Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Duck! There goes Christmas!

Christmas is like a roller-coaster I feel sometimes. You start off quietly - Christmas is three or four weeks away. Then you start to pick up speed, but it’s still two weeks or more to go.

Then you go over the crest and suddenly you’re picking up more and more speed. A week? That’s no time at all! Each day just flies past and suddenly you’re bursting into the Yuletide festival, covered in tinsel, turkey and wrapping paper. You look about, thinking “What just happened?”

By the time we get to Boxing Day, you feel completely shattered. The suburbs are quiet and almost deserted while everyone is away. It’s like the silence after some awful catastrophe in an old disaster movie.

It doesn’t help that I’m still carrying a respiratory infection from the winter that I can’t get rid of. I was scheduled to read the lesson in church the week before Christmas, but my voice was so hoarse and croaking that I had to postpone it for a week. Not to mention the way my right ear keeps blocking up until I can only hear out of my left ear.

The answer for the latter problem seems to be steam inhalation. What a wonderfully old-fashioned cure! I thought my doctor was too young to have even heard of it, but he recommended I give it a try.

So if you’re looking for me, I’ll be out in the kitchen inhaling steam and looking at the pile of Christmas cards I never got motivated enough to post out.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Broken Things

The other day I got up feeling very muddle-headed after sleeping for an hour in the afternoon of a very hot day. I blundered around in the kitchen, trying to make coffee, and ended up knocking my mug off the counter.

It was one of those big black mugs with your name lettered in gold on the side. I picked it up and at first it looked all right, but when I touched it, it broke in half.

My grandfather bought those mugs. He got three of them, one for me, my sister and my mother. Michael, Julie and Mary, they said in gleaming gold lettering. Now the gold was worn and almost illegible. He’s gone now and so is my mother.

My sister is three years younger than me, but her health is not 100%. I spent a lot of time looking out for her, and I wonder how she’ll go if I’m no longer around one day.

Coming up to Christmas, you tend to think a lot about the past. 

And the future.

There’s my half-sister and her family. The youngest member of the family would be her grandson Nathan.

It’s funny to think that whatever we have will eventually belong to him. He doesn’t really know our generation. The people we knew and loved are just names to him, sometimes not even that. I guess it’s hard for him to understand a world and a century that he hardly remembers.

I sit there at family dinners sometimes and watch him. He’s big and tall and has a loud voice; he’s interested in cars and parties and his friends. Typical of his age, I guess. 

It’s one of life’s little jokes that you only really feel connected to previous generations when your own has begun to fade away and drop out of circulation.

But for now I suppose I’ll take my tablets, watch my diet and see how far into the 21st century I can make it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Farewell Don Tuck - SF's greatest chronicler passes

The past is another country; they do things differently there.

That quote went through my mind when I recently heard of the passing of an old friend, trail-blazing bibliographer Don Tuck.

TUCK Don Henry
Passed away peacefully
at Ringwood Private
Hospital, Melbourne.
Formerly of Ulverstone and Hobart, Tasmania.
Beloved husband of the late Audrey Jean, father of Marcus,
father-in-law of Rowena and devoted Grandpa of Jessica, Lucie and Hugh.
Resting in Peace.

Like a few young men of the pre-war generation, he developed an interest in science-fiction, a minor genre often dismissed as “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” SF was a small niche market and it would have been possible for a dedicated fan to read all the science-fiction published in English every year. Unlike most of his fellow afficianados, he began collecting information with a view to compiling a book that would include all the available facts about the genre.

This would have been a challenging project had he been in New York or London, but he had been born in Launceston, Tasmania, as far from the wellsprings of the literature as one could get!

In those days, there was no internet, no e-mail. To query someone overseas about a fact, you wrote the question down in an air-mail letter. If you were lucky, you might get a reply in three or four weeks.

