Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Death of Grass

Thank God for the blogosphere. Last month I recommended several blogs, one of which was the excellent Bookseller Crow. Mr Crow found my recommendation and reciprocated by posting one of his own, the brilliant Caustic Cover Critic. I clicked on the link and found a kindred spirit - someone who has a fascination with apocalyptic novels. CCC recommended several books by John Christopher and as a result, I have read six of his novels within the last month.

Yesterday I finished The Death of Grass, which is widely regarded as John Christopher's best work and has, regretably, been acclaimed as the finest science fiction novel of all time. I say regretably because this novel deserves a wider readership. If The Death of Grass is sci-fi, then so is Cormac McCarthy's The Road and a number of other novels I could mention. I believe that speculative or apocalyptic novels like these are a sub-genre within mainstream fiction.

Christopher is no Cormac McCarthy, but The Death of Grass is a compelling novel about the human condition and in an age where we are increasingly concerned about the end of oil, it is as relevant as it was 50 years ago.

Why isn't this book in print today? Like some of John Christopher's other novels, the dialogue and attitudes are dated. Do we really need to be told that a person is swarthy and Jewish-looking unless it's somehow relevant to the narrative? Also, comments like 'the kind of failure in thoroughness that might be expected of Asiatics' will grate with most contemporary readers. However, for all its faults, The Death of Grass is an extraordinary, visionary novel.

I think many of us are increasingly aware how fragile contemporary society is. It is not just the prospects of global warming, terrorism, nuclear war or the end of oil that threaten us, but also the fact that we are so interdependent. As individuals we are extremely vulnerable. Our grandparents' generation were more likely to know basic skills like growing vegetables, knitting, sewing and carpentry. What would we do today if the supply chain suddenly ground to a halt, for whatever reason?

The Death of Grass offers the likely answer. In an over-populated country like Britain, the competition for resources would inevitably lead to social collapse within a short space of time. There is nothing like hunger to break down the veneer of civilisation.

I hope that some forward-thinking publisher reissues this novel. With a decent jacket and an imaginative marketing campaign, The Death of Grass could find a whole new generation of readers. In the meantime, second-hand copies are selling for at least £25 on Ebay.

NB - Penguin reissued this novel in 2009 as part of their Modern Classics series.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Adventurous Four

I was quite a sickly child and at ten, spent a year in an old-fashioned sanitorium. I don't remember it as a particularly distressing time. On the contrary, the prospect of not going to school and spending all day reading Enid Blyton books seemed too good to be true. I read and re-read the Famous Five, Secret Seven, Five Find Outers and even the Naughtiest Girl series. I liked them much more than some of the worthy but dull children's classics I received as Christmas presents.

I thought I'd read almost everything by Enid Blyton, but the other day I spotted a book in a charity shop called The Adventurous Four. It was only £1 (no full price books for me anymore), so I decided to buy it for my oldest son's bedtime story. At first he seemed underwhelmed by the narrative, but I persevered and by chapter five he was hooked, begging me not to stop.

It's a corker of a story, written as a morale-booster for British children during the Second World War. The Adventurous Four consist of Tom, his twin sisters Jill and Mary and Andy, a local boy from the Scottish fishing village they are staying in. Their adventure begins when a simple boat trip goes horribly wrong and the children find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island.

I know that some people hate Enid Blyton's books for their implausible plots, casual racism, two-dimensional characters, negative portrayals of women, jolly hockysticks dialogue and leaden prose, but there is a reason for their enduring popularity. Blyton taps into every child's fantasy, creating a world in which children are almost completely independent. Parents, aunts and uncles are peripheral figures and seem quite unperturbed when their kids disappear for several days at a time. The only grown-ups who are allowed a more significant role in the narrative are the baddies.

As I read The Adventurous Four to my son, it was clear that the main appeal of the story was the ingenuity of the children in dealing with the challenges they faced. When they successfully freed their shipwrecked boat from the rocks, he clapped his hands with excitement. Blyton's world, in which children are independent, competent, courageous and resourceful is far more attractive to the average eight-year-old child than some of the more critically acclaimed works of fiction.

I hope that my son isn't too heavily influenced by Enid Blyton. A few weeks ago I found him digging a huge hole in the garden and only later remembered that we'd recently watched The Great Escape together. If he starts saying 'Dash it!' then I'll know who the culprit is.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


The good times are over. A life of poverty beckons. It's 'Goodbye Waitrose, hello Asda!' and as for going on holiday, forget it. It's not as if I had much money to start with. I have never earned more than £25,000 a year, which I'm told is the average salary these days, but somehow we always seemed to get by, until now. As from last Thursday, my income has dropped by over 50%.

This should feel like a huge setback, but I feel strangely elated. I have spent a long time dreading this moment, but I now understand that the fear of being poor has enslaved me far more than any drop in income. After several months of living frugally I have realised how much money we used to waste and although we will now have to count every penny, I doubt that our quality of life will suffer.

