Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Posts Tagged ‘apocalypse’

OBITUARY: JOAN LEVINE: thinker, campaigner and activist.

In C.Spiby, Obiturary on January 30, 2015 at 1:28 pm

One of the universal symbols of peace is the white dove.

When I met Joan Levine she seemed to me an ordinary little old lady, a tiny sparrow of a woman.

But I soon realised that Joan was a formidable thinker, an immensely important local campaigner and a tireless activist. And she had for much of her adult life been active in the Communist Party.

cpb_flagThroughout her life she fought continuously for justice and human rights in the name of the voiceless and the poor of the world.

FACTS AND EVIDENCE:

I discovered that her world view was built on the meticulous gathering of facts and evidence. File after file organised by topic – “campaign against the arms trade”, “Palestine”, “nuclear power”, “Yugoslavia”, “Trident submarines”, “Iraq”, and so on. Together they represented a register of the many concerns which shaped her life.

The files held clippings with references and notes, sections highlighted, paragraphs under-scored. There was endlesss campaign correspondence, newsletters and briefings. Most revealing were letters of frustrated replies from successive MPs. From Paul Marland and Diana Organ to our current MP, Mark Harper. How dare this little old lady from Coleford hold us to account with her endless facts and sound moral reasoning?

Joan’s husband, Maurice, fought in the Spanish Civil War. She spoke of her husband’s commitment with quiet pride, yet would only do so when invited. To her it seemed the most natural thing in the world.  To Joan a life of holding the powerful to account, of fighting for the rights of the many, was just as natural.

DEBATE WITH ACTIVISM:

I remember that Joan was often the last to speak during meetings. It was then that her formidable mind revealed itself.  Her incisive views always made our wandering debate seem like mere waffling, but she was never condescending.  Instead her logic enabled the rest of us to catch up, while she moved on to propose an action. To her, all debate was pointless without action and, in her heart, Joan was all about activism.

So together we stood in the rain. We marched around US military bases under grey skies and paraded past the Houses of Parliament in the largest march in British history. Joan and the late Ralph Anstis got themselves thrown out of the Co-op collecting signatures for a petition against the invasion of Iraq. And, with the late Wendy Corum, Joan was a key part of Forest of Dean CND. She campaigned for pensioners’ rights. But more than anything she was against war.

iraqbadgeCND:

I am sure that you all know the purpose of CND. Joan’s archives reveal that this campaign is the one she saw as the most pressing. And rightly so, in my view. While the Cold War may be over, Joan was acutely aware that the world still has more than 15,000 nuclear missiles. What could be more despicable than the targeted killing of millions of innocent civilians in nuclear war?

Joan remained an activist for as long as she was able. This little sparrow may have flown. But her legacy is the sum of all the good she did in her own time, and the new generations she inspired, of which I am proud to have been but one.

CARL SPIBY
a version of this was read by Diana Gash at Joan’s funeral

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REVIEW: Somebody has to make the poison gas.

In C.Spiby, Reviews on July 7, 2014 at 9:22 pm

mwftearth_coverThe Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

I’ve said it before in The Clarion: I am not a fan of sci-fi. Last time I was talking about ‘The Death of Grass’, which left me horrified. It was written with the calibre of John Wyndham, but will all the nightmare of the best apocalyptic fiction.

And it is therefore with equal surprise that I discover that it wasn’t a one-off experience. Despite some reticence I really enjoyed Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, famously brought to life as a film of the same name in the 1970’s by visionary director, Nicolas Roeg.

Both books don’t feel like sci-fi at all, much to the credit of the quality of writing itself. In fact, Tevis’ other famous novel was ‘The Hustler’ (also made into a famous film), which is a gritty tale of pool sharks.

My edition was the original film tie-in, with a painting of the iconic image of David Bowie as the mysterious Thomas Newton/alien. A version of this also appeared on Bowie’s own ‘Low’ LP sleeve and while the paperback states the music soundtrack would be ‘available on RCA’, this never happened, although Bowie is said to have scattered musical doodlings for or influenced by his role in the film across albums in the 70’s. Indeed, another image from the film appear as the cover of ‘Station to Station’.

For sure, it is now hard to think of Newton being anyone but Bowie, and this is to the film’s credit. The casting and feel is spot-on and mirrors the book beautiful – complements it where you, like me, have seen the film, but have yet to read the book. And the book is far better as it simply doesn’t have those wayward forays into sexual exploration and nor do we have to endure occasionally shaky-acting.

