Friday 31 July 2020



I don’t want to see this movie,
this is the house where the stairs go all the way to the moon
where to step from bedroom to kitchen is to leap continents
where dimensional gateways open into realms beyond time,
and for Vincent Van Blacklight, there are always more doors,
a spiral of firefly nebulae hang above the lampshade
the trees in the garden have teeth, they mutter conspiracies,
Amethyst Moonflower spins dark matter out of nothingness
with all her confused paper structures lost in the ozone
while Daubaway Weirdsley plants moonseeds
in the basement which grow into a fruit
of Phobos, Titan, Oberon and Callisto,
the old gods are rising from the windowbox,
we are about to become immortal,
a gastric tube feeds Medusa Fannypack
a diet of ripped hobgoblin dreams,
last night I watched myself sleeping,
I know this is how it begins,
no, I don’t want to see this movie…

Featured online at:
‘MEDUSA’S KITCHEN’ (28 June 2020)

Wednesday 29 July 2020



Across a relatively short space of time Brian W Aldiss 
 entered the SF arena with a series of vividly disconcerting 
 tales primed with thermonuclear phrases and ideas.  
This was his entrance strategy, marking him out 
 above and beyond other toilers in the strange-fiction field.

Science Fiction readers enjoy being disconcerted. Hence it’s part of a writer’s remit to disconcert them. This is to paraphrase the foreword Brian Aldiss wrote for his ‘Space Time And Nathaniel’ (1966, Four Square Books edition). Following this line of logic, what happens to old Science Fiction? Once it’s done its quota of disconcerting reader-expectations, is it to be considered simply as expendable as last year’s calendar? I’d say not. Right from the very beginnings of his amazingly prolific writing career, Brian Aldiss had the ability to confound and disconcert unsuspecting readers. Even his very earliest stories pack an enduring shock and awe that retain their relentless readability. 

As one of the two previously-established writers championed by the New Wave that gathered around Michael Moorcock’s insurrectionary banner, it may have been JG Ballard who established the bleak modernist architecture, but it was Aldiss whose skill and literary daring had a wider spread. And he’d already been doing that for some considerable time. ‘Apart from being admired for his talent, Brian Aldiss is also amongst the most well-liked SF writers’ claims Moorcock, going on to list the Aldiss qualities as ‘charming, ebullient, fluent, not unhandsome, a gourmet and man of good taste and humour, he is as interesting to meet as he is to read. His criticism, in ‘The Oxford Mail’ and ‘SF Horizons’, is intelligent and pithy, matched only by a few’ (editorial to ‘New Worlds’ no.154, September 1965).

The primal detonation for Britain’s most respected Science Fiction writer occurred in 1954, when Brian Aldiss was going through a process of literary discovery. His first magazine SALE was to ‘Nebula’. ‘I submitted a story called “T” to the editor. It was accepted – and published three years later’ he recalls. That first acceptance must have been so very gratifying, a clear recognition that he’d taken that first step to becoming a writer. Yet, although the story was accepted, the editor sat on it for three years, a period of time – from first-acceptance to eventual-publication, during which a rash of other Aldiss tales began appearing across a spread of magazine titles, including – bizarrely, ‘Nebula’ itself! In his ‘Hell’s Cartographers’ (1975) contribution Aldiss recalls ‘at the time I began to write for publication there were really only two going SF magazines over here, ‘Authentic SF’ and ‘Nebula’‘Nebula’ was more exciting. I found an issue (no.3) in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, read it, and decided that I could do almost as well as the authors performing.’ To steal an Aldiss phrase, ‘the chlorophyll being greener in someone else’s grass.’ He later elaborates the story in ‘The Twinkling Of An Eye’ (1998, Warner Books). ‘When we could first afford a summer holiday, my wife and I went south by train to a guesthouse in Freshwater, Isle of Wight. In a Freshwater newsagent, I bought a British SF magazine, ‘Nebula’, published in Glasgow. The stories were so amateur (except for a story by Robert Silverberg, a new author later to become a friend), I believed I might do better.’ He also divulges how he wrote those short stories with a fountain pen dipped periodically into a bottle of ‘Quink’ ink, writing in longhand in notebooks with hard marbled covers. His wife – Olive née Fortescue, then transferred the stories to typescripts on her typewriter.

So while he impatiently waited for ‘Nebula’ to make good its acceptance, his first genuine SF magazine appearance, “Criminal Record”, occurred instead in John Carnell’s ‘Science Fantasy’ (no.9, July 1954). In that strange distant July 1954 David Whitfield was no.1 in the Pop charts with his semi-operatic “Cara Mia”, challenged by clear-voiced Doris Day’s movie-song “Secret Love”, and Johnny Ray’s supposedly-suggestive “Such A Night”. War-time rationing was finally officially lifted, with women ceremonially tearing up their ration books in Trafalgar Square, while the Government published Civil Defence plans in case of H-Bomb attack on the brink of new Cold War hostilities. For the Aldiss household, there’s something special about a first publication. Did Brian hold that issue in his hands, seeing his name in print, and envisage the magazine appearing simultaneously on newsagent’s displays and WH Smith stands across the country? Did he dance around the kitchen table?

He would have noted the Gerard Quinn cover illustrating the lead novelette “This Precious Stone” by HJ Murdoch showing a girl pilot assisting a fallen spacer through a portal in the bleak Martian landscape. There was a back-page panel for ‘Science Fantasy’s Nova Publications companion title ‘New Worlds’ (advertising “Wild Talent” by Wilson Tucker) and there were supporting stories from A Bertram Chandler and EC Tubb, while author JT McIntosh contributes a guest editorial ‘Something New Wanted…’ Well, perhaps readers flicking through those pages searching out reassuringly familiar names didn’t realise it yet, but that ‘Something New’ was taking its first tentative steps on p.54 of the issue. For “Criminal Record” proves that Aldiss’ precocious self-estimation was well-grounded. The plot escalates from the narrator’s innocent purchase of what he assumes to be an LP record of classical music from an antique shop, which then reveals a startling glimpse of a future time-war fought against Smoofs – genetically reshaped misfits originally created to colonise the hostile environment of Venus.

Where many of those 1950s magazine writers were two-fisted actioneers, gifted storytellers using the accoutrements of SF as writers of Western fiction use horses, six-guns and hostile Apache tribes, Aldiss was an academic, with a more playfully cerebral approach. Why should SF be an intellect-free zone? For him, earlier generations of fantasists had already created a romper room of outrageous concepts, and merely to replicate what they’d done seemed pointless, so instead he juggled with, compressed, remixed and shook them up in vigorously provocative and thought-provoking ways. To Carnell ‘we feel inclined to liken the stories of Brian Aldiss to those of American author Robert Sheckley – in their respective countries both show a freshness and originality to fantasy writing which is seldom reached by new writers.’

That first story uses a helter-skelter mix of plot-elements entirely adequate for those conventional SF stories, yet Aldiss adds sophisticating veneers, not only the build-up discovery of the ‘Criminal Record’s true nature, but a nail-biting open-ending as the Smoof approaches his flat to reclaim the mislaid artefact. He also tucks in a throwaway mystery that his companion – Harry Crossway, somehow features in that troubled future! There was no reader’s letter page in ‘Science Fantasy’, and no chart denoting which of the issue’s stories proved most popular, so it’s difficult to gauge how well the story was received, except that it was rapidly followed by a second. “Breathing Space” (in ‘Science Fantasy’, no.12, February 1955) is built from myths and legends of a devolved tribal future which, only gradually is revealed to be set in the partially derelict Tycho Crater Missile Station base – although there are sufficient hints scattered along the way to alert even the most leaden reader, clues seeded in much the same manner that the truth about his generation ship emerges only as the story develops in debut novel ‘Non-Stop’ (1958, Faber And Faber).

Since Charles R Tanner contributed “Tumithak Of The Corridors” to 1931 ‘Amazing Stories’, there had been a vogue for stories concerning peoples entombed in various kinds of fall-out shelter communities, gradually forgetting about the world above where atomic war, or some other global apocalypse rages, until one heroic rebel breaks with convention and explores the way out. In “Breathing Space” the rebel who defies repressive conformity is not only a woman – Osa, but her courage in reaching the ‘true sky’ is rewarded, not by the discovery of new freedoms, but as the airlock opens onto the arid Luna surface, the outrush of air destroys her entire community. A darkly disconcerting reversal of expectations. There’s no speculation about what has happened on Earth, or why they’ve been left marooned on the Moon. Aldiss is content to allow readers to fill in the gaps from the pre-existing arsenal of ideas. Based on this assumption, critic Peter White claims that ‘most of his (Aldiss’s) work is pessimistic in the final analysis.’ This is not my interpretation. Bursting with vitality and creative energy there’s a dark humour going on. In “Breathing Space” no actual human being really dies, it is a literary conceit that plays with the mischievous inversion of reader expectations. To Aldiss himself, at that early stage in his writing, ‘what I was endeavouring to do was write SF that would fit into the established canon. I see now that their style made them slightly different’ (also in his foreword to the 1966 ‘Space Time And Nathaniel’). Both author-observations are correct, the stories fit, albeit with a disconcerting slant.

As a still largely-unpublished author – Aldiss had first ventured into ‘Authentic SF’ with a reader’s letter (in no.39), he nonetheless contributes a ‘Guide For New-Writers’ feature (to no.45, May 1954) pointing out that ‘every word we use has already been used over and over again, and a word, like an old penny, gets its edge worn off and the symbol that it bears becomes defaced.’ He advises a study of grammar, syntax – ‘remember, a split infinitive offends some readers, and a floating clause sinks others,’ combined with a crash-course in the classics, Defoe (‘Journal Of The Plague Year’), as well as Eric Charles Maine (“Highway i”), Philip K Dick and Murray Leinster. The feature clearly shows that, even at this early stage in his writing career, Aldiss was not simply writing stories, he had a worked-out manifesto of ideas and ideals about what SF was, and what it should aspire to. For his own writing, he takes that worn old penny of words and ideas, then gives them a shiny new gleam.

For “Pogsmith”, he takes a proper fiction-step sideways into that same ‘Authentic SF’ (no.57), and the story displays an even more playful attitude to SF conventions, featuring a pig-like alien shape-shifter held in a galactic zoo based on an imperfectly-terraformed Mercury. The creature had first been discovered by the one-eyed bewhiskered radio-operator after whom the planet – and the story is named, flexing a knowing humour as ‘he disappeared over that low hill which is always near any spaceship about to encounter danger in all the science-fiction stories I have read.’ There’s an expectation that the creature will escape by assuming the identity of one of the visiting characters, Dusty Miller or his fussy wife. The teasing mystery of which identity it will take, is withheld right through to the closing paragraph.

