Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

When the dominoes start to topple

In C.Spiby, Reviews on May 25, 2011 at 9:05 am

REVIEW: The Death of Grass by J. Christopher

Although John Christopher is popularly known as the man who brought us ‘The Tripods’, this seminal 1956 work in the cannon of apocalyptic fiction needs to be disassociated with the authors sci-fi credentials, deserving a much wider audience. Just as the William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ offered a grotesque analysis of the potential of cruelty of humanity, so ‘The Death of Grass’ offer us a taste of how civilisation can quickly crumble. And with it, all that makes up society.

The premise of the book is one now familiar with anyone who considered the possibilities of swine flu, BSE, foot and mouth, aids or avian bird flu. In fact, in 1999, a form of stem rust appeared in African crops which quickly became an epidemic spreading from Africa to Asia and the Middle East and destroying a large amount of cereal crop with it.

Anyway, take bird or swine flu – here is a direct correlation to Christopher’s terrible prognosis just as ‘Threads’ posed the interconnectedness of things – Christopher sees a rampant disease among grasses as the first domino which sets the path to the destruction of modern civilisation.

Things start as a distant rumble, in China. But soon the BBC news reports that the rioting for food (rice and wheat or barley make up the genus that is in the family of grasses) begins to spread Westwards through India and then into Eastern Europe. The Western world begins charitably – sending supplies, but soon the mass begin to question this policy as scientists fail to find a way to stop the virus from spreading.

John Custance – our protagonist – and his family make an early break for his farmer-brothers Lake District valley farm, where he too has been watching the virus intently and switched to planting only root vegetables. They escape just as London is sealed off by the Army. However, things turn quickly nasty at roadblocks or the roads to villages, now arming themselves defensively against the masses rioting in the cities. I guess this does sound far-fetched but Christopher reads like John Wyndham: characteristically British and reserved – both in content and style. And it is that British reservation which increases the terrible frankness of murder, rape, looting – the juxtaposition of the English countryside with its dead grass but profoundly ordinary provincial setting that makes it such haunting reading.

Although I found the opening annoying (there’s a poorly written segment where he said / she said / he said / someone said comes over as rather amateurish – it’s as if Christopher struggles with openings), once the pace quickens, so does the fluidity of the writing and I’m certain most readers will become compelled by the protagonists struggle for survival in a speedily crumbling world. Penguin reissued the novel under its Modern Classics banner – so it’s claims on our time as readers comes with good recommendation.

‘The Death of Grass’ does the social decay and lawlessness of an holocaust at least as well as the leading examples of apocalyptic film – ‘Threads’ or ‘The War Game’. As such it is chilling warning of how fragile our world might actually be.

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