There’s a second hand bookshop just outside the entrance to my job — a dangerous concoction of cheap books and easy access, which often results in me returning home with armfuls of yellowing tomes — my wife isn’t a fan.
But this particular bookshop gets two things just right that most bookshops don’t; one, they don’t mix the science-fiction with the fantasy — a classic mistake that will immediately see an end to my patronage; and two, they have a really quick rotation of books, which means there’s always the chance of picking up some lost classic.
During my lunch break today, I chanced my arm and wandered in. Most days I’ll leave with nothing, but today was not one of those days. Today, the second-hand gods were smiling down on me spewing force sci-fi goodness that only a true fan can appreciate.
Today I came across a rich seam of John Wyndham novels tucked away in an old wooden fruit box underneath one of the shelves. Eight classics of British sci-fi, just sitting there. It doesn’t happen very often, but just occasionally my reading tastes align with those of a deceased science-fiction compatriot whose collection of books isn’t recognised for its true value by their relatives, and the stack of books is dumped at the second hand book shop. I call those days, “Pay Day”.
If you’ve never read John Wyndham (full name, or as I like to think of it, proper-British name, “John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris”) he is a British science-fiction writer best known for dystopian classics such as “Day of the Triffids” and “The Midwitch Cookcoos”, both written in 1957.
I’m a big fan of science-fiction in general, but I have a particular soft spot for anything pre-1960. It’s for this, and several other reasons, that “Day of the Triffids” is one of my favourite novels; firstly, it’s a great hunk of classic British 50s sci-fi; secondly, its story is genuinely scary and the locations very close to home; but the main reason it’s one of my favourite sci-fi novels is that for the first third the protagonist follows up every near-death experience with a visit to a pub, or a bar, or consoles himself by raiding the drinks cabinet of the nearest abandoned house.
There’s something kitsch, cheesy, and just slightly too honest about it.
At the start of the story, protagonist Bill Masen wakes up to realise he’s missed the end of the world, and spends the first chapter moaning about the inadequate state of the clocks and chimes which should have woken him.
Later on in the same chapter, once he realises what’s going on, Bill’s first thought is “…I could have done with a stiff drink.” One page later:
“But one thing I was perfectly certain about. Reality or night-mare, I needed a drink as I had seldom needed one before. There was nobody in sight in the little side street outside the yard gates, but almost opposite stood a pub. I can recall its name now — “The Alamein Arms”. There was a board bearing a reputed likeness of Viscount Montgomery hanging from an iron bracket, and below, one of the doors stood open. I made straight for it.”John Wyndham – Day of the Triffids
Please bear in mind that Bill has at this point just been appraised of the fact that the end of the world is in full swing and the human race is busy killing itself. The scene continues for a further four pages.
But my absolute favourite paragraph — I know that because I surprised myself that I’d bent the corner of the page as a place holder, which is akin to vandalising a holy book — is below.
These few sentences perfectly capture the real danger of the situation, adds a frison of unrequited romance, and tops it off with a gratuitous description of drinking room temperature whiskey before the Bill retires to a comfortable bed.
This is how the British do the end of the world:
Wyndham was a prolific author of more than 70 novels and short-stories, many of which are considered classics of the genre; and several — including Day of the Triffids — were turned into television series’ and films.
And who can forget the classic Wyndham short, “Jizzle”, about a circus monkey that paints portraits and gets its owner into relationship trouble. As with many of these stories, it may sound comical to modern tastes, but a version of “Jizzle” was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, sensibly retitled “Maria”.
Some other classic John Wyndham titles — which I chose completely at random and in no way for the humour — include:
But seriously, if you’re a science-fiction fan, you owe it to yourself — and your inner child — to read John Wyndham.