Previous Contents Next

The Natural History of the Triffid

A Life in Science Fiction

Guest of Honour speech at Con With The Wind,

New Zealand's 23rd Annual SF Convention

June 2002

I was born in the industrial North of England, in Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire where the dark satanic mills held sway. They really were dark; they really were satanic. My early childhood memories seem now to be mostly monochrome rather than colour because black and white were the predominating shades.

I lived in a village called Southowram which was on a hill above the town and as you looked down into the valley you could see a black layer of smoke covering the town; the result of the belchings and exhalations of heavy industry. The River Calder ran near the town, but all you could ever see of it was a huge cloud of detergent foam, the run off and effluent from the wool mills. Nothing lived in the river, nothing grew on the hillsides save only sparse scraggy grass and stunted bushes.

On Mondays, when my mother did the weekly wash, she would always scan the sky, looking anxiously for signs of rain. As soon as there was even a hint of a shower, she would be out in the garden frantically unpegging the washing from the line and bringing it inside. The air was so dirty that every single drop of rain coagulated around a particle of soot and my mother knew that if it rained on the washing she would have to wash it all over again for the clothes would all be covered with long black streaks. Some childhood lessons never leave you and today I am still utterly horrified by the casual New Zealand attitude that says "she’ll be right" as they watch a hideous downpour saturate the washing on the line.

"Don’t worry – it will soon dry out again."

I simply cannot get used to the extremely weird idea that rain can be clean.

* * * * * *

The village was called Southowram. The suffix "Owram" (I was told at school) was Anglo-Saxon for "on the top of a hill" – so Southowram was the village on the top of the hill to the south of the town. North of the town was another hill and it boasted a village called Northowram; the village on the top of the hill to the north of the town. Fortunately there were no hills to the East or West of the town…

This unimaginative naming scheme stood me in very good stead when I came to New Zealand which has the aptly named North Island to the North and the even more aptly named South Island to the South. In the north of the North Island there’s a cape called North Cape. To the West and the East, New Zealand also has both a West Cape and an East Cape. It was clear to me that the European names of the various geographical features had all been assigned by a Yorkshireman – as indeed they had. James Cook came from Whitby, which is a small suburb to the North of Wellington, so he didn’t have to travel very far to start naming things.

Whitby is on the Yorkshire coast – Yorkshire is the largest county in England; its coastline extends half way round the world and finishes just to the North of Wellington. When I was a little boy, the idea of the seaside was very foreign to me. I only saw it once a year when we went on holiday to Bridlington or Scarborough or Whitby.

There is a story that when a sailor wishes to retire from the sea he will put an oar over his shoulder and walk inland until he finds people who say:

"What’s that funny shaped bit of wood over your shoulder?"

Then he knows that he has come as far as he can from the sea, and he can safely put down his oar and live out his life in peace.

Halifax is the place where people ask that question. It really is about as far from the sea as you can get in England. If you go any further inland you start approaching the sea on the opposite coast.

And this is all very odd, because Halifax has one of the largest fresh fish markets in the country. Albion Street, which runs through the centre of town, is lined with market stalls each of which groans under the weight of the fish for sale. As a child I always found this puzzling. How did they get the fish to market so quickly? How did it stay fresh on its journey so far inland? Now I am an adult and a science fiction fan and I understand these things much better – it is obvious that all the coastal towns in Yorkshire are equipped with matter transmitters and every day they broadcast the fish fresh from the sea and send it to market at the speed of light. And they have been doing that for hundreds of years, for the fish market is very, very old.

Behind the fish market is a more traditional kind of market. However this too has its oddities for it is a permanent market, open every day. It lives in its own dedicated building and is a positive rabbit warren of stalls. At the centre is a beautiful old clock in a small tower and surrounding the clock is a greengrocers stall known to one and all as "Under The Clock".

In my childhood (and probably today as well for all I know), several of the market stalls sold books and comics and one of them had a box labelled American Magazines which was full of a raggle-taggle jumble of sometimes very tatty pulp magazines.

I spent hours rummaging through the untidy tumble in that box, for many of the magazines were SF magazines. It was here that I found my first ever copies of Astounding and Galaxy and F & SF and Venture and many, many others. Apparently they were returns and rejects and the tail end of print runs and they were used by the ton as ballast in transatlantic cargo ships.

