Picnicking with Martians

England has gone all Merchant Ivory.

It actually resembles all those films which pretend to represent us: Howard’s End, and Room With a View and suchlike.

England, when it is all dappled shade and aquatint, sells. It is warm and open and the trees are just about in limey leaf, and we’re all unpacking our t-shirts and playing cricket on every lawn that beckons.

The blossom is showering meadows, the bluebells nod and tinkle, it’s all perfection here right now.

It happens once in a blue moon. Mostly, it rains.Β What to do Β with a golden afternoon?

Why, recall an English author’s nightmare vision, of course: and return to the scene of his horrific creation. What might it look like in a Merchant Ivory film, I wonder?

We have been musing much on HG Wells’ War of The Worlds. Woking, where the great man set this iconic tale, is just down the road, a well-trained suburb with a theatre and a fearsome one-way system.

And on the Chobham Road out of Woking is the scene of a breathtaking, if fictional event.

It happens at Horsall Common.

This is where Wells has his Martian spaceship crash. He is even more specific than this: he says the capsule lands near The Sandpit.

We spotted signs for the common on the way back from Woking a couple of weeks ago. And today, we felt ready to picnic where the Martians had landed.

There was great excitement. The whole family has been listening to the audiobook: we know, step-by-step, what happened when the great black creatures unscrewed the top of their capsule and emerged to take over the world.

Wells describes how an unidentified object lands which is clearly not quite natural. It draws onlookers who gather in knots and ooh and aah as they capsule opens and black, ‘unspeakably nasty’ aliens emerge into a new atmosphere. Those who stay to watch are unwise, as the first idiot who topples into the pit finds to his cost. He is spotted, his head bobbing, trying to re-emerge and then falls, never to be seen again.

Still, the crowds reason, there is no way the Martians can get out of the Sandpit on Horsall Common. Even the Press says so.

No-one bargains for their technological genius, however. It is not long before great mechanical tripods are transporting the predators about. Their method of hunting is efficient: they herd humans, they kill them with a heat ray, and then they fillet them.

The most superior race on the planet is relegated to the significance of ants.

We arrived at the Common all anticipation. Surely, somewhere, someone might acknowledge what so momentously didn’t happen here, one hundred and ten years ago?

It appears not. There is not a whisper of the site’s gory and horrific, if fictional, past. Is this because the good people of Surrey don’t want a load of lower-class oiks trampling their back yard? Perhaps. Or perhaps, an even less charitable conclusion, they simply do not know.

Two adults, two children and a dog started out on the hallowed trail. The map revealed there was actually a site called The Sandpit. Unbelievable specificity! We would be able to stand where they had not landed: to watch where humans had not been herded: in short, to commune with this great literary site.

But it was hard to envisage terror, this balmy afternoon. The path to the sandpit is a wide dusty road embowered by a solicitous forest which meets overhead. The brand-new lime-green foliage showed the dappled sunlight off to its greatest possible advantage.

Men busied themselves about their various concerns. With infinite complacency, they went to and fro …serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.

The woods were full of Surrey dogs: they walked with the walk of the CRUFTS centre ring, a pedigree spring in their step.

Accompanying them were Surrey children, who would greet one with a cheery “Hello”, so unlike the customary Neanderthal grunt of the general masses. Everyone was well-dressed and well-heeled.

After extricating the dog from several peaty, smelly heath pools we arrived at our destination.

And it was unmistakeable. The forest cleared for a great orange beachy expanse of sand, with a pool at the bottom. It seemed unearthly, there in the midst of a forest of pines and birches. It almost shouted.

No wonder Wells chose this geological anomaly for the landing of his mythical creatures, I thought. It is alien itself.

Although this did not seem to bother the Surrey families picnicking happily where Martians never trod.

We joined them with ham rolls and iced buns and grapes and crisps. It was a festive occasion. We tempted the dog back occasionally from a hectic social calendar with the odd hoola hoop crisp which he crunched with doggy abandon.

Pure Merchant Ivory.

No one would have believed that this world was being watched, keenly and closely, by intelligences greater than man’s: and yet as mortal as his own.


24 thoughts on “Picnicking with Martians

  1. There are those who have suggested that the monsters represented Britain as part of a condemnation of Britain’s colonialism and the tentacles wrapped themselves around the subjugated nations squeezing out wealth. Much like The Fall of the Roman Empire illustrated Gibbon’s assessment of Britain’s course in his time. One fiction. One non fiction, but both
    political commentaries. The death of the monsters represent the independence of the enslaved nations. It is an interesting concept and somewhat defensible to indicate parallels and a generator of historical discussion but a far stretch. Gibbon was masking political commentary while Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs were busy pioneering the thrilling genre of science fiction.

    1. If the cap fits, Carl….. the metaphor works; I’ll have to delve a little more into Wells’ political leanings and find out what he thought of the Empire and its grip on the world at the time.

      1. He was a Fabian socialist and believed in the eventual world state with would certainly measure as anti imperialist. He applauded the League of Nations post WW 1 with sovereign nations duly represented which would be anti imperialistic. To say War of the Worlds is an anti imperialistic commentary would be ridiculed by most scholars, I would imagine. Certainly my English/Am literature professors of 40 years ago would give me an F on an essay proposing the theory. I also give them an F for being pompous elitists.

      2. Carl, came across this reading this afternoon in the early pages of the book :”And before we judge [the martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought… upon its inferior racesThe Tasmanians…were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

  2. What fun, to find the exact place where the Martians landed… in the imagination. Snippets from the book add to it so well! Sound like a fine picnic spot.

    We went once in search of The Hundred Acre wood, but were sadly disappointed. We didn’t find the place to play Pooh Sticks.

    Have you ever read ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’? That’s a good place to have your lunch πŸ™‚

    1. No one would have believed it actually existed, not knowing anything south of Woking. Or even south of Stoke, come to think of it.

      Glad you had a lovely day. How nice to alk in literary footsteps. It’s why I want to go to Bath one day (Georgette Heyer).

  3. What a wonderful outing . . . even if you didn’t bump into any alien beings.

    What fun to unearth the place where aliens did NOT land ~ on Earth Day, no less. πŸ˜€

  4. i’m glad you didn’t take the audiobook with you and make all the picnickers aware.

    Now you need to photoshop your pics, with the remains of the black spaceships, and some abandoned tripods

    1. …and pin the results up on the Common noticeboard. Perfect idea. It was lovely to sit there and feel eminently superior as all the little Surrey children ran about their business and my dog met some seriously upper class mutts.

  5. An uncommonly fun excursion on that common! Fitting, as it was the site for such an uncommon occurence – albeit fictional.
    I have been having an uncommonly tough time trying to decide whether a fictional common in my latest novel should take upper case or not. ‘A common’ is easy. So would be Horsell Common. Where it gets tricky is when one starts on ‘the common’. Opionions seem to differ. *sigh*

    1. A thorny point, Col. If its any help, Wells opted for small c unless it was a proper name: “In the afternoon the appearance of the common had altered very much.”

  6. Oh, Kate, this is absolutely delightful. What a fun picnic, with all the alien nuances. I love how you bring literature alive here in your posts and to your children as well. I loved this!

    1. Thank you, Penny πŸ™‚ Wish you were there, so to speak, you would have loved it, I feel quite sure. We listened once more to the book last night and it made it all the more piquant!

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