The movement against nuclear weapons began in the UK in the late 1950s and left a mark as one of the most important post-war protest movements. A collection of recordings now available at the British Library Sound Archive sheds light on one anti-nuclear group who pursued inventive and covert means to spread their message beyond the conventional media. Kindly donated by Anne Hasted, the collection documents the broadcasts of ‘Voice of Nuclear Disarmament’ (VND), a station run by her father John in the early 1960s which had links to The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the anti-nuclear direct action group the ‘Committee of 100’.
The 1960s famously saw the first boom in British pirate radio and offshore stations such as Radio Caroline, Radio Albatross and Radio London. Yet unlike these music stations VND did not broadcast from an offshore location, in fact it didn’t even broadcast through the radio but instead hijacked the audio channel for television station transmitters. At 11pm the day’s broadcast ended, a photo of the Queen appeared while the National Anthem played and then the screen would go blank. If you were in parts of Greater London and you kept your TV switched on, you would hear a short melody played from an ocarina and a female presenter announcing, ‘This is the Voice of Nuclear Disarmament, broadcasting on Channel 1, sound only.’ While this was certainly an innovative means of communication, VND was not the first to use it. Earlier forays into broadcasting through the television and had come from Radio Free Scotland and Radio Ceiliog in the 1950s. The stations were connected to the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru respectively and had been set up in response to the limited air time given to nationalist political parties. It’s also been suggested that the far right League of Empire Loyalists did the same but I haven’t been able to find any evidence of this.
VND was the creation of folk singer, physicist and anti-nuclear campaigner John Hasted and a handful of other supportive ‘pirates’. The station broadcast from the top of high rise flats and although all shows were pre-recorded they featured a mixture of interviews, announcements, field recordings and folk songs. An unnamed female presenter made announcements and callouts for future demonstrations, and the words of ‘Fallout Freda’, as she was known to the BBC, became the calling card of the station.
Hasted was not a member of the Committee of 100 but VND first broadcast in 1961, just one year after the group had been founded. Interviews with famed committee members feature prominently throughout the recordings including, amongst others, the philosopher Bertrand Russell (recorded at his farmhouse in Wales), the jazz and blues singer George Melly, and the dramatist Arnold Wesker. The interviews often focus on questions of effectiveness, both in terms of the image of the anti-nuclear movements (Melly is asked if they are ‘weirdos and eccentrics’ and Russell about the popular press presenting him as a ‘crank’), and the tactics used (Wesker assesses the effectiveness of CND demonstrations and talks of the need for industrial action). Yet at the same time there is an urgency to the broadcasts and shows often end with a call for listeners to attend actions such as the December 1961 protests at US Air Bases or a ‘mothers’ protest’ at Grosvenor Square.
While the on-air interviews are interesting, some of the best content comes from the field recordings and Hasted who ‘possessed that rarest of assets, a tape recorder of my own.’ These were recorded at various anti-nuclear demonstrations and although I found it hard to pinpoint the exact dates, they include Aldermaston Marches of the early 1960s. Marchers are asked why they are in attendance and what they think might happen, again with a focus on questions of effectiveness and tactics. Music, from jazz bands to folk songs, features prominently in the recordings. Colin Irwin has written on the profound impact the anti-nuclear movement had on British music and it is fitting that one of the field recordings ends with what Irwin describes as the ‘anthem’ of Aldermaston, ‘The H-Bomb’s Thunder’. Hasted took the notes for the VND ocarina ‘callsign’ from the first line of this song.
In his Committee of 100 interview for VND, recorded in either 1961 or 1962, Bertrand Russell is asked about his ‘frightening statement’, which suggested humanity might not be around in a year’s time. Russell proceeds to defend this prognosis and in October 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis came close to proving him right. In 2020, humanity endures but we are still living in the shadow of existential threats. Listening back, it is remarkable how similar the language in the VND broadcasts–such as Russell’s lament at the ‘stupid ferocity’ of nuclear development–is to the discourse around climate change and mass extinction. Furthermore, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently set the ‘Doomsday Clock’ at two minutes to midnight, the closest it has ever been to potential global catastrophe. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board warned in 2019 that ‘the nuclear order is deteriorating and that nuclear risks are increasing’.
At anti-nuclear demonstrations Hasted managed to record interviews with Labour MPs Sydney Silverman and Michael Foot, and broadcast speeches from trade union leaders (and soon to be Labour MPs) Frank Cousins and John Horner. While Foot would later fight, and lose, the 1983 election with a commitment to nuclear disarmament, another long-term CND member Jeremy Corbyn would eventually fight, and lose, the 2019 election with an (albeit reluctant) pledge to renew Trident, the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. Neither Hasted nor Foot were still with us then but in 2010, two years before his death, the latter was adamant on where he stood: ‘why are we still spending billions of pounds on weapons that could destroy the world? We must continue to campaign against them.’
Hasted wrapped up VND after his cover was broken by investigative journalists. The station had certainly benefited from its proximity to the anti-nuclear movement and the return of mass protest to the UK, but Hasted also acknowledged the media context and how the ‘novelty’ of VND messaging meant that they received ‘plenty of free publicity from the legal press, television and radio’. VND was not the last of political pirate radio and subsequent stations included the far-right Radio Enoch and the occasional broadcast of Radio Arthur during the Miner’s Strike. Whereas media opportunities in the 1960s were few, more would soon open up and today the internet presents social movements with a wealth of outlets to broadcast their message. Online radio stations and podcasts exist alongside social media streams. A range of options exist which were unthinkable for Hasted and his fellow pirates, but in a sea of information, movements often find it hard to break through the noise; and who has the captive audience of those who left their televisions on past 11pm?
Charlie Morgan is the Oral History Archivist at the British Library. John Hasted’s Voice of Nuclear Disarmament Tapes can be found in the British Library catalogue by searching C1843 at sami.bl.uk. With thanks to Anne Hasted. and can be followed on Twitter at @BL OralHistory. Charlie tweets @BL OralHistory.