Thursday, December 23, 2021

 

SOMETHING TO DO WITH SPACE...

(compleat]

I am going to talk about the first science fiction book I ever read; possibly the first real book I ever read. I am going to try to explain why it was my favourite book when I was a child, and what it was like coming back to it after very nearly fifty years. 

When I was four or five the grown-ups asked me what present I would like for my birthday. "Something to do with SPACE" I replied. I got a magnificent plastic space helmet, one size fits all, with a NASA logo and a visor you could raise and lower. It echoed, slightly, when you put it on your head so your voice seemed to be coming from the moon itself. I got a space suit to go with it: a silver pair of P.Js, really, with moon-shot patches and Stars and Stripes sewed into them. I can't remember wearing the suit, but I can remember sadly realising that I was getting too big for it.

I was born in 1965 so I would have been just about conscious of the moon landings. I think I was just barely aware of the Apollo 13 near disaster; I think my mum shielded me from watching the TV news in case it became too sad.

I suppose the choice is arbitrary. I decided I liked Space. I might just as well have decided that I liked Unicorns.

It is not hard to explain why, at the age of eight I went crazy for Spider-Man and at the age of twelve I went crazy for Star Wars. Maybe you went crazy for Pirates of the Caribbean or Toy Story or Jurassic Park. Spider-Man and Star Wars are texts. I was crazy about the stories that Steve Ditko and George Lucas were telling me.

But very small children know that they like Pirates or Dinosaurs long before they have encountered any actual texts. They don't like particular stories. They certainly don't care about letters of marque or paleontology. But they do know that Pirates and Dinosaurs are cool.

Space-rockets were cool. Daleks were cool, too, long before I knew that they came from Skaro or contained a disgusting mutant or wanted to rule the universe or even that they appeared in a TV series called Doctor Who. 

Children become obsessed with the oddest things: lifts or trucks or teapots or the colour pink. It's almost a form of imprinting. How many serious grown up interests started with pointless childhood fixations, I wonder? See a pony at the age of three; develop a serious interest in dressage and the Grand National at the age of sixteen. Get a toy turtle at two; get a junior black belt in Judo at the age of eleven.  

The overwhelming majority of grown-ups read stories about businessmen and lawyers and vets and village school teachers and middle class Italians and narcissistic Norwegians. They say that they literally cannot understand why any grown-up would want to read "all those crazy space stories". And crazy space story readers can't work out why anyone in their right mind would want to read a story about ordinary things happening to ordinary people in an ordinary world. Perhaps the grown-up majority just never fixated on space rockets or dinosaurs? 

Didn't Freud think that most kinks were perfectly normal elements of infantile sexuality that particular people never grew out of?

Some of the unpleasant far-right science fictions fans who called themselves Puppies believed that no-one really liked mainstream fiction: it was being forcibly imposed on a docile population by a feminist-academic cult, to make America more vulnerable to the communist take-over. Or something. Guardian cartoonist Tom Gaud drew a celebrated cartoon in which a science fiction reader imagined that mainstream fiction readers were dull sourpusses who were secretly jealous of all the fun he was having. 

Two mutually uncomprehending sub-cultures. Two people for whom "books" mean different things.

Yes; I know. There are dog people and cat people, but Mrs Smith down the road dotes on her poodle and her siamese.

We like Doctor Who because, when we were too young to know what Doctor Who was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting Ex! Term! In! Ate! in a silly voice.

We like Pirates of the Caribbean because when we were too young to know what a sailing ship was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting "Arrrr!" in a silly voice.

We are interested in equestrian sport because when we were too young to know what a horse was we thought it was fun to gallop around the room making clip-clop noises with our tongues.

It really was that simple. That was why I decided I liked Space. 

Not because of the adventure.

Not because I liked the idea of different worlds and aliens.

Because a rocket ship is a great, big, tall, willy-shaped firework.

And mostly because it is fun to run around the room shouting FIVE FOUR THREE TWO ONE BLAST OFF.

Not the real reason. Not the only reason. But the point of origin.


*


My first school was split between Infants and Juniors. The Infants were segregated off in their own corridor. I don't think there was ever an Infants Library. I suppose there must have been books, but I can't remember any particular ones. We were taught to read from Janet and John, of course. At home I had a fine collection of Ladybirds. I remember Magic Roundabout Annuals and a very dog-eared Disney Storybook. Doctor Seuss was disapproved of because he rhymed Zed with Bee and couldn't spell "colour". 

I think that Picture Books are a slightly more recent publishing phenomenon. I can recall Infant teachers reading to us from quite text-heavy books: Winnie the Pooh and Noddy and Alice in Wonderland and the Song of Hiawatha. I remember Miss Ward reading us Hans Andersen's Tinder Box and Miss Heinze reading us Jason and the Argonauts, both unexpurgated. The romance of human sacrifice and public execution kicked in quite early.

The rest of the school was the province of the Juniors, and the Juniors had their own library -- a tiny little cubby hole lined with what we would now call Chapter Books in A-B-C order of the writer's last name. We were presented with one of those old fashioned blue ticket-pockets which allowed us to take out (and take home) one book a week. Miss Beale allowed some of us more voracious readers to have two. I read the obvious: Doctor Doolittle, Mary Plane, Paddington Bear, the Wombles, Enid Blyton, who I never really took to, and Willard Price, a kind of entry-level Clive Cussler. But I gravitated to the very small section of Space Books; what I knew, at the ripe old age of seven or eight, to refer to as Science Fiction. 

I think that the publishers were commissioning big-name writers to write juvenile material, or scouring back-catalogues for kid-friendly material. I remember titles like Have Space Suit Will Travel (Heinlein); A Life for the Stars (Blish) and Islands in the Sky (Clarke.) I don't think Asimov wrote anything for for children.

I can date my Spider-Man infatuation precisely; the second week of February, 1973. (The Wombles came on TV the same week.) I don't have any reference point, but I suppose it was about the same time when I walked into the Junior library and pulled down a little tome, with small print, no pictures, and an abstract cover. 

A cover perfectly suited to fixation on five-four-three-two-one-blast-off. It was old fashioned and perhaps out of print when I read it. Libraries seemed to have copies; I never saw a paperback in a bookshop. For years I would have said it was my favourite book. I only read it once, and it's been out of print for decades. 

But the Internet is the Internet; and Orion Publishing has decreed that every science fiction novel ever written, however obscure, can be dowloaded into my Pocket Computer at the touch of button....

*


As a matter of fact, you can go home again. But home looks different. Unless you have been away for too long. Then it looks exactly the same.

So: Blast Off At Woomera by Hugh Walters. 

If you are close to my age and frequented libraries, you certainly read it; if you are any younger you won't even have heard of it. I don't know what I thought re-reading it was going to feel like: embarrassing, I suppose, a vague nostalgic cringe. I have watched a lot of old children's TV recently, thank you Brit Box. Thunderbirds is as wonderful as ever, but I wouldn't want to watch very much of it. Catweazle stands on its own two feet as a charming piece of comedy-farce with both a heart and an historical head. The Tomorrow People makes me squirm in my seat. 

