The world in winter, p.1
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       The World in Winter, p.1

           John Christopher
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The World in Winter


  John Christopher

  * * *

  THE WORLD IN WINTER

  With an introduction by

  Hari Kunzru

  Contents

  Introduction

  Part One

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Part Two

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Part Three

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Follow Penguin

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  THE WORLD IN WINTER

  Sam Youd was a British author who wrote under a number of pseudonyms, including Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford and Peter Graaf, as well as under his own name. In total he published fifty-six novels and numerous short stories, spanning general fiction, gothic romance, detective thrillers, social comedy and other subjects. He is best known as John Christopher, pioneer of the young adult dystopian fiction genre and author of the Tripods trilogy, among many other science fiction classics, including The Death of Grass. Sam Youd was born in Lancashire in 1922 and died in 2012.

  Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist, Transmission, My Revolutions and Gods Without Men, as well as a novella and a story collection. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Guardian and New Yorker, among many other publications. He has won literary prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Betty Trask Prize and was previously named one of Granta’s Twenty Best Young British Novelists. Hari Kunzru lives in New York and his next novel, White Tears, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in 2017.

  Introduction

  by Hari Kunzru

  The light of the sun is getting weaker. An Arctic winter descends on Britain, rendering it all but uninhabitable. London is fenced off from the rest of the country, which is left to descend into starvation and anarchy. Good speculative fiction knows how to find appropriate metaphors for the reader’s anxieties and desires, and in 1962, when John Christopher’s The World in Winter was published, the fear of decline was pervasive. The Suez debacle had exposed Britain’s inability to project power without the support of the Americans. Decolonization was stripping the mother country of her once-mighty empire, as immigration from those former colonial possessions was changing the lily-white complexion of her streets. It seems unlikely that Enoch Powell was a science fiction fan, but if he ever put down his copy of the Aeneid and picked up this novel, he would have found something to make his rivers of blood run cold. Here is the very thing that the old demagogue most feared, the story of what happens when ‘the black man has the whip hand over the white man’.

  In Christopher’s tale of national and racial Untergang, the sun has set, there’s no more pink on the map, and the centre of civilization and commerce has moved southwards to Africa. White British refugees find themselves grubbing for a living in the slums of Lagos, servants and supplicants to black masters. The World in Winter is both a reactionary jeremiad (fear the loss of your status!) and a progressive thought experiment. The reader is invited to lament the terrible fate of a middle-class white hero, who finds himself a beggar in a far-off land where the colour of his skin counts against him. Imagine, for a moment, Mr Powell, that the Oxford brogue is on the other foot. Wouldn’t you perhaps hope for a kinder reception than ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’?

  Christopher is no white supremacist, indeed his anger at crude prejudice is there on the page, but The World In Winter is also a book of its time, which is to say that it’s animated by a sense that racial difference is a kind of abyss, and between black and white there can be no complete understanding or identification. The plot hinges on ideas about racial loyalty and betrayal that one only hears today in the rhetoric of the extreme right. But for me, at least, its very ambiguity makes it interesting. With immigration once again at the top of the national agenda, it’s a novel that still has the power to thrill and disturb, performing one of the signal services of fiction, forcing the reader to inhabit other realities, other possibilities and perspectives, making the present order seem less fixed and immutable than before.

  Part One

  * * *

  1

  The reading room seemed warm when one first came in from the outside, but the impression did not last. To stretch fuel stocks as far as possible, the burners had been set at their lowest working point. Cold settled from the room’s high dome on to the figures huddled in front of the desks, bundled into overcoats, painfully making notes or turning pages with gloved fingers; their legs, in some cases, wrapped round with blankets. From time to time, someone would get up and seek to restore circulation, arms beating, booted feet stamping against the polished wooden floor. The rest paid no attention but concentrated on their books, with the greedy sad determination of a man facing death, or the end of a love affair.

