I’ve read the new edition of They by Kay Dick, which was first published in 1977. First editions are now selling for hundreds of pounds. I had one of them in my hands about 35 years ago. If I’d had any idea I suppose I could have pinched it and realised a decent profit in 2022. It would only have cost me whatever the penalty was required for non-return of books to Redditch Library, which is where I saw that 1977 hardback edition, next to the Philip K.Dick novels I’d gotten interested in. The library also had a 1977 first edition of A Scanner Darkly, which I suppose is also worth a bit now.
I did pick up They and read the jacket details, as the title was reminiscent of We, the novel by the Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin. As we all know We is the ur-text of all later “dystopian” novels such as 1984 and Brave New World. Redditch Library had a copy of Zamyatin’s lesser works, Islanders & The Fisher Of Men, and I read that as well as the copy of We I ordered from W.H.Smiths. In those days you couldn’t expect to see all the books and records you’d heard about, not in a small town. They had to be specially requested, unless you went to Birmingham or London to see the fabulous selection in the huge shops in the big cities.
Using the ebay listing, I can see that first edition jacket blurb, and also be reminded of why I didn’t go on to read the novel then:
…a surreal nightmare which sends a shock right to the heart of our cultural complacency.
As you read it you should remember that the men and women who live and die in it might easily be you. (They could be snatched out of your hand, quite suddenly, and pulped. No reason would be given, except pure destructive savagery.)
Those who struggle in its pages to maintain their reason, their sanity, their capacity to love and hope, are not so far removed (nor are the forces that menace them) from our own and, as we fondly imagine, unruffled lives.
As bureaucracy and governmental control proliferate, Kay Dick pleads for the individual and intellectual freedoms which are so rapidly being eroded. Her book is both a poignant celebration of these values and an anguished caveat.
By this point I had already realised that “cultural complacency” and decline and all that were simply the received wisdom of Serious People, and only a naïve fool would expect the future – or even the present – to be better than the past in any respect. The function of Arts coverage in Sunday newspapers was to transmit such ideas to the next generation. But something about the image of the book being “snatched out of your hand” irritated me – it seemed an unlikely infraction of civil liberties, but also quite a minor one if I was really living under a repressive regime. It sounded like the sort of thing that just happened anyway to people who made the mistake of being seen reading by the wrong people in the wrong place, not encouraged or ordered by any government but simply part of the fabric of culture, as it really was, in small towns.
Now I am living over 30 years later, and copies of We are easy to come by, although Redditch and all the other provincial libraries lost Islanders and so much of the other oddities in their stock long ago, and are now closing down. Now I have read They. I will be honest: I don’t think my younger self was wrong to skip over it. There are some strong passages and impressions in it, but there are also aspects that irritate me again, and those are when it connects with its structuring premises and the “message” indicated in that jacket blurb.
The text is narrated by a nameless traveller who worked as a professional writer but now cannot get their work published, and is under pressure to not produce any at all. The time is not too long after 1977 and it is set in Britain since London, Oxford and Cumberland are mentioned as well as the National Gallery. Television sets exist and are the main source of mass entertainment, not yet superseded by any more advanced technology. It is unclear whether any technical progress is occurring, other than some new brainwashing technique for deleting personal memories (this seems to be similar to the control methods devised by the nasty socialist government in Wilfred Greatorex’s batty dystopian thriller 1990, starring Edward Woodward and also made and broadcast in the late 70s).
Our narrator is travelling between enclaves of beleaguered friends. The calamity that has overtaken society seems to be encroaching from above and below. There are officials and busybodies harassing non-conformists of a new social order devoted to thin entertainment and distrustful of creative thinkers and artists. This is formally in accordance with constitutional procedures, with Bills proposed and passed (in Parliament, presumably). But this new order is also supported by a literal silent majority who are sullenly resentful of the bright folk, when they aren’t being openly violent or intimidating. Something like the state of Germany in the early period before and after the establishment of the Nazi regime, when the Stormtroopers were an extra-legal force acting to terrorise opposition, until being liquidated themselves. We are now entering a final phase of cultural destruction, as books and paintings are eliminated for the offence of (the term is never used, but it is implied here) representing an old elitist culture, now to be drowned out by television sets and loudspeakers blasting pop music.
