Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (2005)

Tamara Drewe was a weekly comic strip serial by Posy Simmonds, which ran for 13 months in The Guardian newspaper from 24 September 2005. At the end of the run it was published as a stand-alone graphic novel in November 2007.

The strip is based on a modern reworking of Thomas Hardy’s nineteenth century novel Far from the Madding Crowd, in that it focuses on a very attractive young woman who is pursued by three very different lovers – Nick Hardiman the successful novelist, Andy Cobb the local handyman, and Ben Sergeant the former rock star.

There’s not much subtlety about the reference since the frontispiece to the entire book features an ad torn from a fictional newspaper’s small ads column advertising the writers’ retreat at the centre of the novel, and given a big bold capitalised title – FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD.

In its deep structure Tamara is not that different from its predecessor, Gemma Bovery, which was also about a very attractive, sexy young woman and her three lovers (Patrick the restaurant critic, Charlie the furniture restorer and Hervé the aristocratic law student).

Two books in a row about impossibly foxy babes who surround themselves with male lovers. Hmmm.

The picture on the front cover of Tamara immediately conveys the stereotypical babeliciousness of the central figure – a tall, leggy, lithe, sexy fox, with massive come-hither eyes and pert red lips, a babe who likes to flirt with all the men in range, gives men the eye, likes to draw attention by dressing provocatively (in shorts so tight the other women characters comment on them), who likes being eyed and ogled in shops and to walk arm-in-arm with a rock star down the local high street, drawing everyone’s eyes.

Here’s the impression she makes on American novelist and critic Glen Larson:

Of course I fall in love with Tamara, along with everyone else… As she moves round the gathering I watch people succumb. It’s as if she’s picking us off one by one, each of us receiving the full force of her radiance, her smile, her warmth, her interest, all of it seemingly genuine and unforced. She’s Princess Charming…

And here is Tamara’s first appearance as she wanders into a gaggle of writers at a writers’ retreat in the country, instantly drawing all eyes. She is wearing the crotch-displaying shorts which – in case we hadn’t noticed them ourselves – Nick the writer will later fantasise about, and his long-suffering wife, Beth, will disapprove of, at length.

Tamara makes an entrance, joining the group of writers enjoying a pre-dinner drink

The setting

The story is set in Stonefield, a writer’s retreat run by Beth and Nicholas Hardiman, where the American novelist Glen Larson is staying to find inspiration for his latest novel. All the gardening and maintenance around Stonefield is done by Andy Cobb.

Andy’s family used to own a nearby farm, Winnards Farmhouse, but his Dad ran into financial difficulties, as small dairy farmers will, and it was sold to the Drewe family. They had two posh daughters, now grown up, one is a successful lawyer (natch), while the younger, Tamara, has gone to London and become a fashionable gossip columnist.

Tamara makes her first appearance when she sets off the burglar alarm at her family farm by accident and tough, man-of-the-soil Andy goes to investigate, eventually finding her, long-limbed and oblivious of his presence, astride a rocking horse in the old nursery on the phone to her mum.

Andy the handyman discovers leggy Tamara astride a rocking horse in the attic

It is later that day that she makes her casual appearance among the gaggle of writers gathered for pre-dinner drinks in the garden of Stonefield. Wherever she goes she draws all eyes towards her, towards her and her own enormous doe-like eyes, looking up flirtatiously from under her fringe.

Writers writing about writing

Having waded through Literary Life, the volume collecting Simmonds’s cartoons and strips about all aspects of the writers’ life (sitting alone in a room with a computer, sad book-signings, packed paranoid literary parties, jealousy envy and back-stabbing abounding) I was initially down-hearted to confront yet another seventy pages chronicling the comfortable, secure and bourgeois lifestyles, smug cultural superiority and attitudes of yet another bunch of middle-class, middle-aged, middle-brow white writers. And I’m not alone. Most of the writers are ambivalent about their trade, and Beth describes literary festivals as:

rutting grounds of viciousness, jealousy, vanity, disgusting displays of male ego – well, and female – ‘My queue’s longer than your queue’, etc. Loathsome.

So the setting – writers writing about writing, and snoopily watching each other out of jealousy or in order to pinch pieces of each other’s lives for their books – tired and repelled me. But I forced myself to persevere and quickly came to appreciate that the complexity of the intertwining relationships among all the characters in the book soon builds up to something greater than the sum of their parts. Although I cordially despised the clichéd setting and bourgeois self-centredness of the characters, their interplay soon becomes absorbing.

Colour

The book is immediately more interesting than Gemma Bovery because it is in colour. Sounds trivial but colour adds a whole new dimension of interest for the reader, and of expressive possibility for the artist.

Maybe it’s because the use of colour gives the pictures more depth, but there are a number of pages in this book which are almost wordless, which allow a sequence of pictures to tell the story without text – like the succession of frames in a movie. This is particularly true of the climax of the novel, which features the death of one of the main characters, a fact introduced wordlessly, solely by means of changing visual framing.

Saturday 6.30 pm

Wordiness

But the complete absence of words on some pages contrasts with the extreme wordiness of others.

Some pages consist are more than half made up of densely-printed text. The page below portrays the American Glen Larson remembering back to an argument he had with his lover Maggie, who has abruptly told him their relationship is over and that she wants him to leave.

Note how the two time zones are indicated by colouring (and maybe, more subtly, by positioning) – the present day where Glen is doing the remembering, is coloured brown, while his memory of the scene is coloured blue and white, a form of grisaille. Note how neatly the past is sandwiched between the ‘present’ scenes at the top and bottom. Note how the text – and there is a lot of text – still feels neatly balanced by the pictures, elegantly integrated into the overall design.

Glen Larson remembers arguing with his partner, Maggie, back in London

Arguably the quality of the drawing has not progressed that much since the end of her Posy strip days in 1987 (look at the face of tearful Maggie in the centre of the page, many of the faces, particularly in group scenes, are surprisingly rough).

What feel so much more mature and powerful in this book are:

  • the use of colour to indicate mood and situation
  • the subtle placing of the pictures around the page, to the same effect and
  • the interaction between pictures and the really extensive text, which gives the reader huge amounts of information about the characters and their backstories.

The overall design and layout feel more mature and integrated than Bovery.

Narrators

Tamara is also more interesting because it has a number of narrators who all interweave their perspectives and stories.

Gemma Bovery‘s narrator was a middle-aged man, Raymond Joubert, who overlooked – or overheard – key bits of plot, and pieced the story together from what he’d seen and heard, combined with what he read in Gemma’s posthumous diaries – and he was also in love with the central figure – which made for a complex stew of perspectives and feelings.

Tamara also features a fat, middle-aged man who lusts after the babelicious doll at the centre of the story, but doesn’t stand a chance – the observant, self-aware, overweight American critic and novelist Glen Larson. (In case you think I’m being fattist, Larson makes a point of telling us that he is so overweight he [and the retreat’s owner, Beth] are worried he might break the designer toilet in his writer’s apartment – so he’s allowed to come down into the main farmhouse and use the more robust toilets there – which is also how, rather neatly, Glen gets to overhear various revealing conversations.)

But Glen is joined by a number of other voices telling their version of events, notably Beth, the middle-aged and plump wife of philandering Nick the novelist. Her suspicions of Nick, her dislike of his roving eye, is combined with her sense of the endless duties and work required to keep the writers’ retreat going (she does all the cooking, for example), as well as the way she slavishly manages all his business matters for him – taking his hand-written manuscripts at the end of the day and typing them up, liaising with his publishers and PR people, arranging his social calendar and so on.

I found Beth’s character immediately attractive, in the sense of believable and sympathetic. I’ve met lots of capable, bustling, large-sized mums – and also a number who were caught in the bind of loving, serving and acting as doormats for men they know aren’t worth it.

I also strongly like her for the way she wasn’t a babelicious sexpot like Tamara or Gemma Bovery.

Tamara herself is sort of another narrator, because the text is punctuated by examples of her ‘column’, like so many thousands of columns in popular newspapers and magazines, an only lightly touched-up version of her own life and experiences. Thus it is that we see her newspaper column, reporting the latest exciting developments in her life, inserted into the text, providing another – highly stylised – perspective on events.

And there are also newspaper cuttings and clips from the celebrity mags Casey and Jody read. I think this type of multi-textuality is not uncommon in graphic novels, which often include newspaper headlines or clips from letters or diaries – but nonetheless, it gives variety and interest to Tamara Drewe.

Affair world

As with my initial dismay at realising we are in the world of writerly writers writing about writing, I had a powerful sense of déjà vu and claustrophobia when I also realised we are back in middle-class Affair World, a world where everyone is having affairs, or struggling with ‘relationships’ which snap like twigs at the first pressure, and where everyone is spying on everyone else’s affairs, sneaking and eavesdropping on their illicit goings on. On one level it felt as cloying and claustrophobic as the supermarket magazines which obsess about the love affairs of the rich and glamorous.

