Fear in the fifties – John Wyndham and The Day of the Triffids

John Wyndham’s science fiction appeared throughout the 1950s into a world gaining perspective on the second world war and the epic destruction of the atom bomb.

Many of the novels take place in a recognisable England of leafy villages with a rooted capital. The previous decade had seen the certainties of this world swept away forever – whole streets and communities could be removed overnight. Now the world could be a toxic wasteland at the press of a button.

Science was no longer just paving the way to a brighter, cleaner place. It could be a dangerous future, beyond control. Fears became epic – what if the universe turned against us with alien invasions? What if we doctored nature and unleashed wraths we couldn’t imagine? What if this life-force mutated and fought back?

Wyndham might be criticised for a ‘cosy’ setting, but this everyday, unchallenging backdrop makes his disasters literally strike home. Shattering domestic comfort is a speedy device to make human catastrophe individual. It’s universal: everyone recognises a base that feeds immediate needs of food, rest, respite – whatever the form. But placing a storm in a teacup, far from sanitising it, exaggerates the impact.

Here are great examples of mid-century illustration for editions of The Day of the Triffids, and one from the 21st century (click to enlarge).

The Dolphin version (middle, bottom row) reflects atomic design, and suggests a nature modified, alien and scientific. It’s aeons away from the lush and dependable Romantic restorative.

Wyndham’s Englishness is signalled often. There’s the Tower of London (bottom left), turrets echoed in the forest of triffids massed in front, a bulwark of old England smothered in a threatening future. Elsewhere it’s Piccadilly Circus, with citizens scattering under eerie skies – let down only by the representation of the triffid as a friendly, furry diplodocus. The mass-market paperback (top left) is more direct – we perish in tendrils, the triffid humanised with demonic face.

Most interesting is the 21st century issue from Penguin (bottom, far right). Here is proof that some of the best examples of book cover art are coming out in the present, just as we’re appreciating what we could or will lose to the digital book. Visual representations of content speak more directly than the sharpest caption, but far more deeply.

This edition says as much about our own time as it does about the fifties. It’s a much more subtle image than the others that encapsulates the vulnerability of the human race. The body is oddly stilled, neither dead nor alive; the tendrils are neither benign or malicious, but the power over man is tangible. The eyes are accepting something inevitable, with infinite sadness and hindsight, in paralysis – echoing the stylised postures of any Renaissance sculpture.

The illustration is by Brian Cronin: more of his work is here.

PS: Looking around at other John Wyndham covers I found this beautiful example of The Midwich Cuckoos here from the blog Inkspills Inc.

David Gentleman’s storms and tempests

Some of David Gentleman’s most striking illustration appeared during the 1970s, though as a child I never connected the images to an artist. Now I know his work was everywhere in my world – not only in books, but on stamps, plates and even on the London Underground at Charing Cross. Maybe that’s why I love woodcuts so much now.

At one time his covers for Penguin Shakespeare were everywhere too (and they took ten years to complete, so quite a long time to be the face of Shakespeare). It’s a bit Rip van Winkle to realise that now they’re mostly dog-eared and lost in secondhand shops, and that there are people collecting them to make sure they’re safe forever somewhere.

As a tribute to the beautiful English summer of 2012, here are some of his windiest, wettest images, guaranteed to make the anti-summer a thing of pleasure…


Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame

Gerard Manley Hopkins

This design looks to have come straight out of the 1930s, but it dates from 1953.

Rumer Godden is another seemingly underestimated writer: Kingfishers Catch Fire has a similarly beguiling and suspenseful atmosphere to that found in Black Narcissus. Here’s the information from the flyleaf…

The scene of the story is Kashmir, a land so fabulously beautiful that it is said no painter can paint it, no poet write its verse. Sophie, a young English widow with two children, goes to make her home there; she finds a tumbledown house in a valley carpeted with flowers below the Himalayas and settles down to live there, quietly, frugally, poetically, but soon discovers that this jewel of a place she has found for herself is not inertly precious but alive…

The disturbing world of Jane Eyre in paperback

I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

I’ve never come across any really good paperback designs for the Bronte books – they must exist somewhere, but not here, not today. A key fact about Jane Eyre is that Jane is, in that word all the more crushing because it usually applies to scones, plain – and all the better for it. It’s also a story about misfits and mental illness.

Not all these things get considered when it comes to Jane Eyre in paperback (click to enlarge image). It starts to go wrong in the forties (top left): a waxenly sophisticated blue-eyed Jane is pursued by what seems to be a friendly-looking science teacher. But by the early sixties (top, second left) she has morphed into a voluptuous Hammer Horror beauty pursued by a lecherous werewolf.

By the eighties (bottom left) we’re back on plainer ground – Jane has turned into an enormous carpet bag, and Jenny Agutter from The Railway Children has wandered in, attracted by the gothic railway station posing as Thornfield.

Another sixties version (bottom, second left) is trying harder, with an effective Bertha Mason gazing wanly out at us. But while the Jane in the background looks suitably thwarted, judging by her gaze and expression it’s all due to an unsuitable green glove.

Moving into the seventies (bottom, second right) and at last someone has the sense to really get to the theme at the heart of the novel – the gigantic moth of doom which follows any plain governesses intent on wedlock. Rochester knows what’s going on and assumes a look of resignation.