Our narrator seems to know about a million people around the country, but they only seem distinguishable by their losses and injuries; when they speak it’s usually a single note of lamentation for the vulgar mass that doesn’t appreciate them, or fears the spiritual freedom they embody.
’Meanwhile we carry on. Their tactics are soundly based – on the communal resentment we provoke.’
’Jealousy, you mean?’ I asked.
’No, fear. We represent danger. Non-conformity is an illness. We’re possible sources of contagion. We’re offered opportunities to,’ he gave a slight chuckle, ‘integrate. Refusal is recorded as hostility.’
’Why don’t they come into the garden?’ I asked.
’Distrust,’ Thoby said. ‘The garden is beauty, is sensuality, is mystery, is imagination. They sense a trap.’
’And we come here because of these?’
’Yes, it’s our trap. The sightseers prefer concrete. Think of their passion for marinas, not for the boats, but for the car parks, the amusement arcades, the proliferation of restaurants and blocks of high-tower apartments. They like to see the sea pulverised out of its natural area by concrete. They dislike the beaches for the same reasons; bathing in the sea is too uneasy a freedom, they prefer swimming pools. They like nothing better than to sit in their cars and look at the sea from the safe harbour of a monstrous marina complex.’
Oh what pitiful half-men these slack-jawed cow-like masses are! But how did they get like that, what paths did society go down, what alternatives were available and did our heroes care to defend them? Their status as creative artists is also hard to assess since of course we never see their work, but also it seems that most of them are engaged in rather artsy-craftsy pursuits, where the status of “avant-garde” may not be applicable. We are only told that some of the creations are “breathtaking” and the viewer is “dazzled by its beauty”. But half of the time they seem to be Britain’s most insufferably smug FE college lecturers, all stuck in an unending dinner party where they agree that this latest cohort of students are useless. Our narrator has some unusual tics for a professional author. The time sequence seems to shift unclearly, though we are told that chapter 4 is in January, when Julian was alive, he was dead in chapter 3, so that must be in September or later, like chapter 1. There is also a tendency to objectify abstractions. “Apprehension filled the room”. “The January day had the pellucidity of a crystal”. Not much is conveyed by “The mill’s identity was a living presence”, it marks a sense of comfortable familiarity that is established more clearly in the enumeration of “the books, the paintings, the music, and the tops of the trees seen through every window” that comes next as the objects that the writer is “preternaturally conscious of”. But the fact that this comfortable world includes domestic servants gets only a passing mention, along with the foreign trips that the persecuted artists can apparently still enjoy. What is happening outside Britain?
The trouble with “dystopia” as a genre is that it requires some sketch of an origin story of how we got from here to there, and it usually involves a Great Disaster after which the repressive new order is at least welcome for being some sort of order after the interlude of chaos. In 1984 we have a story of East/West nuclear war in Europe followed by internal revolts against the ruling classes who were clinging on to their privileges; after the great upheaval there was a readiness to forget all the violence and so a regime that openly changes history might be welcome (They takes one idea from Orwell: the centres where re-education occurs are windowless towers). Not long after it was published the cycle of purges and repression was happening in real life in the new communist states in Eastern Europe. Something like the crisis feared by the cultured class in They was occurring in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as the old middle classes were getting pushed out to create new room for the proletarians. This atmosphere is recorded in the later chapters of My Happy Days In Hell by Gyorgy Faludy, which we also see characters who had read Orwell and Koestler before they went through the arrests and prison camps they had been led to expect. Novels warning about dictatorships are just light relief before they happen.