I've talked about what it was like to read Stan Lee's prose for the first time, or see one of Jack Kirby's cosmic spreads. But that experience is unrecoverable. I can't go back to Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer because they never left me. I can't compare "reading them at fifty" and "reading them at twelve" because memories of reading them and thirty five and twenty seven and sixteen rush in to fill in the gap. I believe that I have seen Star Wars at least once a year for the past forty five years. I could have a very good go at reproducing the script from memory. I had forgotten every single thing about Blast Off At Woomera, except that it is about a rocket, which blasts off, presumably from Woomera.

I read through it in a single sitting, pretty much glued to my chair; the word "unputdownable" (unputtable down?) never truer. I am not a fast reader: I got through the Dune series and Ulysses by setting myself targets -- this many pages today, this many pages before I am allowed a coffee break. But this ancient kid's book dragged me in and refused to let me go. (As an adult, I mean. I think I found it quite hard-going as a kid, but liked things which were A Bit Too Old For Me.) 

Do not, whatever you do, go away and read the thing on my recommendation. In the cold light of day it is really not very good at all. It clearly the work of a very good amateur, one Walter Hughes who sold metal beds and ran the Rotary Club. Hugh Walters was a cunning pen name. He tried his hand at writing science fiction because he thought the existing stuff wasn't sciency enough. Blast Off at Woomera was published in 1957: four years before Yuri Gargarin; nine years before James T Kirk; twelve years before Neil Armstrong. It comes from a time when Dan Dare was still in his pomp on the front page of the Eagle. Like Dan Dare, Hughs' hero, has to confront strange, alien life-forms; savage creatures, strangely dressed, with deadly weapons who hate for no reason and kill without purpose. In the Eagle it was the Treens from Venus. In Blast Off at Woomera it is the Teddy Boys, and they come from Battersea Funfair.

He had read about the exploits of some of these young hooligans in the papers. Wolverton had, happily, been without them, and this was the first time he had seen any in the flesh. What he saw did not reassure him. About eighteen or twenty years old, they each had “sideboards”, gaudy ties and suits with velvet lapels.

It was more than a decade old when I found it, and already quite old-fashioned. Now it seems to speak to us from another world. 1950s England is very nearly as alien as the planet Venus.

Walter Hughes was a member of Arthur C Clarke's interplanetary society, but the story is as unlike Clarke as any book could be. Clarke likes his hardware and he cares about his science; but he is also full of romanticism and awe and childish wonder. 

H.G Wells was also in the Junior Library. I got to the end of  War of the Worlds but First Men "In" The Moon defeated me. My father rather approved: H.G Wells was a proper author. He never did quite persuade me to have a go at Kipps. I remember the fugitives seeing a tripod on a hill near East Barnet. East Barnet was where my school was. My secondary school was at the top of Cat Hill, where John Betjamen had disastrously failed to teach cricket. I imagined that was the Hill H.G Wells had in mind. Wells is not as romantic as Arthur C Clark, but he makes you aware that the universe is big and strange and terrifying and awesome. Hughes' heroes wouldn't recognise the Cosmos if it bit them on the nose while they were munching their bacon and eggs. Blast Off At Woomera is singularly uninterested in the Cosmos. 

War of the Worlds begins:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

2001: A Space Odyssey Begins

Behind every man living there stand thirty ghosts: that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living... Please remember this is only a work of fiction: the truth, as always, will be far stranger.

Blast of at Woomera begins (and I promise I am not making this up)

Sports Day at Wolverton Grammar School is the social event of the year. Held traditionally on the third Saturday in July, it falls in that delightful period between the end of all exams and the start of the longest holiday. It is then that the masters become human beings for a brief spell and even the Head is known to quote an occasional humorous Latin tag.

It sits halfway between Biggles (unlikely yarns about the RAF by someone who had actually flown a plane) and Jennings (unlikely yarns about schoolboys by someone who had actually been a teacher). It starts in a school; and it it never quite leaves the ethos of the school. In that way the hero, Chris Godfrey, has something in common with Harry Potter.

I loved it unreservedly. I can fully understand why it became so big when I was little.

*

So, it is 1957. England has its own space-programme. It has sent unmanned probes and monkeys into space; but the time has come to send up a human being. A full-grown man wouldn't fit in the capsule, so Sir George Benson recruits a seventeen year old schoolboy, who is so small he could pass for 12. The boy is trained for some weeks, and an Englishman duly becomes the first human being in space.

"Boy volunteers; boy is trained; boy goes up; boy comes down." That's very nearly all there is to it. 

The boy hero, Chris Godfrey, is the most transparent of Mary Sues. He has very little personality or interior life; he's brave and clever and shy and not much else. We follow him on trips to a scuba-diving company to get his experimental space-suit fitted; to a centrifuge where he experiences artificial G-force and to an RAF base where he experiences weightlessness in a supersonic jet. We also follow him on an R&R trip to Battersea funfair (where he has the unfortunate encounter with the Teds); to a music-hall where he sees the Crazy Gang; and on a pre-launch picnic in one of the prettier parts of the Australian outback.

Hughes keeps our feet on terra firma. We get a blow by blow account of Chris's experience: how well he slept each night, what he had for breakfast each morning and at what time. (Come to think of it, "eating a lot" is another personality trait.) Hughes shares with Enid Blyton and J.K Rowling a habit which drives grown-ups mad but which often grips kids. He never skips over a piece of action or offers a summary of what is going on. Anything which can be expanded into a scene, is expanded into a scene: characters often provide a running commentary about what is happening next. Nothing is shown which cannot be told. When Chris is driven from his home in Wolverton to London in a military vehicle, the tension reaches fever pitch:

The Royal Air Force corporal who was driving the car turned to Chris and asked if he would like to pull up for a coffee. Chris replied that he didn’t mind and would leave it to the corporal, who, after cogitation, volunteered that coffee wasn’t much in his line—so they continued their drive to London.

The scene in which he changes his underwear before putting on his space suit is very nearly as thrilling:

Following the white coated man into a small side room, the boy saw that he was to strip and put on one of the light cotton garments placed ready for him. This covered the whole of his body except for his hands and his head, and was secured by a long slim zip fastener up the front. A pair of special socks were pulled on, and he walked a little self-consciously into the larger room where the others were still examining the suit.

I don't know how much Hughes actually knew about aeronautics but it all feels convincing to me. The premise takes a little bit of swallowing -- are there really no adults of restricted growth? couldn't they have recruited a jockey? -- but it is treated with logic and conviction, and followed through to its logical conclusion. The manned space flight has to happen right now because the boffins have spotted possibly artificial constructions on the moon and need photographs of them. The test rockets have capsules in them, because they have been launching monkeys into space. The capsules are monkey-sized, and can't be made grown-up sized in the time-frame. There has to be a human occupant, because there is no way of training a monkey to operate a camera. 

