Life

Nuclear bunker reminds me my yesterdays are history

I was sounding off like Mark Kermode about the merits of the David Lean original as opposed to the modern colour re-make of Great expectations when one of the class stopped me short writes Nuala McCann. “Miss, that 'modern' one you're talking about was made before we were born”

Remember Walkmans? East German spy Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) listens to one for the first time in the Channel 4 series Deutschland 83

WHAT they learn in history these days is very unsettling. A nephew is ribbing up on the Good Friday Agreement. “That’s not history, that’s just yesterday,” I tell him.

There is an old bit of TV footage of a landmark speech by Patrick Mayhew at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, that has the back of my big head of curly hair stuck in the corner.

It boldly declares: “I was there” – and another journalist says he always looks at the Noddy Holder curls and knows it’s me.

And honestly it was only yesterday, even though it was nearly 25 years ago.

“Yesterday,” sighs my mother, “Where did the time go? Sure I have a couple of children on the brink of retirement.”

It reminds me of the time I was teaching Great Expectations and recommended the David Lean original black and white film to my students. Films are wonderful; you can be sure that at least they’ll know the end of the story and that usually helps in the exam.

I was sounding off like Mark Kermode about the merits of Lean as opposed to the modern colour re-make of the film when one of the class stopped me short.

“Miss, that modern one you’re talking about was made before we were born.”

And that was me put snug in my little box.

So history to them is what we did yesterday. And long days to them are just flashes to us that are gone in a moment.

The sale of the nuclear bunker near Ballymena and the television show Deutschland 83 summoned all sorts of halcyon memories of the Cold War.

I know it wasn’t halcyon, but I was young and spending the summer in the West German gherkin factory where you went in on day one and keeled over at the sharp smell of vinegar. By day 10, you couldn’t smell a thing, but wondered why people edged away from you on the bus.

And in those happy gherkin-sorting days, in between dreaming of getting a promotion to mayonnaise – now that was a doss job packing sauce bottles – we planned exotic trips.

We were thrilled about going to Copenhagen because the train drove on to the ferry and you sailed across the water without having to leave the train carriage. Amazing, eh?

Believe me, this was in the early days of the Walkman when cassettes were modern and flushing the toilet in the railway station was still taboo in Ireland. And we went to Copenhagen and we saw the Little Mermaid and boy was she little.

And another such exotic trip was to east Berlin before the curtain came down. It was an awfully big adventure.

We strolled over and we exchanged the money as required at the checkpoint and the East German guards all had a laugh about my passport photograph because it looked like I was topless – so they showed it to each other and held it up for the queue to view.

You couldn’t change the east German money back again – and there was nothing to buy but a lot of cheap alcohol and ice cream that was all vanilla.

So we were the last to leave Unter den Linden and we were all a little under der weather or merry as hell when we did go – thrilled at the sight of a small Trabant rattling down the road and heady on the difference between east and west – the big grey communist buildings, the whiff of times long past in Berlin.

And that was history – living history. Everything changes and you have to keep up.

I went back after the wall came down and wrote the sober story of real people’s lives. Small nightclubs had sprung up in dark cellars in East Berlin; it was the alternative place to be. What was left of the wall was rainbow bright with graffiti and you could buy a chunk if you liked to take home as a souvenir.

All changed, changed utterly and all for the good.

And that is history.

The sale of Ballymena’s nuclear bunker took me back. Even though I’m from the town, I never knew we had such a place in our own backyard. Under the eye of Slemish was the place where the great and the good of Northern Ireland would hunker down in the event of a nervy finger on the nuclear button

No chance of me getting a look in at the bunker.

But that was long ago and the joy – fingers crossed – is in not needing it any more.

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