The Death of Grass, by John Christopher
I’ve long been something of a fan of John Wyndham, criticised on occasion for his “cosy catastrophes” in which civilisation falls but people remain generally polite about it. It’s not a criticism I agree with, for a start only two of his novels actually deal in apocalypses (The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes – The Chrysalids takes place centuries after one once order has been restored, and in any event is far from cosy with its religious bigotry, torture and murder). Still, it’s not a charge anyone would lay against John Christopher’s 1956 novel The Death of Grass.
The Death of Grass was a novel that first caught my attention years ago, when I was a teenager. I never saw a copy though, so when John Self reviewed the new Penguin Modern Classics edition over at The Asylum I mentally added it to my to be purchased list. This last week, fancying a break as far from possible from Powell’s wonderful A Dance to the Music of Time, I finally ordered it. As a break between more serious books, it works pretty well, it’s easy to read, powerful and in places is quite horrifying in its portrayal of what people are capable of when pressed. It’s also though not that well written, and the characterisation is dire. It’s worth reading, but it’s not high literature.
Grass generally takes place a couple of years in the then future, so in the late 1950s, but it opens with a prelude in the 1930s where we are introduced to two brothers, John and David, and the farm that David goes on to inherit – a property in a valley closed on three sides and easily sealed off on the fourth. Like Chekhov’s gun, that valley becomes quite important.
As the novel proper opens, famine is sweeping China. A plague that affects rice has caused terrible famine, vast numbers of Chinese are trying to get into Hong Kong in the hope of finding food, but Hong Kong cannot hold against them:
‘You think Hong Kong will fall?’
‘I’m sure it will. The pressure will build up until it has to. They may machine-gun them from the air first, and dive-bomb them, and drop napalm on them, but for every one they kill there will be a hundred trekking in from the interior to replace them.
David said: ‘But if they took Hong Kong – there can’t be enough food there to give them three square meals, and then they’re back where they started.’
‘Three square meals? Not even one, I shouldn’t think. But what difference does that make? Those people are starving. When you’re in that condition, it’s the next mouthful you’re prepared to commit murder for.’
And that, in a nutshell, is the novel. When you’re in that condition, it’s the next mouthful you’re prepared to commit murder for.
At the outset, John Custance is a pleasant and civilised middle class man, happily married with two children. He and his wife play bridge with their friends, Roger and Olivia, Roger occasionally appalling them with his hard cynicism. Still, they’re good people, respectable, the sort you might find in a Wyndham apocalypse. They’re troubled by events in China, all that death, but it’s a long way away.
From the radio, a voice said, in B.B.C. accents:
‘The United Nations Emergency Committee on China, in its interim report published to-day, has stated that the lowest possible figure for deaths in the China famine must be set at two hundred million people…’
Roger said: ‘Dummy looks a bit weak in hearts. I think we might try them out.’
Christopher is making a point here. When we hear of disasters elsewhere, our sympathies often extend to those affected, but generally not for long. There are children to be put to bed, jobs to go to in the morning, washing up to do. With all that, it can be hard to remember the deaths of strangers.
At first, the problem seems restricted to Asia, the disease has spread to Europe, but Europe is not dependent on rice. World governments are confident that a counter to the virus can be found, but the Chinese were confident of that too, and before too long China no longer exists as a nation.
All too soon, the virus has mutated, killing all grass plants, including wheat and barley and the crops upon which our lives depend. Governments lie, reassuring their populaces and claiming that a counter is just around the corner, as food supplies in warehouses grow low and countries stop sending aid increasingly concerned that they may need it themselves. Today in Britain, after BSE, this part of the story doesn’t seem as science fictional as it might, with its self-serving politicians more concerned with the electoral implications of panicking the population than of taking sensible steps to protect them.
Hearing rumours that the government intends to drop atomic bombs on the major cities so as to reduce the population to a sustainable level, John, Roger and their families decide to flee London, heading for that oh so defensible valley. On their way out, they pick up Pirrie, a seemingly mild-mannered gun shop owner who contributes weapons and brings his much younger wife. The roads out of London are blocked off by the military, travel is restricted, and fearing nuclear annihilation they calmly ambush and execute three soldiers manning a roadblock so they can make their escape.
Faced with the threat of starvation, knowing that the country’s food reserves have run out and that they have a day or two at most before everyone else realises it too, the group swiftly become ruthless – killing when they must, leaving others to die rather than risk resources helping them. Pirrie turns out to be a sociopath, utterly remorseless and deadly, he is appreciated all the more for it. As Custance reflect:
They had lived in a world of morality whose lineage could be traced back nearly four thousand years. In a day, it had been swept from under them.
There were some who would choose to die well rather than to live. He was sure of that, and the assurance comforted him.
It comforts him, because they’ll die, and so not compete for food.
Britain’s descent into savagery is swift. There is casual murder, rape, robbery becomes commonplace. In less than 48 hours from the realisation that the food has run out, it’s every man for himself, roving mobs taking what they want and the air force bombing cities to stop the hordes spilling out into the wider country.
At times, the book is genuinely chilling. Custance’s wife and daughter are raped, the rapists are captured and Custance’s wife calmly explains to one as he begs for his life that she decided she would kill him while she was lying there watching him rape her daughter. In another scene, Custance and Pirrie murder a couple for food, then give the surviving daughter to Pirrie as a form of sex slave. Custance all too quickly adapts to his new role, the seemingly ruthless Roger deep down remains a decent man, Custance for all his morality becomes a new feudal chief – able to decide whether others live or die:
After enthronement, the tones of the supplicant beggar were doubly sweet. It was a funny thing.
Christopher’s view of human nature is not a pleasant one. In Grass, those who maintain standards, who try to preserve some decency, die. Those who remain are the new savages, the future is one of barbarism. A world of strong and ruthless men, and those who serve them or die.
The weak points of the novel are easily summarised. The prose is nothing to write home about, workmanlike but it’s the vision it contains that the novel’s worth reading for. Characters are fairly one-dimensional, particularly the women who are bizarrely helpless not even taking turns driving or carrying a gun. It’s still not clear to me why the women need be so helpless, I can see that an apocalypse would make men’s greater strength again more of an advantage, but when Samuel Colt made all men equal he made all women equal too. Here, the women are objects, chattels as one herself angrily comments (though the novel itself seems to agree). They are protected, or raped if protection fails, but beyond cooking they seem to be incapable of doing anything for themselves. The sexual politics of the book are distinctly dated.
But the central vision isn’t. Environmental collapse is a theme more timely than ever, and as Robert Macfarlane reminds us in an excellent (and commendably spoiler-free) introduction, in the real world diseases like Ug99 have already caused crop failure and famine. As he notes, bad as the crop failures in Grass are for the people of the 1950s, they would be much worse for the “just-in-time” delivery world we inhabit today.
Grass is a powerful novel, immediate, not perhaps fine literature but it’s continued fame is deserved. As well as John’s writeup, Tom at A Common Reader wrote it up here. I agree with every word of his and John’s reviews, both of which draw out points I’ve not chosen to focus on in my own comments.