Right wingers love apocalyptic scenarios, so I suppose it is no surprise that, after wading through a turgid and sludge-like philosophical tome of nearly 500 pages, packed with somniferous prose of purely academic interest (and in an awkward translation from the German original), my choice for light reading was John Christopher’s apocalyptic novel, The Death of Grass.
John Christopher is an English science fiction author, from Lancashire, now 88, credited with about 70 novels, written under his real name (Christopher Samuel Youd) and eight different pseudonyms. Many of his novels are (post-)apocalyptic, following the world-in-ruins pattern; those after 1966 are aimed largely at adolescents. Popular during the 1950s and 1960s, he has since fallen out of favour and his books are now mostly out of print. The Death of Grass, first published in 1957, is an adult novel, which was (not very faithfully) adapted to film in 1970 and was re-published by Penguin Books in 2009.
As the title suggests, the premise is that an unconquerable, mutant plant virus (Chung-Li) extinguishes all life in the grasses family around the world. This means not just lawn grass, but also all forage grasses and cereal grain crops, on which both animals and humans depend. The disappearance of grasses decimates the global food supply within months, sowing death by starvation on an apocalyptic scale. The virus originates in China and inexorably moves across Asia, towards Europe, and, ultimately, England, where the narrative unfolds.
John Custance, the main character, is an architect, based in London. His brother, David, is a stolid farmer, who lives in an enclosed valley in Westmorland (now Cumbria). When the virus first breaks, there is, as expected, complacency: China is distant and, as horrible as the famine there may seem, there is in the West every confidence that an anti-virus would be found in good time. Said anti-virus proves elusive, of course, and as its ravages grow nearer, Western leaders begin to tremble. Emergency measures are enacted, rationing is imposed, and the United States begins hoarding. Eventually, however, the United Kingdom finds itself bald, without food, without farm animals, and left in the lurch by the United States, whose government finally halts all food aid, having decided, once a last-ditch effort at developing an anti-virus fails, to put the survival of its own citizens before that of other nations.
David Custance, thinking it better to be safe than sorry, and sceptical of government assurances (which eventually prove deliberate lies), is by this time prepared, having re-purposed his fields for the cultivation of beets and potatoes, built up stores, and erected fortifications to defend the narrow pass offering the sole access point to his valley, which is otherwise surrounded on all sides by impenetrable natural defences. His brother John, who was initially reluctant to accept David’s invitation to join him with his family at the Westmorland farm, finally, at the eleventh hour and fifty-nine minutes, decides to make a dash for the valley, hundreds of miles North of his London home: his friend Roger Buckley, a senior civil servant with a pipeline to the upper echelons of government, has warned him with only hours to spare that the game was up and that the government, who had yet to tell its citizens about the exhaustion of food supplies and the impossibility of stopping the Chung-Li virus, had decided to vaporize 60% of the population by nuking all major cities in order to improve the chances of survival for the rest.
The plan is for John and Roger to drive North as quickly as possible, with their families and essential victuals and possessions. Soon, they are met with reverses, which result in the two friends’ returning briefly to London in order to acquire now essential guns and ammunition. There they recruit Pirrie, the cynical, cold-blooded sexagenarian gun shop owner who soon proves an indispensable asset, particularly to John, by now the party’s leader. Not far from London, Marxists—although they are not explicitly so designated—stage a revolution, overthrowing the government and seizing control of the BBC, through which they inform the public about the reality of the food situation as well as about the deposed government’s secret nuclear plot. Foolishly, they expect people to carry on business as usual and ask the air force please not to nuke the cities; inevitably, there is mass panic, and millions of city-dwellers all over Britain begin their own mad rush to evacuate themselves into the countryside (where there is likely to be at least some food). Thus, law and order instantly collapse. And John and company instantly realise that the starving and desperate hordes are now only one or two hours behind them.
The race is on.
Needless to say that their journey is plagued with reverses. And when things get bad, they then get worse, only then to get even worse, relentlessly gloomier, nastier, and more desperate. John Christopher keeps up the suspense and the pages turning as we follow John’s party on its Northward journey through the increasingly dangerous countryside. Although most of the prose consists of action and dialogues, one’s mind is filled with images of dark and deserted lanes, hemmed in by hedges and bare ditches, winding under a general atmosphere of lurking menace and impending—and, later, actual and ever more naked—human rapacity.
