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Did I tell you that I had a book published by Dover Books of New York in the late 70s? 'How to Design Impossible Objects', a colouring book, complete with instructions how to draw your own designs - nothing ambitious, though it bought me an electric typewriter and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and still left me with change to get some fish'n'chips.
I met the Dover President, Hayward Cirker, on several occasions when he was on the way to continental book fairs; and we became quite friendly. I finished up with several more contracts for design books - 'Paradoxical Patterns', a more intensive development of my triad figures as pattern generators, various items on Islamic patterns, and making models of geometrical solids and so on. But alas, I had to abandon them all because of the problems of fading eyesight.
I completed most of the drawings for the Paradoxical Patterns project, but have lacked the urge to finish it when sight was restored. Things were a trifle frantic for one reason and another in the years immediately before retirement, and then when I did retire, I reached the top of the waiting list for a varicose operation on one leg, and after I'd recovered from that they told me I needed a double hernia op. So time sorts slipped by, but at least the ravages of 65 years fighting gravity had been repaired!
So I always had an excuse for not getting back to the projects, though I'd take 'em out and dust them down periodically, and tell myself I ought to do something about them. Then there was the problem of earning too much and getting it deducted off my pension. Which seemed rather a waste of effort. At least having passed the 70 mark I've dodged that penalty, so I keep trying to work myself up to it. So it goes. ■
Letter to the Varleys, Fran & Brian, 18/08/1992
It's a hard life: here's Philip denying his book is autobiographical, and me being accused of making it all up and using "poetic licence"... Well, in my case, the autobiographical element is strong in most of my writing! I must confess that I was surprised by the first novel that Philip had published, The Necessary Peace, about a handful of German infantrymen avoiding the Russians to try and surrender to the Americans in the dying days of the European war.
It all seemed very realistic to me, and a surprise that he was able to summon up the period so convincingly. And Sam Youd was moved to comment that he was "amazed at Philip's empathy with infantrymen, German infantrymen, indeed German infantrymen in a war which must seem as remote to him as the First War, or the Crimean, did to us".
The book had an American edition - they changed the title to The Last Campaign and gave him a more striking dustjacket design. He must get it from his mum. ■
Letter to the Varleys, Fran & Brian, 25/01/1994
DON'T MENTION THE WAR!
When I wrote to Arthur, I threatened to drop in on him if the veterans should gather to celebrate the Great RAF Strike in South East Asia on the fiftieth anniversary in 1996. I had some worries about the appropriateness of wearing my Defence Medal at this shindig but revelations in the Observer the other weekend have swept any reservations aside.
Seems that the gongs sported by Prince Charles when hobnobbing with the D-Day veterans included the Queen's Service order (New Zealand), Q.Elizabeth II Coronation Medal, Q.E.II Silver Jubilee Medal 1977, Canadian Forces Decoration Medal 1991, and the New Zealand Commemorative medal 1990... That collection must have impressed the old sweats no end.
This week's Metro News has the headline SYMPATHY FURY OF WAR VETS which puzzled me a while as it kept catching my eye. Investigation revealed that there's an event in Manchester next week marking the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, and "Worldwrite" have got M'cr City player Niall Quinn to add a letter as part of a target of 700,000 letters of friendship and sympathy for the bomb victims to be sent to Japan.
The Manchester branch of the Association of Far East PoW Clubs, not surprisingly, ask "who gives sympathy to us and remembers the price we paid?" The organiser of an exhibition at Castlefield, One Thousand Suns, "can't understand why PoW veterans object". I doubt if they'll ever see eye to eye.
I recall that as I was steaming in the direction of India, I was perturbed at the euphoria I left behind because the war in Europe had ended; there was an attitude that the war was as good as over which completely turned a blind eye to the deadly slog of the Pacific war and the Home front. Which I didn't share, natch. The sudden collapse after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki raids transformed the situation.
Setting the results of those acts against the continuing slaughter that would have taken place without their deterring effect may be problematic in retrospect. But I find it hard to do anything but welcome the release that resulted from dropping the bombs.
Who can be objective in the face of personal survival? ■
Letter to the Varleys, 24/06/1994
So the great WINDOWS 95 launch came and went, and I don't feel any different. And I still have the same problems to face trying to manipulate this dodblasted computer into carrying out my every whim. Oh well...
I didn't see any queues outside the local computer shop on returning from paying a chunk of council tax, and when I peered into the window there was a marked absence of any new promotional displays; just the usual sun-bleached boxes of games and software. The owner seemed to be sat back reading a racing paper, oblivious to the excitement of the outside world.
