Th Thing Is With Steve Canavan

The distinctive mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.'Atomic Cloud
The distinctive mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.'Atomic Cloud
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Idon’t wish to air my dirty laundry in public but Mrs Canavan and I haven’t been getting along lately.

She seems to think it’s unfair I play badminton on Monday and Wednesdays, five-a-side football on Tuesdays and Thursdays, nip for a pint with work colleagues on Friday, and go walking in the Lakes on a Sunday.

I retorted that she has Saturday to do completely as she pleases, but this didn’t appease her.

She then pointed out that when I walked through the door the other day, our daughter, Mary, didn’t say daddy but remarked ‘who’s he?’

As a result I reluctantly agreed Mrs C may have a point and have begun staying in a bit more. The problem with that, though, is it’s quite boring at home, where a typical evening consists of Mrs Canavan changing into her pyjamas at 7pm, watching a rubbish cookery programme, then announcing around half nine she’s tired and going to bed.

To pass the time spent alone in the lounge, I’ve started reading a book about the history of the Cold War.

I won’t lie, it’s not a page-turner - it cost 50p from Oxfam and I think I paid about five times too much. However, it contains a fascinating section about a bloke called Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, who you’ve probably never heard of but to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude.

If it wasn’t for him, you see, many of us might not be here.

He was the man at the centre of a nuclear incident that happened in 1983.

On September 26 that year, there would have been – had Mr Petrov been the nervous type – a catastrophic war between America and the Soviet Union. Yet this one single person prevented the human race – or at least a large proportion of it – being wiped out.

The early 80s were a period when relations between Russia and America were at their worst since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the Soviet leader was a chap called Yuri Andropov, and both were convinced the other was about to launch a deadly attack.

It was against that backdrop that 32 years ago (to jog your memory, Michael Jackson’s Thriller topped the charts for 37 weeks, Gandhi won an Oscar for best film, wearing seat belts in a car became mandatory, and Mick Jagger celebrated his 80th birthday), Mr Petrov was sat in a bunker near Moscow.

His job was to monitor the Soviet Union’s early warning satellite network and notify his superiors of any impending nuclear strike.

The deal was that if Mr Petrov phoned and said the Americans had fired a missile, the Soviets would immediately launch a nuclear counter-attack.

One can only imagine Petrov’s surprise, when, half-an-hour past midnight, as he was stifling a yawn and perhaps contemplating a vodka or two at a local late-night bar at the end of his shirt, the bunker’s computers reported a nuclear missile was heading towards the Soviet Union.

Petrov – who, I can only assume, was a man of a remarkably calm nature – decided this was a computer error.

As far as I can make out from the book, he came to this decision – a decision, lest we forget, that could have spelt the end of his country – because ‘it felt a bit odd’.

It seemed, said Petrov, that “a first-strike was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches” in order to prevent the Soviets being able to counter-attack. He was also worried about the satellite system’s reliability.

A short while later – one imagines that during this ‘short while’ Mr Petrov was a tad on edge – the computers identified four more missiles as ‘in the air and heading towards Moscow’.

Petrov, a man evidently with nerves of steel, again concluded it was a false alarm, despite having no other source of information to confirm his suspicions.

Thankfully for him and millions of folk around the world, he was right, and it was later determined that the false alarm had been caused by ‘a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellite’. What a guy.

Alas, after initially being praised for calm actions that averted the end of mankind, Petrov was reprimanded for “improper filing of paperwork”, the powers-that-be allegedly furious he hadn’t told them about what could have been a potential devastating attack.

To this day it is considered the closest the Soviet Union and the US ever came to nuclear war.

Mr Petrov was ushered into early retirement (the Russians embarrassed he had exposed flaws in their expensive early satellite warning system) and he later suffered a breakdown.

Justice, of sorts, was done five years ago, though, when Petrov was honoured by the United Nations and awarded the Dresden Prize in Germany – complete with a cheque for £21,000 (though one can’t help but think that isn’t quite enough).

Is this what interests people?

I feel as though I am living in some sort of parallel universe this week.

Why is every single media outlet, including the main BBC news no less, running stories about some celebrity (who I’ve never heard of) currently on Strictly kissing his dance partner on a night out? Since when has this been serious news?

Yet as Indonesia attempts to recover from a tsunami that killed more than 1,700 people and two poor Brits have died in flooding in Majorca, the most read story on the BBC website is a not-very-well-known comedian snogging a dancer.

Maybe I’m out of touch and maybe it’s what people want to be reading and watching. But while I get that Strictly is a hugely popular show, and therefore people are interested in it, surely our brains haven’t all turned to mush so much that we need to keep abreast of what the contestants get up to on a night out?

Yours angrily,

Steve Canavan