God, do these people really have nothing better to do? Short answer: No. They’re ‘writers’. Their first duty appears to be to snoop on everyone around them, while themselves trying to sneak off unseen to clandestine shags. Thus:

  • Glen is splitting up with his lover Maggie who, at 36, tearfully insists the clock is ticking and she needs to find a man to have babies with
  • Nick was having an affair with a pretty young Asian babe up in London (Nadia Patel), until his wife Beth twigs to it – and also the ungrateful little thing dumps Nick
  • later Nick has a fling with Tamara
  • Tamara has a prolonged relationship with Ben Sergeant, but he has only recently broken up with his girlfriend, Fran, and not got over it
  • while man-of-the-soil Andy carries a torch for Tamara throughout the novel, repeatedly asking her out or trying to help, only to be snubbed
  • the dads of both the working class girls in the story had affairs and abandoned their mothers, to their abiding bitterness
  • and both the girls obsessively read celebrity gossip mags and use the rhetoric and clichés of that world to describe their own activities and situations

This girly obsession with relationships at the expense of anything else in the world prompted me to look up chick lit, which is defined as ‘heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists’. Sounds about right.

At its onset, chick lit’s protagonists tended to be ‘single, white, heterosexual, British and American women in their late twenties and early thirties, living in metropolitan areas’. (Wikipedia)

Well, that describes Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe to a t. Apparently American critic Alex Kuczynski criticised Helen Fielding’s character Bridget Jones as ‘a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness.’ That’s a handy description to bear in mind as we follow Tamara’s adventures.

Working class

Another element which makes Tamara more interesting than it might initially seem is the presence in the background of the disaffected, bored teenage yobs from the nearby village, Ewedown. These lads liven up their boring existences by nicking stuff from Stonefield and throwing eggs at the swanky cars of the writers on their way to and from the retreat.

It’s sooo boring, this village. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Nothing happening, except when Gary Pound and his mates nearly set fire to the Coronation Tree on the green. (Casey)

They provide a pleasing background hum of disaffection and revolt, I say ‘pleasing’ because that’s my class, the youths who hung around vandalising bus shelters and throwing supermarket trolleys in lakes because there was nothing else to do – and chucking things at the passing cars of the posh, white, affluent, middle-classes who liked to isolate themselves in ‘writers’ retreats’ so they can cultivate their oh-so-finer feelings while, in reality, ceaselessly leching and snooping on each other.

The working class girls Casey and Jody get off the local bus and discover some of their male mates kicking and vandalising Nick the writer’s car

Anyway, it soon becomes more than a background hum because two figures who slowly emerge to play a central role in events are the teenage schoolgirls and best mates, Judy and Casey. Casey emerges as the third of the novel’s narrators, her version of events written in a different typeface from the other two narrators (Beth and Glen).

Through Casey’s eyes we enter the world of teenage girls in a remote provincial village, Ewedown, who read gossip magazines, fantasise about their pop star heroes, and try to avoid the greasy clutches of the local boys their own age. Here they are hanging out in one of the village’s few public spaces, the much-vandalised village bus stop.

Casey and Jody, the two working class teenage girls who lust after rock star Ben Sergeant

The plot

August

Beth collects American author Glen Larson from the station and drives him to Stonefield, the writers’ retreat which she runs. We learn her husband, Nick, the successful crime writer, is having an affair with an Indian girl up in London. Nick tries to deter Beth from coming with him to attend a writer’s party in London but she smells a rat and gets Nick to admit he’s having an affair. The argument spills out into the courtyard of the retreat where she tells Nick to fuck off loud enough for all the writers to hear.

Andy the handyman comes into the kitchen to comfort Beth, ‘he’s not worth it’ etc. Meanwhile, Glen remembers the tearful argument he had with his lover in London (as show above).

Later Glen is using the main house loo when he overhears Nick returning, telling Beth a pack of lies about how he’s dumped Nadia, then giving Beth a big hug. She goes to recycle some bottles and Glen hears Nick on his mobile phone extremely cross with Nadia for dumping him. Glen is resentful of Nick for his easy success, and how he always mockingly refers to him at dinner or in the garden as ‘our resident academic.’

That night, in bed, Beth quizzes Nick about Nadia but he reassures her it meant nothing and it’s all over and she lets him shag her, but then lies awake feeling used and wondering why she is so good to him.

Next morning Andy and Beth are out in the vegetable garden when the alarm goes off from the nearby Winnards Farm, which used to belong to Andy’s parents till his dad went bankrupt and was forced to sell it to rich Londoners. Glen accompanies Andy over to the farm to see why the alarm is ringing, but leaves Andy to go into the building, wander round then go upstairs, where he discovers leggy Tamara on a rocking horse phoning her mum about the alarm. Andy tiptoes back out.

Walking the long way back to Stonefield through the village, Andy tells Glen about the Drewe family, the two sisters, how Tamara has a newspaper column for which she write a piece about having a nose job to reduce her big hooter to the pert little nosette it subsequently became.

At drinks in the garden that evening Tamara makes an entrance wearing only tight denim shorts and a white vest. All eyes are on her. Tamara works her way round each of the writers and Beth, casting her spell, batting those wonderful eyes. People drift off for dinner and Glen volunteers to walk Tamara back to her farm, but on the way makes a pass at her, for a blissful moment touching her wonderful body till she shrieks and tells him to piss off.

Next morning Beth is cooking and chatting to Nick, who wanders into a reverie, remembering five years previously when he met Tamara when she was assigned to him by his publishers as the publicity girl for a tour of bookshops and festivals he was doing. He made a pass (what else do male writers do in Simmonds World except make passes at every pretty girl who crosses their path) but she irritatedly told him to get lost. We see all this in grisaille flashback.

Sunday evening and Glen strolls past Andy’s cottage and stops for a chat which turns to the subject of Tamara. Glen tells Andy that a young fit man like him, he should make a pass at her.

Glen telling Andy to try his luck with Tamara

Later Andy is working in the garden remembering Tamara, remembering how he knew her before the nose job – sweet girl – and met her subsequently and disapproved of her new glamorous identity – as the girl herself walks in, and asks if he would kindly come and help her set up a vegetable garden at Winnard’s Farm. Well, OK, I suppose so, he says, noticing her laying her hands on his shoulders.

Autumn

Out walking, Glen reflects on Tamara and her ‘charm’. Having tried it on and been rejected, he is biased, but he thinks he sees through her now.

It’s weird talking to her. You think she’s coming on to you: she aims this scorching look and you’re transfixed with lust, I’m not kidding. But she’s kidding. It’s as if she has an erotic stun gun and you’re just target practice. Just her bit of fun…

Glen also gives a jaundiced description of Nick during the retreat’s evening meals, holding court while he brandishes an electric carving knife, gently deprecating his own (sizeable) success, a gaggle of female writers hanging on his every word.

Beth thinks the nanny goat Astrid is in heat and looks everywhere for Andy, looking after situations like this is his job. She discovers him giving Tamara’s garden a major overhaul and gets cross. Beth pays his wages: if he’s going to do all this work for Tamara, she’ll let him go and get another handyman. Beth knows Andy can’t afford that.

Later that day Tamara persuades Andy to let him accompany her to a nearby farm so the nanny goat can be mounted by a billy goat. She learns all about it, films it on her phone and then writes a sarcastic metropolitan magazine column about it. On the way back Andy blurts out his feelings for her. Tamara takes it as her due – isn’t every man in love with her? Lets him down gently and asks if he’ll still do her garden. Then gives him one of those infuriatingly chaste pecks on the cheek which pretty girls use to control foolish men. Cut to Andy standing on a hillside looking moonily into the distance…

Cut to Tamara a few days later in a stylish London cocktail bar, noticing a celebrity at the bar, Ben Sergeant, ex-drummer of rock group, Swipe. She approaches him, gets chatting, says she’s a journalist but only for a silly gossip column, everything will be off the record, shall they go somewhere more intimate and… they end up snogging then shagging.

Tamara approaches Ben Sergeant at a swanky London club

Cut to Andy telling Glen he’s just going over to Winnards’ Farm to pick up some kit he left there, but as he approaches he sees a yellow Porsche parked outside, and an unknown dog, a boxer left outside and then, the ground floor window opens and a hairy bloke, bollock naked, asks if he’s Andy and would he kindly let the dog in. So. Tamara’s got a boyfriend. And walks away unhappy.

Next thing Beth gets a text telling her a strange dog is running wild and scaring the cows in a field they own but rent to a neighbour. The neighbour, Penny is livid, the dog might have frightened her pregnant cows into miscarrying. Beth apologises (even though it’s not her dog) and phones Tamara – is this bloody boxer dog here? Tamara, naked in bed with Ben, picks up and apologises profusely.

Ben turns up half an hour later roaring his yellow Porsche into the forecourt and disturbing all the writers. Beth shows him round but he is surly and then gets angry at the fact his boxer is chained up. When Nick says he ought to be grateful, next time he worries livestock a farmer might shoot him, Ben sinisterly replies well, then, he’d shoot the shooter.

Ben drives off with his dog but not before dropping a broad hint that Tamara’s told him all about Nick – as if they have a past. Beth confronts Nick about it. Nick furiously denies it. Beth laments to the reader:

We’ve always had an open sort of marriage. Affairs are OK, up to a point. Lying about them is not. Which sounds sensible and realistic, but in practice Nick needs the flings and I don’t. He always admits them – in so many words – and I absolve them. I just hate it.

Back at Winnards’ Farm Ben paws Tamara and says he hated the retreat, bunch of self-satisfied wankers. A few days later Beth sees Tamara in the local town, Hadditon, arm in arm with leather-jacketed Ben, both looking like movie stars and turning heads.

Ben and Tamara putting on the style in Hadditon High Street

Tamara announces she’s going to marry Ben. They have regular weekends for all their posh thirty-something London friends, staying up all night and throwing frisbees around next day. The teenagers from the village hang around hoping to catch a sight of the Londoners, especially Ben who the teenage girls fancy.

