The Last Refuge: by John Petty

First published in 1966 and reprinted in paperback by Penguin in 1968, John Petty's The Last Refuge is a strange fusion of dystopian and post-apocalypse fiction, almost as forgotten as the good earth beneath the concrete which entirely covers the country within the novel. Following a worldwide nuclear war during the 1970s, which sees the USSR, the US, and much of Europe destroyed, Britain leads the way in establishing a post-ideological nightmare for survivors. I suggest post-ideological because this new normal has a touch of neoliberal bastardy about it - its excesses are drawn from the playbooks of both extreme left and right: a rigid, bureaucratic social structure; high rise tower blocks; repressive police and military; an obsession with security to the exclusion of liberty; mass surveillance; holiday camps for proles; state-sponsored prostitution; etc, etc. And, predictably enough, the year is 1999.

As small consolation, the third person narrative rewards us with James Muller, perhaps the last writer in Britain, living in the last tenement, which is about to be pulled down, as is Muller himself. Deemed a hopeless though harmless subversive by Security Chief Jallen, Muller is condemned to live in Block Y, Arm T, which is, in effect, a vertical concentration camp. Muller is here subjected to every indignity, consoled only by the suicide capsules he has hidden in his hair - but as his hair begins to thin under pressure, he worries about those too. Muller is reunited with his closest friend, ex-teacher McAllister, who had been disappeared years before, now much changed by life in Block Y. McAllister's escape plans are not much more advanced than Muller's, and he forces the issue in an extraordinary display of temper that sees both men hiding hopelessly in a lift-shaft, continuing their old arguments as though nothing but a brief interruption had occurred. They are quickly recaptured. Jallen judges McAllister to be a real threat and he is quickly disposed of. A bizarre fate, however, awaits Muller - he is treated to a form of internal exile and is released into the wilds of concrete Britain. Jallen expects Muller will die fairly quickly, of exposure or despair; instead he receives some help from passersby and displays a deal of courage and ingenuity in his efforts to forge a new identity and escape to the coast. The Security Chief takes this as evidence of a conspiracy against the state, rather than admit that he has simply misread Muller's character. The last, striking section of the book sees Muller hunted mercilessly across a relentless concrete vista, cleverly remiss in his ability to stay alive.

There's no doubting that there is power in Petty's novel - his clean-living prose is somehow twisted into unrecognisable structures by the confessions and evasions of the characters. Muller is not interested enough in his own survival to make a going concern of his incarceration; it falls to Jallen to create a bogeyman, which he does, but he falls when Muller, after much vicious prodding, rises to the occasion. McAllister is, perhaps, the most interesting character - he appears only briefly but acts as the ignition to Jallen's creation. Somewhere within his tortured fit of pique, which sees him shoot two guards, is the real point of the novel - it's an extended letter to the council which has turned dystopian by way of revenge fantasy. The demolition of Muller's house, the tower blocks, and the complete concreting of Britain (an absurd notion but perhaps a literal realisation of Orwell's Airstrip One), can only be taken as references to the rather high-handed post-war slum clearance programme, as well as motorway construction (Petty rather prettily renames the motorway network the Magnostrat). Beyond this there is a kind of official sneer around the fact that Muller describes himself as a writer - society as it is now has no use for such indulgence, and words, if they were ever white hot, have fossilised into useful implements of torture, to be handled only by those with grim enough clearance. Ultimately the novel gives the impression of a man far gone in his fantasies; and perhaps this is the point. Petty was very much a dissenter, often living rough in circumstances of extreme poverty. He understood well that, in our society, the rewards for conformity are wildly out of proportion to the punishments for dissent, and The Last Refuge puts that notion to the extreme test. As ever, winner takes all, including your life.

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