In 2010, I interviewed Duncan Lunan. A lot has changed since then: both of us have gotten married for a start! Some mutual friends have left, a Sarah has arrived, and Mr Lunan has had, I'm glad to say, something of a career renaissance. The piece this was for was to be the typical article length, but, as you'll see, Duncan provided the younger (and, dare I say, somewhat untactful) interviewer with a treasure chest of memories and insights going back fifty years. With his own permission, I re-print the entire thing here.
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Duncan Lunan Interview
by Michael S. Collins
The writer Duncan Lunan is a man of many talents. Astronomer, editor and author, folk music: you name it, Duncan has made his formidable mark on the subject. With a career stretching back over forty years, and with friendships and acquaintances with all of the best-known writers and scientists in recent history, he has been referred to as “The Godfather” of modern Scottish Sci-Fi. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Duncan on many topics extending the full length of his career and experience. Here is the entire thing, word for word. I regard Duncan as not only a writer of the highest calibre, but also a dear friend. Enjoy.
When/how did you first get interested in astronomy and space?
To a certain extent, I feel my card was marked, because the Scots name ‘Lunan’ does apparently derive from the Moon. Lud, who gave his name to 'Lud's town’ (London) was the English version of the Celtic sky-god Lugh, particularly the Moon-god, whose harvest festival was Lugnasagh. The Celts had actually stressed the wrong syllable of the Sumerian Lu-Nanna, 'Moonlight', where the prefix 'Lu' signified light and Nanna was the Moon-god of the tributary cities of Ur; but in the Indo-European languages the Moon became Luna or 'La Lune'. My late Uncle Gordon's investigation of our family history was triggered by a watchmaker in
Edinburgh, who told him in 1930 that we were
descended from the astronomers of ancient Chaldea.
We had invented the calendar, hence
making agriculture and civilisation possible, "and to charge you for the
repair of a timepiece would be an effrontery". The old chap actually knew his stuff: there is
a statue in the Louvre of a high priest called Lu-Nanna making an offering to
the Moon-god. And my family is descended
from Alexander Stuart, an illegitimate son of Robert II, who bought 'the Lands
of Lunaine' in Aberdeen
in 1340 and styled himself 'de Lunaine' thereafter. When people who don't know my work ask,
"Do you write under your own name?", the reply is that in my field it
would be pretty daft not to.
My parents weren’t strongly interested in astronomy, but I remember my father stopping the car for us to watch the aurora borealis when I was three or four, and them getting me up to see an eclipse of the Moon at the same age. I was four in 1950 when my granny took me down to Troon beach to see the Blue Sun, which was caused by high-altitude smog of oil droplets from a forest fire in
Canada. The sky was bronze, the Sun was blue and the
whole familiar landscape of the swimming pool and the bandstand was alien, like
being on another planet. It had a big
effect on me. A year or so later a
friend of mine had a picture book of modern wonders including a photo of a
Viking Mark 1 sounding rocket, and I remember thinking, “Hey, a real
spaceship!” But my first love was still
the sea, and what turned it around was Angus MacVicar’s The Lost Planet on Children’s Hour, the original radio version. The boy across the street had “The Young
Traveller in Space” by Arthur C. Clarke, and I bullied my parents into giving
it to me for my eighth birthday. That
got me completely hooked on space, and my mother at 97 is still waiting for me
to grow out of it. When I edited “Starfield”,
the anthology of science fiction by Scots for Orkney Press in 1989, I asked
Angus MacVicar to write the introduction, and I felt that closed a circle. The cover was by Sydney Jordan, whose Jeff Hawke started in February 1954 and
that was another big influence as I grew up.
Who is Jeff Hawke?
Jeff Hawke was
chief astronaut, the hero of the world's longest-running science fiction strip
cartoon, drawn by Sydney Jordan from Dundee. It ran in the Daily Express with 66 stories between 15th February 1954 and 18th April 1974,
followed by another story in the Scottish
Daily News, and two more in syndication in Europe.
A last 7-episode story appeared in the
comic A1, in 1991, bringing the total
run to 70 stories with 6527 episodes. The stories were syndicated in 45 countries
and were so popular in Europe that when the European papers came to the end of the
run, there was a special linking episode in which Jeff Hawke died and was
reincarnated as the medical officer on a starship a hundred years in the
future, the hero of Lance McLane, Sydney Jordan's new strip which was
running in the Daily Record, in Scotland.
Lance McLane continued to run in Europe as Jeff Hawke for a further 10½ years, but
purists regard that as (literally) another story. The new ‘Jeff Hawke’ ended on H9454, but with
extra episodes, missing episodes and stories published only as McLane, by my reckoning the final total
is 9858. .
I was eight years old when Jeff Hawke began in the Daily Express. When it had been going for about three weeks, I said to my mother, "This is so good, I'm going to collect it". As mothers do, she replied, "Oh no you're not... you're not piling up dirty newsprint... you'll never look at them..." but I collected all but 100 episodes during its run and now have a complete collection. The Jeff Hawke Club is now reproducing the complete canon of Hawke and McLane in Jeff Hawke's Cosmos and I’m writing notes on the stories as they appear, which is a real labour of love.
In 1969, in the run-up to the Moon landing, I recalled that Sydney Jordan had predicted the date of it as
August 4th, 1969, in a story called 'Time
Out of Mind'. I gave the number of the
episode to my librarian friend and fellow SF writer, the late Chris Boyce, and
he got me the exact date of publication, so Sydney was on BBC
and STV the night of the landing. Five
years later, when I wanted to quote Hawke
in my first book "Man and the Stars", I wrote to Sydney for permission and that put us in
Meanwhile, Chris had been influential in getting Jeff Hawke into the Scottish Daily News after it was dropped by the Express, and also in getting the Daily Record (for whom he worked in the late 1970s) to commission Lance McLane. When I met
Sydney at the British Easter Science Fiction
Convention in 1978, his first words to me were, "Oh, you're Duncan Lunan. I want you to write stories for me." It took four more years to happen, but late in
1982 I began writing for McLane with 'The Phoenix at Easter' and by the
end of the strip in 1988, I had written or contributed to ten stories.
had begun illustrating articles and stories for me, starting with McLane
strips for an article in Nuclear Free
Scotland and including World Magazine
and the Journal of Practical Applications
in Space. In 1989 he created the
jacket for "Starfield", the first ever anthology of science fiction
by Scottish writers, which I edited for Orkney Press; he did the introductory
painting for the article 'Flight in Non-terrestrial Atmospheres, or, The
Hang-Glider's Guide to the Galaxy', Analog,
January 1993, which I wrote with Gordon Dick, and illustrated my novelette,
'With Time Comes Concord', Analog,
September 1993. Sydney has prepared a detailed set of
illustrations for my current book project "Children from the Sky",
investigating the mediaeval mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit. We’re working on several other books including
a discussion project on protecting the Earth from impacts, within ASTRA, the
Association in Scotland
to Research into Astronautics.
