Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Trouble With Lichen

John Wyndham Trouble With Lichen (1960)
George Formby was concerned about his prize-winning marrow, specifically that it might once again mysteriously go missing the evening before the competition at the church hall and thus fail to win its due prize. He sat by the shed on his allotment with one beady eye fixed securely upon the treasured vegetable, determined to avoid a repeat of last year's shambolic episode in which not only had he failed to deliver the lovingly nurtured and cultivated winning marrow, but the cup had gone to Will Hay for a marrow of suspiciously similar volume and appearance, a marrow which had apparently sprouted during the night on an allotment entirely given over to carrots and turnips. That Will Hay was a shifty one.

George's thoughts were derailed as he heard a sound behind him, the tramp of a wellington boot at the side of his shed, a wellingon boot planted softly on the path - so softly as to suggest that its wearer might prefer to pass undetected.

'Oh - so that's your game, is it?' George chirped, leaping angrily to his feet. He hefted his spade with both hands and swung it directly into the face of the intruder. The blade sprang back chiming like a gong. George pulled himself up to his full height, ready to box the miscreant's ears.

'Ugh,' groaned the floored itinerant, head still vibrating as though he were a character in one of those Mickey Mouse cartoons you see at the pictures. 'Where am I?'

'You're not Will Hay!' George shrieked as the realisation dawned. His eyes popped from his head and his Adam's apple bobbed up and down with rising tumult. 'Oh mother!'

'Who am I?' croaked John Wyndham the popular science-fiction author, and that evening, despite a splitting headache, he sat down at his typewriter and got started on Trouble With Lichen.

That's my theory anyway. I probably should have been forewarned by my mother borrowing this book to read it just as I bought it back from the Oxfam shop, and then reading it with a fairly serious frown for most of that afternoon.

The premise is that a form of lichen is discovered to contain a compound which greatly extends the span of human life. One might see considerable potential in such a story, not least because it's John Wyndham at the wheel, and as we know, John Wyndham was more than capable of spinning a top quality yarn. Unfortunately what he has written here settles into a two-hundred page conversation about marketing once we've got the interesting bit out of the way. It's so heavy with exposition that I'm inclined to wonder whether it might not have been an aborted script for film or television, one which Wyndham perhaps abandoned upon noticing that someone had already made The Man in the White Suit. I actually read up to the last fifty pages and then skipped ahead, every tenth page, just to confirm that the rest was more of the same, as indeed it was. I was that bored.

It isn't quite the cosy catastrophe which Brian Aldiss famously characterises as representing the worst of Wyndham - its tone is as ever informed by Wyndham's class and culture, although there's very little which can be described as twee; but it fails as the satire it's plainly supposed to be because it's just not amusing. In fact, aside from dubious parodies of news items from left-leaning newspapers - all spun from the side-splitting notions of socialist governments nationalising everything and how men who work in factories are mainly interested in titties and beer - it's difficult to tell quite where the satire occurs. Given the emphasis on gossip, rambling conversation, and the cosmetics industry - and of course the proliferation of female characters - I have a horrible feeling that Wyndham may have regarded this book as one for the ladies, and that Trouble With Lichen is this is what a feminist looks like if you happen to be a pipe-smoking home counties chap enjoying a glass of Sherry up at the manor whilst wearing a tweed hunting jacket. I've a hunch this may also explain the occasional references to suffragettes.

'All my life I've been watching potentially brilliant women let their brains, and their talents, rot away. I could weep for the waste of it; for what they might have been, and might have done... But give them two hundred, three hundred years, and they'll either have to employ those talents to keep themselves sane - or commit suicide out of boredom.'

Jolly good show! Given a couple of hundred years, even the lowliest housewife might learn to think a little more like a chap!

I suppose it's the thought that counts, but it still makes for an extraordinarily dull read. Given Wyndham's record, he's probably allowed a few stinkers, but even the dreaded Pawley's Peepholes isn't quite this awful. More than anything, Trouble With Lichen reads like some droning self-published effort.

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