The space agency takes sensible steps to cover their tracks: when Chris is whisked off to London without a cup of coffee, it provides a sensible cover story that he has gone on holiday. When Chris arrives at Woomera, the crew of the base are told that he is Sir George's nephew. When the truth leaks out -- the government is putting children in experimental rockets! -- the media backlash is wholly plausible. We really feel that if the English government had put a grammar school boy in space in the 1950s, this is how it would have happened. 

Why did I find the book so hard to put down? I knew perfectly well -- and I must have known perfectly well when I was in Miss Beale's class -- that the launch was going to be a success. Hughes was hardly going to make us plough through a hundred and fifty page chapter book (with no pictures) only for the rocket to explode on the launch pad or for Chris to chicken out at the last minute. But I found myself racing through the final chapters to get to the denouement. Not because I wanted to know what happened: but because I wanted to imagine that it was happening to me. 

And even when the twelve minute adventure finally takes place, Hughes dials it down. Chris's message from orbit is not "one giant leap" or "my god, it's full of stars" but "Moon....big....clear".

So. In some ways, quite a dull book. It renders space-travel prosaic and unromantic and even ordinary. And for precisely that reason, the most exciting book I ever read. It feels real. It feels like you are there. I went from shouting five, four, three, two, one in a toy space helmet to knowing I definitely wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. This book told me truthfully what it would be like. Reading it was as close to being an astronaut as I am ever likely to get. 

However "Boy goes up. Boy comes down" is not quite enough plot to sustain a novella. So Hughes adds a subplot. It orbits the margins of the main story: just sufficiently to add some tension and some jeopardy to the narrative. And to provide a punchline and a sub-text that I didn't quite see coming.

*


It's the damn Russians, of course.

The English believe that the mysterious domes that have appeared on the moon were built by the Russians: that's why the mission is so urgent. But one of the Woomera scientists is a Russian spy. (It is rather hard to tell one scientist from another, so the spot-the-traitor whodunnit falls a bit flat.) The spy sabotages the mission; the rocket crashes on re-entry...and Chris is killed! The photos are saved (the plucky lad hugged them to his body on the way down) and it turns out that the domes are not created by the Russians after all, but possibly alien. As a result, the British and the Russians end their rivalry and pledge to work together. Our hero's self-sacrificial pluck has ended the the Cold War and secured the future of the space programme.

Ronald Reagan reportedly told Gorbachov that if the earth were invaded by aliens, then the Americans and the Russians would bury their differences and come together as fellow members of the humans race. In Clarke's disappointing sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, America and Russia step back from the brink because the Black Slab turns Jupiter into a second sun. And, of course, it is the ending of Watchmen: Ozymandias's faked squid incursion averts World War III at the eleventh hour. It is nice to think that a furniture salesman and part-time boffin had the same thought twenty five years earlier. It is quite possible that Alan Moore has read Blast Off at Woomera: Alan Moore has read everything.

Fortunately, Chris turns out to only have been mostly dead. Not only does he miraculously recover, but the cosmic radiation has given him a growth-spurt! So Hughes gets to have it both days: a death scene of monumental sentimentality in Chapter 20, and a happy ending in Chapter 21. In a way, it would have been a better story if he had stayed dead: but you don't kill off heroes in kids fiction, and anyway, it would have been a shame to have missed out on sequels with names like Passage to Pluto, Mission to Mars and Something to Saturn.

But there is another reason why our hero survives his near-certain death. Astute readers will have spotted it already. The book doesn't only have a plot and a sub-plot. It has a sub-text. A huge, massive, in your-face subtext that I was totally unaware of for 50 years.

*

The book starts with Sir George Benson, visiting his old school on sports-day, and noticing that one young lad, an academic high flyer with an interest in rockets and astronomy, would be small enough to fit into his rocket.

They have a jolly good chin-wag in the headmaster's study. Chris isn't allowed to make a decision straight away:

"No grand heroic decision please. I’m sure Sir George won’t accept an answer one way or the other until tomorrow morning. Isn’t that so, Benson?”

“Absolutely,” came the reply. “Run along now, Chris, and think about it very carefully.”

“And pray,” added the headmaster.


Pray? Well, it's an old fashioned book; and headmasters are generally very old fashioned characters. Mr Berry was very probably born when Victoria still occupied the throne. One might suppose that Hughes is drawing a contrast between the old-world religious authority of the head of a grammar school, and the modern scientific authority of the head of the space programme.

On the day before Chris boards the Hogwarts Express, it is mentioned in passing that he and his Aunt go to evening service at their local church. Well, most people did. Hughes probably wants us to see that Chris is leaving the old world of family, shop, school and parish behind him and going to join the modern outward looking world in That London and eventually Space.

On his first Sunday in the Metropolis Sir George asks Chris if he wants to go to church, and Chris says that he does. But everything stays decorously C of E: Chris's sentiments are humanistic and nationalistic rather than spiritual.

Here, indeed, was written in metal and stone the record of our history. Here were recorded the lives and achievements of the great, each—be he poet or politician, scientist or explorer, king or commoner—had made his contribution to the advancement of our race. Each had helped to take a tiny step forward down the long corridor of human progress.

But as the big day draws close, some serious piety sets in. A few days before the launch, Chris gives up counting sheep to send himself to sleep and starts to think about theology instead:

What after all, he thought, am I? Why should I be concerned about myself when I’m only a scrap of animated matter in a universe of infinite variety and mystery? Surely we are all of utter and complete insignificance—unless God has chosen us for some purpose of His own.

And just before Chris goes out to face his fate, comes this wholly remarkable passage:

“Chris, lad,” [said Sir George] “we can only stay a few minutes. I thought perhaps you and I might spend just a few moments together in silent prayer. No matter how perfect man may try and make a machine, it’s God who has the last say as to whether or not it will function. Your life will soon be in His hands, and I know you’ll be all right if such is His purpose.”

“Thanks, Uncle George. It would be a comfort to say a prayer with you. I’m a bit shy with other people, but I’d like us to do it together.”

The man’s arm round the boy’s shoulder, they knelt on the dusty concrete floor.

Chris is an orphan, raised by his Aunt (as all good heroes are): and by this point in the story he is calling the man who is going to blast him into space "Uncle". Which is not creepy at all.

I remember being given Lord of the Flies to read, around the age of twelve or thirteen.It came from the same post-war schoolboy universe as Hugh Walters; and it had once been a shocking book. Mr Wallis the English teacher who gave it to us he thought it was important for us to learn about the Evil in Men's Hearts before World War Three kicked off. Like most grown-ups he seemed to believe that a nuclear holocaust was more or less inevitable. But no-one who had been in the boys changing rooms of a north London comprehensive would have been remotely shocked by the idea that, sans parental authority, teenaged males would start to bash each others brains out. If he had really wanted to shock us, Mr Wallis would have given us Coral Island, which took it for granted that shipwrecked boys would do the decent Christian thing, buck up and civilise the natives. People educated at English public schools in the 1910s might possibly have been shocked that Wilfred Owen thought that dulce at decorum est was a big lie: what shocked us in Mr Wallis's English class was that people in the olden days could possibly have believed in anything so silly. But there is something genuinely shocking about an old man and boy kneeling down to pray before the the five-four-three-two-one thing happens. Reed Richards didn't ask Johnny Storm to say a prayer before launching himself into the cosmic ray storm. Perhaps things would have gone better if he had. Dan Dare was known to get a service-book out in his capacity as a ship's captain, but it is hard to imagine him kneeling down with Digby and squeezing his arm. 

