The Land of Nod

Photo © C A Lovegrove

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.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld: Cain builds a city in the Land of Nod

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.

Artwork by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com; quote from Seven Devils by Elizabeth May & Laura Lam

45 thoughts on “The Land of Nod

  1. What actually surprises me reading books like these (or rather, reading about since I haven’t read this one), is not that the theme has been dealt with before but how many times and by how many people, that such circumstances as we face today aren’t as unexpected or unusual as we’d think–the Galileo book I read showed that plague ‘lockdowns’ were pretty much the same as we face; and books like these show that they have been imagined several times as well. Scary, really.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think what’s even more scary is that, unlike in the past, we’ve already devastated huge swathes of the earth and that there are seven billion people to subsist on what hasn’t been laid waste. It’s like dumping rubbish in our own backyard; by poisoning the earth we’re encouraging the likelihood of more pandemics among humans, animals and plants. Without a long view of history and with an increasing suspicion of science populations and governments are heading down a one-way street to disaster. For people without creative imaginations such warning stories are … simply stories.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Exactly, and even after the current situation, which isn’t even over, everyone is concerned with only reopening the economy, still unconcerned with the fact that maybe we need to rethink how rather than get back to the path that got us here. I know we need to, but I think as much we need to rethink the how very seriously.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. On The Beach, Lucifer’s Hammer, even The Moon is a Harsh Mistress…

    Plenty of dystopias out there, full of humans.

    All ‘What if…?’ stories. I think I’ve had as many as I need. I won’t be included – too physically damaged already to be of help to a new community, or on a long journey.

    I thought I could push through anything when I was younger. I can’t. I would last a couple of weeks with water, not that much without. No one is going to need me. I’ve made my peace with that. Good luck to the participants!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels aren’t for everyone, and I confess I tend not to read them except sparingly as there’s enough frightening stuff going on without the need to amplify it. But very occasionally it’s worth being reminded of possible future scenarios if governments can’t be persuaded to take the signs seriously.

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      1. Silent Spring wasn’t bad enough for you?

        And An Inconvenient Truth?

        The real world used to be somehow better (there I go, longing for the ‘good ol days’).

        I think it has always been a struggle, and humans keep growing up on both ends of the spectrum, from generous to greedy. Like their parents.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The two works you mention, one non-fiction and the other a documentary, were extrapolation from fact whereas the fictions are creative responses to what are seen as possibilities at the time they appear. This title is from the 1950s and yet still has dystopian elements that could well apply even in the Britain of the second decade of the 21st century.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Sometimes fiction does a much better job than fact. On The Beach was in that category. I agree.

            It’s actually the reason I write fiction, because of the ability to reach emotions, potentially to create empathy, in my case for a disabled main character, and against the tropes that such should just quietly stop bothering the rest of, well, I was going to say ‘us’, but I’m no longer in the ‘us’ that would mean.

            Great point.

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  3. I loved this book, preferring it to Day of the Triffids, and have included it in my Desert Island Books list. I really enjoyed the slightly arch 50s dialogue, and there was a real adventure in the road trip, as well as the virus. Lovely review with the Blake and Nod references. (I must try to fit in some SF this month – I think I have a novella in my pile which’ll fit two tags in one).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This, surprisingly, has dated very little and some assumptions not at all — consider how the novel’s government was prepared to throw a sizeable proportion of the population under a bus with nuclear strikes, except now it’s pensioners and the vulnerable with a pandemic.

      Glad you liked the references, Annabel, though whether or not the author had them in mind I still thought them rather pertinent! Hope you get to fit in some SF in November, if only to distract from the End of Days feel as we approach the close of 2020… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great review, Chris. This is one of the most read books on my shelves. As with so much of my reading, it was a title I opened at random. This one manages to involve me from the first line, every time.

    I heard a dramatisation on Radio 4 some time ago that traced the bones of the story, but hasn’t resonated in the way the words did.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Cath. I’m hanging on to my copy for a second read some time but I’m not sure I could do multiple rereads! But I agree, it grabs one from the start.

      If there’s more dialogue and less action in a novel an audio dramatisation can work well, but some of the sequences here would be hard to replicate in this way, I would have thought.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. JJ Lothin

      I felt that the casting of David Mitchell as the narrator was rather undermining – along the lines of ‘Weren’t people funny in the 50s, with their stiff uper lips!’

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not heard this adaptation but yes, David Mitchell can come over as funny-posho, but having grown up in the 50s with those plummy BBC and Pathé newsreel voiceover commentaries as a background noise to national and world events I can vouch for the fact that even then they felt affected and, well, ‘posh’.

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  5. There have, I’ll admit, been long stretches of time between my rereadings.

    As to the adaptors, I often find myself wishing they’d just left some texts alone, and this was one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s for this reason I’m avoiding the Netflix Rebecca adaptation, at least until after I bother to finish reading it (I stalled a few months ago, being attracted away by more magnetic narratives…). And maybe not even then as I see it’s not been all that well received.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only just got round to his novels, Simon, with the first Tripods book read a month or so ago, and I see there’s a huge backlist to delve into! Still, I was impressed with how relevant this remains, six decades on.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Dystopian novels close to our own times aren’t generally my thing either, Jane; but I was interested to see how this period piece (written a couple or so years after The Day of the Triffids) would deal with a viral plague, even if didn’t affect humans in person but through the food they lived on.

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  6. I haven’t read this, but you’ve intrigued me, Chris! On the TBR it goes, and if the TBR falls one day with a terrible groan on my poor head, on your head be it! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a favourite book of mine and your review captures everything I love about it perfectly. I have no trouble believing that all our manners and politeness is a thin veneer. It’s so easy while life is cushy…

    Imagining such scenarios, wondering what might be in store for the future, this is why I love scifi so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve just got into John Lanchester with his The Wall with its dystopian take on fortress Britain and a so far undefined ‘Change’ that’s happened in the world. As you say, civilisation is a thin veneer when push comes to shove, and novels like these show us the dilemmas that we need to think about when society breaks down.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Nearly halfway through: a little slow at first but I continue to be intrigued, wondering where it’ll go, meanwhile it reads like a warning of the Tory government’s attitude towards ‘illegal immigrants’ aka asylum seekers (that is, people attempting to escape from persecution and torture to a more tolerant country where there are supposed to be legal safeguards). But I should emphasise it’s in no way preachy! I promise a full review in due course, and already I’m letching other novels by him.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. I remember reading this long ago and my memory of it has turned very cloudy, but your review compelled me to re-read it: right now it sounds like an interesting point of view for the current situation the world finds itself in…

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Maddalena, the overlaps to me are more interesting than the differences between “then” and now. But I think I may leave it awhile before I reread it, in the hopes that somehow, sometime in the future, life on earth won’t have broken down and disintegrated as the novel portrays.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: #SciFiMonth Mission Log: week three

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