John Christopher on the changing face of science fiction (2003)

Christopher’s preface

When his young adult novel The White Mountains was reissued by Penguin in 2003, John Christopher was asked to write a new introduction to it. The resulting preface is only eight pages long and mostly explains a bit about the book’s conception and execution. But it also includes quite a passage describing how science fiction developed during his lifetime, which I think is worth publicising and pondering.

Christopher tells us that he was a well-established author of a dozen or more novels for adults when he received a letter from his agent telling him a publisher was asking whether he would consider writing a novel for children.

But what sort of book was it going to be? The publisher obviously wanted science fiction, but I was getting tired of destroying the world – by famine or freezing or earthquakes – and I was no longer interested in exploring the universe outside our planet. There was a reason for that.

When I was the age of the boys and girls for whom it was now proposed I write, I’d been very excited about the possibilities of space travel, but those had been different days. In the early thirties we knew just about enough about the solar system for its possibilities to be a magnet to the imagination. The moon might be cold and dead, but the planets offered scope for dreaming. Mars, for instance, was colder than our earth and had a thinner atmosphere, but possibly not too cold or airless to support life.

And Mars had those canals. An Italian astronomer called Schiaparelli, looking through his telescope in the nineteenth century, said he had seen canali on Mars’s rust-red surface. In Italian that just means ‘channels’, but it got translated as ‘canals’, which was much more intriguing. Maybe in that thin but breathable atmosphere there were long waterways, built by an ancient race of Martians, dotted with Martian cities that were lit by day by a smaller sun and at night by the magic gleam of two low-lying moons. An ancient race, because one might suppose that on that chillier planet the process of life’s evolution had been in advance of ours. Apart from being older, the Martians might well be wiser and able to pass on to us the fruit of their knowledge. Or, if they were so ancient as to have become extinct, the ruins of their cities might still be there to be explored.

Then there was Venus – closer to the sun and much hotter than the earth – with its permanent blanket of clouds. What might lie beneath the clouds? Perhaps a planet in an earlier period of evolution, as Mars was in a later one. Something like our own Carboniferous era, perhaps. Did tropical swamps teeming with dinosaurs and hovering pterodactyls await the arrival of our first spaceship?

Because that was something else we felt confident about: early experiments with rockets had already made the eventual conquest of space more than plausible. It could happen in our lifetime, and with it bring unthinkable wonders. It was a bit like being in Elizabethan England, reading stories about what might be found in the new world which was opening up on the far side of the barely explored western ocean.

But in three short decades everything changed. By the 1960s we knew more about the universe and the solar system – but what we’d learned was much less interesting than what we’d imagined. We knew that Mars was not just cold but an altogether hostile environment, Venus a choking oven of poisonous gases. The chance of any kind of life existing on either planet – or anywhere within reach of our probing rockets – was incredibly remote.

A couple of years after I wrote The White Mountains, space itself was finally conquered. The landing on the moon was televised around the world, timed to coincide with prime-time US television viewing. That meant the early hours of the morning in the Channel Islands, where I then lived. The boy I had been at fourteen would never have believed that I couldn’t be bothered to stay up to watch.

I had seen the future, and found it disappointing: so what remained? Well, there was the past. The colour which had bleached out of our interplanetary speculations was still bright in human history and there was life there, and romance and action… The publisher wanted the future: I was more interested in the past…

The Tripod trilogy reconciles future and past

Christopher then goes on to explain how he conceived a way of combining the two, the publisher’s request for science fiction with his own disillusion with science fiction tropes and growing fondness for past history, by imagining an earth set in the future and which has been conquered by futuristic machines, the tripods (very similar to the Martians of H.G. Wells’s War of The Worlds) but the invaders have realised the best way of controlling human society is to take it back to the Middle Ages, by creating small rural communities of serfs obeying the local lord of the manor who in turn owes fealty to the king who is himself guided by the tripods.

And hence the odd atmosphere of Christopher’s Tripod trilogy, which combine futuristic alien masters with a society which is thoroughly feudal and medieval in feel.

Disillusionment with space travel

So much for the origins of this particular novel, but the point of quoting his words in full is to convey Christopher’s eye-witness testimony to how young science-fiction-minded writers’ attitude changed massively between, say, 1930 and 1970.

The just-enough knowledge of the solar system which he describes in the 1930s is the imaginative backdrop to the Flash Gordon, space rocket and ray gun, bubble gum sci fi stories of the 1940s, 50s and on into the 60s. It explains the early space fiction of John Wyndham, two of whose novels are set on a Mars where humans can breathe the ‘air’, can settle and meet the native ‘Martians’, as they do in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the first of which was written as long ago as 1946, and as they do in thousands and thousands of other travelling-to-Mars and colonising-Venus stories.

I wonder if we could delve deeper and locate just when that sense of disillusionment kicked in. Immediately after the Second World War science fiction received a boost from at least two specific inventions: one was the atom bomb, with its ramifications for new ‘atomic power’ which imaginative writers speculated could be turned into engines which could power spaceships across the solar system; the second was the practical application of rocket technology by the Nazis, who developed their big V1 and V2 rockets, both of which are prototypes for the countless cigar-shaped rockets to the moon, to Mars or to Venus which infest the science fiction magazines of the period.

And behind specifically sci fi-friendly inventions there lay the enormous psychological boost of America’s post-war economic boom, when cars and bras got bigger and bigger, the consumer revolution of fridges, washing machines and so on, which fuelled the widespread expectation that pretty soon gadgets would be developed to solve every household or lifestyle problem – including ones for teleporting round the planet or jetting off to the stars.

Is it possible, I wonder, to date precisely when the sense of disillusion which Christopher so eloquently describes, began to kick in? Or did it happen to different people at different times? I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s and remember watching Tomorrow’s World with James Burke who also covered the Apollo moon landings, and there was still plenty of optimism about building a space station and using it as a jumping off point for Mars and all the rest of it.

J.G. Ballard was a relatively lone voice when he declared in about 1973 that the Space Age was over. That seemed a mad thing to say but what he was specifically referring to was the fact that the later moon landings were not covered live by American TV because ratings fell off. By the last moon mission, the Apollo 17 trip of 1972, the moon landings and the TV series that presented them to a worldwide audience, had been cancelled.

People were bored. Although we then went on to decades of the space shuttle and the creation of the international space station (the 1980s and 90s) Ballard was, I think, right to realise that these developments no longer captured widespread popular attention. They relapsed into being the special interest of a diminishing band of fans, with occasional flare-ups of wider interest whenever a rocket or shuttle blew up (January 28, 1986) or the occasional landing of a little buggy on Mars (as with the current Mars rover mission).

Anthropomorphism and Western chauvinism

But more than just shedding light on the trajectory from optimism to indifference about space travel in the mind of Christopher and by extension his generation (he was born in 1922), this passage also tells us something else about the sociological shape of the human imagination.

What I mean is the incredibly anthropomorphic nature of the speculations Christopher found so exciting. He expected there to be cities, or ruins of cities, or ‘wise old civilisations’ which could teach us newbies the secrets of the universe. Or maybe Venus would be at the other end of the evolutionary scale and just like earth in the age of the dinosaurs.

Either way you can see how these are obviously entirely human, anthropomorphic imaginings.

Digging a bit deeper, the notion that there might be ‘ruins’ on Mars is not only anthropomorphic but very Anglocentric. The 1920s and 30s were a great era for finding ruins of lost civilisations, crystallised by the publicity surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. But the point is that these, along with discoveries made along the Silk Road in Asia or aboriginal holy sites in Australia, or Inca and Aztec sites in Central America, or the imperial cities of Zimbabwe or Chad, these were all discoveries made by Europeans and Americans, and so became part of our culture, the relics were brought back to our countries and became part of our colonial ownership of the rest of the world.

The ruins might be in Central America or Asia but they were made by white men, written up in white men’s journals for white men organisations and popularised through the newspapers, tabloids and magazines of the West, percolating down to schoolboys like Christopher and his contemporaries as controlled and ordered and structured into heroic narratives of Western exploration and discovery and understanding.

And it’s this ordered, directed, pro-Western structuring of narratives of discovery which underpin thousands and thousands of science fiction planetary stories from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Underpinned by the basic assumption that we earthlings, generally American earthlings, have a God-given right to colonise, inhabit, discover, communicate with, define and categorise and generally own the rest of the solar system if not the galaxy.

Which makes all the narratives which share this basic underpinning or ideological framework – no matter how disturbing their surface details and gaudy monsters might be – at their core, reassuring and comforting because they reinforce the notions of order and civilisation and morality and hierarchy and category which underpinned Western discourse (i.e. the aggregated total of the news media, scientific research, history and the humanities and all types of fiction) during that era.

Christopher’s young notions about the solar system and aliens were human-friendly and Western friendly.

Moving from adult to children’s fiction

In this respect Christopher’s transition from writing for adults to writing for children at just the time he did makes perfect sense, because the adult world, at the end of the 1960s, was ceasing to be the homogenous world of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and morphing into something else, something harsher and more fragmented.

Of course the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the vast calamity of the Second World War were physically and economically much more disastrous than anything which happened in the 60s and 70s. But the late 1960s and 70s saw the breakdown of the ideological, moral and cultural consensus which had dominated the West since 1945.

John Wyndham’s science fiction novels are ‘cosy’ because the protagonists all share the same values and worldview, even when they’re taking potshots at each other – to take a tiny example, Croker, the ostensible ‘baddie’ who staged the attack on Senate House in Day of The Triffids, later candidly admits it was the wrong solution to the plight of a world gone blind, and ends up becoming the leader of a new community. Deep down everyone is on the same side, believes the same things, shares the same values.

J.G. Ballard’s fiction represents, from the start, the collapse of this consensus. In Ballard’s early works the characters go mad, have psychotic breakdowns. To be precise, his characters’ response to some environmental catastrophe is to withdraw into private worlds and fantasies and to cease altogether to share values with anyone else. The moral consensus apparent in all Wyndham’s novels vanishes like morning dew leaving a ruined landscape of wandering psychotics – not psychotic killers, just people living entirely inside their own heads, to their own made-up values.

In the mid- to late-1960s, Ballard’s novels featured a lot of casual sex and violence and psychological breakdown which outraged the philistines and traditionalists. What is not so often commented on is that, as the 1970s progressed, the decade Tom Wolfe labelled the Me Decade (‘characterised by narcissism, self-indulgence, and a lack of social concern’) Ballard’s fictions came to seem prophetic of the widespread collapse of communitarianism and the rise of atomized individualism widely observed in that decade.

By the time Reagan and Thatcher were elected in 1979, although he’d carried on writing pretty much the same kind of thing, society had so completely transformed its values that Ballard came to seem like the prophet of smug, gated, amoral, rich sybarites, the subjects of his final (and, to me, deeply unsatisfying) novels, Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).

These all describe ‘transgressive’ behaviour among upper-middle-class professional types. They’re often described as satires, but they’re not, they’re more like shopping lists or role models for the era of the Sunday Times rich list and the never-ending series of lifestyle magazines which arose during the 1980s.

Thus to read in chronological order the novels of John Wyndham in the 30s, 40s, 50s, of John Christopher in the 50s and 60s, the optimistic techno-novels of Arthur C. Clarke from the 1950s through the 1970s, and then onto the stories and novels of J.G. Ballard is to watch the decline of Western optimism and consensus, to observe the death and burial of any sense of shared values and morals.

Now we are living in the aftermath of that collapse, with ever-increasing fragmentation of Western societies into angry tribes all convinced that they are the hard-done-by ones, and demanding restitution, justice and compensation from everyone else – the splintering of shared progressive ideas on the left into a welter of special interest and identity groups which itself mirrors the anger of right-wing communities who perceive their own white ethnic and traditional (cis-) gender identities under attack.

Sometimes reading the media, especially social media, feels like watching wild ferrets snapping at each other’s throats, against the darkening backdrop of the never-ending pandemic and the relentless environmental catastrophe of global warming.

We have come a long, long way from the innocently triumphalist vision of space-suited chaps rocketing off to colonise Venus and Mars. Now, far from colonising any other planets, it looks like we don’t even know how to hold democratic elections any more, and can’t agree what they’re for (this piece was written soon after the Proud Boys invaded the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021).

We certainly don’t know how to manage the planet we live on, let alone set ourselves up to ‘conquer’ and run others.


Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)

‘Pity always was a luxury. It’s all right if the tragedy’s a comfortable distance away – if you can watch it from a seat in the cinema. It’s different when you find it on your doorstep – on every doorstep.’
(John Custance in The Death of Grass, page 145)

This isn’t a particularly well-written novel, the prose style is starchy, the dialogue is as forced as a 1950s movie, and the major outlines of the plot often feel preposterous, BUT… by God, it has grip! Starting slowly, it picks up speed and turns into a hair-raising description of a polite, middle-class England which is utterly destroyed as the entire world falls to a devastating virus which kills all species of grass, thus plunging the entire globe into famine and bloodshed, and swiftly turning the handful of jolly middle-class chaps and chapesses we meet at the start of the book into hard-faced killers.

John Christopher

John Christopher was just one of the pen-names of the prolific English genre novelist Sam Youd (1922 to 2012). Youd left school at 16, worked as a clerk and then was drafted into the army, serving in the Royal Corps of Signals from 1941 to 1946.

He was determined on a career as a professional writer and his first ‘normal’, mainstream novel, The Winter Swan, was published under the name Christopher Youd in 1949. However, he was attracted to science fiction and wrote science fiction short stories under the different byline of John Christopher from 1951, getting them published in various specialist sci-fi magazines.

His first book as John Christopher, the science fiction novel, Year of the Comet, was published in 1955. The Death of Grass, published the following year, was his second sci-fi novel and his first major success as a writer. Youd went on to write a further ten or so sci fi novels as John Christopher – although he also wrote in a variety of other styles (detective stories, light comedy, cricket books) under no less than seven other pseudonyms. In 1966 he started writing novels for teenagers, what we nowadays call young adult fiction, producing about 20 of these, notably the Tripod and Sword of the Spirits trilogies.

The Death of Grass

The book opens by introducing us to a nice middle-class family with two brothers, John and David Custance (‘Don’t say “blimey”, David, it’s common.’)

David inherits his grandfather’s farm in a remote valley in Westmorland, while John pursues a career as a civil engineer in London. He marries Ann and has two children of his own, Davey and Mary. They often socialise with a friend of John’s from the army, Roger Buckley, and his placid wife, Olivia and son Steve. Ann dislikes Roger, who is a PR officer at the Ministry of Production, because he is so cynical and ironic (and given to quoting classic poetry, usually for ironic effect).

But Roger is the one, because of his position inside government comms, who is able to give John and David advance news that the virus affecting rice which has arisen in China, the ‘Chung-Li virus’ which has been in all the newspapers, is now heading for Europe and that even lovely old Blighty might eventually face the same kind of famine and food riots that are happening in the Far East.

And so it turns out. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are reported as dying of starvation as their entire rice harvest fails, spilling over into famine in Indochina and India, but we in the West rely on grasses and grains, not rice and so, for a season, watch with detached pity the mass starvation in the East.

When scientists eventually successfully kill off the original virus using ‘isotope 717’, there is much rejoicing around the world… until it is realised that killing off its competitors leaves the field open to a variant of the original virus which does target grasses and is more virulent than its predecessors.

In the first 4 or 5 chapters we see all this entirely through the dinner party chat and family dinners of John, Ann and their kids, of Roger and Olivia, and on a few occasions when John and his (wifeless, childless) brother David get together. John and Roger go for lunch at the latter’s club (chops and lager). Or the Buckleys and Custances enjoy their annual summer trip to stay in Roger’s caravan on the coast, while the kids play on the beach. They tut about the situation in the East, the womenfolk want the government to send more food supplies to the famine-affected areas and disapprove of Roger when he cynically says we need to keep all the food we can for ourselves.

When The Collapse comes, it comes suddenly and with no warning. Roger shows up at the building site of John’s latest building project, takes him to an empty pub and tells him the shocking news: England has only been fed by shipments from America and the Commonwealth. Now those shipments are ending. Within a week 55 million people will have no more food (p.45).

Not only that but – quite incredibly – the government has decided the only way to ensure the survival of at least half the population is to… liquidate the other half. The government has fallen, been replaced by a new hardline one which is drawing up plans to drop nuclear bombs on all the UK’s major cities! (p.48)

OK. Hard to credit, but within the swim of the narrative, it seems madly plausible. Earlier, we had a scene when John and Ann were visiting his brother Davy at the farm in the remote valley, Blind Gill, and he’d been a little shocked to learn his brother had bought a load of timber and was going to build a stockade, a fence against the one narrow entrance to the valley. Back in London, John had mentioned all this in one of his regular lunches with Roger.

Now Roger tells John to drop everything, go collect his daughter from her private school in Beckenham, and that both families must set off immediately for the North and David’s farm in Blind Gill. We are given a vivid scene of John, in a blur of panic, having to reassure his daughter’s tall, no-nonsense headmistress, Miss Errington, that everything is alright, and John’s distress as he looks round at all his daughters friends and wonders what will become of them (p.50).

But returning to his home in London, John discovers Roger has been delayed by his car having a busted gasket and having to take it to the garage. It’s 4pm before the two cars set off, loaded to the gills with all the belongings they intend to keep.

But the fateful delay means that, by the time they get clear of the North Circular Road, they are met by an army roadblock which has only been set up in the last hour or so. On the radio government announcements that nobody must leave London. The officer manning the roadblock says it’s just a manoeuvre, nothing serious, but won’t let them or anyone else through.

They turn round and Roger suggests a) taking a quiet rural side road as far as they can out of town and that b) he and John head back into the centre to a shop he knows. It is a gun shop. The two men try it on with the owner, a small, hunched, self-possessed and wordy man named Pirrie who refuses to serve them and, when John tries to jump him, pulls a revolver on them and starts to phone the police (p.60). It’s then that John tells him the full story, the imminent end of food, the famine, the collapse of society – and about his brother’s valley, Blind Gill, where they’re heading.

Pirrie phones his wife and tells her to pack their essential belongings into the car. (So that’s three cars – John and Ann and Mary in a Vauxhall; Roger and Olivia and Steve in a Ford; Pirrie and his wife, Millicent in their Citroen). Then helps our guys load up the car they came in with a small arsenal of weapons and ammunition. When a passing bobby asks them what they’re up to Pirrie calmly and confidently lies that he’s been asked to take this all over to the local police station. It is the first occasion he shows John and Roger how resourceful and calm he is under pressure.

They drive to Pirrie’s house where his wife Millicent (20 years younger, very attractive) has packed their car. Pirrie gets into it and they arrange the rendezvous at the quiet country road where they left their wives. They park and reconnoitre and see an army checkpoint a few hundred yards ahead round a corner. They wait till it’s dark and then ambush it. Roger drives forward loud and drunk, while John and Pirrie sneak up from the sides and take aim at the three soldiers as they approach Roger’s car. In the end, it is Pirrie who kills all three with just three shots. He owns a gunshop. He is a marksman. They throw the bodies in a ditch and lift the barricade. The killing has begun.

They get safely beyond the barricaded area then sleep in the cars. Next morning they drive to Davey’s boarding school (Saxon Court). Everything seems normal as they collect the boy, who insists that his friend, nicknamed Spooks, comes to.

They push on north and see bombers flying towards Leeds. The radio has stopped working. Normal authorities have ceased. Can the bombers really have been going to bomb Leeds? Madness. At another army roadblock a Yorkshire soldier advises a roundabout route north.

They come to a level crossing whose gates come down cutting John, Ann and Mary off from the cars ahead. John goes to investigate, sees a woman who’s been raped inside the station house, runs back round the house to see two men struggling with his girls and at that moment someone whacks him with a block of wood, knocking him unconscious.

When John comes round, he is being tended by Olivia. Roger and Pirrie took a while to realise his car was missing and return. In the meantime the bandits have taken John’s car and women. They could be anywhere. It is Spooks who points out a trail of oil on the road from a leaking gasket. They follow it out to the country where they ambush the three men. They have taken it in turns to gang rape John’s wife and daughter. Pirrie shoots them but not to kill. Our guys rush up to Ann and Mary who have both been raped. Ann takes John’s machine gun, stands over her rapist and rips him to pieces with a burst of machine gun fire that empties the magazine. In her biography of John Wyndham, Amy Binns points out that it was this scene which prevented Death of Grass being made into a movie, but in reality the book has this very hard, brutal edge throughout. No-one emerges as a ‘hero’.

Chapter 7 All the way through the narrative has been punctuated by the characters listening to the radio. At one point the plummy BBC voice goes off the air and is replaced by a spokesman for a new Citizens Emergency Committee (p.92) which claims to have taken over London.

Heading north they swerve into another roadblock outside the town of Masham by a self-defence force, multiple guns pointing at them and their guns are in the boots of the cars, They end up being stripped of cars, petrol, most of their food the guns and ammo. When completely finished, the dozen Masham defenders melt away leaving our crew to walk up a hillside and sleep the night atop the defensible hilltop. But Pirrie had insisted on bringing his blanket with him and reveals, now, that he kept a rifle stashed inside (he tells us he used the same tactics when with the Army in Arabia, against thieving Arabs).

Now they are a tired party, heading north and on foot, with at least three days march ahead of them (pages 97 to 105).

Chapter 8 They come across an isolated cottage with smoke coming from the chimney, and shoot dead the burly cottager who opens the door holding a shotgun, and then his wife who is inside, also with a gun. John shoots her in the face with his shotgun but she doesn’t die, instead falls to the floor screaming with pain. Pirrie eventually arrives with the rest of the party and executes her. You can see why it was a non-starter as a film adaptation.

They load up all the goods they need, and the wives cook a full English breakfast from eggs and bacon. It’s only then that they find the murdered couple’s daughter, Jane, cowering in her room upstairs. To John’s surprise, Olivia and then Rodger insist that Jane comes with them. If they leave her there, the next gang of marauders will rape and kill her. Initially Janes just wants to be left alone but Olivia eventually talks her into going along with them.

It was while in this cottage that Roger scans through the airwaves, most of which are silent, and comes across a broadcast from America saying that all Europe has plunged into barbarism. Some atom bombs have gone off. Last flights carrying European leaders or royal families have landed in the States, which still has ample food stocks but is instituting rationing (pages 116 to 117). Well, thinks John, one day the Americans might return from over the seas to the Old Continent, bearing a virus-resistant grass, but God knows what kind of savage society they’ll find if they do.

Nature is wiping the earth clean (p.125)

Pirrie’s young wife, Millicent, is a bit rougher than the others, a bit less pukka. This is indicated by her slightly ‘Cockney’ accent and by the fact that she flirts increasingly with John, as he makes more and more decisions (and becomes more and more hard of heart). She ironically calls him Big Chief.

That night, when John’s on sentry duty guarding the group who are sleeping in a dell, Millicent creeps up and tries to seduce John. She is half succeeding and manages to get him into a clinch when her husband, Pirrie, announces his presence. We learn Pirrie’s first name is Henry (p.127) as he confronts them. Then, in a striking show of brutality and the new immorality, Pirrie shoots and kills MiIlicent and John lets him. When John had begun to raise his shotgun, Pirrie immediately swung his rifle towards him. John was powerless but he doesn’t feel anything. He and Pirrie throw the body over an embankment to hide it from the others.

Chapter 9 Next day, Pirrie is confronted by the others about murdering his wife and says she had cuckolded him many times (is that an expression any living person uses nowadays, ‘cuckolding’?) so he was within his rights. He then surprises everyone by saying he is going to take Jane, the murdered cottagers’ daughter, to wife (p.134). The women object but don’t stop him repeatedly telling Jane to go to him and, eventually, she does, docilely. This is the new order of relationships. Ann confronts John about it all and John says, at that moment, Ann and Mary meant more to him than anyone else.

They cross up onto the tops of moors and it starts to rain. Down in the valley they can see the village of Sedbergh burning. The men confer and agree they need to be a larger group with more men and guns in order to see off the looters and gangs which are probably forming. A while later a group of four women, two children and a couple of weedy men approach in the rain, pushing prams loaded with belongings. Feebly these losers ask to join their group, but there’s too many of them and they have no guns.

The encounter is interesting because it highlights the very class-based aspect of the story. John’s two children were at prep school, and the narrative has taken us to both these schools where we met the head master and head mistress of each. Right at the start of the book, Ann had told her son Davey not to say the word ‘Blimey’ because it is common. Now, when the oldest man in this shabby group opens his mouth John instantly nails him for a manual labourer, knackered after a lifetime of loyal and inefficient service (p.142). Their children’s names are Bessie and Wilf. Compare and contrast the pukka, upper-middle-class Custance children, named Davey and Mary. Two nations.

Then another larger group comes along, the man carrying guns in a swaggering way. John hails them and there is some blunt talking. Pirrie says that if they’re to unite in one band they’ll all have to obey John Custance here. When their gruff Yorkshire leader, Joe Ashton, starts to demur, Pirrie raises his rifle, the other goes for his revolver and Pirrie shoots him dead. The others are so stunned it takes them a moment to recover and by then Pirrie, John and Roger are covering them.

Pirrie takes it a stage further and orders the rest of his group to line up, shake hands with Custance and identify themselves. John is acutely aware of the ritual element, as his new men line up to offer fealty to their new warlord. The manual labourer from the other group has watched all this and makes another plea to join the enlarged group. In a flash, John realises the power of the ancient feudal system and the deep pleasure it gives to be in a position of power and able to offer mercy and help to the helpless.

Chapter 10 John now leads his group of 34 souls down through the looted ruins of Sedbergh and up to a resting place high up overlooking the Lune Valley. Roger is in charge of the rearguard. Pirrie has settled into being John’s lieutenant. John has a testy dialogue with him, reluctant to completely abandon the notions of democracy and decency, while Pirrie continually reminds him of the realities of the new world.

They come across an abandoned house on the tops. Pirrie takes a party to check it’s secure – the whole thing is running like the army, now – and then the party take separate rooms while John organises a guard. In a bedroom Ann accuses him of becoming a gangster and John insists he doesn’t want to and it will all change when they finally arrive at his brother’s farm. Ann complains that all the women ask her for decisions, since she is the Chieftain’s Wife. His children are scared of him. Even cynical old Roger and Olivia are scared of him, now. In a gesture towards their old friendship, John calls Roger and Olivia up to share the main bedroom, bed for the kids, carpeted floor for the adults.

Ann and Olivia see Pirrie walking off with Jane, presumably to have sex with her in the heather. The women loathe him and despise his taking advantage of the docile farm orphan. They discuss giving Jane the sharpest knife they can find in this cottage so she can slit Pirrie’s throat, but John springs to his lieutenant’s defence, which triggers an angry debate about what he’s become. He keeps saying that, as soon as they reach his brother’s farm, he’ll abandon his duties and everything will return to normal.

In the middle of the night they are attacked by quite a large group of men and it turns into a shooting match. John is dismayed when they start throwing grenades, but when the grenadier stands up to throw, a lucky shot from our guys in the house makes him drop the grenade and set off all the others. At that the attackers withdraw. John doubles the guard for the night. In the morning they go and survey the corpses, only a couple. Some of the men in the groups our heroes have accumulated fought and killed in the war, so they’re used to it.

Chapter 11 They finally march the last few miles to the narrow entrance to the valley named Blind Gill where John’s brother, David, has his legendary farm. There’s a nice stockade built across the valley entrance and Pirrie and John are admiring it from the road when a burst of machine gun fire scatters them. Pirrie is knocked to the road but, when Jane scampers out, picks up his body and carries him to the ditch the rest are taking cover in, it turns out it’s only as graze to the head which knocked him over.

John walks back towards the stockade carrying a white flag and tells whoever’s manning the machine gun that he’s David’s brother. He hears a utility vehicle fire up behind the stockade and motor off, then return a bit later. Then he hears his brother Dave’s voice. Dave makes his people open the gate a fraction so John can squeeze in. The brothers have a joyous reunion but then Dave devastates John by telling him he can’t bring his band in, only Ann and Mary and Davey. He explains that others got there first, have helped him man the barricades, they’ve already had to turn away some of their relatives. There just isn’t enough land to support them all.

John goes back to his people hiding in the ditch and they’ve already guessed the bad news. He puts it to them straight. Roger tells him and Ann and Mary and Davey to take up the offer and for a moment John is tempted. But then glances at Pirrie watching him, tapping the side of his rifle. He realises he wouldn’t make it in alive.

He goes back for another parley with David who, this time, is surrounded by other men, who listen to the conversation, David clearly doesn’t have any room for manouevre. Desperately he suggests John leads his group off and then ducks out, and doubles back with Ann and the kids. He’ll be waiting to let them in tonight. But both men know it won’t work. They shake hands and John is let through the stockade gate again.