I can only assume that the same matter transmitter beams that sent the fish to the market were also used to send the magazines from the coastal ports to the book stall for the stock changed quite rapidly. However there was no rhyme nor reason to it – after all the magazines were just shovelled at random into the holds of the ships – and I soon developed a curious love/hate relationship with them.

I loved the magazines for they were a major window into the SF world that was becoming more and more important to me as I grew older, but I hated them as well, for they would insist on publishing the most wonderful novels as serials and far too frequently one or more instalments (generally the last) never turned up at all. This was enormously frustrating. In later years I found many of these serials in book form as full-blown novels so I finally got to find out how they ended, but at the time it was hugely annoying. I’ve never quite got over that feeling and even today I tend to avoid the magazines completely and I just wait (with varying degrees of impatience) until the stories I am interested in appear in a book. Thus are the habits of a lifetime formed.

* * * * * *

There was history all around me as I grew up. The whole area is very, very old. The village of Southowram is on Beacon Hill, so named because it was one of the chain of beacons that announced the defeat of the Spanish Armada across the length and breadth of the country in 1588. I went up to the very top of Beacon Hill once and there, set in concrete, were the rusted remains of the hearth on which the beacon had burned. I was struck by a sense of history, of immense age. Nearly 400 years ago, someone else had stood where I was standing now and had sent the message on through the night. The sense of history, the sense of place, the sense of roots firmly anchored deep in time was shiveringly real. It was an epiphany and I was deeply moved by it.

Of course it was all a load of old nonsense. I found out later that the beacon chain had been re-lit in 1945 to celebrate VE day, the end of World War II in Europe. What I was looking at was only about 15 years old. No trace of the original beacon remained. It had probably been no more than a simple bonfire anyway.

In The Man In the High Castle, Philip K. Dick speculates about the quality of historicity, about how an artefact can possess that deep sense of history, of time passing, of important events happening around it. Such an artefact is worth much money to the right buyer. But another artefact, a modern copy of the first but indistinguishable from it by any scientific test is worth nothing at all. How can you tell which is which? Is the sense of history an intrinsic property of the artefact or is it generated from within the beholder, based on the story he is told about it? And would that historicity be present if they were told the same story about the modern copy?

In the book, Ray Calvin makes this point to a girl he is seeing. He shows her two seemingly identical cigarette lighters, one of which he claims is worth "maybe forty or fifty thousand dollars on the collector's market." because of its historicity.

She said, "what is ‘historicity’?"
"When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing .... You can't tell which is which. There's no ‘mystical plasmic presence’, no ‘aura’ around it."

Calvin goes on to explain:

"if a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it's the same as if it hadn't, unless you know. It's in here." He tapped his head. "In the mind, not the gun"'.

I know exactly what he meant by that and I had a little frisson of recognition the first time I read that passage. Standing there on Beacon Hill I had experienced a beacon of the mind, not one of reality. But the feeling was still the same, still as intense; there was still the sense of awe, the sense of wonder. To that extent it truly was real, whatever "real" may mean. Dick poked away at that question all his life long and while he found some hilarious illustrations of it, I’m not sure he ever found a definition. I sometimes think that only science fiction can legitimately explore questions like that, in terms of drama anyway. Without SF the ideas turn into philosophy, but I never liked that in isolation – it always felt dull. I see no reason why philosophy can’t be explored through art; that extra dimension brings it more sharply into focus for me. I think I need a framework to hang the ideas on. Perhaps that’s rather a large edifice to erect on the foundation of a few scraps of rusty metal that I looked at briefly when I was 10 years old. But it is all inextricably bound up together in my head. I can’t separate the strands - it was a formative moment and it is one of the reasons why SF has always felt so right to me, like a place where I belonged.

* * * * * *

Even in 1588, Southowram was old. Nearly five hundred years before the beacon fires were lit, in the year 1068, King William, known as the Conqueror, sent his troops to put down the Northern Rebellion. They put it down particularly viciously; burning the buildings, killing the inhabitants. The description of the area in the Doomsday Book says simply, "It is Waste".

