Hal G. P. Colebatch: Why we’re drawn to catastrophe stories

Literature, the Soft Life and the Catastrophe

 Words by Hal G. P. Colebatch


Early in The Lord of the Rings Frodo Baggins says of the rustic inhabitants of his home, The Shire, that he had often thought that they were too dull and stupid for words, and that an Earthquake or an invasion of dragons would do them good.

He doesn’t mean it, of course, and when the call comes he risks, and in a sense sacrifices, his life to save them from just such a fate.

Most of us have probably felt like Frodo at some time. H. G. Wells pioneered many of the great themes of science-fiction including interplanetary invasion and time-travel. He also, in The War in the Air and other stories, pioneered the “domestic catastrophe.”


Written just after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, it tells of a great war in the air which spreads around the world. Frontiers, front lines and neutral zones become meaningless, and there is a general collapse of civilization. The hero, an Englishman named Bert Smallway, is a typical lower-middle-class townsman, who, discovering an unexpected streak of ruthlessness and daring in himself, ends up as a clan chief in a Britain that has returned to feudalism. Previously too timid to approach a girl who attracts him, he now disposes of his rival in love by the simple but effective expedient of shooting him in the back.

There were also about this time a large number of “invasion novels” dealing with predominantly French, later German, attacks on England, but these were generally more concerned with straight-out military problems than with psychological and cultural ones. Australia had a number of equivalent novels, mainly dealing with the “yellow peril” and Chinese or Japanese conquest. (At least one of these was promoted by politician Alfred Deakin to help terrify the Australian States into Federation). Again, however, these were largely simple political tracts.

            One theme of The War in the Air was also present in Wells’ great novels The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, and also touched upon in his The History of Mr Polly: they all contain pictures of “soft” cosy, civilized people confronted with catastrophic violence and terror and unable to cope with it. The first hint in The Time Machine that something is terribly wrong is made  with a beautiful subtlety: meeting for the first time a crowd of Eloi, the beautiful race dwelling at ease upon the surface of the Earth in the distant future, Wells’ time-traveller notices (with no more than puzzlement) that there are no old people among them.
            In The History of Mr Polly, Wells describes two brawling shop-keepers:
            “There on the pavement these inexpert children of a pacific age, untrained in arms and uninured to violence, abandoned themselves to amateurish and absurd efforts to hurt and injure one another - of which the most palpable consequences were dusty backs, ruffled hair and torn and twisted collars.”

(That story was published in 1910. The protagonists would soon acquire their fill of expertise.)

These were quite different to the Victorian and Edwardian heroes of John Buchan, Rider Haggard or even Kipling: soldiers, engineers, hunters, brave, tough and capable men, able to handle a savage environment – the ideal of the knight brought up to date. These heroic adventurers, however, were individuals, who, one way or another had gone seeking the adventurous life of action and self-reliance and were prepared for it. The image of the unprepared society or community was something quite different. Some of Kipling’s writing was in this general area – his Roman centurions protected a fragile civilization from the barbarism outside. Gibbon in the 18th Century had been aware of the same thing, when he wrote that in the declining Roman Empire “Prosperity had relaxed the nerve of discipline.”

One image of The War in the Air that lodges in the memory is the survivors of post-catastrophe England waddling about in winter swathed in layers of newspaper which has otherwise become useless. They do not know how to weave or shear sheep, and have few other ways of keeping warm. The adaptable eventually survive, though their lives are relatively poor, nasty, brutish and short. The rest perish quickly.

That much-overlooked writer John Christopher tells in The Death of Grass how a virus kills all the grasses – which includes all the wheat and rice as well all the grazing grass. A small fraction of the human race may survive on roots like potatoes and fruits. Those not able to think in terms of survival and getting hold of weapons and defensible and productive land, die (P. G. Wodehouse reversed the catastrophe convention: all his novels can be seen as occurring in a sunny, cosy England in which the catastrophe of the First World War had not occurred. Indeed nothing really tragic had ever happened. Perhaps there is some connection between this and the fact that when he was swept up by the Second World War, he did not know how to cope, and as a civilian internee he foolishly but innocently made broadcasts for his German captors).