How did your interest in space get more organised, i.e. through ASTRA?
The Scottish Branch of the British Interplanetary Society was founded in 1953 by the late Oscar Schwiglhofer, who had studied physics in
Transylvania under Hermann Oberth before the second world
war. In March 1962 the late Terence
Nonweiler, the new Professor of Aerodynamics and Fluid Mechanics at , spoke on 'The Future in
Space', at G.U. Observatory. (Some
points which he made that night are quoted in my book "New Worlds for
Old".) Glasgow University
At that time I was a fourth-year pupil at
Troon, and had recently become friends with a new boy, John McIntyre, whose
father worked for GPO Telephones. John's
father had come across a misdirected circular for the Nonweiler meeting, and
had appropriated it because he thought I'd be interested. That was how I came to meet Oscar, Dr. (now
Prof.) Archie Roy, Terence Nonweiler, Ed Buckley, Andy Nimmo and many others
who are still friends. As events which
change your life go, it was a cracker, and finding a group of adults who shared
my interest was a life-saver. Marr College
By the following year it was clear than the
BIS branch arrangement wasn’t working, and we
became independent as ASTRA in December 1963. I was elected to the new Council as a student
member, and with just one gap of a few months, I’ve been on the Council ever
since. I’ve been President,
Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer several times over, and my career as a
science writer, lecturer etc specialising in space and astronomy has been
channeled through the society throughout. Three of my four books to date took shape as
discussion projects within the society, and there are three more pending.
What have you been doing lately in ASTRA?
I’ve been on the exhibitions and publications committees since they were set up in 1970, and between 2001 and 2003 Jamie McLean, Andy Nimmo and I were producing four issues a year of our magazine Spacereport and journal Asgard, plus an occasional supplement, The New International Spacereport, in memory of Oscar. The Asgards were exploring one of my big ideas, the Politics of Survival, with a view to producing a book, but one of our Past Presidents, Bill Ramsay, suggested a spinoff project on protecting the Earth from asteroid and comet impacts, and that’s been taking priority since.
I staged an exhibition for ASTRA’s 30th anniversary at the Glasgow Science Centre, and four in Glasgow and Airdrie during 2008. In 2009 we had exhibitions in
Stirling, East Kilbride
and Forth marking the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, and
we’re now looking to see what can be done for the 50th anniversary
of Yuri Gagarin’s flight next year.
In 1977 the Public Observatory in Airdrie was reopened by ASTRA after damage in a storm, and we ran it for Monklands District Council, afterwards
Lanarkshire, for just over 30 years, for 18½ of which I was a
curator. Our part in the 1978-79
refurbishment was under the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project, of which I was
Manager, and at the reopening in October 1978 I was asked if I could create a
similar one for North Lanarkshire. It took till 2006 with repeated attempts, but
eventually I ran a three-part educational project financed by the National
Lottery, through Awards for All for two pilot projects and then Heritage
Lottery for the big one. Altogether we ran
about 700 events, over 450 of them school visits, and we didn’t have a bad one.
Kids and teachers just loved us – the
subjects sells itself.
How did your enthusiasm for SF develop?
Until I joined ASTRA I was pretty much under the influence of Patrick Moore’s “Science and Fiction”, reading only classics – Verne, Wells, Stapledon – and technically accurate hard SF, mostly Arthur C. Clarke and Fred Hoyle, though I was branching out into John Wyndham by the time I joined ASTRA. Andy Nimmo introduced me to Asimov, Heinlein, Van Vogt, Sheckley, Poul Anderson… and when I got to University I began reading the magazines and ranging more and more widely.
Did your writing enthusiasm start as a continuation of this, or was there another spark?
The love of words predates all of this. I can remember not being able to read just before I was three, and the full package having arrived just after my birthday. For a while I pretended I couldn’t read because I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but by the time I was four I was writing poetry and produced my own hand-drawn newspaper. So they put me into a school class a year older than me, who couldn’t read or write yet, and you can imagine how popular that made me.
In the early 1970s, you came close to writing for cult favourite Doctor Who. How did this come about, and do you view it as a missed opportunity?
In the days when ASTRA had meeting rooms in
Hamilton, 1970-1982, it suited members best
to have weekly meetings on Saturday afternoons, and we developed the habit of
unwinding afterwards by watching Dr. Who
in the pub. During the Pertwee era we
were going to Skelton's Bar near the Top Cross. One Saturday for some reason only Jim Campbell
of the Glasgow SF Circle and I were there, and at one point we were remarking
that if Katy Manning came in, bought us both pints, flashed the fags for Jim
and generally played her cards right, she might just get off with one of us.
"You wouldn't have a chance," said Jim, "I'm a Big-Name SF Fan.”
"You wouldn't have a chance," I replied, "I'm a big name SF author." And then I thought, wait a minute, they do take stories from outside authors. So I went away and started working on one. Chris Boyce and others lent me books on writing for TV, and eventually I submitted a story through my then agent. It made it on to a short list of six, from which they selected four. Mine wasn't one chosen, but through the agent I had a friendly correspondence with Terrance Dicks, from which I learned a number of surprising things. One was that the rules in the beginners' books didn't apply to Dr. Who because at that time it was the
overseas earner. So when the books said,
'minimise the number of scene changes to keep production costs down', they went
for short, snappy scenes to keep up the pace. When they said, 'avoid special effects',
that was because Dr. Who absorbed 90%
of the entire BBC budget for
special effects. When they said,
'minimal use of outdoor filming, preferably none', Dr. Who preferred to film outdoors because it looked more
realistic. So one reason why I
didn't make the sale was that I'd written an economy-budget Dr. Who story when they weren't looking
for those kinds of savings; but Terrance Dicks did encourage me to try again.
Not long after that, Jon Pertwee appeared in cabaret at the Caledonian Hotel in
Ayr. He'd said in interviews that he wanted
more input to the Dr. Who
story-lines, so I went over with friends in hopes to talk to him. The night was a disaster. Anticipating a big audience, the hotel had
laid out the tables around the dance floor to put on a disco afterwards, but
only three tables were taken, one of them ours, and one by a solo drunk
who barracked throughout. "Would
someone mind pouring that gentleman back into the bottle?" Essentially he was presenting a stand-up act
to an empty space. It
was impossible to work up any spontaneous laughter, and after the first
few jokes fell flat we clapped one, to which he replied, "Oh, don't
applaud for God's sake, intellectual nods will suffice" - which got
about the only laugh of the night. There
was no chance to talk to him, so I sent up a note afterwards inviting
him for a drink, but not surprisingly the reply was that he didn't want to
Soon after that my career in nonfiction took off dramatically, so I didn't pursue the Dr Who angle any further. But who knows what might have been?
