Thursday 17 May 2012

THE DEATH OF GRASS by John Christopher (1922 - 2012)

The Summer of 1958 was one long heatwave. The grass on the school playing field had gone from a dazzling green to something resembling a khaki stubble. Even the gardening class were struggling to keep the vegetable plots alive. And, of course, we had been given the freedom of the school fields rather than be restricted to the over heated confines of the school playground. Not only did the boys' have this freedom but so did the girls from the adjoining school. A white line was drawn to indicate that to stray beyond would be a punishable offence. As with a football, so the whole body would have to cross the inch and a half wide barrier. Nothing was said about heads or hands. And so it was that I sat as close to that line as I could so that the fair haired, freckle faced girl who sat on the other could peer over and read the book that I was reading. The book in question was a brand spanking new Penguin edition of 'The Death Of Grass' by John Christopher. It was one of those books that forever marked the where and when I read it. This book was nominated, in 1957, for the International Fantasy Award and ended up as the runner up to Tolkein's 'The Lord Of The Rings'. A quick synopsis of the book is that a virus destroys all types of grass and that includes corn, wheat and barley etc. John Custance and his family watch as anarchy breaks out and decide to make the journey to his brother's farm. The thing that I learned from the Character of John Custance is that heroes are not always the good guys and, sometimes, they have to do somethings that may not seem nice but have to be done in order to survive. Reading the book today there are three things that become apparent. The first is that the virus in the book begins life on the African continent - the same continent that, today, is ravaged with famine. The second is that the society at the time the novel was set was better equipped to deal with survival than modern day society is. The third is just how influential 'The Death Of Grass' became. There are elements of John Wyndham's 'The Day Of The Triffids' and William Golding's 'The Lord Of The Flies' within 'The Death Of Grass' - yet looking beyond to Cormac McCarthy's future vision of 'The Road' and the starkness and barreness of the movie version - then I see John Christopher's novel lurking in the background. It even lies there in the make up of the 'Mad Max' movies. The book was turned into the Cornel Wilde forgetable movie 'No Blade Of Grass' which was the US title. The apocalyptic novel is no longer new but back in the days of Wyndham, Christopher and, later, J G Ballard it was. And, probably, will remain at the top of the list for years to come. So it was sad to hear that John Christopher had died this year at the age of 89. He was born in Lancashire as Samuel Youd and over a long career wrote under several pseudonyms including Stanley Winchester. After school he was conscripted into the Army as a signalman. He wanted to write and on the basis of an unfinished novel he was granted the Atlantic Award from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1947. It opened the door for him to write in several genres under different names. John Christopher may well be remembered for this novel but for a younger generation then it will be 'The Tripod' trilogy and it's prequel. The Death Of Grass has been reissued as a Penguin Classic or, alternatively, there is a Kindle edition.

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