Chapter 12 Pirrie has a plan. That night John and Pirrie wade through the freezing cold river which flows underneath David’s stockade and, once inside, open up a fusillade on the half dozen men manning the stockade and its machine gun, killing them all. During the gunfight, Pirrie is hit, collapses into the water and is washed downstream, dead. John’s last memory, as he passes out from his own injury, is of his own people swarming over the now-undefended stockade.

Chapter 13 In a short chapter obviously intended to be unbearably moving, John regains consciousness in David’s old house, his mind full of confused memories of being a boy, of having to attend his grandfather’s funeral, of the reading of the will where it was announced that David would inherit the farm, of his mother’s clumsy attempts to reassure him he would get her money and so have a decent life – these memories interspersed with present-moment impressions of Ann his wife treating and  reassuring him.

Because in his and Pirrie’s assault from within the stockade either he or Pirrie shot dead his beloved brother, David. Now John staggers to his feet, over to where his brother’s corpse is laid out on a bed. He kisses it, then turns to leave the bedroom. Ann asks:

‘Where are you going?’
‘There’s a lot to do,’ he said. ‘A city to be built.’ (p.195)

Old army tricks

Without any song and dance it is made clear that quite a few of the male characters served in the army and fought in the war. One man they meet said all this chaos and bloodshed was fine when it was somewhere else, but is strange here in England. John remembers handling a gun in the army and we are told he shot someone, but it feels sickeningly wrong shooting one of his own people. When he takes sentry duty he cups a cigarette in his palm to hide the glow, an ‘old army trick’ (p.124). We are told one of the Yorkshire band, Will Secombe, fought in the war, and Noah Blennitt, leader of the gunless loser group.

Because the novel turns into a series of military encounters. Some straightforward fighting, some less obvious but still military-style negotiations need to be held with other parties, such as happen atop the moor when Pirrie shoots dead Joe Ashton, leader of the other group. The way so many of the characters served in the Second World War, saw dead bodies or killed during it, underpins and informs the narrative.

Viewed from a certain angle, the entire novel is actually a sort of extension of war literature.


Introduction by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane was commissioned by Penguin to write the introduction for the new Penguin Classics edition and it made me pretty angry.

Macfarlane went to private school, then onto Cambridge, so he is well placed to lecture the rest of us about how to live, and to make a career as a writer in an industry dominated by the privately school, Oxbridge-educated elite.

Macfarlane’s sensitive books about mountains or walking ‘the old ways’ are favourably reviewed by other private school and Oxbridge-educated types – for example, The Old Ways was described as ‘a tour de force’ by William Dalrympple, himself attended Britain’s premiere Roman Catholic public school, Ampleforth, and then Cambridge – and Macfarlane has won a heap of awards judged by like-minded, pampered and deeply spiritual souls. Like calls to like. The chumocracy. Or just the narrow ruling class which runs the arts and media.

Macfarlane tries to make out The Death of Grass to be a serious and prophetic piece of literature, rather than the intense, gripping but ultimately shallow, potboiling thriller which it obviously is. Macfarlane tries to argue that the novel deals with nature’s revenge and uses the hundred year-old hackneyed Freudian term ‘the return of the repressed’. This is obvious bollocks, as you can see from my plot summary. People shoot each other. Nothing repressed about it.

And also, for anyone with even a passing interest in ecology or biology, there is precious little scientific content in the book. After scattered references to the Chung-Li virus in the first 40 or so pages and Roger’s pub chats with John about scientists’ attempts to fight it, the virus as such disappears from the story, which turns into the intense and violent adventures of a small group fighting their way across England.

Like many authors asked to write an introduction to a book, Macfarlane pads out the little he has to say by giving summaries of a lot of other books which are like it. Thus in the introduction’s eight pages he manages to namecheck and summarise:

  • Greener Than You Think by Ward Moore (1947)
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
  • The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
  • The Genocides by Thomas Disch (1961)
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2007)

So instead of describing the book he’s introducing, Macfarlane devotes a lot of effort to showing us how well-read and clever he is. Amazingly, he then lets loose a volley of characteristically upper-class criticism of British exceptionalism and the English character, which is so characteristic of modern upper-class progressives who have enjoyed all the privileges of an elite public school and Oxbridge.

He is quick to inform us that he despises ‘British exceptionalism’, the lingering thought that the British are ‘morally superior to other cultures and nations’ (for example Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, imperial Japan or Maoist China) tut tut no no. He descants on ‘the hollowness of the idea of “Englishness”‘ – which Macfarlane despises as only a superior-minded, privately educated Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge can.

Tut tut, all you stupid chavs who are patriots or love your country or thought that Britain was standing up to Hitler, Russia or the murderous Japs during the Second World War, tut tut, you should listen to superior beings like Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge Robert Macfarlane, who goes out of his way to tell readers that they ought to despise the novel’s depiction of ‘a Batsford England of bosomy downlands, sleepy seaside towns and well-fed burghers, warm beer, cricket on the green, tea on the lawn, and fair play.’

Stupid British people! Listen to Robert and learn to despise yourselves and the wretched, hypocritical country you live in!

Macfarlane goes onto completely lose all credibility by claiming J.G. Ballard as a ‘prophet’ of contemporary society a notion which, after having read Ballard’s complete works, I completely reject and devoted a blog post to:

Rather pathetically, Macfarlane says Ballard predicted reality television, the advent of ‘happy slapping’ and the decline of high-rise living:

a) as if Ballard actually did prophesy them instead of, in fact, being as aware of their development as anyone else who reads the papers and magazines (predicting the rise of ‘happy slapping’ as a major claim to fame! my God, what an idiot)

b)as if that is what Ballard’s claim to fame should rest on, on being a supposed prophet! Of course it shouldn’t, you nitwit! It isn’t on his claim to fame as a ‘prophet’ but the quality of his writing that a writer’s claim to fame should rest – otherwise he’s just an essayist or superficial cultural commentator, alongside thousands and thousands of others all lamenting the awfulness of modern society, much like Robert Macfarlane wringing his hands over anyone who could be nostalgic for an England of ‘bosomy downlands, sleepy seaside towns’.

Ballard’s claim to fame isn’t that he predicted ‘the decline of high-rise living’ – plenty of intelligent architects and sociologists objected to high-rises from the moment the first ones were built. Ballard’s claim to fame is that he wrote stunningly complex and visionary novels like The Crystal World or The Atrocity Exhibition and conveyed in all his best work a unique sense of psychosis and mental collapse in grippingly bizarre settings and scenarios.

To suggest that Ballard’s fame should rest on his ‘prediction’ of 24-hour TV and ‘happy slapping’, good God, what an obtuse, illiterate and superficial notion, and what an insult to a great writer.

Macfarlane then goes on to try and claim visionary prophet status for Christopher and this book. God, what a tired and jaded case to make for a writer, that he was a ‘great prophet’. Of course Christopher wasn’t a bleeding ‘prophet’. Thousands of science fiction writers had depicted global catastrophes and ecological collapse and global famine and the rest of it for decades before Christopher, and novels, plays, dramas, and movies on the exact same subject have carried on proliferating like all other cultural products in a world drowning in cultural product.

The simple truth is that while any number of writers, novelists, essayists or film-makers have carried on making any number of cultural products, the human population has carried on growing exponentially and we now know we are destroying the world like a species of unstoppable vermin.

That’s the truth Macfarlane is too scared to speak. It is the overpopulation of the entire human race which is killing the planet. Instead Macfarlane’s introduction takes the tired and lazy route of blaming everything bad in the world on the British and on their sense of ‘exceptionalism’. The Death of Grass is a gripping genre novel but with a lot of shocking moments and unexpected insights into human nature. Macfarlane does the unexpected subtleties and psychological disturbances of this book a disservice by pressing them into the service of his own lofty, woke, public school, snobbish progressivism.

It was precisely this kind of metropolitan urban elitism which is so dismissive of ‘British exceptionalism’ and contemptuous of ‘English values’, which mocks the English flag and loses no opportunity to slag off white people and their ‘institutional racism’, which hypocritically spews such unremitting criticism of the nation, language and history from which it has benefited so enormously, which helped deliver the 2016 Brexit vote from a huge number of ordinary people fed up of being patronised and despised and ignored and last year helped the incompetent and corrupt Conservative Party win huge swathes of the industrial north and gain a historic general election victory which will probably keep them in power for the rest of the decade.

So, far from being an apt introduction to Christopher’s sci fi classic, I take Macfarlane’s introduction to be a patronising insult.


Credit

The Death of Grass by John Christopher was published by Michael Joseph in 1956. All references are to the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small group of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism, in order to reach the safety of the remote valley where his brother owns a farm where they can plant non-grass crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but with two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger in the memory
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head; it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents the voice is real and belongs to a telepathic explorer from a distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

2010s

2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – sensitive and insightful biography with special emphasis on a) Wyndham’s wartime experiences first as a fire warden, then censor, then called up to serve in Normandy, and b) Wyndham’s women, the strong feminist thread which runs through all his works

Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns (2019)

This is a lovely biography, a sensible, balanced account of a sane and lovely man.

Boyhood in Birmingham

Born in 1903, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris had a difficult boyhood. His parents were mismatched. His father, George Harris, was an ambitious young man from south Wales who was a successful lawyer with a promising career ahead of him right up to the moment in 1898 when, at a society dance, he was discovered in a side-room with a young lady on his knee who screamed when other partygoers opened the door. Whether this was simply because she was startled or because he was molesting her was never made clear, but it was enough of a scandal to force young George to quit his job and leave the principality, moving to England and setting himself up for a second attempt at being a lawyer, in Birmingham. Here he met and fell in love with Gertrude Parkes, the daughter of a successful and wealthy ironmaster, John Israel Parkes, several notches above George’s family in terms of income and class.

Gertrude was no innocent virgin, she had already been married once, at age 24 to Thomas William Hunt, then aged 32, who managed to a) die from a cold caught on their honeymoon which fatally exacerbated his tuberculosis, but not before b) giving her venereal disease. John Israel liked her new suitor, George, well enough but disapproved of him as a potential son-in-law and refused to give permission for the couple to marry. But George was determined and eloped with Gertrude to the Lake District, where they were married by special license in 1902.

But George’s law practice failed to prosper and he began to sink into the character of a failure and a bully. He was forced to rely on business and handouts sent his way by his rich father-in-law, and began to resent him and his wife. He pestered the female servants and drank to excess.

This was the unhappy home atmosphere Wyndham was born into. His parents separated in 1908 and his mother, Gertrude, sold the family home and went on to spend the rest of her long life in a succession of provincial hotels and resorts i.e. from the age of just 5 young John had no settled home. He had a younger brother, the writer Vivian Beynon Harris (1906 to 1987) who he was very close to all his life.

Three of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris’s names are explained by his parents’ names: George Beynon Harris and Gertrude Parkes. It’s not entirely clear why he was given the name Wyndham. Binns shares two theories: one of George Harris’s many brothers was named Windham, with an i; but Windham Wyndham-Quin, Fourth Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl was an eminent figure in Glamorgan, the county surrounding Cardiff, and giving the name to his first-born son may have been an attempt by George to curry favour or, alternatively, simply claim association with this eminent family, much as he later claimed, in books he later wrote about himself, to have (entirely fictitious) aristocratic connections. It was an eccentric decision, which was to impact the world of books 60 years later (p.22).

Bedales

John, known to his friends as Jack, was sent to a succession of prep schools where he was bullied and unhappy and never had a settled family home to return to. He only found a measure of happiness at the unconventional and pioneering experimental school, Bedales, near Petersfield in Hampshire (which he attended 1918 to 1921) where he didn’t particularly excel but was happy. Binns devotes a large section to Bedales with a full explanation of the progressive thinking behind it, the broad curriculum, the daily routine which included cold baths, outdoor exercise and open windows, and an extended profile of the visionary who founded it and was its headmaster, John H. Badley. This is fascinating social history in its own right.

Thirty years later, Wyndham named the leader who emerges in the chaos after the global blinding in The Day of The Triffids and who ends up leading the survivors out of London to found a new community, Beadley – a name which combines Bedales and Badley, and testament to the pioneering headmaster’s profound impact on him (p.194).

Jack left Bedales at the age of 18 without any qualifications. He didn’t go to university so, after leaving Bedales in 1921, he tried a succession of jobs, spending a few years with a sheep farmer (!) before getting shorter jobs as a trainee lawyer and in advertising. The sheep farming experience reappears in the attempts of Bill Masen to set up a farm in the second part of Day of the Triffids.

Writing

In 1925 Jack decided to try and make a living as a writer and from then till the outbreak of war 14 years later produced a series of short stories and three novels. It was to take him a long time to find his voice. His first book was a cheap detective novel, The Curse of the Burdens (1927), which sounds like a farrago and didn’t sell.

Binns applies the same brisk, thorough and riveting approach to the ‘birth of science fiction’ as she did to his parents’ ill-fated marriage and to Bedales (pages 82 to 98). She explains how  the first American science fiction magazine publisher was Hugo Gernsback, editor of Science and Invention and Radio News. He coined the term scientifiction and published stories on this new subject in his magazines. These stories proved so popular that he set up the first magazine devoted entirely to the genre, Amazing Stories, in April 1926, with garish covers supplied by illustrator Frank R. Paul.

As soon as he started making money, Gernsback spent it on the high life with the result that Amazing Stories went bankrupt and was sold to creditors. Gernsback promptly set up Amazing Science Stories in 1929, followed six weeks later by Air Wonder Stories. You can’t hold a good man down. Since his creditors now owned the copyright of the term ‘scientification’, Gernsback came up with a new term, ‘science fiction’, and thus the name and the genre were born. (Previous to this the works of someone like H.G. Wells were referred to as ‘scientific romances’.)

Back copies of Gernback’s colourful, cheap and cheerful magazines started trickling into England because, believe it or not, they were used as ballast to fill half-empty cargo ships returning from the States. Wyndham, casting around for a direction, noticed the new genre and decided to write for it.

(In a further footnote on the genre, Binns tells us that Walter Gillings (1912 to 1979) a UK journalist and editor, published seven issues of a fanzine, Scientifiction in 1937 to 1938. This led on to his becoming editor of the first true UK sci-fi magazine, Tales of Wonder (1937 to 1942). His use of the term ‘science fiction’ on the cover of issue number one, June 1937, is taken by scholars to mark the first appearance of the phrase to describe the contents of a UK professional magazine or book. Surprisingly late, isn’t it?)

Jack’s first published short story was Worlds to Barter, published in 1931, and between then and the start of the Second World War in 1939 he had about 20 short stories published. He published three more novels: another murder mystery – Foul Play Suspected (1935) – and two science fiction novels, The Secret People (1935) and Planet Plane (1936).

Jack used different combinations of his names, publishing as John Beynon or John Beynon Harris. Binns thinks the fact that he a) wrote in several genres b) under different names, prevented him establishing a clear ‘brand’ and helps to explain his pre-war lack of success. But there is a third reason. The stories are sort of OK, in a classic pulp sci fi way, but the novels aren’t at all good.

The Penn Club

Jack’s life during this period is quite a bit more interesting to read about than his writings. As soon as he went to live in London, Jack’s attentive mother asked friends to recommend a boarding house or hotel and she was told about the Penn Club, located in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, central London. This had been founded in 1920 with surplus funds left over from the Friends Ambulance Unit, active during World War I. The club was founded by pacifists and conscientious objectors with a strong association with the Quakers (page 61). In fact there was a close connection with Bedales; many old boys roomed there and it hosted Bedales Annual Reunions.

Jack joined in 1925, taking a single room at a cost of £2.50 per week. His room contained a bed, washstand, dressing chest, table and chair, with a cold lino floor and a coin-operated gas heater. Not all the rooms even had running water. But its combination of spartan lifestyle with a friendly, high-minded, liberal-left membership was like a cosy continuation of Bedales.

Jack was always a liberal and satirised the hard-core communist element at the Penn Club, especially when their world was turned upside down by the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939; and then again in 1942 when Hitler invaded Russia and what he called ‘the fatheaded communists’ of the Penn Club (page 213) had to do more mental gymnastics to accept that Stalin had now allied himself the hated British ruling class, instead of, as they hoped, doing everything he could to foment revolution in Britain.

Grace Wilson

It was at the Penn Club that Jack met and fell in love with the woman who was to become his lifelong companion, Grace Wilson, a young English teacher just down from Oxford. They slowly, shyly embarked on a love affair, a few years later acquiring adjacent rooms in the Club, but for many years they didn’t marry, partly because of the marriage bar, which would have meant that, if they had married, Grace would have had to quit her job as a teacher (!).

Binns makes the point that both Jack and his brother Vivian reacted against their parents’ unhappy marriage by a) having long-lasting and faithful relationships with one woman for their entire lives, b) not getting married.

Grace was every inch Jack’s equal but much more passionate about politics and equality. In 1930 she went on a high-minded visit to the Soviet Union which confirmed her opinions about the workers’ paradise, something Jack gently teased her about. But their unshakable love is reflected in the profound closeness of the married couples at the centre of his major novels, and Binns points out that Grace is the model for all the strong-minded, give-as-good-as-they-get women in Wyndham’s post-war fiction:

  • Josella Playton, the intelligent and unconventional heroine of Day of the Triffids
  • Phyllis Watson, independent-minded scriptwriter and journalist in The Kraken Wakes
  • Rosalind, the strong, resourceful young woman heroine of The Chrysalids
  • the Sealand woman, tough harbinger of a new race of telepathic humans in The Chrysalids
  • Diana Brackley, biochemist and successful entrepreneur, central figure of Trouble With Lichen
  • Dr Jane Waterleigh, the intelligent and resourceful heroine of Consider Her Ways

Second World War (1939 to 1943)

Jack and Grace were deeply in love by the time war broke out and at the heart of this biography is the huge trove of letters Jack wrote to Grace throughout the conflict. There are some 350 of these and Binns quotes from them at length. They convey a wonderful innocence and freshness and love. Grace was evacuated to the south of England but as the conflict developed she and her school were moved to rural England and then to Wales, it’s hard to keep track of her constant movements. Whereas Jack stayed in London, in his old room at the Penn Club, for the duration. Women and children precious, men expendable.

Jack worked as a firewatcher and his letters describe incident after incident from the Blitz which make for very vivid reading, detailed descriptions of air raids, the sounds of the different kinds of bombs, the flash and boom of a direct hit on a German bomber overhead. Sometimes there was an odd lull when a raid had finished and the German planes droned into the distance, when the guns fell silent, but there were no streetlights. Then Jack looked out from his firewarden rooftop over a London completely black and completely silent. Eerie visions which were to lend depth to his descriptions of the empty London in both Triffids and Kraken.

Half way through the war Jack got his first proper job working as an official censor, censoring hundreds of letters a day in a team, first in the Prudential building, then his department was moved to the seventh floor of the University of London’s Senate House, behind the British Museum (page 134). He got to know the building very well and made it the centre of Beadle’s attempt to gather together the sighted survivors of the catastrophe in Day of the Triffids. (Jack was working there at the same time as the wife of George Orwell, who famously used the tower as the model for his Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty Four, published just two years before Triffids)

From the writerly point of view, there were two key aspects of the experience:

1. In his letters Jack repeatedly tells Grace how unreal it was to be walking through the familiar streets and squares of Bloomsbury while the sky flashed with anti-aircraft lights and flak and bombs fell all around. He felt it was a dream, he describes himself as not being himself but some other person altogether, walking in another world. This is captured in a letter dated 7 October 1940.

Why do I write these things in such detail? I don’t know quite. It’s not a desire to harrow. More than anything, I think, to convince myself that these fantastic things are happening in these prosaic spots. (Quoted page 111)

2. Working in the censors department was Jack’s first real job and he was forced to get along with a far wider range of people – from the really hoity-toity officers to more working-class characters – that he hadn’t met either at liberal Bedales or the pacifist-feminist Penn Club (page 115). Binns makes the point that coming into contact with a much wider range of people was one of the decisive factors which contributed to his breakthrough novel, Day of the Triffids, where the protagonist, Bill Masen, is forced to deal with and handle a random cross-section of Londoners who have survived the great catastrophe (page 116).

In action (November 1943 to October 1946)

In November 1943, Jack was called up and sent for training in Northern Ireland. In March 1944 he was posted to 11 Division Armoured Signals, which contained 15,000 men and 343 tanks, as lance corporal in a cipher section. Within days of the D-Day landings the division was deployed to Normandy where Jack was close to the front line. His division took part in the brutal fighting for Caen, then the body-strewn fighting around Falaise. He saw the exhausted, defeated soldiers coming back from the failure that was Operation Market Garden.

Binns quotes Jack’s letters at length from this time and they give a graphic impression of the mixture of boredom, horror, disbelief and weary disgust with a catastrophe which keeps going on and on. Increasingly he is worried what the world will be like after so much killing. His letters describe his sense of the shallowness of so-called civilisation. Belgium, Holland, and dead bodies everywhere. Can there ever be an end to the killing, he wonders? How come, after all these centuries, the only counter to brutality is brutality? Is that all there is?

And so on via Operation Veritable into North Germany, to Bremen, where he hears the news that Hitler has killed himself, Berlin has fallen to the Russians, and then the end of the war. It takes well over a year for him to be released from the army, a year he spends in a barracks in Harrogate.

The Days of the Triffids (1946 to 1951)

Binns gives a fascinating overview of the state of science fiction, as a genre, after the war. The handful of British sci fi magazines had closed down as their editors were conscripted. In America, 22 SF titles had been reduced to just seven, and the beginnings of post-war McCarthyism meant that editors weren’t prepared to take risks. They wanted action and monsters with tentacles threatening scantily clad women, all ‘bulging brassieres and provoking panties’ as Jack himself put it (quoted page 190).

Finally demobilised in 1946, Jack returned to living at the Penn Club, in a room next to Grace’s, and returned to the anxiety of a freelance writer’s life. He managed to place a few stories, including Time To Rest, an elegiac story set on Mars which clearly reflects his exhaustion after the war (and contains a nihilistic vision of the entire planet earth exploding), along with Technical Slip and the cheesy Adaptation, but wasted a lot of time producing a farrago titled Plan for Chaos, which was so poor it wasn’t published during his lifetime.

He had another go at advertising, but was appalled at its culture of lies, and at the way it was coercing women into the new profession of ‘housewife’, a proto-feminist view he would return to in Trouble With Lichen and Consider Her Ways (p.191).

Jack still had an allowance left him by his father but its value had diminished and his mother, 70, was ailing and would soon incur the costs of a care home. Grace had a full-time job, had been promoted to Head of English at Roan’s school, but after the war experienced a series of health scares, first with a duodenal ulcer, then breast cancer. In 1949 he made a grand total of $25 as a writer (page 196).

The odd thing is that Jack had finished a good draft of Day of the Triffids by 1948 but failed to place it anywhere. Binns gives a detailed account of its gestation, showing how different elements derive from earlier stories. The idea of killer plants goes back to a story called The Puffball Menace from 1933. The idea of isolated communities surviving a disaster was anticipated in an unfinished story about a Pacific island which was protected by fog from flashing lights in the sky.

But Triffids brought to this pulp material a new realism and psychological depth resulting from his war experiences and its situating in an England he really knew, instead of made-up rockets and space stations. The streets the hero walks after the disaster are those around the Penn Club. The meeting of the sighted is held at the Senate House which he knew intimately. The farmhouse in the Sussex Downs is based on the surroundings of Bedales which he knew so well. All this gives the story the depth of real experience.

Binns explains the crucial role was played by the American novelist and editor Frederick Pohl. Having tried and abandoned several other stories, Jack dusted off the manuscript of Triffids and sent it to an agent he hadn’t tried before, Walter Gillings, representative of a New York agency. Gillings sent it on to the Dirk Wylie agency, where it was read by sci fi novelist and editor, Frederick Pohl, Pohl immediately realised it’s potential but it is amazing to learn how different it was from the novel we know today. This initial version is set 30 years in the future when humanity has colonised the solar system. The triffids are seeds brought back from Venus, and the bright lights in the sky are suspected by earthlings, as being an attack by some of the other-world colonists.

Pohl objected to all this saying it ruined the novel’s sense of unity. Jack agreed and promised to drop all the solar system stuff and give the triffids an entirely terrestrial origin (in the final version they are the result of genetic engineering in the Soviet Union). At the same time it was in correspondence with Pohl that Wyndham decided to drop his previous bylines, associated as they were with pre-war pulp, and create a new name to associate with his new style of more realistic post-war fiction, John Wyndham. It is in their correspondence that the name is finalised and agreed to.

Then came a stunning break. In November 1950 Pohl wrote to Wyndham (as he is now referred to) that he had managed to sell the now-rewritten story to the up-market Colliers magazine as a five-part serial for the staggering sum of $12,500. This equated to £4,500. At the time the average British annual wage was around £100. In other words it represented financial and literary success beyond Jack’s wildest dreams (p.199).

Pohl sold it to Colliers to serialise and to the reputable publisher Doubleday to publish the novel. In England Jack visited Sir Robert Lusty, Deputy Chairman of the publisher Michael Joseph, who read the manuscript overnight, was excited, and offered Jack a publishing deal straightaway. It was published in America and Britain in 1951 and, although the reviews were lukewarm, it sold. Its terrifying storyline, presented with complete realism, tapped into the Cold War anxiety of the time. It went on to sell millions, be translated into 11 languages, read out on BBC radio in 1953, adapted to a radio drama in 1957, Cubby Broccoli bought the film rights in 1956 (though it wasn’t till 1962 that a movie version was released), and it became an acknowledged classic of the genre.

Jack had special notepaper created with John Wyndham heading, and began to receive a trickle and then a steady stream of fan mail, which he replied to courteously and sometimes at length, explaining his ideas and stories. He had found his voice and the next decade saw an explosion of short stories, which were snapped up by magazines, and sometimes turned into radio or TV adaptations, alongside a series of major novels.

The golden decade 1951 to 1961

  • The Day of the Triffids (1951)
  • The Kraken Wakes (1953)
  • Jizzle (1954) 15 short stories
  • The Chrysalids (1955)
  • The Seeds of Time (1956) 11 short stories
  • The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
  • The Outward Urge (1959)
  • Trouble with Lichen (1960)
  • Consider Her Ways and Others (1961)

Wyndham’s women

Binn devotes a chapter to considering Wyndham’s female protagonists from various angles, as tough heroines, survivors, non-conformists, the shrewd and intelligent ones in married couples, as partners, lovers, sisters and mothers.

All Wyndham’s novels consistently feature strong independent women (as listed above) but not just the famous ones; a more pulpy novel from the 1930s, Stowaway to Mars, features Joan, the doctor’s daughter from his second ever published story, The Lost Machine, and in this novel-length sequel she not only stows away on a spaceship to Mars, but is the only member of the crew to properly engage with the Martians when they get there. Then there’s Alice Morgan who outlives all the men on a crippled space flight to Mars, and Lellie, the ‘dumb Martian’, who is strong and determined enough to take revenge on her cowardly, bullying master.

Plenty of women but no mothers, no actual babies. It is notable that in Consider Her Ways, although Jane is ‘transposed’ into the body of a ‘Mother’, a breeding machine of the future whose sole purpose is to have babies, there are no actual babies in the story. Similarly, the primary womenfolk in Midwich Cuckoos manage to dodge the bullet of having babies, who are only observed at a distance and quickly turn into toddlers and then adolescents.

Binns speculates this has two reasons 1. It reflects the Wyndham’s resentment at the lack of real mothering he ever had from his mother who, at an early age, abandoned him to a series of prep schools, and then boarding schools and since she herself took to a peripatetic life of living in hotels, never provided a stable home for him.

2. The deeper issue which is, How to reconcile feminism with motherhood. The central issue for intelligent women is how to reconcile achievement in their chosen sphere, profession or activity, with the primordial instinct to have babies. Of course it’s more possible than ever before in human history thanks to various technologies, and to equality laws, and to social conventions which have changed immeasurably since Wyndham’s day. But to breed or not to breed is still the central issue for all women today and will continue to be for all time, because we are not products of university gender studies courses, we are animals, members of the class mammalia, who have evolved over tens of millions of years to reproduce sexually, as have countless hundreds of thousands of other species. We’re just one more sexually reproducing animal species which happens to have evolved a mind, a consciousness, and the contradiction between the two elements has been the subject of hand-wringing and puzzlement ever since records began. Feminist ire at the female plight is just a subset of all humans’ bewilderment at the human plight.

What emerges from Binns’ account, what is so striking and unexpected, is the way these eternal issues are so thoroughly aired and fluently articulated by a chronically shy, ex-public schoolboy, who only had one significant love affair in his entire life.

The rest of his life

Binns covers the rest of Jack’s life and his post-Triffid writings quite quickly, devoting far less space to it than she did to the wartime letters, which may be fair enough, since so much more of it is in the public domain due to the high profile of his writings and through interviews. Mind you, these were pretty rare, Jack kept a deliberately low profile leading to the jokey description of him as ‘the invisible man of science fiction’, compared to peers who were happy to step into the media limelight such as Arthur C. Clarke.