I apologise for being a little enigmatic. I will explain fully at a later date, but for the moment discretion is the better part of valour.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The World in Winter

I've just finished my second John Christopher novel, The World in Winter, which was so compelling that I almost managed to read it in one sitting. Once again the parallels with John Wyndham were striking and I wonder if Christopher would be more popular today if he hadn't been consigned to the ghetto of science fiction. My edition was published by the SF/fantasy publisher Sphere and if I'd seen it on the shelf I wouldn't have bothered picking it up.

John Wyndham used to complain that his novels were speculative fiction rather than SF - a term that has since been adopted by many authors. Margaret Atwood used it to describe her brilliant novel Oryx and Crake, claiming that speculative fiction is a genre in its own right. I'm sure that if John Christopher was 'rebranded ' as one of the finest exponents of this genre, he might start to receive the recognition he deserves.

As for the book itself, it begins as a straightforward catastrophe story in which Britain quickly finds itself in the grip of a new ice age. At first life continues as normal but when spring fails to materialise, rationing and martial law are swiftly followed by rioting, looting and social collapse. At this point the novel suddenly changes gear and it soon becomes apparent what the novel's true purpose is.

I will not give the plot away, except to say that this is a story about racial prejudice and the relationship between Britain and its former colonies in Africa. From a present day perspective it makes an uncomfortable read and I suspect that one reason why it hasn't been reprinted by a mainstream publisher is the preponderance of words like negro, nigger, sambo, mammy and darkie. It is also hard to see where Christopher is coming from. Is he bravely confronting the ugly realities of racism or giving voices to his own prejudices? On the one hand the novel seems to delight in seeing the relationship between black and white reversed - a reflection of the fact that Britain's African colonies were all gaining independence during this period. But at times it felt as if the demise of the white man is the novel's true disaster. This would certainly be a good book for reading groups to discuss!

Next on the list is The Death of Grass if I can find a copy that doesn't cost the earth. At the moment they seem to be selling on Ebay for at least £30, even for a battered old Penguin, so it might be some time before I read it. Perhaps I'll sell a few unwanted CDs to pay for it, as my financial circumstances are a little precarious at the moment (I'll explain why in the next post).

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ends of the World

One of the best book related blogs I've read recently is Caustic Cover Critic, which claims that it is one man's endless ranting about book design, but in fact is so much more.

A common thread running through his blog is dystopian fiction and after reading a posting about John Christopher, the scandalously neglected author of the Tripods trilogy, I decided to try one of his adult novels, A Wrinkle in the Skin.

Caustic Cover Critic (henceforth to known as CCC) has made favourable comparisons to John Wyndham and on the strength of this novel I would agree. John Christopher may not be Dostoyevsky, but A Wrinkle in the Skin was an intelligent, well-paced novel with believable characters and a scenario that was depressingly plausible once you'd got past the fairly implausible premise.

In a nutshell, a series of huge earthquakes rocks the planet, destroying almost every building and killing the vast majority of the population. The world that remains is reminiscent of the excellent BBC drama series Survivors, although in this novel there aren't even homes to provide sanctuary. The remaining humans inherit a world in which the infrastructures of modern life have been completely destroyed and there are insufficient crops and animals left to provide them with food.

How would people behave in this situation? Would we ensure our mutual survival through co-operation or would the strong prey mercilessly on the weak? In Christopher's world, some humans will try to maintain the remnants of civilisation whilst others will quickly regress to a state in which murder, rape and theft become the norm. In a telling passage, the main character is upbraided for his naivety by a woman who has been attacked several times:

What was your idea of what's happened? Who do you think survived? Just the teachers and bank clerks and local government officers, with some nice honest policemen, and perhaps the chief constable of the county as President? That's the way it ought to have been. But things weren't done nearly as neatly as that. What did you expect, for God's sake? The orderly people, the people who could plan more than a few days ahead, have always been in a minority.

According to CCC, Christopher has written better novels than this so I look forward to reading them. The Death of Grass has been voted the best science fiction novel of all time and The World in Winter is supposed to be very good too. So why are most of John Christopher's novels either out of print or available in crude reprints?

On the strength of A Wrinkle in the Skin, I am impressed by John Christopher, or Sam Youd, to use his real name.

Aside from the fact that I approve of any writer who wears a cravat (not sure about the specs though), I can't understand why so many of Sam Youd's novels are unavailable when John Wyndham's remain in print. Let's hope that an enlightened publisher remedies this situation.

In the meantime, if you have any interest in dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels, here is an excellent list on Wikipedia.

Friday, March 14, 2008

His Excellency Eugene Rougon

The sixth book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart is an improvement on its predecessor but it's easy to see why no-one has commissioned a modern translation. The plot of the novel is as follows: Eugene Rougon, who is one of the chief figures in Napoleon III's government, is forced to resign. He spends a while in the political wilderness until he makes a spectacular comeback. Sadly he gets too big for his boots and ends up having to resign again. Then he starts to make another comeback. The end.

