Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Nature of the Catastrophe:
A British Apocalypse Cover Art Gallery.

Watching Hammer’s version of ‘Quatermass & The Pit’ recently, I was struck by a brief exchange between Andrew Keir’s Professor Quatermass and James Donald’s Dr. Roney as they brain-storm the likely origins and the excavated Martian remains.

“The will to survive is an odd phenomenon”, says Quatermass. “If we found out our own world was doomed, say by climatic changes, what would we do about it?”

“Nothing, probably”, replies Roney, “just go on squabbling like usual”.

As the 1967 movie swiftly moves on to other matters, 2016 viewers are left with a momentary chill (and yet more evidence of scriptwriter Nigel Kneale’s uncanny talent for holding a beam on the future, even when he wasn’t trying to).

Spending Christmas and New Years in Wales a few months ago, the temperature was anything up to 8 – 10 degrees higher than normal for the time of year, as rain poured down relentlessly for almost the entire duration of our stay. Watching the evening news, seeing various areas of the UK devastated by floods for the second year in a row, I couldn’t help reflecting that we probably have one of the more placid and non-disaster-prone climates of any nation on Earth, and wondering how many ‘freak’ meteorological upsets were simultaneously going unreported in other parts of the globe.

The second story each evening meanwhile brought grim footage of the proxy forces of assorted Western and Eastern powers scrabbling for control of empty, blood-stained piles of rubble in whatever remains of Syria, the juxtaposition making as clear a realisation of Kneale’s casual, fifty year old predication as could be wished for.

A few months later, watching the public’s largely disengaged response to the sight of the French authorities torching and tear-gassing the makeshift city constructed by refugees from war just across the channel, I was reminded not only of Christopher Priest’s bleak 1972 novel ‘Fugue For a Darkening Island’ (a book that trumps the “this might happen” scenarios of Priest’s fellow doom-mongering SF writers by depicting a series of events so grimly inevitable it’s a miracle it hasn’t taken place already), but of the obligatory shrugging-off-the-warning-signs / “it’ll never happen here” segment that tends open most stories in the good ol’ British End of the World tradition.

(This is most bluntly and grotesquely realised by the scene early in Cornel Wilde’s film adaptation of John Christopher’s ‘The Death of Grass’ [‘No Blade of Grass’, 1970], which sees attendees at a buffet lunch stuffing their plates with food as the TV in the corner of the room carries news of the Chinese government’s desperate decision to begin dropping atom bombs on their largest cities in a last ditch effort to curb the effects of mass starvation.)

Of course, you shouldn’t necessarily pay too much attention to my doom-mongering. I’m particularly prone to such alarmist trains of thought, having been unhealthily fixated by this peculiarly British strain of '60s & '70s apocalyptic sci-fi ever since I was in primary school. John Christopher’s ‘Tripods’ series were amongst the last “children’s” books I read, and, following my Dad’s sound recommendations from there, John Wyndham’s classics were amongst the first “grown up” tales I subsequently made a start on.

After that, I spent the rest of my formative years consuming any story I could find that concerning “the end of the world” and, whether by means of wind, floods, drought, plague, famine, alien invasion, over-population, under-population, nuclear fallout, air pollution or god knows what else, my nation’s authors and paperback publishers were with me every step of the way.

With this in mind then, I’ll leave you to peruse the collection of scans below and decide for yourself the extent to which these storied literary gents of the mid-twentieth century might have been on to something.

Meanwhile, I could claim I was busy this weekend scoping out that easily defendable farmhouse with it’s own water supply and potato field, wondering who I should invite to share the landrover with me as we flee the city before the roadblocks go up. But, for better or for worse, such survivalist fantasies must remain just that in my case. As a Type 1 diabetic, I know I’d be dead within six weeks if the NHS stopped dishing out regular prescriptions of injectible human insulin. So, um..

Happy Easter everyone!

(Please note that a few of these scans have previously appeared on this blog in the past, but it’s always nice to see them again I hope. Also, the ‘Fugue For a Darkening Island’ scan above is not mine – I seem to have lost my copy, so I found this one online.)

(Penguin, 1963 / cover illustration by John Griffiths)


(Corgi, 1961 / cover artist unknown)

CATASTROPHE: heat / alien terraforming.

(Penguin, 1963 / cover illustration by Denis Piper)


(Signet, 1965 / cover artist unknown)

CATASTROPHE: infertility.

(Arrow, 1971 / cover designer unknown)

CATASTROPHE: overpopulation.

(Penguin, 1974 / Cover illustration by David Pelham)


(Orbit/Quartet, 1977 / cover artist unknown)

CATASTROPHE: pollution.

(Penguin, 1977 / Cover art by Harry Willock)

CATASTROPHE: blindness / Triffids.

(Arrow, 1979 / “Cover photograph of John Mills as Professor Quatermass by courtesy of Thames Television.”)

CATASTROPHE: general societal breakdown / alien matter harvesting.

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