Eric the Needy
During 1937 I was one of the members of the Manchester Interplanetary Society who were investigated by the local police and appeared in court following a rocket launch explosion at a technical meeting. Eric Needham insinuated himself into my awareness some time after the excitement of the MIS affair had died down. He was a diffident, faintly scruffy character with short-cropped hair, not aired in the accepted social graces of the time and received with faint disapproval by my mother when he called.
He became a frequent visitor to my attic den at 41 Longford Place and spent more time investigating my collection of SF mags and books than in conversation. One of the books was Astronautics & Relativity, acquired as a prize. Eric, impressed, fingered pages on Relativity and asked: "You understand this ?" I blushed and admitted that I'd bitten off more than I could chew.
He was an omnivorous reader and noter of trifles. When he did talk it usually involved some unexpected, and occasionally disconcerting, questions. He had a knack of picking up some dubious statement and exposing the flaw in an argument. He seemed a serious character, but there were occasions when you suddenly tumbled to the fact that a grin had crept into his face as he led you on to make some prepostrerous claim.
An apparently innocent enquiry could by devious logic lead you into making unsupportable assertions, which Eric would then ingenuously expose... An uncomfortable candour... He was an odd mixture of ingenuousness and artless, childlike guilelessyet he had a knack of needling out info... and a cruel streak on occasion.
Frequent visitors to the clubroom included Rocket, our fox terrier mascot, Bill Shelton and Fred Tozer (ex-schoolmates), George Ellis and MIS enthusiasts Bill Heeley and Stan Daviesall readers of SF, and budding futurologists.
Eric introduced an element of chaos into the serious approach of the rest of us. He had a knack of starting off fierce arguments by some ingenuous query. When we were nearly at each others throats we would realise that Eric had dropped out of active participation and was sat in a corner of the attic listening and watching our antics with quiet amusement...
Context: Eric Needhan's contribution to Ethel Lindsay's Bletherings No. 4
|THE AWFUL TRUTH|
by Eric Needham
There was a convention of science-fiction fans held in Manchester in 1954. This was at the instigation of one vociferous fan, who later dropped out of the committee. Harry Turner was roped in to deal with the Combozine. The latest light of love went out of my life . . . . . and I wandered into the Waterloo Hotel, where nefarious schemes were being hatched to amaze and delight the London Fans. Pause for sad reflection.
Nursing burnt fingers, Harry and I subsequently met at his new home in Romiley, and joined company for the first time since the Manchester Interplanetary Society achieved fame by firing the only rockets to be launched from English soil by an amateur society. Pause for reflection on that, too. Even the B.I.S. can't make that claim.
Denness Morton's Astroneer cover
recycled for Bletherings 4
Pensively we pawed through piles of ancient fanmags, dredging up the past, and sadly contemplating some newer fanzines. Then Harry mentioned a word . . . a single word . . . and I found myself writing for ZENITH 2. When ZENITH 2 will appear, we don't know. What I do know is that a yearning appeared in Harry's face to publish a fanmag again, and deep in the heart of London plans were being pushed forward for a thing called OMFA, which prospect appealed to me not in the least. Yet I wrote an article about Jonah, gave him a pome, a few cockeyed notes, and left him to his dreams. One Saturday night he wandered round with a pink sheet of NOW AND THEN. I was horrified. He had published my name as well.
From that day N&T never looked forward. The entire equipment at Harry's disposal swung into action. Out came his home made stylo. Out came his weary old wheel-pens. Out came his slightly irresponsible typer . . . and lastly, the Original Zenith Duplicator. Now this needs a paragraph to itself.
Fans old enough to remember when ZENITH first appeared will recall that a war had broken out a few months before. Patriotic appeals were launched for scrap metal, and great dumps of rusty machinery appeared everywhere. I do not claim there is any connection . . . but this is the time that Harry acquired his 1913 Model 2a Roneo duplicator. This is a purely paleotechnic device, lavish in its use of ornamental cast-iron, and qualifies for the title of being an upright grand. One night we wearied of sticking Gestetner stencils on to Roneo headings, so the appliance was examined carefully. Bits were removed and changed over. A hammer was skillfully used, and the contraption henceforth could be used with any make of stencil known. Was Harry satisfied? Not he. He now uses Ellam stencils, stuck to Roneo backings, very successfully. And his latest feat is to use half a quarto-size stencil stuck with Cellotape to very weary-looking interleaving sheets cut into masks. I suspect that the ink and paper is gained illegally, since Harry keeps neither books nor records.
And that covers the production side, but ohhh, the speed of the production. Each sheet is individually fed in, individually removed and slip-sheeted. Every twenty pages or so Harry reverently removes the stencil and annoints the drum with ink. Each page is manually produced, not the mass-produced of most fanzines. There was one occasion when Harry successfully produced two colour pages from the same stencil with one crank of the handle. Brother, that night was terrible. There was time to lose all interest in the proceedings between one sheet coming out and the next. Occasionally the Turner children assist Dad to produce his comics. Sometimes Harry, with determination I can only admire and deplore sets to with clenched teeth and does the whole sickening process himself.
Oh, I. forgot ... Harry also does the illustrations. He can draw pictures.
What of the Contents? Dear me . . . I take no responsibility for this. There are now 30 members of the RFV&SDS. To date we have had only Sid Birchby contributing . . . though we have published letters from the Bulmer love-birds, the Lyons, and an old croaker called Robert Bloch, who has been around for some time now. You never know...the old croaker might write again (GENTLE HINT). He is Our Most Revered Member.
