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“Watch Thou For The Mutant”: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)

chrysalids-front-coverIn previous posts I have looked at The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which were set in the contemporary Britain of the 1950s,  and showed the breakdown of society when faced with an unprecedented  threat.  John Wyndham’s third novel  The Chrysalids is quite different in tone and content.

The novel set  in the future, perhaps  several centuries after our own time. The story is told through the eyes of David Strorm as he grows  up in a rural part of Labrador, called Waknuk, which is a religiously fundamentalist society, fearful of any kind of physical difference in human bodies. Every Sunday  without fail they recite a creed:

And God created man in in His own image. And God decreed that man should have one body, one head, two arms and two legs; that each arm should be jointed in two places and end in one hand; that each hand should have four fingers and one thumb; that each finger  should have a flat finger-nail..

We, the readers, soon divine that the “Tribulation” of which  they talk of was in fact a nuclear war,  and that this is the society that has somehow survived,  plunged back into a subsistence way of life, based on farming, with no technology. They use  horses for travel, and  bows and arrows for weapons, for instance.  It’s clear that the fall-out is still creating mutations in humans, “deviations”,  which when discovered  are driven out of society to “The Fringes”. David’s father  Joseph, is particularly fervent on rooting out “blasphemy”. They believe:

The penance of Tribulation that had been put upon the world must be worked out, the long climb faithfully retraced, and, at last, if the temptations  of  the way were resisted, there would be the reward of forgiveness. – the restoration of the Golden Age.

chrysalids-1As he grows up David’s austere but orderly world is disrupted by a series of events. This begins when he becomes friends with a girl called Sophie,  and  discovers one day that she has six toes, not five. He  does not report this, as she is his friend and he does not see her as a “deviation” but as a person.  Eventually, of course,  this secret  is discovered: Sophie and her family are driven out, while David is brutally beaten by his father.


But David has his own secret, he too is a “mutant”,   able to communicate by telepathy with his cousin Rosalind and a number of other teenagers. Somehow they have made it  into adolescence  without being discovered. David does have one ally, his uncle Axel who finds out about David’s ability,  and warns him that he must never reveal his secret. Axel is that  familar figure in Wyndham’s novels, the older man who challenges  the received wisdoms and “commonsense”  of their time. He is a close cousin to Michael Beadley in the Day of the Triffids and Alastair Bocker in The Kraken Wakes.  A former sailor, Axel  has travelled widely and seen things on sea and land  which make him very  sceptical of the rigid pieties of his own society.

“Preacher words!” he said,  and thought for a moment. “I’m telling you,” he went on, “that a lot of saying a thing is so, doesn’t prove it is.  I’m telling you that nobody, nobody, really knows what is the true image. They all think they know – just as we think we know, but, for all we can prove, the Old People themselves may not have been the true image.”  He turned, and looked long and steadily at me again.

“So,”  he said, “how am I, and how is anyone sure that this “difference” that you and Rosalind have does not make you something  nearer to the true image than other people are? Perhaps the Old People were the image; very well then , one of the things they  say about them is that they could talk to one another over long distances. Now  we can’t do that  – but you and Rosalind can.  Just think that over, Davie. You two  may be nearer to the image than we are.”


David’s mother gives birth to another child, Petra, who appears perfectly normal  until  one day, when still  a young child,   she falls into the river, and in panic  displays  astonishing telepathic power,  summoning  Michael and the others to rescue her. As she grows up they are able to teach her to use her power – and to  keep it a secret. Then one day, whilst out riding,  Petra is attacked by a  wild cat which kills her pony. Again she screams for help telepathically summoning  all the group to help her. This gathering  is observed by a passing stranger,  who becomes suspicious and starts to make enquiries. A few days  later in the middle of the night two of the group, Sally and Katherine, are seized by the authorities  and tortured to make them reveal their secret. Alerted by the sisters,  David, Rosalind and Petra steal horses and flee towards The Fringes. Another of their group, Michael, undiscovered,  is with the armed posse which sets off to hunt them down. He tells his friends;

They’re afraid of us. They want to capture you and learn more about us – that’s why there’s the large reward. it isn’t just a question of the true image – though that’s the way they’re making it appear. What they’ve seen is that we could be a real danger to them. Imagine if there were a lot more of us than there are, able to think together and plan and co-ordinate without all their machinery of words and messages : we could outwit them all the time. They find that a very unpleasant thought; so we are to be stamped out before there can be any more of us. They see it as a matter of survival – and they may be right, you know.

That “matter of survival” is the key theme of the rest of the novel, both of the travellers and  of the human race.  As they flee Petra tells them  that she has made contact  with another “think-together” person, a woman who lives  a very long way away across the sea  in a place called “Sealand” where everyone is telepathic.  The woman tells them that she will come and rescue  them because of Petra’s remarkable power.  In the meantime,  Michael, Rosalind and Petra make it to the Fringes,  where they are helped by Sophie who is living there in poverty and squalor. The pursuing posse attacks the camp and Sophie is killed, but the group is saved when the flying  machine  arrives and sprays glistening threads that  land on everyone in the camp, and bind them tight. The  Sealand woman makes her way to the cave where they are hiding:

Petra raised her hand and tentatively touched the woman’s face, as if to assure herself that it was real. The Sealand woman laughed, kissed her, and put her down again. She shook her head slowly, as if she were not quite believing. “It was worth while,” she said in words  so curiously pronounced that I scarcely understood them at first. “Yes, certainly it was worth while!” She slipped into thought-forms, much easier to follow than her words.

“It was not simple to get permission to come. Such an immense distance; more than twice as far as any  of us has been before. So costly to send the ship: they could scarcely believe it would be worth it. But it will be…” She looked at Petra, wonderingly.”At her age, and untrained – yet she can throw a thought half-way around the world!”

David  suddenly realises that the threads have killed all the attackers. The woman is unrepentant, explaining that they are  a doomed race and that the  “think-together” people are the future:

Your minds are confused by your ties and your upbringing: you are still half-thinking of them as the same kind as yourselves. That  is why you are  shocked. …They  can see quite well that if it is to survive they have not only to preserve  it from detioriation, but they must protect it from the even more serious threat of the superior variant. For ours is a superior variant…The essential  quality of life is living: the essential  quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.


The woman takes David, Rosalind  and Petra in the flying machine off to New Zealand while  Michael stays behind  to rescue abother member of the group,  Rachel, promising to make their way to find them one day. The novel finishes as the machine  arrives above a sunlit city with  David sensing  something new,  a kind of suffused glow:

“What  is it?” I  said,  puzzled. “Can’t you guess, David? It’s people. Lots and lots of our kind of people”.

The Chrsyalids is Wyndham’s  masterpiece.  His chilling  vision of a dystopian  future is perfectly realised and the narative is compelling,  carrying the ring of truth  in its  depiction on how societies  can bond in fear against perceived “Outsiders” and repress dissent and change.

