Thursday, 27 August 2015



I’m the Old Man Who Falls Down,
today I fell down by the Mirfield towpath,
a passing postman helps me to my feet
a lady walking a Yorkshire Terrier
fusses helpfully with some tissues, she
assists me unsteadily to the ‘Pear Tree’,
the concerned landlord gets me a cup of tea,
I thank the postman for his generous help
I thank the lady with the Yorkshire Terrier,
I’m so grateful to the landlord of the ‘Pear Tree’,
what would I have done without their help?
he insists I go to A&E and Annabel will drive me,
she works mornings in the ‘Pear Tree’
because she has a three-year old son,
she smiles nicely, and helps me into her Peugeot,
I’m careful not to drop blood on her upholstery,
I thank Annabel for her kindness,
she says not to worry, it’s the least she can do,
I thank her as I go into A&E
where they check this and feel that, no,
nothing broken, is there pain when you do this?
I say I’m sorry to be a nuisance
and everybody has been so kind,
he says ‘don’t worry, it’s what we’re here for’
and its reassuring that ordinary folk are so helpful,
afterwards I catch the bus home…

last week I fell in Horbury High Street,
the people were so kind and helpful,
I couldn’t believe how generous ordinary folk can be…

next week I might fall in the Wakefield precinct
outside the Cathedral, beside the Ridings mall,
yes, that seems like a good place to fall,
because I’m the Old Man Who Falls Down…

Wednesday, 26 August 2015



Robyn Hitchcock is the Soft Boy who fell to Earth, 
the Soft Boy who never grew up, the Man Who Would Be Syd
 – the once and future Syd Barrett. Or a fruitcake. 
But with the patronage of REM and his strongest album yet – 
‘RESPECT’ (1993), he’s on the brink of even greater notoriety. 
Andrew Darlington watches him soundcheck, 
 discusses Axe Murderers, Tree Surgeons, and 
 the Food Blender Theory of Song Composition, 
 LSD, Mother Fixation, and the 
 (insensitive soul) behind the Freak Show… 

A satellite.

Hung on Derby’s South Orbital road, ‘Mickleover College Of Higher Education’ has the still calm ambience of deep space. The lawns are kept neatly clipped for an (apparently) absentee student body. Over the slow hill from the Car Park you can see Nissans and Fiestas shuttle dumbly like silent coloured beads up and down the M-way threads. We go across those lawns, down through the halls. Asphalt and grass to concrete and glass. Robyn Hitchcock lopes as if he’s in free fall. You can make up your own version of Robyn Hitchcock, ‘cos they’re all true.

Former Soft Boy, then front-person with the Egyptians, then Soft Boy again, he’s either ‘a flower in the field of English eccentricity’ (Dave Thomas, ‘New Musical Express’ 30 March 1985), or ‘a fruitcase’ (Paul Strange, ‘Melody Maker’ 23 March 1985). He lopes as if he’s lighter than air. Lopes as if he’s Eight Miles Higher on janglipop fantasia, scratch ‘n’ sniff guitars, and lyrics that take you for a loop. Lopes as if he’s attached to gravity and normality by the slenderest umbilical lifeline of physical necessity.

Is that the version you want? And how does it accord with Hitchcock’s own self-view?

Robyn, why is your band ‘The Egyptians’, and not – say, ‘The Italians’?

‘Do you feel particularly strongly that it SHOULD be ‘The Italians’?’

No. I just wondered why, out of all the races of the world, you chose the Egyptians.

‘How did YOU acquire YOUR name? Did YOU have any choice in the matter?’

No, but then you weren’t BORN ‘Egyptian’, it was the result of conscious choice.

‘Not quite, because I’M Robyn Hitchcock – THEY’RE the Egyptians!’

At soundcheck he’s speaking in tongues. A recitation. He’s stood at the mike while they find his sound-level, hands clasped in the Catholic attitude of prayer, reeling off this pious dramatic monologue heavily accented in pidgin Spanish. A young Catalan boy ees adrift at sea, wonders where hees Momma, where hees Poppa, the ocean swells, the clouds storm… then he hears the voices of Angels, and the Egyptians peal off acapella bell-tones around him as they’re miked up.

