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The Guardians by John Christopher (1970) 156 p.

John Christopher – author of the Tripods trilogy and The Death of Grassdied back in February, and I didn’t even find out until a few weeks ago, which bummed me out. So I ordered a few of his books off the Internet, ones which I’ve never read, because I like indulging in a bit of nostalgic young adult fiction (a genre which can be nostalgic even when you’ve never read the book in question) and I’m sure a writer who could put out a classic like the Tripods trilogy must have a good backlog.

The Guardians takes place sometime in the mid-21st century, when England has been divided into two worlds – the aristocratic “County,” a land of picturesque countryside and landed gentry and upstairs/downstairs social stratification, and the modern “Conurb,” a bleak, Ballardian cityscape of CCTV and blocks of flats and sports riots. Christopher takes the existing divide in Britain between country/city and upper class/lower class and develops it to its sci-fi conclusion, where the two worlds are separated by electric fences and rigid social control.

The protagonist, Rob, is a young Conurb lad – living in “the London Conurb,” in fact. To his credit, Christopher has developed this world from real places and names, instead of making everything generic, as in some other examples of mid-20th century science fiction. Rob is sent to a boarding school after his father dies, but finds life there unbearable, and – after discovering that his deceased mother originally hailed from Gloucestershire – decides to escape into the County, via Reading. He finds it easier than expected to get through the electric fence, and fortuitously runs into a helpful County family that adopts him into their mansion.

Christopher’s prose style is fairly dry, but also much simpler than I remember it – perhaps because when I read the Tripods trilogy, I was actually in the intended age group. Nonetheless, I found The Guardians to be a fairly engaging novel, and was quite impressed with the themes and ideas it presents to a young target audience. It’s a novel about social control, and balancing freedom against happiness, and I was unsure which side of that argument Christopher was going to land on until the very final pages. He manages to pack quite a lot into a mere 156 pages without the story ever feeling rushed. I was also impressed by how well The Guardians has aged, considering it was written 42 years ago; it actually could have been written in the last decade, and wouldn’t feel at all out of place. The themes about trading liberty for security and the divide between England’s rose-tinted past and pessimistic future are still very much part of the zeitgeist.

Overall, a decent young adult novel. It wasn’t a great book, but it was a quick and easy read and delivered more than I expected from it. Next in line from Christopher’s backlog is The Prince In Waiting, also from 1970, the first book in his “Sword of the Spirits” trilogy.

An Age Like This: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters Volume I by George Orwell (1968)

Considering that he was one of the most important writers of all time, I found it incredibly hard to obtain a collection of Orwell’s complete works. According to Wikipedia only two were ever published; one four-volume set edited by his second wife, and one twenty-volume set which included all his novels and books. I just wanted his essays and short pieces, so I went with the first set, but both The Book Depository and AbeBooks came up stumped; I had to order the four separate books from four separate websites, two of which eventually emailed me back to say they didn’t actually have them in stock. I have all four now (split across two different publishing editions, so they look a bit mismatched) but geez, that was difficult.

An Age Like This covers the period from 1920 to 1940; which is to say, it has three letters from the 1920s and then jumps to 1930, when Orwell’s surviving work is a bit more substantial. Letters, nonetheless, comprise the vast majority of the book. I’ve never read a collection of an author’s letters before, and I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. They weren’t something I was ever interested in reading, and at times they didn’t seem to be particularly relevant to anything, which left me feeling like a voyeur. I’d hate to think that sixty years after I died somebody was reading all of my old correspondence to my friends. (Well, actually, I wouldn’t, because it would mean I became hugely important. But still.)

But there’s still some fairly interesting bits and pieces throughout: a diary Orwell kept while living in the slums of northern England for The Road to Wigan Pier, letters he sent while in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, observations of Morocco, and a good understanding of his opinions leading up to WWII. Nowadays that war has been all but deified, the last Good War where the Free Men stood up to Nazi Oppression, but Orwell makes it clear that public opinion in Britain (and presumably elsewhere) was complex and divided; he himself clearly had no illusions about nations standing up for what is right, as opposed to what was in their (capital) interest.

There’s also a particularly hilarious reply (the only piece in the volume not written by Orwell) to the essay “Boy’s Weeklies,” which I read a long time ago, and which remains one of Orwell’s most interesting essays. Frank Richards, the writer of the weeklies in question, actually responded to Orwell. In his indignant, rambling response he refers to himself in third person, suggests that he is a better writer than Bernard Shaw, Thackeray or Chekhov, and declares that “noblemen generally are better fellows than commoners” and “foreigners are funny.”

I read An Age Like This in bits and pieces, and found it fairly easy going. If I’d tried to read it all at once I probably would have been bored. Nonetheless, I expect to enjoy the later volumes more, when there’s less personal correspondence and more essays and opinion pieces.

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