Musty Books: “Brother In The Land” by Robert Swindells (1984)

The human race has failed. And, even after effectively destroying itself and the planet it inhabits, it will continue to fail again and again, in a repeated cycle of perpetual, apocalyptic self-sabotage, because mankind is essentially brutish, violent and stupid: doomed to repeat the same animalistic, catastrophic mistakes over and over until nothing remains of the Earth but a charred, lifeless cinder. Such is the fundamental message of Brother In The Land, perhaps the bleakest indictment of human nature ever to be presented to any audience, let alone the unsuspecting secondary school readership for whom it was intended. “There is no hope in my story,” declared Robert Swindells, in an afterword appended to the book in 1985. He was not exaggerating.

Some context: 1984 was arguably the apotheosis of global nuclear paranoia. In late 1983, a total of 572 new Pershing II and GLCM (Cruise) missiles were deployed throughout Western Europe, including 160 of the latter at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire, with an ultimately even greater arsenal of SS-20 missiles stationed throughout the Soviet Union and primed to launch in the opposite direction. I was 11 at the turn of the year, and the prospect of a seemingly imminent nuclear exchange began to dominate my childhood. Daily topics of conversation in my suburban primary school playground included four-minute warnings, fall-out shelters, blast impacts and radiation poisoning. It is almost impossible to encapsulate in mere words the all-consuming horror of the situation. For, me it bordered on a fully-blown phobia: I still remember the sensation of sick dread that would accompany the titles of daily BBC news bulletins (or, even worse, unexpected news flashes), as I firmly anticipated the seemingly inevitable apocalypse being solemnly announced by a quivering Jan Leeming or Richard Whitmore. And every evening, despite a resolutely secular upbringing, I said a nervous prayer in my bed that concluded with the same desperate plea: “Please don’t let there ever be a nuclear war.”

Wars had been distant, or fictional. Wars had happened in foreign countries “on the news”, or in the flickering newsreel footage of my grandparents’ salad days. But this one would be real, and – after four minutes of blind, desperate, siren-soundtracked panic – it would kill me, my parents, our dogs and all of my friends in an instant. Everyone I had ever met would almost certainly die. Fair to to say it added a certain frisson to my childhood, and unsurprisingly the prospect of an impending armageddon quickly began to dominate the popular culture of 1984. The first Doctor Who story of the year, ‘Warriors of the Deep‘, saw Sea Devils and Silurians battling for control of an undersea missile base; and a wave of mainstream nuclear pop, awash with the language and imagery of Mutually Assured Destruction, was spearheaded by Nena, Nik Kershaw and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. On 23rd September 1984, the BBC broadcast Threads, Barry Hines‘ extraordinary depiction of a nuclear attack on Sheffield, ensuring that recurrent teenage nightmares for the decade to come would conclude with the same, head-freezing imagery: a flame-filled mushroom cloud, billowing over our unsuspecting home towns.

It would be interesting to know the degree to which Hines and Swindells were aware of each others respective works-in-progress, as Threads and Brother In The Land – unleashed almost concurrently – share considerable DNA. Both depict the plight of young protagonists in a working class Yorkshire town, attempting to survive – and indeed rebuild some semblance of normality – in the aftermath of a nuclear war. In Brother In The Land, the town is the fictional Skipley – presumably a melange of the real-life Skipton and Shipley – and the fortunes we follow are those of Danny Lodge, an ordinary schoolboy who survives the sudden attack by sheer chance, sheltering from a summer storm in an abandoned World War II pillbox when the missiles unexpectedly hit. Returning to the remains of his home town through swathes of bodies, he finds his father and seven-year-old brother Ben hiding in the remains of the family shop, now a coveted supply of tinned food that requires constant armed defence. His mother is dead: wrapped in polythene beneath the shop’s counter, she is eventually buried in the abandoned garden opposite.

From a traumatised, matter-of-fact first person perspective, we follow Danny’s seemingly doomed attempt to find hope and respite: not just from devastating aftermath of the war, but also from the human race’s cyclical desire for conflict and domination. In the weeks following the bombing, an order of sorts arises: the “Local Commission Headquarters” is established at a nearby farm and the ailing and injured of Skipley are collected by military vehicles that stream into town amid a wave of relieved cheering and clapping. The “Commission”, however, is essentially a fascistic regime that has created a concentration camp. The wounded are executed, and it becomes clear that the remaining population have little option but to surrender to slave labour in order to gain access to clean water and a regular food supply.