Sometimes people look at me thoughtfully, as Walt Willis did, and speculate how the stories and articles get written, and ponder, as Walt did, on how my mental processes work. I'm flattered beyond belief that Walt credits me with mental processes. The whole truth is that NOW & THEN is purely autobiographical and completely factual in every respect.(Well, I knew you wouldn't believe it.)
The whole truth is that being a window-cleaner I find that the improbable is to be expected in life. I have long ceased to find anything unusual in seeing a half-ton chunk of Giant's Causeway in a hair-dresser's saloon, but what if I should write a story on such lines? I could write yarns about literally true incidents I meet which are completely improbable, and often funny. How would a visitor from outer space account for the fact that certain windows in office buildings often have on them old corset ribs and suspenders? The curious problem of neat packets of used razor-blades to be found in gutters and rooftops? The inexplicable quantities of women's undergarments found around chimney stacks, or the mystery of a roof-top covered with rusty hair-pins? People do not know of the oddities above them.
At the other extreme is the miscellaneous assortment of oddments to be found below cellar gratings. Opening cellar windows may on occasion release a few pounds of rusty nails, boxes of marbles, Masonic regalia, and stuff dumped by shoplifters, such as coat and dress hangers. They steal the coat complete with hanger, and throw the nanger away. I've got lots of them. It was more interesting once, though, after the war, with clips of cartridges, rifle bolts, and my prize memory, a box of twelve land-mine detonators. Almost equal to this was a parcel containing a number of hand-grenade pins and retainer levers. What happened to the grenades themselves makes fascinating speculation. By far the most unusual was a neatly wrapped parcel of freshly-sliced bacon beneath a cellar grating, about four pounds of it. I re-wrapped it, replaced it, and looked for it at the end of the day. I lived on bacon for a week, because the ration in those early post-war days was four ounces a week.
Plots come ready made to me. It is a literal fact that after heavy showers of rain I've looked for frogs on rooftops and fire-escapes. No luck. Then I find reference to falls of frogs and all sorts of Fortean phenomena in The Anatomy of Melancholy. And in Titus Livius, plus Machiavelli, too. They are there, if you look for them. Biggest snag is trying to persuade fans that literature can be fun.
And so it came about that legends have been explored, after a fashion,and will continue to be. History and myths will be shown in a new light as the world-wide effects of Widower's Products becomes known. Remarkable new verses may see the light of day, and many anomalous situations may be examined . . . we don't know. Mayhap we'll have a laugh at some of the pretensions of SF and weird-fantasy yarns. Harry can illustrate anything, including the stuff you, dear Member, can write.
NOW&THEN makes no reference to fandom, being off-trail. Zap-guns and beanies are taboo. Fan feuds have no part in its makeup. All we hope is that people get a laugh out of it.
From Ethel Lindsay's Bletherings No. 5 (May 1972)
Ethel Lindsay wrote:
I sent copies of the last issue of BLETHERINGS to Chuck Harris and to Harry Turner; To Chuck..to see his reaction to seeing a long-defunct fanzine appear on his doorstep; and to Harry because the material had come from him. This brought forth some correspondence...
There's no escape from the past, is there? Here am I happily making up for all the lost time in pursuing a career as a painter of serious intent, and you send me these-reminders of my more profligate years...
For the historical record, your statement that the material you have used in Bletherings 4 represents an unfinished Now and Then is not quite true. The cover by Denness Morton was intended for Astroneer which was the organ of the fan group, in which the leading lights were Dave Cohen, Eric Bentcliffe, Brian Varley, Sandy Sanderson et al.
We met in the Waterloo Hotel, circa 1954, as Eric reports in The Awful Truth. The article by Brian Varley and the other Morton page were originally intended for the post-war Zenith, which I abandoned in the second issue as it seemed to be getting very "sercon" whereas my tastes ran to the spontaneous and casual, as exemplified in N&T.
So the Widowers' verses are really the only N&T material in this survival from the past! Yes, the unsigned verses were Eric's - and so are some of the signed ones for that matter.
Having get the record straight, I hasten to say that it's nice to hear from you (albeit indirectly!) and to see that fandom still survives. And that FAPA is still functioning. I am mildly amazed that these things
happen. I know a few very young SF fans and still keep in touch with a few of the older gang. And how are you making out? Still at Courage House, I see...
Your old and tired fan face...Harry
I agree with everything you say about Eric Needham - probably the most gifted and most under-rated writer to have graced Anglo-fandom. He was a talented poet and a genuine surrealistic poet. And wildly generous with rare SF books too. "You said you'd never read THE KING IN YELLOW, Chuck so I found you a copy. Don't send it back: I've got a couple more of them somewhere".
He'd never take any money and only reluctantly accepted a German lady who was surplus to my requirements at the next convention...
All Chuck (Harris) said about Eric Needham was true - though he wasn't entirely 'under-rated': he had a fair correspondence from his fans considering the limited circles of fandom. It was a pity he couldn't find a better outlet for his comic genius than fanzines, but I think he was probably too impulsive and erratic a writer to have written on a commercial basis.
The thing about the N&T period was that it was all spontaneous and grew naturally. Eric was a lonely creature - he had personal problems that eventually piled up and were one reason for his rapid exit from Fandom - and I like to think that he found comfort in his visits here when the kids were all young and there was plenty of life and activity to distract him from his preoccupations.
In one sense it is true when he says that his N&T work was autobiographical - even the wildest fantasies have originated from something that happened or something that was said. Eric had a childlike awareness - he would pounce on an unconsidered remark and build a make-believe (but logically water-tight) world from it.
