An old friend of mine always sends out a ’round robin’ letter with his Christmas cards, commenting on things that have happened to him over the past year. He’s a good amateur writer, so these are always fun, but it’s not something I tend to do, at least not in that way.
Sometimes, though, if I can drag myself off the powered recliner where I tend to hibernate over the festive season, I will prop my eyelids up and spend a bit of time dusting off my (oft-neglected) blog, reflecting on the fact that shit happens and there’s usually not much you can do about it. Occasionally there are, however, diamonds to be discovered in the rust (Judas Priest allusion there), but they can be tricky to find.
For me, the past year has been full of more ups and downs than the peaks and troughs on a heart attack patent’s monitor. Some of this has been family related, some work, some hobby or community-related, some in my new ‘speculative fiction’ writing career, and more. Some things have been a long time coming and expected, others have been surprises, sometimes happy, sometimes not. That’s life, as “Her with the teeth, London” used to say (showing my age there), and I won’t go into it all here…
When Time Ran Out
Particularly, 2014 was the year when I finally ran out of time to do a lot of the things which have happily occupied me in past years and sometimes over decades, caused most significantly of late by my mother’s health taking a nosedive and me becoming her carer. She became housebound, and in many ways we’ve reversed the roles we had when I was very young, and I have to do a lot more for her now than ever before. I love my dear old mum and I know my duty, but being a carer is hard and stressful work at times, and let nobody tell you otherwise. Especially when you’re holding down a full-time day job and also working on a second career as a writer in what little spare time you have left. I don’t begrudge that, but it’s left me very tired at times – and in the year in which my 55th birthday also hove into view, in September!
Part of what I’ve had to set aside, with much regret, has been my local journalism and local history writing in the way of ‘The Bloxidge Tallygraph’ and ‘Bloxwich Telegraph’ websites, which I’ve written, photographed, designed and published since 2006. I’ve also been obliged, very sadly, to cut back on my astro-historical activities with the Society for the History of Astronomy, which I co-founded in 2002 at Wadham College, Oxford. But I’m still keeping a finger in both pies, albeit at a much lower level. Hopefully I will be able to do more in future.
Then, when I thought things were bad enough, in November I was told to expect a massive upheaval in my life, redundancy from my day job of more than thirty years. This may yet come about for good or ill; I’m expecting to be informed of the final decision this month. In a weird way, I’m looking forward to to it, though it will make things difficult financially. Sometimes, life gives you a kick up the ass for a reason, though I have to say I wish it had been decades ago. At my age, making a new way in the world is not so simple, though I’m not one to give up, and I’m taking it as a challenge. I can’t honestly see any other way out. I’m starting to feel like one of my old pulp writer heroes, who didn’t eat if they didn’t write, and didn’t eat much then. Exciting in many ways, and I do need to lose weight, but it’s still frightening. I’m a pulpster at heart, I think, and have started collecting the old magazines again. Better get banging away on my 1925 Underwood, hadn’t I?
All in all, I’d have to categorise 2014 as the year the shit hit the fan – and gummed it up! There were also good things which happened to me during the year though, which is just as well.
Friends and family
I’ve made many new friends through writing, Twitter and Facebook in the past year, all over the world as well as locally, and I’ve also kept in close touch with old pals, most of whom I’ve known since the great days of the Serious Micro User Group and Walsall Astronomical Society in the 1980s-90s, others from my space and astro-historical activities with The Planetary Society and the Society for the History of Astronomy.
In April 2014, though, a new pal came to live with me and mum, by the name of ‘Jumble’ (after ‘Just William’s’ dog) – a two-year-old ‘Patterjack’ terrier (cross Patterdale/Jack Russell) whom we adopted from the Rosedene Rescue establishment in Rushall. A bouncy, slightly mad, stir-crazy little chap, he has a unique personality quite different from our previous four dogs, who were more laid-back Beagles and Bassets. He can be a tricky customer at times, but the term ‘loveable rogue’ certainly applies to Jumble Williams (who now also has the middle name ‘Short Round’!), and he’s (mostly!) a joy to have around. We’ve become very close, and he keeps mum good company when I’m at work or out and about. Jumble’s since become well-known to my Facebook friends and followers, who seem to like him.
Writing and Reading
2014 was the year when my writing moved up a gear, which is just as well as I need to get my act together fully on this front in 2015! I’ve had some short stories in science fiction, steampunk and horror genres published here and in the USA, and the most important important result of the latter is a book contract signed with my US publishers, the prominent New Pulp specialists Pro Se Productions. They’re aiming to have a book of my ‘hard-boiled space opera’ stories out around June, entitled ‘Rings Around The Sun’. This is based on characters and scenarios created by me in ‘Minor Planet Mambo’, which was published by Pro Se in June, in their excellent multi-genre anthology ‘Rat-A-Tat: Short Blasts of Pulp’. This is the book I’m working on at the moment, and it’s one of my biggest commitments in 2015.
I finally managed to get a lot more reading done in 2014, and in the summer I deliberately took a week’s holdiday to travel around the West Midlands and Staffordshire looking for classic science fiction books in June-July for my ‘Bookish Week Off’, which was great fun – see myseparate previous post about this.
I’m not yet prominent as a genre writer in the UK (as it says on my Twitter page, I’m famous in a parallel universe!), I’m still very much ‘paying my dues’, but I did at least put my head a little way above the parapet this past year when I had the good fortune to fall in with two really nice people who were following their own dreams, Scott Southey and Amy Carter, who opened their own independent bookshop, Southcart Books, in Lower Hall Lane, Walsall, in July.