  Pausing to look at them, Andrew Leedon rubbed his hands against the silver Victorian muff-heater Madeleine had given him. She had found it in an antique shop and presented it to him on his birthday, along with a supply of the small charcoal by which it was fuelled. But even charcoal had become impossible to obtain, and its brief usefulness, after the many idle years, was almost at an end. He blew through the small holes in the side and watched the red glow brighten. A chair scraped, and his attention turned back to his fellow readers. He felt pity for them, but it was mixed with envy. The future was a current which soon, very soon now, must drag them down into the maelstrom; for the moment they bobbed like corks in this eddying backwater, but the deep tug of the undersurge was there and none would escape it. Yet they were indifferent. The red-eyed, grey-haired man across the aisle, with his pile of volumes on King Arthur – he had always been there, in the same place, with the same books. When the end came to him, in however strange and incalculable a form, it would be irrelevant, as irrelevant as the pneumonia, or heart attack, or cancer, which would otherwise have rendered his seat vacant. Soon all the seats would be vacant together until, as must happen, marauders broke in to rip out the wood and carry away the books that were left for fuel. Some of the rarest books had already gone, to the libraries in Cairo and Accra, in Lagos and Johannesburg, and more would go in the next few weeks, but there would still be enough to draw the mob. The people reading here were not so foolish as to expect a reprieve; for the library or for themselves. It was that he envied.

  The main lights were off, conserving electricity. There were only the small reading lights and, high up, the greyness that filtered in from outside. He thought of Africa; of sunshine, long beaches by a blue ocean, the green of trees and grass. It was hard to believe that in just ten days they would be there: impossible to imagine it. But it was true. Soon they would be travelling high over the frozen lands to the warm south. Things might be difficult, but there would be warmth and safety. There were only one or two moments in a man’s life when he really needed to be lucky. This was one.

  A man with a greasy blond beard, wearing a dirty raincoat, came along the aisle and stopped beside Andrew. He said, in a courteous gentle voice:

  ‘Would you by any chance have a match that I might borrow?’

  ‘Smoking’s still prohibited, isn’t it?’ Andrew asked. ‘They haven’t relaxed that rule?’

  He shook his head. ‘I don’t smoke. To start my fire, at home. I have the means of striking.’ He fished in a pocket and brought out an empty matchbox. ‘One match would be enough.’

  ‘I
m sorry.’

  He could have lent him his lighter; he would not need it before he got back, and Madeleine had one of her own. But it might not be returned, and a butane lighter with an almost full cartridge was too valuable a thing to take a chance on.

  The man said: ‘I’m sorry for troubling you. Thank you all the same.’

  He walked away towards the exit. Andrew saw him stop twice more and ask, with the same negative result. At the door he paused again, looking round the room in hopeless inquiry. Then he went out. As the door swung to behind him, Andrew had an impulse to go after him with the lighter. Even if it were not returned, they could manage with one for the relatively few days remaining, while that poor devil had to go back to a freezing room, and to a future equally devoid of warmth and hope. But he did not, when it came to the point, rise from his chair. Madeleine might lose her lighter, or the charge might fail prematurely. One took no chances these days. It was too cold for charity.

  Andrew turned back to his study of the thick file of The Times. As one of the Associate Editors of the programme, he was not usually required to do the menial job of research, but things, after all, were running down. This was to be the last documentary that Late Night Final, that popular television feature, would present – a final analysis of what had happened, and why. And a day or two later the transmitters would fall silent, the small screens go blank. But by that time … Africa.

  The light was poor, the bulbs glowing dully on the inadequate voltage. He ruffled the pages back awkwardly, peering at dates and headlines – back through the early days of scientific reports, dubious prognostications, tucked away in inconspicuous places, with headings like: NEW SATELLITE PROBE CONFIRMS SOLAR RADIATION DECLINE. The beginning was before that; in the intervals, people had died and loved, killed and been born and been betrayed. Between the world’s catastrophes and those of the individual man, relationships were mostly coincidental. The day of Hiroshima was a birthday or a wedding anniversary, or the day an old dog, dying in the sunshine on the lawn, took a childhood with it.