The situation was not helped by the fact that the Australian government had banned the importing of American magazines in 1940 as a war-time economy (in fact the ban lasted until 1959). This meant that the magazines that were the staple of serious science-fiction, such as John W. Campbell’s Astounding, could only be obtained by barter or depending on the goodwill of fellow fans abroad. Many of Don’s magazines from the 1940s bore the rubber stamp of the Bermuda Post Office, through which they passed on their long sea voyage to Australia.

Never deterred, Don plodded on through the decade, collecting and storing data while also moving to Hobart, holding down a job at the local zinc company and starting a family.

The story in his family was that when he married Audrey, her father volunteered to help him move house. After watching box after box of science fiction and fantasy publications loaded into the truck, he turned to his daughter and blurted out “Audrey, you’ve married a nut!” Audrey’s response is not recorded.

Don published a series of four articles about prominent SF authors in the newsletter of the Melbourne SF Club, Etherline, in 1954. Those outside his circle of friends may not have appreciated these were just the tip of the iceberg, for Don was nearing the completion of his first book on the subject.

 A Handbook of Science Fiction and Fantasy was published in 1954. Don had typed up all 154 single-spaced pages on his manual typewriter onto stencils and ran them off on a duplicator machine. No photocopiers in those days! Self-publishing was the only option since no mainstream publisher would have considered such a book for a moment.

(To put things in context, the first “real” book about science-fiction was New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis in 1960. The first book about science-fiction films, incidentally, wouldn’t come along until 1970 when John Baxter wrote Science Fiction in the Cinema.)

The Handbook caused a sensation in the science fiction community and there was wide approval for the scope and detail of the work. Far from resting on his laurels, Don continued collecting information and in 1959 published and revised and enlarged edition. This now ran to two volumes, a total of 400 pages!

No wonder he received a special award from the 1962 World SF Convention. The 1950s was a time of great growth in the field, and Don’s works covered it in great detail.

Still residing in Hobart, Don kept in touch by mail with fellow collectors around the world, a common practice at the time. His only face-to-face contacts were occasional evenings at his home in Lindisfarne when half a dozen SF connoisseurs would gather to discuss the latest developments in the field and admire Don’s collection. Following an hour or two of gossip, Audrey would serve refreshments and the meeting would break up. I was privileged to be invited along when Don discovered I lived just across the river from him, and he was always a courteous and charming host despite my youthful enthusiasm.

I was aware that he was still collating facts and reviews, but nobody was expecting the final flowering of his efforts. Don had been in touch with the American specialist publisher Advent, and in 1974 they began the publication of his greatest achievement, the three-volume set The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1968: A Bibliographic Survey of the Fields of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction through 1968. These were three big books, and every page was packed with text (no illustrations) and detailed entries about books, authors and publishers.

Reviews were enthusiastic and 99% positive. Don was perplexed by a review by Barry Malzberg who reproached him for leaving out such famous authors as L. Sprague de Camp. It turned out that Malzberg, slightly confused about the niceties of alphabetical order, had looked under C rather than D!

The final volume rolled off the presses in 1983, and Don could be forgiven for finally drawing a line under his bibliographic career. After fifty years he deserved some time off.

The collection of old magazines and books was sold off to a university library on the mainland, and filled an entire moving van. Previous to that, Don had invited me to drop in and have a look around his garage. It was lined from floor to ceiling with paperbacks from all around the world. “Anything you want, just pick it out,” he said. I filled the back of my car with rare items at bargain-basement prices. (I wonder what they would have fetched if e-Bay had been around in those days?)

The success of his magnum opus led to his being invited to be Guest of Honour at the 1975 World SF Convention being held in Melbourne. Don was unable to make it to the convention in person, but several authors and fans were so determined to meet him that they added a trip to Tasmania to their Australian visit. We had a large dinner at a city hotel for the visitors.

After that, I lost touch with Don. He retired from the Zinc works, and he and his wife moved to Victoria, closer to his children and grandchildren. The increasingly frenetic and profitable genre that was modern science-fiction held less appeal for him (though he and Audrey did enjoy the first Star Wars film).