As luck would have it, they were keen to support the writing community, and since by then I’d built up some useful contacts and a few friendships amongst local and regional writers by then, we became co-conspirators in a series of ‘Writers’ Gatherings’ which I then led in what has since become ‘The Reading Room’ at their shop. They have gone to a lot of trouble and no little expense to facilitate this, so it’s great that it’s given them useful publicity and advertising for their shop and made them a lot of friends as well as offering a valuable and unique showcase for mostly independent genre writers and publishers in the region to sell, read and promote their work in addition to networking and making new friends. We hope that success will be built on this year, and already the game’s afoot, in more ways than one…
On 8 November, Walsall Writers’ Circle’s book ‘Winter Festivals’ was launched (see below), including a story by yours truly.
That day was a busy one, as I was also privileged to be invited as a guest at ZZUB Fest in Wolverhampton, where I had the particular pleasure to be interviewed about my genre writing by Hayleigh Power, before an interested audience. I also had the pleasure of meeting the legendary Nikki Stormtrooper of Wolverhampton, whom some of you will know from Facebook and cosplay circles.
Like a circle, in a spiral
In 2014 I had much more to do with our local writing group, Walsall Writers’ Circle, than in past years. In fact, I ended up as Vice Chair, which is a privilege and has been fun!
I was also asked to become a a member of the Circle’s newly-formed Technical Committee, which came about due to a long-felt need to move the Circle into the publishing of members’ work.
The first result of that has been the publication of both a paperback and an ebook anthology of fact, poetry and fiction entitled ‘Winter Festivals’ (my contribution included designing the cover) which was the work of a large number of the members, then worked on by several members editing and proof-reading before being assembled and published by the Technical Committee. The book was launched at Southcart Books in November and has sold quite well locally. My Britpulp science fiction story ‘Christmas on Mercury’ was written especially for the book.
There’s a lot more going on now at Walsall Writers’ Circle and I’me giving a talk/workshop on ‘Plotto’ at the February meeting, which should be a lark.
Local history work
Last year was also the year in which I saw three of my local history books being sold at the same time! The Christmas 2013 volume Walsall Borough Past & Present – for which I’d held a successful signing session in the Walsall branch of Waterstones – was joined by Billy Meikle’s Window on Walsall and Reflections of Old Walsall, all published by Walsall Local History Centre and sold as a package during winter 2013/14 (they are still available, if you’re interested, at a small discount from the Centre!). As well as writing and typesetting these books I also took and reproduced all the photos and did design work on the covers. 2014 was also the 14th year of my writing local history articles for the Walsall Chronicle on behalf of the Centre, making me the longest-published local history journalist in the area. That particular well now looks like it’s run dry, but it’s been great fun, and has allowed me to raise the profile of a lot of local people who deserved to be better remembered in the town, for which opportunity I’m particularly grateful. In any case, all that basically set the seal on my local history writing.
As it stands I’m not expecting to do any more writing for the Centre, and possibly not for local papers either (but never say never) so it’s obviously time for something new. I don’t know if I’ll write any more local history now, but I often work such things into my steampunk stories, so that remains to be seen.
2015 – ‘watch this space’
So, what’s for the New Year? Well, as I mentioned earlier, there’s ‘Rings Around The Sun’ for Pro Se Productions around about the middle of the year with luck. There’s my homage to H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Nameless’, which will be published in the KnightWatch Press anthology ‘New Tales of the Old Ones 2′ early this year. There’s my Lovecraftian Steampunk novel ‘Still Waters’, set in an alternate Victorian Walsall which is bubbling under…
And apart from numerous feelers I have out with various publishers, waiting in the wings there’s the rewrite of my first ever Steampunk story, ‘Gravship Turbinia’, which will be…
…the first publication from my own imprint, the new publishing company and bookselling emporium ‘Timewarp Books’ which I’m currently in the process of setting up. ‘Gravship Turbinia’ will be the first in a series of steampunk novellas/chapbooks, working title ‘The Gravship Quartet’, and will be the beginning of this new venture, which will also entail a specialist speculative fiction bookselling operation, mainly online but also in a small way at book fairs and conventions. Who knows where and how this will develop?
More about all that in due course, anyway. Everything will hang on the work I’m doing for Pro Se Productions and my own writing and publishing activities this side of the pond. I’m under no illusions that this is going to be easy, for all sorts of reasons, ad I am a small frog in a big pond, but at least it should be bloody good fun!
There should, all being well, be more Writers Gatherings as previously mentioned at Southcart Books in Walsall.
Oh, and of course I’m naturally having to get back into circulation at science fiction and related conventions again, after a gap of many years. That, I’m particularly looking forward to.
A sting in the tail
Anyway, to conclude this rambling retrograde rant, I must say that I’m only too pleased to see the back of 2014, but I’m not yet sure of whether to welcome in 2015 with open arms; we’ll have to wait and see on that. It will be a year of massive change, a lot of which will be out of my control, and even a science fiction writer can’t always predict the future.
The times they are a-changin’…
A. Stuart Williams
I am delighted to be able to announce officially, following a press release by my publisher in the USA, Pro Se Productions, that I have signed a contract with them to write a science fiction book, to be published next year.
I was really pleased to find my first outing in New Pulp, Minor Planet Mambo, being published in such good company in Pro Se Productions’ recent action-packed anthology Rat-A-Tat: Short Blasts of Pulp. It’s a great book and to be seen in it is a ‘wow moment’ for me.
That was one small step for a writer – now I am, quite literally, ‘over the Moon’ to be asked to sign a contract with Pro Se Productions after sending them a proposal for a book based on Minor Planet Mambo.
Rings Around the Sun will be a collection of old-school ‘hard-boiled space opera’ – kind of ‘Hammett meets Heinlein’ – stories recounting the earlier career and adventures of the short story’s hero, ex-Commander Bob Howard of the Solar Federation Space Patrol. It’ll be a blast!