Yet, preceding the publication of “T” – while Aldiss still waited for his first-ever sale to appear, he already leap-frogged it into an earlier ‘Nebula’! There’s no mention of this significant coming in the no.11 ‘Next Issue’ box, which is dominated by announcing the new ER James novelette, with Robert A Heinlein, EC Tubb and Eric Frank Russell adding supporting shorts. The cover of that ‘Nebula no.12’ (April 1955) shows dramatic Bob Clothier artwork of tiny space-suited figures from a finned spaceship on the arid surface of a sun-blasted world – maybe Mercury? The Aldiss story, “The Great Time Hiccup”, appears on page 66, with a title-blurb promising that ‘when time went mad and sanity began to crumble, only a desperate plan – carried out in time – could hope to succeed.’

“The Great Time Hiccup” is set in an orbiting Space Station as all time breaks loose throughout the solar system. It was subsequently commended by reader Mike Wallace of Hull because although ‘I’m not usually very keen on stories dealing with time… I think I enjoyed this story because there was no real hero.’ No hero because, counter to the prevailing problem-solving ethos of 1950s SF the ‘desperate plan’ fails. There’s no eccentric scientist setting up a protective contra-tachyon shield or temporal repeller array. The disruption that is swallowing the Earth accelerates, and Aldiss uses experimental prose-repetitions to illustrate the process, anticipating – in miniature, the groundbreaking techniques he would employ for the late-sixties New Wave, and in particular his ‘Report On Probability A’ (1968).

‘His earliest stories adhered to the strict logic-conventions of ‘pure SF’’ writes Peter White. ‘He says he saw science fiction as ‘a kind of poetry’, and his stories were as formal as classical verse. “T”, first published in 1956, and the first of his stories to be accepted for publication (though published after some others had already appeared), was about semi-sentient missiles that travelled in time. It cleverly avoided any time-paradox by assuming a rigidly deterministic universe in much the same way as Heinlein’s similar stories’ (an essay in ‘New Worlds’ no.154, September 1965). “T” – often cited as his finest early short, could eventually be found in ‘Nebula SF’ no.18, an impressive tale of an alien automaton’s journey back over five hundred million light years to the Silurian Age, programmed by a highly-evolved race called the Koax to destroy Earth before human evolution could begin. Oddly, the miscalculation that saves Earth is dependent on Pluto being classified as the ninth planet. Since its demotion to ‘dwarf planet’ status, T’s target seventh world would indeed turn out to be Earth, with tragic results for humanity! “Dumb Show” followed in the very next issue (no.19, December 1956), both stories later reprinted in Aldiss’ first volume ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957).

As Aldiss recounts, ‘Nebula’s Peter Hamilton exercised very much a hands-on editorial style, ‘he took a lot of trouble trying to make the stories I submitted publishable, but without much success – for one thing, I’ve always disliked rewriting at an editor’s behest.’ Some mistake here surely? because Hamilton published Aldiss regularly – thirteen tales in all, with or without tampering. Aldiss became a regular contributor throughout the magazine’s life-span. “Dumb Show” was welcomed in the issue’s ‘Look Here…’ editorial as a ‘spine-chilling piece’ that touches on the neglected science of sonics, but to me it seems more of a tone-poem heavy on moody ambiguity. Grandmother Mrs Snowdon and little Pauline move in a silent world where ‘civilised’ sonic warfare first creates universal deafness, then acts upon cellular growth to alchemise the startling closing image of them expanding into surreal giants, ‘she saw the ground dwindle. She felt the warmth of the stars, the curvature of the earth.’ To Aldiss himself, the story idea was prompted by a ‘discussion of VM, or vibratory motion’ which ‘conjured ideas which went into a story called “Dumb Show” (in ‘The Twinkling Of An Eye’).

Then, “All the World’s Tears” from no.21, achieves the status of a name-check stripped across the foot of James Stark’s front cover-art, albeit shared with Eric Frank Russell. The art shows a huge gantry-mounted device that resembles a red dish pointed at the starry sky, some kind of radio-telescope attended by tiny human figures, or perhaps one of the sonic-attack weapons from the previous story? Yet the new tale raises the game to an entirely new level.

There is logic-play with robots, and a socially-distancing phobia of human contact, yet that’s simply the launch-point. If any reader was as yet undecided about Aldiss, this is the story that confirms his unique nova presence in the modest constellation of British writers. J Smithlao is a psychodynamician in the last year of forty-fourth-century Ing Land (subsequently revised into the eighty-third century). There is a back-story about the decline of the West with the countervailing expansion of the East, soil-exhaustion caused by mechanised monoculture stifling nature, and the narrative of Charles Gunpat who requires a ‘Hate-Brace’ in order to face corporate ‘Automotion and its fellow crooks’. But the core of the story is Gunpat’s ‘recessive’ daughter Ployploy in her doomed romance with the Wild Man, delivered in a storm of glittering pre-Raphaelite images. An emotional nuancing that no-one else in the issue, and few within the genre were then capable of. In a passage omitted from reprints, the ‘Nebula’ story opens poetically with ‘if you could collect up all the tears that have fallen in the history of the world, you would have not only a vast sheet of water: you would have the history of the world.’

Voted second-best story in the issue, Peter Hamilton adds that ‘in this story he created so vivid and unusual a setting and atmosphere that it not only caused a minor sensation among ‘Nebula’ readers but was immediately chosen for inclusion in the Autumn 1958 edition of the well-known and discriminating digest ‘Pick Of Today’s Short Stories’.’ “All the World’s Tears” went on to form part of his ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959) future history sequence, in which – according to its blurb, the stories are ‘all slices off the enormous carcass of the future, arranged chronologically from a date a century or two ahead right up to the end of the galaxy.’ But other tyro-Aldiss pieces from ‘Nebula’ remain un-anthologised and hence form a bright constellation of undiscovered fantasy. “Ten-Storey Jigsaw” in no.26 is – for Aldiss, a fairly pedestrian tale, although its theme could easily be reworked into a Judge Dredd Megacity-One strip. During a nine-year war in which light ‘suitcase’ H-Bombs are dropped by satellite-to-Earth Depressors, Badger Gowland and his amnesiac companion Tosher Ten-Toes are ‘scrap merchants’ in Sydney, authorised looters who enter bomb-shattered buildings extracting what they can before the hazardous blocks are demolished. In one of the towers, Tosher finds a woman survivor who he hallucinates to be his lost ‘Judy’, then that he is Norton Sykes, ‘the minister they called The Man Who Started It All’. He throws himself to his own death as a result.

At his best Aldiss deals with the big issues of Life, the Universe and Everything, and “Journey To The Interior” (the lead novelette in ‘Nebula’ no.30) is retitled “Gene Hive” for its inclusion in ‘The Canopy Of Time’ where he adds the linking-note ‘then came the blow that forced man to alter his attitude to himself. His metaphysical view of being had of course been constantly subject to change; now the terrible moment arrived when he was revealed to himself in an entirely new light.’ It starts with a crewman exposed to lethal radiation on an undersea trawler, which subsequently docks in the Cape Verde Sub-port undersea city where Dr Cyro Gyres – a kind of ‘Medical Meditation’ psychic healer, is summoned. She uses the ‘standard professional procedure’ of submerging herself into him on a cellular level in order to correct the faulty tissue. Fortuitously primed by an earlier discussion on para-evolutionary theory, accelerated by a mid-story trial transcript over their disappearance, the metamorphosis into a new mutation, in which each cell is malleably self-aware, constitutes the new replacement species for humanity. A vast scope condensed down into a compellingly concise story with inventive sub-aquatic future-tech and horror overtones. With Aldiss, his profligate imagination tosses off ideas with apparent ease that lesser writers would kill for, and then barely pauses before moving on to the next pyrotechnic display of dazzling invention.

For “Ninian’s Experiences” (in no.31) he ventures into a more Science Fantasy mode with a beautifully strange story that stands out even within an issue boasting Robert Silverberg, William F Temple and EC Tubb. Nineteen-year-old Rowena Church is drawn into socially awkward sculptor Ninian’s shop, where he uses a psi-tuner to shape and model a plastic material known as Cathus-12 into recreations of the essence of other states of being, a buttercup, or a bonfire. But who is the unseen narrator? With a sinister edge, Ninian has killed his three previous dalliances and used them as source material for a fusion of which Rowena is destined to become a part. Yet maybe its unconventional strangeness determined that it was only voted third (equal) best story in the issue. It was followed immediately by “They Shall Inherit” (in no.32), which consists largely of an ethical dialogue between Mr Duckett of the Health Department who has moral objections to Dr Tedder’s experiments in removing ‘damper’ genes to accelerate advanced maturity in babies – with children of forty-eight hours already walking. ‘You are raising monsters’ he accuses. Although the setting seems contemporary, there’s a sketched-in background concerning alien Cutalignian’s threatening the trade monopoly across Terran worlds, added more as though such a sop is considered genre-necessary than for any strict plot purpose, bringing the story to a shock close as a prematurely-born baby screams in rage ‘let me get back! Oh, let me get back!’

Australian writer Nigel Jackson – who contributes the story “The Colonel’s Last Safari” to ‘Nebula no.40’ (May 1959) sends a ‘Guided Missives’ letter from Melbourne analysing the reasons ‘that Aldiss is down so far in my ratings,’ in that ‘he sacrificed too much in his efforts to maintain an off-trail originality.’ Nigel specifies the ‘inability to be explicit about the new art form in “Ninian’s Experiences”’ which ‘gave the story an impression of unreality.’ While the ending to “They Shall Inherit” is ‘impossible. Isn’t language an acquired skill rather than an inherited power? Even in animals? Are there any biologists reading ‘Nebula’ who could give us an answer on this?’ Perhaps Nigel doesn’t appreciate the power of literary suggestion? There’s also something of an odd, and not entirely successful tale, “Fourth Factor” (in no.34) which follows Dora James as she rides her stallion into a bizarre culture equally divided between Doctors and patients, perhaps its ‘Treatment’ buzz-words is intended as a satire on some New Age theories of psycho-healing? The people take case-notes continually and arrive at collective decisions only through long conferences, with such continual preoccupations determining they are socially stagnant. It’s finally revealed that Dora is intended to be the infiltrated agent of change from an outside Regrowth Force.

Later on, “Sight Of A Silhouette” (in no.36) tells of a nursing sister called Venice Rollands aboard an orbital Luna hospital, enamoured by Norman Dall, an immortal explorer-archaeologist. Although centred on the genetic-impossibility of her partnering him, there are intriguing sub-plots. He is investigating the mystery of a set of two-thousand-million-year-old alien artefacts – anticipating Frederik Pohl’s ‘Heechee’ by a decade-and-a-half. Although discovered in excavated caverns beneath the moon’s surface, the Ganymede-Atara-Ira ship had originally landed on Earth when the planet was ‘still hardly out of the molten state’, when ‘Luna had not then been pulled from what is now the Pacific Desert.’ These two startling images are delivered almost in passing with typical Aldiss flair. “The Arm” (in no.38) carries a thread of dark humour, with discontented housewife Royse and absentee husband Wilfred in the Touchdown colony on planet Tachatale. Her attempts at escape result in her being bitten by a yellow-and-black-striped beetle, despite her self-surgery the wound becomes gangrenous and is treated by the neighbourhood vet. Even her attempts to send the amputated arm back to Earth are frustrated by Customs Regulations who classify it as ‘food’.

