The triffids are coming!!!

day-of-the-triffids

‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

I recently read John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids for the third time. What happened was I casually picked up the book, opened it to the first page and read that first line.

Big mistake. Huge.

It was the end of October and I’d been thinking I would do National Novel Writing Month again this year (my second time) and how I want to write speculative fiction. So I’d started brainstorming and making a little reading list. Then I picked up TDotT and that was it for me. (I’d therefore like to personally blame John Wyndham for my lack of effort in NaNoWriMo this year.)

I don’t reread many books – seriously, who has the time? Plus working in publishing tends to make reading for pleasure a slightly less pleasurable experience (‘I found a typo!’ ‘Why the hell did they pick this font?’ ‘Hmm, I think the author used that adjective 100 pages ago’, etc.) But there are some books that once in a blue moon when I pick them up, I have to reread.

day-of-the-triffids-original-signed-script
Exhibit A: why this book can be difficult to adapt to the screen.

The Day of the Triffids is Wyndham’s ‘famous story of a world dominated by monstrous, stinging plants’. Okay, it doesn’t sound that scary (last time I read this book, I backed it up with The Road and yes, this book is nowhere near scary. Thanks for the nightmares, Cormac McCarthy). And the triffids would have remained a safe though ungainly feature of London gardens and parks, had some pretty lights not appeared in the sky one night and triggered a sequence of events that brings civilisation to its knees.

What is it about TDotT that I love? As mentioned above, right from the beginning it’s terrific. You can see how the opening’s influenced modern-day sci-fi/speculative fiction – 28 Days Later and Walking Dead are two examples that spring instantly to mind, where the main character wakes up in hospital and ‘while they were sleeping’ shit had got real. The waking up, not knowing where people are, the disorientation and realisation that everything has changed. For the worse. Oh my god for the worse.

Fun Christmas present for the Lego fan you love!
Fun Christmas present for the Lego fan you love. Run for your life, cowboy!

Bill Masen’s situation is intensified by the fact he’s recovering from an eye operation after a triffid-related incident. (This will become relevant later.) Sadly he therefore missed out on the spectacular comets that lit up the sky the previous night and everyone wouldn’t shut up about. Poor Bill.

He waits impatiently for someone to come and remove his bandages and reveal whether or not he can see but . . . nobody comes. (Go Wyndham, tapping into that deep-seated fear – what if the world ended and you were one of the survivors but with a disability that hugely increased the odds against you?)

Bill eventually carefully removes the bandages and ventures out to find desperate scenes – everyone seems to have gone blind overnight. A number have already given up hope, taking to the bottle or stepping out a high window (if they can actually find one).

Sometimes it is all about the triffids.
Sometimes it is all about the triffids.

It’s not all about the triffids. In fact, like a lot of speculative fiction, this book isn’t so much about the threat – the triffids, in this case – but about how people deal with the tragedy. And there are other threats here too: despair, hunger and that old favourite, man’s inhumanity to man.

This book is not fast-paced, wall-to-wall action, but is incredibly tense in other ways. And I love the quieter moments where the characters have a chance to reflect on the big picture of what’s happened and what it means. The moment where they have to face their dystopian future head on:

‘Quite consciously I began saying goodbye to it all. The sun was low. Towers, spires, facades of Portland stone were white or pink against the dimming sky. More fires had broken out here and there . . . Quite likely, I told myself, I would never in my life see any of these familiar buildings after tomorrow.’

This novel is a perfect example of the genre known as ‘cosy catastrophe’, which I didn’t know was a thing. Bill and his new friend Josella spend a fair amount of time in an enviable position – firstly, they are two of the few people who can see, and secondly, they can see where luxury pads and gourmet small goods are. It ain’t all bad. Their last night in London is spent holed up in a sweet suite, dressed to the nines (well, Josella is – women, eh) and pigging out. Oh okay, it’s not all a walk in the triffid-filled park:

‘Night magnified the quiet of the city, making the sounds which broke it the more desolate. From time to time voices rose from the street, edgy and brittle with hysteria. Once there came a freezing scream which seemed to revel horribly in its release from sanity. Somewhere not far away a sobbing went on endlessly, hopelessly.’