The book will begin by winding back the clock to the end of Howard’s time at the SolFed Academy, the first story in the collection revolving around his graduation as a Space Patrol officer, which is tinged with tragedy as his first case as a Fed will be to solve his own estranged father’s murder. Further stories, set a couple of centuries from now, will take Howard and his comrades to every criminal haunt, hideout, battleground and planet of an old-school Solar System which returns Venus to the jungle planet it was once believed to be, and Mars to a conflicted, canal-crossed, lonely world that is home to the remnants of an ancient race having to deal with brash, sometimes brutal youngsters from Earth.
Here’s a quote from Pro Se Productions’ press release:
“One thing,” says Tommy Hancock, Pro Se Productions Editor in Chief and Partner in the company, “that we look for is an author who can tell a good story. Stuart does that with such an enthusiasm and passion that every word pops off the page. Combine that with the fact that he writes hard boiled science fiction, a mash up of sorts that very few can pull off well, as if it were the easiest thing in the world and it’s a foregone conclusion that Pro Se would love to have him be a part of what we do. And with Rings Around the Sun, he brings us the further adventures of Bob Howard, a character who we hope will be fighting his way through the spaceways for years to come here at Pro Se.”
Rings Around the Sun is currently scheduled to be published in June 2015 by Pro Se Productions.
For the full press release, including press contact details for Pro Se Productions, please follow this link:
My thanks go to Pro Se Productions for their confidence in me, and to my good friend ‘Beasty’ for the picture above.
A. Stuart Williams
Yesterday was all lined up, for me at least, as the logical conclusion to my ‘Bookish Week Off’. It didn’t quite work out that way, but it was still a great day for many reasons.
For the past few weeks I’d been working with Scott Southey and Amy Carter, proprietors of Southcart Books, the new independent bookshop in Lower Hall Lane, Walsall, to present a new event at their shop to mark Independent Booksellers Week – The Writers Gathering.
This was conceived as a chance to not only promote the bookshop, which needs every bit of support it can get locally and from further afield, but also independent writers and publishers in the region, and so I hatched a cunning plan, in consultation with Scott and Amy, for them to host this first open meeting of local and regional writers, authors and publishers. Nothing quite like this has previously been organised in Walsall, as far as I know, so it seemed about time to give it a go. After all, what was the worst that could happen?
Well, surprisingly in my experience, everything went well yesterday afternoon as far as the event was concerned (between 12pm-4pm) due to the enthusiasm and support of a number of writers and publishers of my acquaintance in the Facebook-O-Sphere.
They are Alison Reed (author and Secretary of Walsall Writers’ Circle), LM ‘Linzi’ Cooke (Steampunk author and singist), Theresa Derwin (author and publisher, KnightWatch Press) , Adrian Middleton (author and publisher, Fringeworks), Lucy Onions (author, photographer and singer), Rob Grimes (author and publisher The Penguin’s Head) and Ian Billings (children’s author, playwright, and entertainer) who all read from their work and spoke about it. Scott and Amy of Southcart Books were the perfect hosts, providing light refreshments in between (thankfully) flogging books!
We also had the pleasure of the company of Jan Edwards and Peter Coleborn of The Alchemy Press, Steve Jones, and Ben Morgan and Neil Sehmbhy of The Penguin’s Head, romance novelist Margaret Mayo and many others, including members of Walsall Writer’s Circle and numerous customers who popped in and out throughout the afternoon.
For more pictures, please see the event page on Facebook for links:
Sadly for me, my dear old mum took a fall at home part way through the event, so I had to dash off home like the house was on fire, having to miss the rest of what was a lively and popular event. I’d like to thank everyone for their patience with my unavoidable and unexpected disappearance, and also Alison Reed and Lucy Onions for covering the bases on my behalf subsequently. The show must (and did) go on, thankfully.
Also thankfully, mum was ok, albeit somewhat bruised and battered, and is now recovering well. After all that, I hope to hear a lot more from our guests and more at future events, but that’s another story, yet to be written!
But what about the books, you ask?
On my way to the shop in the morning, I wandered into the Victorian Arcade which I mentioned in a previous post, and having a casual glance at the Acorns Charity Shop book carousel but not expecting much, was pleasantly surprised to find the following apparently unread collection of short ‘Golden Age’ SF novels for just £1.99. Right up my street!
The last word, however, I have to leave to the Walsall area’s newest and only independent bookshop…
I’ve been to Southcart Books quite a few times now, and have combed Scott and Amy’s second-hand science fiction and fantasy shelves, coming away with the odd bargain here and there since they opened. They are increasingly good on this sort of thing, and have a growing and rapidly changing selection of genre books, particularly fantasy and also horror as well as a modest but also growing range of comics.
On this occasion, then, I was lucky enough to spot a nice little hardback containing ‘100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories’ edited by Isaac Asimov et al at £3.95 so I said “I’ll have that!”, and it swiftly disappeared into my camera bag. Thanks, Amy!
Weirdly, though, I left the shop that day leaving more books than I went away with – five copies of my US publisher Pro Se Productions‘ anthology Rat-A-Tat: Short Blasts of Pulp, in which my ‘hard-boiled space opera’ story Minor Planet Mambo, read by me to The Writers Gathering earlier in the afternoon, features on page 55. I’ve provided these for the shop’s local authors shelves on sale or return, at my own expense (no, I don’t get a discount from the publishers on these books!). Signed by me, naturally.
It’s a cracking 28-story multi-genre new pulp anthology by a range of great authors you need to know about, and with something for everyone – so please do pop into Southcart Books and buy one, so I can get my money back! If they’ve run out, you can get the book and ebook on Amazon (unsigned, natch).
You’ll also find, thanks to Saturday’s Writers Gathering, a range of other nice new independent books on the same shelves as mine, in Walsall’s nice new independent bookshop, which is as it should be, isn’t it?
So, his is the end of my Bookish Week Off. After crackling and fizzing all over the Midlands, this rocket ride through the world of second hand bookshops ended in a crash landing.
But thankfully, no books were burned and the exciting sight and sound of everyone reading their work with such enthusiasm and feeling showed me there has to be a future for new initiatives promoting reading and writing in the town.
Thanks for reading, folks!
Today was the last but one day of my ‘Bookish Week Off’ – just one more to go, tomorrow (Saturday 5 July) when I’ll be at Southcart Books in Lower Hall Lane, Walsall, where I’m helping organise a new free event The Writers Gathering, and will be amongst other authors reading and talking about their work there. Should be fun!
Today was indeed an ‘astounding’ day in some ways – when I visited the cathedral city of Lichfield, in Staffordshire, England. Astounding both for the weather, which turned to brilliant sunshine after I arrived, and for one ‘astounding’ discovery, literally.
Lichfield is easy to get to by train or bus alike. There is an hourly Arriva bus from Walsall, which is my usual mode of transport there. It takes about an hour.
I’ve been to Lichfield many times, over many years. Both second-hand and new bookshops have come and gone, and now only three second-hand bookshops remain, all charity shops in a way. There are a few other general charity shops as well. Over all none of them are much known for their science fiction stock, but I always pop in when I visit there, in hope, and have occasionally come away with a gem.
The first and foremost of the three specialist shops, if you’re into collectable books of the traditional variety, is the bookshop in the Dr Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Market Street, off the Market Square. I hardly ever find science fiction there but it’s a great museum to visit, I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re a literature fan.
I didn’t find any books to take my fancy there today, but I did renew my acquaintance with this lovely old listed building and its fascinating displays, which is always worthwhile, and spent some peaceful time in the small library there, blogging my last post.
These days I always visit the two specialist charity bookshops, also in Market Street, which have sprung up in recent years after the closure of the old Staffordshire Bookshop.
One, the Oxfam bookshop, has a good long shelf of mainly fantasy paperbacks, but occasionally a good hardback such as the first BCA edition (1980) of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I picked up there a few months ago. Always worth a look, more so if you are looking for more general bookshop fare, or even recorded music. I didn’t find anything there to my liking today, though.
The other, the St Giles Hospice Bookshop, has a good general selection of especially older books, but very little SF and a small quantity of generally paperback fantasy, so I never expect much in that line.
I was however pleasantly surprised today to discover something I had never heard of before – an illustrated 1978 Harlan Ellison screenplay for a film of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot which was approved of by Asimov but never made. NO, it’s not the Will Smith version. This was published by Edgeworks Abbey and ibooks in 2004. Not bad in trade paperback format for just £1.99.
The thing that really made today truly astounding for me was, however, a market stall full of collectable magazines, books, nick-nacks, coins, collectors’ items and ephemera etc run by Andy Hendley and Wendy Deavall – see: www.overthegardenwallantiques.com
It was here that I was shown a bundle of classic pulp science fiction magazines from the 1950s and later, and was encouraged to dig my way through the collectors comics to find the following…
A December, 1950 British issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine containing an article by the legendary Robert A. Heinlein on the shooting of the film Destination Moon which was loosely based on his book Rocketship Galileo, as well as several stories by other authors. Yowza!
Also, a February 1961 British issue of Analog magazine, edited by the also legendary John. W. Campbell, containing a few stories and articles including a science fact article The Self-Repairing Robot, penned by the editor himself.
And, I just couldn’t turn down three 1983 issues of the reboot of the Eagle comic, which were of interest to me because of their Dan Dare stories. A pity they were not 1950s issues, but who knows next time…
Andy has his stall on Lichfield Market every Friday and Saturday, so needless to say, “I’ll be back”.
I always recommend Lichfield for a pleasant day out.
If you’re into history and books, and historic architecture, you’ll find much to interest you, especially Dr Johnson’s House, the Erasmus Darwin House Museum, the Garrick Theatre, the parks, one of which contains a statue of the captain of the RMS Titanic and of course the world-famous Lichfield Cathedral, amongst other things. Not to mention the historic pubs…
As well, there are often special events in and around Lichfield, including for one the Lichfield Festival which started today, and occasionally book fairs.
So whether you are on the hunt for classic science fiction like me, or not, you could do a lot worse than have yourself a relaxing day out in this lovely old city. Who knows, it might be as ‘astounding’ a day as mine was!
On Thursday I decided I would not travel quite so far afield.
The obvious candidate for book shops within easy travelling distance was Birmingham, yet despite there being two massive Waterstones stores bang in the middle, there is now apparently only one second-hand bookstore in the city: Reader’s World, a short walk from the Bull Ring Centre, down past St Martin’s Church almost at the top of Digbeth on the left. Sadly, the legendary Andromeda Bookshop, once the mightiest source of science fiction and fantasy books in the UK, is long gone and much-missed.
The only other candidate was in Erdington, a small ‘satellite’ town away from Central Birmingham. I hadn’t been to Erdington since the 1990s so I thought I ought to give the Anchor Charity Bookshop a try in Central Square, off High Street, Erdington. So I went to Birmingham City centre first, and travelled out to Erdington.
What a disappointment! Instead of the specialist charity bookshop I expected, the Anchor Charity Bookshop listed in the Inprint online book guide turned out to be just a run of the mill charity shop full of the usual tat, although it does have more books than usual. The stock is mainly general fiction and non-fiction, with only a couple of modern science fiction books amongst a small section of fantasy and Young Adult horror titles. Nothing there for me, sadly.
Erdington classes itself as a village, but it has become surrounded by the remnants of heavy industry and the only significant shopping street, High Street, is a nondescript but busy street full of tatty Post-Victorian emporiums and mobile phone and charity shops, the highlight of which for me was Poundland.
Erdington’s biggest surprise is, however, its parish church, which appears to have been converted by the Cybermen…
Beware of visiting the ‘minor planet’ of Erdington by public transport if you’re not a good walker – the railway station is nowhere near the ‘village’ centre and the buses have all been banished to a nearby main road.
Determined to return to the mother planet that is Birmingham, I wended my weary way back into the city centre by bus.
I walked it from the bus stop to the aforementioned Reader’s World, a tiny shop which I had not entered for many years.
Once past the dusty but tidy looking shop front, one enters a wholly different world of tens of thousands of books and magazines of all kinds crammed in up to the ceiling, with one of the two staff members tightly enclosed behind a tiny counter. Take my advice – don’t take a big bag with you if you visit this shop as an injudicious turn may leave you crushed under a paperback avalanche!
There are another two tiny rooms at the back almost equally crammed, with cheaper books and some old collectable comics, pulps and magazines.
Most of the science fiction and predominantly fantasy consisted of piles and piles of relatively recent modern paperbacks, interspersed with the odd collectable hardback, not much to interest me though. I was sniffing for the old stuff!
It was in the second small room that I found a few familiar gems – a small stack of hardbacks from the 1960s – 70s, classics published by Dobson Science Fiction (remember them?) and the Science Fiction Book Club.
In lieu of any rarer fare, then, I snaffled up a pile of eight small hardbacks at a quid each (see pictures above), and got out while the going was good, as my hay fever was playing up. Whether it was the weather or the accumulated book dust I cannot say, but in any event I think I shall be visiting Readers World again…
I now consider myself an SF archaeologist!
Book fans may care to note that this post was edited and uploaded via iPad in Dr Samuel Johnson’s house in Lichfield, England (yes, he of dictionary fame) while listening to baroque classical music!
Sargasso of Space is of course a 1955 (first British edition 1970) book by one of my favourite childhood authors, the wonderful Andre Norton. It’s about a planet called Limbo, which seems to attract spaceships to it, pulling them with an overpowering force until they crash upon its surface.
The book is named after the Sargasso Sea, a region in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is the centre of a major system of ocean currents forming the North Atlantic Gyre. All the currents deposit the marine plants and refuse they carry into this sea. So it is, it seemed at first, with second-hand books and Stourbridge…
While studying The Bookshop Guide website, which lists many second-hand and antiquarian bookshops in a number of English counties including the (non-existent, really) West Midlands, I spotted that there were apparently two very interesting shops in Stourbridge, which like my home village of Bloxwich, is in the Black Country – though Stourbridge is certainly better-known as being so, and has in the past been famous for its glass manufacturing. It also has quite a nice town centre and a number of historic buildings as well as many modern shops.
The bookshop that caught my eye on the list at first was Idwal’s Books, claiming a stock of some 15,000 second-hand books of all varieties. Great! Sadly, when I looked at the location on Google Maps and Google Earth, it readily became apparent that this once epic shop had now gone ‘into the west’, and had at some time been replaced with a gallery, which had itself popped its clogs, and was now performing a genuinely dead parrot sketch.
So, what else?
The Book Stop, at 52-53 High Street, Stourbridge, then became my target for the day.
You might feel there’s a theme developing here when I tell you that this is another charity bookshop, or rather a large and high quality department of what is effectively a charity ‘department store’, with the usual charity goods downstairs, and the books and a nice little coffee shop upstairs. This all supports the Mary Stevens Hospice at Stourbridge, though you’d be hard put to tell from their website, which says more about the coffee shop than the books! They do also have a rather quiet Facebook page, so please do give it a Like, and tell them I sent you.
I had a hard time finding this one on Google Earth and Maps, because the shop frontage is set back under the frontage of a building with pillars and arches shading the downstairs windows. Thankfully, I did spot it in the end because it turned out to be, despite being smaller and less pleasantly located than Books Revisited in Coleshill, the most useful one for me so far this week. And that also was a surprise.
I travelled by bus from Bloxwich to Walsall, then on the 311 Walsall to Dudley and finally the 276 Dudley to Wollaston via Stourbridge. I tell you, that bus was nearly the death of me in today’s heat, it took an age to rattle all the way to Stourbridge, but it showed me more of Black Country hills, houses and pubs than I ever dared dream of… Seriously, when I came back I got the 246 to Dudley, which missed out most of the houses and returned via Brierley Hill, thankfully!
Anyway, like Coleshill I’ve never been to Stourbridge, and I discovered that despite the usual Black Country post-industrial blight in parts of the area, it’s a surprisingly attractive town centre with many historic buildings remaining, a long High Street and a fabulous Victorian pillar clock. Some nice pubs, and many modern shops as well as older premises. The new bus station (they call it Stourbridge Interchange) was very swish, better than the disastrous flying saucer at Walsall, despite a few of the computer displays being dysfunctional! And it’s next to the Stourbridge Town railway station for those of you who want to train it.
After walking out of the entrance to the Interchange, I was pretty much right on Stourbridge High Street, and it only took a few minutes to locate the shop. There wasn’t much evidence of books downstairs, but once I found my way up to the first floor, it opened out nicely to the left at the top of the stairs with the coffee shop on the right. Note: there isn’t a lift.