Were there any WINDOWS 95 riots in Pedmore? ■
Letter to the Varleys, Summer 1995
Been putting the new printer thru its paces and running off the voluminous notes that I jotted down, rampaging thru ancient fanzines and letters, before I was stricken down in August. I find it much easier to read the printed pages and assess the material so far gathered, than peering at a computer screen. I can now use the sheets when checking and interpolating further material, before adding it to the master-file on the computer.
Also written to Vin¢ at long last so that the impetus of returning to the project is not lost, and the database will continue to grow. It's all something of a voyage of discovery: once you start unearthing a few half-forgotten facts, it surprises me how many buried memories surface.
I had a phone call from an ex-News studio member, John [Butterworth], (who took early retirement a couple of years ago) asking about Steve's poetry prog on the radio; he started talking about Arthur Clarke and radar, and that led to a discussion of the geography of Yatesbury RAF camp, where John stayed during his National Service stint.
We established that the NAAFI was near the main gate, and John said he was in a block of huts overlooking the main road. He asked whereabouts I was housed, and for the life of me I couldn't remember. Then I recalled we had a glorious summer in 1943, and one of the joys of being on night duty was that after breakfast we could take a blanket and go sunbathing in a field alongside the huts.
One of the added attractions was that there was a WAAF camp, Compton Basset, not so far away across the fields, whose inmates had similar ideas. There was a devoted group of "bird" watchers, I recall, who spent a lot of time scanning the horizon with binoculars. And all that reminded me that our huts must have been on the far side of the camp from the main road. And all these details fall into place 'cos of an enquiry about Steve's Stanza programme... Odd. ■
Letter to the Varleys, 1995
BAFFLING BIN BAGS
Notes & Queries
Re the query about homing bin bags, later in the day I noticed, through the glazed door, that there was something in the front porch of No.12. As the White Cross Parcel service are in the habit of dumping book club packets there, and then driving off without ringing the bell, I investigated, only to find that the object was a black bin bag. I checked the bins at both houses and found they were still complete with bags.
I went out with some rubbish and found No. 10 dustbin lying on its side in the middle of the rockery, minus its bag, which had been empty at the time of the incident. I deposited my rubbish in No.12 dustbin, which I found blown over but still with its lid on and contents unspilt. (Only the day before I'd emptied the Baxi ash-box into it!).
Letter to the Varleys, 28 January 1996
EARLY HISTORY AND BEFORE
I haven't got around to writing much about the early days yet, got lots of notes and tentative starts, but nowt readable that I can cast in your direction. Patience, patience. Started corresponding with Marion in 1937, when she was President of the Junior Astronomical Association and I was secretary of the Manchester Interplanetary Society, and we first met at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938.
I can also reveal that when we arranged to get married in 1942, the ME coincidentally sent my call-up papers for the date we'd picked, and we had to scramble to get spliced a week earlier than planned, to fit in a honeymoon of sorts. I began to suspect someone was getting at me when, in May 1945, I was home on compassionate leave to greet our firstborn, only to be recalled back to camp to be told that I'd been posted overseas, then allowed home again on embarkation leave, which was cancelled after a few days, when I started off on my journey to India. And it was eighteen months before I got back and out of the RAF.
So much for the synopsis.
During the past few days I've been ruthlessly editing the varied and disjointed versions of my story of fife under the Raj that are on file, and assessing what seems needed to fill in the yawning gaps between some episodes. Now I can move the text around and print out the sheets it becomes easier to grasp the overall picture, provide essential links and continuity, and hopefully develop some of the supporting characters in a bit more depth.
In between tackling this and the fanhistory database I've actually got around to doing some writing at long last, and am feeling quite pleased with the results so far. The computer's doing a grand job of stitching all the bits together as I revise the existing texts, and the printer has been working overtime since I sorted out a page style and format for the material.
Even made a start on redrawing some bits of artwork I wasn't happy with on a job of Steve's that went awry before my shipment to hospital last year and has been on my conscience for far too long. If I can sort that out I shall feel I'm definitely making progress...
Of course, once you burrow into the quiescent chaos of old files, then all sorts of "lost" papers give themselves up...Like an old copy of the Official Guide to Bredbury Romiley Urban District, not dated but circa mid-6os. Claims that Bredburie, Cedde (ancient name for Chadkirk) and Werneth all appear in the Domesday Book of 1086.
The historical bit (written by Anon) suggests that the area must have been unattractive to settlers in pre-Roman times, with its bleak hill top, heavy clay soil of the intermediate landprobably covered by trees and becoming marshy where the slopes flattened outand the swampy valley floors. The rivers flowed more fully then, until they were dammed in the i9thC to supply the main towns.