So far he’s playing the date for laughs, but underlying it all, this is serious ‘ting. Robyn and the band – including Softs Morris Windsor on drums, and Andy Metcalfe, bass/ keyboards, are now receiving much critical respiration, gaining media momentum through a series of manically inventive records and the resuscitation of what Margaret Thatcher deemed ‘the oxygen of publicity’. They have an extensive back-catalogue of oddly-titled albums to draw from. The most recent include the acoustic ‘Queen Elvis’ (1989), ‘Eye’ (1990) and last year’s thirty-eight-track ‘Soft Boys: 1976-‘81’, and ‘Respect’ – possibly his most perfectly-realised album yet, crammed with titles such as “When I Was Dead”, “The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee” and his Vera Lynne tribute “The Yip Song”.

Recorded in the kitchen and the living room of his Isle of Wight home, around the time of the Autumn Equinox, ‘Respect’ is further evidence, as if further evidence were REALLY needed, that Hitchcock is the most exhilaratingly deranged mind to operate within the tacky parameters of Pop since… um… Syd Barrett? The analogy is hard to avoid. Has been made with brain-numbing regularity in every print-piece he’s ever been subjected to. So once we’re sat face-to-face in interview-space, I try not to mention the ex-Pink Floyd acid casualty.


Instead, we talk about Robyn’s work with REM – who cover ‘Respect’s “Arms Of Love” on the ‘B’-side of “Man On The Moon”, while both Peter Buck and Michael Stipe guest on his ‘Perspex Island’ (1991) album. We talk about co-writing with Captain Sensible, and Hitchcock’s ‘Groovy Decay’ (1982) sessions produced by sometime Shamen collaborator Steve Hillage (‘I like him, but we don’t have the same metabolic rate at all’). And we talk about the current album, produced by John Leckie whose track-record includes the Fall, Verve and the Stone Roses… but it seems we’re predestined to the subject of Syd.

‘He was one of those rare things, the genuine article’ Robyn opines carefully. ‘Don’t forget, I’m quite old. I’m well over thirty. Barrett was very young when he started. And poor old Syd just believed it all, y’know. He also believed in GETTING FAMOUS – which is a dangerous thing to a kind of immature personality. He believed, literally, in what he did and said, whereas most people realize that whatever level you’re on, this is Show Business, this is a Performance. Bob Dylan believed in what HE was doing, and got completely fucked because of it. I’m not saying that it has to be a SHAM, but you have to KNOW that you are providing some form of entertainment for people. You are not an Axe Murderer. You are not a Tree Surgeon. You are not Bruce Forsyth. But you ARE providing something for people, an alternative world for them to watch. Anyone who wants to keep their head in Show Business has to realize this. You can be as near to your own personal self, or as far as you like. But poor old Syd just believed it all.’ A quirky Hitchcockian grin beneath a spray of black hair. ‘It was just the incredible unreality of LSD, the incredible unreality of fame, the incredible unreality of growing up – combined with a bit of Mother fixation, and you’re gone!’ A moment’s pause, then ‘but I never met him. I wasn’t in the Pink Floyd. It’s all just theory.’

Anyway, we should be ‘talking up’ the albums and the recent Soft Boys re-union tour, instead of hanging luster on the language of antique legend. And Robyn’s product deserves all the press inches it can garner. I mean, who but Hitchcock, like some latter-day tripped-out Lewis Carroll, could rhyme ‘Norwich’ with ‘porridge’ (on “Listening To The Higsons”), follow it with “When I Was Dead” – his own obituary spun out into the haunting script for Luis Buñuel’s next movie (‘the Devil asked me to supper, he said ‘Careful with the spoons’, and god said ‘oh ignore him, I’ve got all your albums’, I said ‘yes, but whose got all the tunes?’’), then crown it with a gloriously demented “Wafflehead” with cheese-grater instrumentation and lyrics worthy of a Govt Health Warning? That’s all PURE Hitchcock.

Writing? ‘The important thing is to DO it without being aware of yourself at all. It’s like speaking in tongues. TS Eliot, I think, said ‘You should concentrate on the words, on the technique of writing, and let the substance take care of itself.’ So it’s almost like automatic writing. You just have to, sort of, find a flow. As if it’s a kind of lava. Once the lava is streaming down the mountainside, you can do this to it, you can do that to it, and then it congeals, and then you’ve got this lump which is a song.’

