Four Minutes to Midnight

The other day I was watching TV (since writing these rants I’ve noticed I watch a lot of TV, maybe I’ll get those square eyes my Mum always promised me), ‘How It’s Made’ or some other instructional programme and they were showing how a public warning siren system was constructed. It was all very interesting and, as is my ageing way, completely forgotten in the blink of an eye. So I’m not here to tell you how to build your own audible warning system but more to talk about what was triggered in my memory.

A long time ago we were all going to die in a thermonuclear fireball (at one point last year it made a bit of a popular resurgence… until the next thing happened on Twitter) at the hands of those damned Ruskies. Missiles would criss-cross the globe from west to east and east to west and we’d all go to hell in a handcart in a very specific timescale. That timescale, pretty much universally accepted, would be four minutes.

As a kid, even into my teens and beyond, I remember the ‘Four Minute Warning’ sirens would be test run every so often to make sure they were still working. And it is a good job they did the tests because most of the system dated back to the 1940s when they were employed as air-raid warnings telling our ancestors Jerry was about to bomb their chippy. The two-tone, rising and falling, wail was unmistakable and it had us all running to our fallout shelters lickety-split (which means to do so quickly, it’s not a sex act for those readers unfamiliar with the phrase)…except it didn’t. Firstly, not being royalty or an MP we didn’t have a fallout shelter and secondly because we all assumed it was a practice and so we took no notice of them at all. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that.

After a little research, I found out that this warning system was still active until the 1990s but nowadays a series of broadcasts (radio, TV, internet, etc., I presume) is the first port of call to let the populace know in calm, level tones…YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE! The fact is, the warning system may have been updated but the time afforded to live after the programme interrupting news is still considered to be four minutes. Actually, I read it would be closer to three minutes, some say two, but that’s what you get for looking for data by logging on to

Back to my point, which once again drags us back to the mid to late 1980s. Along with the compulsory discussion around naming ‘The Hair Bear Bunch’ (I know I’ve mentioned it before…it really did bug me and I still can’t remember them all without Googling), the other pub topic that would be resurrected time and time again across our foaming beer was: ‘What would you do with your four minutes after the ‘Armageddon’s coming’ (a phrase which should be sung to that annoying Christmas Coca-Cola TV advert song) warning?’

Before I regale you with the deeply philosophical responses this discussion brought up, you have to bear in mind this isn’t The Smithsonian Debating Society we’re talking about here. This is up to a dozen late teen males all crammed around a pub table (with a beaten copper top, of course) in a time when last orders could be as debauched as anything up to 10:30 pm and we have been taking advantage of this precious time since early doors at 5:00 pm. We were leathered is what I’m saying. The answers are going to be as wise and reasoned as blowing a whistle at dawn in Ypres, 1917, for a laugh.

Invariably the first answer anyone gave to what they would do with their last four minutes on this blue pearl spinning in space was sex. They would spend their last 240 seconds of life revelling in the pleasures of the flesh…except they wouldn’t. Given they had four minutes to get lucky when they’d spent several years decidedly not getting lucky a vast majority of the time, and that was without the pressures of impending doom hanging over everyone’s head, it was a long shot at best.

One of my more inventive mates suggested he would pay close attention to geopolitics and if things looked decidedly dodgy he would take to hanging about places that were no further than two minutes from the nearest brothel. It was pointed out to him that it was unlikely that many of the ladies he had targeted as a ‘sure thing’ would want to spend their last moments of life at work…even if he did have enough time and money to pay for two transactions. I do also recall him being the butt of jokes about having to be ‘this big’ to ride the attractions, a la those signs at the entrance to fairground big dippers.

We had also assumed (wrongly) that every woman would be thinking the same way as us: ‘Oh no, nuclear annihilation; best get naked and have sex.’ Of course, now I am wiser and older I still have no idea what women would do but I am pretty sure they are not wired the same way as us blokes and to be honest I’m also sure they have got a properly good, well thought out plan about what to do with their four minutes while all the men, in heightened sexual desperation and with 30 seconds to go after realising the girls aren’t going to play ball, leap on each other for one last orgy of the senses. I can see the phrase: ‘You’ll have someone’s eye out with that,’ coming into its own that day.

Once we’d finished deciding who we would bless with our company for the last moments of the era of man, we came up with all kinds of other daft ideas of how to spend our end of times. Crashing our motorbikes into walls at high speed so we could wheelie past St Peter doing the ton. Going to the secret bunker in the woods we’d heard about from a decidedly mad relative. Robbing a bank and spending all the loot on a powerboat in the South of France…we were pissed by this point, the concept of time measurement was foreign to us.

The fact is we never once got a satisfactory, doable idea placed on the table. The variables appeared limitless for every situation and the barriers insurmountable. Having said that, it was a bloody good laugh planning the last four minutes of a life, that few of us assumed would last to the end of the millennium anyway in that fatalistic, cheerful, youthful way.

Now I’m here, nigh on two decades past the cut-off date I set myself over thirty years previously, I feel like any four minutes could be my last but, unlike back then in the pub, now I don’t want them to be. The idea of global nuclear face melting may not be a big problem (at the moment) but as we get older we are advancing to our own personal four-minute warning in many and varied guises.

Time is running out for all of us and as we get older the odds are getting more and more in favour of The Reaper showing up and paddling us across the River Styx. At what point do we think, ‘Right, I am going to do what I’ve always wanted to do starting with…’ Do we wait until we get sick, get an approximate date for departure and start cramming knowing our responsibility ends at date x. Or do we take a chance to do what we want earlier, in case of unforeseen accident or future debilitating events, and face the consequences that will surely follow our selfish actions?

Speaking personally I have no idea what I would do. The cocksure (pun intended) thoughts of youth have long left me, along with the energy and mischievousness that would carry me through such exertions. I could still ride a motorbike into a wall I suppose but I know at the back of my mind would be thoughts about ruining my no-claims bonus and the cost of repairs should I fail…and what about the pain? Not hitting the wall just getting my rheumatic ass onto the bike seat in the first place.

It’s a sad state of affairs to think as I write this that my last four minutes of existence have lost their value as I have grown older. Four minutes to me as a teenager was half a lifetime; I could achieve the impossible in that time frame…twice and still have time to spare for chips and gravy on the way home. Nowadays if that wailing banshee of impending atomic doom was to stretch her vocal chords once more I would probably put the kettle on and take three minutes deciding between bourbons or custard creams.

And now I have made myself sad…stupid ‘How It’s Made’.