But even in 1068 the village was old. The land has been occupied since Neolithic times, if not before, and I would be willing to bet that many of the people who live there today are genetically descended from those Neolithic inhabitants. I don’t think the tests have been done in Southowram but they have been done in many other villages in England and the thesis has been shown to be true.

We don’t move around much in Yorkshire. When I was a child, a journey to Leeds (a large town about 30 miles away) was a huge expedition that required careful planning for days beforehand. We were all of us homebodies. I’m sure that many of the children that I grew up with still live in the village and some of them will be living in houses they inherited from their parents. Some of those houses have belonged to the same family for many generations. There are still houses in the village that have blocked up windows so that the inhabitants didn’t have to pay the window tax back in the eighteenth century. I walked past those houses every day on my way to school.

* * * * * *

As a child I belonged to three libraries. There was the village library, its larger counterpart in Halifax, and also I managed to catch the tail end of the private library phenomenon as well. Once, it seems, many large businesses ran their own private libraries as a sideline. You paid an annual fee to borrow the books. One such business was Boots the Chemist and my parents were members and so was I. The main pharmaceutical business took place on the ground floor of a very imposing building. The library itself was on the first floor. There were stairs up to the library, but mostly we went up and down by lift. It was an ancient, creaking lift with wrought iron gates rather than doors. It is the only one I have ever travelled in with its own private lift attendant. He was an ancient, creaking man dressed in brown overalls. You got in the lift and he crashed the gates closed and then pulled on a lever. Slowly, ever so slowly, the lift ascended and you could see the cables and the descending counterweights through the grille of the gate. It was indescribably thrilling. The library was almost an anti-climax after the ride in the lift. The Boots Library closed down in the 1960s but by then I was at secondary school and so I had the very large school library to choose from as well. So even after the Boots Library closed down, I still had three libraries to explore.

From the age of 5 or so I began to plough steadily through about 12 books a week from all my libraries. I slowed down a little as study and work began to occupy more of my time and these days I get through about 12 books a month instead and I’ve been doing it month in, month out for the whole of my life. So a conservative estimate suggests that so far I’ve read about 15,000 books. Mostly I buy them now instead of borrowing them. I find that I simply can’t bear to part with them when the time comes to give them back…

If we assume that from age 5 to age 21 I read 12 hardback books a week from the library, and if we further assume an average thickness of 1 inch (books were slimmer then) then if we laid the books in a row, they would occupy about 0.2 miles. My reading from age 21 to date has slowed a little and contains a higher proportion of paperbacks. On the other hand the books are a lot thicker nowadays. Taking all these factors into consideration, a simple calculation suggests that we can add another 0.2 miles to the row of books. So in my life to date I have read not quite half a mile of books. That’s not very many really…

If my present rate of reading continues unabated, I’m going to need almost 20 feet of bookshelves a year to accommodate all the books that I buy. I’m not sure where the space is going to come from.

* * * * * *

By the time I was 7 I’d been right through the children’s library at least twice and I begged the librarian for an adult ticket. The Boots Library and the main library in Halifax were uncooperative, so all I could do there was get my parents to take out books for me on their tickets. This was a mixed blessing – sometimes I just couldn’t get on with the books that they chose for me. But sometimes they opened up whole new worlds; for it was during this period that my mother brought home The Day of the Triffids for me and I read it in a sitting and the science fiction virus entered my veins. The years since then have only served to prove that there is no cure for the disease. When you get infected as early as I was infected, the disease has you for life. It’s all my mother’s fault – though I guess John Wyndham has to shoulder a lot of the blame as well. I re-read The Day of the Triffids at least once a year throughout my teens.

Meanwhile, in the village library, I was making progress in my quest for an adult ticket. You see, the librarian knew my grandmother and he was, quite rightly, scared to death of her.

My grandmother knew everything about everybody in the village. Not a fly farted without my grandmother witnessing it or being told about it by one of her numerous spies. It paid to stay on her right side. If you upset her, she’d tell people things about you.

In her youth she had been a schoolteacher and she thoroughly approved of anything that encouraged children to read. If I wanted an adult library ticket, then she felt that I should have one and she made her opinions known. I got my ticket – but there were strings attached. If the librarian felt I was borrowing a book that was not suitable, I had to put it back on the shelves. It proved to be not too onerous a condition. Not once in all the years that followed did the librarian ever exercise his right of veto.