Blast of at Woomera  looks forward to a future of British-led space exploration, international co-operation and (by volume six)  peaceful contact with benevolent space aliens. But it simultaneously looks back at a passing 1950s worlds of good manners, decency and Christian certainties. Our hero may be the first Space Man, but he is not part of the new world of teddy boys and teenagers.

Did we cringe? Did we think "Oh, this is a Christian book, I hadn't realised?" I think that, in 1972, we hardly noticed. Americans and people under the age of thirty five will hardly believe how ubiquitous the Church of England was in English schools in the 1970s. Compulsory religious studies; a hymn and prayer every morning; nativity plays; visits from the local vicar. Prayers and church and morals were just part of the dull roughage that grown-ups liked to put into books. We looked straight through them. I am endlessly astonished by the people who tell me that they read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and didn't particularly notice that the dying-and-rising god-lion was A Bit Like Jesus.

*

Chris Godfrey is an almost completely passive protagonist. He has no agency whatsoever. His heroism consists being subjected to the discomfort of g-force, the nausea of zero-gravity, the indignity of endless medicals and injections and changes of underwear and Taking It Like A Man. He puts himself in a position where he is quite likely to be killed, and he doesn't chicken out, even though it is made clear to him that he could.

The English are proud of the stiffness of their upper lips. There are no terms of endearment when Chris takes leave of his Aunt. On the day before the mission everyone keeps saying "see you in a few minutes" even though they know he is likely to die. There is a queasy sense of male closeness: Greatrex, the whiskered battle of Britain veteran who takes him under his wing refers to Chris as "young feller-me-lad" to his face and "that kid" out of earshot.

The Battersea Park Teddy Boys demand that Chris literally licks their boots, and Chris acquiesces. Sir George and Greatrex are shocked that Chris allowed himself to be humiliated rather than fighting back.  “If the kid really has a yellow streak, he’ll start squealing when the time gets near for the blast-off." But then they realise that Chris would have liked to have punched one of the group of bigger men with knives who outnumbered him. But he held back, because he knew that his getting hurt would jeopardise the mission. "In some circumstances it takes a great deal of courage to be a coward" says Sir George. Much manly squeezing of hands and gruff clearing of throats ensues. 

And on the final day, after Chris has said his prayers and refused a hearty breakfast, it's Sir George who starts to have second thoughts 

With every yard that they covered, Benson had to fight the thought that he was sending this lad to his death, that he was accompanying him to his execution.

Everyone is conscious, but no-one quite says, that what they are engaging in is child sacrifice. We overhear a conversation among the scientists about the ethics of sending monkeys into space: some think that it is wrong to kill dumb beasts who can't possibly understand what is happening; others think that killing a few animals for advancement of human knowledge is justifiable. When the monkeys survive, the families on the base make a great fuss of them and give then names. Hughes does not draw the obvious conclusion -- that Chris is somewhere between and experimental subject and a pet: but the thought must have occurred to many of his brighter readers. 

We see the launch twice, once from Sir George's point of view, and once from Chris's. In mission control, we hear Chris sobbing; in the claustrophobia of the rocket, we hear all the doubts that are going through his mind.

Would he be seeing any of them again? Of course he could if he wanted to. He had only to call out that he was too scared to carry on, and Sir George wouldn’t press the switch. Or would he? It wasn’t fair of them to ask him to undergo this mental agony, let alone the physical torture that would probably follow.

Uncle, if it be possible, save me from this hour. In case we miss the point, as the rocket falls to earth, God makes a brief, on-stage appearance.

Nearer grew the brightness at the end and all Christopher knew was that he wanted to reach it more than anything he had ever wanted before, for somehow he was sure that in that bright glow lay happiness and peace and rest. With a half-formed prayer in his mind he came to the end of the tunnel or corridor and all about him was the light.

English literature has also involved an element of sentimentality which borders on the sadomasochistic. From the sacrifice of Isaac to the Prioress's Tale, via Little Nell and Babes in the Wood, right through to tabloid salivation over "Maddie" and "Jamie", there is nothing we like better than blubbing about dead kids. The language when Chris is apparently killed is completely over-the-top:

Would to God young Chris had been spared, [Sir George] breathed to himself in silent anxiety. With a choking in his throat he admitted to himself how much this youngster had come to mean to him.

And weeks later, in the hospital:

Two large, dark eyes like miniature pools in a thin, white face. For a second or two Benson stared, too full of emotion to speak. Then the incredible boy, still too ill to speak, slowly winked an eye. In spite of himself and to his eternal chagrin Sir George felt the tears smart in his eyes. Again that slow movement of Christopher’s eyelid—so full of meaning, so very precious. Silently Benson left the ward, a prayer of gratitude singing in his heart.

So: a scientific procedural, told very much in the language of a school story, conceals a clear Christian metaphor. Virtual death and virtual resurrection. He is lead like a monkey to slaughter. He is humiliated and bears his suffering cheerfully. He is betrayed by one of his own. His suffering brings the world together.

The Russian spy, we are told, is not doing it for the money: he is a completely sincere Communist. We don't find out what Communism is all about, but we do find out that the spy had a difficult childhood which set him on the wrong track. I don't know if this is supposed to be a redeeming feature -- he kills one of his friends because of an honest political conviction -- or if it makes him more of a monster. He politely arranges to be shot in the head in the final scene, and ends up in a mental hospital, saving everyone the embarrassment of a real execution. His communism is described as a faith; more oddly, as a kink. It is the language that relatively tolerant people in 1957 might have used about gay men: it's not really their fault and they can't help it. But it's the act of a godless commie that brings Chris back from the Light and indirectly causes peace to break out. How, if nothing else, ironic. 

Blast Off At Woomera is not an allegory. It's a space story about a boy astronaut by an amateur boffin; beloved by junior library geeks who wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. Hughes puts Christian morals into story in the same way he puts in thermal underwear and cooked breakfast: they are the kinds of things that go into stories of this kind. 

And yet. Hughes wasn't above playing around with names. His pen-name is a kind of pun: Walter Hughes the furniture salesman became Hugh Walters the science fiction writer. (A science fiction writer named Wally Hughes appears in one of the later volumes.) I doubt that he consciously intended the symbolism, but it is hard to avoid noticing syllables of the main character's name. Chris Godfrey. Chris/God. The story of how Chris sacrificed himself for the world. 

And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Christopher Godfrey literally means "Christ-Bearer Peace-of-God."






