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Their Finest Years: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (2010)

Blackout and All Clear are two in  a series of novels that Connie has written about “historians,”  researchers from the mid  C21st century who travel back in  time to carry  historical research, embedding themselves in the past.   This is a notion that  she first explored in a short story called Fire Watch (1983)  in which an historian joins the fire watch protecting St Paul’s during the Blitz.  She returned to the idea in Doomsday Book (1993) in which  Kivrin Engel  travels  back from 2054  to England in 1320 with unforeseen consequences in both times. This was followed  by To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998),  set in the Edwardian period and in Coventry during the destruction of the Cathedral on 14th November 1940. I have written about this  here.

In Blackout, and its direct sequel All Clear,   Connie takes us  back to  the Second World War again. Three historians travel back from 2060 to 1940: Mike, masquerading as an American reporter,   who is meant  to go to Dover to witness the evacuation from Dunkirk.  but instead finds himself  on a rickety boat on its way to pick up soldiers from the beaches;   Merope (who takes the name Eileen), masquerading as a servant in Lady Denewell’s  country house in Warwickshire which has taken in child  evacuees from London; and Polly, who ends up working in a department store  on Oxford Street. All three discover that the time travel technology meant to take them back home (“the drops”) has stopped working.

After a whole series of near misses, they eventually  meet up in London as the Blitz begins. But now they face some  dreadful questions. Are they trapped in the past forever? Will they survive the Blitz? And, worst of all,  have their actions, even the tiniest, most  inconsequential ones, let alone rescuing  someone during  a bombing raid,  changed the course of history? Will the Germans in fact win the war?

Connie sketches an unforgettable picture  of London as the bombs fall night after the night  from September 1940 to May 1941. There are vivid scenes in the air raid shelters and Tube stations,  as well on the streets and in the shops and cafes as somehow Londoners keep going, despite everything.

There is loss and  tragedy,  but there is also a great  deal  of humour, much of it  provided by Alf and Binnie,  two  children evacuated  from the East End  – possibly the naughtiest children in the universe –   whom Eileen looks after. A host of other characters make their entrances and their exits ;  the vicar in Warwickshire who befriends Eileen;  Mrs Ricket, Polly’s  sourfaced landlady;  Mr Humphreys, a fire warden at St Paul’s;   Mr Dunworthy, head of the time travel department; Godfrey Kingsman, an ageing  Shakespearean actor who befriends Polly,  Alan Turing, the  decoding genius and Agatha Christie, the crime novelist.   In addition there is a sub-plot featuring Mary Kent,  who works in civil defence  during the V1 and V2 attacks in the summer of 1944, and  who is not whom she seems. And a significant role is played by Holman Hunt’s painting ” The Light of the World” in St Paul’s. Finally, there is Colin Templar’s quest.

At the end of of All Clear the myriad plot lines,  coincidences, confusions and mysteries  are  neatly  resolved and yet,  after  1400 pages,  you are still  reluctant  to say goodbye to the characters whose lives and experiences  you have shared so fully.  Let’s leave the last word to Eileen on VE day when she meets the vicar again in Trafalgar Square.

He beamed at her. ‘This is a wonderful night, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ she said,  looking around the crowd. She had wanted to come here, to see this, ever since she was a first-year student.  She’s been furious when she found out Mr Dunworthy had assigned it to someone else. 

But if she’d come then, she would never have properly appreciated it. She’s have seen the happy crowds and the Union Jacks and the bonfires, but she’d have had no idea of what it meant to see the lights on after years of navigating in the dark, what it meant to look up at an approaching plane without fear, to hear church bells after years of air-raid sirens.She’d have had no idea of the years of rationing and shabby clothes  and fear that lay behind the smiles and the cheering, no idea of what it had cost to bring this day to pass – the lives of all those soldiers and sailors and airmen  and civilians. …She’d have had no idea what this meant to Lady Denewell, who’d lost her husband and her only son, or to Mr Humphreys and the rest of the fire watch who’d worked so hard to save St Paul’s…

I was born ten years after  the war,  and yet I  found  these  these novels very moving. Read them. Your life will be enriched.





To say nothing of the cat: “To Say Nothing of the Dog Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last “by Connie Willis (1998)

Ned Henry is a historian in Oxford in 2067. In this era historian isn’t  someone who spends 20 years producing a monograph on late Phoenician trading patterns which sells 63 copies, earns a luke-warm review in the Times Literary Supplement and is remaindered  within six months. In this era historians are travellers sent back on time trips (or “drops” as they call them) to carry out detailed reconnaisance  and research  on past historical eras and events. Too many drops, though, can give you time-lag, a euphoric state akin to being high.

