Another Security Leak From the Future

In which The Author finds government policy described in a Victorian scientific romance

‘Scientific romance’ was the lovely term used to describe the novels of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and their lesser-known contemporary Edward Bellamy, amongst others. I’ve been on a bit of a Wells binge recently, after re-reading Christopher Priest’s chilling short story ‘An Infinite Summer’ for the umpteenth time.
‘An Infinite Summer’, set in and around the town of Richmond in Surrey, took shape while he was writing The Space Machine. That ingenious 1976 novel is written in the style of a Victorian scientific romance, ties together the events of Wells’s The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and even features Wells himself as a character.
As I’ve mentioned before, Mr Priest has an enviable knack of finding inspiration for a new story while he’s in the middle of writing one. While he was researching Victorian Richmond, he was inspired to write the short story. Wells also appears as a character in his last novel, The Adjacent. Mr Priest is currently Vice-President of the H. G. Wells Society, deservedly so in my opinion. His own work owes much to the presiding genius of Victorian SF, and he’s done a great deal to bring a contemporary approach to the rather stiff and moralistic storytelling of that era.
I’m ashamed to say that I, a lifelong science fiction fan, haven’t read nearly as many of Wells’s novels as I should have. He’s a rather controversial figure these days, with his old-fashioned views on race, the Jewish question, and eugenics being re-examined from a rather harsh 21st century perspective. Nevertheless, Wells was an ardent socialist, and was considered to be a fairly radical figure in his younger days. (He died in August 1946, a few weeks short of his eightieth birthday.)
I’ve still got a very old Pan paperback copy of The Time Machine, and I took The War of the Worlds out of Aberdare Library long before it was deaccessioned. I’ve never attempted The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau, to name some of his most famous SF works, never mind his later, more pessimistic, predictions of the future. I think I’ve been fighting shy of his rather stiff and moralistic storytelling, to be honest.
Ages ago, I came across a copy of his novel Love and Mr Lewisham in Dillons. It wasn’t SF, though – it was one of his semi-autobiographical tales, about a lower middle-class chap and his pursuit of a rather radical bluestocking in Edwardian London. I quite enjoyed that, and when I came across a copy of Tony-Bungay in Barbara’s shop in Aberdare, I picked it up straight away. It sat on my shelf for a long time (as these things do!) before I decided to read it last week.
It’s not SF either, apart from a diversion about early flying machines, which seems to have been a bit of an obsession of his. It tells the story of a man who grows extremely rich by selling a useless patent medicine to gullible punters. It’s a very clever and funny satire on the class system, British business, politics, and the advertising industry.
I laughed out loud when I turned to the chapter headed ‘How I Became a London Student, and went Astray’. Been there, done that, still fit into the T-shirt! Wells’s vivid description of the many distractions available to the not-so-studious student still rings true, more than a century after the book was published.
After finishing Tono-Bungay I went back to my shelves and picked up When the Sleeper Wakes. I’d bought that from Barbara too, but hadn’t got round to reading it until this week.
We’re back in scientific romance mode, but with Wells’s social conscience in the foreground. It was first published in 1899, but appeared in a slightly revised form subsequently. The Everyman paperback from which the following quotations are taken used the 1898 text.
Wells’s leading character, Graham, is a radical thinker and pamphleteer in late Victorian England. (I think it’s probably safe to assume that ‘Graham’ is his surname, rather than his first name.) Plagued by chronic insomnia, Graham suddenly falls into a profound coma and sleeps for two hundred years.
When he regains consciousness, London has been transformed into a domed city of 33 million people, with moving walkways, wind-generated electricity, televisions, aircraft which can cross the Atlantic in a matter of minutes. Britain has only four major cities: London, Manchester, Portsmouth, and (weirdly) Shrewsbury. The countryside has been all but abandoned, but herds of livestock still provide food for the cities. The country is ruled by the all-powerful Council, and a series of committees and boards oversee every aspect of daily life.
