I’ve known Simon Bestwick since 2010, when we both appeared in the same anthology – Never Again: Weird Fiction Against Racism and Fascism. Since then, his sharp and scathing Facebook posts have enlivened many a grey morning. And now he’s here on the second stop of his blog tour, writing about a post-apocalyptic tale that enthralled him as a teenager and continues to influence his work.
Simon is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned. His new novel, Hell’s Ditch, is out now.
Written in the 1980s, Robert Swindells’ Brother In The Land is set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Skipley in the aftermath of a nuclear attack
It’s told through the eyes of Danny Lodge, a teenage boy. His mother is killed in the attack, but his father, and his younger brother, Ben, have survived. There’s no sign of the authorities, and new subcultures are already emerging: the traumatised, near-catatonic Spacers; the ‘Badgers’ hiding in their fallout shelters; and the deranged cannibals called the Purples. When the authorities do show up, help is the last thing they provide.
The local Commissioner and his soldiers are establishing a feudal society: their HQ serves as their castle, the rest of the population as their serfs. Opposition arises in the form of a local smallholder, Sam Branwell, and MASADA, the Movement to Arm Skipley Against Dictatorial Authority. When Danny’s father is killed, Danny, Ben and Kim, a girl Danny’s own age, join him. Branwell is a kind and humane man; his second-in-command, however, is Keith Rhodes, Danny’s hated Games teacher from school, whose ruthlessness, and contempt for those he sees as weak, serve as both an asset and a liability.
MASADA overthrow the Commissioner, establishing a more just communitarian settlement. Crops are planted; Kim’s elder sister, Maureen, becomes pregnant, her child hailed as ‘the first of many’. For a while, there is hope.
But when international aid arrives in the form of the Swiss, they see only a Communist organisation and deprive them of weapons and transport, leaving the community isolated and defenceless in the face of the coming winter. Further blows come in rapid succession. Radioactive contamination causes their crops to fail. Rhodes and his men set off, ostensibly to search for supplies, but never return. The community begins to fall apart. Maureen gives birth; her child is born without a mouth, and dies almost immediately. Branwell dies the same night.
Danny remembers Holy Island, off the coast; clinging to the hope they can survive there, he sets off with Kim and Ben. He runs afoul of Rhodes; the former teacher prepares to kill him, but is shot down by Kim. Soon after, Ben dies of radiation sickness.
Brother In The Land is a bleak novel; it isn’t quite as in-your-face horrific as films like Threads (is anything as horrific as Threads?) or adult novels such as James Herbert’s Domain, but it’s more than harrowing enough.
However, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction that takes pains to emphasise the appalling consequences of nuclear war, Brother In The Land isn’t content to simply leave its characters to suffer and struggle for survival, but asks instead what kind of a society we should strive to create. The social order which, according to conventional wisdom, should be the default in this kind of ‘survival situation’ – the authoritarian, militaristic one of the Commissioner and his men, where democracy and personal freedom are sacrificed in the name of security – is identified as pernicious and malign. Branwell’s community, democratic and consensual, is not only a viable alternative, but the only sane one.
In a film of the Mad Max variety, Branwell would be portrayed as well-intentioned but hopelessly idealistic, unable to realise his outdated Utopian ideals in the harsh realities of a fallen world; here, instead, he’s a wise, principled figure, a man of peace and reason who’s nonetheless clear-eyed about the need to overthrow the Commissioner. Swindells was an active member of the CND at the time, and continues to campaign on behalf of the Green Party; how much of him may have been in Branwell is hard to determine, but neither translate opposition to nuclear weapons into an unworkable pacifism. Instead they reluctantly accept revolution as a necessary tool in the absence of a peaceful alternative. What ultimately defeats him is the nature of the post-apocalyptic world itself: the crops would have failed whoever was in charge.
It’s a remarkable read for young people, and an extraordinary book that left a lasting impression on me. Its brutally honest depiction both of life in the aftermath and of the struggle to try and build a better society in the ruins is yet another of the influences on my new book, Hell’s Ditch.
The original novel – the one I read in my teens – ends with Danny leaving behind his account of what’s happened before setting off with Kim on what’s probably a doomed and futile quest for sanctuary. Swindells later added an additional, more optimistic final chapter, in which they reach Holy Island, find a community run along similar lines to Branwell’s, and manage to survive; by the end, Kim is pregnant, and the child, if it’s a boy, will be named for Ben. Both versions conclude with the same line: ‘…for little Ben, my brother. In the land.’