The Romans surveyed and constructed a road over an ancient track (now followed with little deviation by the A560), and this continued to be used for the transport of salt from Cheshire throughout medieval times. It seems likely that William the Conk's army, on its march from Yorkshire to subdue rebellion at Cheshire, followed this route, and virtually all the townships on the way were systematically looted.
Bredbury seems to have missed out, for reasons that are not immediately clear, but the army crossed the hill into Romiley which, although not on the direct route, is duly described as "waste" in the Domesday survey.
The names Bredbury and Romiley are Anglo-Saxon, and probably date from the first permanent settlements. 'Cowlishaw' and the 'kirk' of Chadkirk suggest that the Norse invaders found their way into the district, probably during the 10thC. Any questions? ■
Letter to the Varleys, 20 February 1996
IN THE SKY FACT & FICTION
Tuesday night brings hope of viewing the comet-the cloud layer is breaking up and a few stars are making the most of the event. Will it hold out I ask myself as I tramp between the houses...
Yeah, I had a passing glimpse of an off-duty Commander Riker hamming it up in the best swashbuckling Cap'n James Tiberius Kirk tradition, in Superman on Saturday. Big-headed is our Will. Though I didn't linger; as the current soppy Superman storyline is even more abysmal than it was, and I find Lois a real pain in the ass. I see from the new Radio Times that she's due to take over as Ultrawoman and I shall do my level best to avoid that awesome spectacle.
So Thursday dawns and we still haven't glimpsed the comet [Hyakutake] despite the promises of clear night skies after midnight from the Weatherpersons. The moon just about got through the mist here, the rest of the sky was effectively obscured. Radio reports this a.m. suggest that everybody in the British Isles saw the comet except us. After the Halley fiasco I suspect that all this talk about comets is an Old Wives' Tale. It's just mass hysteria. ■
Letter to the Varleys, March 1996
You'll also find a spare booklet enclosed made up of relevant notes on the Eclipse Cruise for retention in your files, and hope you find it of interest. The following year the MEN marketing department started to organise reader holidays, and we were lucky in being sent out as guinea-pigs on a trial out-of-season cruise to the Canary Islands, this time calling at Madeira, Tenerife and Lanzarote, this last being at that time still very much an undeveloped volcanic island and only just beginning to exploit its tourist potential. So we were able to catch up with some of the sights on Tenerife in more leisurely vein than on the original trip.
Went out on a P&O ship, the Slack Watch, which seemed a trifle regimented after the free and easy life aboard the good ship Monte Umbe... But that's another story, and I can't locate any notes just at the moment: I suspect most of the documents that survived from that outing have finished up in Marion's files. I must check with her.
Letter to the Varleys, 6 October 1996
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE
Gathered my addled wits together to complete a piece for the writing class, and then arrived in Manchester earlier than usual. To fill in time I wandered over to see how the post-bomb work was proceeding, but the area still looks pretty devastated and I found myself drifting out of curiosity to the CIS building and Ancoats area.
It's hard to tell the difference between the bombed area and the area that's merely suffered sporadic demolitionthere's little sign of the much vaunted "urban renewal" to be seen anywhere. Manchester has been a mess since I was a kid, and I guess it's too much to hope that it'll improve when I've snuffed it.
In which gloomy frame of mind, I was not surprised that the class finished just as it came to my turn to read my piece. Still, since it mentions the bonfire nights of my childhood, I guess it'll gain in topicality next week...
Letter to the Varleys, 5 November 1996
CINEMATIC POSTMODERNIST ECLECTICISM
Philip switched to the tail end of The Untouchables, another inevitable remake, in which Sean Canary tries to pinch the limelight from Elliot Nesswho is depicted as such a wishywashy character he would never have survived in the grainy black&white seriesbut expires in a puddle of his own blood. A very self-conscious arty version of the old favourite.
I was left aghast at a laboured take-off of the Odessa Steps sequence (from Eisenstein's Potemkin) in which a comely young wench struggles with a large child in the most improbable-looking pram imaginable, and a couple of pieces of luggage, and gets involved in a shoot out between cops and hoods on the vast station staircase.
Very contrived and grotesquely funny for all the wrong reasons... And that was only one of the distractions that made me give up trying to read a book, to watch Eliot in a rooftop chase after an improbable Frank Nitty imitator, and then to see Sean, after being riddled with bullets and leaking blood from multiple punctures, survive for several hours merely to cough out a punch-line when discovered by a distraught Eliot Ness... And I see this farrago gets a ***** rating in Radio Times.