Graham learns that his small savings and a couple of legacies, placed in the hands of a committee of trustees, have accumulated into vast wealth. It should be a Golden Age. Instead, the Council have used this money to finance their own lives of luxury and the lifestyles of their cronies, while everyone else lives in abject poverty. Hiding from a violent uprising during a power blackout, Graham bumps into an old man, who tells him the whole story:
‘Eh! – but you’re not up to things. Money attracts money – and twelve brains are better than one. They played it cleverly. They worked politics with money, and kept on adding to the money by working currency and tariffs. They grew – they grew. And for years the twelve trustees hid the growing of the Sleeper’s estate, under double names and company titles and all that. The Council spread by title deed, mortgage, share, every political party, every newspaper, they bought. If you listen to the old stories you will see the Council growing and growing. Billions and billions of lions at last – the Sleeper’s estate, and all growing out of a whim – out of this Warming’s will, and an accident to Isbister’s sons.’ (Wells, 1898, p. 91).
After Graham’s sudden awakening, the people revolt against the Council. He is rescued from the mob by the mysterious Ostrog, and hailed as the new Master. After all, he owns half the Earth.
It’s a theme which has been explored several times in SF. Woody Allen made a film called Sleeper, in which the lead character tries to come to terms with a radically different future. Frederik Pohl took Wells’s idea and turned it on its head in The Age of Pussyfoot. The idea of a modern man waking up in a radically different future society is one of the perennial flowers of the genre.
In the middle of Wells’s novel, though, I found yet another security leak from the future. No doubt it seemed like satire to Wells’s readers over a century ago. However, in 2015, with a Tory government set to ride roughshod over the people of the UK, I don’t find it any great cause for amusement.
Graham has found himself drawn to an attractive young girl named Helen Wotton. She has red hair and radical political views (I like her already). During their second meeting she tells him more about life in the new London:
‘I am still hardly more than a girl,’ she said. ‘But to me the world seems full of wretchedness. The world has altered since your day, altered very strangely. I have prayed that I might see you and tell you these things. The world has changed. As if a canker had seized it – and robbed life of – everything worth having.’
She turned a flushed face upon him, moving suddenly. ‘Your days were the days of freedom. Yes – I have thought. I have been made to think, for my life – has not been happy. Men are no longer free – no greater, no better than the men of your time. That is not all. This city – is a prison. Every city now is a prison. Mammon grips the key in his hand. Myriads, countless myriads, toil from the cradle to the grave. Is that right? Is that to be – for ever? Yes, far worse than in your time. All about us, beneath us, sorrow and pain. All the shallow delight of such life as you find about you, is separated by just a little from a life of wretchedness beyond any telling. Yes, the poor know it – they know they suffer. These countless multitudes who faced death for you two nights since –! You owe your life to them.’
‘Yes,’ said Graham slowly. ‘Yes. I owe my life to them.’
‘You come,’ she said, ‘from the days when this new tyranny of the cities was scarcely beginning. It is a tyranny – a tyranny. In your days the feudal war lords had gone, and the new lordship of wealth had still to come. Half the men in the world still lived out upon the free countryside. The cities had still to devour them. I have heard the stories out of the old books – there was nobility! Common men led lives of love and faithfulness then – they did a thousand things. And you – you come from that time.’
‘It was not –. But never mind. How is it now –?’
‘Gain and the Pleasure Cities! Or slavery – unthanked, unhonoured, slavery.’
‘Slavery!’ he said.
‘Slavery.’
‘You don’t mind to say that human beings are chattels.’
‘Worse. That is what I want you to know, what I want you to see. I know you do not know. They will keep things from you, they will take you presently to a Pleasure City. But you have noticed men and women and children in pale blue canvas, with thin yellow faces and dull eyes?’
‘Everywhere.’
‘Speaking a horrible dialect, coarse and weak.’
‘I have heard it.’
‘They are the slaves you own – your slaves. They are the slaves of the Labour Company you own.’
‘The Labour Company! In some way – that is familiar. Ah! now I remember. I saw it when I was wandering about the city, after the lights returned, great fronts of buildings coloured pale blue. Do you really mean –?’
‘Yes. How can I explain it to you? Of course the blue uniform struck you. Nearly a third of our people wear it – more assume it now every day. This Labour Company has grown imperceptibly.’
‘What is this Labour Company?’ asked Graham.
‘In the old times, how did you manage with starving people?’
‘There was the workhouse – which the parishes maintained.’