I moseyed on in and had a potter round the general books before homing in on a single bay of what was mostly fantasy with a bit of horror, not much science fiction at all. I was feeling disappointed until I spotted the antiquarian and collectable section at the back of the department, just under a window looking into a combined staff and stockroom. A quick search below the window came up with three elderly but good condition Science Fiction Book Club hardbacks dating from 1978-1982 – Somerset Dreams by Kate Wilhelm, The Night of Kadar by Gary Kilworth, and The Five Doors by Jack Rhys, plus a 1974 Readers Union edition of The Tenth Planet by Edmund Cooper. Each was £2.50. Not the cheapest, but not bad.
Then came the big surprise. When I took these to the counter I told the young chap on duty, Matt, I was interested in old science fiction books and his face lit up. He told me they had a big pile of these in the back as they weren’t worth a lot but the manager was sci-fi buff who said they should be kept instead of disposed of. So he got them all out and piled so many old paperbacks on the counter I thought he was building a wall!
He had to leave at that point but his equally friendly volunteer colleague, Mike, was very helpful, and I subsequently, while trying to figure out what was in the collection before me, had a chat with him and his other volunteer colleague Joyce. Nice folks all three – and if they read this, thanks again for your help!
Any road up, there was no way I could cart that lot home – over fifty paperbacks at a guess – so I picked just fifteen (!). Well, at three for a quid I could hardly say no, could I? Especially as so many of the authors brought back happy childhood memories of reprints of classic US pulp stories, and a lot of these books don’t even seem to have been read before.
I’m not writing down all the titles of those I brought back in today’s hall from Stourbridge, it’s nearly 2 in the morning now and I need to get to bed, but just have a look at the photo below, you can click on it for a bigger image!
Now, I’m telling you straight, if you like classic science fiction and you’re within a reasonable distance of Stourbridge, you owe it to yourself, dear reader, to beat a path to The Book Stop, before I become too tempted and go back there…
The Book Stop in Stourbridge? Definitely recommended, as long as you ask to see the old SF paperbacks ‘out the back’! You might even care for a cup of coffee.
More info here:
I thought I’d veer off bookish titles for this post, as Tuesday 1 July wasn’t the occasion of a lengthy book-hunting trip for me. In fact I only got as far as Walsall in the morning, due to having to attend a committee meeting of the Walsall Writers’ Circle in the afternoon (I’m the Vice Chairman), so I did the rounds of the Walsall town centre charity shops looking for SF books as I occasionally do, usually without much success.
My favourite shopping ‘centre’ in Walsall is the quaint and surprisingly well-preserved Victorian Arcade off Bradford Street. And that, of course, is where The Testament of Arkadia comes in – geddit? It’s the title of a Space: 1999 TV show episode (you knew that really, didn’t you?).
The Arcade is full of attractive little specialist shops (and a big Works remainder bookshop), with several newish tenants recently encouraged to move in by special business rates by Walsall Council. And, just opposite the excellent Bennetts sci-fi shop, is an Acorns Hospice charity shop.
It was here that I was fortunate enough to bag four apparently unread Ray Bradbury paperbacks – quite a surprise, bearing in mind the usually mundane content of such shops!
This is in fact just a typical charity shop with the usual mix of second-hand clothes, books, dvds and nick-nacks, and I don’t usually come across much of personal interest there or in the many other charity shops in Walsall but I was in the right place at the right time on this occasion and I bought all four Bradbury books for a fiver – it’s all in a good cause, after all!
And the moral of the story is, it pays to keep your eyes open, you never know what will turn up next…
Yes, that’s the famous story by Robert A. Heinlein. I was prompted to use it for this next post in A Bookish Week Off, because on Monday 30 June I really did land amongst the green hills of Earth – in a village called Coleshill, in Warwickshire!
Coleshill is located on a ridge between the rivers Cole and Blythe which converge to the north with the River Tame. It is just to the east of the border with West Midlands county, and 11 miles to the east of Birmingham; in fact it’s on the number 70 bus route between Birmingham and Solihull, which is what I used to get there; it took about 40 minutes from the stop in Priory Street Queensway, just down from the nicely airconditioned Forbidden Planet, which is much more entertaining to wait in than a bus stop!
Handily, the 70 drops off right in Coleshill High Street – and thankfully a very short walk from the single public toilet in the village, one of those robot bogs that require a 10p coin in the slot. Just as well I had 10p in my pocket! I did wonder whether it might be already occupied by a Third Stage Guild Navigator, but thankfully not as my legs were so crossed by then that I was just about ready to fold space!
Unlike a lot of High Streets, this one is really high and drops away sharply towards Birmingham, and on the other side towards the open countryside of Warwickshire, where there are many country walks to be had.
There are a couple of small parks, a quaint Town Hall of what looks like mock half-timbered construction so is probably early 20th century and the lovely 13th century parish Church of St Peter and St Paul at the top of the Market Square. Quite a few historic buildings are broken up occasionally by horrible modern banks, like so many places. Despite this it’s a pretty village, and the Wikipedia photo really doesn’t do it any justice.
There are also a few nice pubs and a mix of shops, mostly along the High Street. One of these was the object of my expedition, Books Revisited at number 110, which is one of the ever-growing breed of specialist charity bookshop which seem to be filling the niche of so many long-established second-hand bookshops which have disappeared rapidly over the past decade.
Books Revisited supports the Mary Ann Evans Hospice at Nuneaton, and is a cracking little shop with friendly mostly volunteer staff. They have 4 rooms, two dedicated to non-fiction and one children’s/Young Adult fiction, and the front room of the shop is packed with mostly general and crime fiction, though there is a single, slim bay with mostly fantasy and a bit of horror, and the odd science fiction book.
I usually look for hardback SF and it was here on this bay that I spotted Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder ‘exploring the craft of science fiction’. Nice one! I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t really anything else that took my fancy so asked if there was anything else they had. “Oh, yes!” was the answer, and I was taken upstairs to the stock sorting room where there were two bookcases full of hardbacks and paperbacks, also piled on the floor, and a couple of big cardboard boxes full of books. The friendly volunteer who showed me upstairs left me to have a dig and I spent a pleasant twenty minutes poking through the goodies.