Ugh!! Why does presentday cinema get taken so seriously/get up my nose? I'm already fed-up of hearing about the refurbished digitalised squeaky-clean Star Wars. The whole concept is still as corny as it always was.
Eeee... feel in a proper niggly mood after being exposed to all this cinematic postmodernist eclecticism... or whatever it is. ■
Letter to the Varleys, 24/03/1997
THE ERUDITE MATHEMATICIAN
WHAT'S ALL THIS about being baffled by an article from that erudite mathematician H.E. Turner in Urania? Tell me more... (I'll probably be baffled too after fifty years or so, but I should warn you that I have a letter of praise from Sir James Jeans himself, preserved in the Archive in case I ever require a testimonialor get hard-up in my old age and need to flog his autograph to the highest bidder). ■
Letter to the Varleys, end March 1997
Most of these advocates of a Pensioners' Party seem to more concerned with selling things to middle-class retired folk than taking any political action, to judge from the mags you passed on. Before retirement, I attended one or two meetings where well-meaning folk told us to cultivate a hobby to fill in the time we would soon find hanging on our hands, in order to prepare for the coming traumatic change.
I didn't find the change in any way traumatic: already had more hobbies than I could cope with and the only problem was fitting in all the things I wanted to do in the extra time available. Indeed, as you are aware, I still have problems in that respect. I don't see many of my interests reflected in these mags: they seen to operate in an alternative universe.
There have been occasions when I was tempted to revive The Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law - it sounds ideally suited to present day political correctness. It was founded in 1911 by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek (author of 'The Good Soldier Svejk') when he stood as candidate for Prague Royal Vineyards.
His policy was to debunk the Monarchy, its institutions, and its social and political system, officially, though it was alleged that it was actually to bring thirsty voters to a friend's pub and boost business with frequent meetings. Could be said to be the Literal Democrats of their day, and even had a party hymn:
A million candidates rose up
Party records are fragmentary. A few accounts have survived in Hasek's The Red Cormissar, which you may be able to dig out of the library.
I may yet get around to organising a Romily branch of The Party of Moderate Progress. When I get some of these other jobs out of the way. ■
Letter to the Varleys, Fran & Brian, 07/07/1994
Went to bed in the small hours this morning and was surprised to spot a fox in the avenue... Slinking across the road it paused and gazed back, so I saw its pointed snout, and then its bushy tail as it turned and trotted towards the main road... ■
What's that he said?
Did I ever mention that we have mastered the intricacies of our digital remote control for the new telly, to the extent that we occasionally fall back on Ceefax when things get boring, or catch up with relevant info when Patrick [Moore] has been holding forth.
I've just realised that the ability to switch on sub-titles is quite a boon: I found it hard to follow Patrick's conversation of the Jupiter prog. He gabbles and loses me. I also have trouble with Homicide [Life on the Streets], and am never sure whether the characters mumble as part of the 'realism' of the presentation or if my hearing has really deteriorated with age. So last instalment, I went into Ceefax subtitles mode, to find it quite entertaining.
The captions seem to be script-based, and are not always borne out by the actual dialogue, but I found I learned several slang words that otherwise would have been lost as mere mumbling. Adds a distinct dimension to the experience. ■
Letter to the Varleys, Fran & Brian, 17-18/12/1996
Working at the Manchester Guardian/Evening News
Your comments on office parties and career moves make me realise that I led a relatively stable existence at the Guardian. I joined them at a time when a) Laurence Scott had ambitions to boost the Guardian from a regional paper with semi-national coverage, to a fullscale national daily, and b) the end of newsprint rationing meant that the [Manchester Evening] News had to adjust to active selling of advertising space after the restrictions that persisted into the postwar years.
In effect, I initiated a marketing studio promoting the papers' circulation, and servicing advertisers and potential advertisers in both papers. I found I was working in an area never covered fully by the company in the past, and interacting with advertising, editorial and production departments in a period of great change. I rapidly acquired a reputation as a problem-solver and built up a small creative group that proved, over the years, more permanent than the management.
I was there for nearly thirty years and the work the studio did continued to be so essential to the operation that we survived some four major upheavals in management, as the company progressed and expanded. I reckon I retired just at the right time, when "new technology" began drastically to alter and inhibit the whole production set-up of the newspaper industry.
The changes in the past decade have been decidedly more radical than during my whole career there. Essentially, the paper newspaper can be effectively replaced by an electronic setup... The joke is that I didn't even have to apply for the job in the first place: it was positively handed to me on a platter. But maybe I've already regaled you with that story? ■
Letter to the Varleys, Fran & Brian, 17-06/01/1997
Wow! Everything's different today... like there's been a Great Flip in the Time-Space area and an Alternative Universe has just opened up.
