The Death of Grass – John Christopher

[This is a journal in 3 sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

18 November 2014
Prologue and Chapters 1-5
This was first published in 1956, and in 2014 it feels utterly of its time. Its post-war, post-rationing, middle class milieu makes it interesting as a social document in its own right. It’s very English, but then so were H G Wells’ apocalyptic The War of the Worlds nearly six decades earlier and John Wyndham’s equally apocalyptic The Day of the Triffids of 1951. The science fiction staples of the nuclear or ecological catastrophe were well established in both Britain and America by the mid-1950s: Earth Abides (George R Stewart, 1949) Daybreak, 2250 AD (Andre Norton, 1952) and I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954) all establish the territory, and it’s hard to imagine either this novel or Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) being written at any other time. But I wonder if John Christopher’s concentration on a small band of survivors depending on a siege mentality might be his own invention. You can draw a line directly from The Death of Grass, by way of a lot of other books and movies, straight to The Walking Dead.

At the point I’ve reached, most of the little band have only just managed to escape from London. But John Christopher has set up the siege scenario in advance. The prologue – he calls it a Prodrome, a rather lame play on words as it means the early symptoms of an illness – introduces Blind Gill, a geologically implausible bowl-like valley with only one exit. We also meet the brothers David and John Custance as boys, and are shown their different character-types. (Stolid, thoughtful; adventurous, risk-taking respectively.) David is going to grow up to run the farm in the valley, which is what he’s doing in Chapter 1 in the near future of 1958. John, now a family man, is an architect in London. His friend is Roger, a civil servant – I’m not telling you anything that isn’t relevant – a cynic with a charming wife. So far, so Iris Murdoch. But…

…as they play bridge one evening, the news on the radio is full of the virus in Asia that is killing the rice crop. This is the first the reader has heard of it, but very soon 200 million are dead in China and things are looking bad for the rest of Asia. John Christopher keeps all this very much on the margins of the narrative in these early chapters. As much as the others tell him off about it, Roger’s cynical ‘China is a long way away’ attitude seems to be about right as far as this author is concerned. There are scientists working on an anti-virus, and after not too long it seems to be working. Sure, large parts of Asia are a desert but at least that seems to be the end of it. As if. There’s a strain that hasn’t been killed off – but it affects grasses. Including all cereal crops. It’s a good job it’s weak… but during a visit to David’s farm in the north, he tells John he isn’t taking any risks. He’s going to be planting root crops from now on. And that timber near the valley entrance is for a stockade. You can never be too careful with these pesky viruses.

He’s right, of course. More time passes. The scientists are working on a new anti-virus, and meanwhile there are enough world stocks if people tighten their belts. (You can tell this was written about three years after rationing ended in Britain.) Roger tells John he’ll let him know if the government has a change of plan – it’s useful being a civil servant with contacts who owe you a favour or two. And we guess before John does why one day Roger comes to find him on a building site to tell him something. The new anti-virus isn’t working, so there are going to be massive shortages, starting immediately. Foreign governments are turning back their ships, and a new British government has been sworn in, overnight it seems. The new Prime Minister has a plan which you just wouldn’t believe. (I mean it.) He is going to bomb all the towns and cities in Britain, atom bombs for the smaller ones, hydrogen bombs for the big ones. Clearly, nobody had heard of nuclear winters in 1956. All the roads out of London are to be closed next morning… and so on.

To get out, the men take over. The wife of one of them makes a joke about the women being reduced to mere ‘chattels’, and I’m hoping John Christopher will find a way to subvert the stereotypes soon. Roger insists that one of them should be the leader – shades of Lord of the Flies – and John wins the toss of the coin. And when they are turned back at a road-block that has been set up at least half a day early, it’s Roger who goes back to find a tame gunsmith to help them get through. As John prepares to shoot a soldier we are told that he has ‘killed in the war’ – but he isn’t happy about shooting an innocent Brit. As he drags away the body of one of the three soldiers to hide it, he kisses the side of his head without the bullet wound. Humanity, see. You won’t see Roger doing any of that cissy stuff.