For me a major theme which emerged from my rereading of his novels is the question of whether two intelligent life forms can inhabit the same planet; his big four novels boil down into existential struggles between two such intelligent species: triffids versus humans; alien invaders versus humans in Kraken; humans versus new breed of telepathic humans in Chrysalids; humans versus alien children in Midwich. When he was asked in a rare television interview (1960) whether the Midwich children were evil he said no. They are just trying to survive, like we are. Binns summarises:

To him, the Midwich Cuckoos, like the Chrysalid telepaths and the [unnamed] monsters of the deep, were just another species engaged in the bloody struggle for survival. They might be the enemy, but he still had sympathy for them. (p.229)

Binns makes the neat point that The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) are mirror images of the same story: what to do about telepathic children? In Chrysalids they are the heroes, we are on their side in the struggle to survive; in Cuckoos they are the enemy and we are on the side of the humans who struggle to liquidate them before it’s too late.

It doesn’t escape her notice that both stories are about children, the problem of children, the disturbing qualities of children – see the problems of feminism, mentioned above. There is something eerie about children at the best of times, and to a non-parent like Wyndham, something almost other-worldly. She relates it to the mid-50s anxiety about the phenomenon of ‘the teenager’, unruly, rebellious, destructive. And she connects it to Arthur C. Clarke’s classic, Childhood’s End, which also sees children as unearthly harbingers of the end of the old order (p.223).

In this respect, his final published novel, Chocky, is like a late echo of the same theme. The story itself is fairly straightforward, what makes it a good read is the social history detail of childhood in the 1960s and, above all, the reactions of the parents to their son who seems to be going mad. As my own children have had mental health issues, I sympathise very strongly with the parents in this book.

Late marriage

On 26 July 1963 John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris married Grace Wilson at Russell Square registry office. She had retired as a teacher and marriage could no longer harm her career. For a decade Wyndham had been a polite and shy part of London’s science fiction community, which gathered for sociable evenings in the White Horse pub off Fleet Street, and they were all astounded at the news. Binns quotes fellow sci fi authors Arthur C. Clarke and Sam Youd (who wrote under the nom de plume John Christopher) as being amazed to learn that Jack even had a girlfriend, let alone a fiancée (p.257).

After living there for 40 years, Jack was tired of London. He and Grace bought a house in Sussex, in the village of Steep, not far from Bedales, the school which made him. Jack was a very practical man and enjoyed DIY and fixing things. He lived in this modest house, Oakridge, for the rest of his life, very quiet and understated considering the fortune he made from his books. Triffids continued to sell as did all of its successors, plus the film rights to Triffids (filmed 1962) and Midwich (made into the cult classic Village of the Damned in 1960. Binns says he was making about £8,000 a year in royalties, equivalent to maybe £160,000 nowadays.

Binns gives a characteristically sensitive reading of Chocky, seeing the 12-year-old protagonist, Matthew Gore, as a boy blessed with a vivid imagination and forced, by a hard and uncaring world, to be careful how much of it he reveals, guarding his every word. Binns sees it almost as the successful adult Jack reaching back to his boyhood self, shy, withdrawn, imaginative, anxious, and reassuring him that everything will turn out alright.

This is a beautiful and moving book about a kindly, sensitive man who crafted some of the most haunting fictions of his day.


Credit

Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns was published by Grace Judson Press in 2019. All references are to the 2019 paperback edition.

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger.
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head; it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents the voice is real and belongs to a telepathic explorer from a distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – sensitive and insightful biography with special emphasis on a) Wyndham’s wartime experiences first as a fire warden, then censor, then called up to serve in Normandy, and b) Wyndham’s women, the strong feminist thread which runs through all his works

The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

This is a much more interesting and genuinely horrifying book than I expected.

I thought I knew the story well enough from fond memories of the 1962 Cinemascope film version, but I was wrong. Like all films, the movie version requires action and so, in the film, the triffids are much more prominent and horrifying from the start. However the book, like all books, has the space to be more thoughtful and psychological than any movie or TV series, and so it came as a surprise to discover how much less of a part the triffids play in it, and instead how full the novel is with moral and philosophical speculations. The lead character:

  • spends a lot of time meditating on the nature of ‘normal society’, how fragile and contingent it is
  • has numerous conversations about the morality of deciding who to save and who to abandon in a disaster scenario

In addition, there’s a surprisingly persistent discussion of the nature of ‘class’ in 1950s England, which comes to revolve around the ambiguous character of Coker.

Above all, focusing on the monsters underplays the extent to which the book is more grippingly a terrifying vision of an entire world gone blind. It’s that, the advent of universal blindness and all its implications, far more than the monsters, which absolutely terrified me. J.G. Ballard gave his novel about global warming and melting ice caps the bluntly descriptive title, The Drowned World. For the first two-thirds of the book, when the triffids are mostly peripheral to the protagonist and his adventures, the novel could have been more accurately titled The Blinded World or Planet of the Blind.

John Wyndham

Wikipedia sums Wyndham up well:

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (July 1903 to March 1969) was an English science fiction writer best known for his works published under the pen name John Wyndham, although he also used other combinations of his names, such as John Beynon and Lucas Parkes. Some of his works were set in post-apocalyptic landscapes. His best known works include The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957).

After attending the unorthodox public school, Bedales, Wyndham didn’t go on to university but had a succession of jobs while he tried to launch a career as a writer. He sold science fiction stories to American magazines while also writing detective stories. He was 36 and not at all successful when the Second World War started, in which he initially served as a censor, was a fire warden in London, and then saw action as a corporal cipher operator in the Royal Corps of Signals, taking part in the Normandy landings.

After the war Wyndham continued to struggle as a writer until, at the end of the 1940s, he made a conscious decision to alter his style and treat subjects in a more realistic, less Americanised and pulp manner. The first book he wrote in this new voice was The Day of The Triffids which remains his best-known and most successful work to this day.

His reputation rests on the first four novels he wrote under the name John Wyndham during the 1950s – The Day of the TriffidsThe Kraken WakesThe ChrysalidsThe Midwich Cuckoos – each of which conceives an astonishingly powerful scenario depicted with tremendous imaginative immediacy. He also wrote quite a few short stories, some novellas and later novels, but none match the haunting power of these big four fictions.

The Day of The Triffids

Chapter 1 The end begins

The first-person narrator, William ‘Bill’ Masen (p.17) is nearly 30-years-old (pp.53 and 147). He is ‘a very mediocre biochemist’ (p.243).

The narrative opens as Bill wakes up in a strangely silent hospital. He’s in because of a vicious sting he got across his eyes, whose treatment required his eyes to be swathed in bandages. That’s why he missed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the amazing natural firework display of the night before, as earth moved through the debris of a passing comet, creating thousands of shooting stars and green flashes across the sky. He heard all about it on the radio and the nurses who came to check on him told him how wonderful it was to see.

The following morning he wakes to a strange silence, not only in the hospital but in the usually busy streets outside. Intrigued and then worried, he eventually decides to undo the bandages over his eyes himself, first carefully feeling his way to the window to lower the blinds so his room is dark. To his relief, his eyes appear to be working fine though he gives them an hour or so to acclimatise to full daylight before venturing out into the hospital.

Here he discovers, to his growing horror, that everyone has gone blind. Doctors, nurses and patients are all stone blind. Some have fallen down stairs and hurt themselves. He helps a smartly dressed consultant to his office who, after trying the phone and finding it dead, throws himself out the fifth floor window. Going downstairs to the lobby, he finds it a sea of moaning blind people milling about trying to find the doors, crushing the weak against the wall, in helpless confusion.

Too many for him to help. He finds the service stairs, makes it down to a back alley and across the road to a pub, the Alamein Arms. It is open but empty and he discovers the landlord, very drunk, getting drunker. Landlord tells him that this morning, when his wife discovered she was blind and then that the kids were, too, she turned on the gas and lay on the bed. They’ll all be dead by now. He didn’t have the guts.

By now Masen and the reader are thoroughly harrowed. I found this opening chapter genuinely scary, a terrifying vision of the entire world struck blind. Masen downs another double brandy to stop his hands shaking, then leaves the pub to face this brave new world.

Chapter 2 The coming of the triffids

Chapter two takes us back into the past to tell us Masen’s backstory and explain the backdrop to the opening chapter. It is told from the contemporary, post-catastrophe situation and so is sprinkled with the idea that everything he is going to describe is from the old world, the world before the cataclysm, the world when people could see.

It contains passages where he laments that nobody back then, back in the Old World, really understood how interconnected all the goods and services they took for granted were. You turned on the tap and water came out; you went to the shops and they were full of food; you picked up a phone, turned on the radio or TV, and everything worked, as the result of the collaborative interaction of hundreds of thousands of people scattered across the globe. Now all that has finished, forever, and that is the basic, fundamental thrill that all post-apocalyptic novels give.

He tells us about the origin of triffids, the derivation of their name which refers to their three legs. In quite a convoluted passage he explains that they appear to have been bred in Soviet Russia in a genetic experiment associated with the name of the discredited biologist Lysenko. He goes into quite a convoluted, cloak-and-dagger story about a dodgy middleman, Umberto Christoforo Palanguez, who approaches a Western fish oil company and says he has a product which will revolutionise the market. He is referring to the oil which can be harvested from these ‘triffids’.

Umberto then commissions a Russian working in some kind of experimental lab to smuggle out some seeds of these new genetically-modified organisms, which are collected by a light airplane which is going to fly them to Umberto in the West. However, the plane is involved in a mid-air collision and millions of triffid seeds, light as air, float around the world with the trade winds.

At first they were treated as a rare novelty and in a slightly too pat coincidence it turns out that the narrator was one of the first to see them in England, as he discovers a specimen growing in his garden in the suburbs of London. That is until he is bending over it one day when its loose swinging ‘arm’ clobbers him, at which point his father uproots and destroys it.

But Masen goes on to defy his father’s wishes that he get a sensible degree and a secure profession and instead studies biology and finds himself a few years later working in an experimental triffid farm. By this point it has become well-known that the triffids produce cheap oil and other foodstuffs. The downside is we learn that the plans not only grow to a huge size but can uproot themselves and walk forward on their three stumpy ‘legs’. Worst of all, they possess a really long flexible arm, like a whip, which is covered in poison sacs. One whipping blow from a full-grown triffid and the poison lashed into a human’s flesh is fatal. And so all the workers at the triffid farm take elaborate precautions and wear outfits a little like a beekeeper’s, covering every inch of the skin in leather protection, and wearing a metal grille mask.

A colleague of Masen’s at the triffid farm, Walter Lucknor (p.46) has spent a lot of time observing the plants and developed some idiosyncratic theories. He thinks the triffids use the odd bunch of sticks down at the front of their ‘bodies’ to communicate. He thinks they can talk to each other.

In a disturbing conversation down the pub one day, after work, Lucknor dwells on the triffids’ tremendous survival effectiveness. It worries him that they know just where to sting a person, namely on the unprotected face and across the eyes – rendering their prey blind. Lucknor makes the worrying point that, if forced to choose between a blind man and a triffid, he’d bet on the triffid every time (p.48), just part of a casual conversation but which, to the narrator, later on, comes to seem grimly prophetic.

These two opening chapters create an awesomely complete setup. The narrative is so tightly bound, every part contributes to every other part. It has the fully-formed feel of a myth or legend.

And then comes the day when Masen and Lucknor are working in one of the compounds of farmed triffids and Masen is bent over one when, without warning, it lashes its sting against his mesh mask with such force that some of the poison sacs burst and spatter into his eyes. It’s only because Lucknor acts promptly to wash his eyes and then provide the antidote to the poison that his sight was saved, but still an ambulance comes, they bandage his eyes and off to hospital he goes, missing out on the great meteor shower in the sky which took place on the fateful night of Tuesday 7 May

Chapter 3 The groping city

Masen decides to head into central London. Like The War of The Worlds the thrill, the horror, comes from reading about places you’re familiar with, and the streets of the capital which most people have visited at some point, now empty of all traffic and strewn with blind people pitifully feeling their way along walls and railings, occasionally bumping into each other.

Masen records what you might call the standard thoughts about the collapse of civilisation. Slowly he sees people becoming angrier, more violent, covetous, stealing parcels off each other in case they contain food, increasingly prepared to smash windows and grope around inside in case it’s a food shop. Initially he is reluctant to behave the same way. He takes food from a delicatessen which a car has ploughed into, but leaves the correct money on the counter.

But as Masen continues his odyssey along Piccadilly, stopping for free brandy at the Regents Hotel, before walking through Soho, it begins to sink in that all the values and morality of the old world have evaporated. Only people ruthlessly focused on their own survival will survive.

Several times he comes across children or toddlers who can see in the care of blind mothers. Quickly they attract crowds of the blind who need their help and the children start crying in fear. Once Masen encounters the leader of a gang of blind men, all drunk, he’s promising to take them to the Café Royal for a piss-up and when one of them mentions women, the leader reaches out to a blonde young woman fumbling blindly by and hands her to his follower. Masen, being a decent chap, intervenes to stop this and, the next thing he knows, is waking up on the pavement having obviously been punched very hard.

My head was still full of standards and conventions which had ceased to apply. (p.59)

Now Masen begins to refer to the fact that he is writing all this from the vantage point of ‘years later’, long after the events, long after civilisation as we know it has ended. As he watches the crowds of looting leaderless, blind people he realises:

There would be no going back – ever. It was finish to all I had known. (p.60)

Chapter 4 Shadows before

In Soho watching the crowds Masen has much the same thoughts as crop up among the characters in John Christopher’s disaster novel, The Death of Grass, namely – if only a handful of people are going to survive this catastrophe, who should it be? And who should choose? Should you try to help everyone? Or is it only practical to restrict your help to a small group? In which case, who? How on earth do you decide who?

Masen comes across a brutish blind man in a side alley viciously beating a young woman cowering on the ground who’s tied with rope round the wrists and held by a leash. Masen beats the man and cuts the cord, releasing the girl, and they both nip out of the blind man’s reach.

Masen takes her to a nearby pub, where she recovers and tells her story. She’s Josella Playton (p.66) who lived at a posh house in St John’s Wood with her mummy and daddy and servants. She’d been to a big party on Monday night and had such a bad hangover she’d gone to bed early on Tuesday afternoon, having taken a sleeping draught and thus missed the comet.

They find an abandoned car in Regent Street and drive between the scattered pedestrians through Regents Park across to St John’s Wood and to Josella’s nice house. They haven’t walked far up the drive before they see the body of a man on the gravel, with a red welt across his face. In a flash Masen realises it’s a triffid sting. He sees the triffid hiding in the undergrowth. They skirt around it and into the house where they find Josella’s father dead in the living room – but not before another triffid has a go at them from the halway; they hurriedly slam the door shut. Then one comes lumbering across the garden. Masen hurries Josella into the car and they drive off as she bursts into tears.

Chapter 5 A light in the night

Masen drives them towards Clerkenwell, to a factory he knows which makes anti-triffid masks and weapons. By King’s Cross there’s a huge crowd blocking the way and they hurriedly exit the car before they’re pulled out by the mob. They make it on the foot to the factory, load up with weapons, then scout around and find a ritzy tower block, go up some stairs and break into a luxury apartment.

Once they’ve established it’s quite safe, Masen goes on a sortie for food. As he exits, a door further down the corridor opens and a young couple, obviously blind, leave their flat. The man navigates to the big window opposite, embraces his sweetheart and then steps through, plunging them to their deaths.

That’s two suicides Masen has seen, Josella being beaten up, people being crushed to death, the landlord who told him about his wife gassing herself and the children, young women getting parcelled out to rough men to abuse, children crying in the streets which are full of pitiful whimpering crowds. Brian Aldiss made the unjust criticism that Wyndham’s novels depicted ‘cosy catastrophes’, but this doesn’t feel at all cosy. It feels utterly harrowing.

Masen and Josella use an oil stove to fix up a fine meal and drink all the apartment owner’s sherry and wine. Afterwards, looking out the window, Josella notices a light pointing directly up into the sky, presumably a beacon, presumably set by someone who can see. But the thought of making their way across London’s increasingly lawless streets in the pitch black deters them.

Chapter 6 Rendezvous

Next day Masen and Josella drive towards the University of London building, see a crowd milling round the fence, park up Gower Street, make their way through back gardens to see a crowd laying siege to the gates. They watch the leader of the blind mob arguing with some kind of representative of the sighted people within. When this ‘leader’ seizes one of the insider’s arms and the mob turns ugly, those on the inside disperse it with sub-machine gun fire.

Once the mob has cleared, Masen and Josella present themselves at the locked gates and, as sighted people, are immediately let in. They discover a community of 30 or so people who have barricaded themselves into Senate House, most sighted although they have brought a few blind partners along. They are introduced to ‘the Colonel’, a plump chap trying to keep up a military bearing, and a colleague, Michael Beadley, who explains that they plan to load up with as much food and resources as they can, then leave London as soon as possible.

Masen is tasked with going to collect foodstuffs from various warehouses. When he returns, the others raise an eyebrow at him half filling a lorry with anti-triffid weapons. It turns out none of them have seen one, none of them have had anything like the experience Masen and Josella had at her parents’ house. But, having seen the movie half a dozen times, we, the readers, know better.

This chapter sees the inauguration of the theme of class in Britain. As Masen listens, he finds the man leading the mob difficult to place within England’s stratified class system because his voice veers between the educated and the common.

His voice was a curious mixture of the rough and the educated, so that it was hard to place him – as though neither style seemed quite natural to him, somehow. (p.118)

Indeed we will meet this man, Coker, later in the London episodes, and beyond and his amphibian nature, a man between two worlds, becomes a sort of symbol of the plot, or of all the characters, raised in one world, but having to face a completely different one.

Chapter 7 Conference

Having settled in with the Senate House community, Masen and Josella are called to a conference of the community in a lecture hall. A succession of speakers outline the need to leave London. It falls to a sociology professor from Kingston University, Dr. E. H. Vorless, D.Sc., to give a long speech saying times change and values with them. Everyone is going to have to work in the new world, and he predictably upsets the women present by pointing out the simple truth that they are going to have to breed, a lot, no more 2.4 children per breeding pair. If their children are to stand any hope of recreating anything like civilisation there are going to have to be a lot of them.

A number of women forcibly object – feminists because they don’t want to be treated like chattels; from the other end of the spectrum, a spirited Christian woman makes a speech from the floor saying she and others will not bow to this godless immorality, and gives the Christian interpretation that this entire catastrophe is God’s punishment for modern immoral society, a claim which can be made about more or less any society at any point in history.

Masen and Josella listen, smiling at the controversy. After the meeting they go out into the square behind Senate House and sit on a low wall. Masen is surprised when Josella suddenly says she’ll be happy to pair off with him. And then stunned when she says that he will also have to take responsibility for two blind women as well. It’s only fair. They will breed while he hunts, guards and so on. The new tribalism.

Chapter 8 Frustration

In the middle of the night, Masen is woken by shouting and the smell of smoke. People are yelling ‘Fire! Fire!’ He gets dressed in a flash and runs downstairs only to trip and fall and be knocked out. When he awakes he is in a small room, bare of everything but a bed and his hands are tied. A rough cockney geezer unlocks the door and gives him some food, but doesn’t untie his wrists.

Coker comes in. He is the ringleader of the mob who were baying at the gates of Senate House. He explains they broke into the building, started some small scale fires and set up tripwires at the bottom of stairs. It’s one of those that Masen tripped over. Then Coker’s gang rounded up the sighted people, tied them up or carried their unconscious bodies to the new location.

He gets out a map. He has a plan. He has divided London into sectors. Each sector will be assigned one sighted person and a group of the blind. Masen is assigned Hampstead. First he is tied to very tough blokes, no way he can jump them. So he’s given a group of blind people and he drives a lorry full of them to Hampstead. He scouts around for them and finds an empty hotel where he quarters them. Then he has to take them on foraging missions. This is it. He’s not intended to go back to Coker’s HQ. This will be his life, his future.

He describes how wearing it is trying to supervise blind people looting shops and loading stuff up. Not only that but some of them have started to report sick, stomach pains. On one expedition a few days in, they walk round the corner and one of the goons he’s tied to is shot down. Masen and the other hurriedly retreat back round the corner and Masen forces the other one to free him. He tells his group to walk away, stick together, stay in the middle of the road. He himself grabs a stick and pretends to be blind tottering along.

Round the corner comes the man who shot at them, the confident red-headed leader of the another gang which was looting one of the shops Masen was taking his posse towards. Red head walks behind Masen’s cohort, with Masen blindly tapping along the pavement behind him. Then one of the sickest of Masen’s gang falls to the floor, clutching his stomach. Red hair walks up to him, looks with distaste, then calmly shoots him in the head, turns and walks back to his gang.

Masen rounds up his gang, finds a lorry and takes them up Hampstead High Street. They’re looting a shop under his supervision when they’re attacked by triffids causing a mad panic. Many of the men are stung across the face, Masen leads them out the back of the shop, over a few walls into a small garage where he packs them into a Daimler and roars off past some triffids which lash out with their ten-foot stings. Things are going from bad to worse.

That night a blind girl comes to his bedroom at the hotel where they’re boarded. She has been sent by the others to offer herself to him to make him stay. Masen is overcome by the tragedy of so much beauty and freshness and innocence forced to abase itself. In the morning it is a warm day and for the first time he smells the smell of rotting flesh. The dead of London are rotting. Leaving the house he passes her room, she calls him in. She has got the mystery ailment, fever and bent double in cramps, she begs him for something to end it. Masen goes to the nearest chemist, finds something toxic, gives it to her and a glass of water, and leaves the house weeping.

God, the sense of loss, the immense human suffering, weighs heavily on the reader, well this reader, anyway.

Chapter 9 Evacuation

The book is full of meditations on what you’d have to do to survive, the steps you’d have to take, how you would have to change and adapt, drop a lot of the old ‘civilised’ values, be ready to defend yourself and yours.

Since I was sixteen my interest in weapons has decreased, but in an environment reverting to savagery it seemed that one must be prepared to behave more or less as a savage, or possibly cease to behave at all, before long.

So he drives to a gunshop in Westminster, which he thoroughly loots, and then heads to Victoria because he thinks that’s the part of London allotted to Josella. It is deserted like everywhere else. Wyndham makes a penetrating comment that the newly blind, people afflicted by this tragedy, prefer to nurse it silently indoors.

He finds an old blind lady. He gives her some cans and a can opener and she tells him she was part of a group led by a sighted woman and he prods her to give him enough of a description of the hotel where they were based for him to find it. But it is empty apart from a decent bloke who’s dying of the plague in the foyer. Masen gets him some water and the dying man confirms Josella was there but she’s left with her troupe. Doesn’t know where.

Masen drives back to the University of London. It’s now empty but inside someone has drawn an address on the wall, Tynsham Manor, near Devizes, Wiltshire. Masen finds four of the lorries are still there, including the one he loaded with the anti-triffid weapons. Well, so he’ll head off for Devizes in the morning.

He goes for a last walk in Russell Square, finds a triffid hiding in the undergrowth and blasts its top off with a shotgun. If you shoot the top of a triffid off it’s like decapitating it. It ceases moving or being a threat.

He sits against a big tree in the gardens, saying goodbye forever to London which is starting to reek of its dead. Then hears footsteps on gravel. He’s scared and, for the first time, realises what it was like for primitive man and what it’s going to be like for him – living in continual fear. Then the figure steps forward and he sees that it is… Coker, the orator, the mob leader, who kidnapped him and the others.

They decide to make a truce. Coker admits his initial strategy was wrong. Michael Beadley’s crew was right in wanting to leave London altogeher. They declare an amnesty for the past and will work together, leaving London together. They go into Senate House and so to bed.

Next morning they leave London in the two most-loaded lorries. Masen describes the difficulty of driving along roads littered with cars. They stop for gas and food. At one stop Coker quotes Shelley, which is slightly odd because Roger, a character in the 1956 apocalypse novel, The Death of Grass, is also given to quoting poetry, including Shelley. Was Shelley particularly popular in the 1950s, among middle-brow readers of science fiction?

And now we get an extended passage about the class system as Masen asks Coker straight out how come, a week ago he was rallying a London mob in broadest cockney but now is sounding quite middle class and quoting Shelley when he wants to. For someone like Masen this is confusing (p.161). Coker explains that he comes from a working class background but educated himself at night school so he could talk the language of the educated, the nobs, the people who run things (p.162). Still, Masen quietly proves his superiority by correcting Coker when he misquotes the famous lines from John Milton’s Lycidas, ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.’

Chapter 10 Tynsham

Masen and Coker arrive in their lorries at the manor house in the village of Tynsham in Wiltshire, as indicated by the message scrawled inside Senate House. It is populated by refugees from London but they discover that the Colonel and Michael Beadley are not there, as they expected. Instead they are shown through to the office of Miss Florence Durrant (p.172), who turns out to be the prim Christian woman who objected, during the conference at Senate House, to polygamy and breeding as being unchristian and immoral.

Our guys learn that when the London posse arrived at Tynsham there quickly developed a rift between Miss Durrant and her high-minded followers and the Colonel, Michael Beadley and most of the men. Most of the men left with the Colonel, drove off, Miss Durrant has no idea where. This left the community at Tynsham with five sighted women, a dozen blind women, some blind men and no sighted men at all. They have rounded up survivors from the nearby village and are planning to run a godly and moral community. On arrival they had discovered the mansion’s inhabitants had been killed by a few triffids loose in the grounds. Miss Durrant and the other sighted women had broken into the manor’s gun cupboard and blown the tops off 26 triffids. Over the previous few days more stragglers had arrived from London, mostly women. But not Josella. Masen is disappointed – he’d had been hoping all the way down that he’d find her here.

Masen chats to a young woman mending clothes by candlelight. Suddenly the electric lights come on and she is amazed. It was Coker, he found the generator and turned it on. He is appalled that the women hadn’t found it or realised there would be one. He takes it out in a big rant at the young darner, saying women are parasites, convincing themselves and men that they are too delicate, too spiritual and too high-minded to work. That’s why hitherto most have latched onto a man and then lived like leeches off his pay, while irresponsibly breeding children who others will have to educate.

Well, there’s a view you don’t hear very often these days, when the women of the past are uniformly portrayed as helpless victims of the patriarchy. The young woman storms out, Masen bursts out laughing.

Chapter 11 And further on…

Masen spends a sleepless night. He had hoped to find Josella at Tynsham, he is bitterly disappointed (a novel needs a  plot and so Masen’s quest for Josella is developing into the main motor of this one – as the Custance party’s odyssey across England to Westmorland is the motor of The Death of Grass). When pushed, Miss Durrant told them that the Colonel et al had headed off for a place called Beaminster in Dorset. Masen and Coker decide to go looking for them and drive off. More careful driving along car-strewn roads. Masen notices there are very few animals about, only vacant cows lowing to be milked.

In a place called Steeply Honey they see a man apparently trying to warn them away who, the moment he steps out his front door, is whiplashed by a triffid. Pushing on into the high street they park, Masen gets down, and is immediately confronted by a fair-haired man with a rifle.

Chapter 12 Dead end

But Coker has seen all this from the cab of the other truck and now enters from the side, pulling his weapon on the man. Both agree to lower them. Turns out fair hair is one of just three sighted people. They thought Masen and Coker were the advance guard of some mass gang from the city who they expect to come marauding at any moment. Masen and Coker put them straight – the cities are just massive mortuaries now. No marauding parties are coming from them.

The three locals take them to a fortified manor whither they’ve taken lots of weapons and food and turned into a base. From here, Masen and Coker persuade them to embark on a systematic sweep of the surrounding countryside looking for the Colonel’s party. They use maps to divide up the territory and set off on long lonely drives round the country, regularly beeping their horns, but find nothing.

It’s in these passages that we learn for the first time that the animals have been blinded by the comet, too. Cows and sheep are blundering around blinded. That explains his occasional references to seeing no animals except a few birds.

One of the locals manages to get a helicopter at a local airport working, and they fly low over large parts of the countryside, but they don’t find the London gang. They encounter scattered groups in farms and holdouts. When they land, these isolated groups simply refuse to believe the catastrophe is universal. Rather than joining together, they prefer to stay in the little groups and places they know. It is a very persuasive description of ‘disaster fatigue’, the refusal to accept what’s happened or to think straight. And trauma. The preference to stay within a small tight-knit community in places they know. Fear and trauma.

On one of his trips Coker unexpectedly recruits a forceful old lady, Mrs Forcett, who is a great cook. But the days are passing and nothing is changing. Coker makes a big speech saying they need to group together in as large a community as possible so that the labour of the many can enable the few to be teachers and pass on knowledge, otherwise the future is utter barbarity. For that reason he announces he is going to drive back to the Christian community at Tynsham. With its walls, extensive land and large buildings it has the potential to become an organised agrarian community.