Had a dream last night that there was a Labour landslide at the election and the dreaded Tories were swept out of power, even the unspeakable Ian Hamilton and Warren Hawksley. And here this fine sunny May morning, the Guardian announces that it is indeed so in the real world. Takes me right back to the day I arrived in India, over fifty years ago, to hear similar news... And here's the cycle starting all over again, though I dunno if I'll survive another fifty years to see the outcome this time. ■
From the Dawn of a New (Labour) Era
Must say that I have viewed the deserved downfall of certain Torieslike Hamilton, Portillo, Mellor, et al with considerable glee, and the removal of some of the ambitious from the disorderly scramble for leadership of the party has a certain poetic justice.
Though there's a certain air of unreality about the world this week. All this hooha about the Borneo gold-find turning into a "hoax" (fraud, I would have said!). The fuss over the allegedly "brilliant" pianist David Helfgott and his world concert tour, which seems no more than a glorified publicity puff for the film. And now this farcical brouhaha between Michael Howard and William Hague (who rouses my hackles every time I see him on TV) and their champagne party arrangements... it's all such a change from that bloody boring election campaign! ■
Letter to the Varleys, May 1997
TVAbove & Beyond
Happened to get around to reading the readers' letters in Radio Times this week and was astounded to see a couple of folk have written praising Space: Above & Beyond. "This is science fiction for mature people" one gushes, and the other wants to hear if further episodes have been bought...
While I have suspicions that these epistles were probably written by the editor to drum up controversy, I am reassured by a footnote from the BBC2 scheduler, regretting that, "a second series won't be shown as only one was commissioned in America". I'm just grateful that someone over there realised it was crap and pulled the plug. (It must be really bad when even the Americans realise it!). Hope they do the same with Dark Skies while they're at it. Seems it was the Aliens that dragged the US into the Vietnam war after all, according to the last instalment... ■
I see from the new RT that on Saturday BBC2 brings us the final instalment of Space: Above & Beyond. A slight relief, and a really intriguing title: Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best. I can hardly wait.
By way of highlighting the quality sci-fi of S:A&B, they then follow with a 1958 film epic, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor, Queen of Outer Space. On studying the helpful film notes supplied, it emerges that the Queen in question, ruler of a feminist planet Venus, who plans to destroy Earth, is not played by Zsa Zsa, and that the epic is "a serious contender for the worst film ever made". I suspect that a desperate planner at Channel 4 may welcome this ready-made answer to a future bank holiday slot... a season of the worst-ever sci-fi films.
I can hardly wait! ■
Letter to the Varleys, April & May 1997
RAS In Action
Romiley Astronomical Society were out in force on the evening of Tuesday 5 August BST to watch the passage of MIR across the Cheshire Sky. It swooped up over the rooftops going at a good lick, really bright, amid the "ooh"s and "aah"s of the assembled membership, to be obscured by a passing cloud toward the end of its traverse, then reappeared before falling to the horizon.
We waved to them but didn't see anyone waving back. We're promised clear skies again tonight and a sighting before we get stuck into Babylon 5. Exciting, innit? ■
More sightings of MIR early on Wednesday evening and later around midnightzoomed up dead on schedule and we realised that there was a fainter point of light following it which we decided must be the Soyuz up in orbit with it. So we got a bonus sighting.
In today's (Thursday's) paper, it ses that the Progress supply ship was temporarily undocked from Mir yesterday to make room for the relief crew's arrival today. So the "satellite" we saw must have been the Progress tagging along after separation. Really exciting, innit? ■
[Friday] We had another sighting of Mir last night as the skies cleared, but it was low down and hidden by the murk on the horizon for a while before we spotted it, then it got mixed up with the dazzling radiance of the rising moon and we lost track of it again. We are promised another sighting tonight when it rises higher in the sky, but it looks as though that's the last chance we'll get for the time being, though you folk further south might still be lucky.
No sign of the Progress container, which ain't going round Mir, but merely trailing further and further away behind it.
Later: fortunately, the moon was hidden by a tree at the time Mir put in an appearance, shooting from behind the clouds on the horizon, so we had a good view. Still no sign of the Progress, though. Seems as thought the returning astronauts are due for a ticking off by Mr. Yeltsin for careless behaviour... ■
Letters to the Varleys, August 1997
Back to normalsomewhat!
Had a visit from Domino today [a neighbour's cat]. Found him parked on No.12 back doorstep waiting for someone to come round and let him in. He shot upstairs in search of his favourite chair but found it piled up with junk, and wandered into the spare room, to be astounded by the changes since his last visit.
