The relics of saints and martyrs occupy a position similar to that held by texts – they are dodgy objects of uncertain status in which we are asked to place our faith, and which have the capacity of bearing, or appearing to bear, the memory of the dead. Whether or not they have inherent properties, they get their significance, like texts, from the system of meanings that surrounds them, and without which they would be mere lumps of dry bone and gristle, or matter of unknown provenance. Relics of St Andrew, consisting of three fingers of the right hand, a part of one of the arms, a kneecap and one of his teeth, are said to have been brought from Greece to Scotland by St Regulus, or St Rule, in the fourth century AD. It is said that St Regulus was the bishop of Patras and the custodian of the relics of the martyred apostle. In 345 AD, following a vision, he hid some of these relics. A second vision directed him to take them west where he was to found a church in St Andrew’s memory. After two years of wandering, he and his party reached Scotland and landed at Muckross or Kilrimont, now St Andrews, on the east coast of Fifeshire – about a day’s walk from the family seat of one of my twice-great grandmothers, and just across the Firth from Midlochian, the family seat of the Dalhousies. Here the bishop is said to have built his church and founded the earliest Christian settlement in those isles, in commemoration and thanksgiving.

But another account states that St Regulus came to Scotland only four hundred years later, in 761 AD, the year Angus I, King of the Picts, died. The whereabouts of the relics, or indeed of the church that the Greek saint is supposed to have built, are no longer known. There are many churches and chapels in the area that make vague and conflicting claims to being the site, but it may be that the legend of St Regulus reflects the arrival of the rules and regulations of monastic Christianity.

233 regulusAt exactly the time in 1955 when my mother was writing her diary entries, the Americans produced the first of their range of nuclear-armed cruise missiles, the Regulus. This fearsome instrument of American rule enabled them to deploy missiles from warships and especially from submarines. For the first time, that year, a nuclear explosion could be delivered to any point on the surface of the globe.

This crucial moment in the history of the planet was not noted in the diary. I do have a memory of the time, two years later, on the 4th of October, 1957, when the Sputnik was launched. Humanity’s first extrusion beyond the atmosphere was a small metal ball with aerials sticking out of it, and it circled the earth in a frightening ninety-four minutes. We went outside in the early evening and stood on the roof of the pump-house, hoping in vain to catch a glimpse of this football-sized marvel as it passed overhead. It seemed, to me, to be a vindication of Communism, of my parents and their friends, and of the world of freedom and equality for which, as I understood it, they yearned and strove. The satellite sent a signal to the world below. ‘Beep beep,’ it said: ‘beep beep beep.’

I listened to a recording of those signals on the Internet. They sound, to me, like the cries of grey-backed gulls circling over the hissing and rumbling breakers, and it would not surprise me if the sounds I heard while peering up into the 1950s evening sky were the exact analogs of those transmitted by the invisible and inaudible Sputnik as it passed overhead.

Fortunately, the Regulus cruise missile was never used. More powerful and efficient devices took its place in the arsenal of the United States – the Polaris, Poseidon, Tomahawk and many others – and it has now attained the status of a relic. Detailed specifications of its manufacture are freely available as a matter of history, and a few actual Regulus missiles, without their warheads, can be seen in military museums. Bereft of their inherent power, they must draw their meaning from the system of meanings in which they lie. The history of their origins and deployment fades into the confused paranoia of the Cold War, the Manhattan Project and thus Teller, Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Szilard, Oppenheimer and many others, and their obsessive and well-funded pursuit of nuclear science.

The possibility of instantaneous nuclear obliteration pervades my life as far back as I can probe it, along with the icon of the mushroom-shaped cloud, menacing, in black and white. All of the characters in this story felt intermittently that their cities could become cities of the dead. Wherever we were, we knew or suspected that we were in the cross-hairs, that there were bombs in Russian or American submarines aimed especially at us.


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