Masen sees the force of Coker’s argument but, in the small hours, realises he is not going to go with him. He needs to find Josella, it is his quest. Back in London, on that moony evening when they sat outside Senate House and she surprised him by saying she wanted to pair off with him, she had mentioned her dream house, a lovely country house on the north-facing slope of the South Downs. Now, Masen knows he must seek her there.

Chapter 13 Journey in hope

So next morning Coker and the other three pack up and head off back north to Tynsham while Masen heads east to the South Downs. He becomes increasingly lonely driving through the silent countryside and the empty towns. In the New Forest he is startled when a small girl runs out into the road waving her arms. She is ten and named Susan, she asks him to come and see Tommy. Tommy is lying on the lawn of her house with the tell-tale red welt across his face where he’s been stung by a triffid. Masen spots it and blows its top off with his shotgun. Then confirms that Tommy is dead. Susan had been sent to bed early on the fateful night of the comet. Both her parents had been struck blind. First her father had gone to get help and never returned. Then her mother. She had a narrow escape from a triffid and warned Tommy not to go outside, but one day he had and… Masen buries the little boy, feeling desolate. Then loads up and takes Susan with him.

When it gets dark he stops for the night, scopes out a safe house, makes a meal, then outs Susan to bed. A little later he hears her sobbing and goes up to comfort her. The truth is he needs comforting, too.

Next day it rains heavily. They arrive on the north side of the South Downs around Pulborough. He has no idea where Josella’s house is or whether she’d be there. He has a brainwave. As it gets dark he finds a big detachable lamp attached to a Rolls Royce, sets it up on the front of the lorry and shines the powerful light across the long reach of the hills. There’s a bit of suspense and then, rather inevitably, Susan sees an answering light flickering in the distance. Excitedly they set off, it’s a long way, the rain obscures the view, the roads don’t go where you want them to, but eventually they identify the house on the hillside, drive up the drive, the door opens and out comes running… Josella!

I jumped down.
‘Oh, Bill. I can’t — Oh, my dear, I’ve been hoping so much…. Oh, Bill…’ said Josella.
I had forgotten all about Susan until a voice came from above. [in the cab of the lorry]
‘You are getting wet, you silly. Why don’t you kiss her in-doors?’ it asked.

Chapter 14 Shirning

The house is called Shirning Farm. Masen discovers it is owned by Dennis and Mary Brent. They’d been hosting guests, Joyce Taylor and Joan and Ted Danton on the night of the meteors. All five had been blinded. A few days later Ted had ventured out from the farm but never returned. Then Joan went to find him and never returned. Mary had been half-sting by a triffid through a part-open window, so they slammed all windows and doors shut, nursed her back to health and Dennis cobbled together an outfit covering all his skin and a mask from wire mesh, and had ventured on several terrifying trips to the nearest village in search of food.

Then Josella had arrived. Masen learns that a) she had been grabbed by Coker’s gang on the night they attacked Senate House b) she had been allotted a troupe of blind people to lead in the Victoria area c) when they began to drop like flies from the plague she’d made her way back to Senate House d) by enormous coincidence overhearing the shot of Masen decapitating the triffid in Russell Gardens on the same night when Coker had also returned and the two men had made a truce. But fearing a trap, Josella had turned back, taken a car and driven south to Shirning.

So now there are three sighted people there – Bill, Josella and young Susan – and the three blind ones. They set about fortifying the house, going on food trips. After three weeks Bill drives back to Tynsham Manor and returns with grim news. They’re all dead. Looks like the plague killed everyone. There was some kind of note pinned to the door but the piece with the text on had been torn off by someone or something, presumably a message about where the survivors were headed. Masen searched for hours but couldn’t find it anywhere.

Josella breaks down in tears. She wasn’t made for a life like this. Bill tries to reassure her that there must be thousands of groups like theirs scattered all over Europe. They just have to link up, he says, without much conviction.

Chapter 15 World narrowing

Quite a long passage describes the passing years, how Masen makes numerous trips to local towns for supplies and oil and petrol for the generator, fairly often goes up to London and watches its decay, grass colonising the rooftops, plaster facades falling into the street.

They erect a strong fence against the triffids, but on several occasions the plants break through and have to be fought off with flame throwers. Young Susan studies them closely and becomes convinced they can communicate and they have intelligence. They are watching and waiting.

One day he drives Josella to the south-facing part of the Downs and they sit looking down over the sea. They discuss the world their children will inherit, they wonder whether to tell them a myth, a legend about the old times. Masen worries that stories about the ancestors who had magic devices would crush the young, sit like a stifling shadow over them.

Then he shares with Josella (Josie) his theory that the event on that fateful night was no comet at all. What if the flashes which blinded everyone were the product of one of the numberless weapons satellites circling the globe at the start of the Cold War, which contained a weapon deliberately intended to burn out the optic nerves? What if it was an utterly man-made catastrophe after all (p.247)? God, that makes it even worse.

They have talked themselves into a mood of philosophical resignation, going so far as to say that if it all ends tomorrow, at least they will have had this time… when they hear a droning and realise a helicopter is approaching from the west. They start dancing around, waving their arms and shouting, but well before it gets close enough to see them, it abruptly changes direction and heads north inland.

The point being, its appearance destroys the mood of wistful resignation they had conjured up. Now both are on edge – maybe things aren’t sliding elegiacally towards an end. Maybe, somewhere, some people are doing a whole lot better than they are. How can they find them?

Chapter 16 Contact

Driving back from this jaunt they see smoke rising and they – and the reader – become terrified that it is the cottage at Shirning, the triffids have broken through the fence and some disaster has occurred.

Sure enough the fire is on their land, but it is the smoke stack not the house and… the helicopter they saw from the beach has landed in front of the house. Out of the house to greet them comes Ivan Simpson, the same man who had pinched a helicopter and landed it outside Senate House in London all those years ago.

He tells them that after they decided to leave Miss Durrant’s Christian commune at Tynsham, the Colonel and Michael Beadley’s group had gone north into Oxfordshire (and not south-west to Beaminster – that had been a complete fabrication on Durrant’s part) and spent two years building up a defensible property there. But after two years the proliferation of triffids all along the perimeter fences made them realise that maintaining the fences and patrolling the grounds against triffids had become impossible.

So Beadley’s group moved lock, stock and barrel to the Isle of Wight, figuring an island was the optimum defence. They had spent years eradicating the triffids with flame throwers from every inch of the island. In the spring seeds blow over from the mainland but it is reasonably easy to spot them and burn them out before they can grow.

All through this period Simpson had taken jaunts in the helicopter and landed wherever he saw survivor communities. A dead giveaway from the air was the dark band of triffid foliage surrounding any populated settlement.

There are now about 300 of them in the Isle. And then Coker had turned up. He told the story of Tynsham’s end. Some women arrived from London and they brought the plague. Coker quarantined them but it was too late, it spread, Coker and others fled but took it with them. Eventually they settled down in Cornwall, using a river as a block against the triffids, but it wasn’t secure. When Sampson discovered their community from the air, landed and explained about the security of the Isle of Wight, Coker’s group chose to go, packing into fishing boats and making the journey by sea.

Chapter 17 Strategic withdrawal

Next day Masen sets out on a day-long trip to fetch coal. When he returns he sees an odd, military style vehicle parked in the driveway. Josella exits the house to greet him and makes signs to be wary, and is followed by a tall tough looking man in combat fatigues. Josella introduces him as Mr Torrence. Torrence introduces himself as the chief executive officer of the Emergency Council for the Southeastern Region of Britain. Their base is in Brighton which is running out of food. The council have devised a plan to take over, or manage all the small communities within reach of Brighton. They’d heard about Shirning but not been able to locate it until Susan lit the fire yesterday.

Now Torrence presents a menacing offer. The council is a semi-fascist dictatorship. They have drawn up plans to sequester blind people on every habitable settlement near Brighton, twenty blind to two sighted. Slowly Masen realises that he is to treat them as serfs. He will give them food enough to work the land. When Masen protests that it’s preposterous, he’s not sure he’s got enough food to feed his six, Torrence explains he can feed the blind on mashed up triffid. On cattle fodder, in other words. As to working the land, there’s a shortage of horses, so he can get the blind to pull a plough. They will be little more than human pack animals. Masen, in turn, will ‘hold’ the property on the authority of the council in Brighton. It is pretty much a reversion to feudal authority.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Torrence goes on to justify his council’s authority on the basis that other organisations are probably springing up across Europe, soon they will organise and become powerful. England needs to generate a social structure, and food enough to feed the new young generation while they are trained to fight. He is, in other words, like all fascist organisations, basing his entire social structure on the anticipation of war.

Throughout this recitation Masen has veered from honest indignation to realising that Torrence is deadly serious and will confiscate the farm by force if they don’t go along with the scheme. More than that, Torrence says they will take Susan with them, claiming it is for her own good, but Masen can see she’ll be held as a hostage for his good behaviour.

Masen and Josella decide the best thing is to play along, to reluctantly and grumpily acquiesce. They do so and Josella volunteers to feed them. She puts on a big spread with lots of wine, lots of conversation till late in the night, trying to allay the suspicions of Torrence and his men and the latter, eventually, are put to bed in spare rooms.

At which point Masen and Josella round up the others. She had already pulled out some honey on his instructions. Now he sneaks out to the drive and pours the honey into Torrence’s military vehicles gas tank. Then Masen sneaks everyone out of the house and into the half-track. When they fire up the half-track’s engine it obviously wakes Torrence and his men but by that time Masen has driven the half-track at top speed through their carefully assembled protective gate and halfway down the battered road. They park a few hundred yards away and, looking back, can see the waiting triffids piling through the breached gate, even as lights go on in the house. Torrence and his men presumably make it to their vehicle because our team hear the sound of the ignition starting up but then sputtering and dying as the honey is sucked into the engine. Then silence. How grisly! Torrence and his four men are trapped inside a vehicle utterly surrounded by triffids, never to be able to escape. Or if they try, inevitably to be struck down… My God!

The abrupt ending

And that is the end. Quite suddenly, on the last page, Masen ceases his narration. They rendezvoused with Simpson who flew them over to the Isle of Wight and Masen declares that his own, personal account can now hand over to the broader account of the community on the Isle of White which has been written by a certain Elspeth Cary. It’s been a long and gruelling read. I felt upset and harrowed by many of the details. The text’s final words are:

So we must think of the task ahead as ours alone. We believe now that we can see our way, but there is still a lot of work and research to be done before the day when we, or our children, or their children, will cross the narrow straits on a great crusade to drive the triffids back and back with ceaseless destruction until we have wiped out the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.

Hard not to feel this is an anti-climax, a very abrupt ending. Then again, it would have been difficult to continue at the same level of detail descriptions of the flight to Wight, the settling into the community and the many, many years which have followed. It would have required a second volume and, in fact, several authors have written sequels to the Wyndham original which carry the story on…

The persistence of America

Throughout the story, numerous characters express the conviction that the whole world may be blinded, but not America (pages 194, 201). They refuse to believe that America can have been affected. The isolated rural groups Masen meets around page 200 all refuse to accept that America won’t come to rescue them. The theme reaches a climax in the blind (sic) insistence of a young woman they meet in the West Country that America simply must be unaffected.

‘The Americans will be here before Christmas,’ said Stephen’s girl friend.
‘Listen,’ Coker told her patiently. ‘Just put the Americans in the jam-tomorrow-pie-in-the-sky department awhile, will you. Try to imagine a world in which there aren’t any Americans – can you do that?’
The girl stared at him. ‘But there must be,’ she said.

This directly echoes the way some characters in John Christopher’s disaster novel, The Death of Grass, cling on to the belief that America has somehow survived the catastrophe which has plunged Europe into barbarism. The British survivors pick up radio signals from America long after the BBC has gone off air…

The way the theme of this ‘Micawber fixation on American fairy godmothers’ as Coker sardonically calls it (p.202) appears in both books meshed with my recent reading of a couple of history books about the immediate post-war period (The Accidental President by A.J. Baime and Crucible: thirteen months that changed our world by Jonathan Fenby) to make me realise the deep sense people who’d lived through the Second World War must have had that there was support and succour out there in the West – that even while they were bombed night after night by the Luftwaffe, everything would be OK as long as America was still free. In both these novels the survivors of apocalyptic events in England still look to American for succour and simply refuse to believe it, too, has been devastated.

Both novels make you realise the vast impact which American aid and money and general moral support during and after the Second World War had on the psyche of the war-torn populations of Britain and Europe, and how the sense of America’s dominance lived on long afterwards in Europe’s fictions.


Credit

The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1951. All references are to the 1974 Penguin paperback edition.

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John Wyndham reviews

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Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships, attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by lingering radiation; but as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, and soon he and his mind-melding friends are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is real and a telepathic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in retrospect, in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 1

This is a brilliant literary biography, combining extraordinarily thorough research with discretion and sensitivity about Beckett’s private life, and a sure touch when it comes to analysing Beckett’s surprisingly numerous works. Everything a Beckett fan could ever want to know is covered, thoroughly and intelligently.

How James Knowlson came to write Samuel Beckett’s biography

James Knowlson (born in 1933) is Emeritus Professor of French and founder of the International Beckett Foundation at the University of Reading. He got to know Beckett after organising an academic conference to celebrate the fact that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize (1969) and founding the Beckett Archive at Reading, corresponding by letter and meeting him several times a year. As early as 1972 a publisher suggested he write a biography but when he broached the idea, Beckett said no.

But some 17 years later, the famous author changed his mind. He had realised that someone was going to write a biography come what may and that, on balance, he’d prefer it to be someone who knew and respected the actual works. He knew from their professional correspondence that Knowlson was very knowledgeable about his oeuvre and the result was that Beckett not only agreed to let Knowlson write the authorised biography, but agreed to give him a series of exclusive interviews and answer all the questions he posed.

Thus, over the last five months of his life, till Beckett’s death in December 1989, the two men had a series of long, in-depth interviews and Knowlson quotes from them liberally i.e. this book benefits hugely from Beckett’s own words and views about numerous aspects of his life and career. That is a masterstroke in the book’s favour.

But Knowlson went quite a lot further further and has spoken or corresponded with an extraordinary number of people, conducting over one hundred interviews with Beckett’s immediate family and close friends to a huge range of people he met in his professional life as a prose writer, playwright and director. The acknowledgements section lists them all and runs to six pages densely packed with names. The range is awesome and Kowlson’s stamina in meeting and corresponding with so many people, and then organising the resulting plethora of information into a coherent and fascinating narrative is awesome.

Samuel Beckett’s family and upbringing

Beckett’s family was comfortably upper-middle-class. His father, William, was a surveyor and made enough money to buy an acre of land in the rising suburb of Foxrock, south of Dublin, and build a big house on it which he named Cooldrinagh (after his wife’s family home), complete with servants’ quarters and tennis court.

The house was in sight of the Dublin hills which his father loved to go climbing and also of the sea, where the boy Beckett learned to swim and then dive into the locally famous pool named Forty-Foot at Sandycove. Not far away was the Leopardstown race track which features in various works, notably the radio play All That Fall.

Beckett’s parents were very different. His father, ‘Bill’ Beckett, was loud and sociable and not at all intellectual. He liked playing golf and going for long walks up into the Dublin hills. His mother, Amy, was tall and stern with a long face. Beckett inherited her looks and personality. The family was Protestant, the mother, in particular, being a devout church-goer.

Beckett had a brother, Frank, three years older, and a bevy of uncles and aunts who, with their own children, created a large, intelligent, well-off and cultured extended family. Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906, in later life he enjoyed the symbolism of having been born on Good Friday.

As a boy Beckett was sent to a small, eccentric preparatory school, Earlsfort House then, from age 13, on to an established public school, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (1919 to 1923) which, like most of its type, placed a big emphasis on sports and super-high standards of honesty, integrity and politeness. Everyone who ever met him later in life commented on Beckett’s immaculate manners and considerateness.

Beckett was very sporty

Beckett was a very sporty young man. At school he won medals for swimming and cross-country running, and was a very proficient boxer, becoming the school’s light heavyweight boxing champion. He was a keen golfer, joining his father’s club, Carrickmines Golf Club, playing for whole days at a stretch, and, when he went on to Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), representing the college at golf. He also played cricket for the college, and was included in the Dublin University team which went on a tour of English country clubs in 1926 and 1927. Hence the well-known fact that Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner who is also in the cricketing ‘Bible’, Wisden.

Beckett’s extended family was very musical and Beckett played the piano very well, well enough to know piano renditions of most of Gilbert and Sullivan when a boy, and to be able to play Debussy at university. When he was down in the dumps as a young man a friend hired a piano for his rooms to cheer him up.

Beckett’s parents bought him a motorbike in his final year at school, and then a two-seater ‘Swift’ sports car at college. As a student he was affluent enough to be able to pick holiday destinations, so one year went on a tour of the Loire Valley visiting the birthplaces of notable French writers, and, in his final college vacation, went to visit Florence where he looked up the sister of his Italian tutor at TCD.

Private school, piano lessons in a music-loving family, membership of sports clubs, top university in Ireland, motorbike, sports car, cultural trips abroad. Beckett had what we would nowadays think of as a very privileged upbringing.

Influences at Trinity College, Dublin

Beckett attended Trinity College Dublin from 1923 to 1927 where he studied Modern Literature. Here he came under the wing of the Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Browne Rudmore-Browne, a brash, aggressively freethinking, womanising intellectual who taught him the English classics and introduced Beckett to a wide range of French poets, classic and contemporary. ‘Ruddy’ as he was nicknamed, is caricatured as ‘the Polar Bear’ in Beckett’s early short story collection, More Pricks Than Kicks.

Beckett’s second formative influence was:

small, plump, middle-aged, Italian tutor named Bianca Esposito, who gave him detailed private lessons in Italian language and literature, who ignited his lifelong love for Dante and features in Pricks’ opening story, Dante and the Lobster.

Nearly 50 years later, Beckett still carried round the student copy of Dante Bianca gave him, packed with his notes and annotations.

Beckett was solitary and aloof

Despite all this physical prowess, and his height and his piercing blue eyes, Beckett was a shy boy, at prep and boarding school and at college. He often withdrew right into himself and, when forced to attend social occasions, did so without saying a word. Tall, clever and charismatic, young Beckett sometimes felt contempt for those less able than him, which he then felt guilty about, redirecting the loathing inwards at himself, creating a downward spiral of negative emotions.

In other words, despite all the privileges of his upbringing, his loving extended family, loads of material advantages, encouragement in sports and the best education money could buy, Beckett developed into a hyper-shy, extremely self-conscious young man, plagued by narcissism, solipsism and self-obsession. Here are just some of the phrases Knowlson uses about him at this period:

  • Beckett, the least gregarious of people (88)
  • Beckett was diffident and solitary (90)
  • Beckett’s cocoon of shyness and silence (90)
  • retiring and inhibited (92)
  • shy, retiring nature (95)
  • he would lapse into deep, uncomfortable silences (95)

The problem of pain

Like many a privileged young man, the discovery of the misery of the poor in his student years had a devastating effect on Beckett, and combined with intellectual doubts to undermine his Christian faith – something which went on to become a bone of contention with his pious mother.

A long time ago I was paid to do the research for a documentary series about the conflict between faith and atheism, a series which set out to define the arguments and counter-arguments across the full range of human history, culture, philosophy, psychology and so on. What emerged, at least in my opinion, was that beneath the thousand and one arguments of believers and atheists, both intellectual positions have One Big Fundamental Weak Spot:

The chief intellectual difficulty for thinking Christians is The Problem of Pain i.e. the very old conundrum that if God is all-powerful and all-loving why does he allow children to die in screaming agony? There is no answer to this, though thousands of theologians have come up with clever workarounds e.g. he is all-loving but is, for some reason, not quite all-powerful; or he is all-powerful but is not what we think of as all-loving because he is working to a plan which is beyond our understanding and presumptuous to try.

Thus Beckett was being very traditional, almost trite, in losing his faith once he came to appreciate the pain and misery in the world around him which his privileged upbringing had hitherto sheltered him from. In a way, most of his writing career went on to focus on this theologically-flavoured issue. (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Beckett’s central subject is not the Problem of Pain so much as the Problem of Physical and Mental Decay).

The biggest weak point in the Atheist position – the mirror image of what the Problem of Pain is for Christians – is The Problem of Consciousness: If we humans are the result of millions of generations of evolution by natural selection, descended from the first amoeba, and if we are the result of the purely mechanistic and amoral struggle for survival, how come we have such complex and delightful feelings and sense impressions, can be transported by the sight of a sunset or the fragrance of a flower? How come we have such a highly developed moral sense that can lead us to spend days debating the rights and wrongs of various actions, feeling such an acute sense of guilt, wasting so much time in complicated rumination? Surely we should just do whatever benefits us or the tribe without a moment’s thought. None of those attributes seem particularly useful for a creature which has come about via the blunt and violent process of evolution.

Maybe we can see this as another of Beckett’s central themes, or the other wing of his interests: the problem of consciousness, which in his prose works in particular, but also in most of the plays, is deeply compromised, broken, fragmented, in some cases, apparently, posthumous (in Play, for example).

Paris

(pp.107+). Beckett graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1927 with a BA degree. Patrons and supporters at the college wangled him the position of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris from November 1928 to 1930.

Paris came as a massive cultural and personal liberation. Throughout school and university Beckett had been strictly teetotal and sexually puritanical but in Paris he learned to drink, both beer and wine, becoming particularly partial to white wine. From now on there are numerous stories of Beckett getting completely trashed, passing out, being found under the table or passed out in alleyways, and so on.

Regarding sex, Knowlson gives detailed accounts of Beckett’s love affairs as a teenager and young man which were strongly shaped by his strict Protestant upbringing and the ferocious emphasis on ‘purity’ at his public school. As a result he was screwed up about sex in a predictably traditional way and Knowlson quotes from diaries, journals and early stories to show how he had the classic difficulty of reconciling the women he respected and placed on a pedestal with the ‘dirty’ shenanigans he got up to with hookers in Paris brothels, sex and love. (pp. 108, 139).

(Later, in the mid-1930s, when he was living a solitary existence in London during his two years of intensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic, Knowlson claims Beckett availed himself of London prostitutes on a regular basis.)

James Joyce

The post Beckett took up at the Ecole Normale Superieure had been occupied by another Irishman, Tom MacGreevey, who stayed on in the city he loved, and acted as guide and mentor to young Sam. MacGreevey had developed high-powered literary contacts and, among others, introduced him to James Joyce and his circle, his wife and grown-up son and daughter, his publishers and magazine editors and so on. It was a golden opportunity, an entrée into a whole new world.

Joyce was widely acknowledged to be the most important avant-garde writer in Europe. Beckett was a star-struck 23-year-old graduate. Sam quickly became one of the great man’s secretaries, tasked with finding Joyce books, reading them out loud or providing written summaries, as well as taking dictation and other chores. The master and the ephebe went for long walks along the Seine (Joyce’s flat was only 100 yards from the river).

Beckett was still so utterly shy that he hadn’t the small-talk to spend with Joyce’s wife, Nora, who, partly as a result, took against him. Whereas Joyce’s nubile and impulsive daughter Lucia, just a year younger than Beckett, became infatuated with the tall, aloof, blue-eyed sportsman, sitting near him at dinner, making eyes at him, inveigling him to take her for walks.

Countless articles have been written about the impact of Joyce on Beckett but the central, much-repeated point is that in the end, Joyce’s example helped set Beckett on a track diametrically opposite to the great man’s. Both men not only spoke the major European languages (English, French, Italian, German) and were deeply familiar with the respective canons of literature of each of these countries, but were impatient with the realist or Naturalist worldview they’d inherited from turn of the century literature – were committed to going beyond the realist worldview.

But whereas Joyce’s technique was accumulative, each sentence attracting to it multiple references and variations in other languages, breaking down English words and (by the 1930s) creating in their stead the entirely new polyglot language in which he wrote Finnegans Wake – Beckett found he could follow Joyce only so far. Indeed he did so in the short stories and novels of the 1930s, which are characterised by deliberately arcane syntax, literary references, the liberal sprinkling of obscure or foreign words, and an attitude which is deliberately contrived and non-naturalistic.

But Beckett lacked the musicality, the sensual feel for language, the world-embracing sympathy and the sheer joy of life which pours from Joyce’s pages. Beckett was by his nature much more tightly wrapped, intellectually costive, temperamentally depressive, repressed by his stern Protestant upbringing.

Compare and contrast the lovely swimming sensuality of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which ends Ulysses with any description Beckett ever wrote anywhere of sensuality and sex. Molly is sweet and sensual and world-accepting; Beckett writes about sex a lot, but it is nearly always shameful masturbating (Malone Dies), callous sucking-off (Mercier and Camier), the disgusting rutting described in the four post-war short stories, the horrible homosexual abuse in How it is and so on. Sex in Beckett is never any fun at all.

Joyce is open to all the world, his books are overflowing with characters, incidents and brimming over with the joy of language. Beckett is locked away in one small, grey room, lying in the darkness, listening to the voices in his head punishing him with guilt and remorse, obsessively paring away language till it is reduced to blunt telegraphese, laced with one or two obsessively repeated key phrases.

Beckett’s women

One of the most boring things about biographies is the attention they are forced to pay to their subjects’ love lives. Here, as everywhere else, Knowlson does a very good, thorough job, providing all the facts without judgement or salacity.

Peggy Sinclair (1911 to 1933)

Beckett fell madly in love with his cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, known as ‘Peggy’, daughter of William ‘Boss’ Sinclair who had married Sam’s aunt, Frances Beckett, generally known as ‘Cissie’. I’m not much interested in classic ups and downs of the actual ‘love affair’, the interesting thing was the way her parents moved from Dublin to Kassel in north Germany, and sent Peggy to school in Austria, so that his visits to see her accustomed Beckett to travelling all over the continent and speaking the local languages. He visited the Sinclair household in Kassel a number of times between 1928 and 1932.

Peggy was the inspiration behind the character of Smeraldina in Beckett’s first, unpublished novel, A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. Eventually the love affair burnt out, and when he visited the Sinclairs in the early 1930s, it was to be distressed by their mounting business problems and by Peggy’s deteriorating health. He was devastated when Peggy, by that stage engaged to another man, died of tuberculosis in May 1933 (page 168).

Lucia Joyce (1907 to 1982)

James Joyce’s daughter, unsmiling, squint-eyed Lucia Joyce, became infatuated with the tall, handsome Samuel and, to please his father, Sam obligingly took her for walks or out to dinner, but he was still in love with Peggy Sinclair and not in the market for affairs. Things came to a head when Lucia threw a fit, denouncing Beckett to her parents and claiming he had cruelly led her on. Egged on by Nora, Joyce cut his links with Beckett, refusing to see him again. Sam was distraught. It was only as the 1930s progress that it became increasingly obvious that Lucia was suffering from severe mental illness, and ended up being placed in a series of sanatoria. A couple of years later, the pair were quietly reconciled and when Beckett moved to Paris permanently in 1935, started to see a lot of each other again.

Ethna MacCarthy (1903 to 1954)

MacCarthy was arguably Beckett’s first mature love. She was a poet, short story writer and playwright who went on to carve a career as a paediatrician. Their love is very tenderly and respectfully traced.

These three women are singled out not least because Beckett’s first attempt at a full-length fiction was a novel about a young Irishman whose life is dominated by… three women! The novel eventually became titled A Dream of Fair To Middling Women (a typically learnèd reference to both Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Legend of Good Women and Alfred Tennyson’s long poem A Dream of Fair Women).

The Dream which is structured around a central protagonist (named, with characteristic over-learnedness, Belacqua Shuah, Belacqua being the name of a minor character noted for his lazy self-absorption in Dante’s Divine Comedy) and his relations with the three women, being Smeraldina, Syra-Cusa and the Alba. Much scholarly ink has been spilt arguing about which ‘real life’ women ‘inspired’ each character. Knowlson takes them to be based on Peggy, Lucia and Ethna, respectively.

After a year or so of trying to get the Dream published in the mid-1930s, and having it continually rejected, Beckett gave up and slowly came to regret having satirised his close friends and family so closely. In the end he actively suppressed the novel and it wasn’t published until 1992, three years after his death.

Writing

When he was introduced to Joyce, he not only met his family, but the network of book publishers and magazine editors connected with him. As an obviously highly intelligent, highly literate young man, Beckett found himself presented with opportunities to publish books, stories and articles which most aspiring authors can only dream of.

In 1929 he wrote his first short story, the 3-and-a-half-page Assumption which was immediately published in the leading avant-garde magazine, transition. Then a 100-line poem, Whoroscope, knocked off in a few hours in order to win the £10 prize for a poetry competition sponsored by literary entrepreneur and anthologist Nancy Cunard and published in July 1930.

