uncosy catastrophes

Ever since I finally got round to reading The Death of Grass I have been snacking on the novels of John Christopher (Sam Youd) a British writer of appalling fecundity who was active from the fifties to the Eighties at least. According to his Guardian obit he wrote up to four novels a year and it’s not surprising that there was a certain amount of repetition. Some fraction are being republished — rather as the works of Jack Vance are — in a limited edition, which led me to his other famous adult novel, The World in Winter; and I’ve just finished Pendulum, published in the late Sixties.

They are all catastrophes, in which the breakdown of large-scale civilisation produces a breakdown of the small structures of morality: men emerge as killers and rapists; women as tough and resourceful victims. In The Death of Grass, the catastrophe is a plague which starves most of the world by annihilating rice, wheat, barley, and all other grains. Only potatoes remain as a source of carbohydrates. In The World in Winter it is an ice age, with glaciers returning almost all the way down to London, and white refugees fleeing in boats to Africa, where they are not welcome. In Pendulum, the most dated, it is a Sixties apocalypse: Britain goes broke and gangs of “yobs” on motorbikes take over.

The breakdown of moral order is extremely well done in the first two books and genuinely shocking. In both cases there are conflicts of duty, difficult to resolve. Two brothers end up fighting to the death over possession of a potato patch. A man must choose between loyalty to the friend who saved his life, repeatedly, and to his wife who is pregnant possibly by another man. People find themselves doing things which neither they nor the reader thought themselves capable of, and we care. The scene setting is also extremely well done, especially in The World in Winter. 

Pendulum is much the weakest of the three, though I still gobbled it down. Read fifty years later, it’s mostly illuminating for showing how the fears of Daily Mail readers and Brexit voters have evolved and been racialised in the intervening period. The hero is a successful and decent businessman whose wife is a bit of a bleeding heart liberal. He is loyal to his family, for whom he generously provides. The only cloud on his life is the presence of yobs from the local estates, who vandalise his outbuildings and roar about on motorbikes.

His sister in law is conducting an affair with an unscrupulous and demagogic sociologist, who emerges as the sinister power behind a movement of student revolt. The students — get this — are rioting because their grants have not been increased in line with inflation. The sister in law is a complex and interesting character, with a keen interest in sex. She sees right through her lover, but enjoys, as she later realises, being able to despise his weakness and hunger for affirmation. She also takes up with a police inspector, with whom, she thinks, she has nothing in common but limerance.

Eventually, the students and the yobs combine, as in the cultural revolution, and take over the government. The police stations are sacked and many are killed. There is a wonderful parody of a sycophantic Times leader praising this development. The police inspector takes shelter with his lover and they move out to the mansion in the country. But that has been commandeered by the yobs, and the owner’s family are confined to a couple of rooms at the top of the house.

Things get worse, in ways both predictable and unexpected. Eventually, the yobocracy is overthrown by a fundamentalist Christian uprising — this is surprisingly plausible — and the decent hero ends up in a work camp in the outer Hebrides for helping a yob whom the mob has beaten half to death. The sister in law finds a rather implausible and fragile happiness with the policeman, whose taciturn, competent pessimism turns out to conceal enormous courage and decency*.

So, it’s a straight and skilful exposition of the provincial conservative worldview: hard work and providing for your family is good. Students, layabouts, oiks, and sociologists are all enemies of the people. Religion is good but impractical until it turns bad and frighteningly practical. Women are strong, resourceful and full of agency, but still dependent on a good man to love them. France is remote and hostile but America is benign and will help as much as it can.

But there’s a sort of innocence about this which I don’t see in today’s right wing press. For one thing everyone, to a first approximation, is white. Only at the end, when some characters are sunk in extreme poverty, do they come in contact with a black family, whose cooking smells. But the underclass has not been racialised at all, and class substitutes for Islam as the expression of alien cultural difference.

Then there is the aforementioned idea of student grants.

There is the way the bad times come as a surprise: no sense that the world is rigged against decent people, though there is of course a powerful sense that the world is rigged against decency itself. But that’s tragedy, not resentment.

At the end of the book there are blurbs, in Amazon fashion, for others republished in the same series. In one, a small party get trapped in tunnels under a mountain, and have to make their way for days towards an unknown exit. In another, a small group is trapped on a desert island, and must struggle against the elements etc etc. I was reminded of Robert Graves’s squib


He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits
The formula for comic rabbits paid
Alas, he found he could not change the tragic habits
The formula for drawing comic rabbits made.


* Bet you didn’t see that coming.

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