The novel traces two simultaneous processes: on the one hand, there is civilized society’s decomposition and descent into barbarism, where rapacity, brutal force, ruthlessness, selfishness, opportunism, mistrust, and a thoroughly cynical realism are the only guarantees for survival; and, on the other hand, there is John’s transformation from educated urbanite into a cold, hard, pitiless leader of men, and, from there, gradually into a feudal lord. The latter part we do not get to see, but it is hinted at, and the suggestion is made that the initial post-democratic chaos and barbarism would eventually lead to the re-emergence of an authoritarian, masculine, feudal society, with a class of farmer-warriors offering military service in exchange for protection. Indeed, a persistent message throughout the novel is that pity, compassion, and democracy are luxuries that are sustainable only where there is a steady income and money and food to spare. Even John’s stubborn illusion of a return to normal life once in the safety of David’s stronghold in Westmorland is shattered in the end. There is, inevitably, an effort to conclude the novel on a high note, in the last paragraph, on the final line, but, in a novel where what is won is won through harsh dictatorial authority and merciless killing and stealing, from guilty and innocent alike, this feels like an afterthought, added for feel-good commercial purposes. We know that, in reality, such a world would have changed irreversibly, and would begin anew on premises entirely different from today’s democratic ones.
In an interview given a few years a back, John Christopher claims that he has no moral programme. Yet we can glimpse in this novel an internally consistent network of auxiliary themes. One is the value of realist foresight: while the Chung-Li virus sweeps across the Earth, with the exception of David Custance nobody prepares; all, including initially his brother John, carry on as normal, putting their faith in technology and in their government’s ability to handle the situation. David secures his own survival by not taking anything for granted—not technology, not progress, not the trustworthiness of the government, not even human decency; instead, he plans well ahead, not caring to be called a doom-obsessed kook who might eventually be proven wrong.
This theme is linked to another: responsibility. John is transformed not just by the evolving situation, but by his assuming responsibility as leader of a party—responsibility to lead its members into safety and keep them alive, making whatever difficult decisions are necessary along the way, even if they are unpopular. Indeed, his status in the eyes of family and friends is elevated when he eventually dispenses with all vestigial democratic methods and asserts his dictatorial rule: his wife, formerly humanitarian, stops complaining; his children, formerly ungovernable, discover respect; his friend Roger, formerly full of bluster and bravado, fades away, becoming a dutiful vassal, two steps removed from dictator John once rifle-wielding Pirrie establishes his usefulness through his marksmanship and knowledge of human nature. Along with responsibility, however, comes a certain loss of freedom: the freedom that John takes away from his charges, and the freedom that he loses by virtue of his duties towards them. And then there is, of course, the loneliness of the leader: as John hardens and grows into this new role, he is progressively alienated from his wife, his children, and his best friend. Intimacy is incompatible with authority.
This theme of responsibility is linked to yet another: the importance of honour and glory. There comes a point in the story where John, now standing before his brother’s stronghold, is faced with three choices: take advantage of familial bonds and smuggle himself and his family to safety behind the fortified valley, double-crossing his vassals and abandoning them to certain death outside; turn around and try to find some other place to survive in; or fight his brother and conquer the valley. The first option is dishonourable and the second inglorious—both would mean betraying his troops, to whom he has promised safety in exchange for service; which leaves the third option. It means murder, this time of people he grew up with, but John deems this easier to live with than dishonour or disgrace. His wife Ann does not understand this, attracted to the first option, but John remains firm. Getting in by the easiest available means is not enough, even in a cutthroat world of pillage and murder.
A further theme is anti-feminism. The women in the novel are strong, but they also have distinct, well-defined, and complementary roles in relation to the male characters, and they are generally submissive, even if at times reluctantly. The fact is that while they represent the civilisational side of man, they depend on their male counterparts—the killer apes—for survival: in the novel, an unprotected female is not deemed likely to survive beyond a day. John Christopher was influenced by a theory, advanced by Robert Ardrey in The Territorial Imperative, that man was ‘descended from a race of killer apes, who wiped out a race of less belligerent but more civilized anthropoids.’ Christopher believes that the two should interbreed, and that women benefited from the presence of (masculine) men, ‘a strong right arm to help defend them both.’ Such thinking, so archaic and reactionary vis-à-vis modern liberal sensibilities, inevitably led to feminist uproar when it was articulated in another novel, Dom and Va, in 1973.