The catastrophe and the question of civilized man’s ability to meet it seem to have been never too far submerged beneath the apparently placid surface of late Victorian and Edwardian complacency. As Wells’ time-traveller, observing the effete, helpless humans of the distant future reflected: “We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!”

It seems to have been an idea which also haunted Tolkien. Some of his hobbits show unexpected reserves of toughness, but towards the end of the story we find that the inhabitants of the Shire have also become somewhat over-civilized and have allowed themselves to be bullied and tyrannised by the evil wizard Saruman, even though he has been stripped of his magic powers.

The hobbits returning from the Quest of destroying the evil Ring, toughened by wars and adventures, soon rouse the rest to throw Saruman and his henchmen out, but we see the Shire Hobbits have gradually lost initiative and the spirit of independent action. As one farmer who had tried to do something previously said, “folks wouldn’t help.”

One of the saddest aspects of The Lord of the Rings is that one closes it with the knowledge that the hobbits are doomed. Their country, although, or even because, it is now protected by the good King Elessar, has shrunk from an independent land to a reservation.

In an early draft of The Lord of The Rings Tolkien said the hobbits are now becoming extinct, and though this is not specifically stated in the book as finally published, enough is said to make it obvious. King Elessar, after the evil experience of Saruman, forbids men to enter the Shire, but before this no such ban was necessary – the hobbits had looked after themselves.

In an attack on The Lord of the Rings the left-wing writer Michael Moorcock claimed that it celebrated insularity:


“The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are “safe”, but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are “dangerous”. Experience of life itself is dangerous.”


Moorcock’s ideologically-based criticism is in general untrammelled by inconvenient facts, and this was in fact the opposite of one of the points The Lord of the Rings is repeatedly making – the Hobbits of the Shire (which can indeed be taken as England) were in danger partly because they were not experienced or interested in what was happening beyond their borders.

In the introduction to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said the Hobbits saw the Shire:


as a district of well-ordered business, and there in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living; and they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved, until they came to think that peace and plenty were the rule of middle-earth and the right of all sensible folk. They forgot or ignored what little they had ever learned of the Guardians, and of the labours of those that made possible the long peace of the shire. They were in fact sheltered, but they had ceased to remember it.


They were forgetting that the world contained “the high and perilous.” Even the strong Tom Bombadil, who was not a hobbit but some sort of nature-spirit, and had withdrawn into his own country, was in danger unless others protected him. Indeed throughout The Lord of the Rings various people on the good side are endangered by their reluctance to look outwards and confront an enemy growing ever stronger. This complacency, or perhaps reluctance to face gathering peril, nearly destroys even the wise Ents and Elves and the valiant, martial men of Rohan and Gondor. It seems an endemic and nearly fatal flaw of the good side and must be

constantly corrected.

The same point is made in other situations in Tolkien’s writing: in The Hobbit some of the inhabitants of Lake-Town have become so complacent they believe the dragon is merely legendary though he is in fact within easy striking distance of them. Their complacency, too, nearly destroys them. There is a similar situation in Farmer Giles of Ham (working both ways: some insular dragons foolishly come to believe that knights are mythical).

In C. S. Lewis’s final Narnia story, The Last Battle, the last disaster falls when most of the good animals of Narnia are shown to have become too passive to rebel against an obviously wicked false prophet, Shift (“We daren’t!”). Their (literal) damnation is perhaps sealed by an incident which is not even mentioned, but which the alert reader can pick up from hints: they allow a lamb who has spoken out and questioned what is going on to be quietly done away with.

George Orwell several times made the point that civilized people could not be civilized unless less civilized people guarded them. In Constantine Fitzgibbon’s When the Kissing had to Stop a pacifist left-wing British Labour Prime Minister somewhat resembling Michael Foot, trustingly allows a resurgently Stalinist Russian military presence into Britain. The good people are horrified but do not know what to do. They meet and discuss possible plans but, imbued with the habits of democracy, do not do anything until it is too late. Most of the surviving British characters, left and right, are last seen being unloaded in Arctic death-camps.