“The Lieutenant” is another slight tale, with no real resolution, as if it’s one incident plucked from a larger narrative, with John Wyndham cosy disaster overtones of giant alien spiders overrunning the Home Counties. As the unnamed lieutenant leads his squad of soldiers towards Aylesbury, ‘he was full of the idealism which the Army either fosters strongly or stamps out entirely’ – a comment that reflects Aldiss’ own conscript military experience in the Royal Signal Corp in Burma and Sumatra. The story can be found nowhere else than inside the covers of no.39. The ‘1958 Author’s Awards’, voted by the readers of ‘Nebula’, and published with a full-page fanfare in no.40, is headed off by the reliable EC Tubb at no.1, Kenneth Bulmer coming second, while Aldiss came in third, with Hamilton applauding ‘a really off-beat author… acclaimed as one of Britain’s most original writers of Science Fiction.’

The final issue of ‘Nebula’ – no.41, emerged in June 1959, with a dramatic cover showing two battling dinosaurs, perhaps the magazine’s own unintended extinction metaphor? It features “Legends Of Smith’s Burst”, Brian Aldiss at his most audacious, with the bizarre exploits of Jamie Lancelot Lowther on gloomy squalid Glumpalt, a world where mutation is the norm. Peter Hamilton muses in his introduction about the story being ‘perhaps, science fantasy, rather than the more orthodox science fiction.’ Aldiss’ own preamble agrees, suggesting that ‘like many other traveller’s tales, this narrative has frequently had its veracity impugned.’ Yet Hamilton concedes ‘nevertheless, if you can suspend your natural disbelief as you read it, you may think, as I do, that it is a charming and amusing fantasy.’ He’s correct, the story is a firework display of outrageous invention, fizzing and sparking with detonations of ideas. The malfunctioning ‘Matter-mitter’ – a ‘beam-me-up’ interstellar transmitter which pitches Lowther into the ‘small intergalactic nebula situated in arm Alpha of the home galaxy’, anticipates the wordplay Aldiss will use in ‘Hothouse’ (Faber And Faber, 1962), with its tree-bees, plant-ants, trappersnapper, whistlethistle, the tummy-belly men and burnurns. While Lowther’s resourceful cunning is as ingenious as Jack Vance’s ‘Cugel The Clever’ in his ‘Dying Earth’ series. Part-composed of contra-terrene matter, Glumpalt is a world that causes even creatures of the same species to have wildly varying physical forms, and on which the ‘monstrous impossible… black sun still rises.’ The story neatly ends the run of Brian Aldiss contributions to ‘Nebula SF’ on a stratospheric high. Book-ending this significant first era of his breakthrough early stories.

Even across this intense learning curve the technical skills he’d advocated in his ‘Guide For New-Writers’ feature are never in doubt. And there are other classic tales from the same spread of months. “Visiting Amoeba” first appears as “What Triumphs?” in ‘Authentic SF’ (no.82, July 1957), the issue’s cover-art – by Kirby, vividly captures its ‘vacuum-busting’ space-battle hard-SF Space Opera rhythms. This is Aldiss taking a calculated shot at the Isaac Asimov ‘Foundation’ breadth of vision, fused with EC Tubb’s poetic mythology of the future, with buccaneering One Eye and Welded leading a plundering fleet from the Galactic Rim inwards towards the legendary heart of Empire. With ‘the galaxy in its tired old age… old beyond imagining,’ a being arrives from a new intergalactic sun onto a revolution-torn world originally called Owler in the magazine story, renamed Owlenj for its incorporation into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959, Faber And Faber).

Uniting the feuding factions the being – addressed as ‘You’, guides and motivates the thrust towards Yinnisfar (originally Yinnisfair), with an arsenal of Superfusers, to be met by thirty-mile-long battle cruisers armed with molecular ceetee, and a beam-grid that ignites to weaken the very fabric of space. ‘Sol III’ is mentioned when it alerts Schiaparelli Base in the first version of the story, but Earth becomes Yinnisfar itself in the collection, orbited by the shattered Luna-ring, it is a world of ‘tears and pleasure, stuffed with forgotten memory and protracted time.’ Ruler ‘the Highest’ becomes ‘the Highest Suzerain in the city of Nunon’ where ‘You’ delivers the truth of its mission. Humans are evolution’s highest point in this ageing fading galaxy, but for the new evolution just beginning, the human form is the ‘amoeba’ ignition point. To Aldiss himself, musing in ‘The Twinkling Of An Eye’, he recalls how ‘the hypothesis advanced by Fred Hoyle of a universe of continuous creation, fuelled by hydrogen atoms popping into existence, was poetically ingenious. That interest resulted in a story called “Visiting Amoeba”. It was told in the second person singular: a fresh way of telling a story as far as I was concerned.’ The very final paragraph vaults even head-spinningly further into future-time, ‘we who have already superceded you record these scenes now in your honour, as you once honoured man. Requiescat in pace.’ When I first read this story as an impressionable teenager, painstakingly filling my own SF bookshelf with works of mind-stretching wonder, this revelation seemed intoxicatingly profound, and it stands repeated reading today. Brian W Aldiss was a narcotic that could amaze, taking me higher than a kite on Saturn.

Across a relatively short space of time Aldiss had entered the SF arena with a series of vividly disconcerting tales primed with thermonuclear phrases and ideas. At that time, British Science Fiction was a narrow and fiercely partisan cult, imagining itself under siege from the derision of a more literary mainstream, yet tightly-knit around a slim clique of magazines that acted as a focused energy-beam for its dialogue and aspirations. Once his name began appearing with some regularity in these magazines, drawing attention to his mind-boggling abilities, networking his identity through the fan telegraph, it placed him on the event horizon of the acclaimed collections, and novels that were to follow. From day one, into day two and day three, this was his entrance strategy, marking him out above and beyond other toilers in the strange-fiction field.

After originally complaining that ‘Authentic SF’ had ‘refused every story I have offered them’ he then went on to use the magazine as a vehicle to list the happy field that SF offers to the writer, ‘stories may end in a bang or a whimper; settings can range from Southend to Sirius; characters may be men, mice or Martians and have as many hands or feet as required. Any subject is potential material, from toothache to tarantulas, provided the approach is fresh and original.’

Brian W Aldiss displayed a curiously equivocal attitude to the staid literary establishment. At once delighting in the slightly disreputable aura of cheap SF, mischievously revelling in its trashy outlaw status, yet later mildly envying JG Ballard’s acceptance by academe, and making his own shot for mainstream literary credibility. As his style evolved ‘a Cambridge paper praised one of my early collections, ‘The Canopy Of Time’ saying the stories showed ‘classical perfection’.’ The self-styled Lit-rebel chose to protest their generous estimation. That ‘would never do. That was not quite what I wanted, so my stories began to grow wilder, less dependent on the tread of logic, more amenable to the flight of fancy.’ And yes, they did, into the brilliance to come. Meanwhile, if there’s more than a whiff of period charm hanging over these early flights of fancy, to paraphrase Brian Aldiss in his foreword to ‘Space Time And Nathaniel’ (1966), it’s a whiff well worth re-inhaling every once in a while.


 Commenting on ‘The Pit My Parish’ John Carnell says 
‘during his short but meteoric rise as an outstanding new 
Science Fiction author Brian Aldiss has managed to break 
most of the editorial taboos with which Science Fiction editors 
hedge their requirements’ (‘New Worlds’ no.67) 

1942 – ‘THE RAIN WILL STOP’, aged sixteen, or possibly seventeen, Brian W Aldiss wrote and illustrated a short story “The Rain Will Stop” in his notebook, it was eventually published by The Pretentious Press in 2000 in a limited edition of just eighty-five copies, signed by the author

November 1953 – ‘NOW CONSOLIDATE’ (‘Authentic SF’ no.39) editor HJ Campbell notes ‘I consider this letter to be interesting to all readers, so I am printing it in full.’ Praising ‘Authentic SF’ for providing a platform for British SF, Aldiss adds ‘the implications of time and space travel and of life on other planets are so vast that their challenge to a writer of merit must be limitless. It is in their philosophical implications that I think the richest vein lies.’ The address is from Brian W Aldiss, 107 Hazel Crescent, Kidlington, Oxford.

February 1954 – ‘A BOOK IN TIME’ (‘The Bookseller’ magazine), non-SF, Brian Aldiss’ first professional sale, to the trade publication, uncollected until 2013 in ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’. There was also an otherwise uncollected short story ‘Index To Life’

May 1954 – ‘ON WRITING SCIENCE FICTION’ (‘Authentic SF’ no.45) a ‘letter’ printed in full as a separate feature.

July 1954 – ‘CRIMINAL RECORD’ (‘Science Fantasy no.9’) ‘junk shops often produce highly interesting, if somewhat antiquated, articles. Like old and rare gramophone records. A ‘record’ from the future could be a rare item, too.’ Aldiss writes of Curry Passage, his favourite Cambridge haunt where ‘over the three doors the word ‘junk’ is spelt A-N-T-I-Q-U-E-S’. He buys what he thinks is Borodin’s ‘Second Symphony’, but it turns out to be – after a lot of technical detail, a Police record from a run-down future station ‘built into and around the asteroid Eros,’ hunting biomodified terrorist Smoofs capable of breathing poisonous Venus air, and of time-sliding ‘where tomorrow flickered helplessly to keep up with the brutal revision of yesterday’. As the story closes they helplessly await for the Smoof to arrive. Later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

January 1955 – ‘OUTSIDE’ (‘New Worlds no.31’), six people live in a sealed environment, only Harley attempts to discover the way out. Earth is at war with shape-shifting Nititian aliens, the unit is intended to discover who is human, and who is enemy infiltrator. Once outside, Harley himself loses coherence, he is ‘Non-Men’ too. Story later collected into ‘Best SF Two’ edited by Edmund Crispin (Faber, 1956), and ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

January 1955 – ‘NOT FOR AN AGE’ (‘The London Observer’, 9 January) one day in the life of Rodney Furnell, ‘A Twentieth Century Teacher In Love’, has been time-scooped by Chronoarchaeology Ltd, and endlessly replayed as a sideshow amusement ‘Nothing expurgated, nothing added! Better than the Feelies! All in glorious 4D – no stereo required’, like a ‘Groundhog Day’ (1993) repetition of ‘The Truman Show’ (1998), then the projector malfunctions, he escapes and finds himself adrift in the AD2500 future-world with a ‘Total Recall’ (1990) auto-mode robo-taxi – until he’s abruptly snatched back into the show. Story collected into ‘AD2500: The Observer Prize Stories’ (William Heinemann, October 1955) later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