After lots of meowing in wonderment as he explored the inner recesses of the two storage units that Philip is beginning to fill up, he noticed a vacant chair and settled down for the afternoon, purring with satisfaction. Refreshed, he departed homewards in search of nourishment, as we packed up for the evening meal.
I may have mentioned that we haven't seen the Siamese for a long while, but she arrived back on the scene a few days ago: suspect she's been to Colditch Cattery... So things are back to normal in the cat-world.
Wish I could say the same about our world; here we are, it's Monday, and Di continues to dominate everything so far as the media are concerned. I'm just surprised someone hasn't decided to put her on permanent view in the Millennium Dome. It looks as though the media are determined not to let us get away from Di for a long long while...
Much later: The Big Question now seems to be can we get away from Elton John?he seems to be taking over direction of post-funereal arrangements. And if you rush to get a CD of that bloody song, don't bother to send us a tape! ■
Letter to the Varleys, September 1997
GUP? Blame it on computers!
Notice in the Sat Garudian that Stephen Jay Gould has published yet another collection of essays, and see his Millennium book is now out in paperback. He must be coining money... And here's the Observer Lit Ed Robert McCrum crying that there are Too Many Books... yeah, I go along with that! Seems that there are 100,000 new books currently published each year.
McCrum suggests that the computer is largely to blame, having virtually abolished the old autonomy of the publisher, and largely reduced the role of the printer to that of a mere machine-minder, now that authors can deliver a book "oven-ready, on computer disk". Only consolation offered by McCrum is that "the autumn of 1998 may well go down as the mad high noon of a party that ended in tears and recrimination".
Meanwhile, I stagger on trying to keep up with the ever-present GUP... at least there seems to be hope that matters may ease one day, real soon, if Mr McCrum is to be believed.
Dashed around doing some essential shopping as the city centre was not too crowded, and got back home without having to dodge a single shower, which was quite good going. Piccadilly Station is still a shamblesevery platform is cluttered with scaffolding as work on the roof continues. Another vast job which looks unending... They wanted to shut the station down over the Christmas period, but there was such a wail of protest from suffering commuters that they won't dare carry out their threat. ■
Letter to Brian Varley, November 1998
Considering the general scepticism that greeted my report some long while ago of seeing a fox strolling down the avenue in the moonlight, I don't know if I dare report the fact that as I looked out of the window of No.2 Computer Room a few minutes ago, I saw a fox slinking along the back of the garden.
This, I thought, must be reported forthwith, and dashed downstairs. To my surprise, as I opened the back door of No.12, the fox came slinking back on its tracks, not even bothering to notice my appearance, to disappear into neighbouring gardens. I wandered into No.10 and told my wonderful story, but they seemed unmoved by it all...
It's true I tell you! ■
Letter to Brian Varley, December 1998
During a clear-out, I unearthed a vast mailbagjust the right size for a budding Houdini to escape fromwith a metal clasp at the neck and a tag for the New York postal dept. This arrived some twenty years ago, bearing a hundred copies of my Triad book from Dover. I didn't know what to do with it then, and I'm still wondering... I suppose I could put an ad in the post-office window, in case it's just what a local aspiring Houdini is looking for... ■
The post office has been sporting a large notice proclaiming they're open longer hours, and they've cancelled the traditional Wednesday-afternoon closure. Out of curiosity I took down a communication for Steve, expecting to hand it over the counter, as usual, but was told to put it in the outside postbox, if I wanted it collected today! Odd.
We never fathomed out what happened to the original staff last autumn. I probably mentioned that we passed in the bus one morning to see the place still locked up, and a notice on the door saying the place was closed until further notice. When it did open up again a week or so later, the 3 or 4 staff who had been behind the counter for more years than I can remember, had gone, replaced by two somewhat forbidding ladies.
We never found out the reason for this sudden sweep, and studied the local freesheets during ensuing weeks expecting to hear lurid tales about the manager absconding with lottery money, or going on the rampage and killing off his staff... But not a cheep by way of explanation has ever emerged.
The really odd thing is that under the old regime you could always rely on a formidable queue of OAPs circling the space in front of the counter, whenever you were in a rush to get something posted. I even suspected there was a League of OAPs that used the shop as a regular meeting place. But nowadays you rarely see anyone drawing a pension, and queues are a thing of the past. It can't be that the new staff are super-efficient and deal with demand at a brisker rate.
The old staff always took in letters after weighing and stuck the stamps on for you; this new lot just push the stamps under the barrier and expect you to do the licking... And on dark nights I often wonder about those mysteriously vanished pensioners... where do they collect their pensions now?
