Monday, October 4, 2010

Modern Classics – Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells

Does it make me sound a bit strange if I say I like post apocalyptic novels? There´s nothing like a good old dystopian vision to keep me turning the pages. So, I am hoping to devote the next few blog entries to my favourite post apocalyptic visionaries (The books are not reviewed in any particular order. However, I am quite pedantic about the fact that Margaret Atwood´s three novels, I sincerely believe, MUST be read in chronological order!)
I´m beginning with Brother in the Land purely because I have just read it. It´s on the syllabus at the school I´ve just moved to work at, so I need to familiarise myself with the text and find ways of making it interesting to young people. It shouldn´t be a difficult task (although, sometimes teaching a text can feel like slowly killing it for both pupils and teacher…saying that I still adore Lord of the Flies, which I´ve taught, with some breaks, for over a decade).
Swindells is unforgiving in his stark portrayal of human nature and the failings of the human race. Echoes of the brutality of survival have travelled onwards and forwards to contemporary post apocalyptic novels such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy. If you enjoyed The Road, it´s interesting to see what Swindells was doing in this genre so many years ago.
Fears of nuclear holocaust seem to have subsided since my teenage years (when this book was published) and some elements from the very beginning of the book do set it in a particular time and place. Nonetheless, the cruelty of man and the hope in love are timeless themes. They reach a sad and quiet conclusion in the book, “not with a bang but with a whimper”, this is a quality I admire in Swindells, he doesn´t soften the edges for his teenage audience and there is little hope of a happy end. The bitter reality is shared.
The story follows the grim reality of life for Danny, the young protagonist. He meets adulthood and responsibility, moral dilemmas and the reality of horrific death in the early stages of the book. A gradual breakdown follows, both of his society and the people around him. There is some hope in the shape of Branwell´s farm and the community values it encompasses, but it is tentative.
Danny is a likeable young man, trying to do the right thing for himself and his brother. There are elements of a hero´s journey in the novel, with Danny’s quest being for his own survival with some mentors along the way and a brief light of hope and love. The story crackles along at a great pace, with the reader desperate to find some hope of survival. Like Danny, we are perpetually waiting for ´The Authorities´ to come along and make everything alright again. Needless to say, it doesn´t quite happen like that.
It´s a great, quick read. Remember it´s a children´s book, so if you don´t like teenage fiction - avoid - there will be grown up post apocalyptic novels reviewed too. If you´re a teacher, it´s worth a read just for Swindells’ great portrayal of what happens to P.E teachers post apocalypse (it has to be remembered that Swindells trained as a teacher before becoming a writer, so the portrayal must be accurate!)
Post Script: My husband (the pedantic historian) says that the title post apocalyptic novel is an anachronism, or was that an oxymoron…because if it were post apocalyptic, there wouldn't be anyone around as it would have been an apocalypse....he's being a pain in the backside and deliberately so, to provoke a response. I suppose the fascination with post apocalypse is would we be capable of surviving? If we did would we be able to create a better society? Swindells, Atwood, McCarthy and Philip K Dick all explore that theme, with wonderful results. Although the nuclear holocaust scenario may no longer be at the forefront of our everyday concerns, there are still preoccupations with global climate change, War, cloning and its consequences, scientific experimentation, peak oil and the ultimate demise of man. Great civilisations have risen and declined, we have not always learnt the lessons of history. Perhaps the fascination with post apocalyptic novels is to do with wanting to change for the better and wondering if humanity can ever achieve it...


  1. It seems a sad fact that we can only grasp our common humanity in times of hideous crisis. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that, post-apocalypse - society would become tiny and that would allow for a more generous spirited approach. Even my Y8 students recognise that communism would work in a small society. Greed and fear increases with unfamiliarity and no virtual 'global village' can mirror a genuine community.
    I read Brother in the Land when I was a teenager and thought it was remarkable. I particularly respect the challenge to Hollywood's shallow lies that 'all will be ok in the end'.

