Falling off the tightrope: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
“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.
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.
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.”
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 something 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?
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.
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 was updated to the early 1980s, but otherwise follows the book very closely and respectfully. Personally I think it’s very good. You can watch the series on Youtube here.
In the mid 1980s a band from Perth, Western Australia called The Triffids achieved a measure of fame.
Finally there is whole website devoted to the book: The Readers Guide to Day of the Triffids.
“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.
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In my next post I will be looking at The Sleeper Awakes by H G Wells (1910)