In They there is no intimation about how the cultural fabric came apart, not even a banal conservative line that it was due to a decline in churchgoing. It feels like the communism that Faludy found distasteful in practice, but our bright thinkers did not notice how it occurred. What were the dull proletarians doing, where were they living, before they were housed in tower blocks and given arcades, since they surely didn’t create all those works spontaneously? They seem to be barely alive. When Zamyatin wrote Islanders from his observations of the British middle class, he allowed the conceit that mass-produced doll-men were created to fill the identical suburban homes, but there was a tenderness in the joke. The sightseers in They really are just animated mannequins, as far as their cultured despisers regard them.
If They is not a dystopia then it could be nearer to the style of what I suppose is “English Kafkaesque”, represented in the later Anna Kavan novels or works such as A House In Order by Nigel Dennis, or pehaps David Wheldon’s novels. In those fictions we have a broad backdrop of some sort of bureaucratic state, and rather light details about where in the world we are and at what point in history. It’s somewhere to the side of the time those authors were living in, and they can allow themselves a magical or inexplicable transition at the edge of the scene. There is no magic in They: the books are disappearing off the shelves because the proles are sneaking in and pinching them, or maybe we have a Servant Problem of a new sort. It would be better to have this reality metaphysically unstable – like the world of Ubik, by Philip K.Dick – than follow our material rules but with boring causes and tedious nagging intentions.
Or maybe this is all simply a delusional fantasy shared by paranoid narcissists who feel the general indifference of the population as actual violence and persecution? Not in this text, but a parodic possibility.
The stronger pages of They are “the sequence of unease” we were promised in the subtitle, when the narrator suddenly feels menaced in their happy place feeling at the heart of the cultured minority. The best moments are the sudden flashes of stranger danger, and the intimation that country lanes, far away from built-up areas, are in fact far riskier places to be. That’s a truth about England, away from chocolate-box sentimentality about rural scenes.
I turned left. There remained five left turnings in Tom’s final digit. A sharp left turn off the main road immediately brought me to another left turning. Relieved that two were reached within such a short time I ran into the second turning. A steep hill led downwards. The way ahead looked extremely dark. I leashed my dog and moved forward cautiously. After some little time I heard footsteps. I stopped. The footsteps stopped. I went on. The sound of footsteps started up again. Clear hollow sounds. The light was dim. I looked up. I had not noticed I was walking through a tunnel. The footsteps I heard were echoes of my own. I sighed with relief and wiped the sweat from the back of my neck. Above my head an odd tapping, not quite footsteps, yet similar. I listened carefully. I was under another road, under the road with the spreading canopy of trees. The sound was of horses’ hooves. Frightened almost beyond panic I moved slowly on. I could now see an opening ahead. I was coming out of the tunnel. Ahead, to the left, I saw another turning.
How exposed would I be when I emerged from the tunnel? The distance to the next turning was relatively short. I decided to creep forward slowly. In running I might slip, fall, make a noise, cause my dog to bark. Overhead I heard the trotting horses, to and fro, from left to right, crossing and recrossing each other’s tracks. I could only pray that the riders met in the middle of the road as I came out of tunnel. I picked up my dog. I moved forward as in a nightmare. I heard the horses behind me. Quickly I turned leftwards into a lane encapsulated between high hedges. I leant against the bramble and sighed with relief. I was out of sight.
Before she wrote this fictional odyssey amongst artistic friends, Kay Dick published the rather great non-fictional book about authors, Friends And Friendship. Here is the front and back, scanned so you can see all of the diagram of the pictures:
And here are the inner portions of the duck jacket:
From the end essay, explaining that Muriel and Christine couldn’t be in it but had been originally intended:
Finally, “A certain amount of anxiety…”
Gillian Freeman, incidentally wrote this:
Of course that 1st edition of They on ebay was another library copy – I’m sure the one in Redditch suffered the same fate: