A mobile phone taped to stolen commercial explosives; a cellophane disk slowly perforated by acid; a green-grey box opened with a key more familiar from bicycle D-locks. All of these have served as fuses for bombs, contraptions where success is followed, near-instantaneously, by utter erasure. Fuses are perhaps the ultimate self-denying objects; a sense of purpose has to run along circuitry towards absolute negation. Whether built in a Kabul shed or a Royal Ordnance Factory, these items have a common principle, and thus contain an implicit teleology. Moreover the apparent banality of these catalysts is incommensurate with their power: the barrel-key (below) was the only mechanism for arming most British nuclear weapons until the mid-1990s.
British war planning from the 1950s rested on the destructive powers of bombs such as Red Beard and Blue Danube (their poetic names assigned under the ‘Rainbow Codes’) being activated by such a key. The fuse – sometimes fuze – it unlocked would have been fitted in the weapons factories of Aldermaston and Burghfield, the Berkshire heartland of the technocratic-military complex. But the fuses had been tested so no accidental detonation was theoretically possible – and this testing was carried out in gaunt concrete pagodas beside a grey North Sea at Orford Ness, a locale for W.G. Sebald’s ruminations in The Rings of Saturn (1998). Within his elliptically-narrated death-prowl, Sebald could also appreciate the apocalyptic sublime in Orford’s stained ferro-concrete. It was partly about the disparity in scale: the monoliths fully of centrifuges and wind-tunnels to test something so tiny as a fuse. But partly it was because the place was so imbued with Thanatos, of which these fuses were mere symbols, that Sebald had to flee quickly away.
Yet, in the main, fuses in literature exist as objects to be interacted with by a poised and tense individual. And one of these key interactions takes place on a fictional beach near-identical to the shingle banks of Orford. Charles, the hero of Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room (1943) works in a secret government department inventing new weapons, some plausible and some outlandish. But Balchin’s art did not dare to imitate the baroque imagination that manufactured the ‘bomb-rat’:
For Charles the inventing of weapons is intercut with trying to find ways of disarming the bombs the Germans are dropping, bombs with ‘anti-handling’ fuses designed to kill anyone who might remove them. The book flits between office politics full of memos, brinkmanship and manoeuvrings to bleak vistas and maimed individuals. Yet all the time in the background is the problem with trying to find out what, quite literally, makes the new German fuses tick. On one level it becomes philosophical: the bomb-fuse has affinities with the chess problem in which an opponent has to be outwitted, and with the railway timetable where a future full of contingent temporality is trammelled into a pattern. But it is the contrast between the ever-changing power games of office life and the discrete physical items of the fuses which makes the book so compelling, and takes it beyond wartime reportage. The eleven-page finale in which Charles slowly removes a booby-trapped bomb on the beach is cast in an avowedly anti-heroic mode, but it is about charting knowable, albeit potentially lethal, objects, and a measurable result:
The clock mechanism was in the head. There was a lead coming out of it which forked and carried two flat bits of stuff which looked like insulators. In the top of the body there was a simple brass trembler tongue lying between terminals. The movement for contact was about a quarter of an inch either way. I thought, ‘The first thing to do is to earth those terminals and I can’t do it because my hands are too shaky’.
After Charles has successfully defused the bomb, and then broken down crying, the reader is given a coda full of despair. Lethal cylinders of plastic and metal are terrifying and puzzling, but they are nothing compared to the machinations of a bureaucracy at war and the hunger among others for personal glory. This troubling moral could be rendered, rather brutally, thus: some of my best friends are bomb fuses…