Posts Tagged ‘George Stewart’

One year later

March 21, 2021

One year into the pandemic. One year ago, we decide to isolate ourselves: not officially lockdown yet, but then our PM never has managed to act in a timely fashion… Then, I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and thought to myself, I’ll write a contemporary journal. It wasn’t long before I gave up: there was nothing to write about, with so much of my ‘normal’ life disappearing: no U3A language groups, no weekly yoga classes, no Quaker Meeting for Worship, no holidays, no seeing family. And there was no point in recording the tergiversations of useless, lying, corrupt and venal politicians because there’s public record of that wherever you look. I was full of intentions of reading other plague-related literature such as CamusLa Peste – which I still haven’t gone back to – and I did manage Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague recently. There’s still Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and George Stewart’s Earth Abides to reread.

Of course, some of those lost activities soon resumed on that tiring platform which is Zoom. Our French conversation group still meets fortnightly to talk about anything and everything, although with life as curtailed as it is, there’s actually far less for us to talk about. And I know I’m not the only one to notice how group conversations on Zoom and other platforms are different: much harder to pick up visual and body language cues with such small pictures, and one is inevitable distracted by one’s own picture in the corner of the screen. Our German group opted not to continue on Zoom, and I don’t know whether it will recommence; our Spanish teacher finally decided to retire from teaching. Quite a gap in my routines and my learning.

Our elders at local Quaker Meeting have done sterling work in enabling Zoom meetings every Sunday, for which I am very grateful, and again Friends agree that it just isn’t the same as being gathered together in the same room. Modern technology has meant it’s been easy to be in touch with friends and family, and at various points it was even possible to meet up under carefully defined circumstances. I have sorely missed my weekly yoga classes: our teacher carefully followed guidance and we managed to have some smaller, fortnightly classes but these inevitably fell at the first hurdle when things had to be tightened up again…

Travel – which has been one of my major retirement activities, with usually a couple of serious road trips to Europe each year – disappeared almost completely, although I did manage a week’s walking in Scotland late summer.

I thought I’d get loads of reading done, but this was not to be; I couldn’t settle on what to read, and frittered time away. Much gardening, and much tidying and decluttering happened. Things are different now, in that I’ve lately got a reading fit on and am revisiting lots of books I haven’t opened for many years, which has been very satisfying.

In and among all this, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting: what have I learnt over the past year?

I have learnt a good deal about people, and can see that we have not yet reached peak stupidity. People swallow the lies of politicians, and the lies spread on social media. People do not listen to advice, especially that of the experts in the field who advise us carefully. Too many joggers thud selfishly past, not putting distance between themselves and others, too fixed in their own little achievement bubbles; a lot of cyclists are the same; dog-walkers can be worse. People don’t wear masks properly, or pretend that they can’t. They clap for the heroes of our NHS and then vote for the politicians who have starved it of resources for years and pretend there’s no money for wage increases for nurses: people don’t want to pay taxes.

I have learnt how corrupt the UK actually is. We have a mental picture of endemic bribery and corruption which we associate with the Third World, when actually the same things are happening right here at home, and with our tax-payers’ money. Our NHS has done astonishing work tackling COVID and planning and carrying out a massive and apparently successful vaccination programme that’s the envy of many other countries: our shameless government is basking in the credit for this, and people are lapping it up. I’ve learnt how undemocratic the US really is, despite all those lectures to the rest of the world about its being a light shining on a hill, an example to the rest of the world.

In and among all this negative stuff, I’ve learnt how caring and thoughtful neighbours can be, with a word or a chat, a note through the letterbox or a message on social media. I’ve realised how important social contact is, especially now I’m retired. Retirement has made staying safe easier, although my greater age brings greater risks along with it. I’ve renewed contact with many friends and acquaintances with whom I’d lost contact for years. I’ve learnt the importance of sustaining regular exercise – the same boring circuit every day – and even made new friends, chatting briefly at a distance with total strangers whilst out for my daily walk. And I’ve learnt that being financially comfortable makes all these things much easier. We’ve wrestled with click and collect at supermarkets, and learned how much we don’t need to go shopping.

I’m a different person; tidier, more organised, somewhat more wary. I’m nervous about what happens when we’re ‘allowed’ to do things again: will I have lost my nerve? Self-confidence is one of those things that does wane as one ages… I am fervently hoping that I will still have the nerve to get behind the wheel of my under-used car and drive off to the forests of Luxembourg again when that is allowed once more.

