Wednesday 18 March 2015

Author Interview: PHILIP E HIGH


 Philip E High’s hard-action adventure-SF dominated the British 
magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, with stories featured in consecutive 
issues of ‘New Worlds’, ‘Nebula SF’ and ‘Authentic’, sometimes
 during the same month. And then there were fourteen novels! 
Andrew Darlington suggests that maybe it’s time for a 
reappraisal of this prolific writer’s body of work…

Hot sunshine on tepid concrete outside. Cool liquid antiquity inside. Sitting in a Canterbury bar around midday, reflecting on a hectic weekend which began by travelling down via Oxford and London to meet SF writer Philip E High. Following a miscalculation of the geographical kind I wind up sleeping in the car in a small wood pulled off the M2. Waking into a mist-hazy and crow-infested morning. On to Canterbury as the sun gets intense, spilling and shattering smiles across people’s faces. Spent time interpreting – in broken English to their broken French, the exact legality of the prevailing parking meter system to two French girls. But the best is yet to come…

Eventually locate King Street off Blackfriars, within the sound of the cathedral bells, and the white terrace house wherein, according to the letterhead, Philip E High can be found. Walk past numerous times before knocking. Someone I indentify – from blurbs on paperbacks, as his daughter informs that said writer is not at home, but will return. A couple of hours? So I retreat to this bar for reflection.

I’d be around sixteen, trapped in uneasy adolescence, when I first encountered secondhand issues of the unique ‘Nebula SF’ magazine, a pulp monthly idiosyncratically produced by Peter Hamilton – ‘a great editor and a nice man’, from Scotland. Seemed like there was a Philip E High story in every alternative issue – sometimes even in consecutive issues. He vied with Ken Bulmer, Brian Aldiss – and EC Tubb (‘we virtually shared ‘New Worlds’ between us’) for published regularity. They were good stories. In the mid-sixties the magazine market imploded, and High graduated into producing an impressive list of novels – ‘The Prodigal Sun’ (1964), ‘Butterfly Planet’ (1971), ‘Sold – For A Spaceship’ (1973), ‘Speaking Of Dinosaurs’ (1974) and more. They are solid reliable Science Fiction. Few metaphysical frills or experimental affectations. I reread and dissected this extant oeuvre in an article published in ‘Vector’ (no.83, January 1978). The short stories remain object-lessons in plot-construction. Stories such as “To See Ourselves” (‘Nebula SF’ no.40, May 1959) and “The Psi Squad” (‘New Worlds’ no.114, January 1962), which use the basic SF hardware shaken and stirred into new configurations and juxtapositions, proving that – expertly handled, such literary devices retain their power to amaze.

He writes stories that work as STORIES, without resorting to freaked-out New Wave extravagances. And plotting, readability, and reader-grabbing potential persist in being as important as ever – as I was finding out to my own cost in rejection slips. Philip E High writes intuitively, charts a novel’s course according to the dictates of his ability as a ‘story-teller’. He has no polemical drums to pound, no philosophical hobby-horses to mount. He has an awesome arsenal of terrifying futuristic weaponry. Balanced by a gentle inclination towards the eventual pacification of the Earth. A ‘yes, we’re a species prone to vile brutality’, yet we have the potential to evolve into greater things. Although that’s a wistful rather than a pedantic bias.

Then I’m knocking on the door a second time. Shaking hands with the man himself. My nervousness set at ease by his easy welcome. He’s a halftone photo inset into a ‘New Worlds’ Writer’s Profile from May 1959, plus a decade or three. He’s profusely friendly. An unpretentious room, a normal room, until you notice that all the books on the bookshelves – including American editions and German translations, bear his name down their spines. Racks of them. Hardbacks, softbacks, magazine editions…

Much later he tells me how ‘I had a write-up with photo in our local paper the other week. This was followed up by Southern Tele, for which purpose the Company loaned me a bus for the afternoon. I appeared on tele in 1965, but this was a studio interview and nerve-wracking in the extreme. This latest excursion – however, was great fun. There was only the announcer, and four crew. We enjoyed ourselves, contriving matter-transmissions and making the bus ‘disappear’. Unfortunately, and perhaps significantly, they went on strike the following day, and the entire Southern Television Region has been black-out for over a week…’ Presumably the two events were not connected?

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But first, where to start…?