Occasionally I speculate: did the pensioners find out where the staff went and transfer their custom in a spirit of loyalty? ... or did the staff perchance have a big win on the lottery and take longstanding customers on a sunny holiday? Or is it another strange alien abduction?
My curiosity knows no bounds. ■
Among other distractions, Romiley is plagued by Transco workers, digging little holes in the road, putting up barricades round them and then promptly moving on to do the same elsewhere. Must be a couple of weeks ago that they visited Carlton Avenue, pulling up a few paving stones on the pavement opposite, and covering the hole with a massive iron plate. They later dug a neat square hole in the road nearby, and erected the obligatory barrier round it, as well as putting little notices all along the pavement for pedestrians to trip over, advising motorists that the road had been dug up.
Then they packed up their pneumatic drill and cleared off. At the end of last week they were back, complete with van and equipment to drill a couple more holes in the tarmac, and extend the barriers so that a couple of car-parking spaces have been lost to local motorists. So, after putting up with all the racket of their visits, we now have three deserted holes in the road, and no sign that the work will ever be resumed...
When I wandered through the village to pay some CTax on Wednesday, I was amazed how many holes Transco have inflicted on us. Looks as though someone has mislaid a vital map, and these excavations are the only means to find out where their gas pipes are supposed to be. And always, in the distance, is the irritating sound of drilling, as yet more holes are dug. When will it end? ■
Letters to Brian Varley, May 1999
Customer Service (?)
Sympathise with your wrangle with BG [British Gas]. Must confess that I've absolutely no faith in any organisation which relies on the phone as the main means of communication... especially those that shelter behind recorded messages recommending you to press various numbers that fail to connect you with the people you want to confront with a complaint.
I prefer to get said complaints into print (which at least keeps me with a record of where I'm up to) though it becomes increasingly obvious that many organisations no longer boast staff capable of replying to letters.
There've been several occasions recently when I've not had any acknowledgment of a complaint, but matters have actually been rectified, so I feel the written complaint has effectively reached someone. And if there are any later complications, I don't have to rack my brains to recollect the gory details.
Seem to recall that I gave up on BG a longtime ago, when trying to get sensible info on their charges and comparisons, but they persistently replied with "form" letters that had no real relevance to my queries, merely providing a multiplicity of different addresses and phone numbers - a tortuous method of keeping the customer at bay... They'll probably just ignore you if you threaten to change your supplier.
Must confess that I'm a mite surprised at the silence of BT over our change-over to C&W...It makes all their current advertising claims about "thousands" asking to be reconnected with them seem rather hollow! ■
Letter to Brian Varley, September 1999
To Manchester: But Why?
Went into Manchester for the first time for ages - there've been a few special supplements in the Metro freesheet, about all the changes made since the bombing, presumably to attract shoppers, but it still looks a mess around the Cross St-Market St area, with plenty to be done before all the damage has been restored.
The main difference that struck my eye is that where once all the main thoroughfares were dotted over by white splots of discarded chewing gum, now they're dotted over by black splots. I gather the plan to remove the offending splots by burning has not been too successful. And the makeshift platform for the trams, installed immediately outside Lewis's, has now been sensibly moved to the middle of the road, where it serves trams in both directions.
I wandered into Habitat to claim a free catalogue (and wondered why, when I got home and studied it!), then visited Waterstones in search of a book for Marion (which they hadn't got in), after which I'd had enough of the Big City. Is it really a couple of years since that IRA bomb went off? I wonder if the place will ever really recover. ■
Letter to Brian Varley, September 1999
Back To Manchester
Went into Manchester again on Saturday, to pick up Marion's book. And, inevitably, bought a few more... Well, I did go with an intention to check on whether the autobiography of Ravi Shankar, plugged with an extract in last Saturday's Guardian, had yet been published. It has apparently but they hadn't yet got copies on the shelf at Waterstones, so I left them with an order.
While there, I noticed a copy of Cat's Cradle, now added - belatedly - to my Vonnegut collection, and was moved to enquire after his collection of early short stories that got a mention in a recent Saturday Review.
"Oh, you'll - find it downstairs in the hardback department" I was told; it seems to be part of the recent reorganisation that the SF section now sells only paperbacks. (Come to think of it, the Guardian item appeared under the heading of 'Paperbacks' - I suspect they're all just trying to confuse me.) So I arrived home with that, too.
