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Falling off the tightrope: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Falling off the tightrope: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

Triffids front cover

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.” This is the arresting first sentence  of  The Day of the Triffids, the novel  which made John Wyndham’s name as a science fiction writer and  which has remained in print  ever since its  first publication in 1951.

Wyndham was born in 1903: his full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris!  He had a public school education, including  a period  spent at the liberal school,  Bedales. He tried his hand at a number of professions before turning (like many a down at heel young person)  to writing.  By the early  1930s he was making a living selling science fiction stories to American  magazines such as Amazing Stories, under the pen names of John Beynon,  John Lucas Harris and Lucas Parkes. In 1933  his short story “The Puff-Ball Menace” was published in Wonder Stories,  in which  an enemy  country plants a fungus in Britain which breeds rapidly  and is fatal. He also wrote a  novel Planet Plane which was set on Mars. Its fair to say that none of his work was noticed by the general public.

After serving in the army during the Second  World War he went back to writing, now using a new  pen name  “John Wyndham”  and had his first success with The Day of the Triffids.

John Duttine as Bill Masen

Bill Masen (John Duttine) in 1981 TV adapatation

The narrator is Bill Masen  whom we find at the start of the novel in hospital,   having suffered a minor eye injury and awaiting the removal of his bandages.  He calls repeatedly,  but nobody comes.  Plucking up the courage to take off the bandages, and venturing on to the streets of London, he discovers that most of the world has gone blind overnight, apparently after watching a metor shower. He rescues a young woman, Josella Playton, and they  meet up with a group of other survivors, led by Michael Beadley, who  plan to leave London and set up in the countryside. Before they can do do so Bill and Josella are separated, captured by another group of survivors, led by a man called Coker.  Bill is forced  to lead a group of blinded people, finding food for them,  until he frees  himself when they die from a form of  plague. Bill teams up with Coker for a time, seeking Josella,  but they part when  Bill  heads off to Surrey looking for a farm house mentioned by her. On the way he rescues a young sighted girl, Susan, and eventually  they find Josella and her friends, who are blind. They survive by farming,  but are menaced by the triffids, a  plant which  mysteriously appeared around the planet some decades  before. It  was bred for its oil,  but can walk on three stalks and kill with a poisoned lash.

Bill and Josella (Emma Relph) battle a triffid

Bill and Josella (Emma Relph) battle a triffid

After six years the small group is found by a helicopter from the Isle of Wight,  where Coker and  Beadley have established a colony. They plan to go there,  but are  then found by another group, a para-military outfit from Brighton, who plan to turn the farm into a feudal-type seigneury. Bill, Josella  and the others get them drunk and successfully make their escape as the triffids pour into the farm.  The book ends with Bill completing his memoir:

” We think now we can see  the way, but there is still a lot of work  and research to be done before the day that we, or our children, or their children, will cross the narrow straits on the great crusade to drive the triffids back  and back with ceaseless destruction until we have wiped the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.”

The novel’s  opening grips the reader with its vivid scenes of a London where most people have gone blind, and which quickly descends into  violence  and chaos.  This  is not a sentimental read:  a number cannot face a future without sight and kill  themselves,  while others try and capture a sighted person to act as the guide. This is what has happened to Josella until Bill frees her.  Some can cope. I  like the little vignette  of Bill encountering a blind man who, when he learns what has happened , gives a short, bitter laugh and says “They’ll be be needing all their damned patronage for themselves now,”  and sets off again “with an exaggerated air of independence.

Having set out  the  opening scenes Wyndham goes back  into past to explain the presence of the triffids which, he suggests,  were developed behind  the Iron Curtain for their oil,  but then scattered around the world when a plane was shot down in which a man  was trying to smuggle the seeds  to a company in the West. As a young boy  Bill was nearly killed by one that grew in his garden, but then went on to work with them, which is why he is wary of them from the beginning of the novel unlike others.  He is proved right when the triffids escape from the farms and began  killing the now defenceless humans.