Wednesday, December 22, 2021

 SOMETHING TO DO WITH SPACE

Zero

Chris Godfrey is an almost completely passive protagonist. He has no agency whatsoever. His heroism consists being subjected to the discomfort of g-force, the nausea of zero-gravity, the indignity of endless medicals and injections and changes of underwear and Taking It Like A Man. He puts himself in a position where he is quite likely to be killed, and he doesn't chicken out, even though it is made clear to him that he could.

The English are proud of the stiffness of their upper lips. There are no terms of endearment when Chris takes leave of his Aunt. On the day before the mission everyone keeps saying "see you in a few minutes" even though they know he is likely to die. There is a queasy sense of male closeness: Greatrex, the whiskered battle of Britain veteran who takes him under his wing refers to Chris as "young feller-me-lad" to his face and "that kid" out of earshot.

The Battersea Park Teddy Boys demand that Chris literally licks their boots, and Chris acquiesces. Sir George and Greatrex are shocked that Chris allowed himself to be humiliated rather than fighting back.  “If the kid really has a yellow streak, he’ll start squealing when the time gets near for the blast-off." But then they realise that Chris would have liked to have punched one of the group of bigger men with knives who outnumbered him. But he held back, because he knew that his getting hurt would jeopardise the mission. "In some circumstances it takes a great deal of courage to be a coward" says Sir George. Much manly squeezing of hands and gruff clearing of throats ensues. 

And on the final day, after Chris has said his prayers and refused a hearty breakfast, it's Sir George who starts to have second thoughts 

With every yard that they covered, Benson had to fight the thought that he was sending this lad to his death, that he was accompanying him to his execution.

Everyone is conscious, but no-one quite says, that what they are engaging in is child sacrifice. We overhear a conversation among the scientists about the ethics of sending monkeys into space: some think that it is wrong to kill dumb beasts who can't possibly understand what is happening; others think that killing a few animals for advancement of human knowledge is justifiable. When the monkeys survive, the families on the base make a great fuss of them and give then names. Hughes does not draw the obvious conclusion -- that Chris is somewhere between and experimental subject and a pet: but the thought must have occurred to many of his brighter readers. 

We see the launch twice, once from Sir George's point of view, and once from Chris's. In mission control, we hear Chris sobbing; in the claustrophobia of the rocket, we hear all the doubts that are going through his mind.

Would he be seeing any of them again? Of course he could if he wanted to. He had only to call out that he was too scared to carry on, and Sir George wouldn’t press the switch. Or would he? It wasn’t fair of them to ask him to undergo this mental agony, let alone the physical torture that would probably follow.

Uncle, if it be possible, save me from this hour. In case we miss the point, as the rocket falls to earth, God makes a brief, on-stage appearance.

Nearer grew the brightness at the end and all Christopher knew was that he wanted to reach it more than anything he had ever wanted before, for somehow he was sure that in that bright glow lay happiness and peace and rest. With a half-formed prayer in his mind he came to the end of the tunnel or corridor and all about him was the light.

English literature has also involved an element of sentimentality which borders on the sadomasochistic. From the sacrifice of Isaac to the Prioress's Tale, via Little Nell and Babes in the Wood, right through to tabloid salivation over "Maddie" and "Jamie", there is nothing we like better than blubbing about dead kids. The language when Chris is apparently killed is completely over-the-top:

Would to God young Chris had been spared, [Sir George] breathed to himself in silent anxiety. With a choking in his throat he admitted to himself how much this youngster had come to mean to him.

And weeks later, in the hospital:

Two large, dark eyes like miniature pools in a thin, white face. For a second or two Benson stared, too full of emotion to speak. Then the incredible boy, still too ill to speak, slowly winked an eye. In spite of himself and to his eternal chagrin Sir George felt the tears smart in his eyes. Again that slow movement of Christopher’s eyelid—so full of meaning, so very precious. Silently Benson left the ward, a prayer of gratitude singing in his heart.

So: a scientific procedural, told very much in the language of a school story, conceals a clear Christian metaphor. Virtual death and virtual resurrection. He is lead like a monkey to slaughter. He is humiliated and bears his suffering cheerfully. He is betrayed by one of his own. His suffering brings the world together.

The Russian spy, we are told, is not doing it for the money: he is a completely sincere Communist. We don't find out what Communism is all about, but we do find out that the spy had a difficult childhood which set him on the wrong track. I don't know if this is supposed to be a redeeming feature -- he kills one of his friends because of an honest political conviction -- or if it makes him more of a monster. He politely arranges to be shot in the head in the final scene, and ends up in a mental hospital, saving everyone the embarrassment of a real execution. His communism is described as a faith; more oddly, as a kink. It is the language that relatively tolerant people in 1957 might have used about gay men: it's not really their fault and they can't help it. But it's the act of a godless commie that brings Chris back from the Light and indirectly causes peace to break out. How, if nothing else, ironic. 

Blast Off At Woomera is not an allegory. It's a space story about a boy astronaut by an amateur boffin; beloved by junior library geeks who wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. Hughes puts Christian morals into story in the same way he puts in thermal underwear and cooked breakfast: they are the kinds of things that go into stories of this kind. 

And yet. Hughes wasn't above playing around with names. His pen-name is a kind of pun: Walter Hughes the furniture salesman became Hugh Walters the science fiction writer. (A science fiction writer named Wally Hughes appears in one of the later volumes.) I doubt that he consciously intended the symbolism, but it is hard to avoid noticing syllables of the main character's name. Chris Godfrey. Chris/God. The story of how Chris sacrificed himself for the world. 

And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Christopher Godfrey literally means "Christ-Bearer Peace-of-God."




 SOMETHING TO DO WITH SPACE...

ONE

The book starts with Sir George Benson, visiting his old school on sports-day, and noticing that one young lad, an academic high flyer with an interest in rockets and astronomy, would be small enough to fit into his rocket.

They have a jolly good chin-wag in the headmaster's study. Chris isn't allowed to make a decision straight away:

"No grand heroic decision please. I’m sure Sir George won’t accept an answer one way or the other until tomorrow morning. Isn’t that so, Benson?”

“Absolutely,” came the reply. “Run along now, Chris, and think about it very carefully.”

“And pray,” added the headmaster.


Pray? Well, it's an old fashioned book; and headmasters are generally very old fashioned characters. Mr Berry was very probably born when Victoria still occupied the throne. One might suppose that Hughes is drawing a contrast between the old-world religious authority of the head of a grammar school, and the modern scientific authority of the head of the space programme.

On the day before Chris boards the Hogwarts Express, it is mentioned in passing that he and his Aunt go to evening service at their local church. Well, most people did. Hughes probably wants us to see that Chris is leaving the old world of family, shop, school and parish behind him and going to join the modern outward looking world in That London and eventually Space.

On his first Sunday in the Metropolis Sir George asks Chris if he wants to go to church, and Chris says that he does. But everything stays decorously C of E: Chris's sentiments are humanistic and nationalistic rather than spiritual.

Here, indeed, was written in metal and stone the record of our history. Here were recorded the lives and achievements of the great, each—be he poet or politician, scientist or explorer, king or commoner—had made his contribution to the advancement of our race. Each had helped to take a tiny step forward down the long corridor of human progress.

