Cover image for The twinkling of an eye, or, My life as an Englishman
The twinkling of an eye, or, My life as an Englishman
Aldiss, Brian W. (Brian Wilson), 1925-
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
484 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Little, Brown, and Co., 1998.

Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR6051.L3 Z478 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



All my past is accepted.
Science fiction's most eloquent creator of visions of tomorrow, Brian Aldiss, spins out his most fascinating story yet: his own.
Born in 1925, Aldiss is representative of the unique generation that reached adolescence in the era of World War II. Growing up in the rural hells of Norfolk and Devon, the son of a department store owner, he was formed and altered by wartime, serving three years in Burma and Asia with the Forgotten Army. Intrigued by science fiction and the near-apocalyptic imagery of the London Blitz, Aldiss became intoxicated by the beautiful lands, tropical climate, and horrific brutality he discovered in Burma and Sumatra, an enchanted zone that later provided the catalyst for much of his work.
Poignantly and passionately, Aldiss recalls the camaraderie of the army and the sobriety of postwar England; bookselling in Oxford; marital breakdown and financial impoverishment; life as a struggling novelist and literary editor; his seminal role in the science fiction's New Wave in the 1960s; and his friendships with Kingsley Amis, J.G. Ballard, Doris Lessing, and Michael Moorcock, among others.
Versatile, prolific, and outspoken, Aldiss writes revealingly on many issues and experiences, from literary inspiration to childhood illness, from mental breakdown to the critical attitudes toward science fiction.
For most of his life, Brian Aldiss has concerned himself with re-creating our present. In this moving, candid, and compelling autobiography, he reflects on a future that, in the twinkling of an eye, has become the past.

Author Notes

Brian W. Aldiss was born in Dereham, United Kingdom on August 18, 1925. In 1943, he joined the Royal Signals regiment, and saw action in Burma. After World War II, he worked as a bookseller at Oxford University. His first book, The Brightfount Diaries, was published in 1955. His first science fiction novel, Non-Stop (Starship in the United States), was published in 1958. He wrote more than 80 books including Hothouse, Greybeard, The Helliconia Trilogy, The Squire Quartet, Frankenstein Unbound, The Malacia Tapestry, Walcot, and Mortal Morning. His short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long was the basis for the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. He has received numerous awards for his work including two Hugo Awards, the Nebula Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and an OBE for services to literature.

He was also an anthologist and an artist. He was the editor of 40 anthologies including Introducing SF, The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, Space Opera, Space Odysseys, Galactic Empires, Evil Earths, and Perilous Planets. He was an abstract artist and his first solo exhibition, The Other Hemisphere, was held in Oxford in August-September 2010. He died on August 19, 2017 at the age of 92.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

The distinguished British science fiction author and critic joins the ranks of sf autobiographers. Born to an affluent merchant family, Aldiss survived declining family fortunes during the Depression, service as a radio operator in Burma during World War II, a hardscrabble education at Oxford, and the vagaries of the emergence of British sf from the late 1940s on. He says a great deal, some of it provocative and unusual, about having been an Englishman of his time, though less about his sf work, particularly his magisterial criticism, than many readers might wish. He could have said more about the uprisings and downsittings of World SF, which he founded at the chilliest stage of the cold war to establish international communication among sf writers, and a trifle less about his sex life. Still, this is a large chronicle of large achievements, related with eloquence, wit, and a decent reticence about certain colleagues that is refreshingly different from the manners of some other sf tale-tellers. May Aldiss enjoy enough more years to justify a second volume. --Roland Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

Transfixed by the sight of a spider entrapping a cabbage white butterfly in his grandmother's garden as a young boy, SF author Aldiss stumbled upon an idea that would define his life as a writer. "The sundry shortcomings of nature," he writes in this absorbing, elegantly written memoir, "were givens with which one had to live. In the circumstances, observation made more sense than interference." The quirky blend of classical learning, poetic language and exotic landscapes that animate Aldiss's fiction (Greybeard; Frankenstein Unbound) also suffuse this book, which eschews a linear chronology in favor of a more Proustian narrative told in emotionally charged flashbacks. Fully a quarter of the book deals with Aldiss's childhood, from his early years in the small market town of East Dereham, where his father ran a drapery business, to a long period of maternal rejection and boarding school, before being conscripted into the British army to serve in India and Burma. Aldiss captures the complex mental processes of adolescence with remarkable clarity, as he traces his evolution from an author of scribbles passed among schoolmates to a seminal figure of post WWII SF. Fans will relish the accounts of his friendships with Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester and Doris Lessing, his role in furthering the institution of SF conventions, his dealings with filmmakers Roger Corman and Stanley Kubrick and his ruminations on his craft: "The first word in an SF writer's vocabulary is if." The book concludes with Aldiss, in his 60s, having fought off a form of chronic fatigue syndrome and undergone psychotherapy, finding himself wise, optimistic and reconciled to his lifeÄand, despite the challenges of advancing age, as creative as ever. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The Voyage Our anchor has been plucked out of the sand and gravel of Old England. I shall have no connection with my native soil for three, or it may be four or five years. I own that even with the prospect of interesting and advantageous employment before me it is a solemn thought. William Golding Rites of Passage `Where the hell are they taking us?' It was a good question. No one could answer. The troop train wound its slow way northwards through England. The troops, crowded close in every compartment, set up a clatter as they divested themselves of their FSMOs (Field Service Marching Orders), their rifles, their steel helmets, their kitbags. Then silence fell. Some men read whatever was to hand. Some stared moodily out of the window. In the manner of troops everywhere, most men, when not being ordered about, slept. They had been up before the July dawn and parading by sunrise.     Nobody knew where they were going -- `not even the driver,' said one cynic. `The driver has sealed orders, regarding his destination, labelled NOT TO BE OPENED TILL ARRIVAL.'     The young soldiers, Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh, were dressed in drab khaki uniform. Although they had been trained not to feel -- in the manner of soldiers through the ages -- the high spirits of youth showed through: the wakeful ones smoked and joked. Nevertheless, knowledge that they were going abroad to fight induced a certain seriousness. When the round of jokes had died and the stubs of their Players and Woodbines had been stamped out, they seized on the opportunity to put their booted feet up. It would be a long journey.     Reveille had sounded in Britannia Barracks at four thirty. By the time it was light, platoons of newly trained soldiers were marching down to Norwich Thorpe Station. The ring of their steel-tipped boots echoed in empty streets. They piled into the waiting train, goaded on like cattle by their sergeants.     When the train pulled out of the station, wartime security ensured that it was for a rendezvous unknown. Also unknown to the men, impervious even to their imaginations, was how the operation in which they were involved was mirrored by another more sinister operation, taking place even then on the mainland of Europe. In the dawn light of many European cities, cattle trucks standing in railway sidings were being filled with Jews, men, women and children. Shrouded in secrecy, German cattle trains were pulling out towards destinations with names then unknown to the outside world, Auschwitz, Belsen, Treblinka, Sobibor.     Some time during that long English day, the troop train drew into Lime Street station in Liverpool. More troops were crammed aboard. The train continued its sluggish journey northwards, crossing into Scotland. Towards the end of the afternoon, it wound through the poor suburbs and peeling tenements of Glasgow, crawled at walking pace as if exhausted by its journey.     Here citizens turned out to wave and cheer and toss buns and ciggies to the troops. Improvised banners hung from slum windows, saying GOOD LUCK LADS and similar encouragements. Women waved Union lacks. Bright of eye, the troops jostled at the train windows, waving back. No one on that train would ever forget those warm Scottish hearts.     At Greenock docks, security gates opened, to close behind the train. The train halted with a whistle of expiring steam. With a great bustle and kicking of everything in sight, the men about to leave Britain de-trained. Sergeants gave their traditional cries of `Get fell in!' The troops stood in ranks, rifle on one shoulder, kitbag on the other, now isolated from civilian life.     An entire period of their lives had come to an end. A more challenging one was about to begin.     Towering above the parade, moored to the quayside in the quiet waters of the Clyde, was the troopship Otranto , 21,500 tons. Prior to the war, the Otranto had belonged to Canadian Pacific Steamships, when it was accustomed to making the journey between Vancouver and Hong Kong. Seagulls screamed about its flannels. Orders were shouted. Loaded down with kit, the men climbed the gangplank, forced by its steepness to cling to a worn wooden rail. One by one, they stepped into the open maw of the ship, to be dispersed among its many decks.     So alien was this experience to most men that some were immediately seasick, although the ship lay without motion at its moorings. Among the thousands forced to climb that gangplank was a lad not then nineteen. He entered the threadbare floating world with some excitement, being at that period of life where everything is novel, and what is novel is welcome. He was in misapprehension about many things; but many of those things, such as his emotional nature, he was able to set to one side under the greater urgencies of war. With energy and resource, he set about finding himself the best possible position on his allotted mess deck, in the depths of the ship.     