They’ll get to the farm, of course, and David will already have started building the stockade. But I don’t know how things are going to pan out once they get there.

19 November
Chapters 6-8 – the middle third of the novel
I got the emphasis wrong last time. I mentioned the novel’s Englishness, but only in passing before predicting that some standard post-apocalypse tropes would kick in. ‘They’ll get to the farm, of course….’ Hah. They are still two or three days’ march from it after the petrol was forcibly taken from the cars by people who also took most of the guns. What Christopher has gone for is an exploration of the dynamics of a group in which individual members try to retain the standards of a civilised society after this has effectively become impossible. Following the rather arbitrary-seeming toss of the coin that decided the leadership, the focus is largely on one thoroughly decent Englishman. Christopher seems to be inviting comparison with Golding’s Lord of the Flies, published two years earlier, but this novel seems less about how mankind might survive the apocalypse as about what will survive of Englishness.

At the point I’ve reached there’s just been the most blatant affront so far to the ethics of a civilised society. Millicent, the much younger wife of Pirrie the gunsmith, has made yet another pass at John as he stands sentry duty. It’s more an unembarrassed invitation to have sex than a pass, but that isn’t the blatant affront. Pirrie catches her kissing the reluctant John, and confronts them both. He threatens to shoot her and, when John tries to stop him, points out that he is in no position to do so. John himself has killed innocent people since they left London, but it isn’t Pirrie’s argument that forces John’s hand. Pirrie is the one with the gun, and he asks John, ‘Do you concede me my rights?’ John has to face a new reality that horrifies him, and nods. Pirrie shoots her.

Aside from Christopher’s general descriptions of their progress through northern England, the novel is now written entirely from John’s point of view. His leadership, and the decisions he has to keep making on the hoof, are becoming the novel’s main interest. Roger isn’t a leader, but often sounds like the voice of John’s pre-apocalypse conscience. Pirrie, meanwhile, far from having any qualms about doing whatever is necessary for his survival, takes delight in it. Civilised behaviour is a thin veneer for him, and ‘liberty of action’ is what drives him. This seems to mean doing whatever he wants. ‘I have this,’ he says smilingly as he taps his rifle.

And there are the women, the most problematic characters for a modern reader. Olivia, Roger’s wife, is an even stronger voice of conscience. She is the one who insists on taking along the daughter of the farming couple they had killed for their supplies of food. Anne is more complicated. She and their daughter Mary were abducted when their car fell behind the others, and both were raped. Thanks to some Boys’ Own detective skills and Pirrie’s marksmanship they are able to find and shoot the men. Ann empties a magazine of bullets into one of them as he lies wounded, and she still hasn’t got over it yet.

Incidents like theses bring them face-to-face with what now seems to be a historical inevitability. John makes a bitter joke about their descendants, the myths they will tell about smoke-belching monsters that used to cross the land on roads of steel. One of them, perhaps John again, jokes about all their children’s academic promise leading only to a future as potato-grubbers. The humour is paper-thin. They don’t even know if they’ll get to the promised land of ‘the Valley’, and whether there will really be safety there.

So. Killing is necessary for survival, and rape is commonplace. Justice is decided by whoever has the gun – as both Ann and Pirrie have demonstrated in their different ways. All this plays out in the context of an England descending into anarchy. The huddled towns in the blasted Yorkshire landscape is another important feature of this novel’s Englishness. The rural idyll that this green land used to be represented an iconic image of what was being fought for in both World Wars, and is now a sick joke. Its dry-stone walls are useless, its once verdant pastures are black.

In a short-wave radio broadcast they manage to pick up from America, they hear that the Prime Minister and his government are safe there, lying that the supposed intention to bomb most of the population is nothing but a slanderous rumour. The victors – or the survivors at least – are already writing their version of history, relying on what is for them a fiction of British fair play. How could anybody believe such things about British government? Pirrie is the one to smash the radio to pieces, and you can make what you like out of that. Now, it’s time to see if they ever do reach the promised land.

