Part 2: Proto-fan by Race Mathews
It was my good luck to be born into a household where science fiction was accepted and appreciated, at a time when reading was not yet in the process of being supplanted for entertainment purpose by the electronic media. My father before me had been an avid reader of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Henry Rider Haggard, and a keen collector of the early American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. The sale of his collection to meet mid-Depression household expenses around the time of my birth was in a sense a metaphor for a life which was largely given over to sacrifice of his and my mother’s interests to those of their children.
As a small child, I was walked up and down in my father’s arms while he recited over and over again from memory poems such as Horatius and The Battle of Lake Regulus from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome; Tennyson’s Ulysses; Blake’s The Tiger; Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib; Coleridge’s Khubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner; Cowper’s Boadicea; and The Ballad of East and West and Gunga Din from Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads. In time, the recitations became participative. He might select for example a passage from Macaulay reading:
But when the face of Sextus was seen among the foe
A yell that rent the firmament from all the town arose.
On the housetops were no woman but spat towards him and hissed,
No child but screamed out curses and . . .
At that point there would be a pause, and I would be expected to complete the line with the missing words shook his little fist. A passage from Tennyson might read:
That which we are, we are One equal temper of heroic hearts Made weak by time and fate But strong in will to strive, to seek, to find and . . .
I would supply the missing words not to yield with – as my father later reported it – the lisping approximation oo mustn’t ‘ield.
My father also took turns with my mother at satisfying my insistent demand to have books and stories read to me. The books mostly were borrowed from the children’s shelves of the Melbourne Public Lending Library in Latrobe Street, now long since closed. At the age of five or six I began reading for myself, but the reading aloud by my parents continued. It was their habit to periodically take a break for a cup of tea or – in my father’s case – a smoke. I very much resented the interruptions, and responded by hiding – and on notable occasions destroying – the cigarettes. In the longer term, my frustration immunised me permanently against ever becoming either a tea-drinker or a smoker. It is open to conjecture what consequences might have followed if the breaks had been – and I had known them to be – for sex.
The books I most liked to have read to me – and ultimately re-read for myself – included H. C. F. Morant’s neglected classic Australian fantasy Whirlaway; Hugh Lofting’s Dr Doolittle stories; The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights by the poet laureate, John Masefield; Kathleen Tozer’s Mumfie stories; An Experiment with St George by the mathematician J. W. Dunne, who also wrote the much better known An Experiment With Time; and the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane’s My Friend Mr Leakey. Other favourites were T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone; Walter De La Mare’s The Three Mulla-Mulgas; A. E. Coppard’s Pink Furniture; Norman Hunter’s The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm with the inspired illustrations by Heath Robinson; and C. S. Forester’s Poo-Poo and the Dragons.
Whirlaway featured an eleven-year-old heroine, Helen, who set out on her adventures in the company of her pet koala, Tirri, and Whirlaway himself, who was a friendly sunbeam. A hidden lift in the cellar of her newly occupied family home carried them downwards through successive geological strata and backwards in time, to the dawn of life in the Archaeozoic Era or `Age of Oldest Things’. The return journey took place by a series of doors, each opening into a new geological epoch, which the party was able to explore. At each stage, new inventories of exotic creatures – trilobites and sea-lillies in the Cambrian sea, dinosaurs in the Jurassic and Cretaceous swamps and forests and dawn-horses and sabre-toothed tigers on the grassy plains of the Plioscene – unfolded for them. Like Helen and her companions, I was captivated. Dinosaurs preoccupied me, to the exclusion virtually of all else. Helen’s home – Lyell Lodge – was described as having been named after the great geologist, Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell instantly became my hero. A geologist was what I wanted to be. My tongue began finding its way around perplexingly polysyllabic words such as `archeopteryx’ and `paleozoic’. When I was six, and the birth of my first brother was imminent, my parents consulted widely about a suitable name. My contribution was `Lyell’. Other claims had to be accommodated, but William Alwyn Lyell Mathews he duly became. All this was to go for nothing. My enthusiasm for rocks turned out to have been premature. A year or so later, I discovered my father’s copy of Leonard C. Woolley’s Ur of the Chaldees. It was plain immediately that geology was a second-best. What I really wanted was to be an archaeologist.
Whirlaway was a World War II casualty. Its appearance from the English publisher Hutchinson in the late 1930s coincided with the lead-up to hostilities. Under wartime conditions, few copies ever reached Australia, and the London stocks were destroyed in the Blitz. All but a tiny minority of Australian children – in which by good luck I was included – missed out on what otherwise would undoubtedly have become an enduring favourite to rival Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, The Adventures of Blinky Bill and The Magic Pudding. In the absence of a proven market for Morant’s unique way of introducing children to science, his sequel, The Ether Chariot, which was to have done for astronomy what Whirlaway was intended to do for geology and palaeontology, was never completed. An exhibition of Jean Elder’s superb illustrations at the Gould Gallery in 1997 prompted hopes that a new edition of Whirlaway might be produced, but no action was taken. A further opportunity was lost in 1993, when a re-release could have been co-incided with the marketing of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. It remains for some enlightened publisher to give back to Australian children the classic which they have so long and needlessly been denied.
Upwey – where we went to live in 1941 – had a small library attached to its post office, where I learned for the first time to choose books for myself and how they were borrowed. It was there that I came across the Budge and Betty books, with their stories about elves and fairies, and toy ships and cars which could be increased to life size at the touch of a magic ring and travelled in to remote and exotic places. The syllabus at the Upwey Higher Elementary School included a smattering of myths and legends of Greece, Rome and Scandinavia, which whetted my appetite for adventures involving gods and heroes. J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit was brought home for me by my father one night from the Public Lending Library in Melbourne. I and later my brothers asked to have it back so repeatedly that it must have seemed to other would-be borrowers to have been permanently unavailable. At some stage we sent a letter to Tolkien, asking him the sort of questions about Moria, Gondolin and the Necromancer which are now known to have reached him in all but overwhelming numbers. There was no reply, but the effort was not wasted. Our names must have been filed for future reference by the publishers, Allen & Unwin. In 1953, when I was eighteen, they sent me the prospectus for a further story about hobbits, which was to be issued in three volumes as The Lord of the Rings. As a result, I was able to savour the exquisite suspense of waiting months after The Fellowship of the Ring reached me for The Two Towers to be published, and months again for The Return of the King.
The war reduced the availability of new books for children to a trickle. In as much as I acquired books as opposed to borrowing them, it was mostly at impatiently waited-for birthdays and Christmases. These were usually secondhand copies – or wartime austerity editions – of books my parents had read in their childhoods. Long before I heard of Edith Nesbit as a founder member of the Fabian Society – a body to which I later belonged – her name was familiar to me as the author of The Magic World and The Railway Children which were presents given to me at Upwey, as well as The Would-Be-Goods, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet which came my way later.
Somebody’s chance recommendation of Richmal Crompton’s William books to a generous grandmother caused all the titles then in print to be included in the pillow case which served as my Christmas stocking in 1943. My parents regarded Crompton’s work as trash, but I doted on it. Reading and thinking about William and his friends Ginger, Douglas and Henry – known collectively as the Outlaws – preoccupied me for months. At night, I dreamed about them. The humour of the stories was largely lost on me. What mattered was that, whatever William’s faults may have been, he thought big. His flights of imagination and freedom from inhibition might repeatedly land him in trouble, but they were very much what I wanted for myself.
Christmas 1943 also brought me the first of a number of volumes of the boys’ weekly Chums which for years figured among my most highly valued possessions, and prompted me to interest myself increasingly in history. Chums – dedicated on its title page To the Boys of the Empire on which the Sun Never Sets – had had a lifespan from 1892 to 1941, which coincided roughly with the high tide of the British Empire. The contents reflected the full range of topics in which the Empire’s future citizens were expected to interest themselves. School stories by masters of the genre such as P. G. Wodehouse, L. C. Douthwaite and Gunby Hadath alternated with adventure stories from the pens of Frank H. Shaw, Charles Gilson and John Hunter.
Most of all there were serials on historical themes by S. Walkey. Walkey – by trade a staff controller in a bank – was introduced to Chums in 1895 by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, and was writing for it as late as 1940. He was a master of suspense and colour, who specialised in settings such as the Crusades, the Spanish Armada, the English Civil War, the Monmouth Rebellion and the French Revolution. His plots were carried forward at breakneck speed, and lifted by a flair for dialogue. Typical titles were Rogues of the Fiery Cross, Hurrah for Merry Sherwood, Under Nelson’s Flag and The Sword of Tallifer Trueblade. Illustrations were by Paul Hardy. Hardy – a frequent exhibitor of watercolours at the Royal Academy – used live models, period costumes and authentic artifacts such as muskets and cutlasses to achieve the meticulous and etching-like precision of the work in Chums for which he was so much more widely known. It was years before I was finally able to see past his snarling sans-culottes and brutal Roundheads to the realities of history which he and Walkey largely disregarded.
The war also drastically reduced the availibility of comics. What comics meant to me initially was mostly Chicks’ Own, Rainbow and other picture papers from Britain. There were also intermittently – courtesy of the department store trade in returns – comics from the American Famous Funnies stable such as Oakey-Doakes, Alley-Oop, Buck Rogers and – a special favourite of mine – The Search for the Long Lost Swink Treasure. I graduated in time to Knockout, Radio Fun, Film Fun and Beano. Later again, there were Champion, Wizard, Rover, Hotspur and Adventure. The paper shortage meant that the size of comics was drastically reduced. Supplies had to run the gauntlet of submarines and other wartime hazards before appearing for sale on Wednesdays at the local newsagency. Keeping up with the serials which their contents largely comprised acquired a special quality of heightened expectancy. It was never certain, from one Wednesday to the next, whether the latest installments about my favourite characters – the Iron Teacher, Wilson the superhuman athlete, Rockfist Rogan RAF and the Lost Commandos – might not already be lying somewhere on the bottom of the sea.
The gaps were filled for me in part by a store of annuals and boys’ weeklies from the 1920s which had belonged to my father and uncles. These had survived in the garden shed of my grandparents’ home at 120 Brighton Road, Elsternwick, where we moved from Upwey in 1943, so that I could enter the Melbourne Grammar preparatory school at Grimwade House in Caulfield the following year. Further fragments of Chums apart, the item which initially most attracted me was a battered copy of the Greyfriars Holiday Annual for 1929. The contents – school stories over the names of Frank Richards, Martin Clifford and Owen Conquest – were in reality all written by the master school story writer Charles Hamilton. Hamilton’s major creations and the weekly papers in which they featured – Harry Wharton and Co. and Billy Bunter of Greyfriars in the Magnet, Tom Merry and Co. and Arthur Augustus D’Arcy of St Jim’s in the Gem and Jimmy Silver and Co. in the Popular – were household words throughout most of the British Empire for the first half of the twentieth century. The subject of Hamilton’s lead story for my 1929 Holiday Annual – When Billy Bunter Forgot – was Bunter losing his memory and becoming a reformed character after diving headfirst into an empty swimming pool. Hamilton’s second contribution – Tom Merry’s Minor – was about mishaps and mis-understandings at St Jim’s following the rescue of a monkey from a cruel owner who turned out to have taught it to steal for him. A third Hamilton story – A Rift at Rookwood – described a falling-out and reconciliation within the Fiscal Four as Jimmy Silver and his three closest friends were known to their schoolmates. The mental world of the Gem and the Magnet – as some have seen it – was attacked later on grounds ranging from snobbery and cheap patriotism to having shyed off references to sex, by critics as far removed ideologically from one another as George Orwell and Noel Coward. For me at the time, Hamilton’s work was unalloyed delight. Unhappily my exposure to it was short-lived. The Holiday Annual, as I to my abiding disappointment now learned, had been discontinued in 1940, along with the Magnet and the Gem. Secondhand copies had for practical purposes similarly vanished from sale. It was not until well into the postwar era that facsimile editions of the companion papers as I had by then learned to call them were re-issued, to widespread acclaim, by the Howard Baker Press.
None of this meant that, as a nine or ten year old, my appetite for school stories was frustrated. Denied Magnets and Gems, I revisited in the shed at Elsternwick copies of another boys’ weekly – the Nelson Lee Library – whose crudely illustrated covers and small print had previously been off-putting. The stock consisted of about 200 or so issues, dated roughly between 1924, when my father was fourteen years old, and his nineteenth birthday in 1929. The author, Edwy Searles Brooks, was less talented as a writer than Hamilton, but had a much more colourful imagination. Originally a straightforward detective in the mould of Sexton Blake, Nelson Lee had been taken over by Brooks from his originator, Maxwell Scott, and re-invented as the schoolmaster detective for whom Brooks is now best remembered. Lee and his boy assistant, Nipper, were originally required to take up residence at St Frank’s school on a temporary basis, in the course of an investigation. The consequent combination of the two most popular genres of the day – school stories and detective stories – was retained by popular demand. While pure detective stories still on occasion made their appearance in the Nelson Lee Library, the emphasis was on adventure, both in and around the school and in often exotic locations overseas.
Touring parties of St Frank’s students encountered descendants of cut-off Roman legions in the Sahara desert, forgotten settlers from Elizabethan England in the Antarctic, and the lost city of Eldorado – complete with a lake of molten gold – in a region of South America populated in part by dinosaurs. A typical holiday series had the students searching for pearls on Paradise Island in the Pacific, where their luxury yacht, the Wanderer, was seized by hijackers. The island was devastated by a hurricane, which carried out to sea one of the students on the broken-off top of a palm tree. Native pearl divers landed by the hijackers went berserk and attacked the St Frank’s party in their camp. Attempts to explore a sunken galleon were interrupted by an undersea earthquake. Giant seaweed brought up from the depths by the upheaval immobilised the Wanderer, and sea-serpents and giant squids similarly displaced from their normal habitats menaced the passengers and crew. The chief hijacker was dragged under the weed to his death by an unseen monster while attempting to make off with the pearls. Installing a giant blade on the bow of the Wanderer finally enabled the party to cut its way through the weed to freedom, and return in triumph for the new term at St Frank’s. Domestically, there was a great fire of St Frank’s, several great floods and periodic destructions of the school by earthquakes and explosions. Disruptive newcomers had to be discouraged from conducting gambling dens in disused classrooms and engaging in sï¿½ances and black magic. Headmasters were driven mad by scheming rivals or had attractive young wives who turned out to be drug addicts. Tyranny – on the part either of the school authorities or outsiders such as the renegade German-American millionaire William K. Smith – provoked mutinies and barring-outs. Christmases were spent at country mansions which could be counted on to be haunted. My Nelson Lees were also borrowed eagerly by a number of my contemporaries. Sam Wisel – my closest boyhood friend, whose family lived around the corner from us in Elsternwick – used to savour them in breaks between his afterschool Hebrew classes, and perhaps remembers them kindly in the kibbutz in Israel where the greater part of his adult life has been spent.