1955 – ‘THE BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES’ (Faber and Faber), working in an Oxford bookshop called ‘Parker’s’, Aldiss wrote a series of humorous columns under the pseudonym ‘Peter Pica’ for ‘The Bookseller’ journal, the ‘long-standing periodical of the book trade’, about a fictitious provincial bookshop. At the invitation of Faber editor Charles Monteith he adapted it into a successful two-hundred page diary-form novel, which encouraged him to become a professional writer February

1955 – ‘BREATHING SPACE’ (‘Science Fantasy no.12’), for Grant and Wilms ‘the sky will fall here soon’ as their Mating Fight in the Outflanks is monitored by Fliers controlled by the omnipotent M’chene. Frustrated by her suitor’s lack of vision, Osa decides to discover the truth about their enclosed realm herself… leading inadvertently to its destruction. The story collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

April 1955 – ‘THE GREAT TIME HICCUP’ (‘Nebula no.12’), illustrated by Martin Frew, ‘when time went mad and sanity began to crumble, only a desperate plan – carried out in time – could hope to succeed’, voted only sixth best story of the issue! Collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

May 1955 – ‘POGSMITH’ (‘Authentic SF Monthly no.57’), ‘Pogsmith was a planet and a superbeast. The former had a negative escape velocity, the latter a positively escapist ferocity,’ later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

June 1955 – ‘OUR KIND OF KNOWLEDGE’ (‘New Worlds SF no.36’), the Preacher, Aprit, Woebee, Calurmo and Little Light are exploring the Arctic flora when they discover a four-thousand-year-old spaceship, which they fly towards the Central Stars. There, after the collapse of the First Empire, humans fight the Everlasting War against the shape-shifting Boux. Story later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

December 1955 – ‘PANEL GAME’ (‘New Worlds SF no.42’), a light consumer satire, now overtaken by events with three twenty-four-hour wall-screen TVs showing ‘Mr Dial’s Dairy’ (a pun on radio Soap Opera ‘Mrs Dales’s Diary’) – with ‘wave-bounce’ so ‘viewers could sit and watch themselves viewing telly’ (anticipating ‘Gogglebox’?), Rick and Neata Sheridan are interrupted by escaped criminal former Prime Minister Black Jack Gabriel, who is both telly-trickster, and saboteur. Later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

1956 – ‘TRADESMAN’S EXIT’ (‘The London Observer’) winner of the 1956 Observer Short Story Competition, uncollected until 2013 in ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’

February 1956 – ‘NON-STOP’ (‘Science Fantasy no.17’), original version of the story to be expanded into the debut Brian Aldiss novel, where – as John Carnell says ‘Non-Stop’ ‘has so many additional ideas packed into it that there is very little resemblance to the original story’ (1958, Faber And Faber), this version collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

February 1956 – ‘THERE IS A TIDE’ (‘New Worlds SF no.44’), an African hydroelectric project causes the bed of Lake Victoria to collapse leading to flood disasters elsewhere, seen through two half-brothers, the progressive K-Jubal, and the more eco-sensitive narrator Rog who mourns the despoliation of nature – yet has nevertheless been to lifeless Venus. Only the final line reveals that ten years previous ‘every member of the white race had been slain’ in the Massacre, and ‘now we negroes, in our turn, stood at the bar of history.’ Later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

May 1956 – ‘THE FAILED MEN’ (‘Science Fantasy no.18’), an Aldiss classic spanning eternities of future-time with a genuinely disorientating sense of strangeness, told by Surrey Edmark ‘one of the poor devils off… the Time-Ship’ to a Chinese bar-singer in Singapore. The Paulls of the IRC – the Intertemporal Red Cross of the Three Thousand, One Hundred and Fifty-Seventh Century arrive, co-ordinating aid from five different ages, to which the present twenty-fourth century are The Children, to rescue the Failed Men – ‘many hundred millions of years ahead, or thousands of millions’ years ahead. In an existential crisis they call ‘struback’ they’ve buried themselves in ‘cemetery areas’ from which they are exhumed and revived. Unable to comprehend the terminal bleakness, the Time-travellers return in shock, ‘another cartload of nervous wrecks coming home.’ Collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

July 1956 – ‘PSYCLOPS’ (‘New Worlds SF no.49’), ‘Uh…? Distance? Sight? Colour? Form? Definitely do not like this. Frightened. Frightened of falling, insecure… Must immediately retreat to safe mmmm. Mmmm’, later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

September 1956 – ‘CONVICTION’ (‘New Worlds SF no.51’), David Stevens uses a ruse intended to fool the Diet Of The Ultralords Of The Home Galaxy, they are ‘amused’ by the ‘bluff’ but decide that ‘the warped brains of Earthmen might be useful in coping with the warped brains of the enemy Eleventh Galaxy’ in ‘an expedient war-time measure’, later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

November 1956 – ‘T’ (‘Nebula no.18’), ‘They failed because the scheme was already, demonstrably, a complete success’, ‘There was no error. The seventh planet was destroyed’, voted second-best story in the issue, later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

December 1956 – ‘DUMB SHOW’ (‘Nebula no.19’) ‘Could death be so terrible in this world of screaming silence?’, voted no.5 in the ‘One Guinea Prize’ readers poll, later collected into ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (1957)

December 1956 – ‘WITH ESMOND IN MIND’ (‘Science Fantasy no.20’), when Laurie Roberts of ‘Radiopsi Repairs: I’ll Mend Your Illusions’ attempts to repair lonely Granville Esmond’s Illusion Room – a kind of memory-generated Holodeck, his head between the prongs which hold the memory reels implant Ezzie’s presence into his own memories, then – through the city’s muon-links, into everyone’s memory. Collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

February 1957 – ‘NO GIMMICK’ (‘Science Fantasy no.21’), art by Quinn, with the bleakness of ‘1984’ or Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness At Noon’, Britain has been invaded by unnamed totalitarian Eastern power (although the guard has a ‘Boskonian countenance’), with SF writer Sladden interrogated by the ‘Questioner’, are other SF writers also being held ‘under their filthy wings? Clarke, Sam Youd, John Brunner, Wyndham, Carnell, Tubb…’ or ‘even the minor writers, Hawkins, Aldiss, Morgan’ – he mentions ‘when the fen gathered at The Globe’ and his first story ‘It Breathed Down My Necking Session’ in ‘New Worlds (December 1957) and selected by Crispin for ‘Best SF Five’. Dogmatic and unimaginative the invaders fear imagination, and possibly pyrokinesis! The story collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

April 1957 – ‘OH, ISHRAEL!’ (‘New Worlds SF no.58’), Davi has brought Ishrail to the Mental Health Ship ‘Cyberqueen’ for psychiatrists to deliberate whether he is insane, or if his story of being exiled from a galactic war fought with interpenetrators across parsecs of space is true, the story is largely a dialogue between Davi and Brother Joh Shansfor. There’s no ‘ET’ moment with the descending rescue ship to vindicate Ishrail, he remains incarcerated (name appears Ishrail in the text despite the title spelling), voted no.3-equal best story in the issue, and collected as ‘O Ishrail!’ into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959). The issue also includes Leslie Flood’s review of ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’

May 1957 – ‘ALL THE WORLD’S TEARS’ (‘Nebula SF no.21’), art by Arthur Thomson, ‘Love and joy had died – slowly, but who could wonder at the stirrings of the corpse?’, voted no.2 story in the issue, then collected into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959), where it opens ‘it was the last day of summer in the last year of the eighty-third century AD’ and, as Ployploy and the Wild Man detonate ‘just for a second, a new wind lived among the winds of the Earth’

June 1957 – ‘LET’S BE FRANK’ (‘Science Fantasy no.23’), a startlingly original novelty-concept tale, it begins ‘four years after pretty little Anne Boleyn was executed in the Tower of London, a child was born into the Gladwebb family – an unusual child.’ Asleep until age nineteen Frank II wakes to share consciousness with Frank I, which continues as further ‘freak chromosome’ ‘Franks’ are born, adding to the single consciousness as the family expands through unfolding history, until Britain – then the Eastern hemisphere consists entirely of ‘Franks’… with the America’s populated by a rival ‘separate shared consciousness’ Hispaniola Frank, then they venture out into space, reaching Venus. The story is chosen for Dell’s ‘Science Fiction Year’s Best’, and collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

1957 – ‘SPACE, TIME AND NATHANIEL’ debut collection subtitled (presciences), (Faber And Faber with original Aldiss ‘Introduction’ dated April 1956, then Four Square May 1966 paperback edition with introduction by Tom Boardman Jr and Aldiss ‘Foreword’ dated December 1965) divided into ‘SPACE’ with ‘T’, ‘Our Kind Of Knowledge’, ‘Psyclops’, ‘Conviction’, then ‘TIME’ with ‘Not For An Age’, ‘The Shubshub Race’, ‘Criminal Record’, ‘The Failed Men’, and ‘NATHANIEL and other people’, with ‘Supercity’, ‘There Is A Tide’, ‘Pogsmith’, ‘Outside’, ‘Panel Game’, ‘Dumb Show’. Leslie Flood’s review in ‘New Worlds no.58’ calls it ‘an incredibly mixed bag from one author, with an odd and unconventional approach the only common factor, and considering that this collection contains most of his fantasy stories published to date, Mr Aldiss’ future seems very bright indeed’

1957 – ‘SUPERCITY’ original story included in ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (Faber And Faber, 1957, Four Square Books paperback May 1966), addressed to ‘Nathaniel’ it tells how, due to the spiteful revenge of the scorned Virgin Vera Manchester IXA, Alastair Mott becomes Resident Governor of Acrostic I – ‘one of two planets circling a yellow sun on the periphery of Smith’s Burst, which is a small intragalactic nebula many light years from any form of civilization.’ Nathaniel is warned that there is no ‘megapolis covering an entire planet’ – no, it is a word coined by Mott ‘the greatest supercitist of them all, to denote the art of becoming indispensible through being thoroughly useless,’ as he connives his domain to prominence

1957 – ‘THE SHUBSHUB RACE’ original playful light-fantasy included in ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (Faber And Faber, 1957, Four Square Books paperback May 1966), sickly King Able Harkon Horace of ‘a small Earth kingdom on the edge of the North Sea’ trades his staff with the Oracle – pseudo-man Klaeber Ap-Eye, for a dish inscribed with ‘On Globadan I Won The Shubshub Race’, on the happy planet Upotia with pardoned wrongdoer Swap he meets Priestess Colinette Shawl who tells him about planet Globadan. There’s some changeling revelations, Swap is the real heir to the throne, and due to a dubious interpretation of the Döppler effect in which time moves more slowly at the galactic rim than it does at the centre, he ‘flashed past the winning post’ of the Shubshub race