Wyndham wrote, of course, during the Cold War:  a time when there was a real fear that the two superpowers, the USA and  the Soviet Union – now armed with hydrogen bombs of enormous destructive power –  would  destroy the world between them. This  fear found its way  into a good few science fiction novels  and plays, some of which I have listed below  This survey is by no means exhasutive.


The Spurious Sun, by George Borodin (1948) begins  with an H-bomb-like explosion in Scotland which ignites the upper atmosphere; savage wars ensue worldwide, the UK is eliminated by nuclear weapons, and both Leningrad and San Francisco are obliterated. 

 Death of a World by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1948). An expedition to a deserted Earth turns up a diary describing the last days of Earth.

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (1948) is a  satire on the potential for the destruction of humanity.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)  is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war and  it portrays a world where scientific knowledge is feared and restricted.

 On the Beach by Neville Shute (1957) is   set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear  war,  and follows the fate of  group of  people awaiting the arrival of  the fallout from the northern hemisphere. The government  issues suicide pills to the population. The novel was a worldwide bestseller and  was filmed in 1959 and again in 2000.

On the Last Day by Mervyn Jones. (1958)  features  a Russian/Chinese invasion of Britain, during a non-nuclear Third world War , and of the successful attempt of the British government in exile (in Canada) to build a new intercontinental missile. Jones was  an activist  in CND.

Two Hours to Doom by Peter Bryant ( 1958)  imagines an attack on the Soviet Union by American  planes,  ordered in by a paranoid general. The USA cooperates with the Soviets to shoot the planes down, and when one plane  gets through the Americans  offer to destroy one of their own  cities as quid pro quo. At the last minute the plane fails to reach its target. The novel was the basis for the the film Dr Strangelove.

Alas,  Babylon, by Pat Frank, (1959) shows the aftermath of a nuclear war as it affects a small town in Florida, Fort Repose.

The Last Day, a novel of the day after tomorrow  by Helen Clarkson (1959).  The story takes place in a  village on the New England coast, and tells what happens in the six days following a nuclear war.   You can read it here

Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1959) is the story  of soldier X-127 living with others  in an  underground military bunker,  Level 7,  who  narrates the tale of  life in the bunker  before, during and after a nuclear war that kills the rest of humanity. 

Dark December  by  Alfred Coppel (1960) is set in a world after a nuclear war. A soldier sets off on a journey to his home in California. En route he saves a captured Russian pilot.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960) is a  series of stories set in a world  six  hundred years after a nuclear war.  Society rebuilds itself,  but political conflicts lead to  another  nuclear war.

Drama on television

Number Three, broadcast by the BBC on 1st  February 1953. This was dramatised from a novel by Charles Irving by Nigel Neale and  others.  Scientists at an atom research station  working on a new form of nuclear power discover  the project leader plans to  use it as a weapon.

Doomsday for Dyson  by J B Priestley, broadcast on ITV on 10th March 1958. An anti-war fantasy about a man standing trial in the afterlife for killing his family in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. It was followed by a short studio discussion on the issues raised.

Underground, broadcast  by ATV on 30th  November 1958 in the “Armchair Theatre” series.  It was written by James Forsyth, adapted from novel by Harold Rein Few Were Left, directed by William Kotcheff.  The survivors of a nuclear holocaust are trapped in the London Underground.

The Offshore Island, broadcast by the BBC on 14th  April 1959. It was written by Michael Voysey, based on a play by  Marganita Laski, an activist in CND.  A  drama about a family whose farm remains unaffected, eight years after a nuclear war. Their peace is disturbed by a force of American soldiers and then a Russsian one.

The Poisoned Earth, broadcast by  ITV on 28th  February 1961 in the “Play of the Week” series. It was written by Arden Winch. Moral problems are raised when a new type of nuclear bomb, with limited fallout range, is developed.

The Road, broadcast by the BBC on 29 September 1963.  It was written by Nigel Kneale,  and was  part of  the “First Night” drama series.  A  scientist and a philosopher  in C18th investigate  “ghosts” that appear on Michaelmass Eve each year. In the end we realise  that they are actually visions from  the future of  people fleeing down a road from a nuclear war.

Loving the Alien: Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle (1963)

fifth-planetIn previous posts I have looked at the science  fiction writing  of Fred Hoyle in the television  dramas A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough,  as well as his novel, October the First is too Late Written with his son Geoffrey Hoyle,  Fifth Planet  echoes the plot  of  Fred’s earlier novel The Black Cloud (1957) in which  a sentient  gas cloud entered the solar system and caused glocal catastrophe before moving on. In  Fifth Planet a star named  Helios, accompanied by its planets,  enters the solar system in the late c20th.

The central character  in the novel is Hugh Conway, a scientist  who works at the Helios Centre in the UK which  is planning a Western  expedition to land on Helios’ fifth planet, Achilles.  The Soviet bloc  is also planning an expedition.  Conway  is married to  the beautiful Cathy,  but after ten years  they  share no common interests, and she  is serially unfaithful,  including with one of the astronauts, Mike Fawsett,  as Conway knows. Although set in the future, this is clearly the world of the early 1960s with Conway reading The Times over his breakfast.

There is a good deal of scientific detail about the difficulties of rendezvousing with a moving object like Achilles and the kind of massive rocket  that would be needed to make the journey there and back.  This becomes tedious after a while.  Finally, and as a reader you are quite relieved,  both expeditions set off towards Achilles.  By the way the Soviet expedition includes a woman, Tara Ilyana, which was prescient of the Hoyles. They wrote the novel  in August 1962: on 16 June 1963 Valentina Tereshkova spent three days orbiting the earth in a Soviet Vostock capsule.

The Soviet expedition arrives first but crashes on landing,  killing one crewman and injuring another. They are rescued by the Americans after they  have landed. The atmosphere on Achilles is breathable, but there is no sign of any life,  the landscape comprising lakes and grass;


Now they knew what the green stuff was. Nothing but grass.  Grass that stretched  away from them in all directions , over hill over dale. It came up to their calves  and it had a nice soft pile. They weren’t botanists so they couldn’t tell  whether it was different from the grass back home…Even so it looked  pretty much like a clover field.  There was a light  wind that produced a slight stirring of its surface. They walked a few hundred  yards away from the rocket. The sky, they noticed, was very blue, a little richer than on Earth. The wind and the grass were producing a very gentle whispering.