Coventry Cathedral before the bombing raid

The time travel technology is known as “the net,”  invented by a couple of chancers who hoped to ransack history for priceless artifacts but then discovered that objects from the past cannot be transported through time, only humans can travel back and forth (or so it’s thought). Ned and his fellow historians are working on a multi-million project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before it destroyed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid on 14th November 1940, Oddly it’s not being built in Coventry,  but in Oxford. The project  is the brain child of Lady Schrapnell, whom I imagine as  a cross between Lady Bracknell and Mrs Thatcher. She is not be brooked over the slightest  minute detail.


The story begins with Ned poking around the ruins of the Cathedral days after the raid,   trying to locate the bishop’s bird stump, a hideous Victorian flower ornament which has vanished –  and which Lady Schrapnell has insisted must be found. Unable to locate it he returns to Oxford where he meets  fellow historian Verity Kindle,  who has been infiltrated into the Mering family at Muchings End in Oxfordshire in  June 1888.

a Victorian bird stump

At this point a cat enters the story, Princess Arjumand,  who belongs to Tossie Mering, spoilt daughter of the family with a penchant for babytalk. Somehow the cat returns with Verity to 2067 after she rescues it from drowning.  It is imperative that  Princess Arjumand must be returned to 1888  to close the incongruity. (Ned has fallen instantly in love with Verity, by the way).

Ned is also sent back to  June 1888 and falls in with  a Balliol  undergraduate  Terence St Trewes (who has  an annoying habit of quoting Tennyson at every turn), his bulldog Cyril  and Professor Peddick. Terence is in love with Tossi Meringe,  and  thus the three men and the dog set off  on a boat trip along the Thames to Muchings End with many mishaps on the way. If  you  are thinking that this sounds rather familiar, you would be right. Ned and his party actually pass Jerome K Jerome  and his party on the journey which becomes the book  Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), published the following year.

Arriving at Muchings End,  Ned discovers Priness Arnjumand in his luggage, alive  and well, and meets Verity again who has returned from Oxford.  They now become embroiled in a series of increasingly farcical  events which involve returning the cat to Tossie and stopping  her marrying Terence, which will cause another incongruity as they know from her diaries that she married a mysterious “Mr C” after meeting him on a visit to Coventry Cathedral.  It was Tossie’s diaries, read by her  descendant Lady Schrapnell,  that inspired the Coventry Cathdral project.  A change in history could be catastrophic.

What follows are  nightime assignations, deceptions, impersonations,  coincidences, manipulations  and seances with Madame Iritosky – to say nothing of  Cyril and Princess Arjumand. And  there is still  the question of what happened to the bishop’s bird stump.  At one point  a drop lands Ned and Verity  in  the Cathedral  on the night of 14th November as it  is being bombed;  they barely escape with their lives.

Coventry Cathedral after the bombing raid

It felt like a direct hit. The blast rocked the cathedral and lit it  with with a blinding white light. I staggered off my knees, and then stopped, staring across the nave. The force had  knocked the cathedral momentarily clear of smoke, and in the garish afterlight  I could see everything; the statue above the pulpit engulfed in flames, its hand raised like a drowning man’s; the stalls in the children’s chapel, their irreplaceable misereres  burning with a queer  yellow light; the altar in the Cappers’ Chapel. And the parclose screen in the Smith’s Chapel….

I flung myself through the door and through the tower door and up the firelit stairs, wondering what I was going to say to Lady Schrapnell. In that one bright bomb-lit instant I has seen everything: the brasses on the wall, the polished eagle on the lectern , the blackening pillars. And in the north-side the empty wrought-iron flower stand. 

It had been removed for safekeeping after all. Or donated as scrap. Or sold at a jumble sale.

“Ned”! Verity shouted. “Hurry! The net’s opening!”

Lady Schrapnell had been wrong.The bishop’s bird stump was not there.

As the novel’s  full title suggests,  in the end the mystery is solved.

This is a hugely  enjoyable and entertaining novel which frankly came as a welcome relief after some recent science fiction novels  I have read,  whose plots  – involving  artificial intelligence and  jumps across the universe etc  –  seemed  humourless  and gave me a headache. We need more novels like this.









A visitor from Oitar: The Sykaos Papers by E P Thompson (1988)

As a socialist   historian I am naturally  very familar  with Edward Thompson’s contribution to labour history, particularly  The Making of the English Working Class,   which was very  influential  on a whole generation of  young historians  and  political activists in putting working class agency at the centre of his narrative.  In addition  he was very active in the 1980s in the anti-nuclear movement, speaking at countless meetings up and down the country,  stalking the plaform like an C18th  Methodist preacher. He wrote  the pamphlet  Protest and Survive, an evisceration  of the government leaflet on how to cheerily  prepare your home  for a nuclear attack,  Protect and Survive. What I didn’t know was that he had written a science fiction novel The Sykaos Papers, published in 1988.

The full title  is The Sykaos Papers,  Being An Account of  the Voyages of  the Poet Oi Paz to the System of Strim in the Seventeenth Galaxy; of his Mission to the Planet Sykaos; of his first Cruel Captivity; of his Travels about its Surface; of the Manners and Customs of its Beastly People; of his Second Captivity; and of his Return to Oitar.  To which are added many passages from the Poet’s Journal, documents  in Sykotic script and  other curious matters.

Essentially this  lengthy novel  is Gulliver’s Travels  in reverse, a satire on society, language, culture,  science, politics, governments,  the media, sexual mores and much else.  It tells the story of Oi Paz, a poet sent by the planet Oitar (who have established a base on the Moon) to reconnoite Earth (which they call Sykaos and its people Sykotics)  as a possible candidate for colonisation. The story is told through Oi Paz’s  journal, official reports, media accounts and the field notes of Helena Sage.

Oi  Paz crashes to Earth and is promptly run over by a car.  Recovering in hospital,  and bemused by the culture he discovers on Earth,  he is eventually judged an impostor and kicked out into the street after being relieved of his gems. Mistaken for the Emir  for Quotar he  meets Mrs Thatcher  briefly. He is then taken up by a promoter  Nigel Harmer and tours the world as  Sapio the Spaceman with his own television show, kept docile with copious amounts of alcohol

After some months, following observations of activity on the Moon,   the authorities realise Oi Paz  is telling the truth and seize him, keeping him captive at Martagon Hall  in England,  run  by  a top secret  government organisation called FARCES (internal code LUNATIC). They bring in  anthropologist Helena Sage to get to know him  and  to seek to understand Oitarian culture. This is a sample of her first field notes on Oi Paz:

Tall, exceptionally well built. Dark complexion upon  somehat European (Caucasian?) features ..Moves with deliberation and grace, yet in some way distancing himself from the movemnets of his own body as if his limbs were delicate prosthetic tools. All senses seem sound. Hearing remarkably acute (detected mice scratching wainscot, informed me there were three) …Impressive yet passibe peroanlity, almost a “vibe” coming from him, not hostile, yet aloof and alert at the same time …Robes (quite gorgeous!) looked like a hand-weave  but, cldn’t identify with certainty, nor identify material (cottony texture but sheen of silk) Elaborate  belt – seems to contain some instrument (micro-computer?)  at right hip – with large ornamental  gold clasp in which a phallic catch (rt) engaes with wheel-symbol (lft). 

In time Helena and Oi Paz become close, intimate even.

Much of the novel is in a comic vein,  lancing the pomposity of the establishment, but  in the final  part the mood darkens as international political tensions invade Martagon Hall,  and the ending is sombre.

This is  far from a light read, and there are  nearly 500 pages,  but if you feel like taking on the  challenge, this might be the novel for you.





E P Thompson






Howzat! Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen by James Goss (2018)

This book seems to have dropped through a wormhole in the Space-Time Continuum. According to the pre-publication publicity it’s not meant to be available until 18 January 2018,  but I  found it last week  on the shelf  at Manchester Central Reference Library.

The Krikkitmen began life as a story that Douglas Adams pitched   to Robert Holmes and Anthony Read, the outgoing and incoming producers of Doctor Who,  along with  The Pirate Planet.   They opted for The Pirate Planet (broadcast in the autumn of 1978),    but suggested that The Krikkitmen  might make a good film.  In the meantime the first radio  series of  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  was broadcast  in 1978  and  made Adams famous. This led him to becoming  script editor on Doctor Who in 1979 for a year: during his time on the show  he also  wrote City of Death and Shada (which  was never broadcast because of a strike).

Adams worked on The Krikkitmen for several years, but the film, like most films,  was never made,  and in time was almost forgotten (although Adams did use some of his ideas in Life, the Universe and Everything.)  But when researching in the Douglas Adams archive in Cambridge for his novelisation of Shada,  James Goss was shown  a detailed 33 page treatment for the film, including dialogue,  which led him to write this novel. The treatment  is included as an appendix.

Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen features the Fourth Doctor and Romana. The original treatment  featured a companion called Jane, but James Goss decided that Romana would be more appropriate. In the novel she is clearly the cleverest person for millions of light years around. It also features K9, the cleverest robot dog  for millions of light years around. The Doctor  is…the Doctor.

The story begins in that most English of settings, Lord’s cricket ground during the Ashes. Romana is bemused by the game and wonders  why they are there, the Doctor doesn’t seem  like  to much like cricket either (unlike the Fifth  Doctor).  Things  get a bit more interesting when  the game is interrupted, not by rain or a streaker,  but  a cricket  pavilion  which suddenly materialises. It’s not empty:

…eleven figures, all attired in perfect cricket whites, strode out of the pavilion and towards the podium. The eleven were, to all intents and purposes, role models, from their tidily laced plimsolls to their neat helmets protecting their faces. Even their bats were polished so much they shone. …but there was one thing missing. There was nothing inside the uniforms. They were empty suits of gleaming white armour, marching in unison. 

The killer robots  (for this  is indeed what they are) start  attacking the crowd, lobbing explosive  cricket balls, wielding their razor sharp steel bats,  and then depart after stealing the Ashes.  leaving chaos and burning grass. It turns out that they are from the planet Krikkit,   who were a peaceful,  happy  people when they believed that they were the only race in the Universe. But  one day a spaceship crashed onto their planet.  This enraged them so much that  they built  spaceships  and the Krikkitmen,  and  then set about  destroying every other race in the Universe.

They were finally  stopped by the Time Lords,  who sealed Krikkit in Slow Time several million years ago. Now some Krikkitmen have  escaped  and are  intent in  freeing Krikkit from  Slow Time  and recommencing  the annihilation with millions more Krikkitman. To do this  they need to reassemble  the Wicket Gate, comprising three vertical sticks,  the Gold Bail of Prosperity and the Silver Bail of Peace.

Of course the Doctor  and Romans set out  to stop them. The rest of the novel is a dizzying swoop to  and fro  across the universe from planet to planet and  back and forth in time. The Doctor, Romana and K9 are shot at, imprisoned and  then escape (several times). They meet  the Elders of Krikkit, the  ineffectual  Krikkit rebels (who are stymied by lack of a  mission statement), Alovians, the Great Khan, Mareeve II (an unfriendly planet),  Devalin (a planet where they used to fish but now they don’t),  Bethsalamin (a friendly planet), Professor Chronotis,  a big red off and on  switch, and a super computer called Hactar who seems to hold the key to everything (but perhaps doesn’t.) Oh, and there’s a  Supernova Bomb that will destroy the Universe. Just  thought  I’d mention it. It all  ends where it began, at Lord’s.

James  Goss does an  excellent job of channeling Douglas  Adams’ prose style:

The Doctor, K-9 and Romana were running.

Romana had,  in her  time with the Doctor, learnt a good deal about fleeing. If anyone shouted ‘Hah’ or ‘ Stop’ or  ‘Wait!’ you ignored them. They were normally taking aim.

If given a choice between running upstairs and running downstairs, always go down. Even if the lights weren’t working. Often, yes, there’d be something with tentacles lurking in the dark, but you could cross that nightmare when you came to it. Also, with a little bit of dodging, you could let it devour any pursuers while you got on with surviving.

Running upstairs ended badly. You’d find yourself on a roof with nothing but a long drop beneath you and a  pressing need to do some fast talking…

Shoes. In her early days aboard the Tardis Romana had worn a variety  of imposing footwear. The TARDIS wardrobe  was delightfully unlike the wardrobes of Gallifre , and so offered her the chance to enjoy experimenting.  Boots. Pumps. Ballet shoes. But she quickly learned that anything with heels was out. They were good for making an entrance but hopeless for an exit.

Finally,  always follow the Doctor unless he was clearly heading somewhere absolutely idiotic. If it only looked mildly idiotic (eg a time corridor or burning building) then fine. But if it was towards a squadron of Daleks then perhaps not.

When fleeing, keep an eye on local signage. Signs indicating “This way to the Forest of Knives” or “Turn left for the Swamp of Death” were best avoided. Signs never indicated where there was a large amount of cover, or something blast-proof to hide behind. The Universe was disappointing like that.

There are 42 chapters, by the way.

Don’t buy it from Amazon, though please  buy it from the real Amazons at the independent  News from Nowhere bookshop













It’s a gas, gas, gas….In the Days of the Comet by H G Wells (1906)


In the Days of The Comet takes  us down one path, a narrative of a love triangle, but then half way through unexpectedly   races off down another.

In the short prologue  we are introduced  to an old man who tells  us,  “I have  set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.” The narrative that follows  is therefore peppered with his comments from the perspective of the future.

You must understand--and every year it becomes increasingly difficult
to understand--how entirely different the world was then from what
it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder,
preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid
unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of
the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent
beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The
great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our
atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None
would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time,
and yet that misery was pierced, ever and again its gray curtain was stabbed through and through by joys 
of an intensity, by perceptionsof a keenness that it seems to me are now altogether gone out of life. Is
it the Change, I wonder, that has robbed life of its extremes, or is it perhaps only this, that youth has left me--even the strength of middle years leaves me now--and taken its despairs
and raptures, leaving me judgment, perhaps, sympathy, memories?

The old man is Willie Leaford,  fifty years ago a   young man living in the Potteries, a socialist angry at the world who is love with Nettie. Leaford loses his job while Nettie throws him over for Edward Verrall, a wealthy young man,  and they elope.