July 1957 – ‘VISITING AMOEBA’ (‘Authentic SF no.82’) – as ‘What Triumphs?’ with cover-art by Kirby and inner art by Adash, the Shouter who deals spools, visits a world beyond the galactic rim, from where ‘he came from the depths of space into the heart of the galaxy to carry a message to the race of Man. And the message was death,’ collected into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (Faber And Faber 1959, Four Square Books paperback 1963) with the linking-comment ‘soon only the starlight would remain’. The issue also reviews the first Brian Aldiss short story collection ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’ (Faber And Faber), ‘as a short-story collection it is one of the most satisfying I have come across for years’

July 1957 – ‘GESTURE OF FAREWELL’ (‘New Worlds SF no.61’), ‘It deals with the colonisation of a planet that has lost a galactic war millennia before – and before they died the inhabitants booby-trapped their planet. A neat but effective means of retribution. Unfortunately thousands of years passed before the planet was again visited.’ In the closest Aldiss gets to a straight SF story, Lester Nixon – alienated from bereaved wife Ruthmary following the death of both children, is Governor of the Reclamation Force on planet Risim, stripped of life by the Gobbler-weapons during the Hub Wars, he lays down his life to defuse the booby-trap and enable the world to survive. Collected into ‘No Time Like Tomorrow’ (July 1959, US Signet)

August 1957 – ‘FLOWERS OF THE FOREST’ (‘Science Fantasy no.24’), as if flipping from genre to genre, trying a taste of each, this compressed florid supernatural tale draws on Aldiss’s own Sumatran experience as guilt-ridden Hopkins seeks witch Subyata ‘the spirit of the jungle’, with her leopard spirit-animal. Discorporate, he’s drawn back to the incident where he disfigured former lover Carol with a knife, in anger he knifes Subyata, only to find himself out-of-body – Subyata now within the dead leopard, his own body occupied by the soul of the leopard… which proceeds to drown him in a foul ‘insect soup’ in a rafflesia plant, collected into ‘Best Horror Stories 2’ edited by John Keir Cross (1965, Faber And Faber) then ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

August 1957 – ‘OUT OF REACH’ (‘Authentic SF no.83’) illustrated by Kirby cover-art, and Adash inner-art. ‘Solite was a beautiful place, a veritable paradise. The people were beautiful too, but both they and the planet were so far away. There was a reason, of course, why they should remain so.’ As global war breaks out Floyd Milton is in Dreamery Five, virtually reliving his marriage to Amada and her extravagant surreal ‘Dancers At The End Of Time’ Solite party, of course – it is not an alien world at all, but bleak future post-war Earth, story collected into ‘Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand’ (US Signet 1971, UK Panther-Granada paperback, 1985)

December 1957 – ‘THE ICE MASS COMETH’ (‘New Worlds SF no.66’), another silly 900-word fanzine-style romp, Antarctica (misprinted Antractic at one point) is not a continent, but ‘just a big iceberg’, and the Russians tow it away! Can we tow Britain to safety into the Mediterranean, near Cyprus? voted no.6 best story is issue, then collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

January 1958 – ‘JUDAS DANCED’ (‘Star Science Fiction’ edited by Frederik Pohl, then ‘Science Fantasy no.27’), a dazzling display of Aldiss’ playful word-game manipulations at its best, no editor alive would have thought twice about taking this!, club-footed Alexander Abel Ybo is found guilty of murdering Parowen Scryban for the second time, and is sentenced ‘to suffer death by strangulation for the second time,’ told through his own fractured dancing thought-stream, his early viewing of the crucifixion on timescreens that watch past events leaves a lasting impression, collected into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959)

January 1958 – ‘TEN-STOREY JIGSAW’ (‘Nebula SF no.26’) announced as ‘another grim and utterly convincing little gem’ but only voted fifth best story in the issue, ‘He was an ordinary bloke doing an honest job when, suddenly, he remembered the past’, collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

January 1958 – ‘THE NEW FATHER CHRISTMAS’ (‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And SF no.80’) collected into ‘No Time Like Tomorrow’ (July 1959, US Signet)

January 1958 – ‘THE PIT MY PARISH’ (‘New Worlds SF no.67’), ‘the taboos this writer successfully breaks become more amazing with each new story!’ announces ‘The Literary Line-Up’, with elements of William Burroughs’ ‘Wild Boys’ as well as ‘Clockwork Orange’ nadsat – a geek-speak of jildy, mizzle, badger off. A near-future war pulls back from nuclear strikes in fear of retaliation, ‘so the nations killed one another slowly with explosive bombs instead,’ with blitz-overtones as the Pit is a vast London crater around Paddington ruled by delink (juvenile delinquent) gangs with names like Tubby, Sponge, Frogseyes and Chuck the Chucker, while Rev Edward Mullion disastrously plans a rocket ‘Ark’ escape to Venus, voted no.3 best story in issue, collected into ‘The Best Of New Worlds’ edited by Michael Moorcock (1965, Compact Books), then ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

April 1958 – ‘THE CARP THAT ONCE’ (‘Science Fantasy no.28’) credited as an ‘Article’ on the contents page, and ‘a brief piece of nonsense’ in the pre-title blurb, this knock-about comedy concerns the construction of the Bashenham reservoir – ‘a sheet of water, as suave and unruffled as a George Sanders villain’, which will drown Pennine village Bashenham West, once they’ve rescued the Mayor’s Red Cichlid tropical fish from the Town Hall aquarium!, collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

April 1958 – ‘POOR LITTLE WARRIOR!’ (‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And SF no.83’), chosen for Doubleday’s ‘Best From Fantasy And Science Fiction: Eighth Series’ and collected into ‘No Time Like Tomorrow’ (July 1959, US Signet)

May 1958 – ‘THE GENE-HIVE’ (‘Nebula SF no.30’), published as ‘Journey To The Interior’ and voted second most popular story in the issue, ‘Into that nightmare world of floating death the life-saver projected herself – to precipitate the downfall of mankind’, the undersea trawler Bartholomew becomes the Bartlemeo, and Jean Regard becomes Je Regard when the story is retitled for its appearance in ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959)

May 1958 – ‘SECRET OF A MIGHTY CITY’ (‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And SF no.84’) published as ‘Have Your Hatreds Ready’, solids are a kind of 3D Supernova cinema, with some now-outdated satire on the movie industry. Harsch Benlin intends to complete a failed project undertaken by neglected genius Art Stayker into the city’s dark underside, ‘behind a façade of civilization, the night life of Nunion had a primitive ferocity; the Jurassic wore evening dress’, collected into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959)

June 1958 – ‘BLIGHTED PROFILE’ (‘Science Fantasy no.29’), a beautifully reflective mature Aldiss tale in which mischievous eight-year-old Yalleranda outwits ruminative ninety-year-old Chun Hwa in a world where time-travel has enabled his wife Wangust Ilsont to replenish the war-exhausted soil, yet he is still restless, a re-written version appears in the 1979 Panther edition of ‘Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand’, a second variant is in the 1964 Four Square ‘The Canopy Of Time’, while the original is in ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

June 1958 – ‘NINIAN’S EXPERIENCE’ (‘Nebula SF’ no.31), announced as ‘yet another startlingly unique short story and will, I am convinced, even further enhance the reputation of its author’ and voted third-equal best story in the issue, ‘It was a completely new art form, built of the mental emanations from the human mind and the experiences of its creator’, collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

June 1958 – ‘WHO CAN REPLACE A MAN?’ (‘Infinity SF Vol.3 no.5’), with the last human supposedly extinct, a robotic party of a Field-Minder, a pen-propeller, Quarrier and a radio-operator debate what to do in machine logic, they avoid the chaos of fighting machines in the cities and reach the Badlands… where the last man commands their obedience, originally titled ‘But Who Can Replace Man?’, collected into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959) where ‘the savages were coming, and the machines continued with their own purposes on the tired land…’

July 1958 – ‘SEGREGATION’ (‘New Worlds’ no.73) novelette, the issue also includes a ‘New Worlds Profile’ of ‘this typical English gentleman with the penchant for explosive mirth and gagsterisms’. A shot at the traditional SF secret-of-the-planetary-ecology SF theme with three members of PEST (Planetary Ecological Survey Team) attempting to decipher ‘the occult sense of secrecy’ on Kakakakaxo in the Cassivelaunus system where ‘Daddy’ Dangerfield – ‘God Of The Great Beyond’ has lived in voluntary exile twenty years as ‘the old hermit sleeping with a head stuffed of untapped knowledge’. There are Pigmies – cayman-heads, that cry ‘crocodile tears’ when dosed with cry-gas. Story voted no.2 in issue (under John Wyndham’s ‘The Thin Gnat-Voices’), then collected into ‘The Airs Of Earth’ (Faber And Faber, 1963)

July 1958 – ‘THEY SHALL INHERIT’ (‘Nebula’ no.32), ‘Mankind had fought its way to the stars, basically unchanged, but now pressure from the Outside dictated adaptation or decadence’, ‘humans developed their damper system as a safeguard against precocity – hence, compared with animals, the long period required to mature. Now that the world is long past its adolescence, precocity is exactly what we need’, voted no.3 best story in the issue, then collected into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959)

September 1958 – ‘FOURTH FACTOR’ (‘Nebula SF’ no.34), a Novelette illustrated by Arthur Thomson ‘She had stumbled upon a culture, stranger than her wildest imaginings. Could there be any hope of integration for these people?’, voted no.1 best story in the issue, published simultaneously in the USA in the Robert AW Lowndes-edited ‘Science Fiction Stories Vol.9 no.3’ (September 1958), and later collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

September and October 1958 – ‘EQUATOR’ (‘New Worlds’ no.75 and 76) two-part serial with Brian Lewis cover-art for no.75. Part one voted no.3, and part two voted no.1 most popular in the issue. As with ‘Alien Nation’ in Los Angeles of ‘District Nine’ in Johannesburg, ‘the Rosks, a humanoid race from Alpha Centauri II, arrived in the solar system in March 2189.’ When the alien colonist ship claims they expected to find Earth not inhabited, Earth grants them sanctuary in the form of eighty-square-miles of equatorial Sumatra, plus the Luna Area 101. Interplanetary politics deteriorates with Rosk dictator Ap II Dowl, and both sides spying on each other. Is there an invasion fleet following?