He was self-educated: most of his extensive knowledge came from erratic reading during his RAF career - which was why you would find him suprisingly knowledgeable about some esoteric topic and then suddenly ill-informed on some accepted, mundane matter. And it wasn't all literary and philosophical knowledge he'd absorbed - he had a phenomenal grasp of things mechanical and electronic, and a genius for building equipment of all sorts from junk parts.
I first met him before the war at fannish gatherings; it was 1937 at the Leeds SFA that out paths first crossed; but I can't recall we had a great deal in common then. My main memory is of someone vaguely scruffy and inordately shy. When our paths crossed again in post-war years, he'd changed considerably and we found a lot in common - though he was still vaguely scruffy and still shy with strangers, but covered up by acting in some outrageous way. (I seem to recall your first meeting with him will bear this, out!)
The thing that I liked about him (though it could be uncomfortable on occasions) was his natural curiosity and forthright questions about any topic that interested him. He had a refreshing uninhibitedness that kept me mentally alert during the years when a comfortable family existence could have led to rapid bourgeois complacency!
I certainly enjoyed his company. He was able to make easy contact with people through his articles and letters in a way he often found difficult in a personal confrontation. As Chuck says, he could be wildly generous - and often would do his good deeds under a cloak of anonymity. Ah well, I hope he's found some happiness wherever he's gone.
Gad..I thought I'd lost the knack of writing long letters. See what an effect you're having on me. I think your fanzine brought back all the thoughts of Eric...
From Ansible #37 (Jan 1984)
RIP AGAIN: "Eric Needham died suddenly on Dec 1. I received word from his widow Kathleen. Eric was best known for offbeat writings in Harry Turner's fanzine and in particular was the originator of the 'Widowers Wonderful' verses. He was active in early Manchester fandom and had a truly original brand of humour, much appreciated by his friends." (Ethel Lindsay)
Eric Needham at home in his Longsight flat, 1955
Harry Turner first met a 16-year-old Eric Needham in 1937. Appearance "scruffy", short back & sides, blonde bristly hair. He was shy, quiet, not very communicative, more interested in investigating mags and books. H.T. wrote:
"I guess my first meeting with Eric Needham must have been in mid-1937 it was certainly after all the excitement of the police prosecution of members of the Manchester Interplanetary Society for disturbing the peace by causing an explosion at Clayton Vale early in the year, and it was before the effects the rift between the Rosenblum-Gottliffe and Mayer factions of Leeds fandom had time to subside.
"He turned up unexpectedly one day (a habit which often caught out later genererations of fans!) at my home at 41 Longford Place in Victoria Park, Manchester, having seen my address somewhere. As he showed no signs of going, he was invited to stay for tea and departed without being drawn overmuch into the general family conversation. My mother was not impressed by my new acquaintance."
POMES by Eric Needham
From Novae Terrae Vol.3 No.1 August 1938
Power-House by Eric S. Needham
Walls and ceiling, white-washed and bare,
Heavy girders, bathed in the glare
Of strong electrics, starkly stare
Down on a power plant, well aware
That in those field coils, armatures, motors
Turbines, flywheels, pistons, rotors
Bus bars, power leads, insulations
Switchboards, dials and installations,
That as each dynamo screams its ditty
His is the life-blood of the City.
From SATELLITE Vol.2 No.8 August 1939
Variation on an Ancient Theme by Eric S. Needham
John Brown's autogyro's kinda old and quaint,
It needs a modern engine and a decent coat of paint,
A body and new rotors before he becomes a saint,
But John goes rattling on!
Glory! glory! bring the glue jar!
Glory! glory! what a stooge y'are!
Glory! glory! Uncle Oojah!
John goes rattling on!
John Brown's autogyro's not the latest style -
Probably manufactured when the Pharoahs sailed the Nile,
A prehistoric relic, but it's good for many a mile,
So John goes rattling on!
Glory! glory! get some plaster!
Glory! glory! Alabaster
to mark the spot of the disaster
Where John stopped rattling on!
From SATELLITE Vol.2 No.9 November 1939
Variation on an Ancient Theme No.2 by Eric S. Needham
Bill Temple leans over the fuel tank,
The depths of its contents to see,
He lighted a match for inspection....
Oh bring back dear William to me!
Bring back, bring back, oh bring back dear William to me, to me;
Bring back, bring back, oh bring back Sweet William to me.
Last night as I lay on my pillow,
Last night I lay dreaming enthralled,
From Egypt I heard a loud weeping,
As the Sphinx dried its teardrops and bawled....
"Bring back, bring back, oh bring back Sweet Will from the void, the void;
Bring back, bring back my hero or I'll be annoyed!"
[Historical note: "The Smile of the Sphinx" by William F. Temple was published in Tales of Wonder for September 1938.]
From Don Doughty's TIN TACKS 3 (included in Litter: FIDO May 1941 Vol.1 No.8)
Untitled... by Eric S Needham
Genius utilising the power of vapour
expansion, unwittingly helped to drap a
veil of darkness over Europe's cities
when they created (thousand pities)
the internal combustion motor.
Home Sapiens now is master
of venomous forces sufficient to cast a
shattering shellbomb stratosphere high
against the bomber flown there by
the internal combustion motor;
why is Mankind so morose if
his home and loved ones by explosive
are destroyed? He has released
the insensate fury of the Beast-
God... he must bear the wrath
of an occidental Jaggernarth.