Kipling had his own repeated attacks on complacency. He had the archtypical British soldier, Tommy Atkins, sing (I quote from memory):


“Oh, it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, and ‘Tommy, go away!’

But it’s ‘Thank you, Mr Atkins’ when the band begins to play,

Oh, it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, and ‘Tommy, How’s your soul?’

But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll …”


Paul Lake’s Cry Wolf: A Political Fable, which I reviewed in The American Spectator of February 6, 2008, in the tradition of Orwell’s Animal Farm, tells of a farm run by domestic animals after the old owner has died (In this story, unlike Orwell’s, the old owner – perhaps symbolising traditional wisdom and belief –  was benevolent and wise). They survive and prosper as long as wild animals are kept out, they work hard and the rules the old farmer taught them are obeyed. Then a wounded doe is admitted out of compassion, and their rules and disciplines are gradually relaxed from that point, always for the best of reasons, and their culture compromised until at last the wolves and bears come storming back.

I read in yesterday’s paper of a British Labour MP and former Minister, jailed for corruption, who took a $6,000 watch into prison. Naturally it did not remain in his possession long – a perfect example of the inability to mentally adapt to another and fiercer world. It is frightening to think of a country being governed by not merely by crooks, but by crooks so out of touch with what reality involves.

There have been, of course, a number of modern “Catastrophe” novels in realistic settings. In John Wyndham’s 1950’s novel The Day of the Triffids a misfunctioning bioweapon blinds most of the world’s population. The tiny handful of sighted people are again thrown on their primitive resources to survive and to care for as many blind as possible. They must learn farming from scratch, with all the capital of such things as petrol steadily depreciating. In Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, Alien invaders melt the ice-caps, similarly throwing human beings back into a state of survival of the fittest and the foresighted. “Find a good hill-top and fortify it!” a scientist advises the hero when the first tiny rise in the sea-level is detected.

As one might expect, the best modern catastrophe novels are American. One of the most prolific and thoughtful of modern catastrophe authors is S. M. Stirling. In his Dies the Fire electricity ceases to work and so do guns (it is suggested some Alien intervention has caused this). The cities become infernos of cannibalism, while in the country eccentric hobbyist skills like making bows and arrows, curing skins or horse-breaking become priceless assets.

The film Tremors is interesting here: giant carnivorous worms attack a remote American community. Several of the inhabitants are eaten by them, one is chased up a telephone pole and marooned there till he dies of thirst,  but two of the worms are killed by “survivalists” – the sort of people left-liberals have nightmares about – who have a basement full of high-powered guns and who know how to make explosives from domestic ingredients. Tremors is a light-hearted adventure film but can be seen to contain as grain or two of truth among the chaff.

In all the best of these stories the really important thing is not the mechanical details of how things can be made to work (in Tremors there is no real attempt to explain where the invading monsters come from), but whether or not people have the mental resilience and adaptability to survive in a changed world.

Or even an adaptability to meet the challenges of ordinary life. One wonders what Wells, or indeed any other Victorian or Edwardian would have made of the true story of the two auxiliary policemen in Britain recently who stood by as a child drowned in a shallow lake because, as an official statement put it, “They had not been trained to wade.”(One finally mustered sufficient initiative to call for help). A similar incident occurs in The Time Machine, when the useless Eloi look passively on while a girl is drowning, but that was meant to be in the year 802,701.

Following the recent British riots, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, wrote a story headlined “The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom.”

Now I am well aware that reporters do not write headlines. Nonetheless, the whole tone of Oborne’s article was that the MPs who cheated on their expense accounts recently were as bad as the rioters.