What is truly shocking is the nature of the Commission’s brutal ruling elite: Councillor Finch, the “coal-merchant who was always getting his picture in the Times”; Alec Booth, the “worst bully in school”; Lightowler, “Chairman of the Hospital Management Committee before the nukes”. The smalltown busy-bodies that form part of the fabric of everyday life, now corrupted by the power available to them in the post-war vacuum: they are pen-pushers turned authoritarian butchers. Even Danny’s freshly-found teenage soulmate Kim Tyson, befriended when he narrowly prevents her from killing a hungry assailant with an iron railing, has given up on humanity. “Cavemen versus gentlemen is no contest,” she tells him. “We’ve got to be as hard as they are – or harder.”

And such is the book’s conundrum: how is it possible to keep one’s compassion when the world has essentially abandoned any pretence of humanity? In chillingly familiar fashion, even the status of “human” is stripped from many of the survivors, as new words emerge. There are “Spacers” – those whose mental faculties have been annihilated by the shock of the war; “Badgers”, those still hiding in shelters; “Terminals” with untreatable sicknesses; and “Purples” – those who have resorted to cannibalism to survive. “New species,” muses Danny. “Better than shooting people.”

A sliver of optimism arrives in the form of Sam Branwell, a local smallholder slowly assembling a freedom-fighting commune: Masada, the “Movement to Arm Skipley Against Dictatorial Authority”. Ironically, Danny’s recruitment comes after his father is accidentally killed in a Masada raid on the New Commission patrol car taking him away for hoarding food – a raid orchestrated by Branwell’s deputy, the bullish former PE teacher Mr Rhodes. Rhodes is a post-apocalyptic Bullet Baxter who has transformed his love of sadistic cross-country into a gung-ho bloodlust for attacking the New Commission – thus further muddying the moral waters. Even the idealistic Branwell is resigned to further conflict: “Nature saw what was coming and turned us back into brutes… so that we might survive in a devastated world,” he sighs. “We watched death and destruction on T.V. newsreels till it meant nothing to us – till it didn’t shock us any more.”

And such is Swindell’s paradox made heart-breakingly apparent. The only way in which the human race can survive such an appalling tragedy is embrace its reversion to “pre-Neanderthal” brutism; but that very transformation – fuelling the deadly provincial feuds between factions like those helmed by Branwell and Finch – will only ensure that mankind is destined to replay the tragedy over and over and again. With “bigger and bigger weapons; bigger and bigger, til their power is beyond man’s power to imagine and he unleashes them, or they unleash themselves”.

“No hope in my story” indeed.

And yet, there is something. Despite the horrors he endures, Danny steadfastly refuses to relinquish his own personal humanity and finds blossoming romance with Kim. And Swindell’s conclusion, while bleakly fulfilling the prophecy of his book’s title, nevertheless offers a meagre glimpse of the “cosy apocalypse” that he states – in his afterword – he was determined to avoid. Keen explorers of the North York Moors – like me – might also find themselves somewhat taken aback by said conclusion’s setting in the unassuming moorland village of Osmotherly. Which, unlike Skipley, is very real – it has three nice pubs, a little shop with a good selection of flapjack and a corner cafe that plays an incongruously vital part in the story’s denouement. But the ending is ambiguous enough not to detract from the hopelessness of Swindell’s message, and Brother In The Land takes its place alongside Threads and When The Wind Blows as a compelling and darkly poetic depiction of a very British apocalypse.

POINT OF ORDER: In a 1994 edition of the book, Robert Swindells – perhaps reassured by the passing of the Cold War – changed the ending, giving it a much more upbeat feel. So if your copy of Brother In The Land concludes on the island of Lindisfarne rather than the moorland above Osmotherly, then you have the amended edition. Personally, I much prefer the original ending, but then – as a fan of Middlesbrough Football Club – I’m depressingly pessimistic by nature and more than willing to accept the pointless cyclicity of existence.

MUSTINESS REPORT: 4./10. My copy of Brother In The Land is a fresh and fragrant 1995 reprint, but – oddly – has the original 1984 ending rather than the amended, more upbeat 1994 conclusion. It’s an Oxford University Press edition, and bears the stamp of Swaffham Hamonds High School in Norfolk – which, curiously, appears to be the alma mater of writer and one-time Fortean TV presenter Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe. The school still exists at the same location, although in 2012 it was rebranded as the Nicholas Hamond Academy. If any former pupils have memories of reading the book during their time at Swaffham Hamonds High, feel free to get in touch. Were you even possibly in Class 10A? That’s on there as well.