  2. Hi Sian, I haven't read this book, but I have some vague memory of a conversation with someone, sometime (who was reading it at school)about it being based near where I used to live in the North of England? Does this sound right? At the time I lived in Skipton. Hope I've got the right book.
    You make it sound worth a read, maybe I should seek it out. x

    Just as a quick aside - I'm sure you'll remember the Jane Austen lessons in 6th form. Well it's all coming back to me as my little girl is loving the TV/movie versions of many of the books. It's given me a great incentive to re-read my old copies - many with notes written in from our time at Ystalyfera.

  3. I read Brother in the land or 'Bother in t' land' as we used to joke in our northern classroom. I am certain I read it along with Z for Zacariah which is another of those post apocalyptic novel much loved by children in the 1980s fearful of what life would be like after the dreaded bomb. I watched 'Wargames' the other night and that was of a similar ilk. I also noticed that John Spencer (of Leo McGarry fame) was in the film.

    I have to agree with Steve (just for fun)- post apocalytic world / novel is a bit of 'non sequitur' (senseless use of latin phrase) as there wouldn't have been much time for writing as everyone would have been busy trying to re- invent electricity and Chicken Tikka Masala (now would that be anachronistic!). Seriously though, very often it is literature and cultural renewal that rises from the ashes of many a historical disaster or 'apocalypse'- WWI being a prime example. Also interestingly one of things that survived in Nazi Germany was comedy- people still told jokes about Hitler even though it was illegal, showing that the human spirit endured and that the propaganda hadn't worked.

    All very grim and Northern if I remember it- lots of references to places that sound like Skipton and Bradford.

  4. Post-apocalyptic is fine miss, get yourself together.

    You can say a setting is utopic without saying it is an actual utopia. Just because something is diabolic, doesn't mean it literally is work of the literal devil. "Apocalyptic" merely pertains to an apocalypse. It relates to it, as is the wont of the "ic" suffix.

    Most of the difficulty of the phrase stems from a misunderstanding of the word "apocalypse". For a start, it has multiple meanings, including modern meanings such as "great or total devastation". So yeah, post-apocalyptic is fine.

    Even going from the root of our understanding of the word - i.e. the judeo-christian tradition - i'd argue that the phrase is still acceptable. The Apocalypse of John in the book of revelations is a prophecy of cataclysmic destruction prior to the End of Days, including the battle of Armageddon. Even in the book of revelations, the Apocalypse, and the Armageddon, for that matter, are not the ends of the world. Human life continues in both corporeal and non-corporeal forms (admittedly mostly non-corporeal). In fact, the prophetic nature of a The Apocalypse of John makes the literary term "post-apocalyptic" even more apt. Always set in the future, always relating to what comes after "our world" - fragments of technology and shadows of society remain, letting us know that this is descendant of our current state (post-cataclysm). They are prophetic (The Road, for example), but not of the disaster (which would be an apocalypse, containing both prophecy and disaster), but of the aftermath.

    What we have in Mr. Greens pedantry of the term is an amalgam of the common misappropriations for the "apocalypse" and the "armageddon", neither of which have much connection with the original biblical uses which they presumably reference.

    Y'know what I mean, yeah?

    How's that for pedantic historian?

    POST SCRIPT MARK II, THE AWAKENING: Can you think of a single word which means "the end of all life" or "the destruction of the universe". One without a religious meaning suggesting human souls, or some consciousness living on. I mean total destruction of all consciousness and matter. A void. What would that event be called? It seems a curious omission from the vocabulary. Maybe its impossible to truly comprehend such a state of being as a concious subject with an inner life. The destruction of matter, with all our souls being saved is pretty common across cultures, whether its ancestor worship or 7th day adventist, but i can't think of a word which titles the end point of the universe.

    Shout out to Mr. Green.

  5. The omega? (as in 'the alpha and the omega')

    Do you think that the omission of the word from the lexicon indicates man's incapacity to comprehend the nothingness which encircles our own immediate existence (whether that is an individual existence or the existence of humanity as a species)?
    In fact, the fascination with post-apocalyptic/post-cataclysmic fiction surely stems from that desire we have, as we face more and more possibility of extinction, to assert our survival. Even if that survival is spiritual rather than corporeal, we cling to the idea of continuance. In this way, I suspect, we distract ourselves from the real issues we face; none so blind as those that won't see.
    I don't think it is impossible to comprehend such a state of nothingness - Satre managed it quite well - it's just undesirable, for most.


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