Achilles seems to be an Eden, but turns out to have a serpent as  the members of the expedition start to suffer from hallucinations and other mental  disturbances. Fawsett thinks he  sees Cathy, for instance, and then has a breakdown,   while two men drive in circles, unable to escape. Another pair of  astronauts  come across a set of vertical translucent sheets on a hill:

Now that they had found something  both Larson  and Bakovsky began to think along the same lines. Theirs was the natural human reaction. What could they do to change things? They didn’t understand it, but perhaps if they could fiddle with something or other, something would happen, and  then they would begin to understand it. Fiddle with it first and think about it afterwards.  That was the thing to do…

The “fiddling” involves hurling   a hand grenade at the sheets, which turns out to be very bad idea indeed. Larson  dies on the spot “his whole personality, his very self, was lifted upwards and dissipated like puff of smoke”; Bakovsky runs for half a mile “his face strained with the utmost terror” until he reaches a lake and runs straight  in until he vanishes under the water.

Finally  the remnants of both expeditions blast off back to  Earth,  where the  Soviets and  the West are bemused and then increasingly  suspicious as to what really happened on Achilles.  Cathy is summoned to the bedside of  the traumatised Fawsett who dies in her presence.  Conway takes her home, already  aware that she is no longer his wife but someone else. “ the first brief moment when she’d looked up at  him he’d known – he’d  known that it  was not Cathy.” An alien has travelled from Achilles  in the mind of Fawsett and then transferred to Cathy, who tells Conway she has come to find out about Earth, ” for the same reason  that you came to our planet.”nuclear-bomb

Cathy now   has  prodigious   mental  power to influence  the minds of humans which,  on returning to Britain,  she uses to create  a worldwide illusion that a nuclear war has started, though humanity eventually  divines  that it was an illusion;

Conway hadn’t realised how remarkably quick his own  recovery had been. It took the rest of the world more than  three hours to make the same  recovery. The people rose  up from the pavement, they came out of the fall-out  shelters, they came out of their graves, and they found that the sun was still shining and that their children were still alive. For the most part they broke down and wept as they had not done since they were young themselves. They didn’t know how it had happened  but they knew that in some way a hellish disaster had been avoided.

The governments of the world  realise that this illusion resembles the illusions experienced  on Achilles,  and  suspicion soon  falls on Cathy. In the final, and best  part of the novel,  with some genuine tension at long last,  Cathy and Conway go on the run,  hunted   by the army and police.  Whilst recovering from a bullet wound she tries to explain to him  how  their planet  works:

He was delighted when he realized that the nature of the animating force of life was an irregularity in a wave surface, like a flash of radiation.  As it travels in respect of time so our lives are propelled through the electrical circuits in our brain….the wave surface over a short period of time would appear like a standing wave in the four dimensional.

No,  I didn’t  understand that either.  At the  end of the novel Cathy uses her mental powers to get them  on a shuttle into space  and  the pair takes over a rocket that will get her back to Achilles. Conway is  now deeply in love with this new version of Cathy, who  has been  transformed from a housewife principally  interested in shopping and  sex  to a highly intelligent and powerful  woman,  and makes  a last minute  decision:

He looked far down the ship to where Cathy was standing, still watching him. He stood still for a moment and then with a muttered exclamation  he began to move towards her again. He stopped for a few seconds to put his arm around her waist and draw her to him, then he went over to the big control panel. Quickly he released the transit, and only then pressed the switches that started the big motors. A very faint trembling seemed to fill the ship, and at last he reached down and pressed the main control lever.  In an instant he could feel the drive   beginning, he could feel the pressure in his legs. The great rocket began to swing outwards from the Earth, it began the journey for which it had been made, the journey to the planet of the whispering grass.

In their prologue to the novel the Hoyles explain that they wrote the novel to explore some scientific ideas;

four-dimensionsfPhysics   regards the world as  four dimensional,  all moments  of time exist together.  The world can be thought  of as a map, not only spatially , but also with respect to time. The map stretches away  both into the past and into  the future. There is no such thing as  as “waiting” for the future. It is already there in the map.

I think the novel shows up Hoyle’s strengths and weaknesses as a science fiction writer. The ideas  about  space and time are intriguing,  but  the story  is often lacklustre and cliched.  The characters never really come to life off the page, except perhaps the alien  Cathy.  The idea of an alien  visitor showing humanity that nuclear war  would be disastrous seems to be a nod to the film The Day They Earth Stood Still (1951),  while the motion of an alien taking over the mind of a returning astronaut seems to be a nod to the   The  Quatermass Experiment  (1953).


In Fifth Planet the astronomer and his son bring originality to three familiar themes: the interplanetary space race, the alien  world with disturbing novelties, and the symbiotic life-form inhabiting a human being. This last – the human being in question is the hero’s wife – achieves an uncommon pitch of conviction and even pathos. Interspersed are the attacks  on politicians as a group  and the technocratic bias which  one has come to expect from Hoyle pere. There are also references  to development  in sociology and psychology  which will have made these studies scientific, an unscientific notion, although I couldn’t quite make out whether  the Hoyles believe it or not.  They do seem to think that certain individuals are “basically”  interchangeable. This is unscientific. 

Kingsley Amis, The Observer,  8 December 1963, p.24

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.









Murder in Space : The Dynostar Menace by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1975)

Dynostar Menace

In previous posts I have discussed the novels Mutant 59 : the Plastic Eater and Brainrack, written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. The Dynostar Menace was their  third and final novel together.  It continues their  preoccupation  with threats to the environment,  but adds another element:  a murder mystery  in space.

The novel is set in 1986 in a world in which nuclear reactors have been abandoned  around the globe  following the nuclear  accident  at Grimess,  vividly portrayed  in Brainrack. With fossil fuels exhaused  a new source of potential  power  has been developed  – nuclear fusion – potentially offering humanity  safe, unlimited power. The device,   known as the  Dynostar,  is housed for safety in a satellite orbiting the earth, ready to send power back down to earth. However,  just before it is switched on, an  environmental  group, the Council of Twelve, provide conclusive evidence   that the Dynostar’s magnetic fields would destroy the earth’s ozone layer and lead  to a worldwide  ecological catastrophe. The scientists working on starting up  the Dynostar are ordered  instead to immediately shut down the device.   As they start work, three of them die,  apparently in  an accident, but  the reader  already knows that someone has murdered them.

Dynostar spacelab drawing

The  head of the  project on earth, Lee Caldor, sends a senior  astronaut, John Hayward, up to the Dynostar to supervise the operation. When other deaths follow, Caldor and Hayward realise that one of the scientists on board will stop at nothing to prevent the shut down. On earth Caldor  investigates the background of the scientists, speaking to their wives and lovers,  in a desperate effort to find a clue as to the identity of the murderer, while in space Hayward battles rising fear and paranoia  as more men are murdered,  and the ship ‘s systems are sabotaged:

Now the haggard  exhausted crew, already strained beyound any reasonable limits of control,  found their last psychological support snatched away by the battery failure. The additional knowledge that one of  them was both insane and a murderer, had completely  stripped away the reamaining  veneer of ordinary civilised behavour.

