The Reading Room

“One Minute Before How Hour”

James Cameron at Bikini Atoll…..

cam-eightAs I work my way through what will be a full bibliography of the late journalist James Cameron I find myself revisiting his famous account of the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. I say famous because it quickly became a landmark piece of journalism and an essential chapter in his 1967 autobiography ‘Point of Departure’.

In 1946 he wrote a stunning piece for The Daily Express, an eye-witness account that would forever commit him to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. His autobiography deserves to be bought for this chapter alone, a reminder, if ever there needed to be, of a weapon of incredible power and man’s ability and desire to create something capable of obliterating his very own. It is a tour de force of reportage, he sets the scene brilliantly, from getting drunk in the local bar crudely called ‘The Up and Atom’ to the cold sweat on his back, it is all one needs in a piece of journalism, here is an extract:

“The loudspeaker said “Bomb Gone, Bomb Gone, Bomb Gone!”. I had on my goggle mask, so black and deep it was like staring into velvet. Behind that opacity all things vanished. Sea and ships and sunlight. At the bomb aimer’s words I began to count. When my counting had reached 55 the bomb went off. In that first fine edge of a second it might have been a southern star low down on the horizon. Then it grew and swelled and became brighter and brighter. It pierced the goggles and struck the eye as a crucible does, and in that moment it was beyond every doubt there ever was, an Atom Bomb and nothing else. It was a spheroid, then an uprising wavering thing like a half filled balloon, then a climbing unsteady dome like a mosque in a dream. It looked as though it were throbbing. I tore off my goggles and the globe became a column, still rising, a gentle peach colour against the sky, and from 18 miles I could see a curtain of water settling like rain back into the lagoon”.

“Somehow I found it impossible to believe that the thing produced a hundred million centigrade degrees of heat, ten times that of the surface of the sun. Yet it was beautiful in its monstrous way, a writhing lovely mass. Then, just as I remembered the sound of the explosion, it finished its journey and arrived. It was not a bang, it was a rumble, not overloud, but it thudded into all the corners of the morning like a great door slammed in the deepest hollows of the sea. Beside me a heavy wire stay unexpectedly quivered, like a cello string, for a moment then stopped. Now, standing up unsteadily from the sea, was the famous mushroom. In seven minutes and fifteen seconds our ship’s trigonometry gave it 23000 feet in height and 11600 feet in diameter. From behind me I heard a frantic ticking of typewriters. Very soon I found I was fumbling with my own. The reportage had begun. Many of us will never live it down”

An autobiography of sorts ‘Point of Departure’ is, but in keeping with the man and his mettle, do not expect a book heavy on personal grief and sympathy of which he could have written, this is in parts a travelogue of the late forties through until the mid sixties, it describes the most important political events of those years, of which, he was witness to most. He offers personal perspectives with a measured pen including the effects of his work on his personal life:

” For some twenty five years I tried to combine the careers of a normal man and a professional nomad; it made for a vigorous and various life and it had its own transient rewards, but it fulfilled neither. The habit of loneliness over a long period engenders the wrong responses to love, and there is nothing, wherever it may be, to compensate for that”

Cameron’s type is all but lost to us now but his writing should be preserved in the hope of inspiring a new generation of journalists to make the case for quality, level-headed journalism and with it an audience putting their smartphones and tablets to better use. One can but hope.

Point of Departure was given a new lease of life by the fabulous publisher, Granta. Part of their Classics of Reportage series, it was reprinted in paperback in 2006.

My James Cameron bibliography can be found here

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