Just Visiting

Richard Bell's Wild West Yorkshire Nature Diary, Monday, 26th July 2010, page 2 of 2

BARBARA'S MUM is doing well in hospital. Visiting her this week has brought back memories of my two week spell in Pinderfields, aged 13 or 14, after I broke my leg coming home in the snow from a party at a neighbour's house on Boxing Day.

SantaComing around from the anaesthetic, I felt as if the world had turned around. I couldn't work out which side of Ward G I now found myself on. To add to the feeling of surrealist disorientation, a magician was performing at the opposite end of the ward.

As I struggled to engage with reality again, Santa Claus appeared at my bedside and presented me with a copy of Biggles and the Black Mask by Captain W E Johns.

'Do you read Biggles?' he asked jovially.

'Ugh, no.', I answered ungratefully.

It's a shame it wasn't a copy of The Camels are Coming, the rarest and most valuable of the Biggles novels! Biggles, as you may know, was a fictional air ace.

I read the novel but I enjoyed other books I read during my time out on Ward G more. At home I never settled down to reading for pleasure partly because of the constant conveyor belt of homework, depositing dribs and drabs of unconnected reading in front of me. We were still in the Christmas holidays, so there was a break in the supply of homework, and, there in the ward, I was also removed from the continual boyish creativity that filled my spare time; printing little magazines, writing comic strip versions of films I'd seen, building models and scripting movies (which had to fit into a 5 minute standard 8 cine format, although we usually fitted two stories on a reel).

Being at school meant being part of a group who had me pigeon-holed as a character already, so life with the lads in Ward G gave me a chance – my only chance until I spent a week as a volunteer warden at the Osprey Camp five years later – to make fresh relationships with a different group of contemporaries. Wonder how the lad with one leg got on? I think his name was Steve.

Weird Tales

But, coming back to reading, there was a trolley that came around the wards every day and I was able to use my pocket money to buy the science fiction comics that were popular at that time. I never cared for superheroes; I enjoyed the variety of stories in American comics such as Weird Tales, which included stories with a Gothic atmosphere – I think there was one about a phantom hound – of space and strange events in everyday life. They reflected the popularity of television series such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. One comic, a slimmer, larger format publication on matt paper in the flat colours that comics were printed in at the time, was based on Boris Karloff's Thriller television series. But I remember I preferred the black and white Weird Tales and another similar publication, whose name I forget.

The one story I remember from the Thriller comic was a morality tale of a gifted mimic and confidence trickster, who came into town and started cashing in on the reputation of various celebrities – a racing driver or a boxer for example – but who was then cursed to relive the worst moment of three of the characters he'd impersonated.

After experiencing a near fatal crash and brutal knockout (or something of the sort) as bad luck would have it, he heard that the bullfighter he'd impersonated had been killed in the arena that day, with fatal consequences for him, when he relived the event.

Jonathan Miller once said that he disliked science fiction because its main message always seemed to be 'Wouldn't it be funny if . . .'.

That of course was its great appeal to me while stuck in hospital enjoying a break from the relentless round of school work. Every story you started presented a fresh environment, some new philosophical challenge to your thinking but put across in a reader-friendly way. A library trolley still plies the wards and during my stay there I read a collection of American science fiction and the images in those short stories have stuck in my mind more than the Weird Tales.

geeseThere was a pebble that was so smooth it could hypnotise you when you started stroking it, an ant – indeed a whole colony – that could perform tricks, such as doing a handstandant, a scheme to produce a flurry of snow in summer in the middle of the Nevada desert for a retired metrologist, a house that, because of a design fault by an ambitious architect, was so dimensionally unstable that you could wake in the morning and discover the house had moved to another location quarter of a mile away and a cautionary tale about the effects of manning a hide in the top of a fir tree and taking on the task of counting migrating geese by recording the numbers that pass in front of the moon as you observe it with a powerful telescope.

'Funny', as Miller says, but they put lingering magical icons and fresh ways of thinking into your head.Woody

Oh, and finally, the film shows that were a feature of evenings on the ward included a black and white print of John Wayne's The Searchers and my first introduction to Woody Woodpecker. Yes, I know he looks more like Foghorn Leghorn in my picture, but I'm drawing from memory.