‘GREYBEARD’ by BRIAN ALDISS
(Faber, 1964, Harcourt Brace & World, Inc
July 1965, Signet Paperback)
‘Greybeard’ starts off like ‘Tales Of The Riverback’, with a ‘Wind In The Willows’ attack by stoats, a character called Big Jim Mole, and Greybeard, his wife Martha, and their companions leaving the rural hamlet of Sparcot to sail down the Thames to find the world. Setting out from Sparcot, with its crotchety ‘Dad’s Army’ of grouchy, bickering, argumentative oldsters, settling uneasily into a strangeness that is both personal – of their own old age, and global, of a gradual de-evolution to a kind of ageing medievalism re-making England into an unknown world. This is a melancholy place that only the elderly have inherited. Oldsters who are half-frightened, half-bewildered, tantalised by memories, haunted by superstitious tales of gnomes, badger-men and other wild things. ‘Of the seven ages of man, little but the last remained’.
In our own, real time-steam, demographic imbalance is increasingly leading to a predominance of retired oldsters supported by a minority of working young people. The tastes and whims of old age are taking on greater economic and social significance than in previous more youth-centric decades. Unlike when Brian W Aldiss wrote this novel, and when it first appeared in the Beat-Boom year of July 1965. Slowly, gradually, the ‘Greybeard’ time-stream begins to appear only a nudge away. Already we can probably more closely relate to its milieu than its initial readers could. Sliding into a time when ‘one of the characteristics of age’ is that ‘all avenues of talk led backwards in time’, and ‘childhood itself lay in the rotting drawers of the world’.
‘Greybeard’ is part of the soft apocalypse movement of the sixties. Part of the restless urge, the uneasy fear, or the ominous dread of the coming global ‘cleansing’. Writers from John Wyndham to JG Ballard had imaginatively destroyed the world in innumerable ways, answering the millennial Cold War fears. There had already been the death of grass, the wind from nowhere, the thermonuclear inferno. The end-of-the-world Brian Aldiss envisaged is both consistent with that feeling, yet one that endures. A feeling that chimes with current gaia-theory that the world is making its own ‘adjustment’ to burgeoning human interference with the planet’s natural balance. There is a sense that the renewing world will be a better place for the passing of the mad human parade. A perceptive Kyril Bonfiglioli instantly recognised that ‘Greybeard’ is ‘the novel we have all been hoping someone would write’, devoting the entire editorial of ‘Science Fantasy no.68’ to advocating what he termed ‘the novel which is to emancipate science-fiction and clear it of the reproach of infantility’.
As chapters one, three, five and on relate the journey of ‘Greybeard’, alternate chapters – or ‘compartments’ as Aldiss refers to them, flashback in what Bonfiglioli terms a ‘series of wonderfully-illuminated vignettes’ to when the central character was merely Algernon Timberlane. The sterility afflicting the world begins in the early-eighties, dated precisely to the 1981 ‘accident’. These chapters are necessarily differently paced, and if they are also less atmospherically charged, more conventionally structured, that’s part of the slow tease as only gradually the truth is revealed. Rogue radiation is the obvious suspect. With atmospheric fall-out from superpower nuclear weapon-testing a serious real-life cause for concern during the late fifties and early sixties. It’s not until later that it’s made clear, that the US and UK governments detonated multimegaton bombs in space which disrupted the Van Allen belts. In the early years of the global sterility Timberlane is recruited by DOUCH(E), as a kind of USA-sponsored impartial monitor of contemporary history, which legitimises his part in the unfolding story. There is global war, with Operation Childsweep intended to conserve the one world-resource that retains value – children. ‘This one really is a war to end war’ observes one US soldier, ‘there won’t be anyone left to fight another’. An early economic casualty of childlessness is the record industry. Kids buy Pop music. No kids, no record sales. This very sixties equation was written before the advent of platinum-selling AOR! The contraceptive industry also becomes obsolete. Aldiss doesn’t mention the sad disappointed paedophiles whose tastes must also be victims of the tragedy! In Washington Timberlane watches a ‘slouch’ comedian whose message is that, in a world haunted by unconceived children, and with no biological tomorrow to work towards, ‘morality is obsolete’. As far as SF techno-speculation is concerned there’s little beyond orbital jets on transpolar parabolas, and hovercrafts are widely used – equipped to fire little tactical nuclear shells. In 2005 there’s a revolution, Britain withdraws from the war. Chapter two returns Timberlane to Aldiss’ familiar Oxford with continuity mentions of the ‘Oxford Mail’ (for which Aldiss started his writing career as literary editor) as the ‘United National Government’ collapses and devolves to regional authorities under local despot Commander Peter Croucher, and a cholera-plague decimates the already-crumbling social infrastructure. Should Timberlane support Croucher? Is any order better than none? Initially pragmatic he’s eventually forced to escape with Martha when there’s an assassination attempt on his life.