But putting aside the movie, Tevis’ work is full of compassion, longing and thought on the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. It has more to do with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Bell Jar’ than it does traditional sci-fi. The writing is taught, dialogue believable and pace just right. At times it reminded me of ‘The Swimmer’ (also a famous book and film), and at others’ a feature-length and more mature ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is also a deeply humane book. It takes the concept of looking at man through the mirror of an alien point of view. But that alienation is one many of us feel. We feel it when we are teenagers and when we are alone in a crowd in a foreign place or visiting a new city. We feel it with wonder when we see ourselves in a moment of silence looking at art in a gallery or catch ourselves aware of ourselves as a species when at the zoo. But most of all, we feel when the world – full of humans – seems incredibly lonely.

Newton feels the gravity of earth heavy on his disguised frame; but he feels the pointlessness of existence and man’s folly just as heavily: “a heavy lassitude, a world-weariness, a profound fatigue with this busy, busy, destructive world and all its chittering noises.”

The novel ponders quietly the big themes without pushing any particular agenda or world-view. Newton considers, for example “this peculiar set of premises and promises called religion.” But finds solace in some types of music.

Providing counter-balance is Professor Bryce. He’s not quite the narrator and certainly not entirely likeable either. In the movie he’s an aging playboy, but the novel gives his character more tragedy and more drink. Imagine Charles Bukowski as a failed university science professor. He’s not an idiot and indeed, it is through his fascination with Newton’s inventions which drive the narrative to a truly horrible conclusion where, as Tevis puts it, the reveal has the monkeys performing the tests on the humans.

In their parrying Newton and Bryce become friends, comrades and critics. They argue over the philosophical position of science and its funding: “Somebody has to make the poison gas.” And this leads us to the primary concern of the novel: the destruction of mankind by his own kind.

This is a moving and tragic novel of apathy and alienation. It is expertly crafted and still yet a page-turner.

You might think that  – written in 1963 – and famously filmed in the 70’s with a very 70’s ‘feel’ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is set in the 1970’s, but in fact it is set in the then future of the mid-late 1980’s. It predicts global nuclear war within 30 years of that. Of course, the Cold War was raging in the 60’s and Tevis rightly predicted it would still be so by the 1980’s. But the fall of the Soviet Union was not something explored then. This does not make Tevis’ forecast flawed as the same deadly arsenal continues to exist today and, as we see in recent months, it no longer requires opposing ideology to create the tension between old and emerging super powers: resource and territory dispute continue to be enough.

It is a warning that we can all yet fall to earth.

DOUBLE-TAKE: Survivors (double take pt.2)

In A.Graham, Reviews on March 19, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Facing the fears of humanity: SURVIVORS reviewed by ALISTAIR GRAHAM

Unlike Carl, I’ve long been a fan of science fiction – though, like others of my ilk, I’ve often thought that, as a genre, it’s a misnomer. Perhaps “speculative fiction” might be a more accurate name?

For a start “science fiction” as a brand name is too sprawling, and often it’s difficult to find any connecting threads that bind the whole concept together. The kind of works that Carl cites could possibly be described as “what if” fiction, examining possibilities in an often scary and definitely uncertain world.

In Survivors the devastating plague that sweeps across the world seems to have some mysterious eastern, possibly Chinese, source. But be that as it may, as law and order and any vestiges of government break down, the problems of personal survival are soon very real for the few thousand people who are left alive. Notions of re-building some semblance of society only emerge slowly out of this chaos.

Gradually the scattered remnants of humanity come together in groups and react to the global catastrophe in different ways. Early scavenging bands are short lived – to be replaced by those who seek survival through self sufficient communal groups – or, more menacing, paramilitary bodies who see the need for discipline, order, and the enforcement of their own notion of a future society.

Is this the way it would be, with the complete breakdown of central government and a much reduced, fragmented population? As a hypothesis I find it credible – and I know which alternative I would seek out.

It’s all told through human stories involving a central core of characters seeking to set up a communal base where they can survive and grow. It’s a shifting, precarious, two steps forward, one step back sort of progress. The problems of starting from scratch are explored, along with the pressures of maintaining group solidarity amongst the surviving flotsam and jetsam of humanity. The question of “leadership” is explored. One character remarks “there will always be leaders and those who are led” (really? why?), even it seems when it comes to collective decision making. In one episode, two rival claimants, Greg and Charles face up to each other like rutting stags, to see who will be the Alpha Male in their re-established community.

But it’s Jimmy Garland, adventurer and one-time Lord of the Manor, who is the archetypal Alpha Male. He carries on a one-man guerilla war against a paramilitary outfit that’s taken over his family estate, until he emerges triumphant to carry on his feudal role, before carrying off Abby Grant on a mission to find her son at the end of Series One.

Garland is an anachronism, a character out of a John Buchan novel. But other leadership roles are solidly middle class, whilst working class types are either subordinate, buffoons or just comic. Which is a pity, as it grates somewhat on what otherwise is a thought-provoking, absorbing idea.