* * * * * *

I had another epiphany in that library shortly after I first wandered into its adult section.

I remember the scene vividly. There were shelves full of books with the spines facing outwards. Most were gaudily coloured and the titles and authors were in many different fonts, all designed to be eye-catching, all designed to make you want to pick up the book. But there in the middle of one shelf was a book with a plain white cover and the lettering on the spine was in small blue letters, much faded by the sun which shone through the windows on the far side of the room. I squinted to read the title and author. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’d never heard of him, but there was a magic word in the title.


I was mad keen on astronomy – remember this was in the late 1950s and it wasn’t all that long since Sputnik 1 had gone beeping across the skies dragging revolution in its wake and there wasn’t a child in the country who wasn’t space-obsessed. Mars? I couldn’t resist it.

I plucked the book from the shelf and was immediately rewarded for there on the front cover, in total contrast to the plain white spine, was a gaudy picture in primary colours of a four-armed green monster wielding a sword.

It immediately became clear to me that this was unlikely to be a serious scientific work – but who cared? It had a green monster. I never could resist a green monster. I took the book home with me and read it in a sitting. For the first time in my life (but not the last) I roamed the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom with John Carter and I fell in love with the incomparable Dejah Thoris. Even Tars Tarkas, the green monster on the cover turned out to be one of the good guys (though his status was ambiguous to begin with) and over time I fell a little in love with him as well.

* * * * * *

One year I won a school prize. The prizes were always books, but we were allowed to choose our own. After it was chosen, the school would have the school crest stamped on the front boards in gold ink and a book plate was stuck in it which gave details of to whom and for what the prize was awarded. The bookplate was signed by the headmaster.

I chose The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells. I still have the book on my shelves today. Reading it convinced me that science fiction was a perfectly respectable literary form. Virtually every story in the book was SF. In those wonderful, gripping stories, Wells defined almost every single theme that modern science fiction has spent nearly a century exploring, with no sign yet of stagnation setting in. Practically single-handedly Wells not only invented the genre almost out of whole cloth, but he gave it intellectual respectability and stature as well. It was only later that the American pulp magazines sent it off into the ghetto of genre fiction, an artificial heritage that it has yet to shake off. Perhaps that history explains why the British literati have always been more sympathetic to science fiction than their American cousins.

* * * * * *

When I was thirteen years old, I managed to gross out two entire rugby teams. This is no mean feat, rugby teams being made up of notoriously insensitive souls. But nonetheless I did it.

It was Wednesday afternoon and we had a double games period. The psychotic games master raced up and down the field blowing his whistle, waving his arms and shouting incomprehensible things as we all chased after the ostrich-egg shaped ball. I did my usual trick of hiding in the far corner and running in the opposite direction if the ball ever looked like coming anywhere near me. Everyone ignored me – they all knew I was useless.

Somehow I miscalculated and to my horror I found myself in possession of the ball. The very earth vibrated beneath me as hordes of hairy, muddy fanatics descended on me. I collapsed to the ground under the weight of the frantic mob and as I fell I heard a loud SNAP as of dry branches breaking and something moved deep inside my left arm. I felt it shift unnaturally into a whole new position and I felt the flesh move aside as something slid through it. I screamed, though there was no pain at all, only that terrible feeling of unnatural shape and movement.

"I’ve broken my arm," I shrieked. "I’ve broken my arm!"

People began to climb off me.

"Don’t be stupid," said the games master. Then he saw my arm. "Oh," he said. "You really have broken it."

I looked at it for the first time. It bent normally at the elbow and then half way between my elbow and my wrist it bent again at ninety degrees, as if a new joint had been inserted there. But there was no joint of course, just broken bones forced massively out of alignment.

Strangely it didn’t hurt a bit.

Many of the rugby players turned mildly green at the sight and much of their enthusiasm for the game seemed to dissipate. They showed a distinct reluctance to look at my arm and I can’t say I blamed them. I wasn’t overly keen on looking at it either.