I had grown so accustomed to think of Nettie as inseparably
mine--the whole tradition of "true love" pointed me to that--that
for her to face about with these precise small phrases toward
abandonment, after we had kissed and whispered and come so close
in the little adventurous familiarities of the young, shocked me
profoundly. I! I! And Rawdon didn't find me indispensable either.
I felt I was suddenly repudiated by the universe and threatened
with effacement, that in some positive and emphatic way I must at
once assert myself. There was no balm in the religion I had learnt,
or in the irreligion I had adopted, for wounded self-love.

Willie buys a revolver and pursues them to the coast. So far so conventional. But these  personal  events are taking place against a background of two momentous events.

Firstly, the approach  to the earth of a comet:


...the comet which had been on the first occasion only a dubious speck 
in the sky, certainly visible only when it was magnified, was 
now a great white presence, brighter than Jupiter, and casting a shadow
 on its own account. It was now actively present in the world of human
 thought, every one was talking about it, every one was looking
 for its waxing splendor as the sun went down--the papers, the 
music-halls, the hoardings, echoed it.

Leaford,  in conversation with his fellow socialist Parload,  invokes the comet:

We were presently abroad, walking through the warm summer's night
and talking all the more freely for that. But one thing that I
said I can remember. "I wish at times," said I, with a gesture at
the heavens, "that comet of yours or some such thing would indeed
strike this world--and wipe us all away, strikes, wars, tumults,
loves, jealousies, and all the wretchedness of life!"

Secondly, the outbreak of war with Germany in which battleships fight each other along the  very coast where Leaford is in pursuit of the lovers:

On, on! I groaned with the violence of my effort. I staggered
again and swore. I felt the concussions of great guns tear past me
through the murk.

They were gone! Everything was going, but I kept on running. Once
more I stumbled. There was something about my feet that impeded
me, tall grass or heather, but I could not see what it was, only
this smoke that eddied about my knees. There was a noise and spinning
in my brain, a vain resistance to a dark green curtain that was
falling, falling, falling, fold upon fold. Everything grew darker
and darker.

I made one last frantic effort, and raised my revolver, fired my
penultimate shot at a venture, and fell headlong to the ground.
And behold! the green curtain was a black one, and the earth and
I and all things ceased to be.

The whole of humanity  is put to sleep by a green gas created by the comet. Leaford awakes after several hours:

What was this place? How had I come to be sleeping here?

I could not remember.

It perplexed me that somehow my body felt strange to me. It was
unfamiliar--I could not tell how--and the barley, and the beautiful
weeds, and the slowly developing glory of the dawn behind; all
those things partook of the same unfamiliarity. I felt as though
I was a thing in some very luminous painted window, as though this
dawn broke through me. I felt I was part of some exquisite picture
painted in light and joy.

The comet gas wipes away the desire for violence and war,  for competition  and even for countries. A world state is created, while the old grimy smoke-ridden cities are torn down  and rebuilt for beauty alone.

All these vast cities have given way and gone, even as my native
Potteries and the Black Country have gone, and the lives that were
caught, crippled, starved, and maimed amidst their labyrinths, their
forgotten and neglected maladjustments, and their vast, inhuman,
ill-conceived industrial machinery have escaped--to life. Those
cities of growth and accident are altogether gone, never a chimney
smokes about our world to-day, and the sound of the weeping of
children who toiled and hungered, the dull despair of overburdened
women, the noise of brute quarrels in alleys, all shameful pleasures
and all the ugly grossness of wealthy pride have gone with them,
with the utter change in our lives. As I look back into the past
I see a vast exultant dust of house-breaking and removal rise
up into the clear air that followed the hour of the green vapors,
I live again the Year of Tents, the Year of Scaffolding, and like
the triumph of a new theme in a piece of music--the great cities
of our new days arise. Come Caerlyon and Armedon, the twin cities
of lower England, with the winding summer city of the Thames between,
and I see the gaunt dirt of old Edinburgh die to rise again white
and tall beneath the shadow of her ancient hill;

The gas hasaslo  wiped away jealousy,  and Willie becomes friends with Nettie and Edward. In time Willie begins a relationship with Anna and they have a child. But towards  the end of the novel Nettie comes to him,   and they recognise that they are still in love.  She  suggests a new kind of relationship in which the two couples share a home: “… we four from that time were very close, you understand, we were friends, helpers, personal lovers in a world of lovers.”

This is  the part of the novel that shocked some Edwardian readers, and  even some members of the Fabian Society of which Wells was a  leading figure,

Strip away the love triangle  and In the Days of the Comet  boils down to a vehicle for Wells to advance his critique  of early C20th industrial capitalism and his remedies eg the world state, a notion  that he was to return to in later novels and other  writings. The first half of the novel has life , whereas the second half is curiously lifeless, a common fault of Utopian novels I have discovered.