Now one by one, the elegantly balanced systems of the great Spacelab complex were failing around them. The inertial  ship orientation system had ceased to work, so that the ship was no longer rotated to even the heating effect of the sun’s rays and they were now beating down on the dorsal surface of the ship. 

In the dramatic  final pages the identity  of the murderer is revealed,   and venturing    in space on the  outer skin of the  Dynostar,  Hayward desperately  fights his opponent   to save his own  life and  stop the device  sparking into life with fearful consequences:

…for the first time, Hayward caught a glimpse of his face. It was expressionless, the eyes  set in a look of total concentration.

The flame burnt across the front of Haywards’s suit. Immediately, the epoxide fibre of the suit flared briefly and then charred, leaving a crumbling black scar across the suit. Part of the instrument bezel. softened and deformed.

He lost his grip and spun away from the walkway, striking the side of the monitor can. His umbilical suddenly tautened and sprung him back on rebound until he came to halt, spinning in the space between the monitor can and Dynostar.

Overall this is a taut and  claustrophobic scientific and psychogical thriller. Kit Peddler clearly did a great deal of  research for the novel, and sometimes the scientific detail is overdone and  clogs the narrative. Also, as in their previous novels,  there is not much  of a role for  women , other than providing the occasional sexual frisson.  But if you are interested in their  work for Doctor Who, Doomwatch etc , it’s well worth a read.

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The Doctor who fell to Earth: looking back at the classic Doctor Who serial, “Spearhead From Space” by Robert Holmes (1970)

Opening titles

With the departure of Patrick Troughton in 1969  Doctor Who  teetered on the edge of cancellation  as the ratings had  fallen  to not much above 5 million for his  final  ten part serial, “The War Games”.  In the end the BBC decided to give it  another  season, which some suspected might well prove to be the last.  Against the odds the series was re-invigorated and re-established itself as a Saturday teatime must-see  for another generation of young people, including myself. This was brought about by four  key factors:

the Brigadier

Firstly, the producer Derrick Sherwin –  who bridged the transition from  the Second to  the Third Doctor – opted for a new story line, anchoring the Doctor on Earth (having  been exiled by the Time Lords at the end  of “The War Games”)  where he becomes  the scientific advisor to UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), a  quasi-military outfit first encountered by the Second Doctor. UNIT is   led by  Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)  who  had first appeared as a regular army officer in “The Web of Fear” and then as the commanding officer of UNIT in “The Invasion”.

The programme makers felt that the format had become tired and wanted to show the Doctor battling his enemies on Earth, rather than on far distant planets. The Earth in question  in fact  turned out to be the Home Counties, subject to an surprisingly high number of alien invasions. This format  harked back to the Quatermass  serials of the 1950s in which  Professor  Bernard Quatermass  also grappled with alien  invasions.

Secondly,  the new serials were filmed in colour,  which allowed a fresh  look (although it was not without problems when the screen showed less than convincing monsters and  questionable  sets). Of course,  to begin with  many people would still have watched  Doctor Who  in black and white as colour TV sets were very expensive to begin with: just  200,000  sets had been sold by the end of 1969. By 1976, however, over 1 million had been sold and  the sales of colour sets  had overtaken those of black and white sets.

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Thirdly,  the new series was driven forward by  the script editor, Terrance Dicks, and the  new producer, Barry Letts,  who took over  from Sherwin  when he departed after producing  the new Doctor’s first  serial, “Spearhead in Space”.  Letts and  Dicks  formed a very close professional working relationship which was instrumental in popularising Doctor Who to a fresh  audience. From the interviews they seem quite different characters:    Letts is  the intellectual,   interested  subjects such as  Buddhism for instance,  whilst   Dicks is the practical  man of television  dedicated to ensuring,  as he says,  “that the screen doesn’t go blank at 5.30pm”.

And finally the inspired choice of Jon Pertwee as Troughton’s replacement, whose selection  was  a surprise to many.  Jon came from a “clan” (as he termed of it) of writers and actors.  When the Second World War started he joined the Royal Navy, avoiding  the RAF as,  according to Jon,  he had a fear of being trapped in a burning aircraft. If you look closely at his arm  in some episodes you can see his naval tattoo of a scarlet and green cobra, acquired after a very drunken night out.  Jon  served  for a time on HMS Hood, where he was a spotter up in the spotting top.  Jon  was transferred off the ship by the Captain   for officer training which was  very lucky for him, for, on 24 May 1941,    HMS  Hood was attacked  by the Bismarck and exploded  within minutes with the loss of 1, 415 men.  Just  three  crewmen survived.   Jon says, “It was such a dreadful thing to happen. I lost all my friends, all of my mates. All of them…You never really escape things like that. They stay with you all of your life”.

Jon Pertwee in navyLooking back Jon  was adamant about the horrors of  war:

“War is terrible. Anyone who tells you different is a liar…I realise I was very lucky to survive the war. There were a lot of times I nearly died. Once I was with some shipmates on leave in London and there was an air-raid. I had premonition and went down into the underground station to take shelter, but my shipmates wanted to get home to loved ones. …Next morning, I made my way back to my barracks, horrified by the damage done during the attack. It really was all smoke and ruins. I was the only one who got back to barracks. All of my mates had been killed during the bombing…A lot of nights it really did feel like the end of the world.” Doctor Who magazine, 457, March 2013, Interview with Jon Pertwee, p.25.

After the war Pertwee forged  a career as  a comic actor mainly on the radio,  his most well-known role being that of  Chief Officer  Pertwee  in The Navy  Lark  from 1959 to 1977  (which is still  being repeated on Radio Four Extra, by the way).  Jon was offered the part of Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army  but turned it down  as he was appearing on  Broadway in A Girl in My Soup. When  the role of the Doctor  came up Pertwee asked his agent to apply for the role,  and was surprised to find he was already on the shortlist. He was actually the second choice,  Ron Moody being  the first,  but was unavailable.   Jon had not watched the series much before taking the role.

Jon Pertwee

Jon was given a wardrobe which exactly suited his character and patrician personality, cutting an Edwardian dash in frills, velvets, hat and cape. They also gave him a retro car, Bessie.  In contrast to Pat Troughton quixotic clowning, Jon is very much the  action man. He often uses  Venusian Akido, felling his opponents with a single  touch.  In “The Time Warrior” he fights  the   medieval knights  with a sword,  and even swings across the room on a chandelier,   Errol Flynn style.  In  “The Curse of Peladon” he fights  the King’s champion, Grun,  in single-combat –  and wins.  In “Colony in Space” he fights off an attack from the Primitives who are armed with spears. The Doctor is launched into space in  “The Ambassadors of Death” and goes on a space walk  in “Frontier in Space”.  Jon never  missed an opportunity to include a gadget or some mechanised  method of transport  into the role.