November 1958 – ‘CARRION COUNTRY’ (‘New Worlds’ no.77) the closest to formula SF Aldiss had written, a sequel to ‘Segregation’ (in no.73) with the same three PEST operatives, Tim Anderson, Barney Brangwyn and Craig Hodges retaining their taste for Aldebaran wine and cheroots, surveying placid Lancelyn II where slow-moving centaurs literally ‘play dead’ – with full ‘black and green traceries of putrescence’ and decay when pursued by slow-moving predator puma-ox. Again, parasites provides clues. Voted no.3 most popular story in the issue, and collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013). ‘New Worlds no.77’ also a Brian W Aldiss ‘Postmortem’ letter supporting the controversial experimental Brian Lewis art-covers for ‘New Worlds’

November 1958 – ‘SIGHT OF A SILHOUETTE’ (‘Nebula SF’ no.36) voted no.2 best story in the issue with 22% of the votes, ‘She was as inconsiderable to him as a butterfly, as transient as the snowflake on the river,’ collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

December 1958 – ‘INCENTIVE’ (‘New Worlds SF’ no.78), Isolationist Farro Westerby argues with Galactic Minster Jandanagger why Earth – or Yinnisfar as it must be renamed, should not join the expanding Galactic Federation, with the opening and closing paragraphs metaphors of why lemmings plunge into the sea, ‘these creatures were not heading for some especial promise in their future, but merely fleeing from some terrible fear in their past,’ ‘Incentive’ is voted no.4-equal in the issue, and collected into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959)

January 1959 – ‘THE ARM’ (‘Nebula SF’ no.38), ‘Try as she might, it was impossible even partially to escape from the terrible surroundings in which she found herself’, voted no.4 best story in the issue, collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

January 1959 – ‘THREE’S A CLOUD’ (‘New Worlds SF’ no.79), published here as ‘The Unbeaten Track’, lonely forty-four year-old drifter Clemperer, who has a speech impediment that causes him to insert wrong words – as in the story title, meets Spring and Alice on a Greek island, and together they form a gestalt unity, although ‘the sort of slight verbal slip he often caught himself making’ is there, the phrase – and subsequent title ‘Three’s A Cloud’ is absent from this original version of the story. Voted no.2 best story in the issue, rewritten and collected into ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (1959)

February 1959 – ‘INTANGIBLES, INC’ (‘Science Fantasy’ no.33), a poignant narrative with Ray Bradbury overtones of the travelling huckster or mysterious carnival illusionist. Slow but good-natured auto-repairman Arthur and wife Mabel accept a wager – never to move the salt and pepper pots from their place on the table, from ‘the crinkled man’ who never changes but visits them at intervals across the rest of their lives, as they grow, prosper, have children who mature and leave home, then decline as the Hapsville community evolves. ‘Intangibles’ is the random events that shape lives. Story collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

February 1959 – ‘THE LIEUTENANT’ (‘Nebula SF’ no.39) illustrated by John J Greengrass, ‘This vile and evil life-form which would conquer Earth was capable of actions unthinkable to man’, collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

February 1959 – ‘THE TOWERS OF SAN AMPA’ (‘New Worlds SF’ no.80) in what Carnell calls ‘a psychological story of the distant future’, Cold War competition with the Soviets has led to an impoverished California ‘one vast Skid Row, a Tobacco Road’. Clay Marshall returns from shooting mutated neorabbits on Venus with $800 necessary to buy a job at the corporate San Ampa valve plant, but girlfriend Cath is infected by his Venusian TB. He pays horse-doctor Giam Maccara $300 for the 952 antidote, but then – ‘in a brave and patriotic act’, betrays her to the People’s Police for an outburst critical of the government. A dark eco-disaster dystopia, voted no.3 most popular story in the issue, and collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

April 1959 – ‘ARE YOU AN ANDROID?’ (‘Science Fantasy’ no.34) jokey fanzine-style short, ‘Aldiss’ suspects his wife is an android robot, and tries to catch her out with itching powder. She accuses him of ‘reading too much science fiction’ – Pohl And Kornbluth. She is revealed when a scone crumb sticks in her soundbox. But Aldiss is also an android, and ‘springs apart’. collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

April 1959 – ‘THE OTHER ONE’ (‘New Worlds SF’ no.82), despite token SF scheduled year-long trip to Pluto Station and back, the story of Eric Lazenby is pure psychological horror. Is he mad? No, he has a cyst composed of self-aware brain-matter buried in his own brain, which is the ‘other’, haunting him with squeamishly unsettling riddles. Exorcised by Dr Siddall – in shock-horror dénouement, it has transferred to him! Voted no.2 best story in the issue, then collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

June 1959 – ‘FORTUNE’S FOOL’ (‘Science Fantasy’ no.35), ‘ask yourself, my dear Breakbane, how much is understood about the laws of chance. Say those laws are themselves subject to chance?’ When a monkey types out the complete ‘The Two Gentlemen Of Verona’ – albeit ‘here and there, I admit, a misprint had crept in’, there are odd coincides at Marlborough College, a game of conjecture, collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

June 1959 – ‘LEGEND’S OF SMITH’S BURST’ (‘Nebula SF’ no.41) announced as ‘one of the most unusual and controversial stories we have yet published,’ novelette illustrated by Gerard Quinn, ‘The choice was simple: outwit these crazy beings on this unbelievable world, or remain stranded amongst them for ever.’ Sold as a slave to Thrash Pondo Pons, financier Lowther of the Tertiary Galactic Era travels in a cart drawn by a caterpillar and an elephant, before escaping into an alliance with the spider-like Interpreter, avoiding the Ungulph Of Quilch’s murderous troops, and the gestalt Squexie Oxin in his dreary fortress, in an attempt to return to ramshackle city Ongustura. Self-centred to the last, he dumps the Ungulph’s human daughter Chebarbar, who loves him, in order to reach the ‘TransBurst Traders’ starship. The Smith’s Burst nebula originally features in ‘Supercity’ in ‘Space, Time And Nathaniel’. The story collected into ‘The Saliva Tree And Other Strange Growths’ (Faber And Faber, 1966)

August 1959 – ‘SAFETY VALVE’ (‘Future Science Fiction’ no.44) collected into ‘The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s’ (2013)

1959 – ‘THE CANOPY OF TIME’ collection (Faber And Faber, 1963 Four Square Books paperback), John Wyndham writes ‘anyone who likes to see an intelligent imagination weave people and ideas together and finish the result with craftsmanship, should enjoy ‘The Canopy Of Time’,’ (in ‘The Listener’), includes ‘Author’s Note’, with stories linked into a future-history by inserted brief bridging passages, ‘Three’s A Cloud’, ‘All The World’s Tears’, ‘Who Can Replace Man?’. ‘Blighted Profile’, ‘Judas Danced’, ‘O Ishrail!’, ‘Incentive’, ‘Gene-Hive’, ‘Secret Of A Mighty City’, ‘They Shall Inherit’, ‘Visiting Amoeba’

Tuesday 28 July 2020



Album Review of: 
 (HI4Head Records HFHCD019) 

At first glance co-producer Keith Beal’s dripping dribbling cover-art is a messy colourful abstraction, until, the more you look, the more it assumes human form and expression. Amalgam is a similar concoction. Alto-man Trevor Watts was a vital ingredient in free-jazz Spontaneous Music Ensemble, collectively exploring the outer limits of improvisation with drummer John Stevens. Long-time ‘Melody Maker’ favourites, the various line-ups of his more-accessible side-project, Amalgam, also produced a series of fine albums, led by ‘Prayer For Peace’ in 1969. By the time of this 1978 set, originally issued on cult Ogun label (OG 528), they’d pared down to a power-trio. From the dizzying blizzard that Trevor’s staccato sax soars and dances across the sharp attacking jazz-fusion rhythm interactions of bassist Colin McKenzie and Liam Genockey’s precise drum-pulse on opener “De Dublin Ting”, into the slower more considered three-way conversation “South Of Nowhere”, before nodding to Roland Kirk on the full eerie 19:37-minute original vinyl second side. Although abstract in its compressed flaring fold-ins, overlapping telepathic trick-trips, internal squiggles and wrangling dynamics, repeated plays reveal its intensely human form and expression. Now, the four original track playing-time is near-doubled by a wealth of archive bonus cuts.

Original tracks:
‘De Dublin Ting’ (Trevor Watts), ‘South Of Nowhere (With Quiet Beginnings)’ (Colin McKenzie, Watts, Liam Genockey), ‘Keep Right’ (Trevor Watts), ‘Dear Roland’ (McKenzie, Watts, Genockey)

Bonus tracks:
‘Mad’ (Trevor Watts), ‘Seaside Blues’ (Trevor Watts), ‘Albert Like’ (Trevor Watts), ‘Bottle Alley’ (McKenzie, Watts, Genockey), ‘Latino Flo’ (Trevor Watts)

Trevor Watts (alto and Soprano saxophones)
Colin McKenzie (bass guitar)
Liam Genockey (drums)

Published in:
‘R’N’R’ Vol.2 No.64 July-August’ 
(UK – July 2017)

Singer-Songwriter: STEVE YOUNG


CD Review of: 
 (Ace Records CDCHD 1523) 

One of those cult songwriters fanzine-scribes used to devote hagiographical scrutiny to, Steve Young ticks all the boxes – yes, beautifully crafted Country-Folk songs that only become hits for others, most notably the Eagles but also Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Rita Coolidge, smoky doomed dependency-issues (Steve died in March 2016), and a voice to break your heart. Yet only one of the ten songs on this 1981 Rounder reissue – with no outtakes or bonus tracks, are Young originals. As Garth Cartwright’s exhaustive liner-notes explain, it’s very much a career-pause, a personal homage to heroes and mentors from Buddy Holly – with a Rockabilly “Think It Over”, the Stones – a gut-raw “No Expectations” illuminated by Mac Gayden’s stinging slide, and Jesse Winchester’s aching “All Your Stories”, plus Outlaw drinking-buddy Waylon Jennings’ crawling revenge title-song. Even, bizarrely, Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”. A laboured “Corinna Corinna” is credited to Trad, but we probably associate it with Dylan. Steve’s own redeeming closer, “The River And The Swan” builds through elegiac rippling metaphors for the drift of doomed love, its starkly powerful vocals lifting and giving context to the sometimes odd song-selection that comes before, fully justifying that cult status. 

Published in:
‘R’N’R Vol.2 Issue.70: July/August 2018’ 
(UK – July 2018)

Sunday 26 July 2020

Jazz Giant: Charles Mingus


Expanded Book Review of: 
(1971, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 
1975, Penguin Paperback ISBN 0-14-00-3880-9)

 Charles Mingus: 22 April 1922-5 January 1979 

As a kid buying music papers, there were the Rock pages in which new Stars and Pop-groups were introduced on a weekly basis, and the Jazz pages in which learned and very serious journalists mourned the deaths of aged New Orleans pioneers. The dichotomy thus presented itself to me as Rock = youth-energy. Jazz = senility-death. A decade and a half later those doing the dying were musicians to whom I’d developed a particular affinity – Roland Kirk, Charlie Mingus, and I found myself in the paradoxical situation of feeling a need to justify this affinity to a largely uncaring posterity who, if they listened to Jazz at all, preferred the electronic droodling of Chick Corea or the fusion-Funk of Herbie Hancock.

So why remember Charles Mingus? I can think of four immediate reasons.