High sits opposite me, and begins conversationally ‘as you can probably deduce from various blurbs, I’ve had quite a varied life. I’ve been an Estate Agent, a Collector Salesman, and a Bus Driver. But I’ve always been an avid reader, everything from theology to etymology. I didn’t get a thing published till I was well into my forties, but I was lucky, I sneaked in when the short story market was booming.’

He told ‘New Worlds’ that ‘I began to write science fiction chiefly from irritation. ‘Why’, I asked myself, ‘doesn’t X – representing one of my favourite authors, write a story on such-and-such a subject?’ Somehow X never did – and the crop of ideas became so persistent that I finally sat down and wrote them myself, just to get rid of them. I collected an impressive pile of rejection slips before an editor finally accepted a story which, I feel sure, X could have written much better.’ The defensive self-deprecation is typical of him.

Now he confides ‘apart from the war – which was a big intrusion, I think I tried writing almost everything. Romance, Westerns, everything. Until at last, there came a time when I said to myself ‘I’m just wasting paper. What do I like READING best?’ – and of course, the answer was Science Fiction. And the first one I wrote was published.’ “The Statics” appeared in ‘Authentic SF’ (no.61, September 1955) with the by-line ‘Was It Murder – Or Was It Something Else?’ ‘I received six guineas for it’ he told Philip Harbottle, ‘it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I am quite certain I walked up the wall and across the ceiling twice’ (in ‘Vision Of Tomorrow’ no.4, January 1970). So rather than writing for a ‘market’, for what he calculates an editor wants him to write, Philip E High began writing what HE feels he should write. And never looked back. A late-starter perhaps, but rapidly making up for lost time with a prolific flow of hard-action fiction.

‘My first novelette was in ‘Authentic SF’ (no.79, April 1957) – “Assassin In Hiding”. It ran to about twelve-thousand words, the editor (EC Tubb) seemed pleased with it, he got up a very dressy cover.’ He speaks directly of himself reticently, and only when prompted. From a long tape and a long conversation, I necessarily select only small sections. People had prepared me with stories of High working as a Canterbury Bus Driver, of him conjuring stories while gridlocked in traffic jams, or scribbling longhand obsessively in the canteen during journey-breaks. Others spoke of him sitting in a city-centre coffee-shop overlooking the main street, watching people go by, then writing compulsively in a notebook. They spoke of his hermit-like distancing from SF fan activity and from other writers.

Not so. As he explains, ‘don’t run away with the idea that I don’t like people. I like people very much, but I have no illusions about them. I don’t mix with other writer a lot. I went to two literary luncheons when (‘New Worlds’ editor) Ted Carnell was alive, but I’m not one of those writers who dash about conferring with other writers and generally forming clubs for mutual admiration. There are too many clubs and societies drawn together, not to promote writing, but as a sort of mental support for each other. Rather like alcoholics anonymous. I’m not speaking of all societies, I’ve spoken at one or two very good ones, where the aim is to urge the members forward. But at a great many I’ve attended, they read each other’s work and say ‘isn’t that wonderful dear.’ It may be very supportive psychologically, but it doesn’t produce anything.’

Later, twice a year – in May and October, he would attend a ‘kind of get-together and book sale’ session in London to meet up with ‘others of my kind’ – Tedd Tubb, Syd Bounds and, ‘of course Ernest Dudley, see TV’s ‘The Armchair Detective’ and ‘Dr Morelle’ of 1930’s radio. Still writing and still being published!’ (Dudley died 1 February 2006).

The seat-spring creaks as he moves. The clock on the mantelpiece ticks between pauses. Earlier, I’d mailed him the first drafts of my article. It was written according to my intention – as an honest account of his work over a twenty-year period. It praised what I felt deserved praise, and pointed out what seemed to me to be weaknesses. It was not entirely uncritical. I could have expected some adverse reactions – but received none. He could not be more helpful. ‘There’s no need to apologise for the critical angle. No sane man can object to criticism of the constructive and helpful kind. I am a direct man, and if I objected I would say so clearly. Firstly, I respect your right to state your opinions and secondly, it could well be true. In fact, it made me order a slightly larger size in hats’ he laughs.

He singles out my quote, ‘he writes intuitively’ for comment. ‘Extremely penetrating this and, of course, perfectly true. So true, in fact, I’m glad I’m not devious, I’m sure you’d have seen through it!’

There was a quote I’d lifted from a Radio Medway series on Kentish Authors (Autumn 1976) in which he’d proclaimed ‘I’ve never professed to be a literary figure. I’m a storyteller, no more.’ He enlarges on the theme to me, ‘I do not feel qualified to pass an opinion on a literary basis. I must fall back on the plebian ‘I know what I like’ syndrome. I have a patently absurd yardstick for judging my own work. It’s based on the pleasure, excitement and urgency of its creation.’