The games master immobilised my arm by strapping it to my body with a belt and then he pulled his jumper over me to help hold everything in place and to stop me catching or banging my arm on anything and perhaps bending it even further out of shape. He carried me to his car and drove me to the hospital (which was actually just down the road from the school). Somebody must have informed my parents, for soon they turned up.

My arm began to hurt. I can’t even begin to describe how much it hurt. A nurse gave me my first ever morphine injection. The feeling of well-being that flowed through my whole body was indescribably wonderful. The pain went away. I was at peace with the world. (I can easily understand how people get addicted to drugs).

I lay on the trolley in casualty waiting to go to the operating theatre to have my arm set. I quickly got bored – my arm didn’t hurt any more and I had nothing to do. My mother soon realised what the trouble was and so she gave me her library book to read. It was Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss. I held it awkwardly in one hand and turned the pages with my thumb. It held me absolutely enthralled and soon I was lost in the jungle with the tummy-belly men and I shivered with fear as the morel took over the mind of the hero. I thoroughly enjoyed the sex scenes too. I suspect my mother had not really wanted me to read the book because of those sex scenes (after all, why hadn’t she told me that she had it in her handbag before now?). But being in hospital over-rode all other concerns in her mind and so she let me read it.

By the time I was wheeled up to theatre, I’d finished the book and turned into a Brian Aldiss worshipper. Over the years I’ve come to admire Aldiss more and more. I think he is probably the most talented SF writer ever to come out of the UK. Others such as Brunner, Clarke and Wyndham, while undeniably brilliant, have never exhibited the broad range of ability that Aldiss has. He seems to be able to write everything: space opera, pornography, farce, criticism, poetry – anything and everything is grist to his mill.

But every time I re-read Hothouse I feel slightly queasy and I have to put it down again. I can’t for the life of me think why…

They put my arm in plaster for six weeks and I was excused games. I was excused games for several weeks after the plaster came off as well in order to get the arm accustomed to being out in the open again. When the plaster was finally removed the arm was thin and shrivelled and very weak. Even today, after almost 40 years, it is still a little thinner than my other arm. And sometimes, particularly when I carry heavy weights or when the weather is damp I get an ache deep inside my arm between the elbow and the wrist, at the place where the bones broke in two.

So there I was, excused games for a whole term. Yippee!! I spent all the games periods in the school library. There was so much to read! And one of the books in the school library was called The Hobbit and it was by J. R. R. Tolkien. Oh wow! Talk about formative experiences! Annoyingly, the school library didn’t have its sequel The Lord of the Rings. But one of my other libraries did. I am so jealous now of that young teenager that was me. For he was reading The Lord of the Rings for the very first time, an experience I’d love to live through again. Perhaps I’ll re-read it for the first time again when I’m 95 and Alzheimer’s has me firmly in its grip. Something to look forward to, I think.

All too soon my arm healed up and school life went back to normal. A year later, almost to the day, I ran up to a vaulting horse in the gymnasium, leaped enthusiastically over it and fell awkwardly on the other side. I broke my wrist this time.

"You will stop before you get to his neck, won’t you?" asked my mother.

"I’ll try," said the games master.

Meanwhile I got another term in the school library.

* * * * * *

Once I was into my teens, there was no problem with getting a full adult library card and I began to read omnivorously from all of my libraries. It wasn’t all science fiction, though there were a lot of SF influences guiding my choice of reading. Kafka was an early favourite, and I raced through all of Huxley on the strength of Brave New World and all of Orwell (including the journalism) on the basis of 1984. Style influenced me as well. After reading the opening sentence of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I just had to read the rest of the book. It turned out to be less than thrilling and I soon bogged down in the theological arguments, but what wonderfully hypnotic opening lines.

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo

I also bogged down in Ulysses (which has to be a big contender in the world’s most boring book competition), though like everybody else I enjoyed the dirty bits at the end. I gave up after half a page of Finnegan’s Wake. I much prefer Brian Aldiss’ homage to that book in Barefoot in the Head.

* * * * * *

There was something appealing about C. S. Forrester’s Hornblower novels. There seems to be a high correlation between the reading of SF and the reading of Hornblower stories. Other people have mentioned the correspondence as well. Perhaps there are close similarities between the descriptions of life in the closed societies on board a ship of the line and also on board a space ship. After all, many SF writers have transposed that close correspondence almost letter for letter. It isn’t stretching too much of a point to call Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye Hornblower in Space.