As the story progresses, our gallant band move out from their west country haven, heading north and meeting further challenges on the way (which allows us to experience other communities with varieties of problems and responses). Finally, Greg goes walkabout, leaving Jenny more or less in the lurch.

I found the conclusion not too satisfactory. It was almost as if the decision was made to wrap the whole story-line up as quickly as possible, and bring the series to an end. There is a long drawn out “search for Greg”, before our protagonists finally reach a hydro-electric plant in the highlands of Scotland, manage to restore power through the national grid – and thus usher in a new dawn for humanity.

“Simples” – as they say these days. But with so much left unanswered!

ALISTAIR GRAHAM

Survivors intro

DOUBLE-TAKE: Survivors (double take pt.1)

In C.Spiby, Reviews on March 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm

I am not a fan of sci-fi: never have been and probably never will be. Or so I thought.

Like every other boy of the 1970’s I loved love ‘Star Wars’ but it wasn’t until the early 80’s with the BBC’s adaptation of ‘The Day of theTriffids’, and then ‘Threads’ did a certain breed sci-fi come to affect my whole outlook on life. Frankly, at the time I thought we were doomed. Borne of these are the beginnings of a political awakening that took another decade to bear fruit.

Both were imaginings of terrible fictions. ‘Threads’ seemed all too real and hypothesized nuclear Armageddon, whereas the BBC’s updating of the John Wyndham’s novel presented a different side to social destruction –giant, man-killing plant aliens. The genre was known as post-apocalyptic, and is an awkward addendum to sci-fi genre. They were fictions based on supposedly scientific possibilities. Indeed, ‘Threads’ was the first mass understanding of the nuclear winter hypothesis which was a debate still raging at the time – making even surviving a nuclear holocaust so terrible as to warrant questioning the point of living.

But I was slightly too young to remember the silent killer at work in the BBC’s 1970’s post-apocalyptic series ‘Survivors’.

This time it was an invisible means of destruction: disease. Watching the 70’s series on DVD today, I can see now that had I been just a bit older when it aired, it would have marked me as indelibly as ‘Threads’ would later in the 80’s.

Written by TV sci-fi supremo Terry Nation (who also gave us Blake’s 7 and many a Dr. Who storyline) it supposes the very real threat of a deadly epidemic and the social decay and terrible anarchy that arises out of the entire destruction of the state. These are topics I have written about before in The Clarion with my review of ‘The Death of Grass’ (by John Christopher) and to a degree in my explorations of modern utopian writing (all share communes and different social codes among their defining features). Nation, however, was at pains to distance his new series from his sci-fi work stating that “Survivors has its roots in the future, as it were, but it’s not science-fiction. It’s not going into the realms of the impossible; it’s skating very close to the possible,” which I guess is why the series still holds my interest, despite Nation’s other portfolio.

Indeed, the Radio Times write-up for ‘Survivors’ (it was shown on BBC1 over 3 series from 1975) cites a line from the show which sums up perfectly its preoccupation: “Incredible, isn’t it? We are of the generation that landed a man on the moon and the best we can do is talk of making tools from stone.

‘Survivors’ is at its best when it questions our assumptions about how stable our society really is. How civil we might truly be under great duress, and what happens when we peel away the froth of our consumerist lives? It pokes around in moral dilemmas not usually broadcast in BBC dramas at 8pm on a Wednesday night. Today or in the 70’s.

Jenny, Abby & Greg (L to R). The face Jenny is pulling is because they’ve just found the body of a man hanged for looting a supermarket.

Lucy Fleming is the likeable constant, but where as heroine ofseries one (Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant) is admirably driven she remains fairly impenetrable and one dimensional. What is to be commended, particularly for the age – as this still happens too infrequently today – is that the producers accepted a female as the lead character in what was on the face of it an adventure series. Granted, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was also around at the same time, but they were impeccably hair-sprayed icons drawn by men of what women heroes ought to be like (and with a male for their boss, no less). Even ‘Wonderwoman’ was busty and pouted silky lip-gloss. By contrast Abby Grant crops her hair as she sets out on the road into a post-apocalyptic British countryside, her dead husband sprayed across the lounge sofa.

The camera follows Abby in what could easily have turned outto be classic Twilight Zone territory (“Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one.”) only to reveal to the audience the parallel story of Jenny Richards (Fleming) and then separately again the incredibly annoying Jackanory-esque tramp-comes-good storyline of Tom Price (played in a ridiculously Dickensian turn by Talfryn Thomas). But once modern viewers adjust their grins at the tragic fashion and 70’s BBC acting, the strength of the stories and other characters comes to the fore.

