In The Firstborn, British author Laurie LEE – famous for his autobiographical novel Cider with Rosie – wrote – about his newborn daughter Jessy:

Looking at those weaving hands and complicated ears, the fit of the skin round that delicate body, I can't indulge in the neurosis of imagining all this to be merely a receptacle for Strontium 90. The forces within her seem much too powerful to submit to a blanket death of that kind.

Try as I might, I cannot make sense of the phrase 'blanket death'… Is it a death that is slow in coming? a death that touches everyone? Does the phrase exist or did Lee use poetic licence?

2 Answers 2


It's not a set phrase in that quote, I'd say it may mean either of two things:

  1. death very soon after birth (right there on their blanket) or at early age (when child lives in a crib, wrapped in a blanket)
  2. inevitable death, death like all other children at the time, because radiation blankets their world.

Off-topic: today there is an-almost-set-phrase "blanket death" with a completely different meaning: when a child dies due to choking on or strangulation by their blanket.

  • Yes, this is an ironic use of 'blanket death," which usually means a baby dying in its crib, essentially in nonviolent circumstances. The terrible death of nuclear war or radiation poison is also "gentle" in the same way: instantaneous or externally lacking viciousness.
    – Zan700
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 2:59

Strontium 90 is a fission product produced by nuclear bombs. It is readily absorbed into bone marrow when ingested and can lead to bone cancers and leukaemia. Since strontium is chemically similar to calcium, it will be present in milk in significant quantities. The term "blanket death" is almost certainly an allusion to the global effects of an all-out nuclear war.

Wikepedia: Strontium-90

  • something like 'blanket bombing' meaning that no one is likely to get away unhurt?
    – user58319
    Commented Oct 23, 2016 at 18:12
  • I had checked and understood the meaning of Strontium 90, but that still did not tell me whether 'blanket death' meant 'death you could not escape from' or 'slow death' or ?
    – user58319
    Commented Oct 23, 2016 at 18:17
  • It will probably be both. If strontium 90 gets into the food chain, and it will, it will certainly be in breast milk and will hit infants hard. Anyone planning to have a child should lay in a stock of milk powder sufficient to wean it, but no government is going to tell the general public that.
    – Mick
    Commented Oct 23, 2016 at 18:47
  • The book was published in 1964 so Lee was probably influenced more by the Windscale fire than the more general threat of nuclear war. Windscale was a nuclear facility producing atomic bomb material and the fire and previous leaks released contaminants, particularly strontium 90, into the local environment. Lots of local milk was destroyed because of this. The leaks were hushed up for a while but became known by the early sixties. Most people had never heard of strontium 90 before this but the Windscale plant was renamed Sellafield afterwards.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 7:06

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