As a novel His Excellency doesn't work. The plot creaks along slowly and when it does change gear it is done in a way that is clumsy and uncompelling. However the book does have its merits. On the one hand it is a fascinating portrait of France during the rule of Louis Napoleon and even features the Emperor as one of the characters. Zola is clearly not a fan of the Second Empire, but his portrait of Napoleon III is balanced and plausible. Some of the historical references went over my head, but luckily I found a copy of the Penguin History of Modern France in a local charity shop for £1.

In Zola's novels, France in the mid-nineteenth century is ruled by a cabal of corrupt, greedy politicians who are more concerned with lining their own pockets (and those of their friends) than the glory of France. The historical accuracy of the Rougon Macquart novels is one of their chief merits, but at times I think the demands of fiction are subservient to Zola's desire for authenticity. His Excellency is a case in point.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Post script

When I was 11-years-old I became friends with a boy whose parents were divorced. I'd never met anyone whose mother and father lived apart and I remember feeling quite jealous that he had two homes. In my eyes divorce had a glamorous, film star quality about it and this was compounded when I first met the father, a dashing, ex-army man who spoke in clipped tones and drove a fast car.

Every Sunday he drove us to an army range near Aldershot, where we would scour the scorched heathland for abandoned cartridges, bullets and clips, which we would later assemble into machine gun belts and parade around the streets like Mexican bandits. Occasionally we found live ammunition and once I decided to sneak a few rounds home. Later, in my father's garage, I placed the cartridges in a vice and prepared to strike them with a hammer. My dad's unexpected entrance probably saved my life. He was utterly appalled and I've always wondered whether this incident prompted him to encourage me to collect stamps.

It worked. I soon lost interest in weapons and became obsessed with my stamp collection, visiting stamps fairs and dealers every week. I kept a meticulous record of my purchases and noted the catalogue value of each item and how much of a profit I had made. I was quite the young businessman.

Then puberty arrived and almost overnight, the stamp collection lost its allure. My albums went into storage and ever since I have been convinced that I was sitting on a small fortune which I could cash in on a rainy day. Recently the rainy day arrived and I dusted down the albums and looked at the stamps for the first time in years.

I was struck both by the futility of stamp collecting and the beauty of some of the stamps. For example, this King George VI stamp from Trinidad and Tobago is a minor work of art:

But what about their value? I decided to check the internet and see how much they had increased in price. After several hours of exhaustive searching and careful cross-referencing I discovered that my great collection, the result of several years' labour, is worth bugger all.

There seems to have been some sort of Wall Street Crash in the stamp world, or maybe a South Sea Bubble. Either way, many are worth no more than their face value. Indeed I might start using my 1970s mint condition British stamps on normal correspondence. As for the George VI high value definitives, which included the rare 10/- dark blue, I manged to sell them on Ebay for less than a fiver.

What a waste of time. I should have stuck to the bullets.

I could have been a successful arms dealer by now.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


I was recently sorting through my wife's family photos when I found one that particularly caught my eye...

Obviously the Penguin paperback alerted my book radar, but that aside, it is a wonderful photo. The natural light, depth of field and composition make this more than a snapshot, although I'm told that it was probably taken spontaneously as there were no keen photographers in the family.

This image of a 1940s woman reading the latest Evelyn Waugh would look good in any Penguin advertising campaign for modern classics.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Curious Incident of the Captain Pugwash Double Entendres

In his 1992 book The Golden Age of Children's Television, Geoff Tibballs mentioned that some of the names in the BBC cartoon Captain Pugwash were a little rude. It was hardly a controversial claim. When I was a student, everyone I knew joked about the nautical double entendres that went over their heads when they were kids.

Little did Tibballs realise that his casual reference would nearly result in the book being pulped within weeks of publication.

Apparently the creator of Pugwash, John Ryan, got wind of Tibballs' anecdote and took great offence. It was, he claimed, completely untrue that there were any sexual innuendos in Captain Pugwash and Ryan was outraged that these rumours were given credence by appearing in print. Ryan decided to take matters further. Legal action was threatened and Titan Books were faced with the prospect of having to withdraw the book and pulp it.

Fortunately a compromise was reached (albeit a rather silly one) and stickers were sent out to every bookshop in the land accompanied by a letter asking for them to be placed in every copy. I kept a spare one and have treasured it ever since!

So apparently we were all wrong. There were no rude names in Captain Pugwash and the rumour must have been an urban myth. How disappointing.

I forgot all about this story until yesterday, when I decided to watch a DVD of Pugwash that came free with a newspaper a few weeks ago. After the opening credits had finished, Captain Pugwash appeared on the ship's deck and started issuing orders to a character called Master Bates.

Master Bates?

I pressed rewind just to make sure that I wasn't mis-hearing it.

So was Ryan fibbing when he denied the innuendo, or did he and the crew responsible for Captain Pugwash fail to spot the obvious unfortunate connotations? I know that it was a more innocent age, but even so...

I watched the remaining episodes, desperately hoping that the mythical Seaman Stains would appear, but sadly he didn't exist.

POST SCRIPT - I have informed by more than one source that it is Master Mates, not Bates (although it sounds suspiciously like Bates), so I stand corrected. However, I forgot to mention that one of the other characters was called Pirate Willy, so as far as I'm concerned the jury's still out!