Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Slow Burner and '50s Britain

The plot of William Haggard's Slow Burner (reviewed here) centers on a British program to develop civil nuclear power in the hopes of scoring a major economic coup.

While nuclear energy has never stopped being topical, this idea was especially so at the time because in the '50s the British government really did bet heavily on its scientists achieving a breakthrough in civil nuclear power, both for the sake of cheap domestic power, and as a source of export income with which to achieve a healthy balance of payments (as a country dependent on massive food and energy imports, while its manufacturing and financial position slipped).1 The object of those hopes was the Magnox reactor, which never justified such a confidence (the world generally preferred the American pressurized water reactor, today still the mainstay of civil nuclear power), but the expectations do come to pass in Slow Burner, specifically in the titular, very different technology. A nuclear power source compact enough to be installed in a suburban attic and packed up and driven about in the boot of a car, it put Britain twenty years ahead of the rest of the world--the only way, the book says, that the British economy was not twenty years behind it.

Moreover, the implications of this for Britain's economic life are repeatedly underlined within the story, so much so that the characters worry that the thief might be running West as much as East, and seem more concerned about the implications of losing perhaps their only prospect for a healthy balance of payments than they are about the Soviets upsetting the Cold War balance of power. Indeed, it is Britain's economic predicament that Sir Jeremy Bates has in mind ("Fifty or sixty million . . . and food, at the level of subsistence, for perhaps forty"; manufacturing plant "a generation out of date") when he thinks to himself that a "man who could consider going abroad, selling his knowledge, was worse than a danger, worse than an apostate" (114).

The point comes up in smaller ways, too--a burglar enlisted by Colonel Russell's people for an illegal black bag job told that if things go badly he could be resettled where he likes in the Sterling Area.

Sterling Area? he wonders, surprised by the qualification.

Yes, he's told, because just now dollars are hard to come by.

Next to this any menace from the Soviets in the book appears vague, shadowy.

Unsurprisingly, a good part of the book's interest for me was in its quality of being a time capsule from '50s Britain, capable of surprising in such ways.

1. While it doesn't say much about the government's specifically nuclear ambitions, David Edgerton's Warfare State nonetheless has a good deal to say about British policy regarding R & D in these years, and the view of some of its critics that it was too devoted to big-ticket prestige projects (of which the Concorde supersonic transport was another example).

My Posts on William Haggard
12/18/16
Review: Slow Burner, by William Haggard
12/18/16
Review: Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, by David Edgerton
12/18/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
11/4/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
My Posts on James Bond
11/9/12

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