02 September 2011

Post-Apocalypse in Pink

The Lord's Pink Ocean
David Walker
New York: Daw, 1973

David Walker was born one hundred years ago today. There will be no coverage of this anniversary in our newspapers – and no criticism from me for the oversight. Competent and commercial, Walker sold an awful lot of novels in his time, but nothing I've read has been particularly memorable. His most successful book, Geordie (1950), the sentimental story of a simple, scrawny Scot's transformation into an Olympic hammer-thrower, sold in the six figures. Quite the accomplishment for a writer working out of St Andrews, New Brunswick. In belated recognition, I think, Walker was given back-to-back Governor General's awards for the novels that followed, The Pillar (1952) and Digby (1953). Geordie was adapted for the screen – a weak film starring the wonderful Alastair Sim – and in 1966 spawned a sequel, Come Back, Geordie. Such was the original's success that two decades later its title continued to grace the covers of Walker's novels.

I'm not so sure that The Lord's Pink Ocean would have appealed to the audience that had been so captivated by the sentimental, uplifting story of Geordie MacTaggart. This is a novel of the 'seventies, a bleak work of science fiction set in a world deadened by a shocking pink algae. The cold waters of the Arctic and Antarctic protect several thousand survivors, but this is not their story. Instead we have the Parkers and the Smiths, two small farming families eking out a living in a secluded valley that overlooks what was once the city of Boston.

Yes, a secluded valley above Boston.

The Parkers are black, the Smiths are white; the Parkers have a boy, the Smiths have a girl; father Parker hates father Smith and vice versa. There's all sorts of stuff going on here, but for what purpose?

My reactions to The Lord's Pink Ocean mirrored those of William French, who in the 12 September 1972 edition of the Globe and Mail wrote:
I thought for a while that Walker was writing a satirical novel – that would make it more bearable. He could easily be poking fun at religion, which plays some part in the plot, or science fiction – pink algae, indeed – or industrial society, scientific progress and pollution. But the horrible realization dawned that he was serious.
French goes on to poke fun himself at Walker's dialogue, providing this example:
"Now be good sports and give our floats a mighty shove. Toodle-oo, then."
Those are the words of an Inuit Anglican minister preparing to fly off in his pontoon plane.

Like so many post-apocalyptic fantasies, The Lord's Pink Ocean works only if one doesn't pause to think. In this, film has an advantage – head shots to zombies do distract – but with a novel read over the course several evenings questions come to mind. For example, how is it that people born just a few years – or is it months? – after the collapse of civilization know next to nothing about "The Time Before"? How do two estranged men, each raised without religion, develop identical systems of belief? Why is it that they speak like 19th-century Mennonites, while their teenager children speak like... well, teenagers? And what's with that altitudinous valley anyway?

French titled his review "Blushingly Bad". A bit harsh, perhaps. The Lord's Pink Ocean is nothing more and nothing less than a middling genre novel. Might we expect better from a Governor General's Award recipient? Yes, but let's also remember that Walker was honoured in the same decade that saw the award go to Igor Gouzenko and Lionel Shapiro.

I chose to read The Lord's Pink Ocean because I thought it would be quirky enough to hold my interest. I mean, just look at the title. Maybe I made a mistake. A friend's mother recommends Walker's 1960 novel, Where the High Winds Blow, but I think the time has come to leave the author behind.

Toodle-oo, I say.

Object and access: Readers of science fiction will know what I mean in writing that this is a typical Daw paperback. For those who are unfamiliar: A nondescript mass market with a cover that does not reflect its contents. Copies of the Daw paperback are sold online for less than one Canadian dollar. The first edition, published in 1972 by Collins, can be easily had for less than eight dollars. Library shelves hold hundreds of copies, though Canadians will have to make do with the Toronto Public Library, Library and Archives Canada and our fine universities.


  1. This is what I love about this blog. There is always something unexpected. I actually have this book. I had no idea that Walker was a Canadian writer. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that Walker appears to have had quite an exciting life in his younger days. He was an aide-de-camp to Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir, the novelist John Buchan, and a prisoner of war, among other things. I am going to have to read something of his now. I'll pass on "The Lord's Pink Ocean." Perhaps "The Wire" will be more interesting. As Walker has experiences as a POW making escapes from prison camps a story about escaping POWs might have more substance to it.

  2. My thanks for the kind words. I agree, Walker does appear to have lived an extraordinary life. I was curious about his biography, Lean, Wind, Lean (1984), but found it so weak and fragmented that I could only thumb through its pages. "It's been a year since I began to write these slivers of memory," begins the brief concluding note. In this, his last book, Walker shuffles about, moving randomly from year to year... chapters 14 and 15 concern 1943, chapter 16 deals with 1939. chapter 17 concerns 1939 and 1940, while chapter 18 is titled "1943, and on, and back". Thirty-one chapters in all, some as short as three pages - "slivers" - with almost nothing about his life after 1947. Very sad, really.

  3. That's a shame--at first I was hoping for a lost apocalyptic classic, but the quoted lines sound more like Wodehouse!

  4. Wodehouse! Exactly. Observes William French: "The problem with Walker - or one of the problems - is that he is still writing for a British audience, in a British idiom. In fact, he over-anglicizes to the point of caricature." I add that the Smiths, who are Scots, sound like Irvine Welsh characters quoting Rabbie Burns.

  5. 'The Wire' sounds interesting. I'd love to read a review of it.

  6. wollamshram, care to take up the challenge?