Ben gives Tamara an expensive ring which a chance remark reveals he actually bought for his former lover, Fran, but Ben hastens to reassure Tamara that it’s her he loves now.

A week in the life of Tamara as the deadline for her weekly piece hangs over her and saps all pleasures (going for drinks, socialising).

Tamara stresses over the deadline for her next column

Contrasted with Nick working away in his writing shed, at the end of the day loyal Beth collecting his papers to type and telling him about invitations and work.

Nick benefiting from Beth’s care and concern as she collects up his manuscript and informs him of the week’s messages

A two-page spread devoted to a book-signing Nick does at the Hadditon bookshop. Having read Simmonds’s collection Literary Life I feel I’ve read and seen enough cartoons about dismal book-signings to last me a lifetime.

Next day Andy overhears Ben arguing with Tamara. He’s sick of living in the farm and the nearby village, it’s all so boring, why not sell it go to LA or France? But Tamara refuses to think of leaving. This is where she grew up. Ben then collects the Christmas goose from Andy who explains how they’re shot and gutted which revolts Ben, who is also antsy with Andy because the latter so obviously hangs around the place solely to get a look at Tamara.

Winter

Introducing the two pissed-off local teenage girls, Casey Shaw and Jody Long. Casey narrates their adventures, Jody is the more rebellious, experimental, out-there of the two. Jody’s got a mega crush on Ben so they spend a lot of time huddling in the village bus shelter on the off-chance of seeing him drive by.

Simmonds builds up a very persuasive picture of how awful and stifling the two girls home lives are, with Jody’s mum working long shifts at Tesco, and Casey hating being at home because of her step-father.

It’s Jody who persuades Casey to break in to Winnards farm when Tamara and Ben are away – more precisely, she knows where the latchkey is hidden for Andy. Thus they let themselves in and wander round the bedroom where Jody fantasises about Ben being naked and ‘doing it’. Second time they go back (Boxing Day) Jody nicks one of Ben’s t-shirts and forces Casey to take away Tamara’s Chloë bag. Their parents don’t notice. The local lads on their BMX bikes yell rude things at them.

Jody is determined, She scores blow and E in the local town and smokes dope. She describes in great detail losing her virginity (‘losing her V plates’) to Ben and how romantic it will be. On Valentine’s Day Casey chat to local youth Ryan (19, drives a Vauxhall Nova) who she really fancies but knows he’s only talking to her because he wants to get to Jody.

Casey meets Jody at the farmhouse and discovers she’s dressed entirely in Tamara’s clothes, including a dazzling leopard-skin coat. And she’s pissed. She’s found Tamara’s laptop and hacked straight into it without needing a password. She’s discovered that Tamara’s writing a novel (titled Tick Tock – a title which reminds us of a cartoon strip from back in Simmonds’s ‘Posy’ strip period [1977-87] featuring Stanhope Wright and his wife Trisha).

Jody opens up Tamara’s email and – drunk – addresses an email to Ben, Nick and Andy, subject: ‘Love’, text: ‘I want to give you the biggest shagging of your life’. And before petrified Casey can stop her, Jody presses send. Because she cc-ed the others, all three can see the message was sent to the other two as well as themselves.

Andy receives the email and is understandably confused. He’s having a drink down the local pub (The Rick) and asks the barmaid what she thinks the email means. Barmaid says it sounds like they’re kinky. Or Tamara was pissed. Yes, probably pissed.

Arriving on Ben’s laptop in London, the email prompts a fight between Tamara and Ben, she accusing him of always having his ex, Fran, in the back of his mind, he saying she’s going to leave sooner or later.

Meanwhile Beth tells us she read and deleted the email, puzzled by it but doesn’t want to cloud Nick’s concentration as he heads towards completion of his current novel. Doesn’t stop Andy bumping into Nick in the snow-covered fields and asking Nick what he made of it. Nick, accurately, says he knows nothing.

Tamara writes a column about it, gets a call from Andy and says the email was nothing to do with her, and asks Andy to go and have a snoop round the farmhouse, see if anyone’s broken in. At which point Ben staggers into their stylish London loft, badly beaten up and bleeding.

Casey and Jody are in the bus stop, reading gossip mags while Jody explains why and what it’s like to have most your pubic hair shaved off, when they see a paparazzi photo of Ben beaten up and gripped by bouncers, after a fracas with his ex-girlfriend Fran. It’s clever of Simmonds to set up Ben coming through the door bleeding on one page, and then have the explanation given a hundred miles away in the countryside, and via the medium of a cheap gossip mag.

As you might expect, the evidence that he’s prepared to fight for his ex, leads Tamara to have a furious row with Ben, pack her bags and return to Winnards’ Farm.

At the end of another day, Beth picks up the papers from Nicks’ desk and, back in her study, starts to go through them sorting out which ones to type up and sometimes having ideas of her own. Till she comes to a scrap of paper which isn’t part of the novel and not for her eyes, which describes in graphic detail how bored he is, how flat and dull and empty his life seems. How he hurts her!

Casey fields loads of calls from Jody who is gutted that Tamara and Ben have broken up because now he won’t be coming down to Winnards. Part of the pleasure of reading Casey’s narrative is how everything is expressed in teenage girl magazines: thus Casey thinks Ben has been a Total Love Rat. When they spy Tamara walking round she has the look of someone who has been Betrayed. When they feel sorry for Beth they related it to Brad and Angelina breaking up.

Nick lies his head off on his mobile phone to Beth, telling her he’s at the London Library whereas in fact he drives (in his swank Range Rover) round to Tamara’s house where he finds her sitting in the gloom, alone and depressed. He is tall and successful. She can’t exist without a man in her life. She takes his glasses off. They snog.

Nick pays a visit on Tamara. Note the look in her eyes

They go to bed. There’s realistic lovers’ chat, him saying he’s not just a rebound shag, is he, her saying no, no she likes him, both telling each other to be careful.

Nick arrives home, some hours later, into Beth’s waiting arms and gives her a gift of tea from Fortnum and Mason’s. She falls for it, thinks he is much invigorated after his trip to London, he should go more often, and Nick heartily agrees!

Spring

The American novelist Glen is back at Stonefield after a break in Paris (hard life, eh?). He tells us he’s ripping through his novel, and how cosy and companionable he finds Beth. Beth for her part feels in her bones that Nick is having an affair but can’t prove it. She hates getting into this mood where she ends up checking every aspect of his life for tell-tale signs: such a waste of effort. Glen is helping a lot round the kitchen and she finds his company soothing. (Hmmm so is a Beth-and-Glen thing on the cards?)

Casey is pissed off with Jody who’s bored and drinking a lot. They see Andy’s car pull up outside Winnards and watch him go to the door, ring the bell, and wait for Tamara. She opens up a little sheepishly, Andy asks if she fancies a drink and she says no, and he walks off cursing his stupidity. Only minutes later the same door opens and Tamara lets Nick out with a kiss.

The girls see this and spend days reflecting on it, Jody in particular grossed out that Nick is so old. It also reflects on their own lives, in which both their dads ran off with younger women, so they feel badly for Nick’s wife, Beth. When Beth walks through the village Casey and Jody can’t bring themselves to look at her or reply to her ‘Hi’.

In bed Beth reads one of Nick’s old novels to about adultery to remind herself of all the tricks the male character uses. But when she phones up the friends Nick says he’s going for a drink with, dammit! He actually is going from a drink with them. Try as she might, she can’t catch him out.

Tamara goes for a walk with a girlfriend through the countryside and tells her all about her affair with Nick. Note: Tamara avoids the field with the big cows in it, they scare her. Reminds me that Glen, at an earlier stage, refused to go through the cow field, insisted on going the long way round.

The girls get the bus back from Hadditon, though it’s a pain because the bus no longer goes all the way to Ewedown and it’s full of teenage boys i.e. vandals with spray paint. They come across Nick Hardiman’s car, empty, and the lads let the tyres down.

Jody and Casey hang around, hiding in the bushes, waiting for Nick to come back to his car. When he does and discovers the tyres have been let down, he angrily phones Tamara asking if she’s got a foot pump and if so can she bring it out to meet him at his car. Ten minutes later she turns up and they pump up the tyres. Then they have a great snog. And Casey takes a great close-up photo of it on her new mobile phone.

On another day, Casey and Jody break into Winnards Farm, again, Jody wandering round touching everything as if it will put her in touch with Ben. She picks up various bottles of booze and then a tin of compressed computer cleaner gas, Does Casey know it gives you a nice little buzz? Casey say. Don’t be so silly, she knows Casey has asthma and can’t even smoke.

They break into Tamara’s laptop again, and read emails from Ben asking them to meet again and, when Tamara says No she needs her space, asking if she would babysit the boxer dog (Boss), while Ben goes to LA for three months, but again Tamara replies No. Now Casey sends an email claiming to be from Tamara saying she knows a good dog-sitter in the village, and giving her – Jody’s – mobile phone number!

Cut to Beth walking through the village, stared at by all the kids as if they know something, herself deeply suspicious of Nick but unable to prove anything. He is off to a literary festival. Beth organises his travel, accommodation and timings of his interviews, and he gives her a big hug and pats her on the head like a good dog, before leaving Beth, fuming. It’s at that moment that her phone chirps and she receives the mobile phone photo Casey took of Nick and Tamara having a snog!

She is gutted. Later Tamara drops round to Andy’s to pick up some fresh eggs and he quizzes her about her affair with Nick, she says it’s none of his business, he says he hates to see Beth getting hurt and goes on to mock how cheap and easy and convenient it is for old Nick. Tamara phones Nick (in London en route to the literary festival) as she trudges along a country lane in her wellies and tells him Andy Cobb knows about them. Nick curses but then says maybe it’s for the best, this means she and he can start making plans for their life together. ‘What?’ Tamara exclaims – ‘You’d leave your wife for me’ – but at that moment Nick’s daughter (who he’s staying with) comes in and he has to ring off.

Meanwhile Beth is still furious. She quizzes the local girls she sees hanging round the bus stop if it was they who sent her the photo and they of course deny it. Now Beth realises why all the youths look at her. It’s pity. She decides not to make a scene with Nick, let him tell her in his own sweet time. But later on, she passes Tamara’s car in town and on impulse crumbles a fish stock cube into the air intake. And she can’t help replying to some innocent letters sent to Nick in a fiery rage.

Nick is with Tamara at the Monksted Literary Festival – but she is not happy. Nick tells her he is sick with his cosy life and the cosy farm and his cosy wife and churning out a book a year like clockwork – he wants to drop all that and live, feel again, be with Tamara and be young again. She can’t hide her dismay; this is not at all what she planned.

But Beth has followed him to the festival and sees him hanging round smooching with Tamara before his on-stage interviews. At one of these he announces he’ll never write another Dr Inchcombe novel, to general gasps, since that is the character which made his fortune. The fact that he does so without even consulting Beth makes her see red and determine to go straight home and find a good divorce lawyer.

Cut to Casey who is well pissed-off with her friend Jody. 1. Ben rang, Ben phoned her, right in the middle of helping Casey with her maths revision, and Jody told all kinds of lies about having dog baskets and bowls and so on when she has none! 2. That night at a party, Casey was chatting to Ryan, who she fancies, when Jody came along in a flimsy stop ‘flashing her teapot lids’ with the result that it’s Jody who ends up snogging Ryan later. God! She hates Jody!

Next day the sheepdip hits the fan when Jody tells her mum she’s agreed to babysit someone else’s dog. Her mum flat out refuses. And Ben’s driving all the way down just to hand Boss over. She gets all stressed and tries on different outfits and perfumes but in the event Ben doesn’t show up and she is gutted. Nothing ever happens in their crap village and she storms off.

Jody breaks into Winnards farm again and starts to try on some of Tamara’s clothes in the bedroom when she hears a voice. It is Ben!

Jody sneaks into Winnards Farm and tries on a dress of Tamara’s

When he asked Tamara about the message Tamara had supposedly sent, giving Jody’s name and number as a dog minder, and Tamara denied it, Ben realised it was a con. But Jody is so pathetic, so apologetic, tells Ben she loves him. She at least gets him to listen to her when she says she’s always loved him, ever since she saw him drumming in the band on Top of the Pops. ‘How old are you?’ Ben asks her. ’16’, she says. ‘Liar’, he replies.

At this moment Casey rings up and says Ben’s dog is running around outside her house. Yes, can she catch it for him, Jody replies. Ben’s really come down just to collect some of his stuff and he’s just kissed me!!! and given her an early Swipe CD and agreed to give them advance notice of gigs etc.

Saturday Cut to Tamara parked by the side of a road and on her mobile to her friend Cate. She brings us up to date with events at the literary festival, namely that Beth was there and texted him the photos of Nick and Tamara snogging. Nick was in Tamara’s bedroom and appalled at his own behaviour and decides there and then to tell Beth the truth when he gets home, split up with Beth and move in with Tamara. Who, we know, is terrified at the thought.

‘I didn’t want this to happen.’

He tells her he’ll come to her house tomorrow evening.

Saturday afternoon in Beth’s kitchen and plump, amiable Glen Larson is there. Glen has done all the menial chores and is now telling Beth how well his book is going, while she chops vegetables. Beth isn’t hearing a word because she is seething inside and speculating what will happen if Nick wants a child with Tamara. Then the little so-and-so will find out what a selfish brute he is! (This reminds me of the Posy cartoon strip which radiated the Anger of the Mothers against their lazy do-nothing husbands.)

Glen notices Ben’s dog, the boxer named Boss, crapping on Beth’s lawn. Beth says that’s Ben’s dog, he’s probably come her to beat up Nick. Glen is puzzled, so Beth explains that Nick is having an affair with Tamara, so she’s going to divorce him and sell Stonefield. Glen is appalled – what about his book!? He needs the peace and quiet of Stonefield to finish it. He tries to calm Beth down and assure her they can get back together, and before he knows it spills the beans that Nick’s last lover, Nadia, chucked Nick, not the other way round as Nick told Beth. In other words Nick only went back to Beth once he’d been jilted. This makes Beth insensate with anger, not only against Nick but against Glen who’s know all this time and not told her.

Saturday afternoon 5.30pm The change of font alone tells us that this is now being narrated by Casey. She sees some mindless teenagers chucking clods at the big cows. She also hears Ben’s dog barking. She sees that Beth’s caught it and tethered it to a post. At this moment Nick appears up from his writing shed in the field and begins to apologise to Beth but she’s had it up to hear and roars her grief and anger at him. ‘Go. Go away. Go now. Go to her,’ she shouts.

Casey had started to take long distance pap shots of this funny couple but it became too upsetting and she goes off in tears. The bloody dog is still yapping so Beth lets it off its leash and tell it to bugger off, too.

6.30pm This is the famous page with no text on it, just seven colour panes, which I included earlier int he review. Successive frames show Tamara at her window waiting for Nick, the cows around the water trough, then they walk past the trough, it gets darker, we see a body lying by the trough, close up on the body, then a big wide shot of the sun setting over the distant hills.

10pm Tamara on the phone to her friend Cate. She’s furious because Nick stood her up, obviously gone back to his wife BLOODY MEN!!! Tamara goes down the pub where she sharply rebuffs Andy’s offer of a drink.

10pm Casey is at a loud house party. She lost her phone in the woods so can’t ring Jody to ask why she’s not there. Last thing she heard was Jody talking to her all loved-up, insisting talking to Ben was the best thing ever. (Simmonds drops in some frames parodying love-bird, valentine’s day scenes amid flowery bowers and swags of love hearts – something she’s amused herself parodying from at least as long ago as 1981’s True Love.)

Now Ryan comes up to her and, mirabile dictu, actually wants to talk to her. They go outside and start having a snog when an ambulance screams by. An ambulance! In Ewedown! That never happens. Then she realises it’s stopped outside number six – Jody’s house!

Cut to another silent wordless page, with panels showing the rain pouring down on Stonefield, Beth looking out her bedroom window, Beth in the big double bed looking at the empty space where Nick should be, and cutting to a light on in one of the writer’s flats, and then a close-up of Glen Larson looking out the window into the rain looking worried.

Sunday morning Casey is the narrator and tells us that the night before, her mum took her back to her house and explained that Jody had been found dead! Her mum went upstairs wondering why she wasn’t going to the party and found her in a pretty party dress, dead on the floor holding in her hand an aerosol spray of Air Dust, a kind of computer cleaner. Casey knew that Jody sucked up lungfuls of the stuff from time to get a little buzz. This time it simply stopped her heart.

Now the change of typeface tells us we are reading Beth’s narration. Some of her writers found Nick’s body the next morning. He had been trampled to death by the cows (remember all those little references to the cows being scary and people going out of their way to avoid them which have been threaded through the book?).

Beth calls the police. When they start questioning her she immediately blurts out that she must have killed him by letting the bloody dog loose which stampeded the cows. The detective is certainly suspicious why she didn’t report it when Nick didn’t come back last night. Beth is forced to admit that they’d had a row and she expected he was sleeping at a neighbour’s. The police motor over and tell Tamara. She is in floods of tears.

Another font tells us we are now reading Glen’s narration. He tells the police a sanitised version of the events (leaving out the fact that Beth and Nick had rowed).He timidly goes down to the kitchen to find Beth and begins to apologise but she poo-poos that and asks if he will stay, to lend a hand, there are some things she and her daughter (who’s come straight down from London) can’t face. Like the reporters at the gate.

Through Casey’s eyes we read all the reports in the papers. Mum finds girl dead. Dr Inchcombe author Found Dead in Field Author’s Sex Tryst Led To Tragedy. Pop Star Ben last To see Tragic Jody. Nothing like this has ever happened in Ewedown before: two tragic deaths on the same night!

Casey explains how she kept schtum about their breaking into the farm, but it was Jody’s mum found a post-it note from Ben, and Ben’s number was on her mobile, and the media quickly put two and two together and joined Ben to Jody and Tamara and Nick! A festival of sex and death, ‘telly crews everywhere!’

Andy walks past the press camped out at Tamara’s drive and asks if there’s anything he can do for her. Tamara’s quite rude, telling him he’s always Mr bloody perfect, but then relents, says thanks but no thanks.

Andy calls on Tamara to see if she’s alright

Glen watches the comings and goings, describes how the finger pointed at Ben, the jealous rival for a while till CCTV footage showed he was a service station miles away. Forensics say cause of death was being trampled by cows after a collision with the water trough.

And only now does he reveal what really happened. After telling Beth about Nadia he didn’t go to his apartment but went for a walk through the fields. It was here that Nick spotted him and called him over, called him a fucking bastard for telling Beth all about Nadia, accuses him of trying to suck up to Beth and take his (Nick’s) place. On and on Nick goes, telling him he’ll never have the income or success he (Nick) enjoys, capping it all with ‘Mine’s bigger than yours!’