He is also presented as a scientist. The serials often open with the Doctor sitting in a laboratory conducting an experiment or tinkering with sa piece of the Tardis,  as he tries to overcome the Timelords’ prohibition on his leaving the  Earth. In “The Silurians”  he works to find a cure for the plague spread by the Silurians. In “The Sea Devils” he rejigs a transistor radio to transmit a distress signal.  In “The Time Monster” he rigs up a Heath Robinson gadget which he calls a “time flow analogue “ to interrupt the Master’s experiments  with time.

The Third  Doctor is  an anti-authority figure,  impatient with red-tape or bureaucracy,  and very short-tempered  with the establishment  figures  he comes across such   Whitehall civil servants in pin-stripes,   army generals, businessmen  and scientists.

There are occasional flashes  of Jon’s  talent  for comedy.  In “The Green Death” he dresses up as  milk-man with a Welsh accent  to infiltrate the headquarters of   Global Chemicals,  and later on in the same serial  masquerades as  a char-lady in a scene straight out of a Carry On film.

Barry Letts says:

“Jon was a kind and unselfish man as well; indeed, his sensitivity was extended to everyone else. He did a lot to turn our casts and crew into a cohesive and happy company. For example, when a newcomer (even playing a small part)  arrived in the rehearsal room, he’d wander over  and introduce himself. ‘Hello,  I’m Jon Pertwee, I play the Doctor’. He made good friends of all the stunt men and other actors who were regularly cast. He was amusing and charming,  and could surprise you with flashes of unexpected humility”. Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007) , p25.

Robert Holmes

Jon was introduced as the Doctor in “Spearhead from Space”, written by Robert Holmes, probably the most influential writer the show has ever had. After serving in the army  during the war in Burma where he became an officer and joining the police on returning to England, he started working as journalist. He then progressed to writing for television including scripts for The Saint, Public Eye and a science fiction series, Undermind. Holmes  began writing for Doctor Who,   working with Terrance Dicks on  “The Krotons” to fill a gap in the schedule,  and then wrote “The Space Pirates”.

Caroline John

Jon’s  companion  for his first season was Caroline John, who plays a  Cambridge scientist, Dr Liz Shaw.  Caroline had worked mostly worked in the theatre and had struggled to get any roles on television.   When she went for the interview they talked  to her about The Avengers and how they wanted to make it more sophisticated with Jon Pertwee taking on the role as the Doctor. Caroline says that when the filming started for the first serial she was “a bundle of nerves”. She recalls Jon as being totally  professional  and an excellent actor and says they got  on very well “in a sort of father-daughter relationship”. As a character Liz  is clever, self-assured, cool, not at all  over-awed by the military men or male scientists with whom she is  usually  surrounded,  and sticks up for herself when neccessary. She never gets to travel in the Tardis, or even see inside.

“Spearhead From Space”   opens with  meteorites falling to Earth, part of an invasion by the Autons, a collective intelligence, which has seized control of a plastics factory and is creating replicas in readiness to take over the Earth. At the start of the first episode the Doctor is shown falling out of the Tardis and spends much of the first  and second episode in a coma, recovering from his regeneration. Meanwhile Lethbridge- Stewart has recruited Liz Shaw  to advise on the scientific implications of the meteorites. The Doctor finally wakes up, escapes from hospital in borrowed clothes,   steals a car and makes his way to UNIT HQ,  where he convinces the Brigadier that he is indeed the Doctor, despite his new appearance.

The AutonsThe invasion begins when shop dummies spark to life and terrorise the high streets of England  in a classic scene (although to Derrick Sherwin’s chagrin, the BBC budget did not stretch to the dummies being shown smashing their way through the shop windows). Finally the Doctor puts together a device  with Liz’s help which defeats the Autons. The serial ends with the Brigadier offering the Doctor a job as their scientific advisor  as “Doctor John Smith”

Unusually “Spearhead from  Space”  was shot entirely on location in 16mm  without the use of studio sets because there was a strike at the BBC,and the studios could not be used. This meant that the direction  is  fluid and  dynamic (just watch the press scrum scene at the hospital),   and  looks great more than forty years later.

Overall it’s a great season opener and harbinger of  even greater things to come. When  Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who in 2005, out of all the possible alien threats  from Doctor Who’s past, he chose the Autons to appear in the very first  serial, “Rose”, his  fitting tribute to  a classic era of Doctor Who.

In future posts I will be looking back at other Third Doctor serials.

Further reading and useful links

Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007)

Richard Molesworth,  Robert Holmes: A Life in Words (2013) published by Telos publishing

interview with Caroline John (1990)  Wine and Dine

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.



Nuclear and mental meltdown: Brainrack by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1974)


In a previous post I discussed  Mutant  59: the  Plastic Eater, the first novel by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis,  who worked together on Doctor Who,   and then created  the early 1970s ecological thriller series Doomwatch.

Their second novel Brainrack was published in 1974 by Souvenir Press,  and followed a similar trajectory to their first novel,   exploring  the  dangers  of what unregulated  scientific advances might do to people and  society.

The “hero” of the novel is a scientist Dr Alexander Mawn, who is that familiar  science fiction character –  the maverick –  at odds with  the scientific establishment. He believes  that an unidentified phenomenon is causing people to suffer from diminished intellectual abilty with possible disastrous consequences for society. He calls this “brainrack”.   Mawn’s  discovery  is unwelcome news to a number of politicians and businessmen who attempt to  publicly discredit him. After his laboratory is attacked and his assistant killed,  Mawn goes in pursuit of the man behind the attack – millionaire Brian Gelder –  who is building a nuclear power station in Scotland for the government. Mawn teams up with research psychologist Marcia Scott and,  through his Whitehall contacts,   manages  to get themselves invited to witness the opening of the Grimness  reactor.  Mawn believes the safety of the reactor been compromised by  “brainrack” affecting the operators whom he and Marcia  have tested.

The core of the book is a gripping and horrifying  second -by-second description of a nuclear accident at the reactor, caused by  faulty  heat sensors,  which successfully  brings together Pedler’s scientific knowledge with Davis’ writing ability. It’s worth remembering that  this  was written long before before accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

13.45 + 60 seconds

Inside  the core, the explosive reaction between the melting fuel cans and water culminated in one long shock  wave which   slammed through the whole assembly hammering against the steel shell…

13.46 +   2 seconds

The whole building shook and there was a deep echoing boom followed by the howling scream of gases escaping under pressure. Glass showered down from breaking florescent lights  in the ceiling of the Control Room . There was a second heavy explosion and an instrument panel sheared away from its wall mountings and fell massively forward,  strking one technician on the shoulder….