Then, of course, there is the theme already alluded to at various points in this article: the fragility of democratic government, and its inability to cope with extraordinary events. One cannot but think of Carl Schmitt’s state of exception. The democracies in the novel sustain themselves either through criminal deception, which leads to systemic collapse once it is uncovered, or, as is the case with the fictional United States, through nationalist isolationism—the deprecation of all humanistic sentiment and the adoption of a country-wide bunker strategy, complete with vast stores and heavy defences. One does wonder, however, what is likely to happen should stores run out before an anti-virus, or a virus-resistant grass, is developed. America would probably follow Europe in its return to feudalism, following the disappearance of the nation state.
Back in our world, we might not be facing an apocalyptic plant virus, but we know we are currently facing what Guillaume Faye calls a ‘convergence of catastrophes’, the most immediate of which seems presently to be an apocalyptic financial meltdown—one which, if not averted, could well lead to a systemic breakdown in the West, if not ‘only’ a progressive realignment of power towards Asia.
Should this come to pass, we may not see chaos on same scale and with the same finality as in The Death of Grass, but we will experience conditions never previously seen by people from my generation downwards, and this will demand from all a harsh and fundamental readjustment of our thinking. If Somit and Peterson are correct (see their book, Darwinism, Dominance, and Democracy), the sort of affluent, free, democratic societies we nowadays take for granted in the West are rare historical occurrences; when they appear, they do so in a localised fashion, for relatively brief periods of time, the human norm otherwise being some form of authoritarianism. Right wingers, many of whom dream of a collapse, thinking that it will somehow magically default in their being back in charge, should beware: a collapse, if severe enough, would sweep away the existing order, but it would not necessarily favour the White man, or even result in anything resembling a European resurgence; just as likely (at least in Europe) is a new order based on Islam. There are millions of Muslims already in our continent who are growing in number every day, many of whom have proven their capacity for collective radical action, as well as their intolerance, their hatred of the West, and their aspiration to Islamicise our traditional homelands. Across the Atlantic, White Americans face different but no less serious competitive challengers.
Regardless of the enemy, however, in such a context, the lesson here is that first we must assume the worst, yesterday, and prepare accordingly today, however comfortable we may feel and however unlikely an apocalypse may appear; and then we must be ready to either lead or be led, once—or rather before—our present democratic phase runs its course. Events will probably play out both similarly and very differently from what is anticipated by apocalypse fantasists, but The Death of Grass, because it deals realistically with human nature, entertaining no liberal illusions about it, offers a useful reference point in any exercise of imagining the coming age of upheavals.
Having said this, the lesson in John Christopher’s novel remains incomplete. It is, after all, fiction for entertainment, so it is too much to expect it to show a way forward. As I have stated repeatedly, indulging one’s imagination in apocalyptic scenarios may be satisfying for many of those with our turn of mind, and preparing for an apocalypse may be well advised for all in any event, but our story does not have to end that way. Disaster can be averted, even if at a price, by forcing cultural change now, and showing the apolitical citizen out there that missing way forward—our way forward. The Left has succeeded, despite having logic and ‘the facts’ against them, because when the earlier dispensation was crumbling the Left showed its way forward. It spent very little time, or none at all, telling the citizenry how things were bad and why they were going to get worse; it told them, rather, why things were bad and how the Left was going to make them better. The Left remains mainstream because it speaks of change and thus instils and sense of hope; our side remains marginal because it speaks of decline and thus instils a sense of despair. Evidence shows that the apolitical citizen would rather side with someone who is for something than with someone who is against everything.
John Christopher has written ‘world-in-ruins’-type novels because he is interested in what happens after the catastrophe. His instincts appear not far from our own. But while his job is to entertain with speculation as to what shape people might be in after a world catastrophe, ours is to instill a sense of purpose in people with our efforts to shape the world beyond the catastrophe. Whether the grasses on our lawns and in our fields will die or grow wild will ultimately be decided by us. Are we ready to assume a role of leadership, seize our destiny, do what it takes, and live in honour and glory, or will we ingloriously cede that destiny to another and remain deferent for what remains of our days?