That creation must involve a considerable degree of application? ‘I like your observation about application’ he parries, ‘and much as I would like to bask in its light, alas, I cannot tell a lie. As you are well aware, a writer has to write, just as an actor has to act. After about three-thousand words, my Muse arrives with a whip, after which I have no choice. I’ve just passed the point of no return with my latest – as yet untitled. This is usually around eight-thousand words by which time, figuratively speaking, it’s flowing on its own! How the work will be received is guess-work.’

‘I ask myself what would happen if…’ he told Philip Harbottle. ‘Then, if I can construct a plot to go with the subject, I try and write it up as if I were a reporter or participator on the spot. I have no grand illusions about prophecy, if some of my stories come true, it was a good guess, no more. As I have said, I am a story-teller not a literary genius, I liked writing it and I hope the readers enjoy reading it.’

When pressed, he names Nevil Shute as his favourite author, ‘his style, his approach, was the one I most admired and I hoped, and am still hoping to write as well as he did.’ But there are other literary antecedents too, the poetry for example. ‘Although I love verse, I must confess to ‘sneaking’ one verse of my own poetry into ‘No Truce For Terra’ (1964, originally published as an ‘Ace’-double in the USA, and in West Germany only). It was backed up by Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, with its images of a place where ‘ignorant armies clash by night.’ I put this in because it helps to illuminate the part of the story where Earthmen, by dimensional travel, have arrived on a comparatively beautiful planet with – of course, the usual armament of guns, tanks and all the rest. And it seemed to be appropriate at the time, so that’s where I slipped in my own verse – about ‘our armoured land and iron-trellis sand.’ Actually, my poem (“Breathe, Oh Night”) was written in 1940 when the beaches were covered in tank-obstacles and pillboxes and barbed wire (‘Breathe, oh night, upon our wilful show. Our armoured lands/ and iron-trellised sands,/ twined with the brambles/ where no berries grow./ Breathe, oh night, over each city,/ the clouds protectiveness/ and, in they gentleness,/ return us, return us, our pity’). I thought it backed up – or was eclipsed by, “Dover Beach”, according to the point of view. As a matter of passing interest, the German version prints both poems in full, retaining both meter and sense. I understand enough German to follow it through, but it still amazes me. In the same novel I also quote from Wilfred Owen’s “Spring Offensive”. I took about six verses of that. And if you’ve read ‘Double Illusion’ (1966, aka ‘The Mad Metropolis’) you’ll find a couple of lines from Keats in there. Actually, I’d like to include a lot more because, as you’ve probably gathered, I’m very fond of poetry indeed.’

Is this in some way connected to the overtones of non-violence? ‘I’ve never decided if that’s wishful thinking or a subconscious urge to put the world to right? It was a remark you made in your article which pleased me the most. You said of me, and I quote ‘that I created some of the most awesomely horrific weapons in the history of the genre’. I have no idea why this comment pleased me as I am a pacifist by nature. Perhaps it flattered some latent ingenuity, or a sense of being unique within myself, but thanks for that particular line anyway. I’m aware that I’m psychologically incapable of writing a yarn with a dismal ending. To write without hope seems to me somehow to betray oneself.’

About the next step – to be an active participant in a space mission, he’s less enthusiastic. ‘There are heroes and armchair heroes, I am quite content to remain in the latter category, thank you.’

‘At the risk of being considered dull, I’m a firm believer in the ‘incentive value’ of science fiction’ he’d told ‘New Worlds’. ‘I have personally studied and followed up a variety of subjects simply because my interests were aroused by references to them in science fiction stories. The value to the mind, insofar that it widens one’s concepts and stimulates the imagination, is – I think, incalculable. As an aside, and purely for amusement, I’ve just started learning Japanese. It was a challenge. To my surprise, verbally, it is far easier than Spanish, which I find formidable.’

So what of the Extra Sensory Perception angle in stories such as “The Psi Squad”? Is there a deeper motive behind that? ‘Yes. But for entirely different reasons to those put forward by the spiritualists and occultists. I’ve studied from the occult to yoga, from psychology to spiritualism, and even transcendental meditation. And I’ve never hesitated to USE anything I’ve learned in these various researches. “To See Ourselves” – for example, is based on the claims of Emanuel Swedenborg, one of the most renowned exponents of life after death. I like to think he would have approved of my fictional efforts! But I’m of the opinion that ESP results – as it were, within the individual, and is not dependent on exterior prompting by disembodied spirits. My common sense leads me to suppose that often this alleged ESP is merely an advanced interpretation of facts that are there, that many others miss.’

