JANE: As I mentioned a few weeks ago, you’re also a book reviewer. In fact, although I met you during a trip to New Zealand in 1995, in a very real sense, I got to know you through your “wot I red” columns.
How did you become a reviewer?
ALAN: Now thereby hangs a tale. Way back when I lived in England, in the early 1970s, I started a science fiction group because I thought it might be a good way to meet girls. It turned out to be a surprisingly successful ploy. But that’s another story…
JANE: Girls. SF. Meeting thereof… Sounds like something the characters in Jo Walton’s Among Others might think was a good idea. Go on.
ALAN: The group published a fanzine, because that’s what such groups do. I wrote to all the British publishers, announcing the publication and suggesting that if they sent me books, I could publish reviews of them in the ‘zine. Again, this proved to be a surprisingly successful ploy, and free books poured in. What could be better than that?
So I started writing reviews, and so did my friends. There were far too many books for one person to cope with (and, frankly, far too many of them were rubbish – it was very depressing).
Eventually the fanzine ceased publication because producing it was far too much work. Ceasing to publish a fanzine is also something that SF groups traditionally do. But I did the right thing and I wrote to the publishers informing them that the ‘zine would no longer be appearing. However, it made no difference whatsoever. The publishers ignored my letters and the books kept piling up.
JANE: Somehow I have no trouble believing this. Inertia is a powerful force.
ALAN: And publishers are not renowned for the efficiency of their administrative processes…
The years passed and I suspect that gradually the publishers began to notice that the reviews were no longer appearing. The flood of books eventually died to a trickle. Only Penguin, bless their little cotton socks, didn’t appear to notice that anything had changed and every time they published or re-printed a book they sent me a copy. Their most often re-printed author was John Wyndham. They never allowed any of his books to fall out of print and by the time I left England to come to New Zealand in 1981, I think they must have sent me at least eight copies of The Day of the Triffids.
JANE: Thus the illustration for this piece, courtesy of my friend, Cale Mims.
ALAN: I sometimes wonder if the people who now live in my old house in England are still receiving parcels of books from Penguin.
JANE: Quite possibly. See above on the power of inertia. Actually, I can see the seed of a story in this: someone moves into the house, boxes of books arrive; he becomes an SF fan. Wait! Maybe it’s a she and she hunts up the former owner. They begin to correspond…
But, getting out of my weird brain, your life as a reviewer didn’t end when you left England for New Zealand. What happened next?
ALAN: When I arrived in New Zealand, I didn’t know a single person. However, SF groups flourished in all the major cities, so it wasn’t long before I had a social life again. I wrote intermittent articles and reviews for several local fanzines and eventually these metamorphosed into a regular column which nowadays is called wot I red on my hols (early columns had various other titles as I experimented with different approaches) – the odd spelling is a little joke about how school children might spell the phrase, and of course it’s exactly the sort of dull topic that an English teacher might assign for an essay at the start of a new term.
JANE: Well, if it had been an assignment given to me, I would have been relieved. Most of my holidays were spent reading. Much easier if I could just get to the important stuff.
ALAN: Me too. But a huge number of my school friends had never voluntarily opened the covers of a book in their lives. Such an essay would have been utterly beyond their capabilities (though I suspect one or two could have lied very creatively…)
JANE: I’ve read (or “red”) the column – I still do, in fact. But many of our readers probably haven’t availed themselves of the option, even though you offer it for free download here.
Can you tell a bit more about it?
ALAN: The column is a kind of a diary. It takes the form of anecdotes about what has happened to me since the last column, interspersed with reviews of the books that I’ve been reading during that time. It’s an odd structure, but it seems to work and I have my fans.
The column has been published at monthly intervals since 1994. In all that time I’ve only missed one month. There was no column for April 2005 because in March 2005 I was busy getting married and writing a column was the last thing on my mind. But apart from that, month in and month out, there has always been a wot I red column to read. That’s a lot of reviews, and I’m rather proud of the accumulated body of work.
JANE: Well, now that we’re learned how you became a reviewer, I’ve got a tough question for you. In fact, it’s so tough and so potentially inflammatory, that I’ll save it for next time.
ALAN: Why is it that I have suddenly been overwhelmed by a terrible feeling of existential dread?
JANE: (Lots of evil cackling…)