(One) To those with a literary orientation it should be noted that Mingus was probably the most poetically referenced musician of his generation. Adrian Henri thefted the Mingus title “Tonight At Noon” for one of his best-known poems. For Pete Brown, parties were incomplete without ‘a live octopus in the sink, trying to swallow a record by Charlie Mingus,’ while Philip Larkin was moved to praise the Mingus ‘hell broth ensembles’. Mingus himself worked in experimental spoken-word projects with wordsmiths such as Kenneth Patchen – performing jointly at the New York ‘Living Theatre’ during March 1959, and he went on to write one of the most exhilaratingly freewheeling ‘spontaneous bop prose’ tracts to come out of Jazz, the tactile autobiography ‘Beneath The Underdog’ (1971).

(Two) For those with a socio-historic orientation it should be noted that during the birthing process of Black Awareness, Mingus was a constant presence. He was born 22 April 1922 in Nogales, Arizona, but after the death of his natural mother the family moved to 1621 East One-Hundred And Eighth Street, in the Watts district of Los Angeles. He was black, and colour was significant, but there were degrees of blackness. He recalled that his father ‘taught race prejudice to his children – said they were better than others because they were lighter in colour.’ The lesson stuck, and later, whenever he looked in the mirror ‘he thought he could see a number of strains – Indian (Native American), African, Mexican, Asian and a certain amount of white (German) from a source his father had boasted of. He wanted to be one or the other, but he was a little of everything, wholly nothing, of no race, country, flag or friend.’ As a child, ‘big and clumsy, with a tendency to bow-legs and pigeon toes’ he experienced the racial injustice of the 1930s which sparked off a sense of acute justified anger that remained with him until his death in January 1979. Watts was a black no-exit catchment where becoming King Pimp was the ‘closest thing to one of our kind becoming President of the USA.’ His was the bitterness of an intelligent sensitive kid ‘subjected to the galling rules America inflicts on negroes.’ The kind of bitterness that culminated in the Watts riots of the sixties which tore the city apart.

Jazz historian Nat Hentoff wrote of black musicians who ‘do not see mirages of Jim Crow as Mingus frequently does. Nor, when they do scrape against its real manifestations do they hit out as wildly and with as uncontrollable a hurt as Mingus’ (in ‘The Jazz Life’, Panther 1962). For he was a vulnerable, proud musician, unable to mask his intellect with demeaning vaudevillian self-deprecation, dismissing the likes of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong – with whom he played from 1941-1943, as ‘Tomming’, telling Jazz archivist Marshall Stearns ‘it’s time we negroes quit crying the blues.’ Stearns interpreted this as symptomatic of a racial ‘real hunger for the musical and intellectual culture of the white community’ (in ‘The Story Of Jazz’, Mentor Books, 1956). More perceptively, poet Jeff Nuttall detects that it is within the work of musicians such as Mingus that ‘the authentic pulse of violence was first felt’ – quoting the Mingus dictum ‘two four six eight, I want to teach you to hate’ (in ‘Bomb Culture’, MacGibbon and Kee, 1968 and Paladin, 1970).

Mingus hit out at the ‘smallest hint of malice towards him, negroes, friends, Jazz, music, or the new African nations.’ But his reputation as a fighter was based on hard lessons he’d learned on the streets of Watts, that ‘if he doesn’t get in the first punch, the other man surely will.’ And lessons learned on the road, playing Jazz. From 1950 to 1951 he toured as bass-player with the Red Norvo Trio, a group made up of the white Norvo on vibes and Tal Farlow in guitar. They worked dates in the South under insulting segregation conditions, which Mingus endured, but he quit when Norvo agreed to replace him with a white double-bass player for a one-off TV slot – ‘they had sponsors who worried about the ‘southern market’ where ‘mixing’ was taboo.’

Mingus became a Hindu – his ashes were scattered on the River Ganges, but he avoided the hip affectations of other black 1940s musicians who professed similar spiritual convictions to Islam, preferring to target his message more effectively. In the early-sixties he was numbered with the ‘Newport Rebels’ protesting against the commercialism of the ‘Newport Jazz Festival’ – by setting up an ‘alternative Festival’ in a tent outside the grounds. And in the early seventies while Bob Dylan was writing paeans to jailed boxer “George Jackson” and John Lennon was angrily affirming his solidarity with the rioting victims of “Attica State” prison, Mingus titled one of his pieces “Remember Rockefeller At Attica”, making sleeve-note comment about the late Vice President’s decision to send troops into the Penitentiary to quell a riot – killing both prisoners and troopers. ‘Rockefeller’ he notes ‘is a very dangerous man.’ An earlier composition similarly snipes derisively at the racist Governor of Arkansas who presided over the Little Rock Crisis, in “Fables Of (Governor) Faubus”. The same awareness provoked other such inflammatory titles as “Free Cell Block F” and the pointed accusation “‘Tis Nazi USA”.

But his protests went beyond rhetoric. A ‘Beneath The Underdog’ conversation quotes Fats Navarro as saying ‘we (blacks) are just work-ants. He (whites) owns the magazines, agencies, record companies, and all the joints that sell Jazz to the public. If you won’t sell out and you try to fight they won’t hire you and they give a bad picture of you with that false publicity.’ So Mingus set about attempting to circumvent the machine. He taped a historic Toronto Massey Hall gig 15 May 1953 boasting a line-up of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker – masquerading as ‘Charlie Chan’ to avoid litigation from Mercury Records, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Mingus himself, playing so ‘right’ that it’s easy to forget he’s there at all – to the extent that he chose to later overdub his bass parts in the studio. It was a euphorically chaotic event – Gillespie clowning and moving offstage at intervals to check the latest developments of a Rocky Marciano boxing match, yelling out the crucial lyrical message ‘Salt Peanuts! Salt Peanuts!’ to the rafters, Bud Powell – fresh out of Long Island Sanatorium following Electric Shock treatment, drunk from the first number on, and Bird – who’d forgotten his horn, playing a white plastic alto lent by a sympathetic local music store.

Mingus salvaged the resulting soundtrack and put it out as the first release on his own ‘Debut’ record label. Although intended as a commercial venture the label quickly hit distribution problems and went bust, selling its masters to Fantasy-Prestige in Berkeley where they remain on catalogue, but not before it had lain foundations for subsequent projects in artist-control such as the 1966 ‘SRP’ (Self-Reliance Project) label founded by Milford Graves and Mingus-alumni pianist Don Pullen. Mingus even launched a second label himself, founding ‘Bethlehem’ in 1967 as a mail-order operation – releasing his fine ‘East Coasting’ album as Bethlehem BCP6019, until he was later forced to sell it to CBS.

(Three) It was, however, as a composer and leader that Charles Mingus excelled. His ‘workshops’ were created from the same self-help ethos, and they had a flawless history of figuring in the careers of many forming jazzmen. Musicians such as John Handy, sax-player Shafi Hadi, Charles McPherson, Paul Bley, Jackie McLean, the excellent Booker Ervin, and others. Nat Hentoff who recorded Mingus as an A&R man in the early-sixties (with Eric Dolphy and Ted Curzon on the sessions), sleeve-noted that ‘Charles wants you to play what he writes, but he wants you to do it your way. He won’t stand for coasting, and he does not suffer careless mistakes lightly.’

While still living in Watts, Mingus had studied compositional theory with Lloyd Reese (who later instructed Eric Dolphy), working out his ideas on piano, and although he wrote the beautiful “The Chill Of Death” (1939) at seventeen, he had to wait three decades to get it onto record (on his ‘Let My Children Hear Music’ LP, CBS 64715). Instead, his first recorded composition was “Mingus Fingers” cut for Decca under the auspices of the Lionel Hampton group in 1946 (he played with Hampton 1946 to 1948). The first Composers Workshop was founded at Brooklyn’s Putnam Central Club. And the ‘Workshop’ project coincided with his swing from ‘pencil (written) composition’ to spontaneous improvisations with the workshop experimental groups. Learning that ‘a wrong note doesn’t completely throw me. I can make something out of it that’s right. In a way, there are no wrong notes.’ And despite his fierce racial pride he openly acknowledged influences ranging from Arab to Spanish music. A 1954 Realm album ‘Jazz Composers Workshop No.1’ – featuring ex-Julliard tenor-player Teo Macero, later a CBS staff producer for artists such as Miles Davis, betrays ‘Mingus love of polyphony in embryo’ – as detected by Philip Larkin, while he was simultaneously experimenting with fingering and chordal notions picked up while studying Segovia records. All of the influences came together into Mingus Jazz Quintets playing the Café Bohemia at the Greenwich Village Eighth and Ninety-Second Street intersection throughout 1956, and the YHMA sponsored Music Of Our Time street concerts.

His first album to achieve real Jazz acceptance – ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’ (1956, Atlantic 1237, reissued as 587-131), was a quintet Jazz tone poem in four movements. A hauntingly impressionist piece. A career turning-point on which Mingus inspired saxophonist Jackie McLean to produce a ‘wild and blue voice within the ensemble playing.’ The improvisational basis of Jazz has proved problematic for writers and arrangers since its inception – scores from those of the Paul Whiteman to the Mike Westbrook Bands are meticulously charted with spaces of finite duration for improvised passages, a kind of premeditated still-life spontaneity. Duke Ellington, by contrast, wrote his scores around the known abilities of his familiar soloists. Mingus had first heard Ellington – and his influential double-bass player Jimmy Blanton, on the radio when he was thirteen, telling writer Richard Williams ‘I turned on the radio and heard something that I loved, and followed it until I found out where it was’ (‘Melody Maker’, 12 August 1972).

He got to work briefly in the Ellington band in 1953 but was ‘asked to quit’ after a violent dispute with an arranger after Mingus raised his solo an octave above that specified, so the ‘bass isn’t too muddy’. His respect for Ellington remained untarnished despite this glitch – and later appeared on the Duke’s ‘Money Jungle’ (1962, United Artists UAJS15017) album, while listing his personal pantheon as ‘Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Duke, Bird and Art (Tatum)’. Mingus went on to tribute Ellington in compositions “Duke’s Choice” and “Pussy Cat Dues” before, and “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” after Duke’s death, while the thumbprint of Ellington’s influence is that most readily identifiable in his own compositional style. The difference in attitudes was that Mingus scored with the soloists often-unrealised potential in mind, not their known limitations, hence the quality of discovery in McLeans playing on ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’. Mingus utilised spontaneous composition, wrote scores on ‘mental charts’, giving sidemen general rundowns of his requirements orally – or often as not hollered across the stage!, leaving them considerable freedom in the selection of phrases played during ensemble passages, while setting and directing the mood of his soloists by regulating what went on around them.