You can read the novel online here.

Adam Roberts has written a short sequel to the novel called In the Night of the Comet in which a second comet reverses the changes. Oh dear…



















The old man i






A short holiday in Utopia: Men Like Gods by H G Wells (1923)

Men Like GodsIn Men Like Gods H G Wells takes us to his vision of Utopia. He follows in the wake of a number of other Utopian novels by socialists including  Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy,  News from Nowhere by William Morris, The Sorcery Shop by Robert Blatchford and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The novel’s hero Mr Barnstaple is a typical Wellsian hero, an ordinary man who gets caught up in extraordinary events like Bert Smallways in Wells’ 1908 novel The War in the Air.

At the start  of the novel Mr Barnstaple is feeling stifled by his family;

He was a man of strong natural affections; he loved his family extremely
so that he knew it by heart, and when he was in these jaded moods it  bored him acutely. His three sons, who were all growing up, seemed to get leggier and larger every day; they sat down in the chairs he was just going to sit down in; they played him off his own pianola; they filled the house with hoarse, vast laughter at jokes that one couldn’t demand to be told; they cut in on the elderly harmless flirtations that had hitherto been one of his chief consolations in this vale; they beat  him at tennis; they fought playfully on the landings, and fell downstairs by twos and threes with an enormous racket. Their hats were everywhere. They were late for breakfast. They went to bed every night in a storm of uproar: “Haw, Haw, Haw–bump!” and their mother seemed to like it. They all cost money, with a cheerful disregard of the fact that everything had gone up except Mr. Barnstaple’s earning power.

He manages to escape  on a holiday on his own, but as he is  quietly motoring along near Windsor  he suddenly  finds himself  plucked into  another world, the result of a scientific experiment  that has gone wrong. A number of other cars have also been transported,  his companions in this new world include a Lord, a Cabinet Minister,  an entrepreneur, a Catholic priest and  a society beauty.

The visitors  dub this new world “Utopia” and the  barely clothed inhabitants “Utopians.”  The Utopians  have advanced technology and live  in a world of mountains, meadows and lakes  from which  war, disease and  poverty have been banished.

As they approached these mountains, broad stretches of golden corn-land  replaced the green of the pastures and then the cultivation became more diversified. He noted unmistakable vineyards on sunny slopes,  and the number of workers visible and the habitations multiplied. The little squadron of aeroplanes flew up a broad valley towards  a pass so that Mr. Barnstaple was able to scrutinize the mountain scenery. Came chestnut woods and at lastpines. There were Cyclopean turbines athwart the mountain torrents and long, low, many-windowed buildings that might serve some industrial purpose. A skilfully graded road with exceedingly bold, light and beautiful viaducts  mounted towards the pass. There were more people, he thought, in  the highland country than in the levels below, though still far
fewer than he would have seen upon any comparable countryside on earth.

Once their guests have been made comfortable, the Utopians –  Urthred, Lychnis, Serpentine and others –  explain the history of their society in a very lengthy  exposition.  It seems they are  thousand years in advance of Earth, having evolved from  what they called “The Age of Confusion”, an era  very similar to Earth in the C20th.  The world is a single entity with no countries,  no central government and no private property.

“We have been through that stage. We found at last that private property in all but very personal things was an intolerable nuisance
to mankind. We got rid of it. An artist or a scientific man has complete control of all the material he needs, we all own our tools
and appliances and have rooms and places of our own, but there is no property for trade or speculation. All this militant property,
this property of manoeuvre, has been quite got rid of. But how we got rid of it is a long story. It was not done in a few years.
The exaggeration of private property was an entirely natural and necessary stage in the development of human nature. It led at last
to monstrous results, but it was only through these monstrous and catastrophic results that men learnt the need and nature of the
limitations of private property.”

After many cycles of  rapid growth followed by decline and  catastrophe, the Utopians evolved a new form of society as a Utopian explains:

 He made it clear that the change over in Utopian affairs had been no sudden revolution. No new system of laws and customs, no new method of economic co-operation based on the idea of universal service to the common good, had sprung abruptly into being complete and finished. Throughout a long period, before and during the Last Age of Confusion, the foundations of the new state were laid by a growing multitude of inquirers and workers, having no set plan or preconceived method, but brought into unconscious co-operation by
a common impulse to service and a common lucidity and veracity of mind. It was only towards the climax of the Last Age of Confusion in
Utopia that psychological science began to develop with any vigour, comparable to the vigour of the development of geographical and
physical science during the preceding centuries. And the social and economic disorder which was checking experimental science and crippling the organized work of the universities was stimulating inquiry into the processes of human association and making it
desperate and fearless.

