Sunday, December 19, 2021



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.

1 comment:

postodave said...

As I said in my comment on your previous post I was encouraged to read Walters when at school but I missed this opener, starting with Operation Columbus, about a trip to the moon. Due to the guys on the moon having to co-operate in an Apollo 13 type crisis it is decided that the exploration of space will be an international venture with the Brits and they Yanks teaming up with the USSR for future trips. Kind of prophetic, though lots of stuff earlier about how sinister the Russians are; they pick their astronaut on the basis of who can stay in isolation the longest. This all comes from Aldiss called the thinking pole of Sci Fi. He is imagining what it would really be like rather than using it as imagery to explore inner space. I got bored after I read a book called Nearly Neptune, a rather lame alliteration. I did re-read some a while back and it's okay mostly. What I would really like is to read two books I read as a teenager called 'The Infinite Worlds of Maybe' and the 'Universe Between' if only because I can remember them but struggle to distinguish them.