Richard Jefferies – After London

Western civilisation has collapsed and Britain is hit hardest of all: nature has reclaimed the once great cities and towns. The countryside has reverted to forest. Bands of brigands and strange cults range the new Dark Age land. A glimmer of learning and morality lingers in fortified encampments. Climate change has brought about this sorry state of affairs. Much of the land of Britain has been lost to the sea. Great lakes have formed in the interior linked to the sea by swollen rivers. Worst of all a toxic lake of stinking pollution oozes out of what was once the great city of London. Here hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions perished. Their putrefying bodied mixed with chemical waste and untreated sewage created this vile liquefying hell. In summer poisonous clouds of vapour rise from lake, killing anyone who gets close enough to inhale them.

Is this the premise for a modern science fiction novel imagining a world of the near future ravaged by global warming? Not at all, but rather the starting point for Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel, After London. Jefferies, a naturalist and visionary, died at Goring on 14th August 1887 and is buried at Broadwater Cemetery. In his short life of 38 years he wrote many books and articles, including his mystical autobiography, The Story of My Heart.

It is After London that seems to resonates with us so starkly in 2021. The recently published report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that man-made climate change is warming the planet at a far faster rate than previously thought. Lone environmental voices warned about the potential threat to our way of life from industrial activity as early as the 1960s and they were largely ignored as cranks. Imagine how Richard Jefferies was viewed by his contemporaries in the 1880s? Some people referred to him as “Loony Dick.”

Here are two excerpts from After London that show Jefferies imagining the future with vivid detail.

In the first he describes the continued impact of rising rivers on the land and how rising water wiped out the remnants of the settlements once inhabited by “the ancients.” Natural dams or ‘piles’ of drift wood and sedge created reservoirs of backwater that would regularly burst with catastrophic consequences –

“Sometimes, after great rain, these piles swept away the timbers of the weir, driven by the irresistible power of the water, and then in the course of the flood, carrying the balks before it like a battering ram, cracked and split the bridges of solid stone that the ancients had built. These and the iron bridges likewise were overthrown, and presently quite disappeared, for the very foundations were covered with the sand gravel silted up.”

“Thus, too, the sites of many villages and towns that anciently existed along the rivers, or on the lower lands adjoining, were concealed by the water and the mud brought with it. The sedges and reeds that arose completed the work and left nothing visible, so that the mighty buildings of olden times were by these means utterly destroyed….”

And the people? Few remained and of those that did most had reverted to barbarism. Jefferies notes that even when the world of the ancients was at the height of its wealth and power – when ‘iron chariots’ propelled ‘by fire’ drove along great roads and others flew through the air to all nations on the earth – there were groups of ragged, drunken people, almost exclusively men, who neither worked nor contributed to society, “exhibiting countenances from which every trace of self-respect had disappeared.” The descendants of these outcasts had become the ‘bushmen’ of the new world, surviving by scavenging and attacking travellers while they slept in tents. They would often kill such sleeping strangers for no other reason than they could.

Jefferies describes many variants of ‘tribes’ now living in the woodlands and marshes of England, including some led by powerful women, often styled as queens or princesses, who ruled through a mystical power and practised rituals at Stonehenge and other sites “ancient even to the ancients.” These female rulers had to be of “the sacred blood” and on occasion would carry out executions and that their “right to command them is not for a moment questioned.”

Tribes from Wales maraud into England, claiming that their people and their language once ruled over the entire country. On one occasion they advanced as far east as Oxford before they were repulsed.

In Jefferies dystopian future the concept of mercy has been all but forgotten, vengeance taking its place –

“Vengeance is their idol. If any community has injured or affronted them, they never cease endeavouring to retaliate, and will wipe out in fire and blood generations afterwards. There are towns [fortified encampments rather than towns in the modern sense] which have thus been suddenly harried when the citizens had forgotten that any cause of enmity existed. Vengeance is their religion and their social law, which guides all their actions among themselves. It is for this reason they are continually at war….”

Another great Sussex writer, Hilaire Belloc, writing in the 1920s took a similarly pessimistic view as to the eventual outcome for western capitalism, and in doing so, singled out Jefferies for praise –

“To our own modern world there must come vast religious reaction, or some vast religious novelty or both. It is inevitable for men live by religion. Yet no one speaking of the future takes this into account. I know of but one book, a book of singular genius, in which the thing appears…..and that is Jefferies’ fine vision called After London.”

Belloc did not think – as most contemporaries did – that Jefferies hugely exaggerated both the threat to civilisation posed by the industrialisation, nor the extent of the subsequent collapse of civilisation –

“What I think will spring out of the filth is a new religion….This concept of a new religion (and an evil one) arising out of the rottenness of the grave of truth, seems to-day at once fantastic and unpleasant. Unpleasant I admit is it; fantastic I do not believe it to be.”