John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids

December 29, 2017

41XXnBs1XZL._AC_US218_This – probably the best-known of Wyndham‘s novels – was turned into a film with an abysmal ending at some point in the 1960s, when black and white films were still being made. As a novel, it works well because of its first-person narrative. A puzzling start, with the narrator in hospital surrounded by everyone else blinded by a super-bright comet, is followed by a lengthy and tedious but necessary flashback as the history and origins of the triffids is outlined, along with some rather crude Cold War propaganda and attitudes, which later turn out to be rather more prescient than it initially seemed: were the triffids a sinister product of biological and genetic manipulation in a laboratory somewhere, and were the bright lights which blinded everyone another sinister Cold War weapon which went off by accident?…. we are in the hands of a read science-fiction writer here, no doubt.

Triffids are deadly, mobile and carnivorous plants which can communicate with each other; without sight, humans are doomed, so here we are in disaster-novel territory, though not one quite so appallingly horrifying as Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, a novel which I honestly don’t think I could face reading again…

Wyndham’s characters and their attitudes are seriously dated now – the novel was published in 1951 – but his plot is plausible, even convincing in its development once the premise of the triffids is accepted. Changes to people’s behaviour and morals would be necessary if the species were to survive and regenerate after the collapse of civilisation, and many novels of this era consider this problem from a number of angles – think Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or George Stewart‘s Earth Abides. These are real questions, though framed in 1950s terms. We are inevitably soon in survival of the fittest territory; various attempts at group survival fail, in London and in the countryside, particularly ones run along millenarist, Christian fundamentalist lines. Among many of the survivors a curious hope in the Americans coming to the rescue is seen…

There can be no satisfactory ending to such a novel, of course, only a glimpse of hope and optimism, which is where Wyndham perhaps differs from other writers of the time and genre who are rather more pessimistic; a settlement on an island large enough to be self-sufficient, and from which the deadly plants can be eliminated, is possibly a start.

After the Apocalypse…

August 3, 2014

Thinking about utopias and dystopias in recent posts reminded me of post-apocalyptic scenarios. It might seem as if that particular strand in literature must be a relatively recent one, in that only since the invention of nuclear weapons have we been forced to accept the possibility that we could annihilate ourselves as a species.

But no: back to Mary Shelley, author of the more famous Frankenstein. She wrote a novel which I think I prefer, because it’s rather less frantic and over-written than the former – The Last Man, which describes just that situation: a plague gradually kills off all human beings save one, who travels through the empty and deserted remains of civilisation, reflecting on his fate. It’s an astonishing effort of the imagination, and deserves a wider audience. Early in the twentieth century, in The Purple Cloud, M P Shiel imagines a similar series of events.

Perhaps because we are such a social species, writers have striven to imagine the opposite. Perhaps because we are a warlike species, they have sought to imagine us ultimately defeated, by greater forces than ourselves – H G Wells could have had us completely annihilated by the Martians in The War of the Worlds, but chose not to, developing a different message for the human race by pointing out the fragility of any organism when faced by unknown microbes or bacteria.

And then there’s the fantasy element, as we read any of these novels: what would I do in that situation? What if I had the world to myself, all its resources and riches: how would I play with them all? Where would I go? Shelley’s hero wanders through the beautiful places of Europe…

John Wyndham imagines a combination of elements dealing the death-blow to humanity in The Day of the Triffids: another warning about humans over-reaching themselves. Deadly plants which can communicate with each other wipe out the blinded human race, except for a small enclave which retreats to the Isle of Wight, there to exercise constant vigilance against the dreaded weeds.

One of my favourite tales is Earth Abides, by George Stewart: a storyfrom the 1950s again sees humans almost wiped out by a plague; there are some survivors, but what interests Stewart is how they would struggle to survive in small numbers, with their limited and compartmentalised knowledge, how much they would need to re-discover and re-invent in order to sustain civilisation, and how inevitably with the passage of time and generations, so much knowledge and ability would be lost, and the gradual sinking into primitiveness and savagery would be hard to avoid. It’s a poignant tale, perhaps somewhat dated now, but good for making one think about the fragile veneer of civilisation…

I think the best, and most harrowing and haunting, at least to my knowledge, has to be Walter M Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s set in a remote, post nuclear holocaust future where a bastardised version of the Catholic Church strives to preserve the knowledge of the past in its monasteries; slowly and painfully, civilisation is re-established, but only for humans to gradually and inevitably make the same ghastly mistakes all over again: nuclear weapons are re-invented and wreak their horrific toll once more. Such a pessimistic vision of the species and its history could only have come out of the 1960s, with the threat of annihilation hanging over the world. It’s beautifully written, painfully described, and leaves us with no hope.

But now, I’m off to re-read a novel from the 1990s: A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright, in which a Wellsian time machine maroons a traveller in a post-apocalyptic Britain…

 

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