THE INVISIBLE GARDENER, ALAN BENNETT AND SCIENCE FICTION by Enid Richemont

I have been walking past this amazing suburban garden for decades, going back to the years when I walked my two children home from school (they have both been serious adults for a very long time!) It's constructed by using very closely packed containers which can be moved around, re-arranged - so simple and so clever.

In all that time, I have never encountered the gardener - of such tiny mysteries Alan Bennett monologues are made (if you've never heard of him, do Google him - he's well worth the effort.) Stories, like "A Lady of Letters", narrated in a beautifully crafted stream of consciousness by unremarkable people - people we mightn't want to share time with because they're so conventional and boring, people we'd pass un-noticed in the street - until something suddenly jars, something suddenly shocks. As a recent critic described reading these stories or listening to the monologues, it's like being on a night sleeper which chugs along peacefully while you doze, and then suddenly derails! I wonder what Mr Bennett might do with my invisible gardener who, almost certainly, holds no sinister secrets (or maybe he does?)

At present I'm having a two book affair, something I rarely indulge in as I much prefer to devote myself to one novel at a time. It started with me looking at bestsellers, in the need of total escapism, and a not too demanding story I couldn't put down. My choice was "Once Upon a River", by Diane Setterfield, chosen partly for its cover image which was akin to the cover of "Riverkeep", by Martin Stewart, one of the best Y/A novels I've ever read, and which I devoured while waiting to be called in for some rather scary surgery. I haven't even checked to see whether the illustrator is actually the same, but the style is similar, and both books feature rivers, albeit very different ones. The opening chapters totally grabbed me, but they're followed by a complicated back story, and my tiny heat-raddled brain (we're currently suffering an unlovely heatwave) isn't up to that, so I began to stray. I will return when the weather's cooler.

My back room is also a library, mostly my late husband's collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy, among which I found some very old Penguin editions of John Wyndham's futuristic and often dystopian novels. Someone on one of my book-related Facebook pages mentioned "The Chrysalids", which I'd never read, so I pulled it out. The yellowed pages were off-putting - must check on Amazon whether there are any more recent editions - but I persevered, and now I'm hooked.

The plot revolves around a future global man-made catastrophe, almost certainly nuclear war and its aftermath (people writing then were much more concerned about the Bomb), with the main focus in this case, on mutations. Without much recorded history and virtually no technology, people have to re-invent themselves, make rules by which to live, and the invention of a god, as it always has, comes in very handy. Their theology has it that the Old People were punished because they'd sinned in some way, and any resulting mutations were directly connected, in some way, to that original sin, so had to be destroyed, putting the life of a little girl born with two extra toes at risk.

It's our ancient fear of the Other, the Different, the Stranger, so masterfully portrayed in Robert Heinlein's wonderful "Stranger in a Strange Land." Their 'religion' is based on the terrifying fantasy of racial 'purity' which once manifested itself so appallingly in Nazi Germany, and is the inspiration for today's far Right. And on the subject of extra digits, many years ago, a Jewish woman friend of mine married 'out', and subsequently gave birth to a little daughter with six fingers. "Ah," said her family, "proves it." Enough said.

As you may already gathered, I'm a bit of a fan of Science Fiction, around which there used to be - and still is - a literary snobbery, so I was a bit taken aback by the short biography of John Wyndham on the back of the book. I quote: "In 1946 he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA, and decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as 'science fiction'." This is the literary genre that predicted so much of what we live with today, and what's far more important, how to cope with it.

Comments

Peter Leyland said…
The Chrysalids was I remember one of the favourite books of my adolescence and I still have it. I remember the girl with six toes but can’t remember what happens. A good lockdown read I imagine. Hope you enjoy the rest of it.
Sandra Horn said…
I'm very impressed, Enid - my heat-raddled, lockdown brain can just about manage some 'light' reading and even then I have to keep looking back because I've already forgotten who Wilfred is, or how the pram fitted into the story. I don't think I could cope with John Wyndham at present, let alone in tandem with another writer. My hat, were I wearing one, would be raised to you!
Umberto Tosi said…
Your interior monologue reminded me of Alan Bennett's works, which, in turn, I had nearly forgotten, and which sent me into the YouTube stacks to indulge myself with a listen or two, including some wonderful newly minted videos. Thank you for that as well. I'm was also pleasantly surprised that Alan Bennett is still alive!
Enid Richemont said…
I think Alan Bennett has reached that stage at which you don't grow any older, but just keel over one day, Umberto. I do find myself wondering about my invisible gardener, though... maybe underneath that fantastic display there are bodies? No soil, you see - just multiple pots on concrete - very handy. M-m-m-m.

Sandra - I'm struggling with the John Wyndham because of the yellowing pages, and see that there are much newer editions of his books on Amazon. His writing hasn't dated at all, though.

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