Thursday, April 08, 2021

the last book I read

The Death Of Grass by John Christopher.

Ah, Britain. Where the sun shines (even if it rains a bit in between, as is only right and proper), people are civilised and life is generally trouble-free. A good, clean country, free of any of those nasty foreign germs that they have, you know, over there. But WAIT A MINUTE: something nasty is brewing in China; a new virus that, while originally seeming to be contained, eventually spreads across Asia and continental Europe and starts to batter at the gates of God's Own Country. Can people, on an individual basis, survive? Can civilisation, in a more general sense, survive?

You can see where I'm going with this, I'm sure. But, for the moment, this is where The Death Of Grass starts. The difference between this and that thing that you're all thinking of right now is (and I suppose the book's title is a bit of a giveaway here) that the virus is one which affects plants, specifically grasses. Feh, so a few people's lawns die, you might say, no biggie, but remember that the grass family comprises just about all the world's major grain crops. The first variant of what becomes known as the Chung-Li virus only affects plants of the Oryza genus, in other words rice. Bad for China, not so bad for Europe. But an apparently successful attempt by the Chinese to develop a crop spray to combat the virus has an unexpected side-effect: a minor strain of the virus, hitherto overshadowed by the voracity of the rice-specific variant, proves not only to be resistant to the spray, but, more importantly, to have a much wider appetite extending to all the members of the Gramineae family, which includes, wheat, barley, rye, oats, you name it. 

Let's meet some people: John Custance, the novel's main protagonist, a civil engineer and a generally resourceful and level-headed sort of guy, and his old friend Roger Buckley, a senior civil servant and a guy with a generally more cynical outlook. It's Roger's connections which allow him to get wind of the new wheat-destroying virus strain before it's official news, and furthermore to learn of the government's plan for what to do if things go properly disastrous: drop nuclear bombs on various major cities to vaporise the inhabitants and stop them spilling out into the surrounding country, which cannot produce enough food to sustain more than a fraction of them anyway.

John and Roger decide that a quick getaway from London is highly advisable. Roger also deems it highly advisable to acquire some firearms first, and so they stop off at a gun shop run by an acquaintance of Roger's, with the intention of overpowering him and taking some of his stock. It doesn't quite work out like that, as the gun-seller, Pirrie, is a bit more formidable than they'd expected, but on hearing their story he decides to tool up and come with them. 

They're only a few miles into their journey when they discover that they're already too late to just slip out of London unmolested, and they have to commit murder at a military roadblock to get away. It is clear that the flimsy trappings of civilised society are being shaken off quicker than anyone expected, and further proof is provided when the Custance's car is ambushed at a level crossing and John's wife Ann and teenage daughter Mary are taken away and gang-raped. Further retributive murderings are required to rescue them.

The group's intended destination is John's brother David's farm up in Westmorland (i.e. the southern part of what is now Cumbria). They make good progress as a three-car convoy but the roads are a conspicuous way to travel and eventually the inevitable happens and they are stopped at another roadblock (an unofficial one this time) on the outskirts of Masham. The party manning the roadblock relieve them of their cars and guns and leave them to set out on foot for the remainder of their journey. 

Progress is slow, as the Custances and Buckleys have their children with them (thankfully mostly teenagers), and it is clear that you need to be well-equipped, armed and ruthless to survive. Pirrie turns out to be all three of those things as, having concealed a gun from the raiding party earlier, he leads a raid on a farmhouse to restock with food and guns, regrettably having to murder some people in the process. Pirrie's ruthlessness turns out to have some unpalatable side-effects, though, as he then murders his own wife, Millicent (who has been serially unfaithful to him and clearly has her eye on John Custance), the calculation presumably being that he wanted to, she was not indispensable to the group in the same way as he was, and there were no longer likely to be any consequences for doing so. Furthermore he decides to take Jane, the daughter of the couple he murdered at the farmhouse and who they have brought with them, as his new wife slash sex-slave, because, again, who's going to stop him?

The group presses on, making use of now-unused railway lines to progress northwards, and acquiring more people on the way, something Custance feels is advisable to present a less enticing target for rival groups. By the time they arrive at the valley containing David's farm there are over thirty of them. 

Job done, though, right? Just have a chat with David, get his guys to swing open the big gate, have a nice cup of tea and wait for all this to blow over. Weeeeeell it's not quite that simple. John and David get to talk, but the situation is delicate: there are already too many people in the valley, and let's not forget everyone's going to be living on potatoes for the next few years, assuming they can grow enough. David has made it clear to his colleagues that John and family are to be admitted if they show up, but there's no way they can allow thirty-odd people in. John doesn't have Ann and the kids with him while this conversation is taking place, as Pirrie, the wily old fox, has kept them back to ensure they don't do exactly what David is now suggesting. i.e. slip inside, give everyone else the bird, nice cup of tea, etc.