The  visitors have brought bacteria  with them –  unknown in this world –  leading to sickness  and death among the Utopians. They are  thetrefore placed in quarantine  in a castle on a crag. Here the novel (in which frankly not a great deal has been happening up to now ) changes gear slightly  moving into a satire on  the  colonial reflexes of Europeans. Only Mr Barnstaple has fully accepted what he has seen,   the rest regard the Utopians as weak and decadent, ripe for takeover.  Mr Catskill  (a character apparently based on Winston Churchill) explains  his plans:

“They will not know what to do. Do not be deceived by any outward shows of beauty and prosperity. These people are living, as the
ancient Peruvians were living in the time of Pizarro, in an enervating dream. They have drunken the debilitating draught of
Socialism and, as in ancient Peru, there is no health nor power of will left in them any more. A handful of resolute men and women who
can dare–may not only dare but triumph in the face of such a world. And thus it is I lay my plans before you…We have to turn this prison into a capitol, into the first foothold of mankind in this world. It is like a foot thrust into a reluctant door that must never more close upon our race.”

They intend to take hostages as a first step, but only succeed in killing several Utopians. Mr Barnstaple escapes as the Utopians encircling the crag  with a power cable. As they do so Mr Barnstaple notices something above :

Abruptly something black and spear-shaped appeared beside the little group of Earthlings above. It seemed to jump up beside them, it
paused and jumped again half the height of a man and jumped again. It was a flag being hauled up a flag staff, that Mr. Barnstaple had
not hitherto observed. It reached the top of the staff and hung limp.

Then some eddy in the air caught it. It flapped out for a moment, displayed a white star on a blue ground and dropped again. This was the flag of earth–this was the flag of the crusade to restore the blessings of competition, conflict and warfare to Utopia. Beneath it appeared the head of Mr. Burleigh, examining the Utopian coils through his glasses…

The throbbing and humming in Mr. Barnstaple’s ears grew rapidly louder and rose acutely to an extreme intensity. Suddenly great
flashes of violet light leapt across from coil to coil, passing through Quarantine Castle as though it was not there.

For a moment longer it was there.

The flag flared out madly and was torn from its staff. Mr. Burleigh lost his hat. A half length of Mr. Catskill became visible
struggling with his coat tails which had blown up and enveloped his head. At the same time Mr. Barnstaple saw the castle rotating upon
the lower part of the crag, exactly as though some invisible giant had seized the upper tenth of the headland and was twisting it

And then it vanished.

The imperial  adventure is over.  At the end  of the  novel the Utopians succeed in returning Mr Barnstaple to his own world, and he returns home, wiser and more thoughtful,  where his wife notices that he has grown several inches taller.

She looked up into his eyes. As though she was very glad indeed to have him back with her.

But Mr. Barnstaple remained lost in thought. “It must be the extreme freshness of the air. I have been in some wonderful air….
Wonderful!… But at my age! To have grown! And I _feel_ as though I’d grown, inside and out, mind and body.”…

Mrs. Barnstaple presently began to put the tea-things together for removal.

“You seem to have avoided the big towns.”

“I did.”

“And kept to the country roads and lanes.”

“Practically…. It was all new country to me…. Beautiful….

His wife still watched him.

“You must take me_there some day,” she said. “I can see that it has done you a world of good.”

The problem with Utopian novels is that  they are little more guidebooks to an imagined future, and thus  barely function as novels at all, making them quite dull.  Men like Gods  has a little more incident  than most, which is not saying  a great deal.  It’s an unfortunate truth that dystopian novels are usually much more readable eg  Wells’ earlier novel The Sleeper Awakes.  Apparently Aldous Huxley was moved to write Brave New  World  (1932) after reading Men Like Gods, writing to a friend, “I am writing a novel about the future — on the horror of the Wellsian Utopia and a revolt against it. Very difficult. I have hardly enough imagination to deal with such a subject. But it is none the less interesting work.”

In its very enthusastic  review of Men Like Gods  the Manchester Guardian said:

The charm and absorbingness of this novel may be taken for granted. It is most remarkable. No other writer could have achieved a smilar triumph. Mr Wells has always been able to see clearly and with beauty into a  highly sanitary ideal world. He can do this because  of  his really passionate love of human-kind  and desire for the betterment  of its lot. His hatred of contemporary squalors, of the system of greed and squalor and sprawling ineffectiveness  which  makes the world a sprawling mess, is so intense that to  Mr Wells restless and reforming spirit passive endurance is impossible. He must attack and destroy and rebuild – the process being one continuous movement  of his immense vital energy….The author’s passion for education, for knowledge and health have never been more brilliantly expressed. ..It is full of fine thinking and fine understanding. 

You can read Men like Gods  online here.