Criminality is criminality, and the MP’s conduct is at least equally as deserving of punishment as that of the rioters. I have already written, indeed, that the two may be connected. However, only a completely sheltered person in a milieu insulated from reality can believe that physically assaulting another person is the same as, or no worse than, cheating on an expense account. It shows a quite terrifying inability to comprehend what real life actually involves. The soft livers become not only helpless, but callous: their imaginations and capacity for empathy atrophy along with their muscles and reflexes. H. G. Wells gave us a human race divided into the helpless Eloi and the savage, vicious Morlocks. Reading the British papers it seems as if a new Homo Britannicus has been bred combining the worst of both species – Eloi and Morlock in one. One commentator made the point that when the police failed, and, bewildered and hamstrung by political correctness, allowed the mobs to run riot:


Overwhelmingly, the most active and effective groups have been Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants, who actually know from bitter experience how tenuous the state actually is, and who understand that they must rely on community and kin. Turks, Kurds and Sikhs have formed community defense groups that sometimes look more like militias than neighbourhood watch groups, and the gangs, wisely, have learned to avoid those areas.


All this, I think, ties in with other things. Among them, the rampant hatred  among many people of Israel and Jews.

This Jew-hatred is unlike the anti-Semitism of the past. A large part of it is based on spiritual envy and jealousy – the envy of the weak for the strong, the envy of a society which has lost all its traditions for a society which has kept 5,000 years of tradition. In an ironic reversal of historical stereotypes, the alienated masses without patriotism or sense of national identity, the “rootless cosmopolitans” of today, envy the Jews their Spartan patriotism, their toughness, determination and capability. Every Jewish youth has been taught to use modern weapons. Every British youth is breaking the law if he or she carries a pen-knife. Yet it is the British youth that has run amok in conscienceless and indeed homicidal rioting. Jews were once hated because they were seen as weak and Oriental. Now they are hated because they are seen as strong and Western. Again, The Lord of The Rings has something to say about this: the wraiths both hate and desire the blood of the living.

I don’t want to get into the moral rights and wrongs of the Palestinian question here, but there is no doubt many other States – Burma, China, Zimbabwe, to name three, let alone North Korea, by any  yardstick behave worse than Israel while attracting nothing like the same hatred.  Who cares if Malawi or Uganda brutally evicted all their Indian traders and seized their shops to redistribute among their own corrupt political class? Only the Israelis are hated so because somewhere deep down people see in them an image of what they themselves ought to be. We have all seen at school the weak, wet mammy’s boy who does not seek to improve himself or to emulate, but rather hates, the capable, successful athlete, or even the brainier child.

Israel is, of course surrounded by enemies intent on its annihilation. It cannot afford to sink into the soft life. Nor, for different reasons, can Singapore, which has had the self-stated aim of being a “rugged society,” though it is a few years since I have been there and I don’t know if that slogan is still used today. It is not surrounded by enemies, but its economic circumstances leave little margin for slackness if its people are to continue in reasonable comfort or even to survive. Strikes, for example seem in Singapore to belong to a different moral universe.

It seems logical that societies with universal military training  would be best equipped to survive catastrophe and also have a greater sense of civic discipline ingrained in their members, but that of course is now being made politically impossible.

I am not quite sure how it fits in, but this factoid does not seem totally irrelevant: we have all seen films of the complete ruin of Berlin at the end of World War II. 10 days after Germany surrendered, the Berlin underground railway was running again. At the same time the London underground railway was on strike.

The British papers recently reported the case of a man who made an official complaint that his holiday at a fishing port had been ruined because the wharf smelt of fish. Was this the action of an isolated silly pillock, such as we will always have with us, or was it an indication of something more ominous: an indication of a society fantastically ignorant of the simplest facts about how the world works?

It is a famous survivalist challenge: “Turn off all your electricity for 24 hours and see how well you can function!” The increasing dependence of all the major industrial civilizations on computers at all levels from major industrial process control to domestic budgeting and e-mails and ATMs has made that challenge more pointed.

Meanwhile, we should take catastrophe literature seriously. It may be the only real early-warning system we shall get.