Is there an internal logic to the apparently random elements in the lyrics? ‘I wouldn’t know. From my experience of me I would have thought there wasn’t much internal logic. There’s certainly no logic I can think of now. I mean, someone was once interviewing me and saying basically ‘how does your brain work?’ Y’know, as if I could lift it out and put it on the table in front of him and say ‘well, I think there’s a meridian here, unscrew this bit and see – would you like to try it? Shall we swap brains?’ You can’t. You can identify other people in the songs, you can see styles coming up, you can say ‘oh-oh, here come the Byrds again’. But I can’t tell you where songs come from. ‘Cos it’s just like probing a jellyfish, it can’t be done. Or it’s like trying to freeze a rainbow…’

--- 0 --- 

‘Ev’ry eve’nin, put on my dish-worker’s suit…’ voice slurred, distorted, nudged out of shape, moving octaves lower down into jazzy cadences. Hitchcock bends into the mic for a word-perfect run-through of “Yeh Yeh”. Neat little Roland synth masquerading as Hammond organ stitching in improvisationally around the exaggeratedly smooth vocals pouring down like silver. Then, as the last notes die in the unfocussed speakers, ‘is that alright?’

‘Great’ from the sound-mixer, adding irreverently ‘that’s the best one of your songs that you do.’ A Hitchcock grin, a pout of his lower lip in mock-Jaggeresque petulance, ‘that’s Georgie Fame, 1964 – one of HIS hits. Another was “Sitting In The Park”…’

…And another was “In The Meantime”. I’m watching the soundcheck from across an empty dance-hall that’s masquerading as an off-duty gymnasium. Small high oblong windows slant spots of dusty light across the scuffed parquet floor. A couple of Students Union Entertainment Officials hang around to view the proceedings, their attention spinning between the stage and a girl with tight faded Levi’s, a full T-shirt, and long blonde hair. She purposefully ignores them out of existence. And I’m watching the stage with a grin that’s difficult to suppress. Soundchecks are supposed to be boring affairs of repetitions up and down the fret. But not with Robyn Hitchcock it ain’t. ‘What do you want us to do now?’ enquires Robyn helpfully.

‘Oh, nothing in particular’ from the sound-desk. Hitchcock runs a reflective Blues line from his Fender, meandering this way and that, then tentatively sings ‘no – thing in par – tic-u-lar’ so it fits into the loose twelve-bar structure, tasting it for its line-length lyric quality. He repeats the guitar phrase, tagging ‘nothing in particular, that’s what my Baby said to me. Nothing in particular, that’s all she wants from me’ onto it. The bass picks up on the chord progression and feeds gently in behind him a second before the keyboard begins developing and shaping the idea. Hitchcock’s now in full flood, pulling a matching middle-eight spontaneously from the air, before returning lethally to what’s now become the chorus, the band powering it to a mock-dramatic crescendo, ‘I sometimes swear… I sometimes swear they know EXACTLY what I’m gonna play before I do’ he sings, as they taper down in perfect unison to a classic Blues finish. A complete four-minute song created out of a throw-away phrase, then forgotten.

No-one applauds. In the corner, by the disconnected Fantasy Gaming machine, a portable colour TV is tuned soundlessly to… I think… a Channel Four Rock Show. Moving masses of shapeless Heavy Metal hair, leather-bands of studs, bulging cod-pieces and Flying-V guitars in phallic poses. A group like that’d strive a month hewing out leaden riffs of a song not half as crafted ‘n’ concise as the one Hitchcock makes up and trashes on a whim and the spur of a moment.

--- 0 --- 

‘What I like is obvious in what I play’ Hitchcock concedes. ‘You’ll always find traces of my influences. That’s how it should be, unless you disintegrate into your component parts, like – say, Love’s Arthur Lee. Or even John Lennon, in some ways he disintegrated into his component parts. I think you never completely outgrow whatever your roots are, you don’t REALLY transcend them, but you DO develop them, you do tend to synthesise them. You get your own voice, it just takes a while. I remember Dylan saying ‘you’ve gotta listen to all these guys, Sonny Boy Williamson, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly,’ and he’d just reel out all these names. Then the Beatles would reel out THEIR names. And now I can reel out all of my people like Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Brian Poole & The Tremeloes (snigger)…! It’s like a Food Blender where at first the nuts haven’t been chopped up properly and you can still identify bits of mushroom and bits of red pepper. And then, in the end, it all ends up as a sort of purée. So I suppose you could say I’ve been through the blender, and…’ he pauses. Runs his fingers through his permanently disheveled hair. ‘I don’t know what your question was, but I’m sure that’s the answer.’

