…back in 1999. Tony White (who I’ve known since around 1983) published a story of mine in britpulp! an anthology of ‘new fast and furious stories from the literary underground’ (‘fast-twitch prose that fizzes and spits, narrative with a kick, jump cuts that hurt like a knuckle in the eye…’ said Iain Sinclair). This was great; I had a real story on real pages with people like Michael Moorcock and China Mieville. There was a launch party at some bar in London – I lived and worked in Wolverhampton and didn’t go as I was too busy…
Pulling it down 10 years later, I see that the rationale of the britpulp! book has some tenuous similarity to that of my walk – reclaiming past time, intersplicing it with the present. In the introduction Tony recalls ‘the days when you could walk into your local, perhaps provincial, W.H.Smiths and be confronted with wall-to-wall pulp fiction. Your eyes would be drawn along the shelves and encounter the latest in Richard Allen’s million-selling series of ‘youthsploitation’ ‘Skinhead’ novels, the biker novels of Peter Cave or Mick Norman, Sven Hassel’s WWII epics, and the beginnings of Michael Moorcock’s genre-defining ‘multiverse’ experiments…’
The colour of lost youth/summers lost (take your pick) is for me the exact shade of yellow of the edges of the pages of the Daw edition of Ken Bulmer’s Transit to Scorpio (as by Alan Burt Akers) and some of its 52 sequels. It may seem that I walk through countryside in search of fresh air and flowers, but in fact I’m seeking pulp fiction – or rather the burning delight that revealed itself to my younger self through the media of paperbacks and comic books. For instance, a milestone on this walk will be the W.H.Smiths in Leighton Buzzard where I bought my first Conan book, and the nearby market where I acquired a copy of The Final Programme by Michael Moorcock when I was about 14, concealing the breast-filled front cover and the back emblazoned with the unfortunate blurb ‘Moorcock’s World of Fantasex’ between two of E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest books bought from the same stall. When I get there, I intend to buy something equally marvellous, or at least seek some token that the marvellous did indeed once exist. The wall-to-wall space of pulp fiction is for me a kind of Wailing Wall in reverse.
Meanwhile, years have passed. I’m writing about The Final Programme; Ballard dies; the New Wave of British SF seems both to be receding from the shore and washing on to it afresh. And a new Tony White book arrives: Albertopolis Disparu, produced while Tony was a writer in residence at the Science Museum.
It’s a lovely book – there’s a PDF on the site, which I recommend. Tony explains the background:
‘Albertopolis’ was the affectionate and satirical Victorian-era nickname given to this part of South Kensington. The area was purchased specifically to continue the legacy of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition of 1851 by becoming home to all these great, Victorian-era, cultural and educational institutions. As I wandered around the Museum’s great halls and researched in the Science Museum collections I found myself revisiting a science-fiction genre called ‘steampunk’. To generalise only slightly, ‘steampunk’ is based on the assumption that mechanical 19th-century computing technologies such as Babbage’s Difference Engine created our contemporary information age a century or so early.
I enjoyed this slim tale of Zeppelins, rooftop shanty-towns of telegraphic engineers in a realm of wire, a vast information factory… As I started it I had an exhilarating sense of the game being afoot, though what game I could not say.
Wherever the readers of this volume find themselves, it may be assumed that we all agree an interest in the streets of London. But we do well to remind ourselves that by nothing more effortful than turning a corner, opening a door, or climbing a stair can one be translated from familiar street and public haunt to an altogether different realm, seemingly without any relation to the London of common conception.
For me, ‘London’ is a conceptual city like Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – exciting as a poetic idea, but not particularly appealing as reality. I suppose this is a Brighton prejudice against London as the too-near place from whence day-trippers and weekenders come – hordes emerging from the station and walking down Queens Road, slightly too loud, credulous and excitable. We natives of Brighton would watch their antics with a certain indulgent pity, hose down the pavements after they left and bank their sticky cash on a Monday morning. Who would want to follow them back to their dens, the Squares, Palaces and Parliaments where they all reputedly ‘live’?
But maybe I’ll find a way into London, sometime after Leighton Buzzard – the ‘Terminal Session’ discovered by Tony in the Imperial College library may offer a clue as to where to start.