Back on the Shelf Again

In which The Author receives a surprise delivery

My regular readers will probably already be familiar with the Cosmic Tigger Library. It’s my personal collection of books, magazines, theatre programmes, records, DVDs and other things which I’ve accumulated over the past thirty-odd years. Like any self-respecting library, it’s split into several parts.
The Cosmic Tigger Lending Library is the biggest division of the 1,300-plus books which live on shelves throughout my house. It’s largely made up of paperbacks, with some hardbacks dotted here and there, and covers pretty much every subject except Chick-Lit and Gardening. Most of them are available for my friends to borrow, with the exception of some rare and valuable editions.
The Cosmic Tigger Reference Library lives (mostly) in my middle room, with some overspill onto the landing. As you’d expect, they’re mostly large hardbacks covering a wide range of topics. Some are rare and surprisingly valuable. Consequently, they don’t leave the house, except in special circumstances (e.g. if I’m working in Aberdare Library and they’ve no longer got the particular book(s) I need.)
I’ve also chosen to maintain a tradition which many public libraries observed until relatively recently: the Restricted Access Collection. This is my stash of erotica, which lives in my bedroom and is available for consultation on the premises only.
[A digression: The Restricted Access Collection began life in a rather basic small-town fashion, with copies of top-shelf magazines I'd found in various newsagents during my travels. Mother has never openly mentioned finding my stash, but I'm fairly sure that she must have come across it at some point during my late teenage years. It probably came as something of a relief, to be honest. She might have been initially shocked to learn that I was gathering pictures of beautiful dark-haired women in bizarre leather outfits – but at least they were women!]
I’d been lending books to my friends for several years before I became fed up of never getting them back. I’ve already compiled two incomplete lists of books which are ‘Missing, Presumed Lost’, and every so often I remember something else which has gone astray over time. A few years ago, the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library really came into being. I used my printer to make a stash of little stickers saying ‘Cosmic Tigger Lending Library – PLEASE RETURN’, and now I attach them to any item before it leaves the house.
At first my friends thought it was a bit of a joke, but it’s been a good way of retrieving some of the overdue items. Using the Tellico software package, I can log every book which leaves the house, and keep track of who’s got it. After a decent interval has elapsed, I can send them a gentle nudge via Facebook, to ask how they’re getting on with it.
Unfortunately, these technical innovations came too late in the day to identify my copy of Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine. I know exactly who borrowed it – I’m seeing him tonight, in fact, so I might try and jog his memory then. The strange thing is that the same edition turned up randomly in a charity shop in Aberdare ages ago. I didn’t buy it, because I assumed that I’d get my original copy back at some stage. Now, I’m starting to wonder whether the one on offer for a quid might have been the very same copy. If it was, then I’ve certainly seen the last of it, as the charity shop closed a couple of years ago. I’ll have to wait for the reissue, which is due ‘soon’, according to Mr Priest’s own website.
However, my system paid me an unexpected dividend yesterday. Everyone who’s ever laughed at the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library stickers should pay close attention, as this will prove you all wrong.
I need to turn the clock back over four years. My friend Barbara was running her second-hand book stall in Aberdare Market, and I was about halfway through my first year at university. While I was browsing one lunchtime, I came across a copy of a book called The Routes of English by Simon Elmes.