There were many other reference works about science-fiction in the years to come, but nearly all of them were quick to acknowledge their debt to Don’s comprehensive surveys of the field.

He had little contact with science-fiction fans in later years, and aside from a Christmas card or two, I gradually fell out of touch with him. It was a sad moment to learn he had died aged 87. I will always remember him as an agreeable host, a loyal friend and an industrious scholar. R.I.P. Donald H. Tuck.

Monday, October 11, 2010

another year

Looking back at 2010, it’s hard to believe we are so far through the year. Even things that seemed like big landmarks, like my 60th birthday, are now rapidly receding into the past.

My sister Julie did most of the organising of this occasion. We took over a small restaurant near my home and invited a couple of dozen of my friends. Most were from either my church or the croquet club, but there was a scattering of people from other circles.

At this sort of gathering, inevitably the person in question is called on to make a speech. To avoid this, I compiled a trivia quiz covering events that had happened in my lifetime, and passed it out to guests as they arrived. This meant that I could combine the speech with giving the answers to the quiz, killing two birds with one stone.

My note on the invitation that birthday gifts were not necessary was largely unheeded. After the party I had to make two trips out to the car to load the presents into the boot.

This winter was wildly different to last year. In 2009, we had the biggest amount of rain we’ve had for fifty years -- the mud stretched almost to the horizon. But this year it was actually below average for rainfall. Not what I was expecting after last year.

Now that spring is here, Julie is about to start work on her new chicken shed. The keeping of chickens in urban areas is going from strength to strength around the world, but here in Hobart there is a whole bundle of red tape involved. For a start you cannot keep a rooster inside the city boundaries unless you have the written permission of all your neighbours. Then there are restrictions on where you can build your hen house, how far it has to be from the edge of the property, and strict controls on how it affects the people next door. (Penalty for each infringement is a $240 fine.)

The fact that the chickens were there before most of the neighbours moved in cuts no ice with the authorities. A string of complaints to the City Council and the RSPCA have been a recurring irritation for her. Some of them have been out and out trouble-making; one complaint alleged her dog was neglected, which was unbelievable for anybody who has met my sister.

My health seems to suffer during the winter each year nowadays. I get a cough that lasts for weeks, and that tends to drive up my BGL (Blood Glucose Level readings), which upsets my endocrinologist. Controlling my diabetes is more difficult when I’m battling a virus that refuses to move out for months on end.

It’s almost November, which is National Novel Writing Month. This will be the sixth year that I’ve taken part in this challenge to write a 50,000 word novelette in a month. It seems unbelievable, but that means I’ve written a quarter of a million words of fiction ( As often happens, I have no idea what to write about this year, but I’m hoping my subconscious is working on a plot that will come to mind by the end of October!

Monday, April 12, 2010

A thing of the past

My life is over -- well, not quite, but the end is in sight. Only two weeks to go till my 60th birthday, and I am beginning to feel the years piling up.

For example, on Saturday my sister and I were invited to Michele's house for the 13th birthday of her son Aleks. We knew that he was interested in the history of rock & roll, so I went through the attic and found a 1971 book on Buddy Holly that I thought he might like.

The party was a large affair, but partitioned so that the adults and children didn't have to spend all their time together. The basement was taken up with a sound system blasting out AC-DC while the elderly in-laws ate a sit-down meal upstairs.

Julie and I wandered about, chatting to various people, partaking of the copious refreshments and watching Michele's dog try and bully one of the visiting dogs. It was all pleasant enough.

But when we arrived home after only two or three hours, I felt as though I'd been away for the weekend. I suppose I'm no longer used to noise or large numbers of people. Once I would have taken it in my stride, but that seems to be a thing of the past.

At least my cough has eased off enough that I can sleep at night again. A couple of weeks of waking every two hours to cough really made me feel seedy.

I hope to be rid of it before the winter weather sets in, although going on the weather forecast for today that isn't far away. Last night it was almost frightening to read a forecast that predicted strong winds, heavy rain and possible flash flooding.

