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December 31, 2020

“The essence of cosy catastrophe,” wrote the science fiction author Brian W Aldiss, “is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.” He was thinking, perhaps, of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951), in which the protagonists, despite occupying a London where blinded citizens are hunted by lumbering carnivorous plants, are quietly pleased that the end of civilisation has also terminated the stultifying conventions of 1950s marriage.

Readers in the 1970s, when Aldiss was writing Billion Year Spree, his history of science fiction, might have thought of Survivors, Terry Nation’s TV series that killed most of the British population with plague — but which, by its second series, was as much a paean to self-sufficiency as The Good Life. Readers in the 2020s may think of other stories: the post-apocalyptic Fox sitcom The Last Man on Earth, or Raised by Wolves — Ridley Scott’s new TV series about an android couple bringing up humanity’s last survivors. There’s even, I think, an echo of Aldiss’s idea in the discussions we’re having — on Zoom calls between friends and at the World Economic Forum — about whether a better world might emerge after the Covid-19 crisis has passed.

The name of Margot Bennett does not appear in Billion Year Spree. It doesn’t appear in many places. She is a scandalously forgotten writer. Even her murder mysteries, for which she received a Golden Dagger Award, have fallen out of print. Only the second-hand section will now yield her blue-spined Pelican, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Atomic Radiation, or The Furious Masters — a creepy story about an alien spaceship and its influence on an English village. You’ll have to search hard, too, for the book I think is her masterpiece, a novel of 1954 set in a post-catastrophic England that is anything but cosy: The Long Way Back. It is a scaldingly witty corrective to two ills that seem as present today as they did in the 1950s: British self-importance and British self-pity.

In Bennett’s future, mainland Europe has sunk beneath the waves. The British Isles remain, but the Savoy is gone, there are no cars to be requisitioned and the tins of pineapple chunks and luncheon meat ran out long ago. The plants have turned carnivorous. (Thankfully they can’t move.) Monstrous canine mutants, the sabre-toothed descendants of household pets, stalk the forests. Britons live in caves and on potatoes. They worship a god that is a personification of fear. “We fear,” goes their litany, spoken by a four-foot tall tribesman named Brown. “We fear illness, death, fire, dogs, fever, madness, desolation.”

This is not a story about the conquest of that fear. The Britons we encounter are not the protagonists of the story. We don’t see this country through their eyes. Bennett’s heroes are members of a survey team despatched from the continental superpower of Africa. Grame, a restless technician, and Valya, a tough soldier, have come to “investigate primitive Britain,” an obscure and hazardous backwater whose inhabitants they view with horror, pity and contempt. “Savages,” breathes Valya, when she encounters her first tribal Englishmen. “And speaking in a dialect of our own language. It’s a miracle.”

The Long Way Back reverses the conventions of imperial literature that we associate with Kipling or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Its African explorers speculate about mining British coal and shipping it back home. They worry about the health of the natives. (“If only we could educate the mothers to feed their children properly,” Valya declares, wondering if calcium supplements would help thicken their fragile skulls.)

For Bennett’s original readers — still two years away from the Suez Crisis that triggered Britain’s period of decolonisation – such humour must have seemed astonishing. In the age of Brexit and BLM, it plays differently — demonstrating that, over six decades later, the tensions and contradictions within Britain’s post-imperial identity have yet to be resolved; that the process of decolonisation remains incomplete.

The real greatness of the Bennett’s novel, though, lies in a quality it shares with the book it most resembles. In Heart of Darkness (1899), Joseph Conrad takes his narrator, Marlow, from the Thames to the Congo, reminding us that London was once considered “one of the dark places of the earth”. Conrad also questions the imperial paradigm of light and darkness. Not enough for many readers: Chinua Achebe considered it “a totally deplorable book” by “a bloody racist”. His novel does, however, suggest that the colonial impulse is a form of moral malaise, and in Bennett’s technocratic future Africa — a single political entity — this malaise is taking hold.

It’s a warning that all such projects are unsustainable. Not much, perhaps, to console anybody toiling behind barbed wire in Xinjang province, but one that might encourage members of post-imperial societies like ours to look back on the past with more humility.

And here Bennett has a warning for those whose politics are shaped by anxiety about the status of their nation. The British expedition of The Long Way Back is a stunt to restore morale; to make Africa great again. Valya diagnoses the problem: “Soldiers desert from the army… miners don’t want to go down into the earth; mothers hide their children to avoid the grading machine; people walk past the news boards without reading them; and political meetings can’t be held without a conscripted audience.”

Grame is an embodiment of that dissatisfaction and disengagement. He wants to quit his job in IT and study cosmic rays instead, but the reply to his request, issued by an administrative computer, comes as a series of questions: “Have you an adequate tobacco-room? … Have you an adequate sex-cubicle?”

Frustrated by this treatment, he volunteers for the expedition. A lecture on British history is part of the training — a peculiar, garbled, dream-like account of the nation he is preparing to explore. The Romans ruled Britain. Russia was a colony of the Romans. The Romans were led by Napoleon. In Britain, people kept dogs, played ball games and idolised a figure called Crom Well. The lecture is not given by a single authority, but is picked up like a song, which must be acquired and then passed on to new arrivals. With each repetition, the speech becomes more weird and incoherent. “It ensures the continuity of tradition,” Grame is told.

A similar historical tangle seems to have entered conversations about Britain today. Except these are not happening across a gulf of time and space, they’re in the mouths of ministers and campaigners. They are not as weird as Donald Trump’s historical monologues — in which Frederick Douglass walks the modern world, Canada burned down the White House, and American forces took control of the airports during the War of Independence – but they are a puzzling mess of memories and impulses. Magna Carta. VE Day. Sunlit uplands. Project fear. The Luftwaffe. “The greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Philip II at Le Goulet in 1200.” Those peculiar exhalations on British national superiority that sometimes emerge from the education secretary. All primary sources for future historians to piece together, in the hope of finding a picture that looks like something. Unless, of course, they’re engaged in other, more urgent projects.

This is the uncosiest thought in The Long Way Back. Margot Bennett’s Britons eat potatoes and fight among themselves. And nobody cares what they think.