So what to do now? John now has to make the regrettable decision that he can't allow his party to be kept out, even if it's on his brother's say-so. So he uses a bit of childhood knowledge (the farm used to belong to his grandfather) to navigate a safe course up the fast-flowing river that is spanned by the fence, get through to the other side and plug the men at the machine-gun emplacement before they know what's happening. Once the immediate risk of being machine-gunned inside-out has passed John opens the gate to the rest of his group and they take over command of the farm and valley. There have been some casualties, though: Pirrie took a bullet during the raid on the machine-gun emplacement and is dead, and so is David, who just happened to be taking a turn manning the gun when the raid happened.

Questions remain, with plenty of time to consider them. Will the people now barricaded into the valley be able to retain their civilised ways, especially after the cold-blooded killing that was necessary to get to safety in the first place? And what of the future? Will nature find a way to recover? Will the Americans come riding to everyone's rescue? Will there be enough food for everyone? What do you do if you're allergic to potatoes? The novel ends with most of these questions still to be answered.

Smart-arsed readers of speculative fiction like myself will read the plot synopsis on the back cover of this book and go: aha, well, I can see what's going on here, it's all a bit The Day Of The Triffids, isn't it? Those people will furthermore give a bit of a raised eyebrow to the promotional quote on the front cover (taken from the introduction) which compares it to Lord Of The Flies. Having read it I can see a case for saying it's a bit closer to Lord Of The Flies, even though the basic mechanics of the plot resemble The Day Of The Triffids in many ways. I don't really like the phrase "cosy catastrophe" which is usually applied to John Wyndham's work (and was apparently coined by Brian Aldiss who featured in the last post), as it has a sneery edge that I think is unfair, but I do see what it's meant to convey - a disaster happens and some middle-class people are mildly inconvenienced but band together to sort things out and get the kettle on. To lump The Death Of Grass into this genre would be a mistake, though, I think; the novel I've read which it is closest to is probably Cormac McCarthy's The Road (with maybe just an echo of On The Beach here and there). Both books look the inevitable consequences of apocalyptic events in the eye and follow them to their conclusion: John Custance and his crew cold-bloodedly murder people who have resources that they need - even, at the end, his own brother - and when others spot that Custance's wife and daughter are unarmed and inadequately protected they are brutally abducted and raped, and would probably have subsequently been killed if Custance and the others hadn't rescued them. Furthermore Pirrie's taking of Jane as basically his personal sex-slave is greeted with a shrug and an eh, what can you do by the rest of the group. This stuff is far from cosy, and it's hard to imagine any of it happening in a John Wyndham book. Partly for that reason The Death Of Grass feels a lot more modern than, say, The Day Of The Triffids, even though both were published in the 1950s (1956 and 1951 respectively).

The introduction which I briefly alluded to above is by Robert Macfarlane, this being the final book of the three which I got for Christmas for which he wrote the introduction - the other two were Climbers and Rogue Male. This one was written for the 2009 reissue of the book by Penguin after it had been out of print for many years. I highly recommend reading all three of them (the books, I mean, though the introductions are interesting as well).

Finally, yes, of course there are significant parallels between the events of the early part of The Death Of Grass and the events of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular I was put in mind of the early days of the initial lockdown when nobody really knew what was going on, it was almost impossible to get to a supermarket and when you did the shelves had been stripped bare. Newport is a fairly modestly-sized city as cities go but I recall feeling oddly claustrophobic and trapped - I imagine people in London must have had it worse. Obviously things settled down fairly quickly but it was a salutary reminder that the mutually-agreed societal conventions which keep people giving way at roundabouts, staying out of each other's houses and not making makeshift flutes out of each other's femurs are more fragile than you might like to think. Diseases which attack wheat do exist, by the way, and global agriculture is by no means on top of all of them.

John Christopher (who wrote under many names including his real one, Sam Youd) is probably most famous among people of my generation for his young adult novels which were made into the TV series The Tripods in the mid-1980s. I remember watching a handful of episodes and being mildly diverted by it, but my main recollection is that it was terribly slow, especially compared with things like Doctor Who and Blakes 7 with which it shared some superficial similarities. Like both of those it suffered, in hindsight, from the quality of (and budget available for) its special effects. The Death Of Grass was made into a film called No Blade Of Grass (the book's US title) in 1970, featuring a slightly larger number of marauding motorcycle gangs than I remember from the book, and some tremendous work from Voice-Over Guy.

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