Incidentally, have you spotted this "Millennium SF Masterworks" paperback series put out by Orion Publishing? They've been putting out two "classic" SF a month since the start of the year, and I've been catching up with stuff by Philip K. Dick, Bester, Stapledon etc. which I'd like to reread, and feel should be on the shelves anyway. Not bad value at £6.99 if you can't locate 'em at the library!'
When I went to the station it was more showery than sunshiny, but by the time I arrived at the Big City, the clouds had blown away and the sun was strong. The place was crowded, no traffic was flowing along Piccadilly as a vast digger was noisily wrecking the road surface. Must have been creating a lot of dust, which early showers had converted to mud on the pavement all the way to the Arndale. And there seemed to be a superfluity of amplified street musicians competing with the melodic spill-out from the HMV store and the yapping of stray dogs along Market Street.
The new M&S building, all glazing and steelwork, gleams emptily in the sun, though the effect is spoilt by the semi-demolished remains of the buildings that have made way for the vastly extended store. (These buildings escaped the blast from the bomb, but have suffered because of the changes on the rest of the site, while Corporation Street is still in a mess and virtually closed and looks like continuing that way for a long long time yet).
Noticed that the Royal Exchange Theatre are advertising monthly Sunday night jazz concerts - shows featuring the likes of Stan Tracey, Julian Joseph, & Jacques Loussier - but regrettably the late train service in and out of town is non-existent at weekends...! Ho hum. So I'll just have to console myself with music at-home.
Piccadilly station is aglow when the sun shines through the crystal of the newly-glazed roof, (though it's hard to read the indicator signs for the dazzle!), and work continues on platforms 9 to 14. The platforms we use have been cleared of all the obstructing scaffolding at long last, and while there's now room to move, they're bare and still (hopefully) to be refurbished - we need some seating returned for the comfort of impatiently-waiting passengers!
* * * * *
Monday's Guardian brings a reminder of Eric Laithwaite (my favourite lecturer from the Royal Institution Christmas progs of the '60s & '70s), inventor of the linear induction motor (magnetic levitation), and delver into the mysteries of the gyroscope. I never understood why he was cold-shouldered by the government here when Japan and other countries were so interested in maglev trains.
Now, several years after his death, NASA is developing a maglev drive as an economical way of launching space craft.
So it goes... ■
Letter to Brian Varley, September 1999
Wow, your letter arrives to remind me that a week's gone by without any addition to this note... I blame the continuing rotten weather. Yesterday the icy gales were blowing all day, with flurries of snow or hail, and to crown it all the power abruptly went off in the evening.
Was just starting to edit a file of an article on Richard Brautigan that I'd been OCRing, when poof! in an instant all was plunged into darkness. I switched off the computer and groped around for a torch I knew was handy, and wandered out to find that all the street lights were off in our vicinity, and it looked as though the power was off over a wide area. I arrived back at No.10 to find a frantic search for candles going on - it's so many years since we suffered any power cuts that memories of where the fall-back illuminations had been stashed were decidedly confused.
Fortunately Marion had recently been sent some samples of scented candles which were useful while we located the emergency supply (under the stairs, of course). So we spent the next couple of hours by the fireside, listening to a concert on the battery radio, Marion & Philip attempting to read by candlelight, while I was content to give my eyes a rest from staring at a monitor.
A phone enquiry told us that Romiley, Bredbury and Woodley were affected and they were still attempting to find the cause for the interruption - presumably some power lines had been blown down by the gales.
Must say that the glow and warmth of a cheery fire helped to boost morale during the wait. Then I heard the central heating boiler stirring into action again and realised the street lights were back on. So power was restored around 11pm... I dashed back to check if I'd lost anything on the computer, to be grumpily reminded that I should close down Windows before switching off the machine; the OCRed material was intact, apart from a few minor corrections I'd made prior to the sudden cut.
So I felt I'd got off lightly.
I see that global warming has crept back on the agenda with the news that the arctic ice-cap is definitely melting at a rate that will divert the Gulf Stream, and ensure that European weather cools off appreciably. While not very welcome, the report has the consolation that it will come about in umpteen years time - when I'll have long ceased worrying about it...
Am sure I've heard all this before. So settle for the immediate concern that chilly winds are said to be returning this weekend. Ho hum. Consoled by the fact that the daffs have made a surprising recovery over the last few days and are now erect and seemingly none the worse for being laid so low. An inspiring example to us all.
They have been proudly announcing on the local TV the good news that work on the City Art Gallery extension (which seems to have been going on for the past decade) is at long last completed. The bad news is that the place will not be ready to open to the public again for another couple of years at least. So it goes... I could well have got out of the habit of visiting art galleries by then. ■
Letter to Brian Varley, April Y2K
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