He goes on to speak of the own eerie experience of ‘precognition’ while serving on a war-time Royal Navy mine-sweeper patrol. ‘For instance, I can often tell when a man is lying, not because I have some so-called psychic power, but because I’m very quick to detect changes in tone and over-emphasis, and various other giveaways. When the members of my ‘Psi Squad’ appear to have extra-sensory perception they’re in reality using astute powers of hearing, observation, and the denoting of over-emphasis. I don’t consider this in any way mystic, I think there’s something in the human mind which somehow ‘clicks’, as it were, resulting in something resembling precognition or clairvoyance.’

He quotes another example of ideas that have served as plot bases. ‘As a small boy I lived in a huge house with a spare room. I hated passing that spare room. I was convinced – at the age of four, that there was a tiger inside! Many years later I wrote an entire novel about that one illogical fear. The novel was ‘Reality Forbidden’ (1967). The actual tiger sequence takes up a couple of paragraphs, but the whole novel was centred around that single idea.’ He free-associates from that point, about suggestions that are never defined, ‘it’s something one knows is there but never actually sees. It is a scream heard in the distance, giggles in a darkened room, something which one knows has occurred although one has not actually seen. Yes, you too have sometimes walked in darkness, but even here, your terror is implied.’

Finally we talk about his most recent novels – ‘Fugitives From Time’ (1978, Robert Hale) and ‘Blindfold From The Stars’ (1979, Dobson). They are a distillation of pure Philip E High, two stories that encapsulate his stylistic preoccupations more exactly than any he’s yet produced. The former is his most compulsively readable to date, the action opening up ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ with the protagonist being stomped on by Punkish assailants. The trauma releases self-imposed mental blocks, so that as early as the ninth page he’s using unleashed extraterrestrial memories and abilities to slip time-tracks into an alternate Earth. From that point on the novel comes at you relentlessly with an almost irresistibly naïve enthusiasm exploding up out of every page. Pursued by mysterious non-human enemies the hero flits from star to star ‘like a ghost’, materializing blind onto a vortex of bizarre and hostile worlds – but never staying long enough on one planet for it to become tedious.

‘Blindfold From The Stars’ aims higher, with a similar shucking-off of psychic barriers. This time it happens on a racial scale, ushering in the most complete expression yet of High’s utopian ideal. This should have been, and very nearly is, his most accomplished novel, sabotaged only by the intrusion of his penchant for the more superficial excesses of forties pulp-fiction – flaws made even more frustrating by the obvious potential that they come close to eclipsing. But as the post-transfigured world is explored, and its new laws evaluated, the opening chapters recall the best moments of the English school of ‘cosy disaster’. While the image-density of a sequence set in prehistory approaches New Wave complexity. It’s a strangely personal, almost yearning book.

High is typically understated – ‘it’s nice to know one’s work is appreciated. I, personally, am no judge whatever of my own work. I have a simple and very primitive yardstick – I judge its merit on the pleasure derived from writing it. I enjoyed writing it. From that angle only, I class it as good. Needless to say, that method does not always work.’

At one point in our conversation he expresses private doubts about the relevance of his traditional Space Opera style, in a decade characterized by outlandish experiment and by media-orchestrated Sci-Fi overkill. As though he’s ‘playing classical music at a Pop concert.’ Or that he’s ‘a square in the writing field. So far, I seem to be reversing all the traditional ideas, and I may not get away with it.’ These are two novels that render such doubts obsolete. At this rate Philip E High is good for another ten novels.

I wonder out loud about his unfinished projects, perhaps he has uncompleted stories… maybe we could even collaborate on one of them? ‘The idea of collaboration intrigues me, given time, we might be able to work something out between us. In the meantime I must confess that I have very little unfinished material lying around. If a story doesn’t gel, I just tear it up, which happens fairly often. The bin-men must bless me for keeping them in business. I must run a good second to the rain of junk-mail!’

Although we continue to correspond across the subsequent years, that collaboration never actually happens. Meanwhile, I come away with a cassette ready for transcription, and a confusion of ideas and affections.

With many thanks to Philip E High for his kind indulgence and assistance in preparing this feature Philip E High died 9 August 2006. John Clute wrote a respectful obituary for ‘The Independent’.

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