In  Wyndham’s  novels   his male leads, whilst  decent and  resourceful in the face of crisis,  are never   the smartest people in the room.  Josella is  sharper  on the uptake than  Bill;  Walter – his   work colleague at the triffid farm – theorises that  that the plants are using their rattling stalks to communicate (something Bill has never  noticed) telling him, “there’s certainly intelligence there,  of a kind.”;  Michael Beadley points that the world they knew has gone and will never return; Susan,  when grown up at the farm in Surrey, points out that the triffids respond to noise and can act in concert by massing together. Bill is given one  insight  when, towards the end of the novel,  he suggest that the blindness was not a natural phenomenenon,  but  caused by a satellite  weapon which had been accidentally triggered.  Wyndham did not invent the idea of satellites orbiting the earth,  but he was one of the first writers  to suggest their potential as weapons.

Whilst the 1950s has come to be viewed as era of   peace and stability,  this is far  from the truth.  The Second World War had devastated  much of Europe as cities were bombed and burned,  whilst millions died in extermination camps. This was followed by the Cold War  in which both sides stockpiled nuclear weapons: the threat of another, even more destructive war, seemed very real.  Wyndham gives a key speech to Michael Beadley,  near  the beginning of the book,  which sums this up: “From 6 August 1945, the margin of survival has narrowed appallingly. Indeed, two days ago, it was narrower than it is at the moment. If you need to dramatize, you could well take for your material the years succeeding 1945 when the path of safety started to shrink to a tight-rope along which we had to walk with our eyes deliberately closed to the depths beneath us.”  Society, Wyndham suggests, is  so fragile it  could vanish  overnight.  Bill suggests to Josella later in the novel: “You remember  what Michael Beadley said about the tightrope we’ve been walking on for years….Well,  I think what happened was that we came off it – and that a few of us just managed to survive the crash.”

still from 2009 TV version

a still from 2009 TV version

Amidst his vivid depiction of the end  of the world,  Wyndham finds time for some social satire. At  the meeting chaired by Michael Beadley at the University, a Dr Vorless, a Professor of Sociology, shocks some of  the audience when he tells them  that conventional social morality is dead and that in order to survive, “The men must work and the women have babies…In our new world, then, babies become very much more important than husbands.” He suggests men should have three partners, one sighted, two blind. Bill is  taken  aback,  but Josella  reassures him, “You won’t need to worry at, all, my dear,  I shall choose two nice, sensible girls.”Oh“,  says Bill.

Wyndham gives a misogynist speech  to  Coker  who,  after  he and Bill have  made  their way a manor house  being used  as a refuge by survivors,   discovers that they are using candles. He  gets a plant going to provide electricity, but then  rails against a young woman: “You know perfectly well that women  can and do  – or rather did – handle the most complicated and delicate machines when  they took the trouble to understand them. What generally happens is that they’re too busy to take the trouble unless they have to. Why should they bother when the tradition of appealing helplessness can be rationalized as a womanly virtue – and the job just shoved off on to somebody else? …Men  have played up to it by stoutly repairing the poor darling’s vacuum cleaner, and capably replacing  the blown fuse. The whole charade has been accepatable to both parties.” This  feels like somehing said by a travelling commercial agent after several gins in the saloon bar of a Tudorbethan pub in Surrey. Did Wyndham personally  believe this  or did he wish to define Coker’s character more strongly?

John Wyndham

John Wyndham

Wyndham was interviewed on the Tonight programme on 6  September 1961. He said, “what one starts with is the theme, and then you work it out to the logical conclusion as far as possible…The upper limit of sheer invention is what is acceptable to the public whom you are hoping to please, whose attention you are hoping to keep.  Somebody once said that  the heart of fantasy is the willing suspension of disbelief. But you must not go beyond a certain barrier,   if you can find it, in which that willing suspension is shattered.” He explained  that the idea for the triffids came one night when he was walking along a dark lane in the country: “the hedges were only just distinguishable against the sky and the higher things sticking up from the hedges became rather menacing, one felt that they  might come over  and strike down or sting at you. The whole thing eventually grew out of that.” You can watch the  whole interview  here.