Something similar happened in 1989, when I reviewed the
Glasgow premiere of Moontrap for the Herald. I wrote to the UK producer
asking if they had any plans for novelisation, and he replied, “Forget that – I
need a treatment for a sequel in six days, can you help?” Again Chris and others lent me books on
writing for the cinema, all of which began, “Forget your dreams – you’ll never
be asked to start your career with a $45 million SF movie,” and spent the rest
of the book telling you how to do a docu-drama about your local baseball team
for $250,000. But I found that the
format for a treatment was the same as for the story-scripts I was writing for Lance McLane, so Jim Campbell and I
brainstormed a story and I got it in on time. I heard nothing back, but Locus said a few months later that a sequel would be filmed, set on
Mars, which wasn’t ours. As far as I
know it never happened.
What writers have inspired you?
At one of the US Milford workshops apparently 20 SF writers were asked that, and the only name on every list was C.S. Forester. I’d be another because my first love before space was the sea, naturally enough when I grew up beside it, so other early influences were Percy F. Westerman, Arthur Ransome, Nicholas Montserrat…and I read a lot of nonfiction by Thor Heyerdahl, Joshua Slocum and other seafarers before I started on astronomy and space. In the next phase, Arthur C. Clarke, Patrick Moore, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis… and after that my reading broadened out a great deal.
How did the book projects (Man & the Stars, New Worlds for Old, Man & the Planets, Starfield) come about?
When I joined the
Scottish Branch in 1962, formal meetings were held at the
of Science & Technology (now Royal College ’s main
building) or at Glasgow University Observatory, with less formal
'discussion meetings' in the Geneva Room at Green's Playhouse, later renamed
the Apollo. ASTRA became independent in
1963 and gradually metamorphosed into a student society meeting in Glasgow
University Union, but for some reason, by 1966 it wasn't gaining any more student members. Oscar Schwiglhofer and I were worried about
what would happen when the present ones graduated. I felt that a major project for publication
was the answer, and in discussion with Ed Buckley, Archie Roy and others
I formulated 'The Interstellar Project', expanding the discussion meeting
format into a series intended for book publication. Strathclyde
The topic was 'The first phase of interstellar colonisation, out to 12 light-years'. That became Part 1 of "Man and the Stars" and we later extended it with a Part 2 on Contact with Other Intelligence. The main ideas for Part 1 were worked out by Ed Buckley and myself, with Ed as the artist, and the speakers were Dr. Archie Roy, as he then was; the late Prof. Terence Nonweiler and John Macvey; Andy Nimmo and John Braithwaite; Ed Buckley, Oscar Schwiglhofer, and John Bell of the Glasgow SF Circle. We first intended all of them to contribute guest chapters, but it proved impracticable. The big influence on Part 2 was Chris Boyce, who opened it with a guest chapter and originally was going to write the whole of it. Gavin Roberts had emerged by then as the second artist on the project, even while still at school. He co-illustrated all three books and did the cover for “Man and the Stars” and later for “Man and the Planets”.
The interstellar discussions wound up in the summer of 1973 for publication by Souvenir Press in 1974, and at the suggestion of Bill Ramsay of ASTRA and Gavin Roberts we went straight on to the Interplanetary Project, which generated the first draft of “Man and the Planets”. Ed Buckley, Terence Nonweiler, Archie Roy, John Macvey, Andy Nimmo, Chris Boyce and the late A.T. Lawton were the speakers; again they were supposed to contribute guest chapters, but only four of them did. Souvenir Press wanted a shorter book and I split it into two parts, but they didn’t go for that and "New Worlds for Old" was published by David & Charles in 1979, "Man and the Planets" by Ashgrove Press in 1983, both edited by Paul Barnett who’s now better known under his pen-name, John Grant.
In 1971-1984 I was SF critic of the Glasgow Herald, and when the 200th anniversary of the paper came up in 1986, Chris Boyce suggested to them that I run a short story competition, which proved so popular that it ran for six years. The judges in the first year were Chris, Archie Roy, Alasdair Gray and myself, with Angus McAllister, Veronica Colin and Bill Morris taking turns in later years. Chris also suggested the anthology project which became “Starfield: Science Fiction by Scottish Writers”, though it took till 1989 to get it into print with Orkney Press. The stars of the Starfield were the late Edwin Morgan and Naomi Mitchison, plus Alasdair Gray, all of whom supported the project from the outset. Then we had the established Scottish writers of SF and non-fiction - Chris Boyce, Donald Malcolm, Archie Roy, Angus McAllister and myself – and we had all the early judges, and winners and runners-up from the first three years of the competition. The dustjacket was by Sydney Jordan, introduction by Angus MacVicar, and design and typesetting by Dog & Bone, Glasgow (Chris Boyce, Angela Mullane, Donald Saunders and Alasdair Gray, so you’ll know the style.)
In collecting “Starfield”, you were Editor as opposed to merely writer. How would you compare the job of Editor for a project as opposed to solely being the writer?
Interesting point of view, that the editor is superior to the ‘mere’ writer! I’d been editor of the Marr College Magazine at school, and had to do a lot of editing to fit the guest chapters into the nonfiction books, so it wasn’t a new experience. I knew which story of Chris Boyce’s I wanted, and Archie Roy’s was written specially, so the only selections I had to make were among what was available from Naomi Mitchison, Alasdair Gray, Donald Malcolm, Gus McAllister, Edwin Morgan and myself – and that took care of itself as I worked out what order the other ones were going to appear in. I did it all in the bath one Sunday morning, writing the introductions in my head which would link one story to another. The only real problem came up just before publication. Edwin Morgan, who was out of the country at the time, had told me I could use any of his poems – but it turned out he had assigned all of his copyrights to his publisher, and they wanted the entire proceeds of the book assigned to them. They eventually agreed to accept a one-off payment which took up most of the advance, and I had to persuade the other contributors to agree to that – one of them was threatening legal action.
You’ve mentioned the late
writer Chris Boyce, one of the
contributors to “Starfield”. Do you have
memories of working with him? Glasgow
I first met Chris in 1967. I had just made my first professional sale to Amazing Stories, and Chris had already appeared three times in SF Impulse, twice with cover art by Keith Roberts. He was working then in the Technical Section of the Mitchell Library. I was in a singer's workshop called Folk Song Repertory at the time, and a librarian member called Willie Ross told me that Chris wanted to meet me. We hit it off from the outset and Chris quickly joined ASTRA, taking an active part in the early stages of the Interstellar Project. In 1970 and 1971 Chris gave us three highly original talks 'On the Interpreting of Extraterrestrial Cultures', which were printed in our magazine Spacereport and one was reprinted in our journal Asgard. When we decided to expand the Interstellar Project with the Extraterrestrial Contact discussions which became Part 2 of "Man and the Stars", the original plan was for Chris to write that section of the book. For a time, we were meeting at the ASTRA rooms in
on Saturday mornings for joint work sessions on it. But with mounting other commitments, including
his becoming engaged to Angela Mullane, in the end Chris wrote only the
introductory chapter to that section.