But as the big day draws close, some serious piety sets in. A few days before the launch, Chris gives up counting sheep to send himself to sleep and starts to think about theology instead:

What after all, he thought, am I? Why should I be concerned about myself when I’m only a scrap of animated matter in a universe of infinite variety and mystery? Surely we are all of utter and complete insignificance—unless God has chosen us for some purpose of His own.

And just before Chris goes out to face his fate, comes this wholly remarkable passage:

“Chris, lad,” [said Sir George] “we can only stay a few minutes. I thought perhaps you and I might spend just a few moments together in silent prayer. No matter how perfect man may try and make a machine, it’s God who has the last say as to whether or not it will function. Your life will soon be in His hands, and I know you’ll be all right if such is His purpose.”

“Thanks, Uncle George. It would be a comfort to say a prayer with you. I’m a bit shy with other people, but I’d like us to do it together.”

The man’s arm round the boy’s shoulder, they knelt on the dusty concrete floor.

Chris is an orphan, raised by his Aunt (as all good heroes are): and by this point in the story he is calling the man who is going to blast him into space "Uncle". Which is not creepy at all.

I remember being given Lord of the Flies to read, around the age of twelve or thirteen.It came from the same post-war schoolboy universe as Hugh Walters; and it had once been a shocking book. Mr Wallis the English teacher who gave it to us he thought it was important for us to learn about the Evil in Men's Hearts before World War Three kicked off. Like most grown-ups he seemed to believe that a nuclear holocaust was more or less inevitable. But no-one who had been in the boys changing rooms of a north London comprehensive would have been remotely shocked by the idea that, sans parental authority, teenaged males would start to bash each others brains out. If he had really wanted to shock us, Mr Wallis would have given us Coral Island, which took it for granted that shipwrecked boys would do the decent Christian thing, buck up and civilise the natives. People educated at English public schools in the 1910s might possibly have been shocked that Wilfred Owen thought that dulce at decorum est was a big lie: what shocked us in Mr Wallis's English class was that people in the olden days could possibly have believed in anything so silly. But there is something genuinely shocking about an old man and boy kneeling down to pray before the the five-four-three-two-one thing happens. Reed Richards didn't ask Johnny Storm to say a prayer before launching himself into the cosmic ray storm. Perhaps things would have gone better if he had. Dan Dare was known to get a service-book out in his capacity as a ship's captain, but it is hard to imagine him kneeling down with Digby and squeezing his arm. 

Blast of at Woomera  looks forward to a future of British-led space exploration, international co-operation and (by volume six)  peaceful contact with benevolent space aliens. But it simultaneously looks back at a passing 1950s worlds of good manners, decency and Christian certainties. Our hero may be the first Space Man, but he is not part of the new world of teddy boys and teenagers.

Did we cringe? Did we think "Oh, this is a Christian book, I hadn't realised?" I think that, in 1972, we hardly noticed. Americans and people under the age of thirty five will hardly believe how ubiquitous the Church of England was in English schools in the 1970s. Compulsory religious studies; a hymn and prayer every morning; nativity plays; visits from the local vicar. Prayers and church and morals were just part of the dull roughage that grown-ups liked to put into books. We looked straight through them. I am endlessly astonished by the people who tell me that they read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and didn't particularly notice that the dying-and-rising god-lion was A Bit Like Jesus.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

SOMETHING TO DO WITH SPACE...

TWO


It's the damn Russians, of course.

The English believe that the mysterious domes that have appeared on the moon were built by the Russians: that's why the mission is so urgent. But one of the Woomera scientists is a Russian spy. (It is rather hard to tell one scientist from another, so the spot-the-traitor whodunnit falls a bit flat.) The spy sabotages the mission; the rocket crashes on re-entry...and Chris is killed! The photos are saved (the plucky lad hugged them to his body on the way down) and it turns out that the domes are not created by the Russians after all, but possibly alien. As a result, the British and the Russians end their rivalry and pledge to work together. Our hero's self-sacrificial pluck has ended the the Cold War and secured the future of the space programme.

Ronald Reagan reportedly told Gorbachov that if the earth were invaded by aliens, then the Americans and the Russians would bury their differences and come together as fellow members of the humans race. In Clarke's disappointing sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, America and Russia step back from the brink because the Black Slab turns Jupiter into a second sun. And, of course, it is the ending of Watchmen: Ozymandias's faked squid incursion averts World War III at the eleventh hour. It is nice to think that a furniture salesman and part-time boffin had the same thought twenty five years earlier. It is quite possible that Alan Moore has read Blast Off at Woomera: Alan Moore has read everything.

Fortunately, Chris turns out to only have been mostly dead. Not only does he miraculously recover, but the cosmic radiation has given him a growth-spurt! So Hughes gets to have it both days: a death scene of monumental sentimentality in Chapter 20, and a happy ending in Chapter 21. In a way, it would have been a better story if he had stayed dead: but you don't kill off heroes in kids fiction, and anyway, it would have been a shame to have missed out on sequels with names like Passage to Pluto, Mission to Mars and Something to Saturn.

But there is another reason why our hero survives his near-certain death. Astute readers will have spotted it already. The book doesn't only have a plot and a sub-plot. It has a sub-text. A huge, massive, in your-face subtext that I was totally unaware of for 50 years.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Something to do with space...

THREE

So, it is 1957. England has its own space-programme. It has sent unmanned probes and monkeys into space; but the time has come to send up a human being. A full-grown man wouldn't fit in the capsule, so Sir George Benson recruits a seventeen year old schoolboy, who is so small he could pass for 12. The boy is trained for some weeks, and an Englishman duly becomes the first human being in space.

"Boy volunteers; boy is trained; boy goes up; boy comes down." That's very nearly all there is to it. 

The boy hero, Chris Godfrey, is the most transparent of Mary Sues. He has very little personality or interior life; he's brave and clever and shy and not much else. We follow him on trips to a scuba-diving company to get his experimental space-suit fitted; to a centrifuge where he experiences artificial G-force and to an RAF base where he experiences weightlessness in a supersonic jet. We also follow him on an R&R trip to Battersea funfair (where he has the unfortunate encounter with the Teds); to a music-hall where he sees the Crazy Gang; and on a pre-launch picnic in one of the prettier parts of the Australian outback.

Hughes keeps our feet on terra firma. We get a blow by blow account of Chris's experience: how well he slept each night, what he had for breakfast each morning and at what time. (Come to think of it, "eating a lot" is another personality trait.) Hughes shares with Enid Blyton and J.K Rowling a habit which drives grown-ups mad but which often grips kids. He never skips over a piece of action or offers a summary of what is going on. Anything which can be expanded into a scene, is expanded into a scene: characters often provide a running commentary about what is happening next. Nothing is shown which cannot be told. When Chris is driven from his home in Wolverton to London in a military vehicle, the tension reaches fever pitch:

The Royal Air Force corporal who was driving the car turned to Chris and asked if he would like to pull up for a coffee. Chris replied that he didn’t mind and would leave it to the corporal, who, after cogitation, volunteered that coffee wasn’t much in his line—so they continued their drive to London.