‘Workhouse! Yes – there was something. In our history lessons. I remember now. The Labour Company ousted the workhouse. It grew – partly – out of something – you, perhaps, may remember it – an emotional religious organisation called the Salvation Army – that became a business company. In the first place it was almost a charity. To save people from workhouse rigours. Now I come to think of it, it was one of the earliest properties your Trustees acquired. They bought the Salvation Army and reconstructed it as this. The idea in the first place was to give work to starving homeless people.’
‘Yes.’
‘Nowadays there are no workhouses, no refuges and charities, nothing but that Company. Its offices are everywhere. That blue is its colour. And any man, woman or child who comes to be hungry and weary and with neither home nor friend nor resort, must go to the Company in the end – or seek some other way of death. The Euthanasy is beyond their means – for the poor there is no easy death. And at any hour in the day or night there is food, shelter and a blue uniform for all comers – that is the first condition of the Company’s incorporation – and in return for a day’s shelter the Company extracts a day’s work, and then returns the visitor’s proper clothing and sends him or her out again.’
‘Yes?’
‘Perhaps that does not seem so terrible to you. In your days men starved in your streets. That was bad. But they died – men. Those people in blue –. The proverb runs: “Blue canvas once and ever.” The Company trades in their labour, and it has taken care to assure itself of the supply. People come to it starving and helpless – they eat and sleep for a night and day, they work for a day, and at the end of the day they go out again. If they have worked well they have a penny or so – enough for a theatre or a cheap dancing place, or a kinematograph story, or a dinner or a bet. They wander about after that is spent. Begging is prevented by the police of the ways. Besides, no one gives. They come back again the next day or the day after – brought back by the same incapacity that brought them first. At last their proper clothing wears out, or their rags get so shabby that they are ashamed. Then they must work for months to get fresh. If they want fresh. A great number of children are born under the Company’s care. The mother owes them a month thereafter – the children they cherish and educate until they are fourteen, and they pay two years’ service. You may be sure these children are educated for the blue canvas. And so it is the Company works.’
‘And none are destitute in the city?’
‘None. They are either in blue canvas or in prison.’
‘If they will not work?’
‘Most people will work at that pitch, and the Company has powers. There are stages of unpleasantness in the work – stoppage of food – and a man or woman who has refused to work once is known by a thumb-marking system in the Company’s offices all over the world. Besides, who can leave the city poor? To go to Paris costs two Lions. And for insubordination there are the prisons – dark and miserable – out of sight below. There are prisons now for many things.’
‘And a third of the people wear this blue canvas?’
‘More than a third. Toilers, living without pride or delight or hope, with the stories of Pleasure Cities ringing in their ears, mocking their shameful lives, their privations and hardships. Too poor even for the Euthanasy, the rich man’s refuge from life. Dumb, crippled millions, all the world about, ignorant of anything but limitations and unsatisfied desires. They are born, they are thwarted, and they die. That is the state to which we have come.’ (Wells, 1898, p. 157-160).
Does that sound like a fair description of the current UK Government’s policy concerning the unemployed – the compulsion to unpaid ‘work placements’ and the benefit sanctions regime – or is it just my imagination?
H. G. Wells, 1866-1946
Herbert George Wells, 1866-1946

Postcards From the Boys and Girls

In which The Author sorts some stuff out

About ten years ago Ringo Starr published a book called Postcards From the Boys (Cassell, 2005). While Mr Starr was stuck at home in the 1970s, raising a family and releasing the odd record now and then, his former bandmates were enjoying varied success across the world. The book was full of picture postcards which John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison had sent to Mr Starr while they were touring. A lot of them had quirky messages, cartoons, or witty observations; they all bore attractive pictures of far-off cities.
In the era of digital photography, Facebook and Instagram, the writing and sending of picture postcards has become something of a dying art. The ephemeral photos on Facebook are all very well for a quick scroll down, but they don’t tell you anything about the person who’s taken them, or their relationship to the person seeing them.
Postcards are different. You have to find a nice card – one which the recipient will enjoy seeing – and then tailor a message which fits into the small space available. It’s a far more personal and lasting record of a holiday, and a good way to look back together.