O, better far Man's knowledge lost
in brutalising holocaust
for ages 'til he learns control
of his emotions as a whole:
to live in peace with his neighbour
and from destruction divert to labour
the internal combustion motor.
From ASTRONEER No.2 Summer 1953
(Rescued from the Zenith file: probably written in 1943).
25th CENTURY LOVE SONG
So many times I've wondered, as I fly my daily freight
On Stratolane 200, 'bout that odd thing known as Fate;
How it causes odd emotions 'bout one of the other sex,
A feeling of devotion that the Council often wrecks:
A flier might be pardoned, if on his lone vocation
He isn't quite case-hardened when a pleasant new sensation
Plummets down from way above to make his heartbeats greater.
Comet flares! am I in love with that power-beam operator!
We've both applied for mating... Eugenics Council approves...
Both have similar ratings... how slow this darned crate moves...
The sweetest girl in existence... God damn the air resistance...
Somehow I simply gotta see her soon!
Anon (Eric Needham)
Written in 1954 for the post-war ZENITH No.2 (which did not materialise)
LOVE STILL FINDS A WAY
A barren Moon and frigid space
No atmosphere to scatter light
Hell only knows this is no place
For Love, this barren satellite.
To send my love by micro-beam
What romance can that hold?
Modern modes of love would seem
To have nothing on the old.
Hams of ancient days of course
Showed no sign of reluctance
To send an interrupted wave of Morse
By capacitance and inductance
Across the gap which separates
Love's spark from you down there.
My spark-gap love will penetrate
The Kennelly-Heaviside Layer
Passed on to Ethel Lindsay, with other surviving mss, and was published in Bletherings No.41971.
From Now & Then 1 (1954)
Forget Lysenkian eugenics.
Mendel's too. You know the Phoenix ?
That strange bird who's really venerable ?
I'm told it's self-regenerable !
As Manchester daylight fails
O'er Lewis's and Baxendales
High above Smithfield Market refuse
Richard Johnson and his Nephews
And mist creeps round the dingy cavern
Known as Yates' Tea Total Tavern.
Left to midnight mice and fairies
Lancashire Hygienic Dairies.
Home to bed and lullaby-lands
The staff of Littlewoods and Rylands,
Red neon-glow and dusk intenser
Woolworths, Henry's, Marks & Spencer.
Unseen by hurrying homeward goers
Amalgamated Cardroom Blowers.
Closed to avarice and enmity
Employers Mutual Indemnity.
And now in slumbrous dark enshrouden
Hillier, Parker, May and Rowden.
And there the window cleaner's Nemesis
An unlit block of empty premises:
From Now & Then 2 (1954)
The proposition "I love you"
Postulates that "P" loves "Q".
The inverse form, that "Q" loves "P"
is not implied. Do you love me?
From: Scottishe No. 2 1954 (Published by Ethel Lindsay)
Don't think I never cared for you,
But a woman could be keener
If you had said that you'd be true
To me, not Norbert Wiener.
That evening with the stars above,
And my dissatisfaction
When you mentioned, not our love
But endocrinic action...
I wanted so to share your dreams
Of power-beams, not pylons.
I wish you'd noticed that the seams
Were straight in my new nylons.
Why did you never speak of me?
I tried to keep my hair on
When you raved about "IPC"
And SKYLARK OF VALERON.
There was no need for you to vex
Me when I dressed de-luxe-ly
By speaking of our entire sex
From the views of Aldous Huxley.
You made my perm come all uncurled
When in my mother's presence,
You discussed not only BRAVE NEW WORLD
But worse, that APE & ESSENCE.
No wolf were you, nor yet a pest,
And your way of life is frugal,
But to say the woman you love best
is Clarissa MacDougall... well.
One final word now as we part
I'll say without hesitation:
I want a man, but you, your heart
Is in suspended animation!
Now & Then 3 (1955)
My love has gone, but I recall
The moment that began it,
When you sat in the Rechabites' Hall,
Demurely reading PLANET.
With lovelight gleaming in my eye
I swore an oath resounding
I loved you more than life and my
Collection of ASTOUNDING.
Later that evening when we danced
A foxtrot to flamenco
Your arms alone held me entranced,
Not thionite from Trenco.
You broke my aching heart in three
And tore its strings asunder,
When you admitted, brazenly,
That you liked THRILLING WONDER.
I tried to hide my hurt, and so
I bought a candy floss cone.
Then hell! you said you didn't know
Just who once spoke for Boskone.
And when my feelings, savage fem,
You had ceased to flatten,
Why did you have to ravage them
By reading Vargo Statten?
So after only two short weeks
Has every magic spell gone.
I wish I knew the dread techniques
Of the Overlords of Delgon.
I turn on you my hateful glower,
(Reserved for male neurotics)
Remember, my destructive power
Knows no Law of Robotics:
Written circa 1954, published in Now & Then 8 - Jan 1957
E r g o n o m i c M u s e
No more for me those lustful nights of elemental passion.
I'll woo you from a distance, in ergonomic fashion.
Some time, when the nights are cold, I'll view thee with affection
For warmth that's doubly shared is headed in the right direction.
Meanwhile to keep my love for you from paralytic stasis
Remember, keep our love affair on an ergonomic basis.
From The Grin No.1, September 1955
THE FRAGRANT MINUTE
In pensive mood I sit and write of things which
bring me pure delight. The smell of a motorist's
burning clutch, or failing brakes on a steep
incline; the fracture of a blind man's clutch,
a slip, a fall, a broken spine; the snap which
tells a bone is breaking, the roar of flames as
homes burn down; the deathroll when the earth
is quaking, bursting bubbles as people drown;
the torture of appendicitis, or lunacy and brain
diseases; gangrened fingers from frost-bite is
another prospect which me pleases; these gentle joys
I find are free to those of purest mind.