I resume – it’s like, in your song “The Man Who Invented Himself”, have you invented ‘Robyn Hitchcock’?

He looks bemused. ‘Oh, I’m not an invention. I’m the genuine article.’

But you are, on your own admission, in ‘Show Business’, a ‘Performer’. Surely there’s a temptation to exaggerate the Hitchcock persona into product – ‘near your own personal self’ perhaps, but also – to an extent, an invention?

But ‘no. People are invented by their parents. They give you the car and you just have to drive it. Inevitably, how you steer it once you’re given it is up to you. Maybe that’s what maturity is – knowing you can control it? In which case I’m still not particularly mature. But I mean, you’re handed the apparatus. I didn’t invent me, I’m simply steering him. I WILL have co-invented my children, and then they can shake THAT off!’

That’s evasion, surely? The wacky eccentric Hitchcock has got to be a deliberate creation, a conscious decision he assiduously (acid-uously) promotes? I remind him of a long-lost BBC-TV ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ appearance on which there’s a fifteen-second interview space he devotes to a dialogue on the wearing or not wearing of socks. He told a confused Richard Skinner that the Soft Boys had ‘a lot of problems because of the kind of socks we wore. But I don’t hold any grudges. I still wear the same socks,’ and so on and so forth.

‘Well, that’s as important as anything else’ he explains guilelessly. ‘In fifteen seconds what SHOULD you say? I am 6ft 2” and I think I’m god! I’m just about to bash my head through this wall? I have got fifteen seconds to say I disagree with American policy in Nicaragua? What IS the most important thing you can say… or do you just discuss socks?’

In a later Radio One ‘Saturday Live’ he was asked ‘why the lyrical bizzaro?’ On ‘Respect’ he sings ‘heartburn and chemistry and lung disease, make mincemeat of your passion on days like these… Good Morning Mr Seagrove, have you met my dead friend, Seth?’ (on “Driving Aloud”). So why the Lightbulb Heads, the Yodelling Hoover, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Toilets – why not Moon ‘n’ June lurve songs? To which came – perhaps bitter, ‘Saturday Live’ riposte, ‘I’ve written dozens of songs about falling in love, it’s just that nobody ever plays them. They always play the ones I write about Lightbulb Heads.’

How about that, then? ‘Ah, you mean that expectations are imposed on me?’ he grins, catching my drift. ‘You mean I’m having to act out a Freak Show while inside there’s a sensitive individual? Well, yeah – I know what you mean. Sometimes there is an insensitive… er, a SENSITIVE individual inside, sometimes there isn’t.’ He breaks up laughing over the mis(?)placed prefix. Then ‘no, I DID write quite a lot of love songs, that’s true. They’re lying around somewhere. The LP I did with Steve Hillage has got a few of that sort of stuff.’

But does Hitchcock ever resent the expectations imposed on him? The necessity to be forever brained-out? ‘Perhaps their view of me is accurate?’ he counters. ‘They’re probably right to see me that way, I can’t really comment. I know you have to have a certain profile. Think of pro snooker-payer Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis (the ‘Spitting Images’ caricature), he’s looking for something to ‘hype him up’, they say ‘but you’re so DULL, what CAN we call you?’, so he thinks a bit and says ‘alright (in gnarly accent), you can call me ‘Interesting’. So he becomes Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis.’ It’s anything for a certain amount of visibility. But you need to have no fear on my behalf, I’m not putting myself out at all to do any of this. I’m aware of what people think of me, but there’s no gross exaggeration at all.’

A reflective pause. Then Robyn ‘Interesting’ Hitchcock, the man who did (or perhaps didn’t) invent himself, confesses ‘I always wanted to enact this character on a public scale. Not a VAST public scale, but public enough to be able to live on. Just enough to exist on. Money just to live, or is it to live for money…? no, not to live FOR money! You know what I mean…?’

Well, yes, no, I dunno – I’m still not sure who’s zooming who, who’s inventing who, which came first, fact or fruitcake, chicken or omelette, but it’s sho nuff fun finding out.

Robyn Hitchcock: ‘Respect’ is overdue.


