But darling the virus won’t affect us, will it?

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

The 1950s saw an explosion of science fiction and cultural dystopias. In 1951 there was John Wyndham’s ground-breaking novel Day of the Triffids, followed by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. Then there was Quatermass on the television. William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies was also published in 1954.

Then in 1956 The Death of Grass was published. John Christopher was an established author, but this was his breakthrough novel. Readers may recall The Tripods BBC TV series which was made in the mid-70s from a trilogy of books he later wrote for older children. But back to The Death of Grass. It’s not really a science fiction novel, despite the catalyst for all that’s to come being a rather realistic virus that kills grass (compared with the monstrous triffids). It is dystopian though, and survival is the key.

In the beginning we meet two brothers, John and David Custance. David grows up to inherit the family farm in a remote Westmorland valley, John becomes an engineer in London and has a family of his own. John and Ann, and their best friends the Buckleys, Roger and Olivia live a nice life in suburbia with their kids. They fervently believe the virus which is rampaging in Asia will burn itself out or be cured before it reaches them, but governments are planning for the future…

At the beginning of September, the United States House of Representatives passed an amendment to a Presidential bill of food aid, calling for a Plimsoll line for food stocks for home use. A certain minimum tonnage of all foods was to be kept in reserve, to be used inside the United States only.
Ann could not keep her indignation at this to herself.
“Millions facing famine,” she said, “and those fat old men refuse them food.”
They were all having tea on the Buckley’s lawn. The children had retired, with a supply of cakes, into the shrubbery, from which which shrieks and giggles issued at intervals.

And they continue to bicker about the famine in the East…

Roger stared back. “We once agreed about my being a throwback – remember? If I irritate the people around me, don’t forget they may irritate me occasionally. Woolly-mindedness does. I believe in self-preservation, and I’m not prepared to wait until the knife is at my throat before I start fighting. I don’t see the sense in giving the children’s last crust to a starving beggar.”
“Last crust…” Ann looked at the table, covered with the remains of a lavish tea. “Is that what you call this?” …
… Olivia said: “I really think it’s best not to talk about it. It isn’t as though there’s anything we can do about it – we ourselves, anyway. We must just hope things don’t turn out so badly.”

All so nice and cosy, but there are intimations that the men are willing to be heroes if needed, and of course they are to get their chance. Things get much much worse, and they get just a few hours notice to get out of London before it’s sealed. The two families plan to go north to Westmorland, but stop off first at a gun-shop where they meet the owner Pirrie, who’s a good shot. ‘Persuaded’ to take him with them, the rest of the book tells of their journey north. But the army are already manning road-blocks out of London, and it’s amazing how quickly the men transform from well-meaning middle-class blokes into ruthless killers.

They are to encounter many more troubles as they make their way north. Pirrie, (who reminded me of Donald Pleasance in nasty mode), makes himself very useful to the group’s leader John, who finds himself having to make tougher and tougher decisions as they travel and to harden his heart. Ann his wife, remains the group’s conscience.

This immediate transformation of the country into a miriad of small fiefdoms and garrisons, with its accompanying moral disintegration may have happened rather fast, but kept things moving towards the conclusion. John and Roger were ex-Army, so had the discipline to do what they had to do, the women were 1950s housewives, but at least Ann had a mind of her own, despite some rather dated, arch and cheesy dialogue.

This new Penguin classics reissue with the super cover also has a great foreword by Robert MacFarlane, the landscape writer, which puts it into context and surveys the (eco-)dystopian sub-genre. For another excellent review, you can visit John Self’s blog at Asylum.

I was totally won over by this book. It’s our Book Group choice for next month, I’ll report back on what they thought of it later. I feel I may have to revisit the Triffids though. (9/10)


Source: Own copy

John Christopher, The Death of Grass (1956), Penguin Modern Classics, pbk, 208 pages.

16 thoughts on “But darling the virus won’t affect us, will it?

  1. Steerforth says:

    I wrote about this book a couple of years ago on my blog:http://ageofuncertainty.blogspot.com/2008/03/death-of-grass.htmlI agree. It isn't science fiction. It's speculative, or dystopian fiction and its central theme is human nature. I argued as much on my blog and received one or two chippy comments from sci-fi fans, but this is not a genre novel. It's mainstream fiction and I'm sure that most people would enjoy it."The Death of Grass" has its flaws. The book seems more dated than many of its contemporaries and the prose style is a bit rough and ready, but overall it's a cracking read.

  2. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Michelle – The book is of its time, but is a spiffing read.Steerforth – it's a shame that the whiff of SF puts many off, and that some SF fans get upset when normal readers enjoy one of what they consider their books! I know a lot of people also can't stand the word dystopian – Spec fiction may be less off-putting to them. I'll be interested to read your post later.

  3. Jo says:

    Oh, I had this in my hands in the library last week and eventually put it down in favour of something else. Sounds interesting now, and I migt just have to go back and see if it is still there!

  4. savidgereads says:

    Its books like this that I think would get me much further into science fiction. I must try The Day of the Triffids first though as I actually own it hee hee.Love, love, love these penguin covers!

  5. farmlanebooks says:

    I have been wanting to read this ever since I saw anothercookiecrumbles raving about it. I am so pleased to see that you enjoyed it too. Hopefully I'll get to this in the next few months.

  6. kimbofo says:

    Yes, I saw John Self's review, too, and bought a copy not long after. It's been in the pile ever since. Thanks for the reminder. I must dig it out soon. I seem to be in a dystopian fiction frame of mind recently; I've read two in the space of a fortnight!

    • gaskella says:

      Thank you Kim – it’s very much a work in progress, but I’m getting there slowly as I find out what wordpress can do.

Leave a Reply