  He found what he was looking for at last: the report of an obscure speech by an obscure Italian scientist at an unimportant conference. There was no main headline, but a small side-head said: Radiation Cycle in the Sun Suggested. They had given Fratellini’s speech five lines; the rest of a long paragraph was devoted to something on polar magnetic fields.

  It was a small signpost, he reflected with irony, to point to such large things – to the world’s wreck and to his own cuckoldry.

  2

  It was difficult to tell, looking back, how good a summer that had been. The records gave a statistical answer – at Kew, the century’s fourth best for dryness, the third best in hours of sunshine. But all those previous seasons, that had matched this one or even surpassed it, were blurred in the memory by other springs, other summers. This was different, a C Major crescendo that lingered in the heart, a recollection of love across the dry divide of age. There were brief spells of poor weather, one in July, another early in September. For the rest, what breaks came in the continuation of warm blue days were no more than pauses, preparing for still more brilliant skies. From Sicily to the shores of rocky Norway, Europe basked in the heat.

  In Andrew’s life, too, as he saw it at the time, it was a season of brightness. His job filled the three criteria for satisfaction: he enjoyed it, he had confidence in his ability to do it well, and his work was appreciated in the right quarters. Behind this lay a family life which offered him, he thought, all that a man needed.

  The Leedons had been married for eleven years and had two children, boys of ten and eight. Carol had been, when Andrew married her, a girl of startlingly good looks, and in her early thirties she was still beautiful. She had heavy chestnut hair and blue eyes, a clear skin touched with rose, and features that, apart from the obvious qualities of regularity and proportion, showed contentment and, for men, a promise of peace. The promise, Andrew had found, was misleading: there was more selfishness and laziness in her nature than generosity. But her faults were moderate. They did not make her too difficult to live with; and she had an ease, a naturalness, both in crises and in the everyday tension of life, which, he felt, more than compensated for them. He was fond of her, and still capable of being excited by her body. Perhaps more than that he was proud of her beauty and her presence; a little surprised, even after eleven years, at his own triumph in having captured her, but no longer questioning the fact of his achievement. He had never, for a moment, regretted his marriage, nor wanted another woman with anything but momentary desire. Had he ever put the question to himself, he would have said that he loved her; but the question would have embarrassed him.

  For his children, he felt a detached, clear-eyed affection. The elder boy, Robin, was an aggressive uncertain child, brilliant in his studies in part, but contemptuous of whatever failed to interest him. He took after Andrew physically, and was already tall and thin, with more than a hint of the same slight stoop. Andrew recognized loneliness in him, but any impulse to comfort it was held in check by an awareness of the difficulties, and of his own probable inadequacy in such an undertaking.

  Jeremy was quite a different boy: broad-shouldered, slow moving, purposeful, good-natured, and a little dull. He had Carol’s brow and eyes, and hair that renewed its blondness every summer. Adults generally liked him, and boys of his own age automatically accepted his leadership.

  Both were now at boarding school. Andrew looked forward to their return at the term’s end, and for a few days after their departure for school found the unaccustomed tidiness and silence of the house unsettling; for the remainder of their time away he settled quite happily into his routines of television work and normal social life. Carol wrote the weekly letters to them; occasionally Andrew added a postscript.

  About a week after the boys had gone back for the Michaelmas term, McKay, Andrew’s Editor-in-Chief, dropped in to his office while he was dictating notes to one of the programme’s secretaries. McKay was a ferret-faced, slimly built man, with red hair and conspicuous soft blond eyelashes; he had an aggressive manner which perhaps was meant to offset his physical slightness, but was amiable enough. Andrew found him easier to work with than most of his previous superiors in television producing because he made decisions quickly, and did not interfere with a job once delegated.