Right. That was it. Glen snaps and punches Nick. Nick stumbles backwards and hits his head against one of the concrete pillars of the cattle trough. He gets up again, groggy and dazed, Glen goes to help but Nick tells him to fuck off and, at that moment, the famous herd of big pregnant cows comes barging into the field running after that bloody boxer dog, Boss. Terrified of animals, Glen runs off as fast as he can, not looking back, assuming Nick, younger and fitter than him, can look after himself. But turns out he couldn’t. Somehow he got stuck against the trough and trampled.

Glen is sitting on the trough weeping for what happened when Tamara comes up and gently puts her hand on  his shoulder and tries to reassure him but suddenly… it feels like an interview and Glen – who has babbled too many times in the story – gets to his feet without telling the truth, and sets off back to Stonefield.

Here he finds Beth in the garden drinking tea and reading the paper. She looks happy and relieved as she tells him the police have closed the investigation and now officially consider it an accident. Glen looks at her and considers telling her the truth about what happened i.e. his responsibility in punching Nick, making him hit his head against the trough, making him too dazed to escape the rampaging cows — but she has found closure, why ruin it?

Cut to Casey’s point of view. Ryan, the boy she fancies, has spent a lot of time with her, talking things through. Casey tells Ryan everything, about breaking into Winnards, hacking Tamara’s computer, sending the shag email, Jody’s obsession with Ben, her taking the pap shots of Nick snogging Tamara then sending them to Beth. What should she do? ‘Keep quiet’, advises Ryan. After all, what would their sort do for her if she was in trouble? Nothing.

Beth’s narrative. She cuts Tamara when they bump into her. But then she receives an email from Casey explaining that it was her and Jody who sent the shag email, for a joke, and she who texted Beth the photos of Tamara and Nick snogging. She’s really sorry for all the hurt she’s caused. This prompts Beth to make a pilgrimage over to Winnards to confront Tamara, where she’s surprised to discover Casey is present, having also gone to apologise to Tamara.

The other two stand in the kitchen while Beth gives them a bollocking but then explains life’s too short, she might as well forgive them, we’ve all got to live here together etc. Beth realises she feels like a cigarette, Tamara too, but they’ve both given up. Luckily Casey has one and the three women, now reconciled, pass a fag of closure among themselves.

The cigarette of closure

Late that night Tamara is mooning over her laptop. Suddenly she shuts it, leaves the farm, sets off at a run across the fields, arrives at Andy’s cottage, knocks, looks stunning and helpless – Help me, I’m a poor helpless vulnerable woman! – And Andy takes her in his arms – big stwong man pwotect helpless woman!!! They kiss.

Tamara must have gone all of two, maybe three days, without a man in her life! Is she, to quote American critic Alex Kuczynski, ‘a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness’? Tempting to think so…

A few days later Beth describes her trip to the local church for the funeral of Jody Long. She realises it’s an event for the real locals – in other words, the working class inhabitants of Ewedown, not the posh, down-from-London writers and second home-owners. But there’s Tamara on Andy’s arm – she is, after all, always on some man’s arm, not complete unless she has a man to cling onto – then hugging Casey, and working the crowd.

Then Tamara spots Beth and makes an operatic gesture to do a Big Hug of Closure, but Beth turns and melts away. Not ready to forgive, not yet.

One year later

Beth gives a summing up. She’s still at Stonefield. They launched a young writers’ prize in Nick’s honour. Beth handed over Nick’s shed to Casey and the other yoof as a meeting place. Andy moved in with Tamara and she had a baby in January. And her novel comes out in September.

The last page has a couple of images of Glen Larson. Beth has written him a letter congratulating him on the success of his novel, Excess, and telling him that Tamara’s novel is due out in September. But when Glen reads that it is about a writer’s retreat, he clutches his head, ‘Oh no!’

All in all, Tamara may be the titular centre of the story, but I think Beth is the heroine.


Credit

All images are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.

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In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells (1906)

We live now in these days, when the Great Change has been in most things accomplished, in a time when every one is being educated to a sort of intellectual gentleness, a gentleness that abates nothing from our vigour, and it is hard to understand the stifled and struggling manner in which my generation of common young men did its thinking. (Chapter One)

In his earliest stories Wells stuck to describing localised events witnessed and recounted with feverish, first-person intensity by his astonished protagonists.

As he became famous he branched out. He wrote a series of non-science-fiction love stories (Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps), often featuring whimsical social comedy satirising Edwardian manners and society.

He also began a series of factual articles and books devoted to predicting the future based on likely scientific and technological advances – Anticipations, A Modern UtopiaThe Shape of Things To Come and so on.

And his science fiction stories became more long-winded and discursive, incorporating these other elements to produce stories which were longer, less focused, and contained all kinds of material extraneous to the main plot. In The Days of The Comet is a classic example of this tendency.

In the Days of the Comet

The central event of In The Days of the Comet is easy to describe. A comet passes close to the earth, trailing a cloud of strange chemicals through the atmosphere, which leads to an abrupt and total revolution in human nature and in human affairs, referred to as The Great Change. Everyone becomes peaceful, kind, forgiving and sensible. Here is the narrator telling his contemporary, post-Change audience, about the bad old days:

You must understand – and every year it becomes increasingly difficult to understand – how entirely different the world was then from what it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder, preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The Great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time…

Wells has bitten off a massive theme – the transformation of the entire human race from a jungle of competing individualists, a system which produces misery and exploitation, into a brotherhood of enlightened and caring citizens who treat each other as equals and set about building the Perfect Society. For the fumes of the comet bring about the great Socialist Transformation of the World which Wells and so many of his contemporaries dreamed of.

But Wells has set himself the same challenge he faced in The Food of the Gods, which is to tell the transformation of the entire human race via the tiny story of a handful of individuals – in this case via the recollections of one particular man, Willie Leadford, now aged 71.

The novel is Willie’s autobiography, or more precisely his memoir, of the months leading up to the Great Change 50 years previously, when he was a hot-tempered young man. The minutely narrow scope of the task is made clear in the book’s first line:

I have set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.

Well, that gets Wells off the hook of having to write some kind of global history of this vast transformation. Instead it’s going to be a book about Willie.

The central thread of the novel is Willie’s mismatched love affair with the beautiful but narrow-minded young woman Nettie Stuart. They are both lower class inhabitants of the Four Towns, a region of the industrial Midlands. Here Willie has grown up in extreme poverty, raised by his mother, a devoted and tireless charlady who has almost literally worked her fingers to the bone. Their wretched hovel of a rented cottage is bitterly described numerous times, not least the leaks in the roof which lets rain into his mother’s bedroom, exacerbating her many illnesses.

Against this backdrop, and in the scenery of this grim northern industrial townscape, Willie grows up into a typical angry young man who loses his religious faith and discovers ‘socialism’. He moves in to share a flat with another young man, Parload, who is, however, more taken by the stars and astronomy than socialism.

Anyway, the central spine of the novel is Willie’s forlorn love affair with Nettie. She is the daughter of the gardener to the local lady of the manor, Lady Verrall, and so she and her family regard themselves as a notch or two above Willie and his mother in the social scale. We know from his biography that at one stage of his own adolescence, Wells’s family fell on hard times and his mother went to work as cleaner to a local landowner and Wells was obliged to give up schooling to work in a local shop in Sussex.

You cannot help feeling that the descriptions of a) his good and long-suffering mother b) his smouldering resentment at the patronising, superior attitude of the local landowners and c) his youthful sense of the crazy injustice of the entire social system, are all strongly derived from his own experiences, which he channels into this story of an earnest young working class man falling in love with a beautiful but unimaginative young woman from just a fraction above his own class.

In the hands of a genius like D.H. Lawrence this kind of thing would have been turned into an entire novel registering every flicker of the sensibilities of both the protagonists, and exquisitely marking the rise and fall of their relationship, recording:

the host of dark distressful memories, of darkened childhood, toilsome youth, embittered adolescence.

But in the hands of bumptious Mr Wells it is a good tale, some passages are intensely felt and written but… but… it always feels that Well’s real focus of attention is elsewhere…

Anyway, young Willie becomes even more embittered when he tries to share his ‘socialist’ convictions with Nettie, as well as his loss of religious faith. Being a shallow conformist, all this alarms Nettie, who not only drops him but, in a scene worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel, rejects him for the rich son of a local landowner, the elegant, drawling, upper-class Edward Verrall –

son of the man who owned not only this great estate but more than half of Rawdon’s pot-bank, and who had interests and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of the Four Towns.

They argue. Willie departs. He hears from local gossip that she has taken up with young Verrall. When he goes once again up to the grand house where Nettie lives with her mother and father in the gardeners’ quarters, Willie is devastated to discover that… Nettie and Verrall have eloped!

Willie is consumed with psychotic anger, focusing all his personal frustration – the fact that he’s just been ‘let go’ by his employer, Rawdon – the general misery of the industrial proletariat living in the hovels of the local towns – the injustice of the social system – the sight of his poor downtrodden mother – and the (believe it or not) fact that the country seems to be slipping towards war with Germany – all these things come together to make Willie search high and low until he finds a shop where he buys a revolver.

Willie determines to track the couple down and shoot them both, he is that demented with rage, and the remainder of part one of the book follows his efforts to establish where they’ve gone (Norfolk), tracking them to the coast, and then to a little bohemian ‘artist’s colony’ on the seaside.