A senior editor at Chatto and Windus suggested to Beckett that he write a detailed study of Proust for a series of literary introductions they were publishing. This Beckett did, extensively researching by rereading Proust, and the study was published in March 1931. Once he had bedded in with the Joyce circle he was commissioned to write a translation of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake into French. In other words Beckett was, by 1930, very well-connected with the leading avant-garde writer in Europe, his circle and supporters and publishers.

But, despite all these advantages, Beckett failed to find a published for A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. It went the rounds of numerous publishers, both mainstream and avant-garde for two years before Beckett gave up trying, and the trickle of odd, eccentric short stories he was writing fared no better.

In 1932 the teaching post at Ecole Normale Superieure terminated, and Beckett was forced to pack his bags and return to Ireland where he was extremely lucky to be offered a prestigious teaching post at Trinity Dublin, a very sought-after position, supported by Ruddy and other patrons and supporters.

Unfortunately, Beckett hated it and discovered he was awful at teaching. Miserable, that winter he fled to ‘Boss’ and Cissie Sinclair in Kassel in northern Germany, from where he wrote a letter of resignation which dismayed his sponsors and upset his parents.

Breakdown and psychotherapy

Having chucked in his prestigious job at Trinity, completely failed to get any of his writings published, and been forced to move back in with his parents in 1933, Beckett was deeply traumatised when his father, apparently still in the prime of life in his 60s, died of a massive heart attack, on 26 June 1933.

His father’s death exposed Beckett more than ever to the cloying, critical over-attention of his mother and Beckett suffered a series of increasingly serious physical symptoms, starting with a cyst on his neck, moving to heart palpitations, night sweats and panic attacks, which on several occasions brought him to a complete dead stop, in the street, paralysed with terror, and unable to move a muscle.

Beckett consulted a good friend of his from school, a nerve specialist, Geoffrey Thompson, who was planning to move to London and recommended Beckett to come with him and try psychotherapy at the relatively new Tavistock Clinic. So in January 1934 Beckett himself moved to digs in London and began his treatment with the pioneering psychotherapist Wilfred Bion. Bion was, Knowlson informs us, himself quite a strapping, hearty, sporty chap, while also being formidably well-educated at private school. So he and Beckett bonded on a social and personal level, quite apart from the treatment.

According to Knowlson, Beckett had psychotherapy with Bion for two years, at the rate of three times a week, which equals well over 2,000 sessions, during which Beckett explored his childhood, his formative influences, and came to realise the role his love-hate relationship with his mother played in cramping his life. He came to realise that, for his entire life to date, he had created an ivory tower founded on what he felt was his physical and intellectual superiority to all around him, becoming known for his aloofness and/or shyness, what Knowlson calls an:

attitude of superiority and an isolation from others that resulted from a morbid, obsessive immersion in self (page 180)

Beckett had to learn:

to counter his self-immersion by coming out of himself more in his daily life and taking a livelier interest in others (page 181)

But more than this, Knowlson claims that Bion showed him that he could mine many of these deeply personal compulsions and tendencies to create texts.

By externalising some of the impulses of the psyche in his work – the feelings of frustration and repressed violence for example – he would find it easier to counter the self-absorption that had seemed morbid and destructive in his private life. The writing thus became essential to his later mental and physical wellbeing.
(page 181)

Over 2,000 times Beckett lay on his back in a darkened room, closing his eyes, focusing on the moment, in order to let deeply buried memories bubble up from his unconscious, struggling to express them, struggling to understand their significance – while all the while another part of his mind observed the process with analytical detachment, critiquing the shape and pose of the figures in the memories, considering the words they spoke, assessing how the scene could be improved, the dialogue sharpened up, the dramatic core reached more quickly and effectively.

This is more or less the plot of Beckett’s late novella Company and clearly the basis of the so-called ‘closed room’ and skullscape’ fictions of the 1960s. You can also see how it forms the basis of the breakthrough novels Beckett wrote immediately after the war in French, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, texts of overweening, unprecedented self-absorption and self scrutiny. As late as his last published prose piece, Stirrings Still, Beckett is obsessed with a figure who regards himself as an ‘other’, sees himself rise and leave the room, although is other ‘self’ remains seated.

Reading Knowlson’s fascinating account of Beckett’s psychotherapy makes you realise the ‘essential’ Beckett was there all the time, lying dormant. First, though:

  1. he had to spend a decade, the 1930s, getting out of his system the immature wish to clutter his texts with smartarse quotes, foreign phrases, and mock-scholarly humour in the tradition of Rabelais and Sterne and Joyce, and then
  2. his experiences during the Second World War had to sear away any residues of Romantic optimism and even the last vestiges of late Victorian naturalism

for him to emerge in the immediate post-war period as the stripped-down, minimalist, and bleakly nihilistic writer who would go on to become one of the pillars of post-war literature.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

First Love by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.

Between the publication of Murphy in 1938 and this suite of short stories written in 1946, came the small matter of the Second World War. Beckett spent it in embattled France rather than in neutral Ireland. For some time he was involved in the French Resistance, doing enough to merit being awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance after the war.

While in hiding from the Nazis in the south of France, Beckett worked on the manuscript of another novel, Watt, which finally saw the light of day in 1953. In 1946 he wrote the four very short novellas, more like short stories – First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End which in the 1950s were gathered into one volume.

First Love – the plot

First Love is a short narrative, told in the first person, more of a dramatic monologue than a story.

The narrator is mentally challenged, talking like a simpleton about his visits to his father’s grave, his fondness for hanging around in graveyards, his liking for the smell of the dead. He has a male adolescent’s fascination with the unpleasant aspects of the human body – its farts, arses and sticky foreskins.

There’s a passage where he ponders the different types of constipation and fondly imagines Jesus at stool, pulling his buttocks apart to help his stool descend.

To quote Leslie Fiedler, Beckett enjoyed ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’, often in quite a childish way.

The other members of his father’s household never liked him, or barely tolerated him.

He reminds me a bit of Benjy the idiot in The Sound and the Fury, dimly trying to make sense of things which other people are always doing to him. – He remembers his father saying, ‘Leave him alone, he’s not disturbing anyone’ as if the other people in the house, who he refers to as ‘the pack’, think he should be… what? Taken away and put in a home? (As Murphy is, as Watt ends up.)

When his father died, they promptly kicked him out the house – more precisely locked his door and piled all his things up outside it. He left, wandering off into the great outside. He sleeps for successive nights on a bench by a canal until disturbed by Lulu, a prostitute.

(The pattern of a self-obsessed man being interrupted, disturbed from his self-absorption by a woman recurs in most of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks, and in Murphy where the solipsistic protagonist is also troubled by the attentions of a streetwalker, Celia. Men are useless solipsists until rescued by a practical woman is one way of interpreting this common narrative structure.)

After a few night-time encounters with Lulu, the narrator goes off to find shelter in a barn in the country, rather absurdly reduced to writing out Lulu’s name in cow pats.

He returns to the city and allows himself to be taken to her small apartment where, with the obsessive-compulsive behaviour typical of a Beckett figure, he empties the room he’s given of every scrap of furniture, piling it all in the hall outside.

He hears Lulu – who he has renamed Anna – having sex with clients in the other room. I think the narrator and Lulu have sex a few times, though it’s hard to tell.

Lulu-Anna gets pregnant. She strips and shows him her belly and breasts swelling. The protagonist realises he must leave. One night he hears the baby being born, the screams and the cries. He gets dressed quietly, exits the house, but wherever he goes he still hears the baby crying.

Not a conventional romance, is it?

The style

What the war, or something, has done to Beckett’s prose is to transform it. Most obviously, almost all the arcane and deliberately obscure words he clotted the earlier books with have vanished. Almost. There are a few regressions.

Are we to infer from this I loved her with that intellectual love which drew from me such drivel, in another place? Somehow I think not. For had my love been of this kind would I have stooped to inscribe the letters of Anna in time’s forgotten cowplats? To divellicate urtica plenis manibus?

‘Divellicate’ meaning ‘to tear apart or off’ and urtica plenis manibus meaning ‘handfuls of nettles’. Nothing profound here; the ‘joke’ here, as in so much Beckett, is in the elaborate over-telling of a humorously mundane action.

A handful of really obscure phrases aside, the prose is, by and large, much less racked and clotted than in the earlier books. That said, the majority of the text is still ornate, mock academic, falsely pedantic and orotund in tone.

As to whether it was beautiful, the face, or had once been beautiful, or could con­ceivably become beautiful, I confess I could form no opinion.

‘I confess’ – the tone of the ancient clubman over whiskey and soda, or the Oxford professor over sherry. This tone of arch contrivance predominates throughout. But in amidst it are all kinds of other registers. Most enjoyable, on its occasional appearances, is the register of poetic prose.

When the voice ceased at last I approached a little nearer, to make sure it had really ceased and not merely been lowered. Then in despair, saying, No knowing, no knowing, short of being beside her, bent over her, I turned on my heel and went, for good, full of doubt.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the fairly recurrent tone of schoolboy crudity.

The smell of corpses, distinctly per­ceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find un­pleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how in­finitely preferable to what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules.

Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.

I considered kicking her in the cunt.

These are examples of what Fiedler called Beckett’s bourgeois-baiting, but also, maybe, a crudity, an aggressiveness, which can be interpreted as part of the character’s mental disturbance, his lack of socialisation.

There is still the minute, the obsessive description of mundane physical activities which hamper all Beckett’s characters. Having piled all the furniture in the hall, he’s made it difficult to get in or out of his room, and thus difficult to get to the toilet (which we know he needs despite his sometimes heroic constipation he mentions right at the start).

Te remedy the getting-to-the-toilet issue, he and Anna decide a chamber pot will be necessary. But Anna does not possess a chamber pot. Oh dear. And so they discuss the options in mind-numbing detail – the obsessive triviality – and the sordid subject matter – being the point. Oh woe is mucky material man.

Give me a chamber-pot, I said. But she did not possess one. I have a close-stool of sorts, she said. I saw the grandmother on it, sitting up very stiff and grand, having just purchased it, pardon, picked it up, at a charity sale, or perhaps won it in a raffle, a period piece, and now trying it out, doing her best rather, almost wishing some­one could see her. That’s the idea, procrastinate. Any old recipient, I said, I don’t have the flux. She came back with a kind of saucepan, not a true saucepan for it had no handle, it was oval in shape with two lugs and a lid. My stewpan, she said. I don’t need the lid, I said. You don’t need the lid? she said. If I had said I needed the lid she would have said, You need the lid?

‘Recipient’ presumably used in the sense of ‘recipient of my poo and pee’ – any receptacle. And ‘the flux’ is an archaic term for what we nowadays call dysentery – carefully combining the turdy reality of human existence with arcane historical terminology – a classic Beckett manoeuvre!

Learnèd wit

All this can be seen as part of Beckett’s deployment of ‘learned wit’. 65 years ago Professor D. W. Jefferson wrote a classic essay explaining, categorising and defining the long literary tradition of ‘learned wit’ – the type of humour which takes the mickey out of academic knowledge by exaggerating it to grotesque proportions.

This is a long tradition of this approach and style, dating from the classical world which runs strong through medieval, Renaissance and 18th century literature.

It seems to me Beckett is firmly in this line of smart-arse, show-off humour, taking the mickey out of its own erudition.

One element of it is dressing up the crudest physical bodily functions in elaborately academic periphrasis, littered with learned references and classical quotations. (The great example of this in Western literature is The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530-1560) by François Rabelais, describing the gross adventures of the two giants of the title in a comically pedantic style. In English probably the greatest example is the experimental comic novel, Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne.)

So Beckett’s obsession with farting, pissing and pooing in Latin or 16th century vocabulary is slap bang in the middle of this tradition.

As is another element, the making of long, pedantic lists out of all proportion to the triviality of the subject matter. Thus, for example, the narrator doesn’t just complain about his pains, but goes on to sketch out a theory of his pains, and draw up a deliberately ridiculous list:

I’ll tell them to you some day none the less, if I think of it, if I can, my strange pains, in detail, distinguishing between the different kinds, for the sake of clarity, those of the mind, those of the heart or emotional conative, those of the soul (none prettier than these) and finally those of the frame proper, first the inner or latent, then those affecting the surface, beginning with the hair and scalp and moving method­ically down, without haste, all the way down to the feet beloved of the corn, the cramp, the kibe, the bunion, the hammer toe, the nail ingrown, the fallen arch, the common blain, the club foot, duck foot, goose foot, pigeon foot, flat foot, trench foot and other curiosities.

And this quote also demonstrates that long-windedness can be comic (in intent, anyway) – although in Beckett, over-long sentences oscillate between being humorous and becoming the unchecked logorrhoea of the mentally disturbed. Or both at once. You can never be sure.

Mentally challenged or hyper-intellectual?

This raises the issue that, although the narrator lives in squalor, can’t remember his name or things that have happened to him, has a brain-damaged fixation with his own body and an autistic inability to communicate with others – nonetheless, all this is conveyed in an incredibly ornate, articulate, intellectual and educated register. It is precise and finicky, regularly using a tone of academic detachment and pedantic precision.

It is this unlikely clash or dichotomy which produces the peculiar effect of Beckett’s prose – the feelings of an autistic savant expressed in the language of a scholar.

Yes, there are moments, particularly in the afternoon, when I go all syncretist, à la Reinhold. What equilibrium! But even them, my pains, I understand ill. That must come from my not being all pain and nothing else. There’s the rub. Then they recede, or I, till they fill me with amaze and wonder, seen from a better planet. Not often, but I ask no more. Catch-cony life! To be nothing but pain, how that would simplify matters! Omnidolent!

The thoughts of a simpleton couched in the terminology of an Oxford professor.

Poetic

And then there’s another, mostly buried, aspect. Amid all the other tones and registers, just occasionally a poetic voice peeks out and hints at a completely new direction out of the mire of obfuscation, the bleak way of the lost and forlorn. Sometimes, in fact fairly regularly, there are phrases which are neither nihilistic, ridiculous or disgusting, but haunting and touching. There are quite a few moments which, despite the clammy negativity, actually emerge as sweet and doleful.

Thus, right at the end of the text, the speaker is haunted by the cries of Anna’s newborn who is in fact his own son, despite the fact that he has abandoned them both and is walking away as fast and as far as he can.

As long as I kept walking I didn’t hear them, because of the footsteps. But as soon as I halted I heard them again, a little fainter each time, admittedly, but what does it matter, faint or loud, cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease.

Not ‘a cry is a cry’, but ‘cry is cry’, making it sound more elemental, profound, harrowing.

To be cynical, this kind of rhetorical twist, this sudden incursion of a portentous tone, will be Beckett’s schtick for decades to come. But, if you are not repelled by the subject matter, if you put yourself mentally in a place where you accept the incongruity of a simpleton who talks like an antiquated Cambridge professor, if you accept the lying in cow pats and the autistic behaviour and the deliberately vague sense of other people, the drift and the decay – then there are regularly moments when the prose achieves a kind of epiphany of sadness, a rather hard-faced poetics of desolation.

These four short texts are weirdly compelling. I read all of them twice.


Credit

First Love by Samuel Beckett was written in 1946. It was first published in 1976. Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett (1946)

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

After writing a series of experimental texts in English during the 1930s, Mercier et Camier was Beckett’s first attempt at an extended prose piece in French. He wrote it in 1946, while he was living in France after the end of the Second World War. It comes between Watt, which Beckett wrote in the last few years of the war, and directly before the three huge experimental ‘novels’ or texts which became known as The Beckett TrilogyMolloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953).

Watt was long, experimental and – ultimately, for its author – unsatisfactory; who knows how to describe what it is for its readers.

Mercier and Camier is a lot shorter but Beckett found it even more unsatisfactory, which is why he refused to publish it in its original French until 1970. It only appeared in English in 1974, in Beckett’s own translation, in which he took the opportunity to make substantial alterations to the original text and to ‘reshape’ it from French to English. That’s the translation I read.

Structure

The Calder and Boyar edition I read is just 123 pages long. It is divided into eight chapters and every pair of chapters is followed by a ‘summary of two preceding chapters’ as in a school textbook.

The prose is lucid but highly mannered. A lot of it is similar to Murphy and Watt, not in style but in that it is writing about writing, writing whose main energy comes from taking the mickey out of traditional writing, that plays with the style of official reports, mixes in everyday phrases or clichés, and so on. It is not very interested in describing the world ‘out there’ but has made a nice safe warm space inside the head, playing with phrases. The general idea is that Mercier and Camier are a pair of vagabonds who intend to leave the city on a journey and Beckett introduces it thus:

Physically it was fairly easy going, without seas or frontiers to be crossed, through regions untormented on the whole, if desolate in parts. Mercier and Camier did not remove from home, they had that great good fortune. They did not have to face, with greater or less success, outlandish ways, tongues, laws, skies, foods, in surroundings little resembling those to which first childhood, then boyhood, then manhood had inured them. The weather, though often inclement (but they knew no better), never exceeded the limits of the temperate, that is to say of what could still be borne, without danger if not without discomfort, by the average native fittingly clad and shod. With regard to money, if it did not run to first class transport or the palatial hotel, still there was enough to keep them going, to and fro, without recourse to alms. It may be said therefore that in this respect too they were fortunate, up to a point. They had to struggle, but less than many must, less perhaps than most of those who venture forth, driven by a need now clear and now obscure.

‘Physically it was fairly easy going… The weather never exceeded the limits of the temperate… With regard to money…’ These sound like phrases from an official report, as does ‘It may be aid that…’

The style goes on to change and pull in other registers and mannerisms, playing with various learned tropes and techniques, but it is more often than not more interested in writing, in the possibilities of types and styles of writing, than in depicting any kind of ‘reality’.

Similarly, the dialogue is more often than not about the dialogue – characters speak about the act of speaking ‘did you say that?’ ‘did i say what?’ ‘did you say what you just said?’ ‘i don’t know, did i just say something?’ – played for laughs, played as a solemn game indicating the difficulties of even the most basic communication, rather than the kind of dialogue you find in most ‘normal’ novels.

More than anything else, unlike the monolithic solid blocks of prose found in The Beckett Trilogy, the pages look like a normal novel, divided up into short, sensible paragraphs which flag up new bits of dialogue or action or description in the traditional manner.

The shortness of the text, the use of short chapters, the breathing space provided by the end of chapter summaries, and the layout of the individual pages, all make Mercier and Camier feel like the most readable novel-style book Beckett ever wrote.

Repetition, absurdity and comedy

We are in an unnamed city. Mercier and Camier meet at their rendezvous point, though not before some misunderstanding. Mercier is first to arrive but gets bored waiting so goes for a stroll. Camier arrives ten minutes later so he goes for a stroll a few minutes before Camier gets back. Camier gets bored waiting then goes for a stroll just a few minutes before Mercier returns to the rendezvous point, hangs about a bit then goes for a stroll, and a few minutes later Camier returns to the rendezvous point, and tuts about where his friend can be, before going off for a stroll.. Repetition is at the core of Beckett’s technique, repetitions with slight variations which quickly build up into monstrous tables of permutations, as we have just seen in the numerous examples given in Watt. Beckett invests sufficient energy in this obsessive schedule of mistimed arrivals that he bothers to give us a table describing it.

In the introduction to Watt, Beckett scholar Chris Ackerley says Beckett is satirising the philosopher René Descartes’ notion that a comprehensive enumeration of what philosophers called the ‘accidents’ of a thing will eventually give you ‘understanding’ of the thing, whereas Beckett’s satirical deployment of this technique is designed to prove that the more you enumerate something, the further you in fact become from understanding it, you just become more bewildered.

In this format, this kind of mathematical precision which can be converted into a timetable is obviously a kind of satire on the timetabled way most of us live our lives, with mobile phones and meeting-reminding programs converting the endless flux of reality into bite-sized five-minute chunks.

But there is also something very powerful and uncanny about repetition. Repeat a word numerous times and it quickly starts to lose meaning and become absurd. Repeat a precise action numerous times and the same. It is as if repetition takes us out of the everyday. Transcendental meditators are instructed to repeat their mantra thousands of times to take them into an other-worldly state. Closer to Beckett’s Ireland, Roman Catholics have series of prayers to repeat as penances or on numerous other formalised occasions.

Repetition of drills with weapons make soldiers proficient, repetitive exercise improves athletes’ performance, makes difficult moves automatic, practice makes perfect. All this is true of the physical world. But in the world of language, repetition doesn’t make perfect or battle ready or match fit. Something different happens.

In Beckett’s hands, repetition can become obsessively patterned – as in the timetable of Mercier and Camier missing each other described above – in which case it reduces humans to automata, like buses meeting or missing a schedule, or the figures which come out of cuckoo clocks on the hour.

Or it can be funny, like two gentlemen bowing and taking their hats off to each other in an indefinite cycle of politeness.

Or it can open the door into Absurdity – highlighting the pointlessness of doing the same things or saying the same things over and over and nothing ever changing.

It is in this respect that Mercier and Camier anticipates Waiting For Godot, in that it is a text interested in repetition and a kind of formal patterning of actions and dialogue, but – crucially – enacted by two protagonists.

In the most intense moments (I say moments, in fact reading them takes hours) of The Beckett Trilogy what you have is one voice giving a running, stream-of-consciousness account of its bewilderment and misery and sense of utter crushing futility – which is what makes reading them, especially The Unnameable such a gruelling experience.

But when you have two characters, even if they’re predisposed to be miserable and depressed, for a man of Beckett’s sly humour, the temptation is to poke fun at his own seriousness, the temptation is to have one character deliver a long speech about the meaninglessness of existence… and then have the other character point out he’s sitting on his hat. Or his shoelaces have come undone, he might trip and do himself a mischief etc. Thus:

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

In other words, just the decision to have two characters opens up the possibility of counterpointing the misery of The Unnameable with a world of slapstick, pratfalls and bathos. And it’s in this respect that Mercier and Camier feels like a dry run for Waiting For Godot.

Aspects of style

Having finally met up, Mercier and Camier embrace just as the heavens open and it starts to tip down. They run into a shelter, still embracing.

Obscenity

Still embracing? Two dogs run into the shelter and start copulating furiously, making Mercier and Camier realise they they also are still embracing. Are they gay? Or straight friends caught in an embarrassingly inappropriate moment? Is Beckett pulling the reader’s leg or tweaking the censor’s nose?

The pair continue to regard the copulating dogs, Camier wonders why they’re still plugged together and Mercier gives a wearied / cynical explanation:

What would you? said Mercier. The ecstasy is past, they yearn to part, to go and piss against a post or eat a morsel of shit, but cannot. So they turn their backs on each other. You’d do as much, if you were they.

A moment later Camier asks if they can sit down as he feels ‘all sucked off’. That is not a usual expression for ‘tired’, it is easier to interpret as a sexual expression. Later the ranger tells the dogs to bugger off. Mercier remarks that the ranger was a hero in the mud of flanders during the Great War while he and Camier were ‘high and dry, masturbating full pelt without fear of interruption…’ In chapter two Mercier says ‘fuck thee’. In chapter 4 Camier mildly remarks: ‘Cunts we may be…’ In chapter 6 Mercier remembers his wife, not very fondly, Toffana, making love to whom was ‘like fucking a quag’.

So why is Beckett dwelling on piss, shit and blowjobs, masturbation, buggery fucks and cunts?

Is it another way of ridiculing the high-mindedness of the Rationalist tradition in Western philosophy (as the satires on Descartes’ method are in Watt?) Or a poke in the eye for anyone who thinks human existence is noble and spiritual? Or was it in the spirit of many other mid-century literary rebels who thought writing ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ was a blow against the Establishment / capitalist system / patriarchy?

Beckett prefers ideas and categories to description

The sounds of the city intrude:

On all hands already the workers were at it again, the air waxed loud with cries of pleasure and pain and with the urbaner notes of those for whom life had exhausted its surprises, as well on the minus side as on the plus. Things too were getting ponderously under way. It was in vain the rain poured down, the whole business was starting again with apparently no less ardour than if the sky had been a cloudless blue.

Dickens or Balzac or maybe E.M. Foster or Virginia Woolf would have given us a world of detail, listing occupations and activities of the city coming to life. In his compendious Modernist classic, Berlin Alexanderplatz, the German novelist, Alfred Döblin, used a blitz of collages and quotes from newspapers, adverts and billboards to convey the over-abundant sensual stimulation of the modern city.

But Beckett’s description is a good example of the way he isn’t at all interested in that notion of urban life and colour – his imagination always generalises, moves to the philosophical categories and ideas underlying any situation, and then plays with these and the language they’re cast in. Ignores the sensuous specific for the ideas and possibilities latent in the language of ideas. It’s this which makes so much of his writing seem grey and abstract – because it is.

Dialogue as experiments with the idea of dialogue

Similarly, the dialogue barely refers to events or things, or only the bare minimum required to make sense. Most of the dialogue is about the nature of dialogue, it is playing with the notion of dialogue and what is concealed or implied in it.

No big ideas, no Freudian sub-texts or subtle implications, it isn’t that purposive. Beckett is just tinkering with fragments of dialogue, arranging and re-arranging them at angles to each other, to see what happens, to see what effects are created. It is like cubism. Picasso and Braque in their cubist paintings depicted really banal everyday objects – tables with newspapers, a bottle of wine and some apples on it. The revolution wasn’t in the subject matter which was as banal as can be. It was in the radical experiment of seeing the same thing from different angles.

So just as cubism takes everyday subject matter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles, so Beckett’s dialogue takes mundane chatter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles. That, I think, is the spirit to approach lots of the dialogue in Beckett. It is, at best, tangential or inconsequential, random, but it also plays with registers or tones. Characters speak to each other in the style of official reports or philosophical textbooks, the exact opposite of the casual slang or jokey tone most people use in conversations:

We shall never know, said Camier, at what hour we arranged to meet today, so let us drop the subject.
In all this confusion one thing alone is sure, said Mercier, and that is that we met at ten to ten, at the same time as the hands, or rather a moment later.
There is that to be thankful for, said Camier.
The rain had not yet begun, said Mercier.
The morning fervour was intact, said Camier.
Don’t lose our agenda, said Mercier.

So it is a kind of verbal satirical cubism. And once you adapt to its arch stylisation, it can become very funny.

Who owns them dogs? said the ranger.
I don’t see how we can stay, said Camier.
Can it I wonder be the fillip we needed, to get us moving? said Mercier.

And one reason this novel feels so pacey, so unlike the concrete blocks of the Trilogy is because so much of it consists of this slightly surreal, slightly deranged, stylised and often very funny dialogue.

What is more, said Mercier, we have still thought to take, before it is too late.
Thought to take? said Camier.
Those were my words, said Mercier.
I thought all thought was taken, said Camier, and all in order.
All is not, said Mercier.

Tramps discussing Descartes, with half an eye on Laurel and Hardy:

Is thought now taken, said Camier, and all in order?
No, said Mercier.
Will all ever be? said Camier.
I believe so, said Mercier, yes, I believe, not firmly, no, but I believe, yes, the day is coming when all will be in order, at last.
That will be delightful, said Camier.
Let us hope so, said Mercier

The plot

Chapter 1

They are in the Place Satin-Ruth which is dominated by an ancient copper beech, on which a French Field Marshall several centuries earlier had once pinned a label. They are sheltering from the rain in a shelter. A ‘ranger’ sticks his head in and asks if this is their bicycle. They discuss, in their oblique pseudo-philosophical way, the journey ahead. Rather magically night begins to fall. They must have spent the entire day there. They enumerate their belongings (the sack, the umbrella, the raincoat), exit the shelter, pick up the bicycle and push it away, under the watchful eyes of the ranger, who curses them on their way.

Chapter 2

The pair push their bicycle through the busy urban throng.

I’m cold, said Camier.
It was indeed cold.
It is indeed cold, said Mercier

They repair to a pub. Landlord says no bikes so they chain theirs to the railings. Drink for some time and discuss their situation. Decide to press on, go outside, pick up the bike, resume their walk. At a crossroads don’t know which way to go so let the umbrella decide by letting it fall. It points to the left. They see a man in a frock coat walking ahead of them.They both hear the sound of a mixed choir. Then it dawns on them to actually use the umbrella against the pouring rain, but neither of them can get it open, Mercier smashes it to the ground and says ‘fuck thee’ to Camier.

They arrive at Helen’s and notice the grand carpet and the white cockatoo. Helen suddenly appears in the text, with no introduction or explanation, offering them the couch or the bed. Mercier says he will sleep with none. Then:

A nice little suck-off, said Camier, not too prolonged, by all means, but nothing more.
Terminated, said Helen, the nice little suck-offs but nothing more.

Does this mean Helen is a sex worker, and Camier is agreeing to a nice blowjob. By ‘terminated’ does Helen mean she is agreeing to the deal i.e. payment for two blowjobs ‘but nothing more’ i.e. no penetration.