Happily, none of these things seem to have happened.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

21st century (with waterfowl)

My health is improving a little, though I'm not sure you can say the same for my sister Julie, who (inevitably) seems to have picked up the same virus that I am battling. 

It seems hard to believe that this month I will be celebrating my 60th birthday.  I remember when I was at school I calculated that if I wanted to see the 21st century, I would have to live to be fifty.  That seemed so far off in the future... !  And today the year 2001 is nine years in the past. Sometimes I wonder where that half century has gone. 

We now have four geese in my backyard as well as the population of chickens that invaded colonised the property from Julie's house.  I've always had one goose, but three goslings were rescued from an uncertain future at Julie's place and have grown up strong and resolute in my yard (where the lawn used to be once upon a time).  The only difficulty is that the oldest goose tries to boss the chooks around, and honks at them loudly if they displease her.  Heaven knows what the neighbours make of it. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rooster refugees re-located

So we got the roosters moved, without needing to have a poultry mass-execution. (That would really have had the neighbors in a tizzy!)

The ten favorite roosters were sent off up north to stay on a farm near Oatlands. Julie found someone at the croquet club whose family own land up there, and he persuaded them to take the ten. We now refer to them as "the Government in Exile" since there is just a chance that one day they may return to their old home.
The remaining crowd we managed to re-locate to a country property a bit closer to town. A poultry breeder told Julie about this disused farm whose owner is prepared to let people release unwanted chickens onto his place. There's water, shelter... they're even near the beach. It's more like a holiday camp than a detention center for refugees.

All we had to do was catch the roosters one by one and shove them into a feed sack. When we had enough to fill the boot of my car, we'd drive off across the river and release them. It took about three trips but we did it. I like to think of it as "the Shangri-La for roosters" rather than as abandoning them. They certainly look happy enough when we were down there.

The following week we arranged to meet the Environmental Health Officer and take a walk around Julie's property. He seemed a nice enough young man (you couldn't actually see the horns that we had imagined him with) and made few demands.

So for the time being, things are quiet. But Julie is still going through the real estate section every week, searching for a property where you could keep roosters.

This week we visited such a place, a turkey farm up near Molesworth. It was the first time I've seen turkeys up close in numbers, and they actually do make that gobble-gobble-gobble sound and fluff up their feathers when there are strangers about. Very impressive looking.

This persistent cough of mine is now into its fifth week. Taking revolting cough mixture by the bottle. I had been going to visit my GP and see if I needed antibiotics, but he passed away unexpectedly. I am going to see a new doctor tomorrow, so we shall see what happens then.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Remembrance of fans past

By some weird coincidence, four old friends were in town the same week.  Leigh Edmonds, Valma Brown, Eric Lindsay and Jean Weber.

We met up for dinner at the New Sydney Hotel, along with Robin & Alicia Johnson and Cary & Marjorie Lenehan.   The years just rolled away and it was like we were at a science-fiction convention in the 1970s.   Well, except for the silver hair, prescription medication and the high-tech computer hardware.

Eric and Jean were on holiday before catching a plane for the Melbourne convention.  Leigh and Valma were in town doing research for a book Leigh is writing.  But the conversation ebbed and flowed, jumping from topic to topic and occasionally harking back to an incident in 1968 or 1975.

It was amazing how we all felt so much at ease, as though the last twenty years hadn't happened and we'd just seen each other a few months ago.

A couple of them asked me if I was likely to attend Aussiecon IV.  

No, I told them, I'd ruin my reputation for being a recluse...

Monday, February 22, 2010

A farewell to poultry

My sister Julie always regards Registered Mail as bad news, and this time round she was right.

"You have seven days to remove the roosters from your property," said the official letter. And by the way, here's a $240 fine for having them in the first place.

This marks a turning point in Julie's life. The last few years, suburbia has grown all around her little farm, and now the full might of the Environmental Health department has come down on her.

What will she do with thirty roosters? Kill them? Release them in the country? Give them away? Sell them?

I don't know.

Stay tuned for more news.