13.46 + 10 seconds

…the concrete floor erupted like a volcano as one of the pumps burst like a huge grenade,  flinging jagged cast iron fragments into the air like shrapnel. The room  filled with  clouds of roaring steam as fragments of the pumps careered and ricocheted off the walls…

Many  of the operatives die in the explosion or  from  massive radioactive poisoning,   but a small group  includng Mawn, Marcia and Gelder survive,  and manage to make their way out of the wrecked  reactor  and through the wintry countryside  to safety. Back in London Mawn now enjoys renewed  credibility with the government  and heads a research project which   eventually identifies a component in petrol as the cause of “brainrack”. He persuades the government  to agree to  an experiment  in which all traffic in London  is banned for four  days. After a shaky  start  the levels of the pollutant start to fall. The books ends  with Mawn addressing a crowd in  a car-free  London street:

“…Every one of us is going to make a full and final decision. From now on  every car owner  who starts his engine is going to be fully aware of what he’s doing. There’s no way for him to get out of it”.  He put his arm around Marcia’s  shoulder and started to move away.

“Over the next forty years or so, we’re going to be forced to adjust the whole of our life style – the whole of our technology to cater for millions of adults…  who are never going to recover.  So present  my apologies to the Prime Minsiter and tell him that the choice is really quite simple. It’s cars or the minds of our children, and  God knows which we shall choose.”

Brainrack  is a novel of ideas and action,   rather than character  and development. I am not sure if I even like Mawn very much , while  Marcia never amounts to much more  than his  eventual bed-partner, which  is par for the course for women characters in much of  early 1970s fiction.  From the late 60s onwards Kit Pedler was increasingly disillusioned with the  notion  that unfettered scientific research   would  lead to greater happiness for all. He came to believe that  much scientfic research  was in fact  driven solely  by corporate interests or national prestige and was destroying the planet  – and   needed to be stopped before it was too late. Forty years on, with global warming unchecked and London choking from diesel fumes,  it feels as though we should  heed these warnings more than ever…

Further reading

Michael Seely has produced an excellent  biography of Kit Pedler: The Quest for Pedler:the Life and Times of Dr Kit Pedler (2014), published by miwk.

You can watch one  episode from Mind Over Matter, a television series presented by Kit in the spring in 1981, which looked at the possibility of telepathy and other  paranormal activity.

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.











Time Travel with a Twist: October the First is Too Late by Fred Hoyle (1966)


Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle was a well-known scientist who appeared regularly on television  and  in the press  in the 1950s and 1960s. I have written in more detail about his career in a previous post about  the 1961  television series A for Andromeda.

October The First Is Too late is one of  a series of science fiction novels he  wrote in the 1960s,  which were popular at the time,   but largely forgotten nowadays. In his introduction to this novel Hoyle writes: “The ‘science’ in this book is mostly scaffolding for the story, story-telling in the traditional sense. However, the discussions of the significance of time and of the meaning of consciousness are intended to be quite serious…”

Hoyle’s novels often have a scientist as the main protaganist,  but in this novel  it is a musician  and composer named Dick: accordingly each chapter is named after  a musical theme or style eg “Fugue” and “Coda”.  The novel begins in 1966 when he runs into an old university friend John Sinclair, now a scientist,  and on an impulse they set off  together on a trip to Scotland. Something very odd happens here. Sinclair  disappears   for half a day,  and on returning cannot explain or recall what has happened to him. Later,  when  swimming Dick  notices that a birthmark Sinclair previously  had on his back has vanished.

The trip is cut short when  Sinclair is recalled to the USA to assist in the investigation of a strange  solar phemonena.  Dick  accompanies him to California where he has a brief affair with a young actress. They  then journey on to Hawaii, where  Sinclair  and others establish that the Sun is somehow being used as a signalling device with an enormous amount of data being transmitted.  Barely have they absorbed this astonishing fact when  all contact is lost with the USA,  and it is feared that a nuclear war has begun.

Dick and Sinclair manage  to get  places on a plane sent to investigate what has happened. Flying above Los Angeles there is no sign of  a war: the city is simply no longer there,  just woods and grassland in its place. Journeying on, they see the same across the continent:

Truth to tell I think everybody wanted to take a look  at New York. It was much the same story as we flew over the Applachians in the fading light. But there were far more signs of life here, far more primitive shacks. It all looked as America might have looked around the year 1800. Darkness came on. We saw little more, except twice there were flickering lights below us, fairly obvious camp fires. Then we were out over the Atlantic.

First world warCrossing the Atlantic they find to their relief  that the England of 1966  is still there. After landing they are taken  to meet the Prime Minister and  defence staff  to tell them of  what they have seen. They learn that Britain has lost touch with Europe:  planes sent to investigate did not come back.  Then boats from the Continent  begin to arrive at English ports,  and they discover that Europe has gone back to September 1917 and the First World War is raging.

John Sinclair tells Dick: all of us in our daily lives, you’re stuck with a grotesque and absurd illusion…the idea of time as an ever-rolling stream. The thing which is supposed to bear all its sons away. There’s one thing quite certain  in this business: the idea of time as a steady progression from past to future. I know very well  that we feel this way about it subjectively. But we’re the victims of a confidence tick. If there’s one thing we can be sure in physics is that all times exist with equal reality. If you consider the motion of the Earth around the Sun, it is a spiral in four dimensional space-time. There’s absolutely no question of singling out a special point on the spiral and saying that particular point is the present position of the Earth. No so far  as physics is concerned.

Sinclair suggests that what has happened is that the people in the various time zones are in fact copies,  which explains  the signalling they detected:

It’s as if the present  world were built out of copies of bits of the old world. Do you remember the day on the moor below Mickle Fell?  Don’t you realise it was a copy that came back to the caravan that night. Not quite a perfect copy, the birthmark was missing….Different worlds remembered and then all put together to form a strange new world. We shall find out more as we go along. This isn’t the end of it. 

The British government makes contact with the armies fighting in Europe and bring about a ceasefire. Meanwhile Dick and  Sinclair  embark on a further flight to see what other time zones there might be.  Where Russia once  was, there  is now  a vast unbroken plain of molten glass,  while  the Aegean is in the time of  the Ancient Greeks;  they fly over an intact Parthenon. This  discovery leads Dick to join an expedition of scholars and others  which sails from England  to Athens. He takes his piano  with him.


On arrival the Athenians welcome them and accept their story that they are from a far-off  northern land, although they soon take their ship from  them  when they realise how fast it will travel with engines. It is the year 425 BC and Athens is at war with Sparta. Dick’s skill with the piano, an instrument unknown  in this era, makes him a popular guest.

Dick  resumes composing,  and on a visit to a temple comes across a tall,  very attractive young woman, looking quite unlike the other women in Athens. He assumes that she is a priestess,  and their meeting finishes with an agreement to engage in a musical  contest which  ends in a draw. After spending the night with her,  Dick  wakes somewhere  completely different in a room with advanced technology.