One paragraph later they are ‘back in the street’, the entire night having, apparently, passed. They’re a little way down the road from Helen’s when the pouring rain makes them take shelter in an archway. They realise they’ve mislaid the sack. They enumerate what was in it. Enumerating things is one of Beckett’s most basic techniques.

Camier realises he is hungry and steps out from the archway to go to a shop. Mercier is stricken with anxiety and begs him to come back. Camier relents for a moment but then steps boldly out in the rain to find sustenance.

In his absence Mercier looks up to see a little boy and a little girl standing in the rain, who call him Papa! He shouts ‘fuck off out of here!’ at them and chases them away.

Camier returns and places a cream horn in Mercier’s hand. Mercier squeezes it uncomprehendingly till the cream spills out, and then doubles over in misery, weeping, says he’ll start crawling (as so many Beckett characters end up doing, sooner or later).

Mercier’s mood of misery and futility is interrupted by the sound of a screech of brakes and a crash. They run out into the street and see a fat woman who’s been run over, is lying amid the wreckage of her skirts, with blood flowing. Soon a crowd blocks their view (as crowds are always attracted to car accidents, as described in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash).

Pepped up by this sight, Mercier feels like a new man, and they resume their journey.

The text is then punctuated by one of the summaries of the content so far. I’ll give the summary of chapter 1.

Summary of two preceding chapters
I
Outset.
Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
Saint Ruth Square.
The beech.
The rain.
The shelter.
The dogs.
Distress of Camier.
The ranger.
The bicycle.
Words with the ranger.
Mercier and Camier confer.
Results of this conference.
Bright too late.
The bell.
Mercier and Camier set out.

Chapter 3

Opens with a macabre first-person account by a narrator who says his parents died in a train crash when he was soon after he was 13 and he was placed with farmers who made him work hard at all sorts of manual tasks, but he turned out – gruesomely – to excel, from the age of 15, at ‘the slaughter of little lambs, calves, kids and porklings and the emasculation of little bullocks, rams, billy goats and piglets’, and smothering geese. At the age of 19 or 20, having got a milkmaid pregnant, he ran away, after setting fire to the barns, granaries and stables. That was 50 years ago (i.e. like so many Beckett narrators, he is now ancient and decrepit).

Only then, at the end of this monologue do we realise that the absence of speech marks Beckett’s deploys throughout the book has, in this instance, fooled us. This isn’t first-person narration, it is the monologue of an old codger in the compartment of the train Mercier and Camier are on. It is a sly, humorous sleight of hand.

The train stops but Mercier and Camier are too slow to get off and relieve themselves of the old man’s company and so, as the train starts up again, so does his monologue, this time a feverish garble which seems to be about whoring and womanising. The train stops at another stop and he gets off, now identified as Mr Madden, ‘He wore gaiters, a yellow block-hat and a rusty frock-coat reaching down to his knees.’ The comic dialogue between our hapless duo resumes. Mercier complains that Camier has booked them onto the stopping train, the slow train south of our Dublin (which was known in those days as the slow and easy):

I knew it, said Mercier. I’ve been shamefully abused. I’d throw myself out of the window if I wasn’t afraid I might sprain my ankle.

Camier says they’ll get down at the next stop and next thing they are in the little settlement surrounding the next station without any description of the train having stopped or them having alighted. The text is full of continual sly jokes like that, or casual underminings of the conventions of fiction. Elsewhere he undermines his own sentences even as he writes them:

It’s … snug, said the man, there is no other word. Patrick! he cried. But there was another word, for he added, in a tone of tentative complicity, whatever that sounds like, It’s … gemütlich.

The narrator uses a description and immediately wonders what the description can mean. The man speaking is an inn-keeper, greeting our travellers, while yelling over his shoulder for Patrick, presumably a servant. Mercier says that he has seen this man in his dreams. A page later we learn he is named Mr Gall, which reminds us of the Mr Gall the piano tuner who prompted a crisis of epistemology in Watt in the eponymous novel.

It is fair day. The farmers have brought their goods and animals to market. The beasts are stuffed in their pens. The narrator describes the farmers as grasping their ‘pricks through the stuff of their pockets’. Mercier summons the manager, they ask for several items off the menu which are all sold out. Camier says his friend Mercier is ‘out on his feet’, is it alright if they take a room for a rest, the manager agrees and our couple go upstairs.

One of the farmers comes over, is greeted by the manager as Mr Graves (which reminds us of Mr Graves the gardener in Watt) and comments the departed pair are ‘a nice pair’ and asks Mr Gall where he got used to such. Is the implication (once again) they Mercier and Camier are gay, and the farmer and manager think they’ve gone upstairs for sex?

Mr Gall appears to change his name and becomes Mr Gast, as the farmers depart and he is suddenly looking out onto a little medieval square, as if in a science fiction or horror story. The barman comes up and describes our pair as: ‘the long hank with the beard [and] the little fat one…’

Mr Gast pops out to find out what’s become of the absent Patrick, and is back a moment later, telling the barman he (Patrick) has died. His penultimate words were for a pint. Mr Gast calls for Teresa who is, fortunately, still alive and she comes out of the loo, a buxom wench carrying a big tray.

A rough tough man enters the bar in his hobnail boots, it is Mr Conaire, explains he’s escaped what he calls ‘the core of the metropolitan gas-chamber’, glimpses buxom Teresa, glances at the barkeeper, who is now named George. Mr Conaire asks the way to the ‘convenience’ and manages to brush against Teresa’s buxomness. Mr Gast has another vision, the present disappears as he sees a distant vista, a desolate moor with a single winding track and a solitary figure…

Mr Conaire reappears from the convenience having had a difficult time of it. Maybe he has constipation. He flirts more with Teresa then says he has an appointment to meet F.X. Camier, private investigator, and gives a description of Camier – ‘Small and fat… red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady pig eyes’ – which George complements with a description of Mercier – ‘A big bony hank with a beard… hardly able to stand, wicked expression’.

George goes up to their room to get them, but discovers Mercier and Camier asleep  and snoring, hand in hand on the floor of the hotel room.

Chapter 4

Our heroes are in the open countryside, not a house in sight, on a bank overlooking a wide field, inhabited only by a goat. But it isn’t a Shakespeare paradise, it is a wintry, cold and gloomy, damp Irish field, the sun is ‘a raw pale blotch’ in the cloudy sky. Camier complains he can feel the cold creeping up his crack. Mercier shares his method of keeping happy, which is to focus on parts of the body which do not hurt.

What shall they do? Camier suggests they need to go back into the town to find the sack, the sack they seem to have misplaced after they left Helen’s place. But maybe the sack itself isn’t the cause or the reason for their sense of want. The sack itself will not supply the truth. Maybe it is some aspect of the sack, as of the bicycle or the umbrella. Camier is disquisiting further on the nature of when Mercier interrupts him to tell him about the dream he had last night, in which his grandmother was carrying her own breasts by their nipples.

Camier loses his temper. Have they not made a solemn vow, ‘No dreams or quotes at any price.’ Camier is dispatched to get provisions from the town, swaggering there on his stumpy legs, while Mercier is left to decide in which direction to collapse.

The text cuts with no explanation to Camier being at the bar in the pub ordering a round of five sandwiches off George and introducing himself to Conaire. Mr Conaire shares a very Beckettian vision of entropy:

Yesterday cakes, today sandwiches, tomorrow crusts and Thursday stones.

We discover he spent the entire previous evening waiting for Camier to appear and fell asleep on a couch. When he woke up in the morning our couple had moved on. Camier is sublimely indifferent and leaves with his sandwiches. Mr Conaire goes for a crap. Mr Gast is absent, picking snowdrops for Patrick’s sheaf. Teresa also is absent.

Back with Mercier, Camier feeds him a sandwich but Mercier throws up. They stagger to their feet and realise they have to press on. Somewhere. For some reason. There’s a page or two of debate about whether to leave the tattered old raincoat where it is, which they do, then lament that they have. They totter back towards the railway station.

Summary of chapters 3 and 4

Chapter 5

They arrive back at the town on Sunday night. Knowing no better, they make their way to Helen’s who lets them stay and presents them with the umbrella, restored to full function. They appear to spend the evening making love, or entwining their naked bodies. So they are gay. Next afternoon they set off for their destination (we are not told what that is), and stop into a pub to wait for dark. And discuss at length and come to Great Conclusions:

1. The lack of money is an evil. But it can turn to a good.
2. What is lost is lost.
3. The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed.
4. There is food for thought in being down and out.
5. There are two needs: the need you have and the need to have it.
6. Intuition leads to many a folly.
7. That which the soul spews forth is never lost.
8. Pockets daily emptier of their last resources are enough to break the stoutest resolution.
9. The male trouser has got stuck in a rut, particularly the fly which should be transferred to the crotch and designed to open trapwise, permitting the testes, regardless of the whole sordid business of micturition, to take the air unobserved. The drawers should of course be transfigured in consequence.
10. Contrary to a prevalent opinion, there are places in nature from which God would appear to be absent.
11. What would one do without women? Explore other channels.
12. Soul: another four-letter word.
13. What can be said of life not already said? Many things. That its arse is a rotten shot, for example.

Beckett loves a list. Our heroes decide to postpone decisive action till the following day and return to Helen’s place to kip. Next morning they set out bravely, not forgetting the umbrella. In fact it’s more like a parasol. Mercier tells Camier he bought it at Khan’s, which appears to be a pawnshop. Camier says it appears to have been manufactured in 1900, the year of the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War. Camier gives such a vivid description of the siege, that they might have been there as young men.

Now both try and fail to open the wretched thing. Camier disappears back up the stairs (presumably of Helen’s place). Mercier takes advantage of his absence to walk on and enters a Joycean stream of consciousness phantasmagoria of thoughts and impressions about time and passersby. His path crosses an old man, he sees a man guiding a donkey, and urchins playing at marbles in the street, he rattles chains with his big stick, as he staggers senilely on.

Chapter 6

Evening of the same day. Camier is in a pub. Another pub. It is packed with dockers and sailors, a fug or smoke and beer fumes. He closes his eyes and spends two pages imagining Mercier arriving. When he opens them, Mercier has arrived, causing a momentary lull in the male fug of conversation.

They enter an obscure and highly stylised conversation. Where is the umbrella? When Camier was helping Helen, his hand slipped – he explains, as if that explains anything. Is it a sexual reference. Meanwhile the bicycle they left chained to the railings has, with Beckettian entropy, disintegrated, having lost wheels, saddle, bell and carrier, though not, intriguingly, its pump.

They set off into the dark night, supporting each other, though neither knows whither or why. They struggle to speak, Camier wants to ask questions but Mercier explains he has used up all his answers. What happened to the sack? They go into a narrow alleyway. Neither of them can remember how to describe walking. It becomes more than ever like Godot.

Where are we going? said Camier.
Shall I never shake you off? said Mercier.
Do you not know where we are going? said Camier.
What does it matter, said Mercier, where we are going? We are going, that’s enough.
No need to shout, said Camier.

Even the fresh line for each bit of dialogue looks like a play. They end up walking back and forth along this dark alleyway wondering where they’re going, and why, and why in each other’s company. They smell kips which appears to mean the perfume from a brothel. They ask a policeman if there’s a brothel and when he says they should be ashamed at their age, says it’s all they’ve got left. That and masturbation. So are they solidly heterosexual?

The officer arrests them and turns up Camier’s arm and smacks him. He’s about to blow his whistle when Mercier kicks him in the balls and the officer releases Camier, falling to the ground. This gets extremely unpleasant, for Camier seizes the officer’s truncheon and starts beating him round the head, they pull his cape over his head and beat some more, the impression of the head being of a boiled egg without it shell. Seems they’ve murdered him. They run along the alley into a square, across it and into a narrow street, and decide it is best to go back to Helen’s place.

Summary of chapters 5 and 6

Chapter 7

Descriptive passage of open moorland, heather, mountains looming, lights of city in distance, lights of harbour reflected in the sea. Presumably the countryside surrounding Beckett’s family home in Foxrock. Lucky bugger.

Mercier and Camier are making their way across this wild landscape. They have cut themselves cudgels to clear the undergrowth. They spy a wooden cross of a nationalist’s grave and head towards it but lose their thread. Start wondering if there are worms in turf. Feel something spectral is surrounding them.

Night is coming. It gets dark. They do not think they can walk any further (‘if you can call it walking’). They cannot see each other. They totter. They fall in the dark, in the bog, and help each other get up. Eventually. They finally make it to some ruins they’d spied, and collapse. And ‘their hands were freed to go about their old business’. Is that masturbation? And the text mentions their ‘customary cleavings’. Gay sex?

The narrator says the text could end here, frankly. But there is no end. There are never endings.

Here would be the place to make an end. After all it is the end. But there is still day, day after day, afterlife all life long, the dust of all that is dead and buried rising, eddying, settling, burying again. So let him wake, Mercier, Camier…

This is the utterly exhausted, bleak voice of the Beckett Trilogy. They waken separately, stumble out the ruins, each thinking the other has abandoned him, barely able to see in the dark, indistinguishable footfalls, they are heading back to town, of course, because that is what they do as soon as they have left town, their endless itinerary. They come to a fork in the road, Camier takes one road but when Mercier comes up to the fork, he cannot see his compadre and so takes the other. The text has ceased to be light and funny. It is weighed down with the full concrete futility of the books to come.

Such roughly must have been the course of events. The earth dragged on into the light, the brief interminable light.

Chapter 8

‘That’s it’, the text sinks into Beckett despair at the exhausting business of getting up, washing, dressing and all the rest of it, God, the endless waiting for death, dragging on, the dead and unburied with the dying, and the pathetic illusion of life (and so on and so on).

Camier leaves a house. He is an old frail man now, unable to walk without a stick, head on his chest. He is in some street when a heavy hand falls on his shoulder. A big man says he knows him, watched his mother change his diapers, introduces himself as Watt, and says he wishes to introduce him to a Mr Mercier, standing just along the pavement. Watt, says Camier. I knew a fellow named Murphy, died in mysterious circumstances.

Watt takes the two men imperiously by the arms and half drags them along the pavement, they are walking into the sunset (!) – until a police officer blocks their way. Watt defies the police officer, grabs the pair round the waist and hauls them further along the pavement. They collapse into a bar (as men so often do in these stories).

Watt orders whiskey all round. In an obscure roundabout way Mercier and Camier warm up and begin to regard each other in the old friendly way. Suddenly Watt bangs the table loudly and shouts, ‘Bugger life!’ The landlord comes over and angrily tells them to leave. Mercier and Camier go into a perfectly co-ordinated and comic turn, claiming that poor Watt has just lost his darling baby, his wife is at home in paroxysms of grief, they have brought Watt out to console him, could they just have another round and everything will be alright, honest your honour!

They call Watt daddy (despite being decrepitly old themselves). This last section contains a number of mocking anti-religious references, for example, the narrator tells us most of the pub’s clientele are butchers who have been made mild by the blood of the lambs. Ha ha. This undergraduate wit is common in Joyce and, alas, lives on in Beckett, lowering the tone or, more precisely, thinning the texture. Like the fondness for including swearwords in the story. Alright, but… it lets the reader off the hook. It stops being demanding. Swearwords are as easy-to-read, as assimilable as the sentimental clichés he so mocks. They’re just another type of cliché.

The landlord backs down and serves them their second round of drinks. Mercier goes to the window and looks out. The colours of heaven were not quite spent. He resumes his seat and Camier has begun to reminisce about what he remembers of their travels (the goat in the field, Mr Madden who gave the intense soliloquy about being a beast-slaughterer at the start of chapter 3) when Watt starts from his apparent sleep, seizes Camier’s stick and brings it crashing down on the table next to them, at which sits a man with side whiskers quietly reading his paper and sipping his pint. The stick breaks, the table top shatters, the man falls backwards in his chair (still holding his newspaper). Watt flings the shattered stick behind the bar where it brings down a number of glasses and bottles, then bawls:

‘Fuck life!’

Mercier and Camier bolt for the door. From just outside they listen to the uproar within. They both hear someone in the pub shout ‘Up Quin!’ Only those of us who have read the notes for Beckett’s novel, Watt, know that in its early drafts the protagonist was called Quin. Sol that’s quite an obscure reference there, Sam.

Mercier invites Camier for a last pint at another pub. Camier says no but ends up walking with him part of the way home. They reminisce in a fragmentary way about their adventures. Mercier starts crying. The houses grow more sparse. Suddenly space gapes and the earth vanishes but… all it means is they’ve climbed a small, picturesque bridge over the canal. It is gently raining.

High above the horizon the clouds were fraying out in long black strands, fine as weepers’ tresses. Nature at her most thoughtful.

It’s one of those rare moments when Beckett displays an old-fashioned notion of poetic sensibility. They sit on a bench, two old men. Mercier tells Camier to look north, beyond the stars. He seems to be pointing out… stars… flowers…? Camier refers to them as the Blessed Isles? This is obscure. Then, with characteristic bathos, he points out the grim pile of the hospital for skin diseases.

Camier goes to the edge of the canal. I think it is implied he is having a pee. Then returns to the bench. Mercier reminds Camier of the parrot at Helen’s. He has a feeling the parrot is dead. Camier says it’s time to go. Says, Goodbye Mercier. Alone, Mercier watches ‘the sky go out’ and hears all the little sounds which have been hidden from him by the long day.

… human murmurs for example, and the rain on the water.

So this final passage is unexpectedly poignant. 1. This thread of (possibly sentimental) feeling, along with 2. the shortness of the book 3. its conventional division into chapters and into paragraphs of clearly signposted action and snappy dialogue, and 4. the humour of much of the exchanges – yes, Mercier and Camier is definitely Beckett’s most accessible novel.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse edited by Valentine Cunningham (1980)

Val Cunningham was a tutor of mine at Oxford. He had a trainspotter’s enthusiasm for the poetry and prose of the 1930s and an encyclopedic knowledge of the journals, magazines, pamphlets, plays and poems and books written during and about the era, as well as an endless fascination with the letters and diaries and other texts which relate to them.

This enthusiasm comes over powerfully in this anthology which is huge and detailed and cluttered with editorial apparatus, including a preface, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, and three indexes, of authors, titles and first lines.

The ‘notes’ are, disappointingly, mostly lists of textual variants i.e. highlighting where words or phrases of a poem were different in different magazine or book versions, for example that in line 4 of Herbert Read’s Bombing casualties in Spain, ‘spatter’d’ was later changed to ‘spattered’. Fair enough, for scholarly completeness.

But God, it would have been so much better if he’d given useful factual notes about the myriads of place names and events which are mentioned in the poems and which, unannotated, have sunk into oblivion – a massive opportunity missed. For example, when Radio Burgos is mentioned in one poem (p.292) we have to guess from the context or look up on the internet to find that it was the leading propaganda station of the Nationalists. There are hundreds of occasions when decent notes would have helped the reader’s understanding and enjoyment significantly.

Preface

Cunningham claims his anthology is the first one ever to bring together all the worthwhile poems about the Spanish Civil War by British and Irish poets along with ‘supporting prose’ i.e. (some) letters, diary entries, essays and reviews. It is also a first in including quite a few translations, specially from the Spanish genre of the romancero, as well as dozens of new poems he’s dug up out of the dusty archives of, for example, the International Brigades of British communists who went and volunteered to fight in Spain.

As well as bringing to the fore ‘unfairly ignored’ poets such as Charles Donnelly, Ewart Milne, Clive Branson, Tom Wintringham and Miles Tomalin, Cunningham also wants to share his surprise at just how much Stephen Spender wrote about the conflict, in his ‘serious and sensitive, often anguished, always would-be honest’ way (p.17). Spender is represented by some 27 poems and translations, far more than anyone else (Auden 2, MacNeice 1).

Cunningham is not backward in mentioning the number of ‘personal correspondences’ he’s had with survivors of the era, who have ‘personally’ explained various events or works, or ‘kindly given permission’ for previously unpublished works to be included.

For example, he includes a passage from the Mass Declamation (i.e. a work written to be declaimed by a theatrical troupe) On Guard! sent to him by the work’s author Jack Lindsay. He mentions a letter to him which the poet Ewart Milne explains how the mood of the volunteers changed as promising writers started getting themselves killed.

The word ‘me’ occurs more often than you’d expect in a literary introduction.

Introduction

This is a weighty piece of writing, at 67 densely-written pages but, despite being packed full of facts and names and quotes and references to scores of books of memoirs and diaries and letters, it’s hard to make out any real ideas.

I think the first part addresses the ‘myth’ that the Spanish Civil War was a ‘poets’ war’ but you have to ask who would ever believe that in the first place. Only English students or fans of the poetry, presumably. Most other people surely think the Spanish Civil War was fought between the Spanish for reasons to do with Spanish history, culture and politics and that 99% of the casualties were Spanish.

Cunningham gives no explanation of the background or trigger for the war, no political analysis, nothing about Spanish history. Instead the introduction cuts straight to the response among the English, London-based literati and dives into a dense undergrowth of memoirs and memories and the literary and political arguments of the time.

We hear about the poisonous atmosphere surrounding the Communist Party of Great Britain. We read about its general secretary Harry Pollitt’s (apocryphal) advice to various leading writers, notably Stephen Spender, to go to straight to the front and get themselves killed – ‘the movement needs a Byron!’

In a roundabout way (i.e. they’re not the main focus) we learn some facts: that some 2,762 Britons volunteered and fought, of whom about 80% were working class (who on earth worked that out?), and 543 were killed. One of the really big features of the anthology is the number of poems by ‘amateurs’ who actually fought in the war and whose works are buried in fading copies of the Daily Worker or, in this case, the short-lived magazine Poetry and the People.

They had no country but the hope of a new country.
They answered the secret radio in their hearts.
From the factories, fields and workshops of all nations,
From the millions shackled by greed, made less than human…

(from International Brigade by R. Gardner)

The first English volunteer to be killed was the Communist Party member, the painter Felicia Browne. Some of the earliest volunteers were in Barcelona for the People’s Olympiad, which was intended as a protest against the 1936 Olympic Games being held in Nazi Germany.

John Cornford, later lionised for his commitment, actually fought in both his spells in Spain, for the POUM, the Anarchist militia who the Communists later suppressed during the violent May Days in Barcelona. Cunningham highlights the contortions the Communist party’s official organ, the Daily Worker had to go through in order to explain this embarrassing fact (he was young and naive, the POUM had not yet revealed itself in its Trotskyite, splittist nature etc).

Cunningham quotes from the article Spender wrote when he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain with great fanfare in February 1937 and examines in detail its textual provenance and tries to nail down exactly how long Spender was a member for (I hadn’t realised it was notoriously ‘brief’ period, a few months at most). Next to this Cunningham puts the passage from The God That Failed, published ten years later (1949), where Spender admits that both the urge to fight in Spain and to ‘unite’ with the workers were driven by personal doubts and anxieties. He was driven on:

by a sense of personal and social guilt which made me feel firstly that I must take sides, secondly that I could purge myself of an abnormal individuality by co-operating with the workers’ movement.

Cunningham has an entertaining passage on the questionnaire part-drafted by Auden and sent to 150 or so of the most eminent artists, writers & intellectuals in free i.e. non-fascist Europe, asking them which side they were on, because it was ‘impossible’ not to take sides now that fascism was knocking at the door. I’ve always admired Evelyn Waugh’s response, which was to say that suggesting there were only two sides, and that people had to choose, was ‘mischievous’. There are always more than two sides, and nobody has to choose anything: that is the essence of the ‘free’ society they claimed to be fighting for.

Cunningham doesn’t really address the issue raised by Waugh’s reply which is – what if both sides were wicked?

1. The Republican / socialist side started committing atrocities as soon as hostilities broke out, burning churches and murdering nuns and priests. Waugh is correct to say that forcing everyone to choose between murderous fascists and murderous socialists is a mischievous choice.

2. Cunningham openly sympathises with what he calls the liberal-left (p.54) but it wasn’t liberal, was it? Spender, Cornford and many less well-known figures were communists, members of a party devoted to the violent overthrow of the existing democracy in Britain, the mass arrest of all political opponents, the seizure of all private property, the state control of all means of production and distribution and the establishment of forced labour camps for anyone who stepped out of line.

The Communist Party of Great Britain rigorously followed whatever line Stalin told them to, and we can be in doubt that this is the policy Stalin would have applied to Britain as he applied it to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania after the Second World War.

This wasn’t just theory. He quotes Franz Borkenau sauntering round revolutionary Barcelona just a month after the war started, August 1936, cheerfully pointing out that the factories have been taken over by the workers, the hotels and shops ‘expropriated’ and the churches gutted. The devastation of the churches is reinforced by a longer prose account by Sylvia Townsend Warner and the gutting of the churches famously upset Auden. Still, Borkenau goes on, young Spanish women, liberated from the patriarchy, were wearing ‘trousers’!

This is the kind of sexy politically correct detail which distracts from a harder look at the facts. What percentage of the population of Spain were devout Catholics? Well, you just alienated all of them by burning their churches (and imprisoning or beating their priests). What percentage was factory owners and their families and the cadre of suppliers and service industry professions like accountants and auditors and safety inspectors? Well, you’ve just thrown all of them into the opposing camp, too. And what percentage of the population are the owners of the hotels and shops? Well, do you think depriving them of their livelihoods is going to win them over?

This is the structural problem of the Left everywhere: it claims to speak for the masses and the majority, but its dreams of nationalisation and state ownership, expropriation, confiscation and collectivisation appeal, in practice, only to a small number of intellectuals and political activists (who are often motivated mainly by personal issues and liberal guilt, exemplified here by Stephen Spender). Meanwhile, all its policies taken together alienate the majority of any population.

3. Cunningham sympathises with the authors who made a saint and martyr of Federico García Lorca and used his appalling murder to show how fascists treat intellectuals and that is why all intellectuals must rally round the Republican. It was a disgusting murder and the fascists who did it were pigs, but Stalin. Stalin’s Russia. Stalin’s Russia’s way with liberals and intellectuals. Arrest, torture, execution, labour camps.

4. The argument goes that you can’t blame all these left-liberals because they didn’t yet really understand this about Stalin yet, that it was precisely as a result of the bitter disillusioning of the Spanish Civil War that anti-Soviet views became more commonplace afterwards, a process in which Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia holds a leading place – even though leading publishers like Gollancz turned it down because of its criticism of the Communists, and before the war it was poorly reviewed and sold badly.

Only a lot later did a really settled anti-Stalin mood take hold of the British intelligentsia, maybe not till after the war, maybe not till the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 turned a generation of intellectuals away from Communism.

5. The most fundamental objection to the English poetry of the Spanish Civil War is that they were tourists. They went, they dipped their toes in the reality of war and revolution, and then they ran back to Surrey. Orwell wrote a scathing review of Auden’s poem, Spain, which nails its lack of human sympathy and its attitudinising, and drew the general conclusion:

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot. (quoted page 71)

Cunningham has several pages describing how desperate all these posh, upper-middle-class public schoolboys were to be down with the workers, and how this is always an easier delusion to achieve when you are in a foreign country and your accent and use of language don’t give you away, like they immediately did back in class-ridden Blighty.

From small beginnings mighty ends,
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught at public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and England wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles… (Edgell Rickword)

Spain, for many of these writers, was a holiday away from the prison of their wretched class-consciousness. That is why the frank handshake with the Italian anarchist at the beginning of Homage to Catalonia is such a massive moment for Orwell; it symbolised total unquestioning acceptance by a real working man of a kind he could never dream of or find in the country where they spoke his own language and instantly spotted him for the Old Etonian he could never cease to be. It was so important for him that he not only memorialises it in Catalonia but wrote a poem about it (p.309). If you’re in one mood it is a moving testament to revolutionary solidarity. But seen from a different angle, it is an unintentionally funny testament to just how desperately Orwell wanted to be accepted by ‘the working class’ and what huge, enormous, religious, almost sexual relief it brought him for this to happen, finally, after years of trying:

The Italian soldier shook my hand
Beside the guard-room table;
The strong hand and the subtle hand
Whose palms are only able

To meet within the sounds of guns,
But oh! what peace I knew then
In gazing on his battered face
Purer than any woman’s!

Cunningham’s introduction is long but leaves many basic questions unanswered. There is no sketch of the timeline of the war (even one page would have helped).

It may be useful to remind readers that General Franco led a military coup against the democratically elected socialist government, expecting to seize key locations and power within days, but that ‘the people’ and a broad coalition of left-wing parties rallied against the soldiers, seized key cities and what was intended to be a quick coup degenerated into a long, agonising civil war between the military, who became known as the Nationalists (aided by troops and arms from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy), and the democratic government and all its supporters, who became known as the Republicans.

The Republican government was not supported by either France or Britain, who chose a policy of neutrality but banned arms sales or exports to it, much to the disgust of workers, students and writers everywhere, who volunteered and travelled to Spain to fight in what were quickly organised and titled International Brigades.