There was a lot of fantasy, not really something I am looking for at the moment, but also quite a few vintage SF paperbacks. Now I always tell people that these days I prefer my Kindle to paperbacks, I’d rather buy a hardback if I can get one, but some of these old paperbacks, mostly in surprisingly good condition, reminded of my school days when back in the 1970s I collected three hundred paperbacks by the age of 16, mostly science fiction but also fantasy and word-and-sorcery, so I decided I might as well take a few back with me as mementos, after all I’d made a long trek from Bloxwich.
Some of the stories in these 1960s-1980s paperbacks date as far back as the 1930s-1950s, real classics, albeit may of them minor classics.
The prices were good, and both hardbacks and paperbacks were priced at £1.50 each which seemed a bit odd but there you are.
In the end I spent just a tenner as I was just a little way into my week as a ‘book tourist’ – if I’d been looking for fantasy paperbacks I’d have needed a wheelbarrow – and it’s just as well that I don’t buy Doctor Who tie-in books because there was a big box of them and I would have really been in trouble!
My haul for the day, after a very pleasant walk round historic and surprisingly scenic Coleshill as well as a peaceful packed lunch eaten near the church, was three hardbacks: the aforementioned Robert Silverberg tome, Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl’s The Last Theorem and A Reasonable World by a childhood favourite of mine, Damon Knight. Paperbacks I also chose, mostly of 1960s-80s vintage, were The Seedling Stars by James Blish, Null-A Three by A.E. Van Vogt, Rockets in Ursa Major by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle, Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin and an anthology, The Dark Side, with early stories by Bradbury, Heinlein, Blish, Knight, Sturgeon and Wells, all in great condition, the paperbacks being apparently mostly unread. Not bad for a tenner all in!
After popping into the Co-op for a cold drink and a snack I waited for the next bus back to Brummagem and wended my bus-weary but otherwise very happy way back home, well-satisfied with a couple of hours spent pottering about a very nice little bookshop and a very nice little village in perfect summer weather.
I deliberately didn’t phone ahead to ask what they’d got in stock at Books Revisited, and this week I’m not doing that with any of the shops I visit – it’s the thrill of the chase! You may prefer to do otherwise if you’re travelling a distance. It certainly pays to ask when you get there, though, as I discovered upstairs! What I did find, together with the pleasantness of the village, made it, for me, well worth the journey.
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So, just where did I start my ‘Bookish Week Off’, on Saturday 28 June 2014?
Well, since I was already committed to photographing an event in my home village of Bloxwich, I thought to myself, “What better place to start than the building where I first began seriously reading science fiction, way back when I was 11, in 1971?”
Bloxwich Library, in Elmore Row, with its attached Library Theatre.
Thankfully still open, and today refurbished and renewed as ‘Bookmark Bloxwich’, the place where my ‘sense of wonder’ was first really awakened is in fact the fourth and best library to open in Bloxwich since 1874 – in 1960. It was here that I first began reading those wonderful stories by Robert. A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, amongst others, which had been the staple diet of science fiction fans since the 1940s and 50s, and I can tell you they were not only great fun but a real eye-opener to a child of the ‘Space Age’ who was by then steeped in the real-world adventures of heroic American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts – and wanted more.
I was born just two years after Sputnik made its first orbit, and I began borrowing my own science and science fiction books just 10 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and two years after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins became the most amazing adventurers in history by successfuly orbiting and landing on the Moon. In those heady days it seemed like humanity would soon be on Mars, and even reaching for the stars in my lifetime. Well, it didn’t quite work out like that, thanks to politics.
Thankfully, there have been many amazing unmanned missions all over the solar system in the decades since, and who knows where both men and women will end up before I finally pop my clogs, despite all the government foot-dragging and time and money wasted on pointless wars since then. Before long, we may even see a British astronaut, though sadly atop a Russian rocket instead of the remarkable nuclear-powered British spacecraft portrayed in the great 1950s Quatermass science fiction TV shows. We could have had all that, but the stupidity of governments intervened once again.
Anyway, despite the disappointments of the real world, I am eternally grateful for the fun I had in those far-off days and in the years before when I had been so greatly encouraged to read by my parents that when a teacher at school asked me what I would like to do when I grew up, I said “An astronaut. Or a science fiction writer. Either would do…” Well, I managed one of those eventually, despite being distracted by a career as a professional photographer, journalist and historian, not to mention many other hobby interests. And both science fiction and science fact changed my life, and made me who I am today in so many ways. But I wish I still had all the old British reprints of American science fiction pulp magazines and those cheap but fun Ace Double paperbacks which I collected back then. Where did they all go?
Sadly, you can no longer just walk into a Walsall Metropolitan Borough public library and take off the shelves these wonderful, seminal classics of science fiction that are still such great reads today. They have almost all been hidden away in the central reserve stock, and can only be borrowed by paying to reserve and order them to be delivered to your branch library. And, judging by the computerised online library catalogue, they include many of those very same hardback volumes published in the 1960s and 70s which I held and loved so long ago. Maybe it’s time to break them out of jail…
The weird thing is, having spent some 28 years writing about computers, astronomy and local history, I’ve only had the time to make a start on writing the science fiction stories I always wanted to now, in my early 50s, because I’ve had to set aside so many other things for family reasons that I now have the time. I do hope I haven’t left it too late – after all the future is already here, even if it’s not the one we exactly dreamed of back in the space age…
At least my dear old Bloxwich Library is still there, home of so many memories despite its recent transformations and updates. When I started going there (and to Coalpool Library, sadly long closed) there were none of the computers that are so commonplace in libraries today. So commonplace that in most branch libraries that they have all but replaced the wonderful reference sections which were so important to us schoolchildren and older students way back when. Don’t forget, public libraries were mostly founded to allow the self-improvement of the working classes, at a time when few could afford their own books. Leisure reading was really not their main purpose; it is now. And even that has changed hugely since my childhood.