We’re back to vampires for the Pan version (top right), or indeed something more sinister; while the Everyman Library artiness (bottom right) is pretty good, though I’m assuming this is Grace Poole – the only possible candidate for an octagenarian in the novel, but I could be wrong.

The Signet version is the one I like, and that’s because even though Jane appears more like a Russian countess, she’s looking miserably enigmatic, and so is Rochester. It’s also dark, fluid and stylised in a particular type of illustration that’s perfectly of its era.

Evelyn Waugh and the paperback cover

Penguin first produced this series of Waugh paperbacks in the early 1970s, and they stayed in print well into the 1980s. They all featured a matt card cover, which set them apart from other titles, and added to the vintage feel. But they’re also quite psychedelic with pop-art that seems to have stepped out of the cover of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album.

An interest in Art Deco flourished at the end of the sixties with a major exhibition in the United States in 1971. Not long after there was the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. A lot of seventies design features influences from the twenties and thirties, and took the past way into the future.

The font and layout of ‘Evelyn Waugh’ is as sophisticated as any brand or logo today, bleeding into the image. These covers are a perfect blend of old and the (then) new in absorbing the contemporary trademarks of the late sixties and mixing them with a more authentic feel of the thirties. Often we see shiny, mirrored, silvery interpretations of the thirties today, but here are browns, oranges, sepia, artificial blues and greens; the matt surface of interwar printed materials (no shiny laminates before the war); and the popular wallpaper design motifs of ordinary sitting rooms.

The images all ‘explain’ too – from Brideshead Revisted‘s poppy-filled memories of an idyll, to Brenda Last’s open door to ‘freedom’ in A Handful of Dust, and the shambolic Paul Pennyfeather of Decline and Fall.

Thomas Hardy and the paperback cover

Macmillan published a whole series of Hardy paperbacks around 1975. Stylised illustration had given way to making use of full-colour photography (no-one bothers to say full-colour now of course, because it’s cheap and easy, but it wasn’t back then – it was still a bit special). Bleed-off edges keep everything uncluttered and simple, with one of those fonts that managed to look both ancient and modern at the same time. Key characters were posed in various outdoor settings, with lots of natural light. (Click to enlarge.)

I think ‘being outdoors’ was a feature of this sort of image – I keep thinking of Jarvis Cocker’s lyric about ‘lemonade light’, probably because he draws heavily on the 70s, but also because it suggests lens flare, and those washed out, coloured circles of light. Of which there aren’t any here, but it’s the kind of thing that characterises the era for me.

Again these are treading a fine line – a little too much in one direction and it could be Hardy as pulp romance. There are a few fine images here though – I think Return of the Native is great with its perfect perspective capture of Egdon Heath, as is The Trumpet-Major with the Osmington Horse in the background. Both The Mayor of Casterbridge, with its grim respectability, and Far from the Madding Crowd, with clever use of a fan to suggest Bathsheba’s flighty aspirations, are just as good.

Then things start to fall apart. Tess is just a bit dull; Under the Greenwood Tree has a bright summer haze, but it’s the start of taking the titles all a bit literally instead of imaginatively… and then there’s a raid on the BBC props department. Two on a Tower? Just that. The Hand of Ethelberta? (Monty-Python-esque as a title at the best of times, but go on, give me your hand woman!)… and then it’s just random thespians adrift in the park.

H E Bates and the paperback cover

I love H E Bates. His short stories are perfect examples of drowsy, bee-filled summers or glowing winter afternoons, and full of bittersweet melancholia not unlike Hardy shorn of some melodrama. Incredibly prolific and versatile (which, along with The Darling Buds of May is probably a reason why he’s not allowed to be admitted as one of our literary greats), his stories often, and perhaps surprisingly, centre on outsiders, the downtrodden, the innocent, where circumstance is quicksand. You’re quite likely to find a patriarch crushing his wife’s lesbian idyll, or a husband humiliated by his gin-sodden wife finding release with the village lad she attempts to devour.

I imagine publishers were keen to exploit his sense of liberated, almost pagan sensuality that finds outlets amid the sourness in small English towns and villages (see The Sleepless Moon – illicit meetings by a disused mill, bare legs and – well, I imagine the first sketch was sent back with a request to ‘cover things up a bit’). As such, on some occasions his other paperback covers almost depicted that seventies male-fantasy, the ‘dolly-bird’. Dulcima is interesting here: Carol White, who appears on the cover, took the role of a downtrodden country girl in the 1970 film with John Mills. Known for Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, she was a respected dirty-realism actress who ironically wanted the Hollywood glitz instead, dying young in its failed pursuit. Despite attempts with the bed and the bath towel, due to her skill as an actress this film-still cover tells us something quite different: about hope and hopelessness, frustration and resignation.

It’s hard to describe the particular sensibility in these covers: they occupy a particular space of time from the late sixties into early seventies. These are interesting faces, enigmatic characters whose images have to tread a fine line in making sure they aren’t sending out Trojan horses to poison romantic fantasies. There is resignation to lamplit gloom in Glenda Jackson’s The Triple Echo; and the girl in the The Four Beauties is no-one’s fool – here is freedom, independence.

Apart from the odd one out of course. That’s A E Coppard marketed as shampoo. With a slug.