It caught my eye for a couple of reasons. It had been produced to support a radio series of the same name, presented by Melvyn Bragg. I’d heard a couple of editions, but missed most of the series. The book itself wasn’t part of the conventional BBC publishing stable. I remember it especially well, because when I was working in Dillons we’d (eventually) managed to obtain one for a customer, and had to jump through a number of hoops in the process. It had also been quite expensive, because it came with two audio CDs of English varieties through the ages and across the world, along with discussions with leading scholars. I was taking a module called The History and Development of the English Language, so it seemed like a good excuse to buy Barbara’s copy – especially as she only wanted about two quid for it.
In my second year I continued my study of English linguistics, but Gill A., our lecturer, had moved on. Our new lecturer was Ayo B., a very tall, elegant Nigerian gentleman who was based at Cardiff University and helping out at Glamorgan for a couple of sessions a week. We were chatting after the lecture one day, and he mentioned that he was also teaching a module called English: Past, Present and Future. I asked him if he’d come across The Routes of Britain, and suggested that he might be able to make some use of the resource materials contained in the book.
I made copies of the CDs and took the book down to our next session together. Ayo was fascinated by the whole thing, and especially by a small black-and-white photo on the back cover. As I said in an earlier entry, it’s often difficult to get a mental image of someone from their voice alone. Ayo was surprised that Melvyn Bragg didn’t look anything like he’d imagined from listening to In Our Time. I told him he could hang on to the book for a little while, and fillet it for his own course materials.
That was the last I saw of the book, needless to say. My back injury forced me to crash out of the course halfway through the second year, and (as my regular readers already know) I wasn’t able to go back again. I did ask Sarah T. once whether she still saw Ayo, and if so, whether she could jog his memory for me, but to no avail. I added the book to the ‘Missing, Presumed Lost’ list and resigned myself to scouring the second-hand shops for another copy.
I was in Aberdare Library yesterday lunchtime, when Paula told me that a package had arrived there – for me. It had turned up in the post that morning, with no covering letter. Luckily, Judith had been opening the post. Most people in the Library know about the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library, and she’d recognised the sticker on the front of the book. It was my copy of The Routes of English, with the two original CDs still attached.
I know this might sound like an unlikely story, but Geoff E. and Clint were with me at the time, so they can verify it.
My friend Alexis has checked the staff directory at the University of South Wales, and there’s no sign of Ayo. I’ve also had a look at the Cardiff University website this afternoon, but he’s not listed there either. It seems as though he’s moved on as well. I’ve checked my blog stats, however, and there was a definite search for ‘Cosmic Tigger Lending Library’ some time during the last seven days. I can only assume that Ayo was tidying his shelves, came across my book, tracked me down online via my blog to Aberdare Library (where I spend at least two afternoons a week, as a rule), and posted it directly to them, knowing that it would get to me in the fullness of time.
In the absence of any other contact details, I’d like to thank Ayo here for taking the time and trouble to return it to me. I was amazed when Paula showed me the contents of the packet, and even more amazed when she told me that it had turned out out of the blue, with no explanation forthcoming.
It proves three things: that people are far kinder and generous in spirit than we generally give them credit for; that it pays to be a creature of habit; and that the oft-derided Cosmic Tigger Lending Library stickers do have their uses after all.