Meanwhile Chris and I were running the
Glasgow SF Circle, first at the Granville
Bar and then more formally at the Charing Cross Hotel, with a programme kept in
step and jointly announced with ASTRA's. In 1974 Chris won the Gollancz/Sunday Times SF
novel competition with "Catchworld". We found this out only ten days before the
award was to be given at the Eastercon in Newcastle,
and I organised a supporters' bus from ASTRA and the SF Circle, although I couldn't tell
anyone why they had to be there. "Catchworld" and "Man and the
Stars" were published almost simultaneously, and the Isobel Begg chat show
we appeared on together on STV was a highlight of that year. The Chris Boyce/Duncan Lunan double act
featured at a number of other events over the years, including a sales
conference at the launch of the IBM
PC, and a seminar at Glasgow University Dept. of Adult & Continuing
Education. In 1973 ASTRA began the
Interplanetary Project, again with Chris heavily involved, and the last chapter
of "Man and the Planets" is based on his talks on von Neumann probes
and on mind-machine interactions. Chris
took part in several National Children's Book Week programmes which we
organised, and in the 'SF Writers' Weekend' which we organised as part of
ASTRA's High Frontier exhibition, in 1979, at the Third Eye Centre and Glasgow
During the 1970's Chris was developing his model for simulating extraterrestrial encounter situations, test-flying them at meetings in the ASTRA rooms. The first public simulation was run at our 'High Frontier' exhibition, after Chris published "Extraterrestrial Encounter, a Personal Perspective", to which I contributed a guest chapter in turn. We had in mind that this would be an ongoing engagement, but I haven't yet found a publisher for "Search Among the Stars", the next one I had in mind. At the end of the 1980's Chris, Angela and Alasdair Gray formed Dog & Bone Publishing, which published Chris's mainstream thriller "Blooding Mister Naylor", as well as doing the layout and typesetting for "Starfield". The cover story was ‘The Rig’, which had been the first of Chris's to catch my attention in Impulse with the Keith Roberts cover; this time it was painted by Sydney Jordan, in two versions, and at the launch we made Chris a present of the first one.
More recently Chris was becoming actively involved in ASTRA again as his children reached their teens. He supported the discussion projects on Andy Paterson's space art and Chris O'Kane's Mars Project, and in 1998 launched one of his own to review "Extraterrestrial Encounters" after twenty years. The "ET Presence" discussions were based on highly original papers by Chris himself and he had begun writing the new book, asking Andy Nimmo and me to read and comment chapter by chapter. Unfortunately only the first chapter was finished. He was working on other projects with me and with other ASTRA members including Andy and Jamie McLean, and apparently his death was instantaneous - he keeled over in mid-sentence while talking to a colleague, and he’s still very much missed. I’m still a friend of the family and recently I’ve been privileged to attend the weddings of both his daughters,
Petra and Toni.
How did the
SF Glasgow Writers Circle come about?
Glasgow SF Circle
was a fan group meeting in pubs, though it had been through a formal phase with
monthly talks at the Charing Cross Hotel. Dr. Anne Karkalas of the Glasgow University
Extra-Mural Department, later Adult and Continuing Education, was one of the
prominent members. I’d stopped going
because it clashed with the Troon Folk Song Club, which I was running with the
late Dave Proffitt, and the Friends of Kilgore Trout had taken over the Glasgow
SF scene about 1977. Meantime I was
going to the UK Milford workshops started by James Blish, and after I ran the
first Glasgow Herald SF short story
competition, Anne Karkalas asked me to run a creative writing class at the
Department, which did a mailshot to competition entrants living within the
Central Belt. It went well enough that
they offered me a second term, to which the class agreed as long as it could
focus on workshops, and at the end of that they decided to keep going, as the
Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle.
I based the format partly on the
workshop’s rules, and on what I’d learned there from John Brunner, Chris
Priest, Rob Holdstock, Richard Cowper, Ken Bulmer and the other regulars. But I also drew on a weekend seminar which the
late Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger ran at the Glasgow Folk Centre in 1966, and
on experience in Folk Song Repertory, a singers’ workshop which was set up
afterwards. One of the most useful
things which MacColl and Seeger did was a workshop on workshops, exploring what
constructive criticism is and how to prevent ego-trips, cliques and other
problems to which workshops can be subject. Many of those principles apply just as
forcefully to creative writing as to live performance; but if you think having
a story critted in a group session is harrowing, try giving a performance to an
imaginary audience while a bunch of fellow-singers are taking notes.
Michael Cobley and Elsie Donald were among the original members; Veronica Colin joined for the second term and later ran the group for several years. There was some disagreement about what the true start date was, but Barry Condon settled the matter by throwing a 21st anniversary party in October 2007.
After 1986 the competition went on for five more years, followed each time by the writing class, and each year more of them joined the Circle – including Hal Duncan, Gary Gibson and Neil Williamson, who coordinates it now.
You're well known for helping aspiring writers. What motivates you to do so?
Beyond the initial motivation that I was getting paid for it, I suppose the main thing now is that I’m passing on the help I had from other writers, Chris Boyce, John Brunner and the rest. When “Man and the Stars” was coming out, I wrote to Carl Sagan asking for permission to quote him and he replied, ‘Thank you for asking, please feel free to do so and take this permission as indefinite’ – and Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov replied in virtually the same words. No big deal for them, I suppose, but it meant a lot to me at the time.
How much influence can a writing mentor have upon their mentee before the latter simply becomes a puppet of the former?
As I said at Barry’s party, what the individuals and the group have achieved is ultimately down to their own talents – I’m sure many of them would have made it on their own. The aim is to help one another to achieve commercial publication, and we’ve created an environment which enabled many of those talents to flower. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea – the established
writers that I’ve mentioned didn’t fancy it, or didn’t like it if they tried it
– but when pretty well everyone who’s stuck with the group has achieved
publication in one form or another, at least we’re not doing any harm to those
who do enjoy it. In the days when I ran
folk clubs, very few of the new singers I encouraged followed me into
unaccompanied traditional singing, and in the SF Writers’ Circle, few if any
have followed me into my kind of hard SF, so whatever else I am, I’m not a puppet-master.
GSFWC is twenty-four years old this year. In between, it's helped launch the careers of countless writers. Did you envisage it lasting this long or being so successful?
I didn’t consciously think it would last this long; but then again, there was nothing built into it which would give a ‘best before’ date. There are always going to be more people wanting to write, so as long as they can find us, the group can go on for ever.
What happened in the Epsilon Boötis affair?