Overall The Day of the Triffids certainly stands the test of time as a well-plotted and  imaginative read. It sold very well and was followed by a number of other successful novels that I will be looking at in future posts.

Barbara Shelley

                     Barbara Shelley

The book was adapted for radio and broadcast on the BBC Home Service  in July 1953. In 1960 the  BBC  broadcast  another adaptation, written  by  Giles Cooper,   with Patrick Barr as Bill and Monica Gray  as Josella.  Another version was broadcast  in 1968, also written by Giles Cooper, with Gary Watson as Bill and Barbara  Shelley as Josella. You can listen to both versions here . The 1968 version has music created  by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  Incidentally, Barbara Shelley appeared in a number of films,  including  The Village of the Damned (1960) (an  adapation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos) , the film version of  Quatermass and the Pit (1968),  and also on television in  The Avengers‘ episode “From Venus with Love” (1967) (in which Jon Pertwee also  appeared).

An adaptation by Lance Dann in two 45-minute episodes for the BBC World Service was first broadcast on 8 and 22 September 2001. It was directed by Rosalind Ward , and the cast included Jamie Glover as Bill and Tracy Ann Oberman as Josella.

You also can listen  to the book being read by Roger May   in 17 episodes  here

In 1962 The Day of the Triffids was filmed with Howard  Keel and Jannete Scott  in the main roles,  while Carole Ann Ford had a small part( later to play Susan in Doctor Who in 1963). It’s not very good,  but if you feel you must,  you can watch it here.  In 1974 a triffid, presumably left over from the film, was amongst the props offered for sale in a huge clear-out at Shepperton Studios.

In 1981 the BBC broadcast a six part  adaptation,   written by Douglas Livingstone,  produced by David Maloney and directed by Ken Hannam. It starred  John Duttine as Bill and  Emma Relph as Josella. It been  updated to the early 1980s,  but otherwise follows the book very  closely and respectfully.  Personally I think it’s very good, but you can judge for yourselves  by  watching  it on Daily Motion, beginning here.

In the mid 1980s a band from Perth, Western Australia called The Triffids achived a measure of fame.

Finally there is whole website devoted to the book:  The Readers Guide to Day of the Triffids.

Review

“John Wyndham in The Day of the Triffids writes a Wellsian fantasy and raises up a truly sinister vegetable for the chastisement  of mankind. He has imagination and wit, but to the averagely bedevilled awareness, his use of them here may seem mal a propos”. Paul Bloomfield,  The Guardian,  24 August 1951, p. 4.

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

In my next post I will be looking at The Sleeper Awakes by H G Wells (1910)

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4 responses »

  1. There’s an unofficial sequel called Night of the Triffids by Simon Clark.
    It had some good ideas, but it’s not as good as the original, worth a read though.

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  2. Anthony Cunningham

    I wonder if it might have been a better book without the triffids. I still can’t decide who is in the right after Bill is captured and pressed into the service of the blind survivors by Coker. It also looks as though Wyndham couldn’t either as he invents a plague to get him out of the corner he’s written himself into at this point and allow Bill to carry on the story with the triffids.

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    • Its the Triffids that make it memorable, if the story would have just been about a world of blindness it would not have stuck in people’s memory, its the menace that create the tension and drama in the story

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  3. Interesting post… as someone who read all of Wyndham’s work as a teen. Day of the Triffids & The Chrysalids are the most interesting. All of his novels & many sort stories are pretty much doomladen, infused with the pessimistic spirit which, as the above writer points out, comes from the times he was writing in. There is generally a sense that the mass of humanity will be wiped out by either alien, eco or man made cataclysm, or replaced by a new elite; or at least that this process exists (e.g. In the Midwich Cuckoos the new elite are defeated). But it’s hard as the writer says to know whether Wyndham is advocating or writing dispassionately…

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