Tuesday, 21 August 2012
Thames Valley Catastrophe
Today is the day on which, in Grant Allen’s 1897 short story ‘The Thames Valley Catastrophe’, a fissure eruption takes place along the river bed between Shiplake Ferry and Marlow, releasing vast quantities of basaltic lava which roll down the valley destroying everything in their path, including London. One can imagine that, if broadcast over the radio, this grim little tale might cause a mass-panic as frantic as that which famously took hold when H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds was broadcast in the USA by Orson Welles in 1938.
The narrator of the story, a clerk on a cycling holiday, manages to escape a horrid fate by pedalling energetically up into the hills, though there is one splendidly ludicrous scene where he has to desperately mend a puncture as the all-consuming lava rolls relentlessly towards him. His family escapes too, but the national tragedy is ‘summed up in five emphatic words: There was no more London’. In which case William Morris, who we know enjoyed Richard Jeffries’s novel After London, might well have relished Allen’s story too, had he lived long enough to read it; and it certainly chimes in well with our own contemporary penchant for disaster movies. In fact, it is surprising that no one has yet turned Allen’s tale into a film; perhaps this blog post will prompt some keen-eyed director to do so. Tony Scott of Top Gun fame, who died yesterday, might have been a good candidate.
The story’s value for us, as Morrisians, is in its effort to reimagine the Thames valley in sublime mode, as a place of awesome natural forces which sweep away a puny human civilisation; and geologically ludicrous though the tale’s premise is, it does have some fine moments of awe and terror. All of which makes us more aware, by contrast, of how Morris has modelled his Thames valley in News from Nowhere on that traditional aesthetic opposite of the sublime: the beautiful. Now I love Morris’s utopian Thames valley as much as anybody; but I am also grateful to Grant Allen’s curious tale for reminding me that that is by no means the only way, aesthetically speaking, that one can represent what Morris calls ‘our one English river’.