The Day of the Triffids

- Photo credit: Alexander Synaptic / Foter / CC BY-NC

I read this in a sauna in Tooting Leisure Centre. It was freezing, I paid the four quid, had a swim, grabbed the book from my bag and sat down in the heat – I’d been meaning to see what all the fuss was about for yonks (the humanity-hating plants, not the leisure centre) and thought the claustrophobic atmosphere might add to the experience. Or something.

The Day of the Triffids wasn’t what I’d expected, which was a detailed, technical dystopia – not something I’d usually pick up. It was a detective story from the off and, Jonathan Creek-style, the riddle wasn’t whodunnit (spoiler: the triffids) but how, and why.

The narrative jumps in the first three chapters from Ben Masen, a recently retired expert on these strange new plants, to how they came to be a commonly accepted horticultural phenomenon in the first place. John Wyndham ratchets up the tension, allowing the reader the pleasure of foresight. We know these things aren’t benign, but nobody else does: they’re strange, no doubt, and interesting, but ultimately they’re plants. Slowly, a number of “freak” occurrences take on more significance. “The first wave of public interest soon ebbed away,” Ben tells us. “Triffids were, admittedly, a bit weird – but that was, after all, because they were novelties. People had felt the same about other novelties of other days – about kangaroos, giant lizards, black swans. And, when you came to think of it, were Triffids all that much queerer than mudfish, ostriches, tadpoles, and a hundred other things? The bat was an animal that had learned to fly: well, here was a plant that had learned to walk – what of that?”

When the present-day action really gets going, Ben awakes to find himself in a hospital – which he was expecting, having just undergone an operation to correct his vision – but nobody arrives to help him. Slowly, tentatively, he peels back his bandages to find a world changed beyond all recognition. Over the course of the previous evening, green flashes were reported erupting all over the night sky; the whole country, it seems, was there to witness the phenomenon. And now, totally inexplicably, the whole country is blind.

What Wyndham is describing doesn’t, somehow, seem so fantastical – directly following this first chapter we’re taken back in time, to the first innocent-looking buds found in gardens around the country, to deals and plots with the ever-elusive USSR, to national secrets and a growing realisation that something, somehow, has gone terribly wrong. The story moves satisfyingly quickly from this point, following Ben as he warily explores a London he scarcely recognises. “It is not easy to think oneself back to the outlook of those days. We have to be more self-reliant now. But then there was so much routine, things were so interlinked. Each one of us so steadily did his little part in the right place that it was easy to mistake habit and custom for the natural law – and all the more disturbing, therefore, when the routine was in any way upset.” Cars and buses line the streets, empty, house doors are flung wide onto teeming roads. Suddenly, those who managed to escape the curse of blindness have become commodities – precious possessions. “They all stopped talking, and turns their sightless eyes towards her. There was a whisper, then to men stepped warily forward. They had a purposeful look on their faces.”

Society is divided into the healthy and the handicapped, but on a deeper, less superficial level, into those willing to help the blind and those intent on escape. Mutinies arise as disparate groups form and disband, unsure of how to proceed in this terrifying new world. One man shouts up to a group of officials barricaded inside a deserted building. “What you do is shut yourselves in here and let them bloody well starve, when each one of you could keep hundreds alive by doing no more than coming out, and showing the poor sods where to get the grub. God Almighty, aren’t you people human?”

The turning point from bewildered confusion to anarchy doesn’t take long, as you’d expect, and soon Ben plans to make his escape from the city. “The lake district? No, too far. Wales, perhaps? Or maybe Exmoor or Dartmoor – or right down in Cornwall.”

As Ben and his new-found clan move about the country – to Sussex, to the Isle of Wight – each day throws a new spanner in the works, another riddle to be solved. England has become borderless, unknowable and unnavigable. Ben realises how little they all, collectively, knew about the systems and custom that threaded the country together, and, these being abolished, have now torn it apart. It’s a novel that’s less to do with the menace of the Triffids and more to do with a disbanded country, a somehow more primal state of living “and, curiously, what I found that I did feel – with a consciousness that it was against what I ought to be feeling – was release…”

It’s a wonderfully creepy read, and one that reinforces a sense of national unity and identity by presenting us with the alternative.

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