no avail, please can you scan in your copy for us to have a gander at,

    thanks

    Johnny

    • Hi Johnny,

      It’s at my mother’s place but she should be coming up to see me in Amsterdam in the next few weeks. It’s going to get scanned come what may :).

  5. In the early 1980s I was friends with a Canadian peace activist lady called Jayme Luckett, who I met at a conference in London in the early 1980s, who later ended up in the tipi settlement in Talley valley.

    Whereby hangs a bit of a tale, because Ronald Reagan was hotting up the Cold War alarmingly at the time, and Jayme had brought over a “war effects” study with her. This was a booklet detailing what one medium-sized nuke would do to a medium sized city. At the time I was working for Leeds City Council. Leeds had just declared itself a “nuclear free zone”. Our legal team produced a list of the decisions we were not allowed to make on the basis of this declaration. Councillors very naturally began to ask “well what CAN we do”?

    So I went to see Bryan North, and produced Jayme’s war effects study for, if I remember rightly, Boston, and said “surely we can do better than this”, because Jayme’s booklet was frankly a bit sketchy. Bless him, he understood it immediately, (Bryan was a VERY good chairman!) grabbed the idea, picked it up and ran with it. The result was “Leeds and the Bomb”, which was a far better production. The next thing was every local authority that had declared itself an NFZ was copying us. The GLC’s was the biggest, but just about every NFZ authority produced one, and I think ours was the first in the UK.

    I think I probably made myself a bit unpopular with senior officers, and blasted my promotion chances, because I never cleared it with them before seeing Bryan. I had a notion they might squash it. But it seemed the right thing to do, and besides, I was moving towards major life and career changes at the time anyway. A couple of years later I was living in a radical commune, and shortly after that I was First Mate of a very leaky schooner going transatlantic.

    War effects studies, “Leeds and the Bomb” and the others which followed it, all made quite a valuable contribution to the debate and to public awareness at the time, because of course it’s one thing to talk in terms of generalisations, quite another to flesh it out with solid detail. Remember these were pre-net days, so if people wanted any sort of corrective to the official government line they were far more dependent on printed media. But the whole thing started with Jayme Luckett from Canada, a disaffected planning officer from Leeds, and a couple of other merry disreputables sitting in a Tipi in the beautiful Talley valley and getting stoned together.

    Occasionally I wonder what became of her. Either I’ve changed or the world has, because chance meetings with interesting people used to seem a lot easier then.

    If “Leeds and the Bomb” goes on the Net, I will be delighted!

      • Matt,

        The online copy of the booklet looks absolutely great! It is wonderful to see it again. Of course, I intend to download it. Thank you very much for all your work on it.

        The way it all began was that an NFZ declaration actually entitled the authority to do very little. It did not, for instance, entitle them to turn down a planning application on the grounds that it posed a nuclear hazard, nor to prevent the railways from trundling frequent trains full of nuclear waste through the city centre. (They probably still do).

        The authority’s legal team produced a memo detailing this. It basically said that the NFZ was an empty declaration with no content, because the current state of the law did not allow us to give it any content. Councillors were understandably indignant about that, for several reasons.
        Firstly some of them saw it as obstruction by officers, which it quite probably was, because the legal team had not given any guidance about what the authority could do, only what it could not.
        Secondly a lot of people were pretty passionate in those days about the nuclear issue. The Americans were talking about moving away from deterrence and towards the idea of actually fighting a nuclear war (but not fighting it in America, of course). Leeds, Leeds-Bradford Airport, and the Royal Ordnance Factory might have been targets. Menwith Hill certainly would have been, and as it goes down several levels underground, it would have been hit hard with more than one nuke.
        Thirdly the Council had not long been in Labour hands, and the Deputy Leader of the previous Conservative administration (one Councillor Sparrow) had said that the Americans “could site a cruise missile in his back garden”.