I’ve always enjoyed sending postcards. I once freaked Baz out by sending him three M.C Escher postcards bearing little Zen koans, which arrived on the morning of his final university exam.
When Sam H. and I were in Ireland in 1996, it took me an eight mile round trip on foot to find a shop which sold them. Sam took the piss, saying she didn’t see the point of it. Eventually I tracked a small selection down in the only shop within easy shouting distance of the hamlet where we were staying – a Spar mini-market with a post office next door. (Mind you, we were eleven miles from the bus stop, so you can’t blame us for shopping local(-ish), can you?) I found it on Tuesday. It’s a bit faded and slightly foxed, but still readable.
Maybe it’s for this reason that I positively encourage my friends to send me postcards from their trips abroad – or even closer to home. I’ve been collecting them for a long time, now that I come to think about it. While I was still working in the book trade, I’d managed to build up quite a collection of cards.
Before I finished work, I treated myself to a large laminated world map. I had the plan of putting my collection on the wall around the map, with bits of cotton showing exactly where each card had come from. I encouraged my friends to send me a card whenever they went on holiday, but I never got round to decorating the wall as planned.
On Tuesday, confined to the house by torrential rain and a heavy cold, I decided to dig out my collection (which was stored in an old biscuit tin) and make a start on the project. I was pleasantly surprised to learn just how many cards I’ve received over the years. They reminded me of good friends I haven’t seen for a long time, and some whom I won’t see until we meet again in the Undying Lands.
I’ve still got the card that Julian sent us from San Francisco when he was globetrotting, long before his life turned upside down. I’m sure I must have kept the card which Kathleen sent me from New York, at about the same time, but that hasn’t turned up yet. I found the card Phil sent us from Bulgaria, when he and a gang of mates went there years ago, and another which he sent from Glastonbury when he and his girlfriend Jayne were staying nearby. I’ve even got one which Sam sent (reluctantly) from Minehead Butlins, when she and her colleagues took the clients from the care home for a week away.

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There’s a whole series of cards from Chris and Rhuddian. They’re both scuba diving enthusiasts, so they’ve sent me several cards from exotic locations, with increasingly odd messages. The first, sent from Egypt, simply says IT’S HOT. The second, sent from Dubai (or possibly Abu Dhabi) a couple of years later, says something like IT’S HOT HERE TOO! (PROMISED I’D WRITE MORE THIS TIME). I’ve even got one which arrived without a stamp. I was in the Conway one night when they walked in, and Chris plonked a card on the table in front of me.
‘We were getting off the plane when we realized we’d forgotten to post it,’ he laughed.
The Middle East and North Africa is quite well represented in my collection. I’ve got a couple from Tunisia, at least three from Egypt, and (believe it or not), one from Libya. I know it’s not at the top of the tourist itinerary, but my friend John K. is a civil engineer, and his company was bidding for a large contract after the fall of Colonel Gadaffi.
As a result, I’ve probably got enough camels to buy a couple of daughters from a passing Bedouin. (Actually, as I told the girls in my Creative Writing workshop one day, never barter with camels. It all gets very messy – you have to have your change in goats…)
I’ve got a large number of cards from Thailand. Alan R-B., one of the guys I used to work with, sent me at least two from his holiday there after he finished in Waterstone’s. Dene W., an old mate from school, sent me quite a number of cards from his time in the country, all with witty messages. One of them shows a tranquil beach and a gilded Buddha, and he described it as ‘one side of town’. The other is a riot of neon signs advertising bars, live shows, girls, and other pleasures of the flesh – the sort of thing that you used to see in Soho before it became a tourist trap full of coffee shops. Dene described that one as ‘the other side of town – a cross between Hamburg and Berlin’. Just when I thought I couldn’t top Thailand for exoticism, though, Darren M. and his brother Martyn sent me a card from Cambodia a few months ago.

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I’ve got a fair collection from Canada, most of which came from Dene too. Richard F. sent me one from Vancouver, featuring a great photo of the city library, which looks like nothing on Earth. I found one from Montreal, and I had to think for a few minutes before I remembered who Gareth and Anna were. The penny dropped when I remembered a very laid-back Welsh-speaking rock guitarist and his rather eccentric girlfriend, both of whom had worked as Xmas temps in Dillons in about 1997 or so.