One day, in a hurry, I picked E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India off the shelf under the mistaken impression that I was taking home a Hornblower novel. After all, the title sounded like a Hornblower title and the vagaries of the alphabet filed Forster right next to Forrester. I found the book dull, as it would have to be of course if you were expecting blood and thunder Napoleonic conflict. I’ve disliked Forster’s books ever since.

Many years later I read an autobiographical article by Harry Harrison and I was amused to discover that he had made exactly the same mistake that I did and for exactly the same reasons. However unlike me, Harrison loved his serendipitous discovery of Forster and has continued to read and re-read his books ever since.

Forster did actually write a quite famous science fiction story called The Machine Stops. I’ve come across it several times over the years in one anthology or another. The machine that stops is a sort of super computer. Most of the world’s population depend upon it for almost every part of their lives – they never go out, they never communicate with anyone else except via the computer. It delivers their food, their drink and the air that they breathe. Once it stops they are utterly helpless and soon begin to die out. The parallels with the modern internet and internet junkies are obvious. I think that’s pretty good going for a story written in 1909.

* * * * * *

My mother was the secretary to the Mayor of Halifax. Part of her job was to cumulate the monthly statistics of the town into a report that would be presented to a council meeting. After I left home at 18 to go to university in Nottingham she told me with a perfectly straight face that the number of books borrowed from the Halifax Library had nose dived and the council were seriously worried by the trend. Obviously it was all my fault. To this day I have no idea whether or not she was pulling my leg.

After I left the university I continued to live in Nottingham and I’ve scarcely been back to Halifax since. Until I came to New Zealand in 1981, Nottingham was my home.

At first it seemed as if nothing much had changed from my time in Halifax. There was a very similar industrial environment and a very similar sense of history and deeply buried roots.

Nottingham is an old coal mining area and the landscape is scarred and blackened with the refuse of the pits. The River Trent runs through the town and it is as filthy and polluted as the River Calder of my youth. When I first read Terry Pratchett’s descriptions of the River Ankh that flows through Ankh-Morepork, I recognised it as the Trent. If you fell in the Trent you’d bounce off the scum that encrusts its surface. And if by some chance you broke through, you’d probably be poisoned to death long before you drowned.

Actually you could probably say that about every major British river of the time. But the Calder and the Trent were the ones I had the most experience of. Britain was (and probably still is) a very polluted environment.

Shortly after I arrived in New Zealand I visited Christchurch. The river Avon runs through the centre of the town. People punt on it. The ladies wear long dresses and the gentlemen wear straw hats. Ducks swim on the water. The river is so clear and fresh that you can see right down to the river bed. You can count the individual stones that line it. I was absolutely overwhelmed by this. So clean! I’d never seen a river bed in my life before. I fell in love with New Zealand at that moment and the love affair continues to this day.

* * * * * *

Like Halifax, Nottingham is old almost beyond belief. The most obvious manifestation of this of course is the legend of Robin Hood. Interestingly Nottingham doesn’t do much with the story – you’d almost think they were a little ashamed of him. However there is a statue of Robin Hood just below Nottingham Castle. There he stands proudly, his bow fully drawn, about to shoot an arrow into the air, to fall to earth, he knows not where…

Unfortunately the arrow is detachable and every so often it is, of course, detached. Generally by drunken students. The council heaves a deep sigh and the arrow eventually gets replaced from a secret stock. Apparently the original sculptor was well aware of the proclivities of students and had prudently provided the council with a number of spare arrows.

Towards the end of my time in Nottingham the council announced that it had run out of arrows. From now on, Robin would have an empty bow.


I’m not sure how the problem was eventually solved, but solved it must have been. Several years after I left the town I returned for a brief holiday. Robin again had an arrow on his bow, ready to shoot. Perhaps somebody had an attack of conscience and returned some of the stock.