Although it took nearly three years of bitter fighting, the support given to Franco by the fascists, and the lack of support for the Republicans – as well as serious, fratricidal conflicts among the Republicans – eventually led to the complete triumph of the fascist forces by March 1939.

None of this is explained by Cunningham. Instead his introduction goes from a long consideration of the heroic outpouring of sympathy and the rush of poets and communists to enlist right at the start, to its abrupt end and everyone coming home disillusioned three years later, with not much explanation of what happened in between.

Above all there’s surprisingly little literary criticism. Cunningham has nothing at all to say about the poetry as poetry, about the range of genres and forms, the tones of voice and registers, the different types of imagery. There is a huge amount to be said about all this and he says nothing.

Instead the introduction is a rambling exploration of the changing attitudes of poets and writers, with extended consideration given to the attitudes towards the war, the struggle, the working class and so on as demonstrated in the writings of – especially – Auden, Spender and Orwell.

Thus he has a couple of pages about the long poem, titled simply Spain, which Auden wrote for a pamphlet which was sold to raise funds for the Republicans but focuses entirely on how the poem captures Auden’s attitude to the war, not on its merits as a poem.

Cunningham considers Spain a failure because it never engages with the subject matter but keeps it at a detached, academic distance. He goes on to say how even Auden’s close friends were disappointed by this chilly lack of emotion, and his enemies leapt on it as typical of upper-class dilettantism.

I.e there is a lot about the poet’s supposed attitude and the attitudes of his friends and enemies to his attitudes… but of the unique stanza form Auden invented for it, or the use of rhetorical devices or imagery, or Auden’s deliberately varied vocabulary, there is nothing.

I took away three parting thoughts:

1. Orwell and truth George Orwell’s experience in Spain – of the Stalinists lying and deceiving everyone, and then of English left-wing magazines and publishers willingly conniving in these lies – crystallised the concern absolute truth-telling which not only underpinned the huge amount of literary journalism he poured out in the remaining ten years of his life but, more importantly, led to the central concept of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

2. Republican defeat in the Spanish Civil War spelled the end of English Socialist Realism. This idea is rather abruptly introduced, and it is a shame Cunningham doesn’t define anywhere what English Socialist Realism actually is – did anyone anywhere use that term at the time? He doesn’t say. He includes quite a few really long poems which are clearly to be read out loud or declaimed and so lack the subtlety of poems to be read – but nowhere relates their form or style to the tradition of agitprop poetry which developed after the Bolshevik revolution and spread across Europe in the 20s. Shame.

Anyway, you get the general idea. The entire generation of 30s poets thought poetry should be public, accessible and written in a political cause, the burningly important left-wing cause. Put simply, after Spain (General Franco declared the war over on 1 April 1939) the poets gave up. They retreated from the hundreds of manifestos and books and poems and declarations and essays about poetry’s social purpose and sank back into accepting poetry as the bourgeois activity of a pampered, educated class, and not even many of them.

3. War is war All these naive young writers had read the anti-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen but thought that war in a good cause would be somehow different, different from the bad imperialist First World War.

Turned out it wasn’t, and Cunningham quotes letters from English volunteers, including even the firebrand John Cornford, pointing out that war is war – ugly, unromantic, a lot of boredom then intense periods of stress and terror, unbelievable devastation and pain, and death, lots of death. In his letters home, quoted at length, Cornford itemises the deaths of individual members of his unit, each one an irreplaceable loss. International Brigader Tom Wintringham also names specific comrades lost, and there’s a moving poem by Jack Lindsay, Requiem Mass, with a paragraph each devoted to thirteen fallen comrades from the International Brigade, including Cornford (pp.179-183).

This was another disillusionment the war brought, and it helps to explain why the conflict-virgin poets were able to write so many impassioned poems about the Spanish Civil War but, having had all their illusions burned down to ashes, failed to lift a finger when the real war, the Second World War, commenced in September of the same year. As the Australian writer and communist Jack Lindsay put it:

Having felt for Spain, what further can we feel?

By that time their leader, Auden, had left the country, the movement was over, by then everyone had to accept the sad truth embodied in Day-Lewis’s glum lines, from the tellingly short and tellingly titled Where Are The War Poets? (1941):

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.

To the whole of the rest of the country it was obvious what the Second World War was about –  we were fighting a war of survival against an evil enemy. You had to have gone to a very expensive private school and been a member of a peculiar and insular intellectual elite, to see the war against Hitler as somehow a defeat and a failure even before it began. One by one the thirties poets abandoned all their former positions and beliefs and, in later years, were quick to disown them and, where possible, rewrote or even banned their poems from this period.


The poems

Cunningham makes a very wide selection, including 201 poems and a dozen or more prose pieces from no fewer than 85 authors! He divides them into 14 categories:

  1. The map of pain
  2. Junker angels in the sky
  3. He is dead and gone
  4. The crime was in Granada
  5. Prisoner
  6. Ballads of heroes
  7. Romanceros
  8. The internationals
  9. Heroic notes
  10. Insensible at such a time
  11. That fighting was a long way off
  12. Photogenic war
  13. Talking bronco
  14. But some remember Spain

Two sections stand out.

Prisoner consists entirely of 17 poems by Clive Branson (most of them previously unpublished) who, as the title suggests, was fighting for an International Brigade when he was captured by the Nationalists in March 1938 and held as a prisoner of war at the Nationalist camp of San Pedro de Cardeña. He had the freedom to paint and sketch the camp and many of its inmates, apparently at the request of the authorities (this is specifically mentioned in one of the poems) and some of this work survives in the Marx Memorial Library in London. His poems are so-so.

A delicate breeze sufficient to stir
Light dust, a little leaf, by an insect’s wing

Dance music on the wireless; between prisoner
And a girl dressed like a rose, a smile.

A leaf, a frog, a shadow, a piece of paper
A trickle of water, reading, writing

These things on a stillness deeper than all
Took a whole afternoon to drift with the canal.

(A Sunday Afternoon by Clive Branson, 1938)

A romancero is a type of Spanish folk ballad, whose lineage stretches back to the early Middle Ages. The form was revived during the war as a popular and accessible genre appropriate to the Republican cause. Section 7 of this anthology consists of 21 romanceros in translations by contemporary British poets.

Day of metal, day of masses,
Day of cannon, day of churchbells,
Day of shrines and day of bullets,
Strewn with fresh blood and with blossoms –
Such the day the fascists looked for
On that morrow of that nightfall
When they took Madrid.

Day of metal and of masses –
All the fascist drums foretold it,
All the parrot voices hailed it.
Not tomorrow? Well, the next day,
Wednesday, perhaps, or Thursday
(All are one to Radio Burgos).

Then the morning’s light would lighten
Under the triumphal archway
Franco stepping from the chariot;
Then the Moors would swing their sabres
And the Spanish heads go rolling;
Then the Archbishop of Burgos
Would bestow an ample blessing
On the Arabs and the Bedouins,
On the Nazis and the Ethiops,
On the frizzled and the smooth-haired
Saviours of Spain…

(from El dia que no vendra byJosé Herrera Petere translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Prose It was a very good decision to include some key prose texts. Thus we have short prose works about their time in Spain by:

  • Auden in Valencia (pp.100-102)
  • Orwell in Barcelona
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner in Barcelona, particularly penetrating about the gutted churches and the commandeered villas of the rich (pp.136-141)
  • ten pages or more of the letters John Cornford wrote to his girlfriend Margot Heinemann (pp.118-128)
  • Heinemann’s own recollections of him
  • a couple of pages in which Louise MacNeice describes his flying visit just before Barcelona fell to the Nationalists
  • Spender’s review of a volume memorialising Cornford which came out during the war (pp.263-266)
  • a moving testimonial to his colleagues in the International Brigade by Tom Wintringham (pp.307-309), and a separate piece vividly describing what it is like to be bombed (pp.315-322)
  • Spender very sensitively explaining why heroising the war (they died like heroes) is a way of hiding the reality of dying alone, in great pain and terror (pp.334-338)
  • a terrifyingly intense short story by Ewart Milne describing the narrator looking after a wounded young man on a long rattling train journey, till the man gets up saying he needs to go for a pee, and simple steps out the train door, falling off cliffs to his death (pp.342-349)
  • another long passage from Ewart Milne (pp.355-364)
  • Spender, travelling as part of the International Writers Congress, being shown how carefully the Republican government was safekeeping its art treasures (pp.415-417)
  • Spender’s review of Picasso’s painting Guernica shrewdly points out that conveys the experience not of being there when the bombs exploded, but of reading about the bombs exploding; it captures the nightmare of reading about terrible experiences (pp.418-420)
  • Spender’s review of Roy Campbell’s book of poetry, Flowering Rifle (pp.440-443)
  • Roy Campbell’s bombastic ranting reply to Spender’s review (pp.443-446)

A lot of this prose is much more evocative than the often rather samey poetry. It has more range and flexibility. Here’s Tom Wintringham who saw plenty of fighting:

The loaded bombers crawling across the skies reach the senses in a faint trembling of not-yet-noise, like the trembling of a baited deep-sea line. (p.317)

It is extremely useful to have all these sources in one handy paperback volume. Very.

Women Worth pointing out, too, that even back in 1978 (when his preface is dated) Cunningham was making an effort to include more women’s voices. Thus we have poems and prose from Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kathleen Raine, Charlotte Haldane, Aileen Palmer, Valentine Ackland, Blánaid Salkeld, Elizabeth Cluer, Nancy Cunard of all people, and Cornford’s girlfriend, Margot Heinemann who, in Cunningham’s selection, emerges as a pretty impressive poet in her own right.

Here she is lamenting the death of her man and trying to address the nagging thought, spoken by friends, or in her own head, asking why why why the best and most passionate seem to be the ones who die. Up to ‘so loved’ it is the (inner) accuser and the tormentor in her head speaking. From ‘Yes’ she refutes its argument. Sidney Carton was the wastrel layabout who redeems his life by exchanging himself for the much-loved hero of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities. Carton goes willingly to the guillotine so the young hero can go free and be reunited with his true love. In this poem Heinemann dramatises that wish: if only ranks of losers and layabouts died in war instead of the pure and true, instead of her man.

In our long nights the honest tormentor speaks
And in our casual conversations:
‘He was so live and young – need he have died,
Who had the wisest head, who worked so hard,
Led by his own sheer strength; whom I so loved?’
Yes, you’d like an army all of Sidney Cartons,
The best world made conveniently by wasters, second rates,
Someone that we could spare,
And not the way it has to be made,
By the loss of our best and bravest everywhere.

(from Grieve in a New Way for New Losses by Margot Heinemann)

‘Whom I loved so’ – when you really grasp the import of that phrase, you realise how terrible her loss must have been, and how bravely she’s trying to face it in this poem.

Browsing One of the points of an anthology is you can dip and browse and notice something different each time. Ignoring the famous poets (Spender, Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice) there’s a lot of pleasure to be had exploring the far less well-known poets Cunningham has made a point of including.

Commitment For many of these lesser or amateur poets the pleasure is mixed in the sense that, it might not be great poetry, but you can sense the passion and the commitment, and that has a psychological interest of its own. This poem combines unashamed use of traditional stanzas and rhythm with a kind of honest statement of commitment, which I found moving.

Brave sons of liberty, fallen in battle,
Fallen that we, their successors, might live,
Bravely they faced the machine-gunner’s rattle,
Giving so bravely all they’d to give.

Hurriedly, carelessly, rudely, we buried them,
Buried them quickly, beneath the brown soil.
Hurriedly, quickly, we gave them our blessing,
Then we returned to our heart-breaking toil.

Theirs is no splendour, the fallen in action;
Theirs was no pomp, neither glory nor show,
They were the cream of the Communist fraction,
We were the reapers but they went to sow.

Shall we forget them who never forgot us,
Defending the workers, while fighting in Spain?
Shall we stay passive while fascism threatens us?
Shall their great effort be made all in vain?

Never forget them, the lesson they taught us,
Think of their travail, their suffering, pain.
Raise the red standard and help us, support us,
Lest we see in England what happened in Spain.

(For the Fallen by W.B. Keal, published in The Daily Worker, October 1937)

Conclusion

So:

  1. The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse is an unprecedentedly thorough collection of poetry and prose relating to the Spanish Civil War.
  2. Despite the lack of logic and key information in the introduction, the book as a whole is packed with new information, insights and angles on the subject.
  3. In among this huge collection there are gems and pleasure a-plenty.

It is a book to browse amid, and look up things, and refer back to, and read bits again and generally live with, participating, even at a distance, in the passion, the comradeship, the idealism and the disillusion of that now-distant time…

British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Members of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona, 1936


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The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw 1939–45 by Władysław Szpilman

Władysław Szpilman was born to Jewish parents in 1911 in Warsaw. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland 28 years later, in August 1939, Szpilman was already an accomplished classical pianist who worked giving live recitals on Warsaw Radio, as well as writing his own compositions.

This memoir was written immediately after the war, in 1945, and describes in mostly flat factual prose Szpilman’s terrible experiences of those years: the German siege of Warsaw, the long occupation, the creation of the Jewish ghetto, the two years he spent in it, how he escaped the deportation of most of the ghetto Jews to death camps, how he went into hiding and survived the terrible month of the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising, and his eventual freedom once the Germans had been driven out of the city by the advancing Red Army.

It moves very fast. Each of these periods is covered in just a few pages, the entire text is barely 180 pages long. He picks out telltale moments, sights he saw, atrocities he witnessed, just enough to paint a scene, to shock you, then moves on.

Szpilman was not a writer by profession or temperament. This is all to the good because it means his account is not weighed down by flowery descriptions or weighty socio-philosophical speculations. He just tells what he saw. If there’s one literary aspect or technique it is the note of bitter irony or sarcasm which regularly surfaces, often when he’s talking about the ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ of the bestial Germans, their mind-boggling cruelty and sadism, the rubber truncheons the SS lash out with which have razor blades at the end, the  bullwhips with ball bearings embedded in the leather (p.118) or the pervert who made anyone who misbehaved bend over, put their head between his thighs which he proceeded to crush as best he could while whipping their arse, till they fainted with pain (p.121).

The false hopes

It is upsetting to read the false hopes the Warsaw rumour mill generated as the Germans crossed the border into Poland, fought their way towards Warsaw, then besieged the city – early rumours that the Germans were being held and turned back, they were badly equipped, didn’t have enough fuel, later rumours that the French had even now attacked Germany, breached the Siegfried Line, the British were bombing Hamburg, the Americans would come to their aid any day now (p.38). Of course none of this happened. The Poles were utterly on their own.

The siege of Warsaw

A friend is sitting next to him in the bedroom of an apartment is killed by a shell splinter which comes through the window (p.40). He watches a horse and cart driven by an old working class man plod down a street during shelling, the driver pauses at a junction pondering which way to go, sets off down Zelazna Street, seconds later there’s a whizz, a dazzling burst of light, the explosion and when Szpilman can see and focus again, nothing but fragments of wood and red matter splattered all over the street (p.40). Bodies everywhere, a distressing number decapitated. Then it got worse.

Humiliating the Jews

Once the Germans had taken the city and established control, the slow encroachment on human rights. The Jews are made to wear armbands, forbidden from having savings over a minimal amount, all the rest must be deposited in accounts whose details were shared with the authorities. Random Jews are stopped and beaten in the street, or abducted in cars to be taken and beaten at police stations. Szpilman conveys what conventional history, concerned with statistics and ideology, often doesn’t: how Nazism, fascism generally, is a charter for bullies, the crude, bully-boy reality on the streets of drunk German soldiers enjoying their power to stop any Jews they want to, push then up against a wall, terrorise them, slap them, spit in their faces. If they put up a fight pull a gun and force them to their knees. Make them beg for their lives.

This happened to Szpilman. He, his father and brother were late returning from a friend’s apartment, broke the curfew and were caught by a German patrol in Zielmna Street, who pushed them up against a wall. Suddenly Szpilman heard weeping and realised it was his father on his knees begging for his sons’ lives. The German bullyboy asked them what they did for a living and when Szpilman replies ‘musicians’, the German lets them go, yelling after them they’re lucky that he is a musician too (p.53). Othertimes bored Germans might shoot begging Jews on the spot. The utter collapse of civilised behaviour, morality or ‘standards’.

Life of a sort continues. Szpilman earns money for his entire family (mum, dad, brother, two sisters) by playing piano in bars. Spring 1940 comes but no help from Poland’s ‘allies’. Instead in May the Germans suddenly invade Holland, Belgium and then attack France. Once again hopeful rumours spread of the Germans being held and turned back. One day Szpilman is about to begin a recital for friends when his sister runs in holding a newspaper carrying the massive headline PARIS FALLS! He lays his head on the piano and, for the first time his self-control snaps and he burst into tears (p.57).

The ghetto

In September 1940 the first transports carry some Jewish men off for labour camps. Others are deported to Germany as forced labour. Acquaintances are abducted in the street. In September signs go up indicating which streets would become part of the special Jewish quarter (the Germans ‘are too cultured and magnanimous a race’ to use the word ‘ghetto’, p.58). The walls are built. All the Jews of Warsaw are crammed into it – there is fierce competition for living space, legally or illegally acquired – and the gates close on 15 November 1940.

At its height as many as 460,000 Jews were imprisoned there,[6] in an area of 3.4 km2 (1.3 sq mi), with an average of 9.2 persons per room, barely subsisting on meager food rations. (Wikipedia)

Szpilman lived in the Warsaw Ghetto from November 1940 to July 1942 scraping a living playing piano at the handful of bars and restaurants which still managed to operate for the ghetto’s small circle of intelligentsia or better off, such as the Sztuka.

What he found hardest was the nightmare feeling of being shut in, trapped, when – just beyond the walls – the life of the city was going on as usual, ‘ordinary’ people were going to work, then afterwards to bars and cafés or for excursions into the countryside. But not for those in the ghetto. It was the psychological effects Szpilman found hardest.

Compared to the time that followed, these were years of relative calm, but they changed our lives into an endless nightmare, since we felt with our entire being that something dreadful would happen at any moment. (p.64)

Szpilman describes the stink and filth created by cramming hundreds of thousands of people into old, decaying, totally inadequate accommodation; the pathetic street markets and haggling about wretched damaged goods, which degenerated quickly into hordes of beggars clutching at the clothes of anyone decently dressed; the grey police vans taking suspects to Gestapo headquarters to have bones broken, kidneys ruptured, fingernails pulled out. With laconic bitterness, Szpilman describes this as ‘people hunting’, the Germans’ favourite sport.

He remembers the secret socialist organiser he met, confident Jehuda Zyskind who had a secret radio, assembled news reports smuggled in from outside, invited Szpilman round for an ever-cheerful briefing about the news… right up to the day he was caught red-handed by the Gestapo, with political reports all over the table, and was shot dead on the spot, along with his wife and all his children, ‘even little Symche, aged three’ (p.70). God, as Ian Kershaw repeatedly emphasises, Nazi rule represented the utter collapse of civilisation into inhuman barbarism, an unlimited charter for bullies, sadists and psychopaths.

Rumours

continue to circulate, wild conflicting rumours, about some Jews being sent to camps, wild rumours about Jews being gassed, more probable ones about the creation of a set number of ghettos in the major cities. Reading this, you realise – with a shock in my case – what it would really really be like to be very intelligent but to have no news whatever about anything that is going on: to be utterly deprived of every source of information, and so forced back into a teeming world of rumour and speculation.

Even official Nazi edicts didn’t necessarily mean anything, the Jews were initially terrified of them, for example the one forbidding the sale or purchase of bread under pain of death, and only slowly discovered lots of them were meaningless or never observed. While at the same time, anybody could be abducted off the street – ‘people hunting’ – for no reason or just shot out of hand.

He tells the story of the leading non-Jewish surgeon, Dr Raszeja, a leading specialist and university professor, who was called on to perform a difficult operation on the ghetto. German police headquarters had given him permission, he had a pass, he was allowed in, he was in the middle of the operation, when the SS burst into the flat where the operation was being performed, shot the patient on the table, then shot the professor and everyone else present (p.88).

Later, when he’s given work on one of the gangs demolishing the ghetto wall, as the vast majority of the 400,000-plus Jews are sent by train to a death camp (Treblinka), life and death continue to be as random. One day at the checkpoint out of the square where they’d been working a bored SS officer divided the work squad up, half to the left, half to the right. All those on the left had to life face down then the officer walked among them shooting them dead with his revolver. Then he let the ones to the right which, obviously included the narrator, continue on their way (p.114).

It was the psychotic irrationality of it all.

Survival

Szpilman survives, by a string of chances and accidents, the biggest of which is when he is rounded up with his family and sent to the vast open yard by the railway station, the Umschlagplatz, where they wait all day with no food or water in the blistering heat along with 8,000 other Jews, old and young, men and women, for the cattle train to arrive. As it does and the crowd surges forward, Szpilman and hid family among them, a hand grabs him from behind and pulls him out of the line, in fact jerks him through the line of Jewish police who are corralling everyone towards the trucks. A voice hisses, ‘Save yourself’ and he sees his father, looking round, make eye contact, try to smile and wave, and then he runs runs across the yard, through the now-open gates, back into the streets of the ghetto slips into a work squad being marched somewhere, goes on, makes his escape, is spotted by a distant relative, now a Jewish policeman working for the Germans, who pulls him aside and puts him up for the night.

Next day he goes to see the son of the new chairman of the Jewish Council (the previous chairman having committed suicide when he learned about the cattle trucks and death camps). This worthy gets Szpilman a job on a labour squad supposedly demolishing the ghetto walls. Rich people walk by, normal people, Aryans who stop and stare at the funny ‘Jews’. Some musician friends spot him, give him money. He buys black market food to take back into the ghetto proper and sell at a profit.

He’s moved through a series of other labouring jobs, turning into a clumsy useless hid carrier and mortar mixer on a succession of building projects where the Polish workers he works with, to some extent protect him. Just as winter 1942 is coming on, Szpilman twists his ankle carrying a load and is transferred to the stores which probably saved him from losing his fingers to frostbite.

Rumours circulate of another round of deportations but now some of the Jews inside the ghetto, considered vital to building and other work, start smuggling weapons in from the outside. Szpilman is leaving in a group to work when he hears shooting break out behind him. He and the other workers are housed by the Germans in temporary housing. Five days later, when they’re allowed to return they find widespread destruction and dead bodies but, surprisingly, the apartment he shares with a handful of others is in one piece and his few measly possessions.

A handsome young Jew, Majorek, had been allowed to go out to buy food for the inmates, and become a go-between with the broader Jewish resistance. Szpilman asks him to pass word to a couple he knew from the radio, and makes a simple escape plan. One evening at 5pm, as an SS officer arrives to inspect the stores, he takes advantage of the confusion among the German guards, slips out the building, takes off his Jewish armband, and walks through the gate into the city, where he rendezvous with his friend, who leads him hurriedly through the darkened streets, to his and his wife’s flat.

Szpilman is then passed on through a series of safe houses, though things remain dicey. The Germans are planning a census of the city which will involve the inspection of every single home. The friend whose flat he’s ended up in brings him news of the Allied victories in North Africa. Then news of the progress of the Warsaw Uprising, the refusal of the last Jews left in it to go quietly and their insistence on fighting the vastly better armed Germans to the death (19 April to 16 May 1943). Szpilman hears the rifle and artillery fire, sees smoke rising over the city for weeks, but plays no role at all, he is in hiding.

He is moved to another flat by the network of Polish Underground operatives but left in the care of one Szałas who, it turns out, take all his belongings, swearing to exchange them for food, and also cadges contributions from all Szpilman’s musical friends, but keeps the money for himself and only shows up once a fortnight or so with a handful of beans and oatmeal. Slowly Szpilman starves, eventually too get off his couch and comes down with jaundice. It is only the wife of one of his earlier protectors, Helena Lewicka, dropping by for a cup of tea and a catch-up who discovers him at deaths door and so hurries out and back with food.

All through the end of 1943 and spring of 1944 all houses are being watched, the Germans are instituting surprise searches, executing people in the street. Szpilman is moved to the last of his safe flats, in Aleja Niepodleglosci, a neighbourhood full of German administrative buildings and a German hospital. Nonetheless he experiences numerous false alarms as strangers hammer on the door or, on one occasion, a burglar tries to break in.

As 1944 progresses, the Germans’ military setbacks become more apparent. The catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 had been the turn of the tide, and slowly the Red Army advances. In September 1943 Italy surrendered. In June 1944 Helena visits him in the flat to tell him news has come through that the Allies have landed in Normandy.

The Warsaw Rising

1 August – 2 October 1944, a rising by the Polish underground resistance to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance but the Red Army, notoriously, stopped at the city’s outskirts and refused to help. Stalin was quite happy to watch the cream of the Polish resistance being exterminated. the Germans were doing his work for him. Their liquidation would make it easier for Stalin to impose his home-grown communist Polish administration in its place. And so the fighting lasted 63 days, street to street, house to house before the uprising was eventually, finally crushed.

16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded in the actual fighting, but as many as 200,000 Polish civilians died afterwards, mostly from mass executions. During the fighting approximately 25% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35% of the city block by block. Added to the damage suffered in the 1939 invasion and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in all over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945 when the Germans finally withdrew.

Szpilman gives us a kind of worm’s eye view of all this, trapped in the third floor flat of a friend, padlocked from the outside so as to keep the neighbours under the impression it is empty. Periodically Helena Lewicka’s woman friend appears with provisions. Otherwise he is completely trapped, has to remain silent and figure out what is going on from the street outside, namely some young men arrive with guns, fire at the German hospital, are fought off and then for day after day, all is mystery and confusion, people running up or down the street, lorries of soldiers pulling up and running into nearby buildings, the continual echo of gunfire around the city.

On 12 August Germans megaphone the inhabitants of his building to leave it, a tank fires a few shells into it, troops come running up the stairs, Szpilman grabs the stash of sleeping pills and opium he’s been given to deal with the after-effects of his jaundice (gall bladder problems), planning to swallow it all as the Germans smash down the door of the apartment. But thinks better of it, slips out the door and up the ladder into the attic space, kicks the ladder away. But the soldiers don’t make it up that far, not least because the ground floor is now on fire (p.155). Szpilman drops down from the attic and goes back into the flat but the fire isn’t dying down, it is raging up the stairwell and the smoke is becoming choking. So after five years of surviving in the ghetto, eluding the death camp transports, and hiding in a succession of safe houses, this is how he’s going to die – burned to death. He takes all the sleeping pills and passes out on the sofa.

He awakes. He is alive. The pills weren’t that strong but he is weak and the flat is full of smoke. He opens the red hot doorhandle, jumps over the bloated carbonised corpse on the next landing down and stumbles through the smoke and flames to the ground floor and outside. He hides amid foliage against a wall and hears Germans on the other side.

Clearly the house is about to collapse at any moment. On the other side of Aleja Niepodleglosci is the huge, half-completed hospital which will have stores of some kind. He crawls across the wide avenue, between the corpses, freezing every time Germans go by. Once inside the hospital he searches high and low but can find no food anywhere for days and days, getting weaker, he makes a hideaway in a lumber room and is terrified when the Germans come and search the hospital several times.

Finally he goes back to his burned-out building where he discovers some bathtubs full of rancid water and a few rusks in a half burned larder. Several times Ukrainian soldiers, even more brutal and sadistic than the Germans, search and ransack the building, Szpilman hiding in the burned-out attic. Later he watches the broad avenue lined with Germans as the escort demoralised civilians, marching them out of the city. The guards pull random men out of the bedraggled marchers and shoot them on the spot. Drop by drop Szpilman watches the city’s population leak away.

Autumn comes on, day after day goes by. Looters come into the abandoned city, one even begins climbing the stairs of  Szpilman’s house till  Szpilman roars out in German, terrifying the scrounger away. One day he sees a German patrol capture some looters, question them, put four up against a wall and execute them there and then, tell the others to dig graves, bury them, get out, never come back.

Worse is to come. He bumps into a German soldier in his ruined house but manages to bribe his way out of it by offering a half bottle of spirits he has found. The soldier is back in ten minutes with an NCO but Szpilman climbs up onto the tiles of the roof. The Germans search, fail to find him and leave. Szpilman takes to hiding out on the roof during the day and going down at night to hunt for food. But one day bullets fly overhead. Soldiers on the roof of the hospital opposite are shooting at him (p.172). He climbs in off the roof, scarpers down the stairs, out a back way, along a deserted street and into another ruined building.

There’s another encounter when he sees a crew of Poles walking down the street and rushes out to talk to someone, to hear someone’s voice, but realises something is wrong. He makes his excuses and deliberately lets them see him going into a completely different house. Sure enough 15 minutes later their leader is back with German soldiers who search the fake house and all its neighbours but don’t find him (p.175).