I think I love the hangman's niece
Much better than the hangman's noose.
The noose when tight gives quick release;
the niece is nice when tight and loose.
Of all funereal thoughts I get
This one raises a deathly smile.
A cadaverous grin it is, and yet
can suicide waves hit a desert isle?
HE says to ME "Forget that scowl
No time this, to swear or growl
Deadline soon... to work... begin
To write some rhymes, for this
Now & Then 5 September 1955
REMEMBER THE ALAMO
No laughing girl sets my head in a whirl
With hints both sweet and low;
She can't beguile me with a smile...
I remember the Alamo.
When at night in pure delight
I meet some girl I know,
I shake my head, for once in bed...
I remember the Alamo.
Or if I think of drugs or drink
or Marilyn Monroe,
My pure heart clings to higher things...
I remember the Alamo.
I can't endure these thoughts impure
Or the looks that women throw;
So to evade each snare they've laid...
I remember the Alamo.
If at a date I turned up late
What curses she'll bestow:
To stem the torrent of sound abhorrent
I remember the Alamo.
Should I deplore a mother-in-law
And wish her down below ?
I cannot swear and wish her there...
I remember the Alamo.
Some nervous wrecks told me that sex
Means death, both sure and slow.
I hesitate when I meet a mate...
I remember the Alamo.
"Beware!" they said, "You're off your head.
Your eyes are all aglow
It's just a phase. Now mend your ways...
REMEMBER THE ALAMO !"
Now & Then 6 November 1955
If your dentist has apprenticed
A youth who's crude and slow
At filling a cavity, preserve your suavity...
REMEMBER THE ALAMO:
No sound of corn pushed through a horn
If a Kenton riff just bores you stiff...
REMEMBER THE ALAMO!
Now & Then 7 June 1956
THE BREEZE AND ME
He blew into my life one day, a breezy lad
who laughed we had a row he stormed away
and now I feel the draught. When the tempest
lost its blast the wind began to freshen and,
chilling thought, I know at last a trough of
deep depression. While smouldering hope may
be inflamed to mad desire by passion's gale,
deep in my heart I only blamed that wretched
So many a scientifictional theme
Has no present day actuality,
And many an author's best written dream
Is for those with a certain mentality.
Supposing there is of all things a scheme...
Has illusion a place in REALITY ?
* * * *
"Cogito, ergo sum" to me
Is a veritable stinker.
How could a thought, now, possibly
Exist before the thinker ?
LIFE KNOWS OF NOTHING MORE FORLORN
Life knows of nothing more forlorn
Than rising in the early morn
And seeing on the soaking lawn
A thermostat in the rain.
At work or else on pleasure bent
I know of naught but discontent
While all my waking hours are spent
On a thermostat in the rain.
But then I felt my conscience harden;
And asking not the slightest pardon
I hurled into the next door garden
That thermostat in the rain.
Alfred Lord Sennapod
After a 20 year spell in the glades of GAFIA, a search party sponsored by ERG, discovered Eric Needham and brought back this nostalgic message from him as he recalled to our white hunter, his account of..
by ERIC NEEDHAM Ex-Triode, Ex-GAFIAte.
I remember Christmas 1977 not only because I had Christmas lunch in my new suit and coat, but because ERG 61 arrived and a young lady at the local amateur radio club asked me how a Bussard ramscoop travelling at half the velocity of light, gobbling interstellar hydrogen as it went along, could decelerate and stop. A young lady, mark you.
My wife claims I own one of the oldest suits on earth, since I bought it and a matching coat in the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. She refers to it as my Coronation Suit, and this year, hinted that as it was now Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee I ought to do something about it. I don't see why... I didn't buy a new suit for the Jubilee of George Vth. in 1937. After all, there was my wedding suit, and before that, my demob suit given to me in 1946 by a grateful government since the zoot suit I wore when I joined the the RAF in 1940 was out of style.
I still remember that zoot suit, for I wore it when Madge Flanagan and I came
in as runners-up in the North Manchester Jjitterbug Contest. Who remembers
that now ? Come to think of it, I can't even remember who won it.
I think it was in 1937 I joined the Thrilling Wonder Science Fiction League and learned that sf fans published fan magazines in great nuubers...really sold on the stuff, they were. Everyone knows how sf arrived in this country as ballast in ships and historians of the cult stress this to the point of obliterating the memory of HORROR STORIES, TERROR TALES and WEIRD TALES which arrived in the same way. I still remember. WEIRD TALES wherein a youngster named Robert Bloch got his start.
I used to read the lot, along with DOC SAVAGE, G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES and when nothing else was available, BOOTHILL GUNSMOKE WESTERNS. Those
Westerns were all alike and I remember nothing of them. I still remember the Virgil Finlay illustrations in WEIRD TALES, and though it sounds as if I remember things in geological eras, my interest in sf began in 1927 when I was about the age of the kids now queueing up outside the ODEON for STAR WARS. Why, I wonder, should I recall stories and illustrations of Thurston Kyle, the Night Hawk, from the long defunct NELSON LEE ?