        Anyway, I happened to know that the law at the time allowed a Council to spend the product of a penny rate on pretty much whatever good and worthy purposes it chose, and that information and education work was very definitely included in that, provided it was not political propaganda for a particular party.
        I also happened to have a copy of Jayme’s booklet, which was an early “War Effects Study”, produced by a group of amateurs in the US. I was interested to see what would happen if a similar document was produced with all the research and presentation resources of a large local authority behind it. People like for instance, water and drainage departments, would be much ore likely to come up with information if approached by the Chairman of Leeds Planning Dept than by a group of part-time activists!
        BTW you are quite right, the graphics were mostly done using either Letraset or hand drafting on to film, mostly by a guy called Mike Peace. I forget the name of the guy who worked on the text. It certainly wasn’t me. After I had made an unofficial direct approach to Bryan, rather than putting it “through channels” (where the whole idea would no doubt have died the death) I was not allowed to have any further involvement in it.
        Luckily, that year, we had Bryan as chairman. Unlike a lot of Councillors, he had enough spark and vision to understand the idea, as well as the political nous to make it happen. I basically gave him the germ of an undeveloped idea. The rest (i.e the important bit that made the difference between it happening and not happening!)was all his.

        Best wishes,

        John

  6. Just re-reading what I’ve written, there’s one thing I ought to make absolutely clear. Credit where credit is due. The seed was Jayme’s booklet, which she passed to me. I passed it on to Bryan North. But the concept, the planning, the execution of “Leeds and the Bomb”, and last but not least steering it through all the politics, was entirely Bryan North’s work. He has every right to be proud of it. Bryan, if you read this, I’d love to hear from you again.

    • Hi John,

      I loved this:

      “…Councillor Sparrow had said that the Americans “could site a cruise missile in his back garden”.”

      Given the politics, it’s astonishing that it happened at all. It would be great now to get hold of the similar pamphlets from other regions to get a collection on-line. I love that Leeds got there first though.

      My dad used Letraset all the time to put together transparencies for his students. When I was a kid, I’d nick it and use it to put together demented (and expensive) scribblings. Top stuff. I guess the same Mike Peace put some of this together.

      Do you remember where the Planning Department was located back then? Was it on the corner of Albion Street and the Headrow?

  7. Greetings Matt

    Thanks for uploading the scans of the rest of the Leeds and the Bomb booklet. Thats really helped revive my recurring nightmares of nuclear armageddon that haunted me throughout my childhood. In my teens and early 20’s I was a member of CND and I went on demos / mass trespasses at Menwith Hill, I truly believed it was a matter of not if but when the ‘balloon went up’ and what I was gonna do when the cold war turned ‘hot’. Also amazing to see the input on this page from the people who created this legendary publication. I’d love to see a programme on TV, perhaps an episode of the BBC’s Inside Out which could cover the story of the 1980s cold war period in relation to Leeds and the production of this booklet. Maybe someone should send a what is it, ‘synopsis’ or something to the BBC? Its hard for the younger generation who were brought up in the post 1980s era to appreciate the terror that nuclear weapons created, I think a lot of younger people these days just see nuclear weapons as products of fiction – film / video games etc. Although nukes are still around I dont feel as though the threat of nuclear annihilation is imminent as it once was, although with the rise of China and the unstable world economy who can say what the future may hold… Anyway, to former councillor Bryan North et al – great work and many thanks

    • Thanks Jon,

      You’re right, it’s brilliant to hear the stories of the people involved. It’s exactly what I wanted to get out of posting the pamphlet.

      You’re right too that there’s some great TV in it, especially if some of the ‘scenario planning’ done by the government was included. Looking at that time would be fascinating TV history. My partner’s a journalist so we were thinking of pitching something to the YEP in the first instance and see where we can take it from there.

      Leeds was the epicentre (ahem) of so much in the ’80s but this seems to be an aspect that’s been ignored somewhat.

  8. It was really good to see that John Davies has made a contribution .The booklet would not have been possible ,without the work undertaken by John, Geoff Jones and Mike Peace and other people in the Leeds Planning Dept . It was a real pleasure to be involved in the project with such talented people . I have made Geoff Jones and Mike Peace aware of this site . Both retired now . If John wants to make contact with me e mail bryannorth@hotmail.co.uk .

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