Finally, a few days later, he is foraging in one of the rooms of the ‘new’ house when he hears a German voice addressing him. Weak and at the end of his rope, Szpilman slumps down and gives up. But, to his amazement, the German is sympathetic. He asks what Szpilman does and when he replies ‘pianist takes him through the wrecked rooms to a music room with a piano and asks him to play. Szpilman plays Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor and that is the title of the 18th and final chapter in the book.

To his amazement the officer warns him that the Warsaw fortress unit is about to move into the building. He helps him find a much better hiding place in a kind of loft hidden above the attic and returns a few days later with a package containing bread and jam, undreamed of luxuries for Szpilman (p.179).

The German tells him the Red Army is on the other side of the Vistula and order, orders him to hold out. He explains his shame at being German. He is, Szpilman writes, the only human being Szpilman met wearing a German uniform. Szpilman is trapped in his loft as the building really is taken over by an administrative unit of the army but he stays safe in his hidey hole. On 12 December the officer slips up to the attic to see him for the last time and tells him the Red Army is at the gates, the Germans are pulling out. They shake hands. On impulse Szpilman tells him his name and to get in touch if he ever needs him (p.181).

The Germans do indeed pull out. Szpilman is left in the empty unheated house in the depth of a Polish winter. He has to thaw ice against his body to get drinking water. Rats run over his face at night. He is lonelier that Robinson Crusoe, the sole inhabitant of an abandoned city.

Then he hears voices, women’s voices! He rushes downstairs and a terrified woman shouts ‘German’ and soldiers turn and fire a machine gun burst at him. Of course, he’s wearing the German greatcoat the German gave him! He throws it off and yells in Polish that he’s Polish. Eventually they believe him, take him to a hospital. Wash. Rest. Food. Above all – freedom from fear.

Two weeks later he is strong enough to go for a walk and explore the incomprehensible ruins of Warsaw, once one of the most elegant and well-off cities of Europe, a city of one and a half million people, now a vast panorama of snow-covered ruins.


In this 1998 edition there are three addenda to the main, original text, which all shed a lot more light on the German officer who appeared right at the end of the story and probably saved Szpilman’s life.

Postscript

Just two weeks later Szpilman is visited by a colleague from Polish Radio, Zygmunt Lednicki. Immediately after the war ended Lednicki had made his way back to his home town, Warsaw, on foot (there was no transport of any kind. En route he passed a camp full of German prisoners of war, behind a barbed wire fence patrolled by Red Army guards. Lednicki couldn’t resist going over and shouting at the Germans, pointing out that they claimed to be a nation of culture and yet they had ruined Poland and ruined him, a musician, taking away his violin and destroying his livelihood. A feverish German officer pushes through the crowd at the wire and asks Lednicki if he knows a pianist named Szpilman. Yes, replies Lednicki. ‘I looked after him, I saved him’, says the German, ‘Please get him to come and rescue me from this hellhole’.

But by the time Lednicki meets Szpilman and tells him this story it is too late. They travel back to the POW camp but it has gone, its new whereabouts a military secret. Szpilman had deliberately never asked the German officer his name in case he was caught and gave it away under torture, so now he doesn’t know how to track him down, and so it remained a regret for several years, until…

Afterword by Wolf Biermann

The 1998 German edition contained an afterword by Wolf Bierman. According to a brief biographical note Bierman is ‘one of Germany’s best-known poets, song-writers and essayists’. He was born in Hamburg, his father was a shipworker, a communist and a Jew who was murdered in Auschwitz. After the war Bierman headed East, deliberately wanting to live in the new communist regime, but he became critical of it, the regime banned his works in 1965, and in 1975 expelled him to the West.

The point of this afterword is for Bierman to tell us more about the German officer, a lot more. A series of accidents led to him being identified as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. We learn that he served in the First World War and then worked as a teacher. His grown-up children testify to his way with kids. But Biermann adduces testimony from other eye-witnesses including several other adult Polish Jews who Biermann saved from certain death. It builds up into an impressive testimonial.

Not only this, but it was discovered that Hosenfeld was still alive and in a prisoner of war camp in Russia for seven years after the war. His wife was receiving letters from him, in one of which he lists the Poles and Jews he saved in Poland and included Szpilman on the list. Hosenfeld’s wife contacted Szpilman. Szpilman went to meet her in Germany, then returned to Poland and lobbied the head of the Polish security service, ‘a bastard’, who went off and carried out further investigations before summoning Szpilman to tell him said there was little he could do. If Hosenfeld had been in Poland, fine, but he is now in the Soviet Union, in the gulag system somewhere, and so…

So his family continue to get scattered news about him and then, seven years after the end of the war, learn that Hosenfeld died of injuries and beatings in a Soviet gulag.

Part of a memoir by Wilm Hosenfeld

Before the end of the war Hosenfeld had sent his wife two secret diaries in which he recorded his private thoughts, which were contemptuous and dismissive of the entire National Socialist regime. This edition contains 15 pages of these diary entries.

Conclusion

On the whole, I wish none of these appendices were in the book. They very considerably interfere with its original narrative arc, which hurtles with ever-growing speed and tension towards the bleak final vision of recovered Szpilman staggering through the ruins of his home town – and with its purity of tone. It is a straightforward factual account of what one man saw and experienced.

Then you turn a page and suddenly it turns into an Amnesty International appeal for the release of a Soviet prisoner, something completely different, a different subject (Stalinist terror, the gulags) from a different era (the Cold War), and the record of another man’s life and opinions.

Its worst impact is to undermine or dilute the burning anger, the horror and the disgust which I think any normal reader is very, very justified feeling against the Germans as a people and a nation.

The movie

As you might know, the book was made into a major motion picture, The Pianist, released in 2002, produced and directed by Roman Polanski, with a script by Ronald Harwood, and starring Adrien Brody.

It won a whole slew of awards, including the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Oscars for Best Director (Polanski), Best Adapted Screenplay (Harwood), and Best Actor (Brody), the 2003 BAFTAs for Best Film and Best Direction, and seven French Césars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It is an awesome, harrowing film, which rearranges and simplifies some of the sequences, but for the most part is accurate in events and certainly in spirit to Szpilman’s terrifying account.

Credit

The book has a slightly tangled history. It was first published in Polish in 1946 as Śmierć Miasta. Pamiętniki Władysława Szpilmana 1939–1945 (Death of a City: Memoirs of Władysław Szpilman 1939–1945), edited by Jerzy Waldorff, a Polish music critic and friend of Szpilman’s, but this text was quickly quashed by the Soviet-controlled authorities.

Over 40 years later, a German translation by Karin Wolff appeared in 1998, Das wunderbare Überleben: Warschauer Erinnerungen (The Miraculous Survival: Warsaw Memories). The following year this his German version appeared in an English translation by Anthea Bell, titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939–45.

All references are to the 2002 Phoenix paperback version of the Bell translation.


Holocaust reviews

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe

At Powayen near Königsberg, for example, the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere: they had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women here had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In Gross Heydekrug a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side. More crucifixions occurred in other villages, where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors. At Metgethen it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated: according to the German captain who examined their corpses, ‘Most of the children had been killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument,’ but ‘some had numerous bayonet wounds to their tiny bodies.’ (p.75)

No summary can really do justice to the cumulatively devastating effect of reading the hundreds and hundreds of vignettes like this which Keith Lowe has assembled in his excoriating book about the moral, economic, social and psychological collapse of an entire continent into bottomless savagery and barbarism at the end of the Second World War.

Savage continent

There are countless books about the origins of the Second World War – histories of the alliances and invasions, biographies of Hitler and Mussolini, cultural studies of the 1930s, blah blah blah- but comparatively few about how the war ended or its long-drawn-out aftermath. This book sets out to fill that gap and is a fascinating, well written, and traumatising account which aims to cover every element of the catastrophe.

And it really was a catastrophe beyond comprehension. The book starts with hard-to-grasp facts about the numbers of people killed, soldiers and civilians, before going on to describe the physical destruction which touched every corner of the continent.

Death

Up to 40 million people died in the Second World War, an estimated 27 million of them Russians. About a third of all women born in the 1930s never married because there were no men – just a huge gap where all those dead men should have been.

Every schoolchild is taught that around 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, but the scale of other losses were comparable: Germany lost an estimated 4.5 million soldiers and 1.5 million civilians, roughly the same number. Poland also lost about 6 million dead (including nearly 2 million Jews); Ukraine between 7 and 8 million killed, a fifth of the country’s population. A quarter of Belarusians died. By 1945 huge areas of the East were nothing but smoking rubble and ruined fields and landscapes emptied of human beings.

Destruction

Hitler lost patience with the Poles after the Warsaw Rising and ordered the city to be razed to the ground. In the event some 93% of buildings were destroyed, along with the National Archive, Financial Archive the Municipal Archive, all libraries, art galleries and museums. Factor in Hitler and Stalin’s joint efforts to wipe out the entire professional class of Poland and the mass murder of all its army officers at Katyn, and it’s a surprise Poland still exists.

Coventry was devastated as was London, and most German cities were severely damaged – though few as thoroughly as Dresden or Hamburg, where the notorious fire storm bombing killed some 40,000 in one night. About a fifth of all German living space was destroyed. Some 20 million Germans were rendered homeless.

Maybe 70,000 villages across Russia were destroyed along with their entire rural infrastructure. Some 32,000 Russian factories were destroyed. In Hungary, the Germans flooded or destroyed every single mine. In Holland, the Germans deliberately opened the dykes that kept out the sea and flooded half a million acres of land. From one end of the continent to the other, the scale of the conscious and deliberate destruction of all signs of civilisation is breath-taking. Primo Levi is quoted as saying, as he travelled across postwar Europe back to Italy, that there was something supernatural, superhuman, about the scale of the devastation the Germans had unleashed.

The more you read of villages, towns and landscapes obliterated, and historic towns razed to the ground, the more you realise that we latecomers live amidst the ruins of a once great civilisation. How did we ever survive?

Four parts

The book is divided into four big parts, each of which contains 6 or 7 sections. The quickest way to convey the breadth of subject matter is simply to list them.

  1. The Legacy of War – Physical destruction. Absence. Displacement. Famine. Moral destruction. Hope. Landscape of Chaos.
  2. Vengeance – The thirst for blood. The camps liberated. Vengeance restrained: slave labourers. German prisoners of war. Vengeance unrestrained: Eastern Europe. The enemy within. Revenge on women and children. The purpose of vengeance.
  3. Ethnic cleansing – Wartime choices. The Jewish flight. The ethnic cleansing of Ukraine and Poland. The expulsion of the Germans. Europe in microcosm: Yugoslavia. Western tolerance, Eastern intolerance.
  4. Civil war – Wars within wars. Political violence in France and Italy. The Greek civil war. Cuckoo in the nest: communism in Romania. The subjugation of Eastern Europe. The resistance of the ‘forest brothers’. The Cold War mirror.

Some themes

The subject matter, the scale of the disaster, is too big to grapple with or try to summarise. Lowe’s book itself is only a summary, a flying overview of a vast and terrifying continent of savagery, peppered with just a tiny sample of anecdotes describing the endless torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, persecution, murder and violence which was unleashed across Europe.

Some of the thoughts or ideas struck me more than others:

The myth of national unity

After the liberation the whole continent began constructing myths of unity in adversity. (p.196)

After the war every country wanted to think well of itself. France is the most glaring example. In all his broadcasts General de Gaulle emphasised that La France was united in its fight against Fascism, the spirit of gloire and liberté etc etc was shared by all good Frenchmen. This ignored the fact that France, of course, enjoyed a right-wing government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards, dutifully rounded up French Jews and shipped them off to death camps, helped by collaborators at every level of French society.

De Gaulle’s success was that during the war and, especially, after the Liberation, he helped the French gloss over this shameful fact, and to promote the myth of the heroic Resistance. There were a lot of French resistance fighters (around 100,000), but the figure went up fourfold once the Allies landed and victory became certain (p.168). In later years almost every Frenchman turned out to have helped the Resistance in one way or another.

But the wish to gloss over inconvenient truths wasn’t particularly French. In Yugoslavia Marshal Tito appealed to the spirit of unity and brotherhood in an attempt to unite the fractious factions of his made-up country. Stalin’s speeches invoked a united Russian people, and so on.

Reading about the foreign comparisons shed light on the strongly patriotic writings and especially movies of my own country, England, during and after the war, and made me realise that the national pride evinced in all those classic war movies was just the local expression of a feeling which nations all across Europe wanted to feel, and allowed themselves to feel, with a greater or lesser distorting of the truth.

Victimhood

As a reader of modern newspapers, it’s often easy to think that modern 21st century society is made up entirely of victims – black victims of racism, Muslim victims of Islamophobia, women victims of sexism, LBGT victims of prejudice, and so on and so on. Even bankers felt persecuted after the 2008 crash, it’s time to stop blaming us for everything, the head of Barclays whined. Everyone in the modern world seems quick to have a grievance, a permanent readiness to feel hard-done-by or unfairly treated.

It is very interesting to discover that this is not a new phenomenon – to read Lowe’s examples of the way entire countries, and groups within countries, competed in the aftermath of the war to appear the bigger victims.

It is an eye-opener to learn that – after the hammering their cities took from Allied bombers, and then especially after the forced relocation of millions of ethnic Germans from the surrounding countries into the borders of a reduced Germany, combined with the industrial raping of German women by the invading Red Army – that a lot of Germans managed to present themselves as the victims of the Second World War. ‘We are only civilians. We never shot anyone’ etc. They never really supported that crazy Hitler and his stupid Nazi party.

Similarly, many of the collaborators, the police and militias who co-operated with the occupying Germans in countries all across Europe, later, after the Liberation, were themselves subject to attacks or arrest and trial. This led many to work up a sense of grievance that they were the ones who were the true victims. They had only been obeying orders. If they hadn’t done it someone else would have. And by sacrificing themselves, they managed to restrain the wilder savagery of the Nazis. And so on and so on.

Thus Lowe points out how right-wing French historians and politicians have exaggerated the massacres of collaborators carried out by the Resistance immediately following the Liberation, claiming they indiscriminately murdered 100,000 loyal, noble, patriotic French men and women.

Similarly, modern right-wing forces in Italy where partisans and collaborators openly fought after the Liberation, claim that the (generally communist) partisans killed up to 300,000 (in this version of the story, heroic and patriotic) collaborators. In both cases history is twisted to exonerate those who collaborated with the Germans, and to create a permanent sense of grievance which right-wing politicians can still appeal to, in our time.

Rape

On a mass, on an industrial, scale. All sides committed rape but it was the Russian army, invading west into Germany, which wins first prize. As many as two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers, but it’s the number of times they were violated which is really sickening, with some women being raped 60 or 70 times, sometimes scores of times on the same day, during the same horrific night. Every female from eight to 80 was at risk. As many as 100,000 women were raped and raped again in Berlin alone.

We can take it as read that rape is an instrument of war and/or terror, and occurs in almost all war zones. Soldiers can justify it because a) they despise the enemy and their women b) they may die at any moment and regard sex as their due c) it is a form of psychological warfare, humiliating a nation’s menfolk for being unable to defend their women.

Lowe goes further to point out that rape seems to occur where there is a significant ethnic difference between groups – thus the Russian forces which fought across Bulgaria committed relatively few rapes because of the close cultural similarities between the countries. Whereas, in the West, several Arab battalions became well known as mass rapists, for example the Moroccan Goumier battalions, because the cultural gulf between them and European women who they despised. At least part of the atrocity, Lowe claims, due to cultural difference.

Shearing women collaborators

A surprising number of women in occupied countries fell in love with the German invaders. Lowe shocks me a little by claiming that surveys at the time and later revealed this was because they found the Germans more ‘manly’ than their own, defeated and humiliated, menfolk (p.166). Well, maybe Sylvia Plath wasn’t being ironic when she reported that ‘Every woman adores a Fascist.’

One of the features of the Liberation from German rule everywhere was the punishment not only of collaborator administrators and police, but of the women who had slept with the enemy. Lowe describes in grisly detail, and includes photos of some of the tens of thousands of women who found themselves attacked by lynch mobs who often stripped them naked, shaved all the hair off their head as a mark of ‘shame’, tarred and painted them with swastikas.

Where he adds an insight which is typical of the book, typical of its way of shedding new light in a sober, empirical way on appalling behaviour, is when he points out the psychological role these humiliations took. Many bystanders, including horrified British officers, realised that there was something medieval or even pagan about the ceremonies. The women were shaved with mock ceremony by the community barber, sometimes daubed with swastikas etc, but rarely really hurt, and never beaten or killed.

And this is because, witnesses report, the shavings had something of a festival spirit, often accompanied by heavy drinking and folk or patriotic songs. By nominating one scapegoat to bear all the sins of the community, the taunting crowds could forget their differences, bury the hatchet, and renew themselves.

Witnesses report a marked reduction in communal tension in places where the ceremony had taken place, and where shaved women could be seen in the streets. The angry, the potentially violent, could see that at least some justice had been done, goes the argument – and so more overt violence was avoided.

Weird, persecutory, grotesquely unfair? Yes – but that’s human nature. This book shows you who we are, the fierce, frightened animals which lie just beneath the thin veneer of ‘civilisation’.

Jewish restraint

No need to reprise the horrors of the Holocaust here. Dealing with the aftermath, Lowe devotes some pages to the revenge taken by camp inmates on their guards and tormentors. Generally the Allies, taken by surprise by the scale and atrocity of the camps, allowed the inmates – or the few who were well and healthy enough to do it – to take what revenge they wanted. Very often American or British supervisors gave the victims 2 or 3 days to get it out of their systems, then reimposed order.

The surprising thing (for someone who has such a low opinion of humanity as myself) is the relative restraint. Some victims and camp inmates went made with revenge. But a surprising number didn’t, and even made eloquent speeches saying they refused to lower themselves to the bestial barbarism of the Germans, epitomised by the address of Dr Zalman Grinberg to his fellow inmates of Dachau in May 1945, when he told them not to sink to the level of their German tormentors. Hard not to be moved and impressed.

There’s a fascinating description page about Abba Kovner’s ‘Avengers’, an organisation of Jews which explicitly set out to murder one German for every Jew. They massacred garrisons of German soldiers where they could, and were only just foiled in a grand plan to put poison into the drinking water of five German cities.

But by and large Lowe emphasises the restraint which Jews exercised. There’s a telling quote from the US General Lucius Clay, that the restraint of the liberated Jews and their respect for law and order were one of the most remarkable things he saw in his two years in Europe (p.89). All the more striking, given that virtually every other social group seems to have been hell-bent on some kind of revenge, revenge against collaborators which sometimes escalated into overt civil war, as in Greece (1946 to 1949), or was only just contained, either by Allied forces (as in Italy) or by the brutal crackdown of communist authorities (as in Tito’s Yugoslavia).

All the more striking given Lowe’s pages devoted to highlighting the way vicious anti-Semitism continued and even increased after the war in various countries, where civilians were by and large indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, told them to their face it was their own fault, or explicitly blamed them for the start of the whole war (p.191).

Ethnic cleansing

Part three of the book is devoted to this subject in all its disgusting variations. 11 million Germans were forced to move, kicked out of western Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, often at short notice, often forced to march carrying all their possessions. Lowe gives harrowing details of the old and sick dying early on, then Polish or Soviet soldiers with rifles picking off the walkers, sometimes just for kicks, firing at random at anyone who was too tall or too slow, or just firing into the columns of shuffling refugees and, of course, routinely pulling any pretty woman out of the crowd and raping her, often in sight of everyone, and shooting anyone who tried to interfere. In Europe as a whole an estimated 40 million people were displaced – on the roads – at one point or another. One eyewitness said it was like the biggest antheap in history.

Many people were surprised by the ferocity of the small wars which broke out in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but this book makes quite clear that they were just the continuation of feuds and enmities stretching way back into the 1930s, and which flared up with particular horror all through the Second World War and well into the post-war period.

Even worse was the mass expulsion of Poles from Ukraine and Ukrainians from Poland, as Stalin and the Polish leaders each sought to ‘purify’ their lands. Defence organisations, bandits and partisans sprang up, one atrocity sparked reprisals and all sides adopted a general policy of terror i.e. not just the killing but the torture, rape, looting and destruction of completely ‘innocent’ communities.

Again and again, all across the continent, as soon as you had successfully ‘dehumanised’ your opponents, you could do what you liked with them.

In Croatia the Ustashe not only killed Serbs but also took the time to hack off the breasts of women and castrate the men. In Drama, in north-eastern Greece, Bulgarian soldiers played football with the heads of their Greek victims. In Chelmon concentration camp German guards would kill babies who survived the gas vans by splitting their heads against trees. In Königsberg Soviet soldiers tied the legs of German women to two different cars and then drove off in opposite directions, literally tearing the women in half. (p.50)

The book pullulates with examples of the most grotesque atrocities. No sadistic cruelty the human mind could devise went unexampled, uncarried-out, in this grotesque era.

Western civilisation and Eastern barbarism

One theme Lowe repeats again and again is that whatever barbarity you can think of, it was ten times, or a hundred times, worse in the East. Everything here reinforces the horror depicted in Tim Snyder’s terrifying book, Bloodlands, which gives figures for the mind-boggling scale of murders, executions, holocausts, pogroms, persecutions, and deliberate starvation which devastated the region from the Baltic states down through Poland and the Ukraine from the later 1920s until well after the war.

It is fashionable to ridicule the kind of old-fashioned English patriotism exemplified in Cecil Rhodes’ quote: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’ That’s certainly silly if it’s interpreted to mean an Englishman has some innate superiority over other races. But in a context like this, bombarded with details of the atrocities almost every group on the continent carried out against everyone within reach, you realise it’s a simple statement of fact.

Britain was the only region not occupied by the Nazis or the Soviets, the only area which didn’t experience systematic terror and the creation of bandit and partisan groups outside the law, which didn’t suffer from collaborators and then experience the utter breakdown of civil society which led to civil war and mass atrocities.

To be born an Englishman in the first half of the 20th century really was a lucky fate compared to being born Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, German or Jewish.

The Iron Curtain

Partly this is because the East was closer to the monstrous Russian bear, in its even-more-brutal-than-usual Soviet incarnation. Lowe’s book gives heart-breaking accounts of how communist parties in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia conspired to intimidate or murder opponents, make false promises to peasants and workers, fake election results, bribe and threaten their way to key ministries and then engineer communist takeovers of power which led in a few short years to the attainment of a completely communist Eastern Europe under Stalin’s iron control.

What I didn’t know was that partisans who had learned their trade resisting Germans during the war, continued in some of these countries a heroic anti-communist resistance, pathetically hoping for intervention and liberation from the West, well past the end of the war, sometimes into the 1950s.

Apparently, the last anti-communist partisans in Lithuania weren’t completely stamped out (i.e. killed) until 1956 (p.356). Lowe describes how the memory of their stand against communism, led them to become folk heroes, subjects of songs and poems and books, and then, when the Baltic states gained independence in the 1990s, heroes of the new nations.

Nationalism

Lowe doesn’t draw out this point, but I would: Nationalism is probably the most vicious belief ever to grip the human mind. It emerged from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and spawned a century in which ‘nations’ across Europe decided they needed to be ‘free’.

It was Serbian ‘nationalists’ who kicked off the Great War which led to the final collapse of Europe’s multicultural empires, and the world we find ourselves in today is still dictated by the fragmentation of these empires into so-called ‘nations’, each one of which wants to represent one ‘national’ spirit, one language, one religion, one army, strong and proud etc etc.

The murdering, raping, torturing, crucifying, throwing from buildings and beheadings which we see in Iraq and Syria are the long-term consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the failure of the Allied attempts to draw lines and define new ‘nations’ in a world plagued by ‘nationalism’.

The French and British imperial authorities are routinely ridiculed for drawing neat lines on the map of the Middle East during the Great War, creating ‘nations’ which arbitrarily separated some ethnic or religious groups and just as arbitrarily pushed others together, storing up ‘trouble’ for the future.

But what lines would be better? What lines would prevent Sunni and Shia, Alawite and Sufi, Druze and Maronite, Jew and Arab, spending so much time and effort trying to murder each other in order to ‘purify’ their territory, once the poison of nationalism had taken hold – once the delusion that you should live in ‘nations’ made up of ‘your own’ people takes hold among political leaders?

Closer to the terrain described in Lowe’s book, we in the West celebrated when the East European countries threw off the shackles of communism 30 years ago. But they have experienced a steady drift to the right over the past decade, under governments which have responded to economic difficulties and geopolitical uncertainty (Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis) with stock appeals to national unity and pride etc, swiftly followed by nationalism’s ever-present zombie twin – threats against ‘the enemy within’, against ‘subversives’, against anyone who undermines the ‘glorious values of the heroic fatherland’ etc etc, in practice against gypsies, Jews, gays, religious and ethnic minorities of any description, against anyone who can be safely bullied and persecuted.

Rassenkrieg

Reading the book made me reimagine the entire Second World War as a Race War to an extent I hadn’t previously realised. At first in Germany and then in all the countries they conquered, the Nazis compelled the entire population to carry identity cards which specified precisely which race they belonged to, and created vast bureaucracies to manage the rights and permissions of every citizen based on the complex hierarchy of racial definitions.

In Poland, for example,

a racial hierarchy was devised which put Reich Germans at the top, ethnic Germans next, then privileged  minorities such as Ukrainians, followed by Poles, gypsies and Jews.

Each group was then sub-categorised, for example Ethnic Germans broken down into Germans racially pure enough to join the Nazi Party, pure enough for Reich membership, those tainted by Polish blood, and finally Poles who could be considered German because of their appearance or way of life (p.188).

In Western Europe this fed into the rounding up of Jews and to a lesser extent gypsies (and socialists, liberals, political opponents and homosexuals). But in Eastern Europe the race basis of the war makes it lunatic. I am still reeling from reading about the Generalplan Ost whose headline intention was to exterminate some 30 million Slavs in Poland and western Russia, laying waste entire regions which could then be occupied by good Aryan farmers, who would use the remaining Slavs as slaves.

This isn’t dealt with directly in Lowe’s book. Instead he deals in detail with the political, psychological and social consequences of this way of thinking. He shows how after the war was over nationalist groups across eastern Europe blamed the Jews for much of the suffering, how anti-semitism rose, how this convinced many Jews to flee to Palestine.

But gives an extended passage describing the ethnic cleansing of Germans in Czechoslovakia but especially from Poland. Poland was also the scene of horrible civil conflict between ethnic Poles and Ukrainians in the disputed south-east part of the country, which led to terrifying, bestial atrocities. And all so Ukrainians could have a ‘Ukraine for the Ukrainians’ and the Poles could have a ‘Poland for the Poles’. Their new communist masters stood back and let them massacre each other.

The real point of Lowe’s book is that the evil of the Nazis’ obsession with Race Identity lived on long after the regime was destroyed.

The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany, but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European values. It made people aware of race in a way they never had been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they want to or not. And, in communities which had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem that needed solving. (p.188)

Two years after the end of the war regions of Europe were still being racially cleansed. Thus the Slovak government not only set a bout expelling the 40,000 or so Hungarians who had settled in their country after the Germans invaded, but expelling the entire pre-war Hungarian community of some 600,000 souls in order to have a ‘final solution’ to the Hungarian Problem (p.247).

It took a while, and it happened under post-war nationalist and then communist governments, but the savage irony is that many parts of Europe really did eventually become what the Nazis had worked for – Judenfrei. And the toxin of race identity they had unleashed continued to infect the politics of entire nations for decades to come…

Conclusion

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany is such a well-worn story – both my children had to study it at school and could recite it like a fairy tale, ‘the Reichstag fire, blah blah blah’ – that it seems to me to have been almost emptied of content and relevance.

All those textbooks and documentaries didn’t stop the Bosnian Serb Army from rounding up and exterminating more than 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica or bombarding Sarajevo, or the Hutus slaughtering 800,000 Tutsis and Hwa in Rwanda, or the inter-communal violence in post-war Iraq, or post-Gaddafi Libya, or the sudden genocidal attack of the Myanmar military against the Rohynga Muslims, and so on.

By contrast with the time-honoured clichés about the Nazis and Holocaust Memorial Day and so on, which tend to limit the threat and the lesson to a specific time and place long ago, Lowe’s judicious overview of the chaotic forces unleashed by the Second World War, and which lingered on in violence, hatred, blame and revenge for years afterwards, has much to teach us about human nature everywhere.

It is a history book but it is also a sort of compendium of the thousand and one ways humans can justify to themselves and their communities, the most inhuman bestial behaviour.

Far more than yet another tome about Krystallnacht or the Wansee Conference, Lowe’s book is a far broader study of the pathological forces at work in each and every one of us, in our communities and nations, which need to be identified and guarded against at all times, if we are to live in something like peace with each other.


Credit

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe was published by Viking in 2012. All quotes references are to the 2013 Penguin paperback edition.

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