Although this back-story is essential to understand Greybeard’s world, to round out and define the character-relationships, it’s the strangeness that clings to your mind long after you’ve finished reading. For there is a past, the flimsy present to which they cling, but no future, with posterity scissored-off. Sailing down the river to Swifford Fair, with Greybeard in his fifties, yet one of the youngest men alive, Aldiss uncannily catches the brittle-boned nuances of old age, of people growing older in a world grown old. In these, the last of human days, there are still whimsical scoundrels, quack-healers, charlatans and fanciful rogues seeking advantage from the senescent chaos around them, such as the wonderfully titled Dr Bunny Jingadangelow. And as Bonfiglioli observes, the Thames ‘winds through the action with leisurely symbolism, linking together the rather complex time-scheme, pregnant with its own unchanging vitality’. To Aldiss, the narrative portrays ‘nature taking over… the jungle has become anglicised’, with England an untended entanglement ‘ceasing to be a nation, it is merely a wild country, without name’. The ragged company drift across Meadow Lake to a medieval Oxford, encroached by the slow seepage of flood and dereliction, to find each college has reverted to a kind of Gormenghastian fiefdom of octogenarian academics, where memories linger on in flickers. New Year 2030, and Balliol parades the three real, if slightly malformed children it harbours. A spectacle of wonder and curiosity. While beyond these contracting clusters of caricatured culture, wild-life is swarming back to reclaim Britain after the brief interruption of human civilisation, masking its remains, impatient even as the last human groups count out their days. To Aldiss, this is a novel of ‘figures swallowed by their landscape’. Even though it’s 2030, ‘Greybeard’ is a world’s-end novel. Yet Greybeard finds time to muse that his leisurely life of aimless drifting might even be preferable to the hectic pressured career he might otherwise have been trapped into had that world not ceased.
Aldiss himself admits ‘I cannot but feel some warmth’ for the novel (in his contribution to ‘Hell’s Cartographers’). But there are emotions other than warmth there. ‘I wrote ‘Greybeard’ in distress, when I was bereft of my children’ he divulges elsewhere. This explains its otherwise puzzling dedication to ‘Clive & Wendy, hoping that one day they will understand the story behind this story’. Following estrangement from his first wife, she was living in the Isle of Wight with their children, while Brian was in Oxford struggling with his own feelings of grief, remorse and pain over their separation, the childless world he metaphorically created reflects his feelings of loss and absence from Clive & Wendy, ‘it is an example of a personal dilemma dramatised as a universal woe’ (in ‘The Twinkling Of An Eye’, 1998). Although Aldiss has been known to chafe at the restrictions of being considered a ‘genre’ writer, it is precisely this magically flawed humanising element of his work that makes him probably my favourite writer across the decades. Thirty years later, with ‘Greybeard’ still in print and readily available, PD James mainstream best-seller ‘The Children Of Men’ (1992) is also about a future childless world, and is also located around Oxford. Without undue rancour Aldiss generously concedes that ‘ideas are free’.
Meanwhile, with Greybeard and Martha, long-time companions Jeff Pitt and Charley Samuels sailing across the Sea of Barks – submerged Berkshire, and their final encounter with Bunny Jingadangelow in his stately steamer, there are teasing suggestions that perhaps every last trace of humanity is not vanishing in this long slow extinction, that the faery-sightings and elfin-rumours are evidence that some hidden children remain. That a new world will survive and persist. Although it will be different from everything that came before.
Review in ‘Science Fantasy no.68’ by Kyril Bonfiglioli (page.3)
Brian Aldiss ‘The Twinkling Of An Eye’ (Warner Books, 1998)