Black Snake Diamond Röle, 1981
Groovy Decay, 1982
I Often Dream of Trains, 1984
Fegmania!, 1985 (with the Egyptians)
Element of Light, 1986 (with the Egyptians)
Globe of Frogs, 1988 (with the Egyptians)
Queen Elvis, 1989 (with the Egyptians)
Eye, 1990
Perspex Island, 1991 (with the Egyptians)
Respect, 1993 (with the Egyptians)
Moss Elixir, 1996
Jewels for Sophia, 1999
Luxor, 2003
Spooked, 2004
Olé! Tarantula, 2006 (with the Venus 3)
Goodnight Oslo, 2009 (with the Venus 3)
Propellor Time, 2010 (with the Venus 3)
Tromsø, Kaptein, 2011
Love From London, 2013
The Man Upstairs, 2014


Groovy Decoy (A re-worked version of Groovy Decay, featuring demo versions of many of that album’s songs), 1985

Invisible Hitchcock (Outtakes and rarities, 1980–1986), 1986

Gravy Deco (A compilation of the Groovy Decay and Groovy Decoy sessions), 1995

You And Oblivion (Outtakes and rarities, 1981–1987), 1995

Mossy Liquor (‘Outtakes and prototypes’ from Moss Elixir), 1996

A Star for Bram (Outtakes from Jewels for Sophia), 2000

A Middle-Class Hero (Italian-English authorised interview book written by Luca Ferrari with three outtakes CD included), 2000

Obliteration Pie (Japan-only collection of live tracks, rarities, and new studio re-recordings), 2005

I Wanna Go Backwards (Boxed set of reissued albums, with many previously unreleased outtakes and rarities), 2007

Shadow Cat (Outtakes and rarities, 1993–1999), 2008

Luminous Groove (Boxed set of reissued albums, with many previously unreleased live performances, outtakes and rarities), 2008

There Goes The Ice (Vinyl-only collection of rarities, most previously issued as digital-only tracks between 2010-2014), 2014


Gotta Let This Hen Out!, 1985 (with the Egyptians)

Give It To The Thoth Boys: Live Oddities, 1993 (Cassette only release sold on tour 1993) (with the Egyptians)

The Kershaw Sessions, 1994 (with the Egyptians)

Storefront Hitchcock, 1998 Storefront Hitchcock L.P., 1998

Live at the Cambridge Folk Festival, 1998 (with the Egyptians)

Robyn Sings, 2002 (Double live album of Bob Dylan cover songs)

This is the BBC, 2006

Sex, Food, Death... and Tarantulas (Live EP), 2007

I Often Dream of Trains in New York, (CD+DVD), 2009


Robyn Hitchcock, 1995 
Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians: Greatest Hits, 1996 (with the Egyptians)
Uncorrected Personality Traits (Rhino Records best-of compilation of solo material), 1997


Time Between: A Tribute to The Byrds (Imaginary Records), 1989

Pave The Earth (A&M Records), 1990

More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album (Birdman Records), 1999

Ernie: Songs of Ernest Noyes Brookings (Gadfly Records), 2001

Listen To What The Man Said: Popular Artists Pay Tribute to the Music of Paul McCartney (Oglio Records), 2001

Wig in a Box (Off Records), 2003 

Terry Edwards Presents Queer Street (Sartorial Records), 2004

Abbey Road Now! (Mojo Magazine Free CD), Oct 2009 – ‘I Want You (She's So Heavy)’

The Madcap Laughs Again! (Mojo Magazine Free CD), Mar 2010 ‘Dark Globe’

Son of Rogues Gallery (ANTI- Records), 2013 ‘Sam’s Gone Away’

Tuesday, 25 August 2015



Alfred Bester – 
18 December 1913 to 30 September 1987

‘Explosion! Concussion! The vault doors burst open. And deep inside, the money is racked ready for pillage, rapine, loot. Who’s that? Who’s inside the vault? Oh God! The Man With No Face! Looking. Looming. Silent. Horrible. Run… Run…’ This is the way ‘The Demolished Man’ opens.

