Wednesday, December 22, 2021



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.

1 comment:

Richard Worth said...

There may be a Thing, quite strange to us today, that American in the 1950s may have been regarded by many people as a Godless country: a future of slick automobiles and teenage rock & roll and indoor plumbing, but one without a spiritual dimension (or at least, not a loopy fanatic one involving polygamy and serpentising). By contrast, the British brand of 'sensible' religion was both traditional and comfortable with modern scientific progress.