The scene in which he changes his underwear before putting on his space suit is very nearly as thrilling:

Following the white coated man into a small side room, the boy saw that he was to strip and put on one of the light cotton garments placed ready for him. This covered the whole of his body except for his hands and his head, and was secured by a long slim zip fastener up the front. A pair of special socks were pulled on, and he walked a little self-consciously into the larger room where the others were still examining the suit.

I don't know how much Hughes actually knew about aeronautics but it all feels convincing to me. The premise takes a little bit of swallowing -- are there really no adults of restricted growth? couldn't they have recruited a jockey? -- but it is treated with logic and conviction, and followed through to its logical conclusion. The manned space flight has to happen right now because the boffins have spotted possibly artificial constructions on the moon and need photographs of them. The test rockets have capsules in them, because they have been launching monkeys into space. The capsules are monkey-sized, and can't be made grown-up sized in the time-frame. There has to be a human occupant, because there is no way of training a monkey to operate a camera. 

The space agency takes sensible steps to cover their tracks: when Chris is whisked off to London without a cup of coffee, it provides a sensible cover story that he has gone on holiday. When Chris arrives at Woomera, the crew of the base are told that he is Sir George's nephew. When the truth leaks out -- the government is putting children in experimental rockets! -- the media backlash is wholly plausible. We really feel that if the English government had put a grammar school boy in space in the 1950s, this is how it would have happened. 

Why did I find the book so hard to put down? I knew perfectly well -- and I must have known perfectly well when I was in Miss Beale's class -- that the launch was going to be a success. Hughes was hardly going to make us plough through a hundred and fifty page chapter book (with no pictures) only for the rocket to explode on the launch pad or for Chris to chicken out at the last minute. But I found myself racing through the final chapters to get to the denouement. Not because I wanted to know what happened: but because I wanted to imagine that it was happening to me. 

And even when the twelve minute adventure finally takes place, Hughes dials it down. Chris's message from orbit is not "one giant leap" or "my god, it's full of stars" but "Moon....big....clear".

So. In some ways, quite a dull book. It renders space-travel prosaic and unromantic and even ordinary. And for precisely that reason, the most exciting book I ever read. It feels real. It feels like you are there. I went from shouting five, four, three, two, one in a toy space helmet to knowing I definitely wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. This book told me truthfully what it would be like. Reading it was as close to being an astronaut as I am ever likely to get. 

However "Boy goes up. Boy comes down" is not quite enough plot to sustain a novella. So Hughes adds a subplot. It orbits the margins of the main story: just sufficiently to add some tension and some jeopardy to the narrative. And to provide a punchline and a sub-text that I didn't quite see coming.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

SOMETHING TO DO WITH SPACE...

FOUR


As a matter of fact, you can go home again. But home looks different. Unless you have been away for too long. Then it looks exactly the same.

So: Blast Off At Woomera by Hugh Walters. 

If you are close to my age and frequented libraries, you certainly read it; if you are any younger you won't even have heard of it. I don't know what I thought re-reading it was going to feel like: embarrassing, I suppose, a vague nostalgic cringe. I have watched a lot of old children's TV recently, thank you Brit Box. Thunderbirds is as wonderful as ever, but I wouldn't want to watch very much of it. Catweazle stands on its own two feet as a charming piece of comedy-farce with both a heart and an historical head. The Tomorrow People makes me squirm in my seat. 

I've talked about what it was like to read Stan Lee's prose for the first time, or see one of Jack Kirby's cosmic spreads. But that experience is unrecoverable. I can't go back to Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer because they never left me. I can't compare "reading them at fifty" and "reading them at twelve" because memories of reading them and thirty five and twenty seven and sixteen rush in to fill in the gap. I believe that I have seen Star Wars at least once a year for the past forty five years. I could have a very good go at reproducing the script from memory. I had forgotten every single thing about Blast Off At Woomera, except that it is about a rocket, which blasts off, presumably from Woomera.

I read through it in a single sitting, pretty much glued to my chair; the word "unputdownable" (unputtable down?) never truer. I am not a fast reader: I got through the Dune series and Ulysses by setting myself targets -- this many pages today, this many pages before I am allowed a coffee break. But this ancient kid's book dragged me in and refused to let me go. (As an adult, I mean. I think I found it quite hard-going as a kid, but liked things which were A Bit Too Old For Me.) 

Do not, whatever you do, go away and read the thing on my recommendation. In the cold light of day it is really not very good at all. It clearly the work of a very good amateur, one Walter Hughes who sold metal beds and ran the Rotary Club. Hugh Walters was a cunning pen name. He tried his hand at writing science fiction because he thought the existing stuff wasn't sciency enough. Blast Off at Woomera was published in 1957: four years before Yuri Gargarin; nine years before James T Kirk; twelve years before Neil Armstrong. It comes from a time when Dan Dare was still in his pomp on the front page of the Eagle. Like Dan Dare, Hughs' hero, has to confront strange, alien life-forms; savage creatures, strangely dressed, with deadly weapons who hate for no reason and kill without purpose. In the Eagle it was the Treens from Venus. In Blast Off at Woomera it is the Teddy Boys, and they come from Battersea Funfair.

He had read about the exploits of some of these young hooligans in the papers. Wolverton had, happily, been without them, and this was the first time he had seen any in the flesh. What he saw did not reassure him. About eighteen or twenty years old, they each had “sideboards”, gaudy ties and suits with velvet lapels.

It was more than a decade old when I found it, and already quite old-fashioned. Now it seems to speak to us from another world. 1950s England is vert nearly as alien as the planet Venus.

Walter Hughes was a member of Arthur C Clarke's interplanetary society, but the story is as unlike Clarke as any book could be. Clarke likes his hardware and he cares about his science; but he is also full of romanticism and awe and childish wonder. 

H.G Wells was also in the Junior Library. I got to the end of  War of the Worlds but First Men "In" The Moon defeated me. My father rather approved: H.G Wells was a proper author. He never did quite persuade me to have a go at Kipps. I remember the fugitives seeing a tripod on a hill near East Barnet. East Barnet was where my school was. My secondary school was at the top of Cat Hill, where John Betjamen had disastrously failed to teach cricket. I imagined that was the Hill H.G Wells had in mind. Wells is not as romantic as Arthur C Clark, but he makes you aware that the universe is big and strange and terrifying and awesome. Hughes' heroes wouldn't recognise the Cosmos if it bit them on the nose while they were munching their bacon and eggs. Blast Off At Woomera is singularly uninterested in the Cosmos. 

War of the Worlds begins:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

2001: A Space Odyssey Begins

Behind every man living there stand thirty ghosts: that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living... Please remember this is only a work of fiction: the truth, as always, will be far stranger.