Yet ‘(I) am not at all glamorous’ ventures Alfred Bester in ‘Hell’s Cartographers’ (1975), ‘merely a working stiff.’ And his photo in his ‘New Worlds’ writer-profile (no.29, November 1954) almost fools you into believing it. He presents a clean 1950s TV-sitcom image, short disciplined dark hair, heavy tortoiseshell-rim spectacles, ignited by a cheesy smile. Suggesting the slick prose-style of a Madison Avenue ‘Mad Man’ advertising copywriter. And yes, he was very much a working writer, across several genres, quoting Galsworthy as an aspirational model. Nevertheless, the history and the greatest hits of this working stiff conveniently spans two short story collections – ‘The Light Fantastic’ (1977) and ‘Star Light, Star Bright’ (1978), forming a cosmic-bridge from 1941 to 1975. The Best of Bester. Published in Britain as companion volumes by Berkeley/ Putnam bracketed as ‘the great short fiction of Alfred Bester’, in the States they were available as a single omnibus edition from Nelson Doubleday through the SFBC. Bester himself confides ‘I always dismiss my past and concentrate on the present and future. As a result I don’t remember three-quarters of the things I’ve written, and certainly not the dates of anything.’ So, if a modicum of effort has gone into their compilation, the effort has been well worthwhile.

Although never over-prolific – with nineteen years between the publication of his novels ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ (1956) and ‘Extro’ (1975), this one-time scripter for the ‘Green Lantern’ and ‘Captain Marvel’ comic-books and syndicated strips, the ‘Charlie Chan’ radio-detective slot, and ‘Fred Astaire’ TV-shows, has steadily produced an ornately impressive body of work glittering with hard bright images. Herewith the short story collections are interspersed with anecdotal accounts of his life and the incidents – when recalled, that sparked off the stories, rather after the style of Isaac Asimov’s interminable reminiscences. The second book also reprints the hefty chunk of autobiography “My Affair With Science Fiction” lifted intact from Brian Aldiss’ invaluable ‘Hell’s Cartographers’, in which a constellation of writers trace their careers back to their origins, and in which Harry Harrison calls Bester ‘one of the handful of writers who invented modern science fiction.’ Well, maybe.

Of his own beginnings – born in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan in 1913 to liberal first-generation American parents of Austrian of Russian Jewish extraction, Bester was ‘raised and trained’ in what he terms the ‘American School of the Unexpected’. ‘I’ve loved it (SF) since its birth. I’ve read it all my life, off and on, with excitement, with joy, sometimes with sorrow.’ Among the tomes he devoured and digested were garish early issues of ‘Amazing Stories Quarterly’, alongside HG Wells, Stanley Weinbaum’s ‘A Martian Odyssey’ (1934), AE Van Vogt’s ‘Slan’ (1946) and Robert A Heinlein’s “Universe” (in ‘Astounding SF’, May 1941) – as well as ‘reading and annotating James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’’. All were influences, from which the tyro Bester evolved his own fiction style. In 1938 – aged just twenty-five and still a law student, he was contrived into winning a $50 amateur-SF contest, that resulted in his first sale, “The Broken Axion” to the lurid fifteen-cent ‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’ (April 1939), accompanied by an uncredited ‘Meet the Author’ blurb. Promptly turning professional, further sales to editor Mort Weisinger’s magazine rapidly follow, such as “The Voyage To Nowhere” (July 1940), and the ‘Startling Novelete’ “Slaves Of The Life-Ray” (February 1941). He soon expanded into Frederik Pohl’s ‘Astonishing Stories’ (February 1941), with his “The Pet Nebula” earning him cover status.

His eventual acceptance into John W Campell’s market-leading ‘Astounding SF’ came with “Adam And No Eve” (September 1941), which is collected into ‘Star Light, Star Bright’. ‘Alfie’ himself considers this to be ‘the first of my ‘quality’ science fiction stories. I put ‘quality’ in quotes because I think it’s rather jejune.’ Even selecting a word such as ‘jejune’ to describe its essential lack of originality demonstrates a certain stylish flair. And yes, eschewing the soon-come flood of Cold War post-apocalypse tales – this was still 1941 after all, the story does now appear melodramatic, overwrought and cliché-ridden. Steven Krane is so mesmerized by the beauty of the rocket-ship in which he intends to become first human to circle the Moon, that he ignores warnings about the hazards of the experimental fuel he’d using. As he blasts off – taking his dog Umber with him, it ignites a destructive chain-reaction, so that as they parachute back to Earth, it takes them into a dead world of ash and suffocating dust. Hallucinating conversations with his dead colleagues, forced to fight and kill a maddened Umber, this last man alive reaches a ‘terminal beach’ where he comes to a dread realization of ‘what had brought him back to the sea. There need be no Adam – no Eve. Only the sea, the great mother of life was needed. The sea had called him back to her depths that presently life might emerge once more…’ The organic matter of his dead body will kick-start a new evolution, with the implication that this extinction event is part of an eternally recurring cycle.