Triffid bench in London. Would you sit on it? Oh hell no.
Triffid bench in London. Would you sit on it? Oh hell no.

Way to spoil the mood. Other passion killers for Bill and Josella include the time they’re starting over with a bunch of survivors and cluey Josella susses out how exactly they’re going to have to repopulate the earth. (Hint: Bill’s going to be a busy man.)

Bill Masen’s a competent protagonist – he’s a man of the times, a bit of an everyman who, luckily, has a lot of experience working with triffids and just doesn’t trust the damn plants. He’s not really an action man, but that’s alright; he gets things done. He also happens to have anti-triffid guns. He’s a guy you want to stick with when things go south in a triffid-related manner.

Josella is a woman of the 1950s but although a bit annoying at times she’s a pretty good heroine. She’s quick thinking, a tad feisty and she knows how to look good in ski pants. Bill indulges in a bit of quaint misogyny by describing her (she ‘prattles on’ etc), but it’ll be a few decades until Lt Ellen Ripley et al hit the sci-fi scene, so let’s take what we can get.

I happened to pick up half a dozen or so second-hand Wyndhams in the past year or so; looks like it’s time to get busy!Image1599

 

Aside from The Day of the Triffids, off the top of my head a few others I reread are: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’m curious to know what books other people return to time and again.

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Pop and rock

In a week of spirit-sapping humidity and daily thunderstorms, I (mostly) dodged the weather and got out and about regardless. In your FACE, rain! (I just sometimes had really, really wet feet.)

On Wednesday night I saw the Pop to Popism exhibition at Art Gallery of NSW with friends. I love galleries at night. There’s just an excited vibe that’s lacking during the day – it’s kind of like being allowed to go into a sleepy library and yell swearwords at the top of your voice or something. It’s like an art party.

I think it can be easy for your eyes to start to glaze over sometimes with pop art – the Marilyn Monroes, the Campbell’s soup cans, the Lichtenstein comic-strip panels are so well known it’s hard to look at them with fresh eyes. But imagine how unreal it would have been when they first popped up (eep) on the scene, in the face of the art establishment and everything it upheld. Must’ve been wild times!

Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car (1963). Would you accept a ride from this man? Yeah you would - his hair is totally boss.
Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car (1963). Would you accept a ride from this man? Yeah you would – his hair is totally boss.

I loved Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol – who wouldn’t? We noted it would’ve been spectacular back in the day when the silver spraypaint was spanking new, but it’s still got it.

Really enjoyed the Roy Lichtensteins (because hell, it’s Lichtenstein) – especially In the Car. Not sure why; maybe because the guy looks like he’s on the verge of a murder spree and it’s INTENSE.

Wayne Thiebaud, Delicatessen Counter (1962). It's just about a delicatessen counter. Right?
Wayne Thiebaud, Delicatessen Counter (1962). It’s just about a delicatessen counter. Right?

My fave artwork was of course painterly – Wayne Thiebald’s Delicatessen Counter.

On first look I don’t know why I was attracted to it, I just liked it – that was indeed a fat, juicy-looking wedge of cheese, for example. And it seemed pretty straightforward and accessible. Thankfully I passed it again and was drawn to the electric outlines/underpainting leaking out between the smallgoods: vibrant oranges, reds, greens in a mostly white and blue palette. This painting, well, POPS. Sure it’s about meat and cheese, but it’s about So. Much. More. (But really, it’s just about meat and cheese, I’m pretty sure.)

Mister
Martin Sharp, Mister Tambourine Man (1967). Pretty groovy, baby.

 

In a movement dominated by giants like Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, et al, it was great to see a roomful of Australian pop art. Martin Sharp’s works appealed and I particularly liked his Mister Tambourine Man screenprinted on gold foil, plus Richard Larter’s The Hairdresser is decidedly cool and of the time.

Great to see the women representing too, as there were so few female artists in the movement to begin with and unfortunately most have disappeared from its history. Rosalyn Drexter’s Race for Time is hot-hued, action-packed and movie posteresque, and Bridgid McLean’s fascination with the testosterone-laden world of car racing is demonstrated in Untitled (1969) among others – the brushwork and tones are so meticulous and subtle the painting looks like an airbrushed work.