Unexpectedly John Sinclair is also there. After searching the world he had  found  this time zone, which is 6,000 years in the future. The “priestess” Melea is in  fact from this time,  and they learn from  her and their other hosts that  after the  C20th the world had gone through a cycle of civilisation leading to war  and  then a new civilisation and then a war  many times until they made a conscious decision to stop the cycle.  The population of the world is just 5 million,  with only what used to be Mexico is inhabited: the rest of the world is grassland.

They tell the two men  that what has happened with  the different time-zones is an experiment by an unknown intelligence, and that only this future time will survive. An elder explains:

Your people exist only in a ghost world. For a little while your world may have a vivid reality, but very soon, now that we have made our decision, it will be gone. It will go in a brief flash, just as it arrived.

Melea  adds:

...the different  time zones of the Earth will change  back to what they were before. The Greece in which me met, the temple, will be gone. It will gone more completely  even more than the ruined remains of your own time. It will be gone almost without trace. It will be gone, except for the records in our libraries. Europe too will be gone, so will the great Plain of Glass. It will only be this zone here that will remain.

Sinclair attempts to explain to Dick  what has happened, that their lives have forked in two directions:

There’s no connexion between them. You’re either in the one or in the other. It’s the sequence all over again. Whichever one you’re in you never know of the other. In this sequence you can never know what happened when you returned to Los Angeles. In that other sequence you can never know even a single thing about this one. The two are utterly separated. In the other sequence neither you and I will know about the future…

Sinclair  decides to leave,  as does Dick, but then  changes his mind at the last minute and decides to stay in the future. Two years later he reflects:

The prognostications were correct. Within a few hours of the departure of John Sinclair, the world reverted to ‘normal’.  The England of 1966,  the Europe of 1917, the Greece of 425  BC, all vanished just as remarkably as they had appeared. I have not seen John again, nor do I think there is the smallest possibility I will ever do so…More and more the old life has become vague and remote, like the memories of distant  childhood. This gradual evaporation of a life which at one time was so intensely vibrant has come upon me with profound sadness…I have no doubt now that it was the real John Sinclair who was sent out from here – into oblivion. The irony and tragedy is that to the two of us it was the world of 1966 that was the real cul-de-sac.

This is first and foremost a  novel of ideas and possibilities.  Hoyle is not a great writer, his prose is often pedestrian,  and  we never feel particularly  engaged with the characters, in fact I found Richard rather smug and self-obsessed.  As a character  Melea is present mainly  for sex interest. The  central  conceit of a world of different time zones is what  holds your  interest  and keeps you reading, waiting for an explanation,  although in the end  we never get a definitive answer  to the mystery, we never learn who is behind this  experiment.  Also  Hoyle has a habit of bringing the narrative to a shuddering halt while his characters  engage in pages of philosophical  or scientific discussion: at times it does feel  rather like a lecture series disguised as a novel.

The War Games

One final point. In 1969 Malcolm Hulke and Terance  Dicks wrote in great haste  a ten part serial for Doctor Who called “The War Games”. In this serial the Doctor and his companions, Jamie and Zoe,  lands in the midst of what appears to be the First World War. The Doctor tells Jamie:”We’re back in history, Jamie. One of the most terrible times on the planet Earth.” But  then  they discover that other wars from history such the Roman invasion of Britain, the Mexican Revolution and the American Civil War are taking place in different zones.  They are not on Earth at all, but on another planet where the war games are being run by an alien race so that they can create an invincible army to conquer the galaxy, assisted by a renegade Time Lord, the War Chief.

There are some intriguing similarites between October the First is Too Late and “The War Games”; the idea of co-existing time zones, one of which is the First World War.  It may be  that either Hulke or Dicks had read the novel,  and  that some of Hoyle’s notions fed  into their pool of ideas for writing the Doctor Who serial.

You can read my post about  Malcolm Hulke here.

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Imagining a Socialist Utopia in Manchester : The Sorcery Shop, an impossible romance by Robert Blatchford (1907)

the Sorcery shop

In The Sorcery Shop Robert Blatchford attempts to describe what a Socialist  utopia might look like, imagining  the   grimy,  smoke-clogged  city of Manchester, which he knew very well, transformed  a sunlit  city of  flowers, fountains  and crystal towers. It is of a piece,  therefore,  with other socialist  utopian novels of the period,  including Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890),  H G Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905)  and Men Like Gods (1923),  and Charlote Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915)

Robert Blatchford

Robert Blatchford and his friends were the  founders  in 1891 of the Clarion newspaper:  the most influential Socialist newspaper ever published in Britain,  which  created thousands of Socialists and inspired  a whole social movement.

Blatchford was born in Maidstone in 1851. He came from a theatrical family, his father John  being  a comedian and his mother Georgina an actress.  He had little schooling and was largely self-educated, spending his time reading during regular bouts of childhood illness. The family eventually settled in Halifax where Robert was apprenticed as a brushmaker. He did not go into the trade, however, instead leaving the town in  1871 and joining the army where he rose to the rank of Sergeant major.

After leaving the army he got a job as a storeman  with the Weaver Navigation Company in Northwich and  began writing short stories in his spare time which eventually  led to him  writing a column for a newspaper in Leeds. This  led him  into full-time journalism, first in London and then in Manchester where he worked for Edward Hulton, writing for the Sunday Chronicle under the penname Nunquam (Nunquam Dormio – I do not sleep.) His salary was now an astonishing £1,000 a year.

Increasingly he  wrote about slum conditions in Manchester and was taken around some of the worst cellars in Hulme and Ancoats by a local Socialist, Joe Waddington. Blatchford finally became a Socialist  after reading A summary of the Principles of Socialism, written by Henry Hyndman and William Morris, sent to him by a reader.  He   was not a theoritician  but came to Socialism because he saw it as  a practical solution to the poverty and misery he had personally witnessed.  He later  wrote, somewhat self importantly:

I have never read a page of Marx. I got the idea of collective ownership from H.M. Hyndman; the rest of my Socialism I thought out myself. English Socialism is not German: it is English. English Socialism is not Marxian; It is humanitarian. It does not depend upon any Clarion May Daytheory of “economic justice” but upon humanity and common sense.

Hulton would not let  him write about Socialism in the Morning Chronicle  so Blatchford walked out of his job and set up The Clarion, along with  his brother Montague and his friends Alex Thompson, Edward Fay and Robert Suthers. It was a huge gamble but, fortunately for them,  many of Blatchford’s  readers followed him  to the new venture  and The Clarion  soon became  a welcome weekly visitor  to thousands of  households and attracted a fierce loyalty from its readers. The Clarion was never a dry as dust theoretical  journal,  but a jovial mix of news, comment, short stories, songs and  poetry.   As George R Taylor put in his book Leaders Of Socialism, Past and Present, published in 1910:

…..Robert Blatchford…..can manufacture Socialist more quickly then anyone else. Tipton Limited sells more tea than any other firm, Bever sells more soap;  one factory makes more boots; another most chairs. Mr Blatchford and The Clarion make more Socialists than any rival establishment.