A Head of Steam

In which The Author finds the past catching up with him

When I was in my mid-teens, one of the Science Fiction writers whom I really enjoyed reading was Michael Moorcock. His prodigious output and wide range of subject matter seemed quite remarkable. When I came across a new Moorcock book in Graham Ewington’s Bookshop in Aberdare, or (more likely) Lear’s Bookshop in Cardiff, it was anyone’s guess what would lie behind the eye-catching and often disturbing front cover.
It might have been a new bind-up of the Elric short stories, or one of the many volumes in the Eternal Champion sequence of interlinked sword-and-sorcery novels. His fantasy writing reached its apotheosis in the byzantine and spellbinding Gloriana, or the Unfulfill’d Queen. Alternatively, it could have been one of his hard SF novels, like The Black Corridor, set amid social collapse in the near future. The Michael Kane adventures, set on Mars, straddle the two former camps. Most people browsing in a bookshop today would come across the Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and Castle Brass novels in bind-up forms, and assume that was pretty much the extent of Mr Moorcock’s published work. It isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.
How do you even begin to classify the Jerry Cornelius books, his extraordinary satirical quartet about the quest for personal identity in an era when everyone was hiding their true natures from each other (and themselves)? Don’t forget the iconoclastic Nebula Award winner Behold the Man, in which a time traveller visits first-century Palestine in search of Christ himself. As well as these, there were the Colonel Pyat novels, starting with Byzantium Endures when I was still a teenager, and concluding with The Vengeance of Rome in 2006. Then again, we had the magical realism of Mother London; the tragi-comic Dancers at the End of Time sequence; the speedfreak film tie-in of The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle; and the overlooked trilogy of novels about an Edwardian soldier who had come well and truly unstuck in Time: The Warlord of the Air (1971), The Land Leviathan (1974), and The Steel Tsar (1981).
These last three are rather strange to re-read in the Twenty-First Century. Purporting to be taken from manuscripts left by Mr Moorcock’s grandfather, they are written as the first-person account of Oswald Bastable, a former soldier and opium addict. Cut off from his unit by a local uprising in India, Bastable takes refuge in an abandoned temple. It proves to be a portal in Space and Time, and a gateway to a series of parallel universes.
In The Warlord of the Air Bastable is rescued by a giant airship and returns to London in the year 1973. The First World War has not occurred, and the great empires have continued to carve up the globe between them. Bastable gains employment on the airships, and comes into contact with a group of revolutionaries, including a radical Russian named Ulianov. Being a decent sort of cove, Bastable throws himself into their struggle against oppression. However, it seems as though History has a way of correcting itself. There are fixed events in Time, after all. The political instability in the Crimean Peninsula seems to be one of these fixed points. There are other fixed points as well; at the conclusion of the first book, Bastable finds himself witnessing one of the immutable atrocities of our age.
The Land Leviathan takes Bastable to another alternative universe. Vastly accelerated technological development has led to the virtual collapse of civilisation in the Northern Hemisphere. Bastable finds himself in the wealthy utopia of South Africa, which is ruled peacefully by Gandhi, and where apartheid has never been established. He becomes an emissary to the benign dictatorship of the ‘Black Attila’, an African revolutionary who declares war on White America. The ‘Land Leviathan’ of the title is a massive tank which serves as his mobile headquarters. Once again, History takes the upper hand and events move to a devastating conclusion.
In The Steel Tsar, Bastable visits a world where the Confederate States won the American Civil War and the October Revolution never took place. After a series of adventures, Bastable sets out to destroy the ‘Steel Tsar’, the battle weapon of Iosif Dugashvili. You’ll have to read the books to find out how events develop.
All three books are characterised by Mr Moorcock’s deft handling of alternative history, and by the frequent appearances of real people within the fictional structure. Some of his regular characters appear as well, most notably Una Persson, who features throughout the Jerry Cornelius books and the many related novels. In particular, his use of fictional technology within a historical framework puts these books very much at the foundation of the Steampunk genre. To me, at least, it seems that Alan Moore was heavily influenced by Mr Moorcock’s books when he came to write his famous graphic novels about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. These alternative histories, built around viable but non-existent technology, follow in the tradition of Wells and Verne. Steampunk has now become a recognised sub-genre of SF, some forty years after The Warlord of the Air was published.
The last couple of seasons of Doctor Who seem to be very Steampunk-influenced. In particular, have a look at the production designs in ‘The Beast Below’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, and ‘The Time of the Doctor.’ My pal Clint visited a craft fair in Brecon recently, and met some Steampunk enthusiasts who’ve adopted the full Cosplay image. Clint told me later that he’s been keeping an eye out for vintage clothes which he can customise in a suitably eclectic style.
My regular readers probably know that I’m far from being a dedicated follower of fashion. However, with the recent emergence of the Steampunk style in mainstream films and TV, I’ve been wondering whether it’s the sort of image which I could really pull off. After all, I read the Steampunk books before Steampunk was even a word, so I feel as though I should pin my colours to the mast, so to speak. Don’t be at all surprised if I turn up one day wearing a three-piece suit under a frock-coat, with a pocket watch and a bowler hat, and a pair of goggles for effect. And, quite possibly, if I can learn how to tie one properly, a bow tie. After all, these days, bow ties are cool…

Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.

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