Two illustrations haunt me from those boy's books. One from the BOY'S MAGAZINE showed a leering bald-headed villain seated at the control of a huge horseshoe magnet directed at a globular spacecraft whose occupants were looking out of the windows of the space bubble in a sort of disaproval. The other was from the cover of BULLSEYE, depicting a similar bald-heard leering villain who was engaged in encapsulating a man inside a giant Edison lamp-bulb in an attempt to bestow immortality on the occupant who was also looking out with an expression of disapproval. Chances are it was the same artist, but in them days a small boy didn't need a degree in physics to know that a large magnet trained on a spaceship would cause it to sink like a stone.
This calm acceptance of visual effects is at present reflected in the state of television productions like SPACE 1999, BLAKE'S SEVEN, LOGAN'S RUN and of course, DR. WHO. When, I wonder, do kids grow out of this stage? There must come a time when they begin to think about how to persuade an interstellar ramscoop to slow down and stop instead of the mere acceptance that they can and do. After a few pints of ale at the radio club I reached the hypothesis that just as a rocket cannot fly in space since there is no air to push against, so, in interstellar space swept clear even of odd hydrogen atoms, vacuum brakes will not work since there is no external atmospheric pressure to make them operate.
Christmas Day saw my wife and I passing children with shiny new bicycles, doll's prams and a thousand oddly clad skateboarders whose helmets, knee pads and gauntlets reminded me of the costumes worn by Buck Rogers and the fearless warriors of the American Expeditionary Force to Europe when playing football. How well I remember those American lads, some in their late twenties, who used to smoke tobacco and play boogie-woogie on the piano till nine o'clock at night! Some of them must have been SF readers, but in those days few people actually admitted to reading the stuff.
Some of them, possibly, even bought it, as opposed to my habit of swapping and re-swapping magazines. That way I read all the magazines but never formed a collection. What I did collect was tatty copies of PRACTICAL WIRELESS and I got a lot of pleasure from late night listening to a crystal set. In one area of Manchester called Red Bank I got my first introduction to SF in its American form. My Dad and his pal used to limewash factories and workshops and l went along to help. In one place I saw (and stole) an AMAZING STORIES issue with an atrociuos Morey cover illustrating 'When The Atoms Failed' by John W. Campbell Jr. The one time I met JWC I asked him how old he was when he wrote it. "Eighteen", he said. Yes, I think SF is for the very young.
I still think that the theft of an SF magazine from a workshop about 1932 was a perfect crime, still a mystery to the police. Similarly, I looted a dustbin and smuggled home a bundle of PASSING SHOW magazines containing an Edgar Rice Burroughs serial, THUVIA, MAID OF MARS, I think. I still remember the Fortunato Matania illustrations to this day. Don't think I went through life looking at pictures. I read and re-read THE NIGHT LAND by W.H,.Hodgson because of the scenery he evoked rather than described. Of all the SF stories I ever read only one had illustrations which were as good and that one was Heinlein's DOUBLE STAR with Kelly Freas illos.
So on Christmas morning I watched FLASH GORDON DESTROYS THE UNIVERSE while my wife unpacked my splendid new suit for me to wear at the Jubilee Christmas nosh-up. We walked to the restaurant, and as we sat down a waitress wiped the sleeve of my new suit with a chocolate cream gateau....Oh well.
Over the meal I brooded over Bussard ramscoops and the steady progress in environmental conditions which can produce a restaurant in almost total darkness in defiance of the invention of electric light. I pondered the improvements in sound reproduction and why distortionless amplifiers are needed for pop music, and what will happen in ten years time if food embalming techniques continue at their present rate. None of this has ever been covered in SF, and I think it is as good a time as any to revive HORROR STORIES, which could do justice to such progress.
On our way back I kept thinking about ERG and the article I threatened to write for Terry. I looked at the brilliantly dressed kids and the strangely costumed skateboarders and remembered my own interests at that age. They were simple....a mixture of Hoot Gibson, Robin Hood and rockets to the Moon and Mars. If I were an enterprising manufacturer I'd market something of universal appeal to small boys, say a Hopalong-Cassidy Spacesuit in a shade of Lincoln Green. I probably never shall, but it makes a nice title.
Back home, my funing wife got the dry cleaning fluid and tackled my suit while I looked through the TV programmes. Oh, goody.... THE WIZARD OF OZ, and later
on, THE MUPPETS.
That was Christmas. But if I meet that young lady again I shall tell her that in my young days, young ladies of proper upbringing did not discuss such things as Buscard ramscoops.
Eric Needham 1978
From ERG #63 (1978), artwork by Terry Jeeves
On the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley I was deeply disturbed to find the evening paper had two full pages of IN MEMORIAM adverts. It seems to me that those youngsters who vowed undying love did not know what they were doing. I'm old enough to remember my mother having a gentle weep on the death of Rudolph Valentino in 1926, while I had my terrible-sense-of-loss in 1937 with the death of George Gershwin. I was 16 years old.
People who have never heard of George Gershwin know his music, which is as fresh and sparkling today as when new. But he left something else...an all-negro opera, PORGY AND BESS. I knew all the music, drooled over the names in the original cast, but due I believe to copyright difficulties at the time of Gershwin's death, PORGY AND BESS was never produced on any stage in any country outside the United States. Not until the 1960's was a motion-picture version produced. Even then I still hoped to see PORGY AND BESS on the stage.
But to return to Elvis Presley. In 1977 I was completely taken aback by the incredible similarity between the Leningrad of 1977 and the Manchester of 1938. Manchester and Leningrad are twin cities, both inland seaports, and the resemblance by night was incredible, with lots of neon-lighting and trams and trolleybuses and everywhere, people walking on foot.