“Adam And No Eve” was included among the eleven 1941-1954 stories gathered into an earlier collection – ‘Starburst’ (Signet, 1958), some of them showing thematic or technical limitations. With regard to elaborating the finer detail of such stories, Bester’s comments are irritatingly vague, he instead prefers to conjur entertaining pastiches on the next phase of his career. From 1942 – after thirteen SF short story sales, he became heavily involved in the comics industry, and scripting for radio while simultaneously churning out workable scripts for TV’s juvenile ‘Tom Corbett: Space Cadet’. Arguably the tight formulaic discipline involved strengthened and encouraged his plotting dexterity. During this freelance sojourn he retained his Science Fiction links by doing book reviews, before returning to SF-proper through sales made predominantly to Tony Boucher’s ‘Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’. And the evolution is very much in evidence.

“Disappearing Act” from ‘Star SF Stories no.2’ in America and ‘New Worlds’ (no.29, November 1954) is an elaborate political metaphor on the manipulation of patriotism. Although set in the year 2112AD, it is as applicable to Vietnam as it is to the coalition’s intervention in Iraq. Editor John Carnell sets the theme within ‘the war to end all wars – the fight to preserve the ideals of Democracy; of poetry, dreams, music, art and culture.’ So what is the secret of Ward T in St Albans hospital? Are the supposedly-recuperating war-casualties time-travelling? No, they’re retreating into fantasy past-ages of their own creation. To Carnell ‘the participants became so specialized in the end, however, that it became difficult to find a poet or an artist or a musician. But dreamers…?’ Witty and sharply concentrated, the writing is slick and sophisticated, in a genre where most stories are neither.

From the tail-end of this phase comes another of his masterpieces – “Fondly Fahrenheit” (‘Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’, August 1954, much reprinted, including in ‘The Light Fantastic’). Breathlessly fast-paced, the stylistic invention in this story of a serial-killer android is particularly impressive for its period. The multiple-aptitude android has its ‘prime directive’, which is violently overridden in high temperatures, hence the story title. With Vandaleur, its owner who shares its complex ‘projection’ identity, they flee across the galaxy from world to world, starting on the rice-fields of Paragon III, until arriving at Earth for a showdown in frozen Scottish marshland. Their interlocking consciousness and overlapping identities legitimize startling mid-paragraph shifts in narrative perspective, from third singular, first plural, first singular, third plural – all within the span of fifteen words! A jolting displacement device both disconcertingly effective and perfectly explicable within its context. This dance of words is accelerated by using a nonsense-song ‘be fleet be fleet’ as a recurring motif, ‘so jeet your seat’ becomes as much a punctuation as the end-of-section temperature read-outs.

While anthologizing the story Robert Silverberg oozes superlatives for ‘how quick and supple the prose, how sparkling the dialog, how agile the leaps and pirouettes of the plot!’ adding ‘dazzle has always been Bester’s stock-in-trade’ (in ‘Robert Silverberg’s Worlds Of Wonder’, Victor Gollancz, 1988).

As Bester’s development continues, he writes intriguingly of his first encounter with the legendary John W Campbell Jrn. Under the pretext of discussing a Bester ‘Astounding SF’ contribution (the Freudian “Oddy And Id”), Campbell instead attempts to propagate his fad for L Ron Hubbard’s loony-tune ideas. In fact, it was Dianetics that prompted Bester to seek alternate editors. Such anecdotes are never less than fascinating, almost compensating for the occasional desire that Bester would slow down and concentrate on the actual details of crafting his stories.

Horace Gold, for example, was apparently instrumental in assembling the ideas that eventually went into his 1953 Hugo winning debut novel ‘The Demolished Man’ which Gold first serialized in three parts in ‘Galaxy’ (January, February and March 1952). Centering on twenty-fourth-century psi-enabled Espers operating within hugely powerful corporations and guilds, it is also a murder-mystery with psychic detective Lincoln Powell tracking criminal Ben Reich through a hard-edged labyrinth of mind-games. If the psychological edge to Powell’s obsessive drive is sharpened by Manhattan Freudian Analysis – ‘my habit is to look at characters from the Freudian point of view first’ admits Bester, it is also seamlessly embedded in pyrotechnical pacing, wielding an assured dexterity the envy not only of young wannabe pretenders, but of seasoned veterans.