Blast of at Woomera begins (and I promise I am not making this up)

Sports Day at Wolverton Grammar School is the social event of the year. Held traditionally on the third Saturday in July, it falls in that delightful period between the end of all exams and the start of the longest holiday. It is then that the masters become human beings for a brief spell and even the Head is known to quote an occasional humorous Latin tag.

It sits halfway between Biggles (unlikely yarns about the RAF by someone who had actually flown a plane) and Jennings (unlikely yarns about schoolboys by someone who had actually been a teacher). It starts in a school; and it it never quite leaves the ethos of the school. In that way the hero, Chris Godfrey, has something in common with Harry Potter.

I loved it unreservedly. I can fully understand why it became so big when I was little.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

SOMETHING TO DO WITH SPACE...

FIVE

I am going to talk about the first science fiction book I ever read; possibly the first real book I ever read. I am going to try to explain why it was my favourite book when I was a child, and what it was like coming back to it after very nearly fifty years. 

When I was four or five the grown-ups asked me what present I would like for my birthday. "Something to do with SPACE" I replied. I got a magnificent plastic space helmet, one size fits all, with a NASA logo and a visor you could raise and lower. It echoed, slightly, when you put it on your head so your voice seemed to be coming from the moon itself. I got a space suit to go with it: a silver pair of P.Js, really, with moon-shot patches and Stars and Stripes sewed into them. I can't remember wearing the suit, but I can remember sadly realising that I was getting too big for it.

I was born in 1965 so I would have been just about conscious of the moon landings. I think I was just barely aware of the Apollo 13 near disaster; I think my mum shielded me from watching the TV news in case it became too sad.

I suppose the choice is arbitrary. I decided I liked Space. I might just as well have decided that I liked Unicorns.

It is not hard to explain why, at the age of eight I went crazy for Spider-Man and at the age of twelve I went crazy for Star Wars. Maybe you went crazy for Pirates of the Caribbean or Toy Story or Jurassic Park. Spider-Man and Star Wars are texts. I was crazy about the stories that Steve Ditko and George Lucas were telling me.

But very small children know that they like Pirates or Dinosaurs long before they have encountered any actual texts. They don't like particular stories. They certainly don't care about letters of marque or paleontology. But they do know that Pirates and Dinosaurs are cool.

Space-rockets were cool. Daleks were cool, too, long before I knew that they came from Skaro or contained a disgusting mutant or wanted to rule the universe or even that they appeared in a TV series called Doctor Who. 

Children become obsessed with the oddest things: lifts or trucks or teapots or the colour pink. It's almost a form of imprinting. How many serious grown up interests started with pointless childhood fixations, I wonder? See a pony at the age of three; develop a serious interest in dressage and the Grand National at the age of sixteen. Get a toy turtle at two; get a junior black belt in Judo at the age of eleven.  

The overwhelming majority of grown-ups read stories about businessmen and lawyers and vets and village school teachers and middle class Italians and narcissistic Norwegians. They say that they literally cannot understand why any grown-up would want to read "all those crazy space stories". And crazy space story readers can't work out why anyone in their right mind would want to read a story about ordinary things happening to ordinary people in an ordinary world. Perhaps the grown-up majority just never fixated on space rockets or dinosaurs? 

Didn't Freud think that most kinks were perfectly normal elements of infantile sexuality that particular people never grew out of?

Some of the unpleasant far-right science fictions fans who called themselves Puppies believed that no-one really liked mainstream fiction: it was being forcibly imposed on a docile population by a feminist-academic cult, to make America more vulnerable to the communist take-over. Or something. Guardian cartoonist Tom Gaud drew a celebrated cartoon in which a science fiction reader imagined that mainstream fiction readers were dull sourpusses who were secretly jealous of all the fun he was having. 

Two mutually uncomprehending sub-cultures. Two people for whom "books" mean different things.

Yes; I know. There are dog people and cat people, but Mrs Smith down the road dotes on her poodle and her siamese.

We like Doctor Who because, when we were too young to know what Doctor Who was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting Ex! Term! In! Ate! in a silly voice.

We like Pirates of the Caribbean because when we were too young to know what a sailing ship was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting "Arrrr!" in a silly voice.

We are interested in equestrian sport because when we were too young to know what a horse was we thought it was fun to gallop around the room making clip-clop noises with our tongues.

It really was that simple. That was why I decided I liked Space. 

Not because of the adventure.

Not because I liked the idea of different worlds and aliens.

Because a rocket ship is a great, big, tall, willy-shaped firework.

And mostly because it is fun to run around the room shouting FIVE FOUR THREE TWO ONE BLAST OFF.

Not the real reason. Not the only reason. But the point of origin.






My first school was split between Infants and Juniors. The Infants were segregated off in their own corridor. I don't think there was ever an Infants Library. I suppose there must have been books, but I can't remember any particular ones. We were taught to read from Janet and John, of course. At home I had a fine collection of Ladybirds. I remember Magic Roundabout Annuals and a very dog-eared Disney Storybook. Doctor Seuss was disapproved of because he rhymed Zed with Bee and couldn't spell "colour". 

I think that Picture Books are a slightly more recent publishing phenomenon. I can recall Infant teachers reading to us from quite text-heavy books: Winnie the Pooh and Noddy and Alice in Wonderland and the Song of Hiawatha. I remember Miss Ward reading us Hans Andersen's Tinder Box and Miss Heinze reading us Jason and the Argonauts, both unexpurgated. The romance of human sacrifice and public execution kicked in quite early.

The rest of the school was the province of the Juniors, and the Juniors had their own library -- a tiny little cubby hole lined with what we would now call Chapter Books in A-B-C order of the writer's last name. We were presented with one of those old fashioned blue ticket-pockets which allowed us to take out (and take home) one book a week. Miss Beale allowed some of us more voracious readers to have two. I read the obvious: Doctor Doolittle, Mary Plane, Paddington Bear, the Wombles, Enid Blyton, who I never really took to, and Willard Price, a kind of entry-level Clive Cussler. But I gravitated to the very small section of Space Books; what I knew, at the ripe old age of seven or eight, to refer to as Science Fiction. 

I think that the publishers were commissioning big-name writers to write juvenile material, or scouring back-catalogues for kid-friendly material. I remember titles like Have Space Suit Will Travel (Heinlein); A Life for the Stars (Blish) and Islands in the Sky (Clarke.) I don't think Asimov wrote anything for for children.

I can date my Spider-Man infatuation precisely; the second week of February, 1973. (The Wombles came on TV the same week.) I don't have any reference point, but I suppose it was about the same time when I walked into the Junior library and pulled down a little tome, with small print, no pictures, and an abstract cover. 

A cover perfectly suited to fixation on five-four-three-two-one-blast-off. It was old fashioned and perhaps out of print when I read it. Libraries seemed to have copies; I never saw a paperback in a bookshop. For years I would have said it was my favourite book. I only read it once, and it's been out of print for decades. 

But the Internet is the Internet; and Orion Publishing has decreed that every science fiction novel ever written, however obscure, can be dowloaded into my Pocket Computer at the touch of button....






Sunday, December 05, 2021