That’s a big change in topic – but then, it was a big change of direction in my writing life. One of the early participants in the “Man and the Stars” discussions was the late John Macvey, author of “Journey to Alpha Centauri” and a string of later books. He drew attention to the suggestion by Prof. Ron Bracewell, of
, that a probe
from another civilisation had tried to contact us, using long-delayed
radio 'echoes' (LDE's), first reported in the 1920's. Stanford
Actually, the 'echoes' were much too powerful to be simple reflections of signals from Earth. Experimenters studying round-the-world propagation of radio waves found their outgoing pulses were being returned to them with a delay of three seconds, as if they were being amplified and returned by something at the distance of the Moon - but definitely not the Moon itself. In later experiments the delay times began to vary upwards from three seconds, in increasingly complicated sequences, but with no variation in intensity - still indicating a single source amplifying and returning the pulses.
Prof. Bracewell suggested in 1960 that the 'echoes' might have been rebroadcast by an unmanned probe from another civilisation, trying to attract our attention, and in 1972 I worked out a 'translation' of the 1920's echo patterns. The variations of delay times appeared random; but Prof. Bracewell himself had suggested the first signal from such a probe might be a star map, and the stars are spaced at random in the sky. I tried plotting the delay times against the order in which the echoes were received, and at only the second attempt I found what looked like a star map - in which it appeared that the probe had come from the double star Epsilon Boötis, in the constellation Boötes, the Herdsman. Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation, seemed to be out of place in the map; but on checking, was shown at its place about 13,000 years ago. I was on the train from
Glasgow to Troon when I roughed out the graph
and recognised what it appeared to be: it was as fast as, “That looks more like
an intelligent signal, in fact it looks familiar, and I know what that is.” That was
the moment when my writing career swung from fiction to nonfiction.
Other parts of the supposed message seemed to give the scale of their planetary system, orbiting Epsilon Boötis A, and seemed at first to make sense. Epsilon Boötis A is an orange giant star, and the translation indicated that the probe makers had evolved on its second planet, emigrating later to the sixth when their sun began to expand. But there was a problem: the companion star (Epsilon B) was bright blue, apparently a short-lived sun of spectral type A2. The distance given for the star in most reference books was too low, and at the true distance of 203 light-years, Epsilon B really was an A2 star and the orange giant Epsilon A had been an AO, like Sirius - too massive and with too high a radiation output to sustain habitable planets, too short-lived for life to have evolved there. At the same time, more accurate 1920's records were located, and most of the 'star map' translations were ruled out - not the 'Epsilon Boötis' one, but it too had to be treated as suspect. I withdrew the entire translation, but now it seems I may have gone too far.
Dropping it didn't rule out the space probe suggested by Prof. Bracewell (though he later abandoned the idea). James Strong of the British Interplanetary Society suggested that the probe could be located in either the 'Lagrange 4' or 'L5' point, also called 'Trojan' or 'Equilateral' points, equidistant from the Earth and Moon. The dates and times of the 1920's LDE's showed that the L5 point was at least one source of the effect. Anthony Lawton of the
BIS suggested that in ideal conditions the Trojan
points could form temporary, stable ionospheres of their own which would
generate LDE's; it was reported that I accepted that, but scientists I consulted
replied that such clouds would be disrupted by currents in the Earth's magnetosphere,
or at other times of the month by the Solar Wind, the constant outflow of
charged particles from the Sun. In any
case, as the Lagrange points have no gravitational fields of their own, a
cloud of charged particles would be scattered by their mutual electrostatic
repulsion - unless there was a powerful magnetic or electrostatic field to hold
them in place. If this was produced by
a spacecraft, I suggested, Lawton
might have hit upon the method by which the Bracewell probe generated LDE's -
Many books and articles said that
Lawton conducted an active radio search for
LDE's, but in reality he stopped after getting an initial 'reply', on the grounds
that further transmissions "would constitute a biased experiment". Optical searches of the Lagrange points
failed to find anything as large as the Skylab space station, or, in a later
search, as large as the Pioneer 10 space probe. Meanwhile, however, Epsilon Boötis just would
not lie down.
There are several real or suggested Zodiacal star maps, laid out on the ground, which centre on Boötes. That's just because the constellation lies near the pole of the Ecliptic, perpendicular to the Earth's orbital plane around the sun, so any Zodiacal map will be centred near it. But also, we are in Boötes as viewed from Tau Ceti, one of the nearest stars like our Sun, and at relativistic speeds, Epsilon Boötis would be a prime navigational reference on the journey here. And there was an even stranger development.
After "Man and the Stars" came out, I was contacted by Alan Evans, who was then a Captain in British Military Intelligence. He liked the analysis I'd made of Erich von Däniken’s claims, where I concluded that Earth had not been visited more than four times, at most. Alan suggested we jointly attempt something still more systematic: if the Earth had ever been visited, our aim would be to find proof. He stressed that his was purely a personal interest, which had to remain confidential, but as he's since left the Army that no longer applies.
We tightened up my approach into four categories of possible evidence. Category A would be our objective, an artefact of unquestionably extraterrestrial origin. Category B would be optical or electromagnetic anomalies pinpointing such an object (like the Tycho monolith in 2001); Category D would be the 'von Däniken material' of legends, drawings etc. which were no use except in suggesting areas to search for other types of evidence. But Alan pressed me to include a new category, C, which would be anomalous astronomical alignments in man-made structures - anomalous because they revealed knowledge which the builders should not have had. For example, on high-resolution photographs of
Stonehenge, he had identified
markings which seemed to indicate galactic
I wasn't impressed at first. Having studied megalithic astronomy under Archie Roy, I’d seen nothing unusual; there was no correlation even with Category D; and when I did the calculations, the markings Alan had found didn't seem to be galactic. At the time when he put this to me, circa 1975, it was supposed that Stonehenge I was built in 1800 BC, near the end of the Stone Age in Britain (not many people realise that Stonehenge was one of the last megaliths), with Stonehenge
the inner circle, still later in the Bronze Age. Soon afterwards, however, Archie Roy himself
published an article from which we learned that the radiocarbon dating scale
had been revised, pushing Stonehenge I back from 1800 BC to 2700 BC. Further revision made it c.2840 BC, and that
radically changed the whole position.
To cut to the chase, the photographs show markings in
Stonehenge 1 which are lined up with the rising point of
the Galactic Centre, and the intersection of the Galactic Equator with the
Ecliptic – and you can’t determine galactic coordinates without a
radiotelescope. The declination of the
North Galactic Pole was equal to the latitude of Stonehenge,
so when the Galactic Centre rose, the Galactic Equator coincided with the
horizon, the Galactic Pole was overhead, and all the altitudes and azimuths
measured from the Pole-to-Centre meridian were equal to galactic coordinates. It looks as if Stonehenge
1 was built round something, and if that something was a starship, or a lander
from one, its attitude control platform would be lined up with the sky once a
But that’s not the end of it. Alan has an amazing intuitive grasp of spatial relationships, and he’s spotted that the diagonal across two of the lunar stones in
Stonehenge 1 is an Ecliptic
meridian, activated once a day. It meets
the equator at the prime meridian of the great pyramids, built shortly after Stonehenge 1, and when we checked, the same two galactic
alignments are built into the Step Pyramid and the Great Pyramid, the first and
the last of them. Alan just looks at a
globe or a site plan and sees these relationships, I take pages of calculations
to check them – but then you can go to a planetarium and see them for yourself.