I found the one which the lovely Jasmin sent me when she got back to Stuttgart. Unfortunately, by the time it arrived I’d mislaid her address, so I was never able to return the favour. (I’m not even sure whether you can buy postcards showing Aberdare, mind you.)
I found a whole series from French Judith chronicling her round-the-world trip: Australia, the USA, Canada, and back home to Brittany. French Sarah sent me a card from Bremen in Germany at about the same time. I’m sure she sent me a card from Japan too, but that hasn’t turned up yet. It’s probably in the pile of junk on my desk.
Richard F. usually has an eye for the unusual. He sent me a card from Spain showing a rather macabre advertising poster from back in the day. Another was a print of a great painting showing a confrontation between the Moors and the Christians even further back in the day. Pam went to Spain too, and sent me a card from the Dalí Museum collection. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’m more of a Magritte man.
Keith and Heather sent me a couple of cards from their travels. In one from Tenby, Keith mentioned that they were staying in a street where Augustus John once lived, and said something like, ‘I feel quite at home in his disreputable company’. Another, from Greece, features an extremely priapic statue of a demigod, and bears Keith’s message, ‘Hope this finds you standing proud and firm’.
My old work friends were usually reliable when it came to cards. I’ve got a card from Mexico, which Jason D. and Jake sent to Waterstone’s when they were on holiday, and which was donated to my collection. Canadian Michael also sent a couple to the shop and one or two to my house, with sarcastic messages about the nightlife in Nova Scotia. Trish sent me one from Antigua, when she was out there for her sister’s wedding. Louise D. sent me one from Florence and another from New York. Jeff sent me a card from Scotland, when he was on a coach tour of steam trains and whisky distilleries. (He must have been the youngest person in the party, in fairness.) Jayne T. sent me a card from Iceland, of all places, just after the eruption of the unpronounceable volcano. Nerys still hasn’t sent me a card from New Zealand. She’s been out there for about fifteen years, so she doesn’t really have an excuse any more.
I’ve got a few cards from Australia, sent by friends who were down under for a spell. Dr Steve H. sent me a card from the Maldives when he was out there with his family. My map is a good way of charting the changing tourist hot-spots over time.
Speaking of hot-spots, Dene sent me a card from the charming Swedish town of Hell. As he said in his message, plenty of people had told him to go there over the years, so he’d finally taken the hint.
Gap year students and TESOL practitioners are a good source of postcards, too. Siân H. sent me quite a few from her travels in South America, including one from the Atacama Desert (the driest place on Earth, apparently, so not likely to be twinned with Aberdare any time soon), and another from the very southern tip of Argentina. Laura D. sent me a card from Macchu Pichu, the old Inca city high in the Andes. It has to be said that my friends tend to go off the beaten track, doesn’t it?

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Gary next door and his girlfriend Candy sent me a card from Kenya a couple of years ago. Shortly after they posted it Gary suffered a mild heart attack and spent the rest of the week in hospital in Mombasa. I’m just glad they didn’t say, ‘Wish you were here’.
Sub-Saharan Africa is rather under-represented otherwise. I did ask Jamila to send me a card when she went home to Nigeria, but she never got round to it. In fact, my student friends from overseas were rather disappointing all round. I asked João, the Brazilian chap from our Psychology group, to send me a card when he got home for the summer vacation. Nothing turned up, and when I bumped into him at the start of our second year he was very apologetic.
‘I couldn’t find any postcards,’ he told me. ‘I never realized I lived in such a shithole.’ (What was I saying about town twinning just now?)
I’ve got quite a few from Greece and the Greek islands, but none (that I’ve found, anyway) from Turkey. Otherwise, the Mediterranean is another dry area. Rob H. did send me a card from Malta a few years ago. We’d been talking about his forthcoming trip, and Rob said that Malta was supposed to be like Britain in the 1950s. One of us joked that, in that case, everything would be in black and white. Rob didn’t manage to find a black-and-white card, but he came up with the next best thing – a pen and watercolour sketch of Valetta.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Indian subcontinent is pretty much virgin territory. My friend Dave J., the former VP Comms at the University of Glamorgan, goes out there a couple of times a year, but never writes home. Aslam, who used to own the supermarket in Trecynon, sent Dad a postcard from Pakistan many years ago, but I don’t know what happened to it. I’ve asked Shanara to send me a card from Bangladesh on her next visit to her grandparents, but I doubt if she’ll remember.