He also pursued a line of conduct developed long before at school, that of making light of circumstances by joking with his fellows.     When he left home at the end of his embarkation leave, this young man promised his mother, Dot, that he would write home regularly. This promise he kept over the next four years. Owing to Dot's dedication, the letter I wrote home after boarding the Otranto , complete with its inked illustration, was preserved. It shows me in ebullient mood. Now as I write it's nearly sunset, with the sun flaming over the waters. Although we have moved away from the port, we're anchored in sight of land -- our land ... I'm writing on a raft on the Boat Deck and a chap with a ukelele is leading community singing. (They're just singing `Lili Marlene': `Orders came for sailing Somewhere over there ...') I don't actually know how I feel. It's difficult to describe. Everything has a dreamlike quality, we don't quite believe it ... But I'm trying to record all I see, and store everything that happens in my imagination. It's certainly going to be interesting! A new life's ahead but, boy oh boy, we're ready for it. Please try and don't worry. As yet I'm enjoying myself -- and it's broadening my mind ... Some phrases in the letter, such as `broadening the mind', were family catch phrases, jokes.     Wartime security decreed that we should never reveal where we were. Troop movements could provide useful information to the enemy. In everything -- as in family life -- there was secrecy. And England was a kind of family in those years. A companion poster to the ones saying `Careless Talk Costs Lives' admonished more gently: `Be Like Dad -- Keep Mum'. The Otranto had been christened The Empress of Canada at its launching in 1922. Came the war and its feminine name had been ripped from it. Refitting on a large scale had taken place. It had been painted a North Atlantic grey from stem to stem. Just as those climbing up its gangplank had suffered the severest haircut of their lives, so the old ship had been shorn of its luxury trimmings. Except, that is, in the officers' quarters.     Under cover of dark, the troopship slipped away down the Clyde, past the Isle of Arran and the pendulous Mull of Kintyre, round the sleeping north coast of Northern Ireland, to where the shallows of the continental shelf gave way to deeper waters -- still the haunt of Germany's U-boats at that period.     Dawn came. Ships, naval and merchant, were gathering, and spent the day manoeuvering into formation. Towards sunset we began to move. The cold grey ships slid into the cold night. Possibly twenty-eight ships all told, forming the last of the big wartime convoys. The strong heartbeat of the Otranto's engines was never to leave us over the weeks to come.     No smoking allowed on deck. The glow of a cigarette could be seen seven miles away.     Only the captain knew our destination. North America? The Middle East? Not, with luck, not India! India meant Burma. Our progress southwards consisted of a series of long zigzags, to west, to east: a manoeuvre against an enemy who still patrolled Atlantic waters. Yet by July 1944, the tides of war were turning in the Allies' favour. No more was the Mediterranean Mussolini's mare nostrum. Malta had survived more bombs than fell on London, Rommel had been defeated in North Africa. Our convoy was to be the first one not forced to sail by the longest route, travelling round the Cape of Good Hope, calling in at Durban for shore leave.     We sailed into the Mediterranean, through the narrow mouth guarded by the Rock of Gibraltar. Part of our destroyer escort left us, turning back into the prison-hued Atlantic. Suddenly, the sea was blue, sea birds cried, the great rock sang to port. Northern Europe had sunk below the horizon. My sails filled with excitement. The world looked wonderful, basking in balmy air. At sunset, a great warm breath was exhaled from the African coast, the very aroma of all that was exotic: perfume, camel dung, armpits of Oued-Nails, apricots, limes, other unknown fruits, frangipani, and the entrails of Arab towns. Five thousand men were packed aboard the Otranto . On each deck, men, crowded like slaves on the Middle Passage, ate their food at mess tables, lived and slept there. So cramped were our quarters that half the men slept overhead in hammocks, while below them slept the other half, flat on the deck on palliasses.     The Otranto had five or possibly six decks above the water line: Sun Deck, Promenade Deck, Boat Deck, where the officers were quartered, A Deck, B Deck and C Deck. The detachment I was with was down on H Deck, the lowest deck in the ship, Damnation Deck, Doolally Deck, Dead Duck Deck, five decks below the water line, carved out of the very keel. To escape to the Boat Deck, the highest deck on which Other Ranks were allowed, entailed a long climb upward, through other crowded decks. Had a torpedo struck us, no one of H Deck would have stood a hope in hell of survival. We knew it.     But underlying the crowded discomfort of the ship, and the tedium of life aboard, went excitement at a first encounter with a hitherto inaccessible world, danger, and the quest for a drinkable mug of tea. As soon as we were in warmer waters, I slept up on deck. It was permitted, yet few men took advantage of it. Over the rail lived the unceasing sea, heaving as if in the throes of giving birth, often phosphorescent with great sheets of wavering life, murmuring to itself in a green marine dream.     