There is certainly symbolism to the fact that, this month, the peace symbol turns 50 years old. Slightly stooped and timeworn, alas, like humans of that age, it struggles to maintain relevance.
If you don't count religious emblems, the peace symbol has become one of the world's most enduring and recognizable of hieroglyphics. Quite a feat for an image which, instead of being based on some famous existing object, was designed precisely for the use that it has most often been made.
Its author was an English commercial artist and anti-nuclear activist named Gerald Holtom. He was one of many intellectuals in Britain during the 1950s who were deeply agitated first by having witnessed the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but then watching their own government, despite being in a time of postwar material hardship, race to join the nuclear club.
The sheer madness of that ambition was summarized, in the minds of activists, by an offhand remark by soon-to-be Prime Minister Alexander Douglas-Home: "The British people are prepared to be blown to atomic dust if necessary."
Except it wasn't and they weren't. Although often wrongly attributed to movement leader Bertrand Russell, it was indeed Holtom who sketched the icon in February of 1958. In later interviews, he made it clear how it originated.
At its basic level, the design combined two letters from the semaphore alphabet of flag-signalling, N (flags at eight and four o'clock) and D (flags at six and 12 o'clock), to indicate nuclear disarmament. A circle signified the earth.
But to Holtom, who had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War, there was more to it. "I was in despair," he later wrote, "deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad."
The newborn symbol premiered in the world's first anti-nuclear march on Good Friday of that year, shortly after Britain's first H-bomb tests in the South Pacific. Some 10,000 gathered first in Trafalgar Square, then over four days marched 80 kilometers to a place called Aldermaston where the nuclear program was -- and still is -- headquartered.
The march had what we would consider some recognizable traits: a bit of eccentric dress, babies in prams, jazz musicians to entertain, and organizers handing out lyrics to various peace anthems. Floating above them all, 500 of what they called "lollipop sticks" featuring Gerald Holtom's handiwork.
The image quickly hopped the Atlantic thanks to an associate of Martin Luther King, in whose civil rights marches it became a prominent feature. From there it migrated to protests against the Vietnam war, where the anti-nuke origins were forgotten and it assumed the more generic name of peace symbol. It quickly travelled the world, appearing as graffiti on Prague walls behind Soviet tanks in 1968 and on grave sites found during Argentina's Dirty War.
Not everyone welcomed the image. Some critics accused it of occult symbology, while others claimed it was a runic letter indicating death. Apartheid South Africa tried to ban the use of the symbol. Among American hawks it came to be seen as a sign of cowardice: the "chicken track."
Sadly, all these years later, we're probably more likely to see the design applied to a retro handbag on the fashion runway than on a protest placard in the streets.
I'm sorry to say that I'm part of the generation which then co-opted the symbol more for fashion purposes than sticking-it-to-the-man purposes. I dimly remember wearing such a medallion over a turtleneck and thinking myself cool.
The fact is that we live in a world no closer to nuclear disarmament than it was in 1958. Even here in supposedly peaceful Canada, we are in profound denial about the fact that we are a nation at war.
Durable as they may be, I guess symbols can only achieve so much.
Kevin Brooker is a Calgary writer.
© The Calgary Herald 2008