My favourite, for example is that of super-bitch Anne Tranter and Vic who she leaves for dead in a quarry once she realises he cannot supply her with riches now that he’s tragically crippled by an accident. Then there’s the poetic child-killer in series two and capital punishment episode in series one, both of which feel like Amnesty International had a hand in the writing.

Of course, one of the recurring themes is the nature of community and the role of leadership, be it within our ragtag group or across the other surviving communities and bandits the characters stumble across. Alongside this is the pressure that “Our civilisation had the technology to land a man on the moon, but as individuals we don’t even have the skill to makean iron spearhead”. The realisation that scavenging will only last so long comes to the fore and without a sign of a state forming any time soon, there’sa quick return to self-sufficient agriculture, with all its pitfalls and trials. This is not ‘The Good Life’.

Upon completing production of the pilot episode, contracts were drawn up in January 1974 and the show commissioned around the theme: ‘Bubonic plagues sweeps the world, killing all but a handful of people who escape to the country with absolutely nothing and who start civilisation again from scratch.’ But the response to Nation’s series was mixed.

The Times was expecting classic sci-fi in the Dr. Who mould from Nation and was therefore rightly disappointed. The Guardian for its part was just underwhelmed (‘a perfectly passable pastime’). The Daily Mail, however,got it on the nail when it compared its greatest strength to HG Wells’ War ofthe Worlds in which ‘extraordinary events are set in actual, small-scale landscapes’ – which is why the work reminded me of ‘The Death of Grass’ (and toa degree, John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’) – all of which seem set in a comfy version of the British countryside which we’ve come to love through thelikes of Betjemen, the Hovis ad or ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. And that is why so much of it is so simple yet effective.

Some of this is owed to the ‘feel’ of the work. While the opening title theme is infectious (ahem) and the titles sequence explains all we need to know about the origin and spread of the disease, it is interesting to note that it wasn’t a clever directorial instruction to omit incidental music, but a BBC strike, which lead to a very tight production schedule and hence no budget or time for music. This probably inadvertently adds much to the silence of dead Britain. It obviously works, because there’s still no incidental music by the end of the final third series.

It is also with some interest then that I discovered that much of the farm the group settles in during series two is not far from Monmouth. In fact, there’s quite a local link. Series one saw shoots in Evesham, the Pitville Circus in Cheltenham, various locations around Ross-on-Wye, Llanarth Court in Monmouth but was mostly shot in Herefordshire’s Hampton Court. By series two Callow Hill Farm near Monmouth came the setting for the fixed commune.

Alan W. Turner’s biography of Nation lays the departure of the shows’ creator to a split with co-writer Jack Ronder. The two had differences over the series’ direction and once Nation had also fallen out with the producer, Nation withdrew from his own project altogether. Besides, by this point Brian Clemens, who Nation had worked with on shows like ‘The Avengers’, filed court proceedings stipulating ‘Survivors’ was his idea in the first place’. The project seemed diseased on every level.

Somehow it survived. A second series was commissioned and Nation penned a novelisation of his version of the story – now a collectors’ item. For TV, Series two (1976) sees the departure of Abby Grant and a change of setting and I think it is all the better for it. It does suffer from the problem in TV series where one remarkable thing has to happen after another for fear of losing audience interest (but that could also be said of ‘The Archers’, albeit on a slightly smaller scale and perhaps less deadly). This sadly misses the point, of course, that ordinary post-apocalyptic life had itself WAS extraordinary to us viewers watching from the lap of technological luxury and leisure.

Series three took the show to its conclusion (1977). It still had the essence of what Turner commented was Nation’s premise, a “western, the struggle against nature and the attempt to establish a morality in a lawless land.” But now it was more about adventure than character and smaller domestic struggles. Eventually, the search for engineer Greg Preston becomes more than annoying and dampens the effect of the ‘Survivors’ as a whole.

Of course ‘Survivors’ received the inevitable modern BBC remake. And like many updates it revels in sensation, where remarkable things have to be so exciting and bombastic as to be inane. Zombie-apocalypse movies and video games are now ten a penny and with them, the danger of something as benign as a disease just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In many ways, however, the real world is more frightening. Remember BSE, driving past foot-and-mouths bonfires, bird-flu? And the impending influenza epidemic we’re due?

Yes, ‘Survivors’ is old-fashioned. But it is a unique piece of British TV history, trapped in time in this vast DVD box set.

SOURCES: ‘Survivors’ the complete series on DVD; ‘The ManWho Invented the Daleks: the strange worlds of Terry Nation’ by A. W. Turner(Aurum Press, 2011); http://survivors-mad-dog.org.uk/

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.