Children, children, don’t get old. You’ll find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and staying awake, or at least semi-conscious, your mind lurching from this to that . . . but of course to stop there would be a blasphemy against life and the giver of life. Along with the indignities (don’t worry, I won’t go into detail), the diminishments, the great sorrows, there are compensations. As your sight and hearing grow less acute, your sense of time becomes deeper, richer, more intense, in a way you couldn’t have begun to imagine when you were young.
The U.K.-based publisher Gollancz issued a series of reprints labeled “SF Masterworks,” with introductions by various hands. (If you often wander among stacks of used books, as I do, you’re sure to have seen them, if only in passing.) One of these is Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker, “a towering masterpiece of postwar fiction,” as Adam Roberts describes it in the last sentence of his introduction. That may sound like the routine hyperbole that plagues book-talk today, but in fact it’s the plain truth. And since Roberts himself is a writer of exceptional gifts and preternatural intellectual energy, his introduction alone makes this volume worth acquiring. (David Mitchell fans, please note: The Gollancz volume also includes a brief “Afterword II” by Mitchell, following Hoban’s afterword.)
Riddley Walker is a post-apocalyptic novel set in England and narrated in visceral, rhythmic, mutated English that unfortunately discourages some readers from going beyond the first page. Roberts’s comments on the book, and on its distinctive language in particular, are sharp (read aloud any passage that baffles you, he advises, and you’ll be fine); I hope he will persuade you to give it a try. The novel was inspired by a visit to Canterbury Cathedral, as Hoban himself recounts. I want to zero in on one long paragraph in Roberts’s introduction, which follows his account of first reading the novel in 1981, when he was sixteen; he had grown up in Canterbury, and so the book’s Kentish setting had a “peculiar resonance” for him, so much so that the improbability of East Kent as a “strategic target” for bombing didn’t even occur to him.
I have often wondered whether one of the influences that worked upon Hoban’s imagination wasn’t Peter Watkins’ chilling pseudo-documentary, The War Game. Originally made for the BBC in 1965, but not shown on television (the Corporation deemed it ‘too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting’), Watkins’ black-and-white film dramatizes with pitiless precision the after-effects of a nuclear attack on East Kent. The piece received a cinematic release, and indeed won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966. Watkins set his story in Kent because that’s where he was living at the time; most of the cast were amateurs, Watkins’ friends and friends of friends—one actor, excitingly for those of us studying at the Simon Langton Grammar School in 1980, was our English teacher, Mr Meteyard. Now my reaction to Hoban’s novel . . . is weirdly and I think not inappropriately tangled up with these coincidences and harmonies, mediated by the pervasive, acute anxiety that nuclear war might break out any day. This last point can hardly be overstated; we were all actually, pressingly scared about this possibility throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, it can be hard to explain to 21st-century generations how widespread this fear was, since nowadays that cultural anxiety has been diluted. Why the fear receded is something of a puzzle: the risks have hardly gone away, after all. Perhaps it has been replaced by other fears, especially of environmental collapse. But then again, those fears are linked.
If you read my previous column, “Age of Fear,” you will understand why this paragraph has a “peculiar resonance” for me, not reared in East Kent but rather in Pomona, California, where I lived with my mother, my grandmother, and my younger brother from 1953 to the fall of 1963 (for me, from the age of five to the age of fifteen). When I was in elementary school, we occasionally went through “civil defense” drills. There was muted talk about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, and, if memory serves, we were shown a couple of short instructional films that in retrospect seemed grotesquely absurd. A few months before we moved, our family doctor—who helped to start the house-church we attended at the time—had a fallout shelter built in his backyard.
When I first read Adam Roberts’s introduction to Riddley Walker, I wasn’t surprised at all by his mentioning fear of nuclear war, but I was quite surprised by his emphasis on “the pervasive, acute anxiety that nuclear war might break out any day,” his insistence that “we were all actually, pressingly scared about this possibility throughout the 1970s and 1980s.” I had the same reaction when I re-read the introduction recently.
I hasten to add that I didn't say, “Humph! This must be greatly exaggerated!” Rather, I was struck again by how slippery the subject of “fear” is. When I recall my own experience in the 1950s and early 1960s, I would say that fear of nuclear war was “lurking” rather than pervasive and acute, a deep fear that would sometimes rise to the surface but then receded to the depths. What I felt much more pressingly—for instance, when watching documentaries of World War II—was the realization that anything could happen, that the routines and expectations of everyday life could be shattered in an instant in countless ways. (Richard Widmark, I should add, was scarier to me than “the atom bomb.”)
How strange it is, in 2019, to recall those pitiful “civil defense” drills and our doctor’s fallout shelter (which he invited me and my brother to enter and inspect). How strange to read Riddley Walker with Adam Roberts’s introduction amid the vast public discourse of fear today, while trying to keep personal fears in perspective—all at the same time!
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.