The Sorcery Shop

The Clarion always  carried poems, short stories and extracts from novels, many of them written by Blatchford.  He was inspired by William Morris’s News From Nowhere to write his own utopian novel  The  Sorcery Shop:  An impossible Romance, published in 1907.  Blatchford says in his introduction:

It is only reasonable  to suppose that in a wisely-ordered commonwealth the best energies of a highly-trained and intelligent people would be directed towards the improvement all the conditions of national , civic and domestic life; but I have left all that to the imagination of the reader, and have tried to show the possibility of organising and carrying on a prosperous and healthy commune without calling in  any other  mechanical aids  than those  of which we are already the masters…Poverty, crime, disease, war , drunkenness, and ignorance are all preventable evils. Were it not for the ignorance of the many, and the foolish greed and vanity of the few, we might have a happy, healthy, and beautiful England now.

 The book begins in  the Directorate Club in London, where  we meet Major-General Sir Frederick Manningtree Storm, Tory MP for South Loomshire, and  Mr Samuel Jorkle, Liberal MP, for Shantytown East.  In an argument about Socialism they meet a  third man, a stranger named  Nathaniel Fry, a magician in fact   who spirits them away to a Socialist England using a Crystal Car.  “And now gentleman, we are in an impossible country, inhabited by impossible things, and are impossibly happy. I hope you will be amused. Allow me to open the door.” They land in a great, green wood and make their way to a vantage point looking down on a plain:

It was an orchard plain, a plain of flowering trees, in the midst of which was built a city. The roofs and towers and gables of the town stood up like red and white islands out of a broad sea of blossoms…They saw red roofs glowing amid the billows of delicate pink and white.  They saw the domes and towers of marble palaces, and the graceful shaft of a tall campanile with a gleaming golden crown. They heard the rhythmic hurry of a carillon, sounding wonderfully from some distant belfry, and the throbbing and champing music of a marching band, afar off in the hidden streets...Well, gentleman” said the wizard…”this is Manchester. He waved his hand towards the flowery plain, ”this city of health and beauty, of happy homes, and noble palaces, of trees and flowers, this Paradise regained, is Manchester – Manchester under impossible conditions”. 

 road with flowersThey pass Hulme Town Hall, now “a marble place with high towers” and make their way into the city along Chester Road. The wizard tells them:

 You will observe it is wide road, with broad band of well-kept grass along each side, nearest the gardens.  You will observe that the houses are very handsome and homely, and are all detached and homely, each standing in its own garden. There are no walls nor hedges between these gardens and the road. As a matter of fact, there is not a lock nor a fastening in all Manchester.

city with towersThey enter Fountain Square:

The great square presented an animated picture of rich colour, and noble form, and eager, happy, human life. The place was a garden: a garden of green lawns, and bright spring flowers, and sparkling fountains, and stately trees – a garden surrounded by marble palaces, and canopied by a blue and smokeless sky. Here the people – the beautiful, brave, impossible people – gathered in their thousands – walking, lounging, laughing, talking, as though the square were occupied by troops of friends



The wizard explains how the position of women  has changed:

Here if a husband leaves his wife he finds it very difficult  to find another .the women here are very proud, their ideal of purity is very high, and they are completely independent. No woman here marries for bread. No woman dreads a future of solitary indigence. There is no poverty in this country. Every wife is economically independent of her husband. …The maidens here set their entreatments at a higher rate than a demand to parley. They are free. They are men’s  equals…. I tell you and mark it well , that in this country there is no such thing  as an untaught, poor or degraded woman; there is no such thing as a courtesan; there is no such thing as the sale and barter of women’s ’s flesh and women’s honour; there is not a woman tramp, beggar, or slave; there is not a woman destitute of home, of hope, of love. 


Children are seen as the responsibility of the whole community:

The children can find homes in a hundred households. They can take food anywhere. Every house is open, every table free to them, and, still more happily, every heart is open to them also.  No child here is denied food, no child is denied instruction, no child is denied love.

There are no schools in this society, children are taught at home by the women. There is  no distinction between the sexes:

 Nearly every child is taught to draw, to model, or to carve, or to do all those things; and every child is taught to sing, and to dance and draw  and carve, and can read and write the universal language, as well as English, before they are in their teens. They pick up other things as well; botany, astronomy, geography,  gardening – many things…the children, boys and girls, all swim, and row, and play at cricket and many other games


Nobody works more than 3 or 4 hours a day,  and then after pursue other endeavours such as painting or writing. Everybody is paid the same.


What do the masses in our towns ever see of Nature? What do the labourers in our villages ever see of art or hear of music? in our England the great bulk of the people  have no artistic nor intellectuals pleasures. Have you ever been to the average village concert?  Have you ever been to the cheap popular music-halls and theatres? Have you ever studied the cheap popular fiction?  With these people , in this new England, life itself is beautiful. 

 Evolution Not  Revolution.

Blatchford is quite vague about  how this “new England , as he calls it, came into being, but it appears not to have been a revolution. In one passage he appears to indicate that it was result of municipalisation.

You have seen the gas, trams, and waterworks pass from private hands into the control of the municipalities without bloodshed.  Why should there be bloodshed over the cotton mills and soap factories… And it is evident that such co-operation must always beat private competition, for two reasons; the first reason is that the muncipality can produce more cheaply; the second reason is that no private form can afford to trade without making some profit, whereas the municipality can do without any profit at all… The wizard blew a smoke ring and smiled. “I do not defend robbery”,  he said, “I defend the recovery  of stolen property. Socialism is not a thief, it is a policeman.

At the end of the book the two MPs are returned to present-day London where, looking through a window,  see  the unemployed march past.

They were, for the mUnemployed Leicester 1905ost part, the ill-clothed, rough-spun men of the labouring class, with here and there a better-dressed artisan. Their boots were down at heel, their hands were coarse, their faces grimy and weather-beaten. They tramped on silently, looking straight before them, or on the ground. They seemed dull and dispirited, but not angry or ashamed. With a strange stolidity of endurance, worthy of Oriental fatalists, they trudged along upon their hungry march through the wealth and ostentation of the indifferent West .


A Neil Lyons in his book  Robert  Blatchford, The sketch of a personality, An estimate of some achievements,  published in 1910,  say that this is the least successful of Blatchford’s novels

No man has yet succeeded in inventing a satisfactory Utopia and Mr Blatchford, perhaps, has come as near to doing so as anybody else. But – John’s utopia never fits Jim. Mr Blatchford , in this picture of the Ideal State, has seen fit to deprive us of our wine and tobacco. Mr Blatchford expects too much from his fellow-man – especially from his fellow craftsman – when he asks him to consider seriously ideals which eliminate wine and tobacco.

Make your own mind up

You can read The Sorcery Shop online here


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