The light from the Bushel
I realise that I’ve not posted much recently. That’s because my days are taken up with looking for work, and not a lot else, though there was also a recent domestic crisis that took up quite a bit of my time. I’ve been getting interviews and travelling up and down the country to them, but I see little point in doing a major blog entry until I’ve got something to significant to report.
Part of the irritation of not having much money coming in is the impact on one’s social life – another reason why I haven’t had much to blog about. But I do allow myself a minor entertainment – attending meetings of the Sutton Coldfield Model Makers’ Society. After all, I’ve been a member since 1985, so that club and its members have been a pretty big part of my life for quite some time now. So it was that I went off to Sutton for a meeting last Wednesday. The meeting was one of the Society’s occasional auction evenings.
Most of the time, the stuff that goes into the auction is a bit tired – half-made kits, usually, not the latest releases; and quite often, there is stuff that people are actively trying to get rid of – including books, which some people don’t hold in the quite the same regard as I do. So I was looking at the offerings last week, and one of the books on the table was one of the Ian Allan ‘Aircraft Annual’ series, edited by the redoubtable John W.R. Taylor. This one was just titled “Aircraft 1974”, dating from a time when Ian Alllan were trying to modernise the image of the series and drop the “annual” tag, which did tend to suggest that it was aimed at children.
I leafed through the book to see if there was anything of interest in it. No articles struck me immediately, but on a second look, a name fairly leapt out at me. That name was Bob Shaw.
Bob Shaw was a name very well known to me. He was a science fiction writer from Belfast, whose novels were the mainstay of the Gollancz line-up in the 1970s and 1980s. He had been a major figure in the science fiction fan community from the 1950s, and won Hugo Awards in 1979 and 1980 for his fan writing. He started selling short stories in the 1950s, but paused for a while when he and his family temporarily emigrated to Canada. He returned to Northern Ireland in 1958, and went to work for Shorts, first as an aeronautical engineer and latterly in their PR department. He was the science correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph in the middle 1960s. In 1973, he became so concerned over the Troubles that he chose to leave Belfast and secured a job at Vickers in Barrow, also in their PR department, before turning to full-time writing in 1975.
Bob was possessed of a great wit, which came out in his writings. He was also popular at science fiction conventions – perhaps too popular, as he had a reputation as a drinker and at one stage considered himself as an alcoholic. He died in 1996.
Bob’s novels and stories were always inventive – his imagination was that of an engineer, so he was always thinking of odd devices and new solutions to old problems – but also quite lyrical. He was also fond of putting places and situations he’d encountered into his work, so his books often have a good sense of place. His 24 novels cover all the traditional SF themes, and some that came out of his own imagination. Perhaps his best-known short story is his 1966 tale “Light of other days”, in which he introduced the concept of ‘slow glass’ – glass that light takes an appreciable time to pass through, so that someone looking through a pane of slow glass can see a scene that the glass was exposed to years before. He explored the implications of this idea in a number of stories; but ‘Light of other days’ is the best remembered of them. It is generally considered one of the finest examples of the genre and is regularly anthologised even now. It can be read online here.
Naturally, I bid on the book and secured it for the princely sum of £3.50. The article by Bob was one from his time at Shorts, and was about the Shorts Skyvan in the service of the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force. But it contained typical examples of Bob’s writing:
“At Salalah the atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of the Desert Air Force in Second World War days, with the dust, the shimmering heat, the eye-pulsing brightness, and the constant movement of camouflaged and work-stained aircraft. At night the principal recreation is attending an open-air cinema, where seats have to be booked in advance and the stars glitter overhead like coach lamps strung from the palm trees, undimmed by the lights of civilisation.”
I last saw Bob at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow, where instead of the “Serious Scientific Talk” he usually gave at conventions (and which were neither serious nor scientific!), he gave a heartfelt account of his time as an sf fan and writer. It was clear to me then that he was delivering a farewell, and so it proved. But his novels, though little remembered now by those who knew them not, are a fine tribute to this warm and talented writer; and I was pleased to be reminded of him in an unlikely circumstance.