When he was alive I’m sure that Robin Hood must have quaffed many a pint of ale at a pub called The Trip To Jerusalem which claims to be the oldest pub in England. It dates from the twelfth century and beer is still being served today in the original premises; for the pub is housed in a cave carved deeply into the sandstone below Nottingham castle. The ceilings are high and give every indication of not having been cleaned since the pub first opened 900 years ago. Wise drinkers place their beer mats over their glasses rather than the other way round in order to prevent the detritus of centuries falling into the beer.

To the North West of Nottingham is the imaginatively named, but seemingly quite out place, village of Eastwood, where I lived for a time. I suppose that Eastwood must be to the East of something or somewhere significant, but I have no idea what or where that might be.

Eastwood was the birthplace of D. H. Lawrence, the scandalous author of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. He was cordially hated by the entire village, for many of its inhabitants recognised defamatory images of themselves in his books. My landlady had been to school with Lawrence and refused to allow his name to be spoken in her house.

Almost directly North of the city was a village called, for no readily discernible reason, Arnold. I bought a house there, mainly because the words "I live in Arnold" put mad, science fictional pictures into my head. When driving to and from work I would often pretend that I had been miniaturised and injected into the bloodstream of a man called Arnold North and I was driving through his veins towards his heart where I would carefully destroy a vicious tumour. I think I must have recently read Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage.

* * * * * *

There was a signpost on the Nottingham Ring Road that pointed down towards the general direction of the horizon. It said:


53 miles

If you drove for a mile towards Birmingham, you came across another sign pointing in the same direction and urging you to continue your journey. It said:


54 miles

If you were brave enough to continue further, Birmingham started behaving normally and got closer again. But it was obvious to me that there was a spatial anomaly built into that one brief mile of the Nottingham Ring Road. Probably it was related to the matter transmitter beam that brought the fish and the magazines to the Halifax market. Perhaps if I drove through it too frequently I would trigger a space warp and find myself instantly transported to an alien environment.

Probably Birmingham.

* * * * * *

I met a man called Peter Wilde who lived in a three storey house called Tepid Welly which was a partial anagram of his name. He had more science fiction books than I did, which is why he lived in a house with three storeys. I indulged myself in an orgy of borrowing and reading. We used to go drinking a lot together. Guinness mostly.

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that after three pints of Guinness everything sounds like a good idea.

"Lesh shtart a shcience fiction club!"


Thus was born the Nottingham Science Fiction Club. But I must admit that there were motivating factors other than Guinness. Sex had a lot to do with it too.

There was a woman who I fancied something rotten. Most conversations with her were impeded by the drool dripping off my chin and my total inability to pronounce any words more complicated than "". However I knew that she was vaguely interested in SF. What a conversational opening that would be!

"Would you be interested in joining a new science fiction club?"

Such style! Such subtlety! Such grace! So many syllables! She wasn’t fooled for a minute; but it turned out not to matter.

After the Nottingham group formed I had an in (as it were) to the joys of organised science fiction and I began to hear about things called conventions. Several of us went along to one. I drove us all there in my trusty, rusty Volkswagen beetle (Alexander by name). I remember little about the convention apart from the Guinness, much of which was drunk at breakfast time to the great consternation of the hotel staff. However on the last day I eased up a little since I was to drive us all home. But my friend Howard did not ease up at all…

He slumped zombie-like in the passenger seat, his skin colour matching the upholstery perfectly. After I’d driven a hundred miles he said, "I can’t feel my arms. Are they still there?"

I glanced over to him. "Yes," I reassured him. "They’re still attached at the shoulders."

A hundred miles later he said, "Good."

* * * * * *

I’ve been going to conventions for more than thirty years. I’ve attended conventions, both large and small, in five countries. I’ve been closely involved in formal and informal science fiction organisations. I’ve made many close friendships with people who share my eccentric obsessions. And I’ve had a ball doing it.

Along the way I’ve read half a mile of science fiction books. That was a ball as well. Science fiction has given me numerous insights into life, the universe and everything. It has taken me all the way from simple visceral excitement through to abstruse philosophical speculation via the borders of scientific research. It has given me, and it continues to give me, intense intellectual thrills, a spine tingly sense of wonder and gosh wow epiphanies.

I have one ambition left.

I want to make it to a mile of books before I die.

So now I must say goodbye to you – I’ve got some books to read.

Previous Contents Next