Liverpool’s literary world has been harshly treated by the grim reaper in recent years.
Beryl Bainbridge, Helen Forrester and Brian Jacques have all recently passed away and this week brought the sad news that another of Merseyside’s great authors, science fiction writer John Christopher had died aged 89.
Until I read an obituary of Christopher I had had no idea he was of this parish, he was born Samuel Youd in Huyton in 1922 ( though moved away to Hampshire with his family at the age of ten); indeed when I contacted a fellow science fiction buff he was surprised to hear that Christopher was alive very recently – his last book was published in 2003.
It seems Christopher was certainly not one for the limelight. He wrote under many pseudonyms during his seventy year career – my personal favourite being Stanley Winchester – and it was not until his Tripods trilogy of books was filmed by the BBC in the mid-80s that he had anything approaching mainstream success.
For those in my 30-something age bracket, The Tripods was an unexpectedly bleak and terrifying slice of Saturday tea time dystopia. Describing a future where humans had been enslaved by a race of grotesque alien masters, reducing them to a medieval serf-like existence, it did not shy from showing care free teenagers blown to pieces by the invaders’ giant walking machines.
The concept of ‘capping’ by which the aliens controlled people by inserting a metal circuit board into their shaven heads was a powerful metaphor for any young boy suspicious of authority, even if they were only about wearing school uniform and having a hair cut.
Christopher specialised in writing for older children and teenagers and did so by confronting their own pubescent fears over loneliness and fitting in.
To a generation brought up on Threads and When the Wind Blows, the very idea that an apocalyptic catastrophe was never far away, was very real in 80s Britain and Christopher served to fuel this unease, while at the same time holding up a mirror to society and perhaps hinting that we deserve what’s coming our way.
My favourite novel of Christopher’s is 1977’s Empty World. The story of 15-year-old orphan Neil Miller, who is left alone after a mysterious plague wipes out the population starting with the eldest first. Miller is left immune by the disease and travels to the empty streets of London, which would later be recalled by famous scenes from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.
Despite his reputation as a children’s writer, Christopher depicts a brutal world full of suicide, murder and man-eating rats.
It was nasty stuff and like John Wyndham before him, Christopher revelled in depicting horror and unease in the previously cosy confines of English towns and villages.
John Christopher may not have sold millions of his novels but for many book hungry ’80’s teenagers he opened an important door onto a whole tradition of British dystopian fiction, and I for one thank Samuel Youd from Huyton for creating a vitally imaginative world which has stayed with me ever since.