Manchester's neon lights went out in 1939 and never returned to the same degree. Leningrad with the passing days seemed more and more like home, and the feeling of having gone forty years into the past steadily grew. And one night we went to see DON CARLOS by Verdi at the Kirov Theatre. And the world turned upside down. In the foyer was a forthcoming events board and on it, labelled in Russian and English, were photographs of a production of PORGY AND BESS. Forty years after the death of George Gershwin I came face-to-face with a stage production of his greatest work in en uneasy feeling of disbelief.
I looked at those black-faced Russian actors in immaculately-cut, faultless pressed suits and dazzlingly polished two-tone shoes. It may be true that in Western democratic republics impoverished negro fishermen in their spare time do dress like Mafiosi, but to me it seems they are such costumes as are worn by such citizens as George Raft, Edward G.Robinson and James Cagney. in Warner Bros. gangster films of the early 19301s, and indeed these films are still the only places I ever see such costumes.
In disbelief we went in to take our seats for DON CARLOS, a lavishly produced, magnificently lit, brilliantly-costumed drama with a cast of hundreds. And after a few minutes I flipped in time.
Elvis Presley spent some time in uniform, as I did. Towards the end of World War II, as Allied armies drove towards Berlin, I found myself confined to camp for a week on Fire Picket, guarding two fire extinguishers through fourteen showings of MARK OF ZORRO in the camp cinema of 620 Squadron. On the last night I was told to stay behind for a special showing of a captured German film of the life of Baron Munchausen, a vividly coloured brightly costumed production with German dialogue and French sub-titles, of which I understood not a word.
So that in Leningrad of 1977 which so much resembled my Manchester of 1932 in a theatre which like Manchester's defunct Theatre Royal is a copy of Milan's. La Scalara, I sat down to an opera of Old Spain by an Italian composer sung in Russian still reeling from the shock of seeing photographs of a play by a composer who died in 1937. The seething fury and impotent rage I felt to realise that after forty years we had arrived a week too early to see PORGY AND BESS I'll leave you to guess. It was like a vision of Paradise to an unbeliever. Like a glimpse of the Pearly Gates with a notice "Closed for Stocktaking" to a relapsed heretic. So near and yet so far.
In this frame of mind I flipped back to 620 Squadron in England in 1945, or was it flipped forward ?...to Baron Munchausen and German dialogue and French sub-titles and incredible costumes in wartime England, And back again to DON CARLOS in Old Spain sung in Russian in a Leningrad which was incredibly like pre-war Manchester. And this continued for two hours back and forth.
After the show my ecstatic wife murmured "Wasn't that marvellous?" All I could say as I passed those hateful photographs in the foyer that I had never known anything like it in my life.
And this is why I look with concern on those teenagers who write the IN MEMORIUM ads. I think they are all mixed up.
From Scottishe #81 (1981)
HOW STRANGE IT IS that throughout life it is the small things which have the greatest influence on us. So small a thing as a hundred gallon drum of Widower's Wart Remover brought me to a fate almost worse than death ... marriage. It was in this way -
When not cleaning windows I try to earn a living by pushing Widower's Products. One night at home I was demonstrating, with a number of toads, the efficacy of the Wart Remover. The prospective buyer, however, seemed more interested in the spectacle of Algy quietly absorbing a toad in the corner of the room by the
Nuremberg Maiden. Imagine my surprise when he said to me, "There is no market for wartless toads at present."
"Could you not create a demand for wartless toads?" I asked. "Get in on the ground floor on a revolutionary new product?"
"Who wants wartless toads?" he enquired irascibly.
"There was no demand at one time for Mexican Hairless Dogs," said I, thoughtfully, "Or wireless telephones, or soapess detergents, or seedless raisins."
The buyer looked at the clock and rose to his feet. "I have no time to waste," he said.
Sensing weakness, I pressed on. "Flameless heaters, strapless brassieres, tubeless tyres, or ...."
"Roofless houses, bottomless bottles, wingless aircraft," he snarled, stomping out.
Some days are like that. Sadly I covered up the drum of Wart Remover, and shoved it into place between the cage of Black Widow spiders and the snake venom distillery. Tossing the rest of the toads to Algy, I soothed my ruffled feeling with Artie Shaw. But still the thought persIsted... wartless toads...
The following day at work it occurred to me that a wartless toad would encounter supply difficulties, since toads are scarce, and when wartless resemble frogs, of which there is a world surplus. Frogs even fall out of the sky in showers of rain, according to Charles Fort. Far be it from me to contradict Charles Fort, but since I work in the open
and it rains often, I have yet to see a shower of frogs descend on rooftops and fire-escapes. Once, in Titus Livius's History of Rome, in the first chapter, I came across a reference to a shower of stones on the Capitol, whlch is just as well since I only read the first chapter. I asked a fellow window-cleaner, and he admitted that he too, had never seen a frog on a fire-escape. This puzzled me immensely. Do frogs dislike fire-escapes?
No man shall ever know the cunning with which I stole a three-story fire-escape and smuggled it home unnoticed, all in the spirit of pure scientific research. Or how in a single night I erected it, single-handed, but I am essentially modest. On a rainy day, I borrowed a ten-ton lorry, drove into the Cheshire swamplands and gathered ten tons of frogs, determined to find out why frogs never seem to be found on fire escapes.
