The Death of Grass
by John Christopher,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1956)
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
— William Blake.
Imagine, if you will, a deadly virus emanating from China, one that seems unstoppable despite efforts to find an antiviral solution, and which disrupts societies and causes widespread deaths as it moves across the globe. How will humans, collectively and individually, react, and will their actions be altruistic or selfish?
John Christopher envisaged such a scenario over six decades ago, a few years after the Second World War, but his imaginary Chung-Li virus, unlike coronavirus, didn’t directly affect humans: instead it killed off the grass on which herbivores such as cattle and sheep fed, and grains like rice, wheat, barley and rye which provided many of the staple food products humans relied on.
Against this unfolding catastrophe the author tells the story of how John Custance, his family, friends and others struggle to survive, and how they aim to reach the safety of a secluded defensible valley in Cumbria to establish a new settlement.
Published barely a decade after the war ended, The Death of Grass has aged surprisingly little in the intervening six or so decades. Yes, gender roles may be less rigid, and communications media may be more diverse, but human nature doesn’t essentially change, especially when under stress: duplicitous politicians and suspicious locals are always in evidence, decisive leaders gain a degree of loyalty, pecking orders are established, and the weak go to the wall in any crisis.
John Custence (the surname derives from ‘constant’ and the character suggests an identification with the author Sam Youd under his pseudonym) and his old friend Roger Buckley are civil servants who discuss the emergence and spread of the disastrous Chung-Li virus. John notes when the virus turns up in his brother Dave’s remote Westmorland farm, when it’s suggested Blind Gill might be the best place for the Custence family to retreat to when society shows signs of breaking down.
When — as the phrase goes — the balloon goes up and cities like London go into military lockdown, a motley convoy of cars with the Custence and Buckley families, along with a gunsmith called Pirrie and his wife, attempt the journey from the southeast of England to the northwest. But things fall apart sooner than they expected as it becomes clear that the government is lying to its people.
The Death of Grass is largely a tale of a desperate cross-country trek by car and then foot as communities, bands and individuals revert to barbarism surprisingly rapidly, looting and killing in an attempt to stay alive against all odds. The travellers themselves are subject to the shock of arson, rape and murder committed either against or by them. John sees his role as de facto leader solidify into a quasi-medieval status, with him (“Mr Custence”) as some kind of liege lord to whom others owe homage. What will happen if and when they all reach their valley? And are the rumours of nuclear bombs being dropped on cities true?
This is a nail-biting narrative of the onset of an environmental apocalypse which, as Robert Macfarlane’s introduction pointed out, was all too likely a proposition in 2009 — and a decade on even more so now — the result of corrupt governments, unaccountable multinationals and a general belief that economic growth can continue unchecked without repercussions. Christopher’s novel was prescient in that respect but he wasn’t of course alone in his warnings.
The notion of a hidden valley secluded from outside woes is a common trope — Shangri-la or Rivendell, for example, or the Land of Nod east of Eden — and the author more than hints at this theme, just as Robert C O’Brien was to do in his post-apocalyptic novel Z for Zachariah (1974). You may remember the Old Testament tale of Cain and Abel, when the exiled Cain built a town in the Land of Nod in honour of his son Enoch; we’re intended to note those shadowy biblical parallels between Nod and Blind Gill in the novel, especially in the final words:
‘There’s a lot to do,’ he said. ‘A city to be built.’
Whether the city will be built in a ‘green and pleasant land’ is a moot point however.
This is as much a psychological novel as it is a speculative thriller: I was interested in the shifting dynamics of relationships and in the ad hoc morality which had to be rapidly developed by all and sundry, but especially by John Custence. He is meant to be the constant throughout the narrative, and the responsibilities changing situations continually heap upon his shoulders. Dog eat dog may be the new rules of the game but John is determined to maintain what shreds of humanity may remain. The Death of Grass still has the power to make us address the same difficult questions the author’s audience faced during the Cold War.