Race
Rosalyn Drexter, Race for Time (1964). Hottt.

AGNSW has ensured visitors immerse themselves in the pop era of the 1960s–70s – it’s about the art but also the origins, the events of the time, music, film and other cultural products. Beatles songs and other ’60s tunes serenaded shoppers in the Pop Shop. There are fun interactive elements alongside the exhibition. We joyfully partook of pop art Twister (putting hands and feet on Marilyn Monroe’s face, naturally); decorated soup can outlines; and when we sat down to dinner and wines in the AGNSW café later, we did so with pop art–related colouring-in and activity sheets. Okay, these all might’ve been for kids, but why let that stop you?

So I need a segue into Friday night . . . Speaking of 1960s music (!), my Friday night involved an impromptu trip to the Factory Theatre in Marrickville to see Dog Trumpet. I saw them this time last year with friends, but before that I had been largely ignorant of this rock band featuring ex Mental as Anything members (and brothers) Reg Mombassa and Pete O’Doherty, as well as Inner West institution Bernie Hayes.

Dog Trumpet: 'Arguably the loudest soft rock band in southern NSW'.
Dog Trumpet: ‘Arguably the loudest soft rock band in southern NSW’.

I can’t really classify myself as having been a fan of ‘the Mentals’ exactly, as their heyday was slightly before my time, but they were certainly a feature of my formative years – kind of like the familiar geometric wallpaper of my childhood home. On the night, Dog Trumpet played the Mentals hit ‘Berserk Warriors’. Instantly it transported me back to being five; for Christmas my sister was given the compilation ‘1982 with a Bullet’ featuring that song, and it enjoyed high rotation at our house throughout the eighties. So there’s sort of a special place in my heart for Reg and Pete to begin with.

They are damn impressive musicians. The music is a mix of 1960s influences, roots, blues and light country, and it’s earthy, lively and fun – despite some potentially heavy subjects – and they just have a great time on stage. Highlights from the gig include the tribute ‘Made in the World’, which lists off important global figures who’ve all made significant contributions somehow, many of them now dead. ‘With Good Reason’ has a happy, upbeat melody that belies the lyrics laden with the number of ways things are a bit shit right now: ‘Oh Lordy what we gonna do, if the world is going to end then so will you’. The brothers joked at the end how Tony Abbott hates that song and refuses to acknowledge its existence, and a couple of Abbott impressions ensued and were much appreciated by the audience.

And then they broke out ‘Little Red Rooster’, with Bernie Hayes on vocals and acoustic guitar, Reg on face-searing slide guitar. Woo boy, it was goood. ’Cos it’s not enough to be one of Australia’s most well known and beloved artists, the sinewy-armed old bastard can PLAY. The whammy got a workout on a couple of songs too – bloody brilliant.

ODoherties
Reg and Pete working away in their studio on their amazing art and stuff. You know, just knocking up some freaking etchings before going to play a gig.

So you might think it’s enough that Reg and Pete are such talented musicians, that Reg and, it turns out, Pete are prolific, successful artists. But no, they also seem to be two of the hardest working artist/musos walking around: ‘Equally successful in the visual arts as music, these creative dynamos were asked to produce a whole exhibition’s worth of prints and etchings in seven days, all the while also strapping guitars over their shoulders and playing a few gigs around town.’ Wtf, guys.

They’re also very funny, laconic men. For me, their warm, witty banter between songs is an integral part of the show. Reg has a dry cool wit; his Wikipedia page reveals he is inspired by ‘the wind, semi-professional birthday clowns, heavy machinery and the behaviour of domestic animals’. (Actually, he might’ve been only half-joking.) And they’re just plain nice and incredibly down to earth, as evidenced when I sidled up to Pete after the gig for a signature and he was only too happy to oblige, apologising for the fact that his brother had ‘buggered off – but you’ve got the most important one so that’s good’.

Oh and did you know that an artwork by pop artist Martin Sharp appears on the Dog Trumpet album Strange Brew? Me neither until right then. Aaand there’s my pop art segue. Bam!