We verified the galactic and ecliptic
ones at the planetarium in Jewel and , twice, then John
Braithwaite and I verified them at Armagh Planetarium (more about John below). We also verified something else extraordinary.
Because you can’t see the Galactic Pole
etc, I looked for a star which could be an optical marker for it, and it turned
out that c.2800 BC that star was Epsilon Boötis. Esk
In 1996 I organised an event at the Edinburgh Science Festival called ‘Heresies in Archaeoastronomy’, looking at ideas so controversial that even archaeoastronomers won’t willingly discuss them. By then I was in touch with Robert Bauval, the author of “The Orion Mystery”. I took him to the planetarium at
to see what we had, and when I showed him the galactic alignment at Glasgow
Nautical College Stonehenge I, he said, “It’s the same at Giza at the First Time, we just didn’t know
what it meant.”
The First Time of ancient
Egypt, according to Graham Hancock
and Robert, was c.10,500 BC, coinciding with the apparent date of the LDE
‘Boötes map’. So we had the planetarium
projector reset to Giza
at the time of the Pyramids, verified the alignments of “The Orion Mystery”,
and then reset the date to the First Time. Sure enough, the Galactic Pole went through
the zenith and the Milky Way lined up with the Horizon, just as at Stonehenge 1 eight thousand years later. So on impulse we went back to Stonehenge, which was just on the edge of the ice sheets
then, and let the sky wheel on through the day – and Epsilon Boötis went
through the zenith. 8000 years later,
when they built Stonehenge 1, it was back there.
This isn’t proof that Earth has been visited. If Category A evidence stands for ‘artefact’, Category B for ‘beacon’ and Category D for ‘Däniken’, Category C stands for ‘circumstantial’. But we aren’t talking about one astonishing coincidence here, we’re talking about one astonishing coincidence piled upon another, over and over again, until the only sensible conclusion is that all this has been very carefully planned to signpost the fact that we have indeed been visited, at least once, maybe twice or more. And apparently Epsilon Boötis had some major significance to whoever came here.
So, you believe strongly in the possibility of life on other planets?
Obviously yes, though not everyone agrees. For instance Robert Bauval’s co-author on his subsequent books, Graham Hancock, was with us at the
and he was totally unconvinced,
because he doesn’t believe in extraterrestrials at all. He believes there was a civilisation which
persisted on Earth for over 8000 years without leaving any major traces, apart
from the Sphinx, but he can’t explain how they would determine galactic
coordinates or why they would need them. Nautical College
What's the story with the Green Children of Woolpit?
That was an entirely different enquiry, to begin with. I first came across it when I was a student. In The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1651), Part 2 Mem.3, 'A Digression of the Air', includes all he knows about astronomy. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo had proved the planets were actual worlds, moving in ellipses, not solid crystal shells, so space travel might be possible - "to take wings and fly up... command the spheres and heavens, and see what is done amongst them." And if we can go to them, "Then (I say) the Earth, [Mars, and Venus] be planets alike, inhabited alike, moved about [the Sun] alike, and it may be that those two green children which Nubrigensis speaks of in his time, that fell from heaven, came from thence..."
The story is told by William of Newburgh (Nubrigensis) in his Historia Rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs) in 1195-98. He was sceptical about wonderful events, and he was uneasy about this one, but he interviewed so many witnesses, witnesses of such quality that they convinced him. During the reign of king Stephen, he says, at an earthwork near Woolpit village in
( East Anglia),
seven miles east of Bury St. Edmunds, at harvest time, "there emerged two
children, a male and a female, green of the entire body and dressed in
clothing of extraordinary colour and unknown material." They were given no food at first, but even
near death they wouldn't consider any food which was offered. They were saved eventually by bean plants,
which happened to be just the same colour they were; but even then, they
looked first for nourishment in the stalks. After that, they were weaned on to
bread and by degrees to a full normal diet: their green colour faded and they
became normal themselves.
Ralph, sixth abbot of Coggeshall monastery in
Essex, 25 miles south of Woolpit, tells the same story in
his Chronicon Anglicanum. There's no copying; the few words they share
seem significant - and Ralph got the story from the family with whom the
formerly green girl was living as an adult. One of the few differences is that he implies
the event was about twenty years later, in the reign of Henry II. Not only was the children’s clothing
unfamiliar, but they spoke an unknown language – doubly strange when Woolpit
was a market town on the major pilgrim route in England, at the time. When they had lost the green colour and
learned “our manner of speaking… it seemed to the wise that they might be
christened, and even that was done” (note the emphasis). But when they were asked about their origin,
they described life in a land of permanent twilight, separated by a very broad
river from a country of permanent sunlight. Burton
knew such conditions couldn’t be found anywhere on Earth. It sounds like an earthlike world, with a
trapped rotation, keeping one face to its sun as the Moon does to us.
In 1992 I was covering a conference at the British National Space Centre for the Herald, and I took the bus up to
Anglia to get some local colour for an
article about the green children. Beforehand, I had worked out a list of
questions with Bill Ramsay, a past President of ASTRA and a history graduate. People in Woolpit were as helpful as they
could be, but they kept saying, “You’d have to go to the County Records Office
for that.” So I went to Bury St.
Edmunds, joined the County Archive Research Network, and five hours later,
exhausted, starving and dehydrated, I reeled out with the conviction that I was
on to a best seller. The answers to the
questions were there, and the deeper I went into it from then on, the more
fascinating the story became.
Cutting to the chase, again, this incident was the tip of a much bigger iceberg, one of a number at sites around
Great Britain over roughly 150
years. The date apparently was 1173. It or something like it was expected: Henry II
had annexed the village from Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, then the major shrine in England,
thirteen years earlier. His excuse was
that he had a poor clerk who needed the income of ten pounds a year, but he put
his Vice-Chancellor, about the richest man in England, in personal charge. When the children appeared he broke off from
the biggest war of his reign, rushed back to East Anglia for four days, and put
300 crack troops into Woolpit which had only 60 people.
The formerly green boy died, but the girl grew up and married – and I’ve discovered that apparently she was Agnes, the wife of Richard Barre, one of Henry II’s senior ambassadors, which rather puts paid to the ‘runaways from some primitive tribe’ class of explanations. Her first, illegitimate child may have been fathered by Henry himself. I’ve traced her descendants to the present – one of them was deputy head of the House of Lords under Margaret Thatcher, and he thinks it’s a hoot. “I knew my ancestors were colourful, but not that colourful.” It looks as if the children grew up in a human colony on a planet with a trapped rotation and were returned to Earth in a matter-transmitter accident, one of a number which happened while the Earth’s magnetic field was disturbed by the most violent solar activity since the Bronze Age. Putting it all together, though I find it hard to believe what I’m looking at, it’s mass abductions, for extraterrestrial research purposes, with the knowledge if not the connivance of at least some of the terrestrial authorities. It’s The X-Files in the twelfth century!