The industrial Midlands

Partly I’ve thought of D.H. Lawrence because the story is set in the industrial Midlands – Lawrence’s home turf – and a lot of Willie’s youthful energy goes into being outraged by the wretched poverty of the workers and the luxurious lifestyle of the rich.

Wells can certainly write when he wants to and, as you read on, you realise he has made a big effort to capture the miserable topography and lives of the down-trodden miners and other manual workers in the tight little cluster of Midlands mining towns he takes as his setting. I wonder if he had visited the area and made notes. It reads like it. Here’s a description of Willie and his friend and flatmate, Parload, walking round the dirty industrial town of ‘Clayton’:

Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road. The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.

I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was grey oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples, of sombre and vivid reds, of strange bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky. Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc. The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents breathing fire.

Dickens wrote a vivid description of the Midlands in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1842, and George Orwell was to describe them again nearly a century later. Wells comes in the middle of that period and is as vivid as either:

You cannot see, as I can see, the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you presently pass the beer house with its brighter gas and its queer, screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure – some rascal child – that slinks past us down the steps.

We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and adown which one saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of hawkers’ barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant preacher from a waste place between the houses.

There’s a recession – Leadford and his flatmate squabble about the elementary economic causes of recessions in capitalism – some of the miners have come out on strike, there’s stone throwing and minor riots and Leadford manages to get caught up in scuffles and mobs.

This could have been an interesting novel about industrial relations circa 1905, except that… a comet is hurtling towards the earth.

It’s a bit like getting fifty pages into a promising early novel by D.H. Lawrence when the Tardis suddenly materialises and Dr Who steps out!

You are just getting into it, as a realistic novel, when Willie looks up once again to look at the strange green light of the approaching comet. For weeks now the newspapers and their ‘experts’ have been assuring the public that it will miss the earth and have no effect on all of us.

Part two – after the comet

Except that it does have an effect on all of us – a transformative impact.

The first part of the novel rises to a climax as Willie, one fateful night, tracks down the lovers Verrall and Nettie, to their beach hut hideaway, from a hiding place watches them gallivanting on the sand, then steps out and advances towards them, blindly firing his revolver (missing them both, luckily) and, as they turn and run, running after them, blind with impotent rage, anger, frustration, all the emotions of a trapped, trammelled inhabitant of the squalid little earth of 1906.

Absurdly (I haven’t brought it out enough) in the background throughout the story, we have had tips and hints that Britain is stumbling towards war against Germany. Willie has absent-mindedly been reading the newspaper hoardings at the railways stations and towns he passes through on his vengeful pursuit, and now, here on the beach, his own personal demented rage is counterpointed by a battle which suddenly starts up between huge warships taking place way out at sea, off the coast, the flares and booms of the big guns lighting up the beach as Willie chases the lovers through the dunes. All very cinematic!

And then… the green lights of the comet engulf everything. It is as if a thousand pistols are detonating all over the sky and a great mist, a green fog, sweeps in from the sea, and Willie loses consciousness.

When he awakes some hours later he is struck by the beauty of the grass among the sand. He looks up into the beautiful sky. He feels fulfilled and happy. He looks down at the gun at his feet and doesn’t understand it. He stumbles through the fields till he comes to a lane where a man has fallen and sprained his ankle and so he immediately helps him. It seems like the obvious thing to do.

And all over the world every person is waking with the same thought – feeling whole, purified, happy, content, and so brimming with good humour that they need to give of it, help others, make a better life.

In a throwaway bit of science Willie says that he later learned that chemicals in the comet’s tail reacted with the nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere to create a new element which, when breathed in, gives new energy to blood corpuscles and gives the brain and nervous system a tremendous sense of life and calm.

Part two of the book describes the Great Change in three ways.

1. Very conveniently, the man Willie has found injured in the road turns out to be Melmount, a senior Cabinet Minister. Willie helps him to his holiday home down the coast where, incapacitated and so unable to go back to London, Melmount calls a cabinet meeting to discuss the new world and, since there aren’t any of the usual civil servant secretariesavailable, Willie finds himself being dragooned into acting as secretary and aide de camp to the Prime Minister during these first few weeks after the Change. This allows Wells:

  • to give us satirical portraits of the members of the cabinet
  • to insert his analysis of the British government of his day (it didn’t, in  his opinion, have a clue what to do with its enormous empire or about the numerous social problems at home)
  • and to convey in broad brush terms how all of its members now look back on their narrow, sheltered, blinkered, privileged upbringings and publicly express regret

The politicians set about making radical changes which begin with Wells’s personal hobby horse, land reform, namely nationalising all land and rebuilding society from scratch.

2. After witnessing all this Willie returns to Clayton, and registers the Great Change in the town, his mother, Nettie’s parents and even old Mrs Verrall the landowner. All are now peaceful and calm. The scales have fallen from their eyes. All are now determined to build the New Jerusalem. Willie describes how they knock down all the disgusting old slums, and hold huge bonfires in which they burn their smelly clothes, disgusting furniture, rubbish decorations. Now all the land is jointly owned by the ‘commune’ as it is now called which plans rationally, establishing new workplaces in the best places, rebuilding convenient railway lines to link them, building new homes which are healthy and hygienic, for everyone. In the mornings they all work together, to build a better world. In the afternoons all take place in further education designed to bring out everyone’s potential – everyone’s life becomes a combination of productive labour and creative self-fulfilment.

3. And finally the love affair. This is dealt with in three parts. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Change, Willie comes across Nettie and Verrall again, and they all apologise to each other. In a rather moving passage both Nettie and Verrall reveal their feelings and motivations for running off together: Nettie admits that to some extent, it was Verrall’s clothes: he just dressed so richly and confidently and ably, compared to Willie’s dismal, dirty, threadbare working class suit, that she was bewitched. And Verrall gives what I thought was a powerful half page or so summary of the sheer irresponsible thrill of having an affair, of running away and abandoning all his parents’ fine hopes that he’d become a politician, spurning all society’s rules about not ‘ruining’ the reputation of a virginal young woman. What larks it was!

Anyway, they all sheepishly look at each other and apologise. Nettie says she wants to remain in love with Willie, who was her earliest adult friend and boyfriend but… still wants to remain with Verrall. The two men agree it cannot be and so, regretfully, she leaves with Verrall, leaving Willie to throw himself with energy into building the New Jerusalem in Clayton.

Back in Clayton, his mother is nearing the end of an exhausting long life of hard work, and the commune (in its new enlightened form) allots her a nurse – stocky young Annie – to be her carer through her last months. Distracted with all his new duties Willie is blissfully ignorant of the fact that this devoted, loyal young woman – rather inevitably – falls in love with him. It is only on the day of his mother’s eventual death, that they burst into tears, find each other in each other’s arms, and then kissing and then passionately kissing. Oops.

They marry and have children. Willie emphasises she was always his best friend and helpmeet. But… But Nettie reappears. Nettie has heard about his mother dying and makes a visit. And here she pursues the theme she had broached back in their parting scene at the seaside resort. Here she suggests… that she can be the lover of two men, that Willie can join her and Verrall. And Annie can join them too. And so it transpires. They become a ménage à quatre.

For the Great Change has overthrown even that old shibboleth, that one man shall cleave to one women, and one woman to one man, and that they shall be each other’s all-in-all and never have any surplus love or affection to give to anybody else.

After all the heady themes the book has covered – socialism, social injustice, the squalor of industrial Britain, the unmerited privilege of the rich, the stupidity of war, the absurdity of empire, the incompetence of politicians – this is how it ends, with a hymn to Free Love, a very fashionable, if scandalous, Edwardian topic.

Anybody who knew about Wells’s own love life (i.e. all of literary and artistic and political London) knew that this was in fact a close reflection of Well’s own situation. He was married to the plain and devoted Jane Wells,who bore him several children and managed the home, but had to put up with Wells’s numerous affairs with an impressive list of younger, sexier women, with several of whom he had illegitimate children.

(Wells’s lovers included American birth control activist Margaret Sanger, writer Odette Keun, Soviet spy Moura Budberg, novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, writer Amber Reeves, novelist and feminist Rebecca West, and many more.)

And there the story ends.

Before and after

The story is a variation on the very Wellsian trope of the sleeper who awakes in the distant future.

There is a ‘before’ (the grimy present day) and an ‘after’ (utopia after the Great Change). And the narrator is able to bear witness to both worlds. Thus the narrator is able to contrast a) the social squalor and b) the psychological and emotional constipation, of Edwardian times, with the a) social harmony and b) the relaxed and open relationships, after ‘the Great Change’.

This gives rise to the odd and distinctive feature of the book which is that you can go for pages reading either a) gritty descriptions of the muddy coal-mining town and its surly inhabitants or b) the sometimes genuinely moving, sometimes rather laughable descriptions of Willie’s love affair with Nettie – and both lull you into a false sense of security that you are reading a standard Edwardian novel…

But then Wells will throw in a sentence or two reminding us that this is all before the Change, the protagonist will look up and see the eerie shape of billowing green flaring in the night sky as the comet approaches day after day, thus inviting the reader to view with ridicule the absurd economic system and social conventions of the time – and you realise you are in a completely different type of book.

Or you are in a D.H. Lawrence social realist novel which has been picked up and photoshopped into a scene from Star Wars.