Indeed, some genre academics have traced the novel’s experiments with typefaces and the juxtaposition of telepathic and non-telepathic dialogue, as a precursor to cyberpunk, although – as a critical Michael Moorcock points out about ‘Tiger, Tiger’ ‘for all its experimentation’ it ‘used a tried and trusty plot as a basis for the experiments.’ Maybe such an approach is an essential sweetener for groundbreaking innovation? For Bester certainly constitutes a bridge across the gulf between the old and New Wave styles of SF. Brian Aldiss is more generous in applauding Bester’s ‘sparkling and aphoristic’ writing that ‘lent courage to many who were rejecting the older mood of grey realism’ (introducing “Time Is The Traitor” in his ‘Space Odysseys’ anthology, 1974). It would also appear that many of the short stories of the time were spun-off from the novel’s core. But Bester himself does not elaborate.

The brilliant “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” for example (‘Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’, October 1958, and UK ‘Venture SF’, April 1964, then ‘The Light Fantastic’), is one of a number of Bester variations on the problems of Time Travel. The story is at once an extended joke, and a beautifully constructed piece of narrative. ‘He was running out of ammunition’ it reads, so ‘he opened a fresh box of cartridges, went back in time and massacred Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, Mohammed, and half-a-dozen other celebrities’! There’s something of the ‘Starburst’ ‘sadistic time-travellers out for cheap excitement’ about the passage, and the almost punchline-ending in which the temporal genocide preserves present-time unchanged but destroys the protagonist, is handled with perfectly understated humor.

Also in ‘The Demolished Man’ Bester writes that ‘when life gets tough, you tend to take refuge in the idea that it’s all make-believe’ – as in the title story of the ‘Star Light, Star Bright’ collection in which the children’s wishing rhyme takes on literal meaning. At one point he jokes about perhaps discovering some technique that future-people will refer to as ‘The Bester Effect’, or ‘Bester’s Syndrome’ or ‘Bester’s Law’. One of the problems involved in analyzing his work is that there is no ‘Bester Effect’, each tale works within its own continuum of logic. Dismissing the question by admitting ‘in all this dreaming, I feel at one with all of you. Can any of you deny it?’

There was a further break while he filed regular monthly features for ‘Holiday’, until the magazine folded in the 1970s. By now the book-jacket photos show him more acceptably bearded, a creator, a craftsman not just a ‘working stiff’. Meanwhile, these two volumes of stories spin out a career stretching across forty years – from the faltering early shots such as “Adam And No Eve’, through to the later stylistic experimentation that grew out of the ironic New York flash and wit of “Fondly Fahrenheit”, such as “The Four-Hour Fugue”. And as an added bonus there’s Bester as critic in ‘Star Light, Star Bright’, writing on ‘Ike’ Asimov, and then tracing the unusual contours of his own career. The history of Alfred Bester is the history of one of American Science Fiction’s most unique writers.

This is the way ‘The Demolished Man’ closes. ‘In the endless universe there has been nothing new, nothing different… this strange second in a life, that unusual event, those remarkable coincidences of environment, opportunity, and encounter… all of them have been reproduced over and over on the planet of a sun whose galaxy revolves once in two hundred million years and has revolved nine times already. There has been joy. There will be joy again.’


THE LIGHT FANTASTIC’ (Berkley-Putnam, April 1976, Gollancz, May 1977) with ‘5,271,009 (The Starcomber)’, Ms Found In A Champagne Bottle’, ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’ + ‘Comment Of Fondly Fahrenheit’ essay, ‘The Four-Hour Fugue’, ‘The Men Who Murdered Mohammed’, ‘Disappearing Act’, Hell Is Forever

STAR LIGHT, STAR BRIGHT’ (Berkley-Putnam, July 1976, Gollancz, February 1978) with ‘Adam And No Eve’, ‘Time Is The Traitor’, ‘Oddy And Id’, ‘Hobson’s Choice’, ‘Star Light, Star Bright’, ‘They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To’, ‘Of Time And Third Avenue’, ‘Isaac Asimov’ (essay), ‘The Pi Man’, ‘Something Up There Likes Me’, ‘My Affair With Science Fiction’ (autobiography) 

STARLIGHT: THE GREAT SHORT FICTION OF ALFRED BESTER’ (Nelson Doubleday-SFBC, December 1976) omnibus of all titles separately published in the other two short story collection