Welcome to the third installment of Sonia Mullett's column on out-of-print books, the serendipitous treasures that she finds on secondhand bookshop shelves. She provides an in-depth look at a different book each issue. This column examines Jean Ross' 1965 A View of the Island: A Post-Atomic Fairytale, which proved so rare we couldn't find an image of it, and it's not for sale on Abe Books either. So if you like what you read here, you'll really have to go delving into the fantastic world of secondhand bookshops! No bad thing.
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Rendezvous with Rare Books:
A View of the Island: A Post-Atomic Fairytale
Summer storm: Looking back to Mullach Clach a Bhlair from Glen Feshie by Gary Crawford, distributed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0
It should be impossible to write a conventional narrative featuring God. All that omnipotence and omniscience is a bit of a spoiler: "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things" (Isiah 45:7). So what else is left to say? Plenty, as it turns out. Jean Ross’s wickedly funny A View of the Island is inventive and surprising: a drawing-room comedy set in the midst of hell; a "post-atomic fairy tale" where nuclear radiation leaves the dead to linger on, unaware of their demise.
Signs of doom are rife. A Third World War is underway, probably (information is patchy as the government has fled London) initiated by a small nuclear device accidentally detonated off the Dutch coast. Fascists led by Mosley-alike Dan Bellerophon – whose name suggests the white steed of the first Horseman of the Apocalypse – is steadily conquering Britain. Famine stalks the country and rats abandon the mainland. As strange and terrible sounds drift over the small village of Achnabasalt from a mysterious island, the sea turns a nasty shade of red while the sky fades to black.
Holed up in this remote corner of the Western Highlands is a motley collection of refugees: a fashionable London set who have decamped to the country seat of "well-known TV personality" Roderick Fernay; the Burnie Bank Cycling and Recreational, a club of socialist-minded youngsters from Glasgow that pitch up, much to Roderick’s displeasure, in his grounds; and a millennial sect of ascetics, The Heavenly Brethren. Then there are the hostile locals, headed by a hell-fire Presbyterian preacher. To these disparate groups God sends a representative, in the form of Fabian playwright and philosopher George Bernard Shaw but calling himself MacArtney (presumably the archangel Michael, conveyor of souls).
MacArtney, from his base on the island, arrives to tidy up the old world and pack everyone off to their final destinations. These are fitting. Roderick and friends will bicker for eternity in a replica of their front parlour; the cyclists are banished to a distant planet to found a commune; the spiritualists are re-embodied on a "higher plane". The villagers, meanwhile, are obliged to set out in boats for who-knows-where, "like the Clearances all over again", as Roderick remarks. This leaves a small number of meek and mild characters to inherit a shiny new earth – except that is for Roderick’s assistant Dick Bolton, a tortured soul, who begs to die so he can join his friends in purgatory. MacArtney is taken aback by this unexpected loose thread in the divine tapestry, which allows Ross to tease out the problems of predestination versus free will, a theme throughout the novel.
Jean Ross is the alter ego of children’s author Irene Dale Hewson. A retired actor turned writer, she encloses her main characters in a single space for the majority of the book. The effect is theatrical, with reports of events happening off-stage that come straight out of the Book of Revelation. She manages to play a nuclear-age version of the Last Judgement for laughs. Mostly, it works. With typical understatement one of the characters, musing over a limited wardrobe, is pleased to have "laid in a stock of Grecian night-dresses, and flowing dressing-gowns, not knowing what might be expected of her in the event of total war".
Weston’s Good Wine, a profound allegory about a divine wine merchant dispensing peace and justice in the sleepy village of Folly Down. If you can get through the eye-watering misogyny without throwing Perelandra out of the window you’ll be rewarded by Lewis’s terrifying vision of demonic possession. Powys too is well worth reading, his God a good deal more personable. Mr Weston shares a pint in the local hostelry while quoting Isiah at the regulars. This is the only one of Powys’s works consistently in print, but independent publisher Sundial Press has reissued a number of others in fine editions.
Ross avoids the epic silliness of Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Her version of the heavenly power is remarkably prosaic: an anonymous bureaucracy that feels as remote and unaccountable as Whitehall must from rural Aberdeenshire ("I am here merely as an instrument to carry out certain orders, pertaining to this Region", explains MacArtney). But what lets the book down badly is Ross’s condescending and racist treatment of the character of Jamaican immigrant Odysseus Jackson. After his wife is killed by Bellerophon’s mob, Odysseus loses his Christian faith and promptly lapses into a white man’s caricature of pre-modern Black Africa, complete with frenzied dancing and an attempted human sacrifice. "I had become a senseless, primitive being once again", he laments. Ross also tries this trick with Roderick who, induced by a tenuous claim to a Highland lairdship, sheds the trappings of his cosmopolitan London lifestyle to become a warrior king, at least until he gets bored. The scenes in which he struts about in silver-buckled brogues, eagle-plumed bonnet and swinging kilt are funny because Roderick as a warlord is a piece of wilful absurdity on his part. Vain, neurotic, privileged Roderick is always in control of his identity. In contrast, it is clear that Ross believes Odysseus is merely reverting to type.
This flaw is glaring because Ross is generally a dry, dextrous and witty writer, able to juxtapose the nightmarish with the commonplace to pose the question of how the world might look in the event of doomsday: "On went the bus, north to Baldock, through the byways of green and leafy England under a heavy summer sky seeded with radiation." The answer, it seems, is that it will look uncannily familiar. Her characters remain largely unchanged by events: "How could I alter now? It would be the sheerest hypocrisy!" Roderick exclaims. Ross seems to imply that we might sleepwalk through the end of the world and right out the other side. After all, it cannot have been easy to get on with everyday life at a time when MAD was military strategy and the USSR and USA played atomic chicken in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Films like Peter Watkins’s The War Game captured the underlying terror that many people may have felt but effectively suppressed.
By the mid-sixties, as the Vietnam War drew the fire of protestors on the left and the nuclear Test Ban Treaty was enacted, the English activities of CND started to tail off. But with American nuclear-armed submarines sheltered in Holy Loch near Glasgow from 1961, the threat of horrifying accident or attack remained pressing to those north of the border.
For Dundee-born Ross the situation provided a chance for a blackly humorous take on complacency in the face of, what might have appeared to be, inevitable destruction. It’s not a terrific leap, if writing in the Christian tradition, to look beyond man-made devastation to a divine clean-up operation. But it’s brave to use that tradition to question the desirability of such celestial planning. Roderick’s quarrelsome cohort probably all prefer the Satrean purgatory mapped out for them to the "antiseptic" paradise reserved for the Elect. MacArtney may mutter: "God is not mocked", but Jean Ross does her best.
"On went the bus, north to Baldock, through the byways of green and leafy England under a heavy summer sky seeded with radiation."
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A View of the Island belongs to a tradition of British fantasy and science fiction writing in which divine intervention plays out in the most parochial of locations. Two very different twentieth-century examples worth noting are CS Lewis’s Space Trilogy (comprising Out of the Silent Planet, the remarkable Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, where an interplanetary struggle between good and evil reaches its climax in a quiet university town), and TF Powys' Mr