Following the album’s success Mingus formed a more permanent group for touring and recording purposes, including long-standing drummer Dannie Richmond, an ex-R&B tenorist and occasional Rock drummer, the Texan Booker Ervin (tenor) whose raw emotional playing was an early influence on the Jazz-Soul of the sixties, Eric Dolphy who played bass clarinet on John Coltrane’s proto-Indo-Jazz fusion set “India” (1963), but who died of a heart attack in West Berlin in 1964, plus pianist Don Pullen who reached his widest audiences through the Mingus groups. Inevitably, other musicians passed through. Small-group albums emerged, ‘Tijuana Moods’ (1957, RCA 7514, LSA 3117), a move into Latin Americanisms with hoarse vocal encouragements from Mingus himself, ‘Blues And Roots’ (1958, Atlantic 1305/ K50232) with Ervin’s sax burning through “Moanin’” and “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, and ‘Tonight At Noon’ (1964, Atlantic 1416) with Roland Kirk guesting, followed by a period of experiments with large-scale compositions such as ‘The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady’ (1963, Impulse! A35) – one long 39:25-minute piece divided into six ‘movements’ described by Philip Larkin as ‘a furious pretentious plumcake of sound’, including “Hearts Beat And Shades Of Physical Embrace” vaguely based around the ‘Tristan And Isolde’ love duet, plus various recordings of the 22:48-minute “Meditations On Integration” (1964), done live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and in Paris as part of the posthumously-issued ‘Revenge!’ (1996, Revenge 32002) album.

Such ventures saw Charles Mingus gaining recognition as a composer, acquiring a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and graduating a year later to lead a twenty-three-piece orchestra for special performances of his more ambitious pieces at the Philharmonic Hall, or as part of the 1972 Newport Festival. His early music had predicted much of what was to be achieved by the BeBop revolution, and he was just as aggressive in his pursuit of the New Wave avant garde, utilising hair-raising neck-snapping tempo shifts and accelerations, volcanic climaxes, multiple simultaneous soloing, dissonance and counterpoint, yet stopping short of the brink of total free-form by retaining melodic anchors sunk deep into Ellingtonia. Never quite abandoning bar-lines and harmonic sequences, the tempo changes were always unexpected – but supremely logical.

He wrote the score for John Cassavetes poorly-received Beat Generation movie ‘Shadows’ (1959) which dealt with racial issues, and incidental music for a London-based noir movie version of ‘Othello’ called ‘All Night Long’ (1962) with Tubby Hayes, John Dankworth and Dave Brubeck. His final movie score was for Elio Petri’s political drama ‘Todo Modo’ (1976, aka ‘One Way Or Another’), this ‘fantasia’ adapted onto the ‘Cumbia And Jazz Fusion’ (1977, Atlantic) album. It was as a composer that he hoped to gain real recognition, with individual stand-out pieces such as “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” for Lester Young, “Celia” for his then-wife, “Reincarnation Of A Lovebird” for Charlie Parker, plus “Alice’s Wonderland”, “All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother” – with a cryptic dedication to ‘all mothers’, and “No Private Income Blues” which all form a significant and durable catalogue of his music on vinyl.

(Four) His influence as an instrumentalist is more difficult to gauge, particularly as the double-bass has since lost ground in favour of the electric bass – but his legacy can still be felt in the freedom extended to this – traditionally, part of the rhythm section. At the age of eight he got a Sears Roebuck trombone which his father traded in for a cello after some non-productive lessons. He was taught by a door-to-door part-conman part-musician, despite which he achieved a level of proficiency that enabled him to join the Jordan High School Symphony Orchestra, and play Beethoven with the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic Orchestra – getting beaten-up after rehearsals by neighbourhood kids, but always dragged the cello behind him. It was Buddy Collette, a friend and local Swing Band musician who enlightened him to the realities, saying ‘you’re black. You’ll never make it in classical music no matter how good you are. You want to play, you gotta play a negro instrument.’ So he switched to double-bass, rapidly developing amazing speed and skills on the instrument despite the then-pervasive idea that it should only be used to ‘keep time’. Ellington’s bassist Jimmy Blanton had pioneered its ‘liberation’, but Mingus aimed ‘at scaring all the other bass players’, driving himself relentlessly to become a virtuoso by eighteen.

He played High-School dates with Red Callender, jammed with Art Tatum, played with Lee Young – Lester’s brother, and eventually pacted with Lionel Hampton, making his first trip to New York with the band – although ‘all he saw of it was underground.’ From pure technical dexterity he began to emphasise emotion and empathy, evolving an almost vocalised tone, reaching perhaps the apex of his innovatory creativity on the Atlantic sessions, touring Europe with his groups in 1960, then 1964, 1970 and 1972. His style is difficult to pigeonhole, as befits a man who – at various stages of his career, had shared stages with as diverse musicians as Kid Ory, Roland Kirk and Charlie Parker – appearing in Bird’s disastrous 1955 ‘come-back’ at ‘Birdland’, ludicrously and beautifully described by Ross Russell in the ‘Bird Lives’ autobiography (Quartet Books, ISBN 0-704-33094-6). A determinedly eclectic musician, he resolved styles and periods to create something inimitably his own, sometimes thoughtful and romantic, but just as easily sharp and audacious with a controlled ferocity. He told Nat Hentoff that ‘some of them say I have no soul. Maybe I have a different kind of soul. I don’t want to act any parts, to worry myself about being hip. I’m only concerned with communicating what I feel.’

Charles Mingus was a large man physically and intellectually. A man shot-full of human contradictions. Physically impressive enough to dominate any stage he was dropped down onto, playing music of almost classical purity, he never lapsed into the confectionary nature of the more acceptable ‘chamber Jazz’ or ‘Third Stream’ ventures. His music never became commodity – even to the extent that Duke Ellington’s became commodity – none of his albums sold more than 50,000 copies, with sales averaging out around 15,000 per disc. He was a man whose hatred of racial stereotypes didn’t stop him playing up the Black sexual athlete mythos in his autobiography – a man capable of fucking twenty-six Mexican whores in a single two-and-a-half hour debauch, and fusing the incident – related in an unusual third person form, intro one of the most intense accounts of the Black experience since Eldridge Cleaver’s ‘Soul On Ice’ (1968). Exposing the vulnerability beneath the thin skin of bravura.

In the music press around the time Mingus’ death was being written up in the Jazz pages, the more garishly sensational death of Sid Vicious was not only being splashed lavishly across the Rock pages, but across the tabloid dailies too. The exact contemporary equation has yet to be formulated.

Research material also includes:

Jazz Masters Of The Fifties’ by J Goldberg (MacMillan, 1965) chapter on Mingus

Melody Maker’ (12 August 1972) Mingus interview by Richard Williams, plus various ‘Melody Maker’ reviews

The Jazz Scene’ by Francis Newton (Penguin, 1959)

Jazz’ by Arrigo Polillo (Paul Hamlyn, 1967)

‘The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Jazz’ by Brian Case and Stan Britt (Salamander Books, 1978)

with selected Discography that includes:

Jazz Composers Workshop’ (1954-1955, Savoy) combining two earlier albums, ‘Moods Of Mingus’ with sessions released on the ‘Wally Cirilli And Bobby Scott’ LP

Improvisations For Piano, Bass And Drums’ (1956, Vogue ten-inch LP LDE) as by Paul Bley, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey, originally issued in 1954 as ‘Introducing Paul Bley’ (Debut Records DLP7) with ‘Spontaneous Combustion’, ‘Split Kick’, ‘Can’t Get Started’ etc

Pithecanthropus Erectus’ (1956, Atlantic) with Charles Mingus (bass), Jackie McLean (alto saxophone), JR (Jr) Monterose (tenor saxophone), Mal Waldron (piano), Willie Jones (drums), with Tom Dowd recording engineer

Jazz Portraits: Mingus In Wonderland’ (1959, United Artists UA ULP 1004) recorded live at the NYC Nonagon Art Gallery, with ‘No Private Income Blues’, Mingus with John Handy (alto sax), Booker Ervin (tenor sax), Richard Wyands (piano), Dannie Richmond (drums)

Blues And Roots’ (1960, Atlantic SD1305) on the sleeve-notes Mingus writes ‘I was born swinging and clapped my hands in church as a little boy, but I’ve grown up and I like to do things other than just swing. But Blues can do more than just swing’, with ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’, ‘Cryin’ Blues’ and ‘Moanin’’

Mingus Ah Um’ (1959, Columbia) his first album for Columbia, issued in an art-abstract cover by S Neil Fujita, includes ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ for Lester Young, ‘Self-Portrait In Three Colours’ originally intended for the ‘Shadows’ soundtrack, and ‘Fables Of Faubus’

Mingus Dynasty’ (1960, Columbia CBS BPG 62261), includes ‘Gunslinging Bird’, intended as a warning to Charlie Parker copyists over the romanticised lure of drug addiction, originally titled ‘If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats’

Mingus Revisited’ aka ‘Pre-Bird’ (1961, Mercury SMWL 21056) a Mingus tribute to his pre-Bop influences, including Duke Ellington, produced by Leonard Feather, with Max Roach (drums), Ted Curson and Clark Terry (trumpets), Eric Dolphy (alto sax and flute), Booker Ervin (sax), Dannie Richmond (drums) and Paul Bley (piano)

Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus’ (1961, Candid Records, America 30 AM6082) issued on writer Nat Hentoff’s label, recorded with spoken introductions although it’s a studio recording, and including politically explicit spoken-word call-and-response passages between Mingus and Dannie Richmond to ‘Original Faubus Fables’ that Columbia supposedly refused to permit on the ‘Mingus Ah Um’ version. Musicians are Mingus, Ted Curson (trumpet), Eric Dolphy (alto sax and bass clarinet), Dannie Richmond (drums)

Mingus, Oh Yeah’ (1962, Atlantic, London HAK8007) unusual in that Mingus plays piano throughout, and sings on three tracks, with Booker Ervin (tenor sax), Rahsaan Roland Kirk (flute, siren, tenor sax, manzello, strich), Jimmy Knepper (trombone), Doug Watkins (bass), Dannie Richmond, produced by Nesuhi Ertegün with Tom Dowd as engineer

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus’ (1964, Impulse A54), a Mingus collaboration with arranger Bob Hammer for large brass and sax ensembles, includes ‘Theme For Lester Young’ aka ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’ and a version of ‘Better Get Hit In Yo’ Soul’ from ‘Mingus Ah Um’

Mingus Moves’ (1973, Atlantic 50-040), re-united with dummer Dannie Richmond after several years, with ‘Canon’ and ‘Opus 3’ which harks back to ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’

Mingus At Carnegie Hall’ (1974, Atlantic 1667-0698), two long tracks, one per side, Duke Ellington’s ‘C-Jam Blues’ and ‘Perdido’ (by Juan Tizol), with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Don Pullen (piano), Dannie Richmond, John Handy (tenor and alto sax), Charles MsPherson (alto sax)

Changes One’ and ‘Changes Two’ (1974, Atlantic SD 1677/8) with ‘Rockefeller At Attica’, ‘Tis Nazi USA’ and ‘Free Cell Block F’, ‘Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love’, ‘For Harry Carney’

Mingus’ by Joni Mitchell (1979, Asylum Records) the final Charles Mingus project, recorded in the months before his death, is a collaboration with Joni Mitchell who adds lyrics to four Mingus compositions including ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ with musicians Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Jaco Pastorius