This before-and-after trope explains the prominence in the text of the direct address to the reader. By which I mean that the first person protagonist, Willie, is continually stopping to address his modern readers, the young readers who have grown up since the Great Change, with phrases like ‘You who have grown up since the Change will scarcely believe the silliness of the society I grew up in…’

My point being that the ‘before and after’ trope isn’t a minor aspect of the book, it is something the narrator and Wells are constantly rubbing in our faces.

You will consider those notions of my youth poor silly violent stuff; particularly if you are of the younger generation born since the Change you will be of that opinion.

When I think of that growing proportion of readers who belong entirely to the new order, who are growing up with only the vaguest early memories of the old world, I find the greatest difficulty in writing down the unintelligible confusions that were matter of fact to their fathers.

You cannot imagine the littleness of those former times; their naive, queer absurdities!

And here again I find myself writing in an unknown language, so far as my younger readers are concerned. You who know only the world that followed the Great Change will find much that I am telling inconceivable…

All that previous life of ours had been an ill-lit marionette show, acted in the twilight. . . .

The whole of that old history becomes more and more foreign, more and more like some queer barbaric drama played in a forgotten tongue…

Thus the novel stands in the tradition which includes all the other ‘before and after’ socialist novels of the era, such as Looking BackwardNews From Nowhere and so on.

Was Wells a socialist – or a nihilist?

Wells joined the socialist Fabian Society in 1903 and wrote numerous articles for newspapers, magazines and so on, supporting socialism. And he certainly writes eloquently about the glaring social injustices of his day, in this book giving lengthy and convincing descriptions of the miserable state of slum-dwellers in a Midland industrial town.

He also makes an effort to analyse their causes, attributing most of it to the idea of private property in land i.e. the tradition that had grown up of letting landowners acquire more land, on which mines and other factories could be built, while swarming millions of the proletariat had no land whatsoever. He is particularly upset that this tradition – the crazy, disorganised and blatantly unfair distribution of land – had continued in America which some people had hoped would be a more rational utopia but with which, by 1906, Wells was thoroughly disillusioned.

The implication of the repeated references to unfair land distribution is that nationalising all land, abolishing the private ownership of land, is the only way to creating the basis for equality.

But if you ask whether Wells was a genuine socialist, I think the answer might well be No. What comes over from all his novels is not a careful analysis of the means of production and distribution and a fictional dramatisation of how these can be seized by the working class.

What comes over from his novels are cosmic visions of vast realms of space and time against which humanity is a mere insect. The point of The Time Machine and of The War of the Worlds is how puny and petty our present-day human concerns are compared to the vastness of the solar system and the knowledge that there are countless other life forms in the universe who are completely indifferent to us, to his visions of a future planet earth on which humanity has ceased to exist, and it doesn’t matter.

I picture to myself this thing happening in space, a planetary moment, the faint smudge, the slender whirl of meteor, drawing nearer to this planet – this planet like a ball, like a shaded rounded ball, floating in the void, with its little, nearly impalpable coat of cloud and air, with its dark pools of ocean, its gleaming ridges of land. And as that midge from the void touches it, the transparent gaseous outer shell clouds in an instant green and then slowly clears again. . . .

The Fabians made sensible proposals about to how to improve the lot of the working classes through better building regulations, hygiene, water and gas and electricity provision, shorter working hours and so on. Wells paid lip service to all this but couldn’t help, wherever he turns his eye, being overwhelmed by the sheer futility of human existence. Futility is a word which rings through all these books. Love is futile. Individuals are futile. War is futile. The whole social order is futile.

The golden earth and sky seemed like a little bubble that floated in the globe of human futility.

In The Time Machine the narrator reflects on the futile effort to create civilisations which have vanished, is afflicted by the futile attempts of the pretty young Eloi he befriends to understand him, calls the entire race of Eloi ‘a mere beautiful futility’.

One of the most powerful results of the sojourn of the narrator on The Island of Dr Moreau is the way it leaves him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavour. ‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

The net effect of The War of the Worlds is both to make you realise what petty, powerless things human beings are, playthings before the mighty powers of the universe – but also that the Martians themselves are prey to the tiniest enemy, the terrestrial bacteria which kill them.

Wells’s fundamental worldview is the heartless, brutal materialism of Darwin, as passed on to him directly by Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, who personally taught Wells at the South Kensington Science Institute in the 1880s.

We have come into being through a tumult of blind forces.

We are made for the struggle for existence – we ARE the struggle for existence; the things that live are the struggle for existence incarnate…

This is Darwinism raw.

In The Food of the Gods, Wells helps the reader come to see the entire present order of things as a mere stepping stone to the next level of evolution, to the coming of the giants, epitomised in the character of the uneducated giant, Caddles, who has no idea why he exists or what anybody is doing. Here he is, straddling Piccadilly, looking down at the multitudes of little people, and afflicted with a sense of complete pointlessness:

None of them seemed to see, as he could do, the drink-sodden wretchedness of the painted women at the corner, the ragged misery that sneaked along the gutters, the infinite futility of all this employment. The infinite futility! (The Food of the Gods Book III, Chapter 3)

At the climax of that novel, as the protagonist Redwood argues with the anti-giant Prime Minister, Caterham, ‘The more he talked the more certain Redwood’s sense of stupendous futility grew.’ (Book III, Chapter 4)

So it should come as no surprise to find the same note sounded again and again in In The Days of The Comet. Here is young Willie’s thoughts as he leaves his childhood home:

It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity. And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight, to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous, how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels, a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshipers in church, the public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism, with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.

‘Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.’

That is the true Wellsian note. His vision isn’t of a fair and equal society, to set alongside the utopian views of Edward Bellamy or William Morris. It is of apocalyptic wars, alien invasions, cosmic events and far futurity which make all human effort seem like ‘groping imbecility’.

Poor little angry, miserable creature! Poor little angry, miserable world!

All that said, the second half of the In The Days of the Comet – After the Change – does make a sustained effort to paint a lyrical picture of a socialist paradise in which everyone collaborates to build a better life for everyone else. It is powerfully, forcefully and lyrically described, at length, along with practical aspects of the New World, like the destruction of all the old towns and cities and the building of new, rationally laid out urban centres lined with clean, well-lit, healthy and hygienic dwellings, and the availability of free higher education to all, and the limiting of work to only what is required and only what human beings can enjoyably supply.

The second half of the book does bear comparison with the ‘After’ scenarios painted by Bellamy and Morris in their utopias. But the grip of the book, its bite and punch, come from the narrator’s anger and frustration at the glaring inequality, the poverty and misery, and the million subtle social slights which the poor and lower middle class have to endure from their hoity-toity superiors, which really drive the first half. And then the sense of the vast cosmic transformation which has undertaken mankind.

And the glaring drawback of the book is that, to get to that Ideal Future, the reader has to swallow the notion that the very air we breathe has been transformed by unknown chemicals from a passing comet. Which is not a very practical political policy.

Goodbye Fabians

All of which makes it no surprise to learn that the Fabian Society expelled Wells in 1908.

The other Fabians came to dislike his flashiness, irresponsibility and sexual adventurism. It is typical of his restless magpie mind that a book which was meant to turn into a vision of a socialist utopia instead leads up to a description of the Free Love which very much suited Wells and his philandering ways.

There is always another distraction in a book by Wells, always another shiny new idea or invention which he suddenly wants to share with you, and which leads him wandering away from the book’s ostensible topic.

In response to their criticisms of him, Wells went on to satirise the two leading Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in his 1910 novel, The New Machiavelli but, in the event, it was their modest, top-down vision of a soft socialist nanny state which was to triumph – albeit not till after the Second World War.

And although Well’s predictions of worldwide war and disaster did come true, particularly in the inferno of the Second World War, the final verdict on the visionary inconsequentiality of Well’s vast and voluminous writings is the way almost all of them sank into the almost complete obscurity after that war.

He wrote over a hundred books and God knows how many articles. Nowadays only half a dozen of the best sci-fi and four or five of his Edwardian comedies of manners survive.

Relying on comets from outer space to bring about social change turned out not to be a very practical option.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – 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 – 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 – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – 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 – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – 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 – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – 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

Other science fiction reviews

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

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
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

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
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

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
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, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew 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

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 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
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down 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 ‘trilogy’ describing 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
1953 Childhood’s End a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
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 to solve a murder mystery
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
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust 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
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 New York
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 galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous with Rama a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
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, namely the 1950s

A Shropshire Lad by AE Housman(1896)

The Classics professor Alfred Edward Housman surprised his students and colleagues when, in 1896, he published a collection of 63 short lyric poems which his publisher persuaded him to title A Shropshire Lad. Tennyson was responsible for the view that poetry should be pure and lyrical, flying far above the sordid realities of Victorian England. His acolyte Francis Palgrave produced a Golden Treasury of English Verse (1861) which selected with care only the purest of thin, high, quavering lyrical poetry from the previous 450 years of hugely varied verse and poetry.

The poems in A Shropshire Lad continue down that narrowing avenue, producing short, rhyming verse which aspires to a purity untainted by real-life diction or attitudes or events or activities, instead creating a set of bloodless variations on half a dozen stock sentimental themes: the soldier going off to war; handsome young men doomed to die young because they are different, either through suicide or fighting or being hanged for crimes of passion: in short, the narcissistic mentality of an angsty 15-year old.

All this is set in a largely fictional Shropshire of the mind, an imaginary, a Platonic Form of an English rural county which, however, has been taken over by Thomas Hardy and is populated by lads (18-21) who woo lasses who are either reluctant or die young and are carried to the churchyard where they join the other restless souls underground, at which the lads leave their depressing lives to take the Queen’s shilling and go fight in one of the Empire’s countless little wars, or stay at home to become bad ‘uns, to murder or rob and swing for it (Housman is morbidly obsessed with hanging).