It was appalling. The carnage was indescribable. Ton after ton of frogs I carried upstairs in a large bucket. One by one I placed them on the top of the fire-escape my outside my window. One by one they hopped off and fell down, down, down on to the jagged rooks and cruel crawling foam below. After seven tons of frogs had been swept away by the outgoing tide, I called a halt to the senseless suicidal urge. Wearily I scooped up Algy in the bucket, carried him downstairs and and poured him evenly over the remaining three tons of frogs, and left him to deal with them. Swearing horribly, I pored through Freud, Brill, Kraft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, Jung, Hubbard, and Edgar Wallace to find some cause for this insane spate of batrachian self-destruction.
Even the sale of the fire-escape at a fabulous profit did not lighten my mood. How, in the name of Noshabkeming or all the devils of the Seven Purple Hells of Palain could I get into the mind of a frog without a Lens?
Inspiration - Scientology! Perhaps one form of insanity could explain another, I mused. Did some fantom fire-escape in some previous incarnation
haunt these hag-ridden frogs? So Ole Faithful came out of its cabinet, and
was modified into an Electropsychrometer. It may not be on the same lines as Hubbard's, but the results are pretty much the same. Using the existing line-timebase, I added modulators to the frame timebase and pumped in respiratory waveforms, brain alpha, beta, and xi rhythm waveforms, cardiac waveforms, and amplitude control dependent on electrical conductivity of the the skin of the frog. The resulting composite waveform was murderous, and matched my mood at having to do this to a perfectly good television set. Still, the lust to know overcame my desire to see Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Connie Mackenzie.
Three weeks and five frogs later I had probed back 637 trillion years without result. In despair I lightly took the motor-bike and gat me to Romiley to see Harry. He was sitting at the window, proudly gazing at the new mangrove swamp, which, at great expense, he had imported from Belfast and installed in his back garden. Seeing my frown he tucked the piece of hibiscus blossom he held behind one ear, and raised his eyebrows. Accustomed by now to Harry's decorating schemes, I praised it. He does look sweet with hibiscus blossom behind one ear. But as ever, he drove straight to the heart of the problem.
"I seriously doubt," said he, "if there were any fire-escapes 637 trillion years ago."
So I sadly took the motor-bike and gat me hence.
An Experiment with Time offered me a clue. Did the fear of fire-escapes exist in the future? I asked Madam Clara in her Oldham Street salon how to determine the future, but she, being a palmist and clairvoyante, could offer no help, though she did give me the address of a horoscope manufacturer. But here, as always, there was a snag. When is a frog born? As frogspawn? tadpole? or when it loses its tail and becomes a true frog? So, to be certain, I had a horoscope cast for a frog of each sex at each stage of its development. If any one of these six remarkable horoscopes comes true, there is a surprising future in Algy. I banged my head against the wall, and went to see Harry again.
Ploughing through the dense bougainvillea which festooned No. 10's entrance, I gained access to the mangrove swamp. And lo! there was Harry in an attitude of intense thought contemplating the largest frog I ever saw. It was a beauty... three feet high, two feet thick and four feet deep. Two hours solid bargaining with Harry, the exchange of 7/6d, and a two-ton truck brought the frog home.
Rejoicing at this find, I made room for the Frog in the living-room by tipping the Black Widow spiders into the snake venom and poured the lot into the Nuremberg Maiden, and shovelled Algy in on top. The cage went into the sea, and then I brought the Frog in. And I got the shock of my life when the Frog sat in my armchair, looked at me and said, "You must kiss me."
Numbly, I answered, "Kiss you? Kiss you? Kiss you?
"I am really a princess," said the Frog, "and if you would wed a fair princess, all you must do is to kiss me and restore me to my true shape and form." Fishing in one of its ankle socks, it handed me a book of instructions. The instructions were plain enough, but my eye caught a revealing phrase in tiny print - this princess is not transferable.
Suspicion deepening, I dragged the tipsy Algy out of the Nuremberg Maiden and arranged him around the Frog in a circle. Algy shoved out several eyes and watched with interest. I took a deep breath and kissed the goggle-eyed horror, stepped back and opened one eye, and regarded the transformed appartion, vaguely aware that Algy was deserting me by oozing under tho skirting board. Alone with the princess, I retreated behind the snake venom distillery.
"Am I not still desirable," it said, raising skinny arms in an attempt to embrace me.
Clutching the Wart Remover drum, and gasping for breath, I asked, "How long have you been a frog?"
"Six hundred years, good sir," she said, still advancing.
reprint in When Yngvi was a Louse (Eric Bentcliffe, 1982)
H.T. letter to Steve Sneyd, 21 September, 1987
In the poetry category, the name that stares oat for me is that of Eric Needham. He belonged to my fannish generation, haunted meetings of the SFA in the attic meeting room of 41 Longford Place, Victoria Park, in pre-war days, mainly to borrow magazines, We lost touch with each other during the war, though we were both in the RAF, but made contact again in the late 40s when I was living at Moston, Manchester.
We became embroiled in the North Western Science Fantasy Club in the early fifties, and I resuscitated the club fanzine Astroneer, using stuff I had left over from the Zenith days. I can't lay hands on a copy but will track it down as I fancy it has a pome by Eric.
Eric and I became committee members in an effort to rescue the SuperMancon of 1954 from the dreamy clutches of Dave Cohen and convert it from fantasy to reality. Eric and I eventually fled from Mancunian fandom to start up the Romiley Fan Veterans & Scottish Dancing Society, and issue Now & Then, when OMPA was formed.
The Widower's ad campaign attracted many fannish copywriters, but none with quite the flair of the originator - Eric. After the first small issue, we rapidly expanded in paging with each issue, and had to make it generally available instead of just an APAzine after the third issue.