Among aspects I haven’t yet published, is that since my articles on all this in Analog in the late 1980s, the three investigations have converged. I’ve found the link between the Green Children and the other two, so Epsilon Boötis,
and the Pyramids, and the Green Children are all facets of the same enquiry. So do I believe in life on other worlds? Definitely.
And do you believe in UFOs?
That depends what you mean by ‘belief’. Obviously people see things in the sky they can’t explain – in “Man and the Stars” I said, “Anyone who isn’t fooled at least once a year by Venus, at least for a moment, isn’t watching the sky enough to see spaceships.” I’ve seen quite a number of things I couldn’t explain at the time, but I’ve always found out eventually what they were. I do a talk called ‘The Truth about UFOs – Some of Them’ which is all about cases which have been explained. It seriously annoys true believers.
What a lot of people find hard to get on with, given what I do believe intellectually about past Contact, is that I don’t believe there’s anyone else here now – I haven’t seen any plausible sign that we’re currently in any kind of Contact situation. Over the last fifty years the space policies of governments throughout the developed world, including the Obama one right now, just aren’t compatible with the scenario that we’re being visited.
What about ghosts then?
[To the reader] Michael’s asking that because I wrote up the three experiences of that kind which I’ve had, for his fiancée’s university thesis.
[Michael's note from 2016: Reader, I married her!]
Again we’re into shades of meaning of the word ‘belief’. I’m an atheist – not an agnostic: I firmly believe, for reasons which seem to me to be compelling, that there is no God. Like my belief in extraterrestrial and non-belief in UFO’s as spaceships, that’s an intellectual belief, not a matter of faith.
It’s embarrassing for an atheist to be haunted, but honesty compels me to admit that I have been, three times. Once in 1968-69, when I shared a house in Somerset with John Braithwaite and Charlie Muir, with whom I used to run folk song clubs; again over a series of drives through Glencoe in the 1970s; and between 1975 and 1982, when I lived in an 18th century house in Irvine. Put me on a lie detector and ask me to deny those events, and you’ll get a ‘false’ reading. That’s not intellectual belief, it’s a conviction based on experience.
That said, I didn’t feel that I was dealing with conscious entities – just a reaction of a responsive mind to some kind of recording from the past, like Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tapes. There were just two episodes in
didn’t fit that pattern, and they were really strange, a lot stranger than your
‘normal’ ghost story.
You’ve mentioned John Braithwaite several times. How did your working partnership with John come about?
In 1964 I was in collision with a double-decker bus while driving a Lambretta to a late-night Chris Barber concert at the Edinburgh Festival. A former girlfriend helped me put together the guest list for the party when I got compensation, and she suggested the late David Godwin, poet and debater, who agreed to come if he could bring two friends. One was the sculptor Ray Thomson and the other was John Braithwaite, who became engaged to her. We next met at my birthday party, where he said, “I noticed that you have a collection of Victorian astronomy books, but you don’t have Herschel’s Outlines. I thought you might like this mint 7th edition with your University’s crest on it” – a pretty good way of getting my attention! As with Chris Boyce, we became big friends and after I graduated, I spent the winter of 1968-69 in
Somerset with John and
others, one of the most intense creative periods of my life. That was when I formulated the Politics of
Survival, which has been the core of most of my work since.
John gave up his conventional business career in 1978 to launch what’s now Braithwaite Telescopes, the only telescope maker in
Scotland. He was Technical Supervisor when I was Manager
of the Glasgow Parks Astronomy project, building the first astronomically
aligned stone circle for 3000 years. He
was a consultant to the team at Strathclyde University which made the first
breakthrough in adaptive optics, and now he’s made an equally big one in 3-D
projection without glasses. The
hand-held game versions are also on the market in the Far
East, the arcade game versions are rolling out and the domestic TV
one will be on sale very shortly. We’ve
stayed friends through all this and he’s now helping me with a project to start
an observatory in the Falkland Islands – more
on that below.
[Michael's notes from 2016: Sadly, John left us, far too soon, in 2012. My obit can be found here.]
How did the
Sighthill Stone Circle come about?
In the late 1970s, the SNP was making big headway in
Scotland with the ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’
campaign (John had a lot to do with it). The Labour government of the day set up the
Jobs Creation Scheme, making it as difficult as possible to get the money so
they could say we’d been offered it and turned it down. All the jobs ‘created’ had to be temporary,
non-profit, non-unionised, etc.. They
offered £4 million to Glasgow,
forgetting that the city has more parkland per head of population than any
other city in Europe, and jobs in parks and
gardens met the guidelines. That said,
they couldn’t spend it all in one shop, and another rule required there to be
additional special projects. For that
they brought in a whiz-kid from Northern
Ireland called Ken Naylor, who coined lots
of great ideas including astronomy. He
knew nothing about it, so he held a schools competition in which the winning
entry was to build a copy in modern materials of Stonehenge
or Callanish, in one of the city’s parks.
Ken asked Archie Roy to head the project, and he said no, but suggested me. The first thing I had to do was convince the Parks Dept and the Manpower Services Commission that a simple copy of an ancient site wouldn’t work. The latitude would be wrong, the tilt of the Earth’s axis has altered by half a degree, and each of them is integrated with the skyline at its location. For
in the 20th century, I would have to design a new monument according
to the ancient principles – which I knew, having studied archaeoastronomy under
Archie Roy back in the 60s. Having won
that battle, I then convinced them to drop the modern materials and build it in
stone, dedicating it to Prof. Alexander Thom, Dr. Archie Thom, Archie Roy and
Dr. Euan Mackie, all pioneers in the field and strongly linked to . Out of 18 sites I was offered, I chose the new
Glasgow University overlooking the M8 motorway, due
north of the city centre. Sighthill Park
Then the fun really started. John Braithwaite joined me as Technical Supervisor, Gavin Roberts as Art and Photographic Supervisor, and the late David Proffitt, RN, gave us a lot of help as an explosives expert and with getting a Royal Navy helicopter to complete the circle. We were in every quarry in the west of Scotland and eventually found the stones we wanted at the Back-of-the-Hill Quarry in Kilsyth; we got a Navy Sea King to fly in the solar, star and central stones, the local schools got the day off and the park was ringed by thousands of cheering children, with the Thoms and Euan Mackie right in the midst of it.
For what possible reasons did the Thatcher government of the late 70's halt work on the Sighthill circle? And if they were purely political, do you detect the same signs of resistance with the government of the 21st century?