Fire from the skies: Hartmann the Anarchist or The Doom of a Great City by E Douglas Fawcett (1893)

I had never heard of this novel until I bought a copy a couple of months ago at the Bristol Radical History Festival. It been reprinted by Tangent Books after many years out of print.  Fawcett was just 17 when he write this account of an attack by an anarchist  airship on London.

The novel is set in 1920, the main protagonist Stanley is a reformist socialist, opposed to  the violence of the anarchist groups whose views are gaining  traction. The most notorious is Hartmann  who tried to  blow up  the German Crown Prince when he was in London, but killed 50  passers-by instead. He is believed drowned at sea when trying to escape,  but Stanley discovers he is alive. In the company of the anarchist journalist Burnett he is taken on board an advanced airship the Attila,  built by Hartmann in Switzerland,  and with which  he plans to attack London. Stanley meets Hartmann at last:

Seated before a writing-desk, studded with knobs of electric bells and heaped with maps and instruments, sat a bushy-bearded man with straight piercing glance and a forehead physiognomists would have envied. There was the same independent look, the same cruel hardness that had stamped the mien of the youth, but the old impetuous air had given way to a cold inflexible sedateness, far more appropriate to the dread master of the Attila. As I advanced into the room, he rose, a grand specimen of manhood, stand- ing full six feet three inches in his shoes. He shook hands more warmly than I had expected, and motioned me tacitly to a seat.

Hartmann tells Stanley of his plans:

“But, understand, the day when the first bomb falls will witness outbreaks in every great city in Europe. We have some 12,000 adherents in London, many more in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere— they will stir the tumult below. Lon-don is my objective to start with. During the tem-pests of bombs, the anarchists below will fire the streets in all directions, rouse up the populace, and let loose pandemonium upon earth. In the confu-sion due to our attack, order and precautions will be impossible.

The Attila runs up a flag “Thus Returns Hartmann the Anarchist” and begins the attack on the Houses of Parliament

Horror of horrors, the great tower had fallen on the crowd, bruising into jelly a legion of buried wretches, and beating into ruins the whole mass of buildings opposite. Every outlet from the neighbourhood was being furiously fought for, hordes of screaming, shrieking madmen were fatting, crushing and stamping their victims into heaps, and with the growth of each writhing heap the ghastly confusion grew also. Of the Houses of Parliament pinnacles were collapsing and walls were being riven asunder as the shells burst within them. But this spectacle, grievous of its kind, was as nothing to the other. With eyes riveted now to the massacre, I saw frantic women trodden down by men ; huge clearings made by the shells and instantly filled up ; house-fronts crushing horses and vehicles as they fell ; fires bursting out on all sides, to devour what they listed, and terrified police struggling wildly and helplessly in the heart of the press. The roar of the guns was continuous, and every missile found its billet. Was I in Pandemonium ? I saw Burnett, black with grime, hounding his comrades on to the slaughter. I heard the roar of Schwartz’s bombs, and the roar of the burning and falling houses. Huge circles of flame raved beneath us, and shot up their feverish and scorching breath. The Attila drunk with slaughter, was careering in continually fresh tracts, spreading havoc and desolation everywhere.

Stanley manages to escape from the Attila  which  in the end is destroyed by Hartmann himself after receiving a letter  from his dying mother and realising that Londoners are not rallying to his cause:

… a crash shattering the window-panes and deadening the car, a shock hurling us both on our backs, broke the utterance. Then thundered down a shower of massive fragments, fragments of the vast ship whose decks I had once trodden. Hartmann, dismayed with the failure of his plans and rendered desperate by the letter, had blown up the Attila ! The news of his failure and the message of a dying woman had done what human hatred was too impotent even to hope for.

The novel finishes thus;

But little more remains to be said. You are conversant with the story of the next few days. You know also how order was once more completely re- established, how the wreckage of that fell twenty-four hours was slowly replaced by modern buildings, how gradually the Empire recovered from the shock, and how dominant henceforth became the great problems of labour. My own connection with these latter was not destined to endure. After my marriage with Lena, my interests took a different turn. Travel and literary studies left no room for the surlier duties of the demagogue. Writing from this quiet German retreat I can only hope that my brief narrative will prove of some interest to you. It has not been my aim to write history. I have sought to throw light only on one of its more romantic corners, and if I have succeeded in doing so, the whole purpose of my efforts will have been accomplished.

Fawcett was clearly a fan of Jules Verne, one of the most popular fantasy authors of the C19th.  In particular it seems to me that Hartmann draws  heavily on Verne’s 1870 novel,   20,000 Leagues Under the Seain which Captain  Nemo commands  an advanced submarine that can travel the world’s oceans unchallenged and on occasions  attacks and sinks ships.




You can read this novel on line here.