In fact, some of the people I thought would definitely be up for the project have been rather disappointing. My old friend Paul C. joined a well-known Welsh band called The Oppressed a few years ago, and tours quite widely with the boys. I’ve asked him a few times to send me a card from his travels, but he never gets round to it. Maybe I need to pin him down in person, rather than just messaging him on Facebook when he posts his latest onstage pics.
Closer to home is quite well represented on the wall. I’ve got several cards from Ireland, including one which Mother sent me from Newport, Co. Mayo, when the choir was touring over there. The night before, they’d been in a pub owned by Matt Molloy of The Chieftains. Mother also sent me a card from London, just to prove that she’d actually managed to get there in one piece.
Adam L. sent me one from Jersey a few years ago. Josie sent me one from Blackpool. I didn’t get one from the Isle of Wight last summer, though. A quick text from Mother to say she’d had arrived safely wasn’t the same.
My most reliable correspondent is undoubtedly Gaz. He goes to the most obscure places imaginable, usually to watch Wales play soccer, and I’m always guaranteed a postcard. Amongst others, he’s sent me cards from Spain, Israel, two from Andorra, one with a French stamp and one with a Spanish stamp, to see which one arrived first, and another two from a strange little village which is an enclave of Holland inside Belgium.
Gaz and I are fascinated by maps generally, so this ties in perfectly with our interest. The Russian journalist Vitali Vitaliev wrote a great book called Passport to Enclavia (Thrust Books, 2008). Mr Vitaliev travelled through Europe, visiting the linguistic minorities and detached communities of our increasingly borderless superstate. Gaz and I have decided to try and get a drink in Mitre Court in London one evening. It’s an enclave of the City of London, administered by the Diocese of Cambridge.
Gaz has sent me cards from Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, and (I’m fairly sure) Hungary over the years. Sometimes he gets diverted by the social life of the soccer trips, and leaves it until the last minute to catch the post. He almost sent me a card from Riga. However, he missed the post and put it through my door when he returned to these shores, with a Post-it note attached explaining the circumstances. (The card even had a Latvian stamp on it, for Goddess’ sake!)
His card from the Scilly Isles was a last-minute affair, too, with a very hasty message that the boat was about to leave. He entirely failed to find a post office in Azerbaijan. Keira used the same excuse for a late delivery when she was in Perth, Western Australia, a few years ago. I believed Gaz.
The one card I can’t display on the wall, though, is the one which Paul Richards, the rep from International Thomson Publishers, sent me from a sales conference in the Netherlands. It came to my house in an ITP branded envelope, and when I opened it I could see why. Paul and I had the same warped tastes in women; his card was a photo of the sort of thing one might see in the red light district of Amsterdam (or possibly in the city’s Torture Museum). His message said something like ‘This might have proved too fruity for the postman’. It’s probably too fruity for social media, too. That’s why it isn’t in this photograph.
The postcards seem to have dried up recently. Gaz is always reliable, as I’ve said, but I’ve had nothing from Chris and Rhuddian, Dene, Judith, Sarah, Richard, Siân, or the other regulars for ages. Maybe there’s a simple explanation – they might have misplaced my address, as I did with Jasmin’s. It’s easy to lose physical touch with friends these days, even if you’re still connected on social media.
Having sorted through my collection, I’ve been reminded of good friends and good times. Reading through dozens of old messages brought several smiles to a face which had been forgetting what it felt like.
The idea of the bits of thread never came to fruition. It would involve a lot of forward planning and an enormous quantity of Blu-tack, as I’d have to shuffle everything around every time a new card arrived. Even so, it’s an attractive and unusual way to fill a blank wall in my middle room.
I’m glad I started the project, even if it is slowly running out of steam. Maybe this post will remind my former correspondents about the steady stream of cards I used to get. Who knows, it might even encourage some new people to get involved. I’ll send you one back if you do (even if I have to take the pictures myself and get them printed up privately!)

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