In the late 1970s the unemployment figures had passed one million and the slogan of her campaign had been ‘Labour isn’t working’, with the famous poster of a dole queue. Just six days after the election, our shop steward came in to tell me that she had just announced in the House of Commons that she would end unemployment by the end of 1980, so the Jobs Creation programme would wind up at the end of 1979 “and there will be no more nonsense like the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project”. I don’t know why we were singled out, though she was against spending on astronomy and space in general. (The quote isn’t in Hansard, but That Was the Week That Was showed how often speeches are edited before they appear there.) The following day, the Manpower Services Commission Liaison Officer came in to tell me that we could go on till the end of the year with the big exhibition we were creating, and our work in schools, but all our construction work was to stop, including the circle. (We were going to create a giant sundial on the Clyde Walkway, for instance.)
The circle was never finished, and there are four unused stones under a tree in the park to this day. It was finally landscaped into the Park in 1982, when it was to be photographed on an aerial archaeology flight which I coordinated and navigated, but I wasn’t there to supervise and the plans were misread, so the stones are now half buried and look a lot less spectacular. There’s nothing to tell you who built it, whom it’s dedicated to or how it works, and I’m told local children are afraid of it, which is really sad.
Of course, unemployment was trebled instead of being eliminated. The Astronomy Project was fully manned with ten people, several of them disabled and who never got a proper job again. Two years later when the government was forced to bring back a version called the Community Programme, the application forms for funding were quite cynically the old ones for the Special Temporary Employment Programme, with a new front page.
What’s happening now? There was a recent presentation there for the Summer Solstice, wasn't there?
ASTRA is currently meeting in
on two Mondays a month, one of which fell on the summer solstice this year. We’ve had a tradition for many years of going
up to the circle for midsummer sunset, so I was to give a lecture first. I got married in April and Linda decided to
put out a press release about the talk and visit, which drew about 100 people
for the talk and about 50 for the sunset. I have a detailed new breakdown of costs to
complete and renovate the circle, from Land and Environment Services, and I
have a possible sponsor for the identifying plaque. I haven’t met any political opposition to the
proposal, though the Chairman of the local housing association is against it
because he wants to build on it. There’s
a long tradition of developers trying to build on Glasgow’s parks and I don’t think he has much
What is holding me back, is that I may not be around to see renovation through. Linda has family in the
Islands, including a daughter she hasn’t seen in twenty years and
a grand-daughter she’s never seen. While
on honeymoon in Wales we visited my old friend Jay Tate, at the Spaceguard
Observatory in Powys, from whom we learned that the Falkland Islands
Development Corporation are interested in having an observatory there. Linda has started a new organisation called
Astronomers of the Future, for beginners, but we might well get to do the
feasibility study for the Observatory, maybe even set it up and run it.
What's your involvement with folk music?
When I went up to University in 1963, Sandy Glover, who was my predecessor when I first became ASTRA President, introduced me to the Glasgow Folk Centre. I quickly saw past the commercial favourites of the day and became fascinated by the traditional music and the contemporary singer-songwriters who were continuing it. My sister is now married to Dave Goulder, who was one of the big names then. I ran folk clubs in Ayrshire for 16 years, many of them with Charlie Muir and later David Proffitt. Because I did so many opening spots I built up a repertoire of over 300 songs, to avoid repeating any of them too often, and apparently that’s unusually large. I found that out when I was ‘collected’ by a German folklorist who was researching the survival of the ballads.
How did the TMSA come about then?
Although I’m a founder member I can’t claim any credit for that. I was at the first folk festival in
1966, in Blairgowrie, and I was in the hall voting ‘yes’ to set up the Traditional
Music and Song Association.
My only real claim to folk fame stems from the following year at Blairgowrie, when I asked a very shy teenager from Shetland to play at my Irvine Club before he went home, for a whole £5 which he tried to refuse, he was so nervous. It was his first paid gig and his biography reproduces the poster my sister drew for the door, ‘Introducing Aly Bain’.
How does it feel to be one of the more requested Burns Supper speakers around?
It was fun while it lasted. I had a lot of invitations in the 1970s when I was running the Troon Folk Song Club, but mainly as a singer, though I gave the Immortal Memory in Sanquhar on the Burns Heritage Trail, which is an honour for any Scottish writer. In the 1990s I had a standing invitation to give the Address to the Haggis at an annual Burns Supper on Loch Lomond-side. I’ve only had four invitations in recent years, two of them to sing and to read Tam o’Shanter at the Glasgow Housing Association’s bashes in the Royal Concert Hall. They changed the format this year, so it may not happen again.
Do you suffer from writer's block?
I think it was Gordon Dickson who once infuriated a seminar by saying ‘I had one once, for ten minutes on a Friday’, but I’m afraid I’m the same. Andy Nimmo, who has a diploma in psychology, reckons I might get seriously disturbed if I was ever prevented from creative work.
What advice would you give to those interested in writing who are reading this?
I can’t beat Heinlein’s advice: start to write, because the world is full of people who’ll tell you about the great book they could write. Finish what you start, because it’s full of first chapters in drawers, given up when people found it was too much like hard work. And market what you finish – most writers give up after the first couple of rejections. Alistair MacLean had nearly 60 rejections for his first novel, HMS Ulysses, and Compton MacKenzie had more than 60 for Whisky Galore. It took me 18 years to find a buyer for my novella In the
Arctic, Out of Time, and when Gardner Dozois
published it in Isaac Asimov’s SF
Magazine it got nine Nebula nominations. One more would have put it on the final ballot,
so I was right not to stop believing in it. I feel that way about the Green Children book
at the moment: it’s hard to sell because it combines speculation with serious
historical research, but I think it will go well when it does find a
[Michael's note from 2016: Green Children, as long term readers of this blog might recall, was published in 2012, and has done fairly well since!]
Space programs are notoriously underfunded, especially in comparison to military spending. What level of funding do you think is required for a viable, progressive space program?
How long is a piece of string? My argument in the Politics of Survival is that we need space development for long-term solutions to our problems on Earth, so it should be at the core of economical planning, not an add-on the way it is at present.
Considering the current lack of wide-scale interest and support for space exploration, on both a public and governmental level, do you realistically believe we will return to the moon or send a manned mission to Mars in the next 25-50 years?
In Jeff Hawke, 1959, Sydney Jordan drew a plaque on the Moon showing the date of the Moon landing as
4th, 1969. Interviewed on the Apollo 11 night, he said
he’d set it ten years ahead, and assumed that the Americans would go for July 4th,
but encounter a delay and have to wait a month for the next launch window.
In Lance McLane, in 1984 he predicted that the first manned mission to Mars would be a landing on Phobos in 2033. Before the Obama-led hiatus NASA was going for 2031, but if it causes them to miss one Earth-Mars opposition,
Sydney will be right again.
Who's your all-time favourite folk singer?
That’s like asking ‘Who’s your favourite SF writer?’ – so many different styles and subjects to choose from.
*End of interview*