So, just where did I start my ‘Bookish Week Off’, on Saturday 28 June 2014?
Well, since I was already committed to photographing an event in my home village of Bloxwich, I thought to myself, “What better place to start than the building where I first began seriously reading science fiction, way back when I was 11, in 1971?”
Bloxwich Library, in Elmore Row, with its attached Library Theatre.
Thankfully still open, and today refurbished and renewed as ‘Bookmark Bloxwich’, the place where my ‘sense of wonder’ was first really awakened is in fact the fourth and best library to open in Bloxwich since 1874 – in 1960. It was here that I first began reading those wonderful stories by Robert. A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, amongst others, which had been the staple diet of science fiction fans since the 1940s and 50s, and I can tell you they were not only great fun but a real eye-opener to a child of the ‘Space Age’ who was by then steeped in the real-world adventures of heroic American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts – and wanted more.
I was born just two years after Sputnik made its first orbit, and I began borrowing my own science and science fiction books just 10 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and two years after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins became the most amazing adventurers in history by successfuly orbiting and landing on the Moon. In those heady days it seemed like humanity would soon be on Mars, and even reaching for the stars in my lifetime. Well, it didn’t quite work out like that, thanks to politics.
Thankfully, there have been many amazing unmanned missions all over the solar system in the decades since, and who knows where both men and women will end up before I finally pop my clogs, despite all the government foot-dragging and time and money wasted on pointless wars since then. Before long, we may even see a British astronaut, though sadly atop a Russian rocket instead of the remarkable nuclear-powered British spacecraft portrayed in the great 1950s Quatermass science fiction TV shows. We could have had all that, but the stupidity of governments intervened once again.
Anyway, despite the disappointments of the real world, I am eternally grateful for the fun I had in those far-off days and in the years before when I had been so greatly encouraged to read by my parents that when a teacher at school asked me what I would like to do when I grew up, I said “An astronaut. Or a science fiction writer. Either would do…” Well, I managed one of those eventually, despite being distracted by a career as a professional photographer, journalist and historian, not to mention many other hobby interests. And both science fiction and science fact changed my life, and made me who I am today in so many ways. But I wish I still had all the old British reprints of American science fiction pulp magazines and those cheap but fun Ace Double paperbacks which I collected back then. Where did they all go?
Sadly, you can no longer just walk into a Walsall Metropolitan Borough public library and take off the shelves these wonderful, seminal classics of science fiction that are still such great reads today. They have almost all been hidden away in the central reserve stock, and can only be borrowed by paying to reserve and order them to be delivered to your branch library. And, judging by the computerised online library catalogue, they include many of those very same hardback volumes published in the 1960s and 70s which I held and loved so long ago. Maybe it’s time to break them out of jail…
The weird thing is, having spent some 28 years writing about computers, astronomy and local history, I’ve only had the time to make a start on writing the science fiction stories I always wanted to now, in my early 50s, because I’ve had to set aside so many other things for family reasons that I now have the time. I do hope I haven’t left it too late – after all the future is already here, even if it’s not the one we exactly dreamed of back in the space age…
At least my dear old Bloxwich Library is still there, home of so many memories despite its recent transformations and updates. When I started going there (and to Coalpool Library, sadly long closed) there were none of the computers that are so commonplace in libraries today. So commonplace that in most branch libraries that they have all but replaced the wonderful reference sections which were so important to us schoolchildren and older students way back when. Don’t forget, public libraries were mostly founded to allow the self-improvement of the working classes, at a time when few could afford their own books. Leisure reading was really not their main purpose; it is now. And even that has changed hugely since my childhood.
I remember there being two bays of science fiction on the polished wooden shelves. I always used to avidly read all of them, then when I ran out of new books I would walk from my home to Coalpool Library and read what was there. There were usually more new books arrived at Bloxwich by the time I finished their stock! When I ran out of science fiction I would move on to fantasy, generally works by Michael Moorcock and JRR Tolkien, and I have to say my all-time favourite, the great sword and sorcery writer Robert E, Howard. These three greats remain my top fantasy faves today, though years later when fantasy became fashionable many works by other American authors appeared and the market began to be flooded by interminable multi-book series.
When I revisited Bloxwich Library on Saturday, and it is a place which I have to admit I still know quite well because until recently I was an active member of Bloxwich Library Forum, which manages the Theatre in association with the library management, I thought I really ought to mark the occasion by borrowing a book, something I rarely do today because I have too many of my own to read!
So I decided to have a look around to see what the kids are borrowing today. Interestingly, there is nothing called a Science Fiction section in the glossy, modern Bloxwich Library, or indeed a Fantasy or even a Horror section. Entertainingly, these kind of books, many of the sort which is now categorised as Young Adult (back in the day they called them Juvenile!), are now split into the following catergories:
- Out of this World (science fiction and the odd epic fantasy book).
- Paranormal (a mix of horror, modern vampire, ghosts and witchy/paganish books).
- Blood Lust (aka Supernatural Romance!).
- Hot Text (general YA books with a few fantasy, sci-fi and horror thrown in).
- Graphic (comics/graphic novels).
There was certainly no sign of Blood Lust back in the day (at least not on the library shelves) – you would be lucky to find a copy of Dracula. But I really wish we could have borrowed comics out of the library in my youth! Maybe I should just buy a few Judge Dredd megazines – what do you say?
What did I borrow in the end? A book of a kind I haven’t read since the 1970s – a Star Wars tie-in! Seems appropriate, don’t you think?
Maybe one day, my books will also be on those shelves, if only in a parallel universe.
Who can predict the future, after all?