Our only enemies were the matelots. The sailors, hating soldiers, cleansed the decks at dawn every morning and hosed any sleepers with icy jets of sea water. We woke early to avoid them, both sides cursing the other. To return to H Deck was like trying to breathe stale sponge cake.     Of all the troops aboard ship, I seemed almost alone in enjoying the voyage. In the warrens of the ship, looped about with grey pipes of every bore, coiling along the bulkheads or snaking overhead, it was easy to imagine we were on a giant spaceship, heading for unknown planets. It was an enthralling fantasy.     So, in a sense, we were. We passed Malta and Pantelleria. Our first harbour was Port Said, at the head of the Suez Canal.     We passed slowly through the canal, pursued on either side by twin humps of wake. Heaving to in the Great Bitter Lake, we waited while a troopship passed us, heading north, homeward bound for England. Those aboard called mockingly across to us, `Get your knees brown!' We moved at snail's pace into the Red Sea and a zone of intense heat, where mirages trembled on either desolate bank.     Improvised shower cubicles spurted salt water while we assaulted our bodies with salt-water soap. Emergency urinals -- little more than raised troughs -- had been clamped on to the Boat Deck. To their notice, NOTHING TO BE THROWN DOWN THESE LATRINES, a wag had prefixed the words IT IS.     By this time, we knew there could be but one destination for us. Burma. We disembarked on Bombay docks in September 1944. Looking back at the grey walls of the ship, I realised that it had become a kind of womb after thirty days afloat; in the end, we had grown so dependent upon it that we were reluctant to leave.     `Bags of bull, lads!'     Ever obedient to the sergeant, our platoon got fell in and marched to Bombay's Arabian Nights -cum-Keble-College railway station.     At the cavernous station we had an hour's wait for our train. An hour to look, to stare, even to speak! The brightness of everything, the nervous energy of the stringy brown men, selling and begging. Here a thousand worlds seemed to be contained, with fascinations inexhaustible.     Our train slunk into its designated platform and we climbed aboard, humping our kit. A whistle blew. We had three hundred miles to go, to Mhow, in Central Provinces.     I described it in a letter home. We travelled third class on the train. What coaches! --Wooden, ramshackle, a square box for a compartment, ten feet by ten feet, and the seats made for a race that slept on nails. No window glass, no spitting allowed. Eight bells sound, the natives scream, the train gives a compulsive jerk forward ... Night swooped down. We smeared anti-mosquito cream on hands and face, and rolled down our sleeves. The winged wildlife of the place soared in and cavorted round the light. From the darkness came hoarse croaks of bullfrogs and the high-speed Morse of crickets. A considerable portion of the native population sleeps on the stations. They burn herbs which smell strange and musky -- whether pleasant or foul you can't quite decide. We fell asleep uncomfortably, one way or another. When I awoke it was dawn and the sun, donning rouge and roses, climbed back to heaven. Allah be praised! We wiped the mozzy ointment off. The train clattered through rocky ravines, tree-covered land, wide plains. Strange trees, tropical birds. Parrots and monkeys we saw in the wilder parts. Round the villages cluster padi fields, maize, and what-have-you. The beasts of burden are humpbacked cows, oxen, and sturdy black water buffalo, which wallow in mud holes when they get the chance. The further we travelled into the interior, the greyer grew the rags and clothing of the people, and the fouler and more frequent became the beggars. We saw old vultures, hawks, and lizards a foot long. Goats roamed the stations. All these attractions palled as we became dirtier, hungrier, and more tired. It poured with rain, steady beating rain, a reminder that the monsoon was not yet over. We put up the shutters. Night fell, and still it rained. It rained when we reached Mhow station. Hauling our kit -- kitbags, mosquito nets, blankets, big packs, respirators, rifles -- we crossed the station to where lorries awaited us. We bumped over to the cantonment ... The rain stopped and the night smelt good. In the dim lighting our quarters seemed like a palace: paved floors, lofty ceilings, white paint. By morning light it looks more like a barn! It's all very fascinating. Tomorrow I hope to look over the village, which seems quite large. We shall spend a month here. In short, everything's fine, mighty fine. The train journey to Mhow was the first of many journeys, since the train was such a feature of Indian travel at the time. However long, however arduous the journeys, the spectacle of India itself mitigated the tedium. Mhow, the village, is best remembered in its picture-postcard aspect, when strident day suddenly marries velvet night and the flying foxes, waking in the tall acacias, take flight for distant fig trees. Summer lightning flickers all round, flirting with the horizon, nervy, noiseless. Then kerosene lamps on stalls lick their yellow tongues, making the bazaars enigmatic. Weird music crackles from radios, and a whole new mystery envelops the world.     