21 November
Chapters 9-13 – to the end
The impossible position that Pirrie puts John into just before he shoots his wife isn’t the first or last in a string of moral dilemmas. Before, we’ve had the shooting of the soldiers, the way they deal with the rapists and, most difficult of all, the shooting of the farmer and his wife for no more than their food. That led to the next dilemma: what to do with Jane, their daughter. John had been all for leaving her, but Olivia makes him see that such a position is morally untenable. Who is he to listen to? The emotional pleas of the women, or the ruthless pragmatism of Pirrie?

Right until the end, Christopher has John listening, weighing up both sides and reaching what always seems to be the pragmatic decision. Immediately following the death of Millicent, Pirrie insists that Jane, in her mid- or late teens, must become his new wife. John and the women are suitably shocked – but can come up with no practical arguments to stop him beyond asking the girl what she wants. For whatever reason, perhaps to make her own position in the band more secure, she agrees to what Pirrie wants. This has been the new morality from the moment they decided to shoot the soldiers at the first road block: old notions of right and wrong often become irrelevant, as the only criterion is survival. It remains so, right up to the last decision John has to make in the novel.

Their progress continues to be a series of episodes, each presenting new dilemmas made more complicated by the different advice John receives. What to do with a family of hopeless refugees? And, as they debate the question, how to respond to the well-organised band of men who turn up, led by a self-important and heavily-armed Yorkshireman? This is the episode that establishes the hierarchy once and for all. Pirrie is the one who makes the smug Yorkshireman reach for his revolver, but after he’s shot him he turns to John – always ‘Mr Custance’ now – for instructions. His deference, clearly a deliberate ploy, confirms John as leader. They take the family and the band of men, all now ready to show fealty to him. Christopher drops medieval terminology into the mix as he takes us, step by step, through the process of John becoming a reluctant warlord. Ann is rude about his ambition, making sarcastic remarks about him soon needing a crown.

Next. How to defend the abandoned house they occupy for the night against men with army-issue guns and grenades? Things are going badly, as Pirrie has taken Jane off somewhere into the summer night for his conjugal rights. But, as so often, it’s Pirrie’s rifle that saves the day as he attacks from the ex-soldiers’ flank. Even before this, John has begun to acknowledge Pirrie as his lieutenant, knowing they would never have survived this long without him. So soon after the end of the Second World War, the force of arms is presented as an unquestioned necessity. In the western movies of the time troubled men were often faced with similar dilemmas, and women rarely had anything useful to offer them either. But sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do.

The final decision – we’re approaching the last chapter now – comes after an awkward meeting at the well-defended stockade at the entrance to the Valley. John’s brother David is there, but so are a lot of other people from the neighbouring farms. John and his family would be welcome to enter, of course, but there are nearly 30 others in the band now. There is a moment when John could decide to take up David’s offer. He is definitely tempted, but his loyalty is no longer only to his family. He’s something bigger now and, because of the knowledge of the river he gained through his childhood adventurousness, he devises a plan of attack. Now we’re in a WW2 action movie, and the raid on the machine-gun nest is a success. Pirrie is hit, and John regrets this. But he doesn’t need Pirrie now, as Ann retracts the nasty things she was saying about him. He is generously forgiving – pass me the sick-bucket – and, as he rests following his victory, his closing line is one of the silliest in the novel: ‘There’s a lot to do. A city to be built.’

This is a novel written in the aftermath of a war that threw up some difficult questions. What is a cause worth fighting for? Does loyalty to the tribe come before everything else? What makes a good leader? And what about the use of atom bombs? The answers that Christopher comes up with are so of their time that they seem almost as quaint as the attitudes to women. If you’re English about it, and carry a big enough gun, you won’t go far wrong.

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