  McKay said: ‘Mind if I break it up? Nothing important?’

  Andrew said: ‘Notes on the Thorpely business.’

  Thorpely was a small Suffolk village in which there was currently a scandal about drains that the programme was proposing to investigate: two different local authorities each imputed responsibility to the other and refused to do anything. Meanwhile some of the local people had been driven from their homes and were living in shacks at the far of the village.

  ‘We can’t use it this week anyway. Too soon after Little Shipton. O.K., Sue, I think you can pop off.’ He watched her with mild interest as she gathered up her things and left; she was a quiet sinuous girl who dressed effectively. To Andrew, he went on: ‘We’re going out to a party.’

  ‘Who and what,’ Andrew said, ‘and how long? I’d better ring home if we’re going to be late. This was my evening off, remember?’

  ‘Winston & Peck. Five thirty to seven, but you don’t need to stay for more than half an hour.’

  Winston & Peck were a middle-rank publishing firm, with a reasonably impressive non-fiction side and a small and select fiction list. Andrew creased his forehead in inquiry.

  ‘Anything worth while? I didn’t know anything good was on their stocks.’

  ‘Lord Benchitt’s memoirs.’

  ‘Nothing we can use, is there?’

  ‘I did think of putting him on and getting Curly to savage him, but even bad publicity’s too good for the old bastard. No, there’s someone going to be there I want you to meet. A fellow called Cartwell, from the Home Office.’

  McKay had great confidence, Andrew knew, in his ability to get on with people and
to get things out of them. It was an art in which McKay felt himself, with good reason perhaps, to be particularly weak, and he had utilized Andrew on earlier occasions as a contact man. He wondered what McKay had in mind this time.

  ‘For general purposes,’ he asked, ‘or something in particular?’

  ‘Both. He’s the kind of man who might always be useful. For a starter, I thought you might angle and see if he knows anything about this.’

  He was carrying an evening paper which he held out to Andrew, his thumb marking the story in which he was interested.

  ‘I saw it,’ Andrew said. ‘So we’re going to have a cold winter. Is it worthwhile, and would he be likely to have anything, anyway?’

  ‘The sun producing less heat. It might be a story.’

  ‘The difference is very small – only detectable with precise instruments.’

  ‘It’s the idea. We depend on the sun absolutely. We could get in some interesting speculation.’

  ‘Do we need a Home Office opinion for that?’

  ‘There might be something there.’ He stared at Andrew for a moment, and then shrugged. ‘Perhaps not. But it’s worth your getting to know him, anyway. We haven’t got a proper Home Office contact now that Price has gone into industry.’

  He made the last comment with some annoyance. Andrew grinned.

  ‘Thoughtless of him, just for twice the salary, a gold-plated expense account, and a top-hat pension. No consideration.’

  McKay smiled also. ‘No consideration,’ he agreed.

  ‘Glad to come, in any case,’ Andrew said. ‘The drinks were very good at the last Winston & Peck do.’

  ‘They always are. Though for Benchitt, hemlock would be more appropriate.’

  Winston & Peck, having been bombed, like so many of their rivals, out of Paternoster Row, had taken premises at three temporary addresses before settling, with an air of finality, into their present office. They now occupied a house in a quiet street in Mayfair, roughly equidistant from Curzon Street and the Park, with only a small tasteful brass plate to indicate that the house was other than residential. Many of the surrounding houses had similar small plaques; none, in fact, was a private dwelling. Drinks were served in the L-shaped room on the first floor which had once been the main drawing room and now, with removable partitions, provided offices for the three chief directors. The office furniture, except for the grey metal filing cases, had been removed, and a dozen Regency chairs and two sofas brought in. The room was already quite full when Andrew and McKay arrived. Most of the guests looked like authors, Andrew thought, and the urgency with which they clutched and downed their drinks bespoke either the unsuccessful or the alcoholic.

 
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