I remember there being two bays of science fiction on the polished wooden shelves. I always used to avidly read all of them, then when I ran out of new books I would walk from my home to Coalpool Library and read what was there. There were usually more new books arrived at Bloxwich by the time I finished their stock! When I ran out of science fiction I would move on to fantasy, generally works by Michael Moorcock and JRR Tolkien, and I have to say my all-time favourite, the great sword and sorcery writer Robert E, Howard. These three greats remain my top fantasy faves today, though years later when fantasy became fashionable many works by other American authors appeared and the market began to be flooded by interminable multi-book series.
When I revisited Bloxwich Library on Saturday, and it is a place which I have to admit I still know quite well because until recently I was an active member of Bloxwich Library Forum, which manages the Theatre in association with the library management, I thought I really ought to mark the occasion by borrowing a book, something I rarely do today because I have too many of my own to read!
So I decided to have a look around to see what the kids are borrowing today. Interestingly, there is nothing called a Science Fiction section in the glossy, modern Bloxwich Library, or indeed a Fantasy or even a Horror section. Entertainingly, these kind of books, many of the sort which is now categorised as Young Adult (back in the day they called them Juvenile!), are now split into the following catergories:
- Out of this World (science fiction and the odd epic fantasy book).
- Paranormal (a mix of horror, modern vampire, ghosts and witchy/paganish books).
- Blood Lust (aka Supernatural Romance!).
- Hot Text (general YA books with a few fantasy, sci-fi and horror thrown in).
- Graphic (comics/graphic novels).
There was certainly no sign of Blood Lust back in the day (at least not on the library shelves) – you would be lucky to find a copy of Dracula. But I really wish we could have borrowed comics out of the library in my youth! Maybe I should just buy a few Judge Dredd megazines – what do you say?
What did I borrow in the end? A book of a kind I haven’t read since the 1970s – a Star Wars tie-in! Seems appropriate, don’t you think?
Maybe one day, my books will also be on those shelves, if only in a parallel universe.
Who can predict the future, after all?
It’s a long time since I had a real holiday, and I can’t see me getting one this year either, due to family commitments, writing commitments and finances. In the past, I’ve usually been spending my time dashing around the landscape doing stuff with, and often for, other people. Then there’s work; the ‘day job’ does have a habit of getting in the way. That’s life, but not as we know it.
So when I decided to book a couple of weeks annual leave from the daily grind, thinking that a change would be as good as a rest, I did rather wonder what I would get up to. As anyone who knows me will tell you, when I’m let off my leash I’m not one for sitting down, unless that’s to write!
I really did need to spend some time fixing up the house, and then there’s my dear old mom to look after, so it could be tricky. Aha! A lightbulb moment flashed into being. I would split my fortnight of supposed ‘rest’ into a second week of house battering and garden splattering, and a first week of… Hmmm.
Then I remembered that the end of June and the first week of July had been declared, of all things, ‘Independent Booksellers Week’ – a national event to promote that near-extinct but highly worthwhile species, the independent bookshop. I only remembered because recently Walsall had sprouted its only independent bookstore – the brand, spanky new Southcart Books located in a smartly converted Victorian shop unit in Lower Hall Lane.
Being both a writer and a book (amongst other things) geek I had of course leapt in with both boots to welcome the jolly nice proprietors, Scott Southey and Amy Carter, onto the Walsall booky scene, such as it is. Just as well they do a lot of mail order. But surprisingly, and pleasingly, they have gotten off to a good start in their delightfully Olde-Worlde outside, and Tardis-like bigger on the inside, shop, which I have since been doing my best to support in my own small way.
Of course if it wasn’t for Scott and Amy’s imagination, boldness and sense of enterprise we wouldn’t have an independent bookstore at all, so that’s all to their credit. And to the benefit of readers. writers and publishers, especially independent writers (and publishers) in the Walsall area and across the Midlands. So mutual support is clearly essential – especially from readers, who it is hoped will see how important this new shop is.
Nothing against Waterstones or The Works, or even WH Smiffs, but being corporate entities, while despite having greater monetary clout, they would find it difficult, or impossible, to do some of the things which Southcart Books can do, with their inherent flexibility, not being beholden as the big names are to the ‘powers that be’ upstairs. Southcart Books is also unique in the area now, being a stockist of largely second-hand books, though they do carry a small stock of new books and should be able to order most things in.
I had already offered to help Scott and Amy organise a small event at the shop where writers and publishers could get together for a chat and hopefully offer book fans the opportunity to hear about and read something different to what they might usually expect to find in the big name bookstores. Independent writers, local and regional writers, and independently-published books. The Writers Gathering, as it now is – but that’s another story, or at least another post. If you’re interested, do check out the link.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, I then thought to myself, why not have a week of Grand Days Out during Independent Booksellers Week, rocketing around looking for Science Fiction books in nice places, the logical culmination of which would be The Writers Gathering on Saturday 5 July, and then probably falling down in a dead faint on the Sunday… And blog it! Two birds with one stone: a jolly week out and about, and an excuse for a spot of bookish bloggery.
Splendid – and the idea clicked firmly into place after fellow writer Jan Edwards very kindly pointed me in the direction of a handy list of secondhand and antiquarian bookshops:
Hmmm. Where did I go first?
Well, you’ll find out in the next post in this series, A Bookish Week Off: Destination Moon.