The extreme purity of the vocabulary, the idealised English landscape and the teenage sentimentality of the thoughts made it a surprise bestseller. I was interested to learn from the Wikipedia article that the Boer War had an impact on its sales and influence, that “Housman’s nostalgic depiction of rural life and young men’s early deaths struck a chord with English readers”. Of course this chord was to ring even louder during and after the vastly more terrible slaughter of the Great War, and established Housman’s thin pallid verse as a coffee-table favourite.

Poem XL

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Why, the sceptical reader is tempted to ask, can you not go there again? Oh because I can’t, I am doomed, I am a lost soul, oh can’t you see, oh growing up is sooo hard. Surely it is not only the rural setting which represents an escape from the urban life most of us lead, but the essentially adolescent sentiments of the verse which represent a Hollyoaks-style escape from the complex problems of adult life, careers, money, wives and children, which underpin its enduring appeal.

Various of the 63 lyrics have been set by various composers, most notably George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney. For my money the Butterworth settings are head and shoulders above the others; with his music these pallid lyrics achieve a depth and resonance the words alone lack made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Butterworth himself was killed in the Great War and so his songs about doomed young men have a horrible irony.

1895

1895 was a year of endings and beginnings in English literature and beyond:

Endings

The long series of gripping tales and stories spun by master teller Robert Louis Stevenson had ended when he died on the Pacific island of Upolu on December 3rd 1894. He had completed the long short story The Ebb-Tide (1894), but left unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which was published posthumously, as were his 20 Fables and a final volume of verse, Songs of Travel and Other Verses, in 1896.

Two major careers ended in 1895. On 14th February Oscar Wilde‘s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened at St James’s Theatre, London, and was an immediate success, a triumph of wit, artifice and stagecraft. Within days the Marquess of Queensberry – outraged by Wilde’s relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas – had accused Wilde of sodomy and begun the nightmareish sequence of events which led to Wilde being put on trial and, on 25 May, being found guilty of seven counts of gross indecency with other men. He received the maximum sentence, 2 years hard labour, emerging from his ordeal a broken man, and dying just three years later he died, aged 46, in exile in Paris.

A backlash began against not only Wilde, whose name was erased from playbills and whose books went underground, but against the whole cult of beauty, the aestheticism which had been a major strand of late Victorian culture. A mood of revulsion set in against the dandyism, the metropolitan decadence of the London literati and artists. The pre-Raphaelites who had sown the seeds of the cult, and some of its leading lights, were to pass away in the next few years:

  • In 1895 William Morris published three minor works while he prepared his beautiful illustrated edition of Chaucer, the Kelmscott Chaucer, which was published the following year. But only a few months later, on October 1896, aged only 61, the great pre-Raphaelite painter, poet, novelist, textile-maker and revolutionary died.
  • In June 1898 the pre-Raphaelite giant Sir Edward Burne-Jones who had designed the woodcuts for his friend Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, himself passed away.
  • From the younger generation, the scandalous caricaturist and illustratorAubrey Beardsley died aged only 25 in June 1898.
  • In 1895 Sir Frederick Leighton, purveyor of sumptuous paintings of the classical past, exhibited one of his enduring masterpieces, ‘Flaming June’, a symphony of colours. In January 1896 he passed away.

Flaming June (1895) by Sir Frederick Leighton

Another literary sex scandal ended a brilliant career in 1895. Thomas Hardy, aged 56, published his last novel, Jude the Obscure. It had begun magazine serialisation in December 1894 and continued through to November 1895 when it was published in book format and met with a storm of abuse for its supposed immorality. ‘Jude the Obscene’ one reviewer called it, and the bishop of Wakefield notoriously claimed to have burned his copy. The fierceness of the criticism which greeted Jude (and had also greeted his earlier masterpiece, Tess of the Durbevilles, 1891) led Hardy to abandon novel writing. The philistine English public had claimed another scalp. He never wrote another novel, though he continued to publish poetry until his death in 1928.

Imperialism 

The mood was changing, swinging away from art for art’s sake and towards the prophets of Imperialism, to Kipling and his epigones. The Jameson Raid (29 December 1895 – 2 January 1896) was a botched raid on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic carried out by a British colonial leader, Leander Starr Jameson, and his Rhodesian and Bechuanaland policemen over the New Year weekend of 1895–96. It was meant to trigger an uprising by British expatriate workers in the Transvaal (known as Uitlanders) and so justify a British military invasion, but failed to do so. Weeks later, in January 1896, the Tory journalist Alfred Austin published a Kiplingesque ballad, Jameson’s Ride, celebrating the entirely illegal and foolish act. Later in the year Austin was appointed Poet Laureate.

Sir Henry Newbolt followed his stirring poem Vita Lampada (‘Play up, play up and play the game!’) with the patriotic collection, Admirals All (1897) featuring the patriotic classic, Drake’s Drum. The new mood was to reach a kind of crescendo in the jingoism of the Boer War years, and then slowly recede to reveal the solid and suburban Edwardian novelists, Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy.

Beginnings

Within months of Stevenson’s death a new voice had emerged to tell stories of the South Seas, of the Far East, and to continue Stevenson’s mordant scepticism about the ‘benefits’ of Empire for native peoples, Joseph Conrad whose first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published on 29 April 1895 in the midst of the furore surrounding the Wilde trials.

And as the Aestheticism of the 18970s and 1880s came to a climax and was abruptly garrotted, a completely new strain of writing was emerging in the hands of the 28 year-old Herbert George Wells which was to thrive and prosper into the new century. The Time Machine, serialised from January to May 1895 in W.E. Henley’s magazine the New Review, then published in book form in May 1895 – ie exactly contemporary with the Wilde trials – was the first in the long and prolific career of Wells, the godfather of science fiction. He also published ‘The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents’, his first volume of (15) fantasy and science fiction stories. No decadence from Wells, though. Even if the ideas in the science fiction questioned the meaning and endurance of Western ‘civilisation’ (for example in Wells’s classic The War of The Worlds, 1898), they did so using manly chaps as heroes.

(Talking of discourses which were to dominate the 20th century, unknown to all these authors and artists, the obscure Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud was speculating that his patients’ neuroses were possibly the results of suppressed childhood sexual traumas, and also wondering whether our dreams might reveal the return of these suppressed memories but in concealed and symbolic forms. Both these insights took place in the pivotal year 1895, though he only published his first short papers on the subject the next year, and The Interpretation of Dreams wasn’t published until 1899…)

Art Nouveau

On 1 January 1895 the streets of Paris were plastered by a new poster advertising the play ‘Gismonda’ by Victorien Sardou, featuring Sarah Bernhardt, designed by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. The poster was to crystallise many aspects of the style which came to be known as Art Nouveau.

‘Gismonda’ by Alfons Mucha

In December 1895 German art dealer Siegfried Bing opened his famous gallery, the Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Henry van de Velde designed the interior of the gallery, while Louis Comfort Tiffany supplied stained glass. These displays became so strongly associated with the style that the name of his gallery subsequently provided a commonly used term for the entire style.

Business as usual

Through all these changes and shifts in mood other Victorian writers continued their careers, with varying degrees of success:

George Meredith, 65, published The Amazing Marriage.

Henry James, 56, was booed offstage on the opening night, January 5, of his play Guy Domville at London’s St James’s Theatre. As coincidence would have it, the play was taking off after just four weeks to make way for Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s nemesis the Marquis of Queensberry had tried to gatecrash the first night in order to denounce Wilde from the audience but Wilde had the police blockade the building. Two historic first nights within a month of each other!

George Bernard Shaw, 39, helped found the London School of Economics which held its first classes in October; he began a three-year stint as drama critic for Frank Harris’s ‘Saturday Review’, and wrote a play, The Man of Destiny.

George Gissing, 38, most famous for New Grub Street, published three novels, Eve’s RansomThe Paying Guest and Sleeping Fires.

Rudyard Kipling, 29, published The Second Jungle Book.

Arthur Symons, 30, published London Nights.

The ever-prolific Henry Rider Haggard, 39, published Joan Haste, Heart of the World and a serious tome on Church and State.

In verse, WB Yeats, 30, published ‘Poems, verse and drama’, the first edition of his collected poems containing ‘The Countess Cathleen’, ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’, ‘The Wanderings of Usheen’ and the poetry collections ‘The Rose’ and ‘Crossways’.

Politics 

Another eminent Victorian’s career came to an end when, in May 1895, William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the Liberal party, resigned as an MP, having resigned as Prime Minister the year before. Tennyson had died in 1892. The politician and the poet for many people embodied the Victorian period, its art and values and politics. Their passing marked a watershed in literature and the broader culture.

A New Mood

Dead or silent were Tennyson, Gladstone and Hardy, masters of long poems, long speeches, long novels. The future belonged to the shorter, pithier tales of Conrad, Wells and Kipling, Bennett and Galsworthy, the Fabians and Edwardians. The new writers, whatever their personal proclivities, were to depict a homely Home Counties version of Englishness, in abreaction both to the metropolitan decadence of Wilde’s circle and to the melodramatic jingoism of Kipling, Austen, Newbolt. Even the cosmopolitan Kipling was to catch the new mood by settling in Sussex and writing innocent children’s stories set among the rolling Downs, Puck of Pook’s Hill.

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