In Mhow was a Signals training centre, designed to toughen us up after the voyage, in preparation for more arduous times in Burma. Oh, the wriggling and conniving, the malingering, which went on among men who wished to avoid action in Burma at all costs -- including, presumably, a cost to their self-esteem. You see clever soldiers who have found a rock to cling to -- barnacles with a job in the quartermaster's stores or service as an orderly in the hospital. Others, perhaps, become base wallahs and box wallahs in New Delhi, to serve out a safe and boring war, until it is time to return home with a Long Service medal and nothing to report. Anything, rather than be involved with the shooting war further east. My own attitude was that the dice should be allowed to fall where they would. This time was an awakening for me, as no doubt for many others. Such personal matters were never discussed. But I had left behind, not only England, but an inadequate earlier self, as the times demanded.     Much in the Army was startling, not least the chorus of complaint that rose on every side about everything. Many older men had been wrenched from jobs or marriage. They resented a violent disruption to their lives; whereas for me the East was life, life at last.     For me, novelty overrode any discomfort. The pre-dawn runs, the petty restrictions, the training, the shouting, caused me little pain: I had survived ten years in boarding schools under rather worse conditions. For this at least the public-school system could take credit: it accustomed one to hardship and injustice.     The war for many provided a kind of release from personal problems. The question bothering humanity, or an intellectual fraction of it, at least since the days of the ancient Greeks, was summarised by H. G. Wells in the touching title of one of his books, What Are We to Do with Our Lives? This dilemma was resolved, or at least shelved, by hostilities. Family conundrums were of no moment when one was issued with a Sten gun.     It is this kind of effect that makes war so popular. Japanese military operations had been widely successful in the Far East. Events unravelled rapidly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.     Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day. On 15 February 1942, the supposedly impregnable base of Singapore fell to a Japanese army. Thirty thousand Japanese confronted 85,000 British and Commonwealth troops. Shortly before the end, General Perceval, in command of the Singapore garrison, sent a message to Churchill in England: `Have 30,000 rounds of ammunition. What shall we do with it?' Churchill cabled back: `How about firing it at the enemy?' The suggestion was not carried out. Perceval surrendered, delivering the Commonwealth troops to a bitter imprisonment. A black day for the British Empire.     Two Japanese divisions had already advanced into Burma. Mandalay was taken in May of that year. Disaster and disillusion followed.     The Japanese became regarded as invincible, while their cruelty to the Chinese and other races who fell under their control was such that they were regarded almost as a sub-species of the human race. Their ability to live and fight in dense jungle caused the British to regard them as superhuman.     Clearly, the war in Europe was to be preferred as a theatre in which to fight. Death rates for prisoners captured by German and Italian armies amounted only to some four per cent, whereas under the Japanese the rate was twenty-seven per cent -- higher still on the notorious Death Railway. At this distance in time, it's hard to recall the particular hells conjured up by the very name Burma. Our attitude towards the Japanese was compounded of a toxic mix of reality and racism.     In 1941 and 1942, Japanese advances in seven months were more spectacular than any of Adolf Hitler's blitzkriegs. The wolves came down by boat, plane and bicycle. Their fleets crossed over 3,000 sea miles, their armies engulfed much of China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indochina, the Netherlands East Indies, multitudes of Pacific islands, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, advancing westwards until they stood at the very gates of India. They struck to the south, deeply enough to launch air raids on Darwin in northern Australia. They were a fever virus on the body of the East. Wherever they went, Japanese armies behaved with punishing ruthlessness.     These were the facts we chewed over in Mhow as we handed in respirators lugged all the way from Norwich. We drew jungle green battledrress and handed in the absurd KD -- khaki drill -- and topis with which we had been issued in England. We exchanged gaiters for puttees. Puttees protected ankles and lower legs from venomous things which could be hiding in long grass.     Two Japanese divisions entered Burma in January of 1942. With them went the Burma National Army, led by a man who knew the ground, Aung San, a courageous Burmese destined to fight on both sides in the war, and to father an even more courageous daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. These divisions captured Rangoon and advanced northwards on Mandalay, which fell in May. It was another in a long line of British disasters. The British and Indians retreated from Mandalay by car, cart and foot. Only one road led out of the trap. They had to travel westwards on the long trail leading to Dimapur, and the railway line to Calcutta.     British counter-offensives along the Burmese coast and in the Arakan, under horrific conditions, met with little success. They served merely to reinforce the picture of a fiendish enemy who could not be beaten. The Japanese would call from the jungle in the dark, like parrots from a thicket, `Hello, Johnny! Hello, Johnny! Who fuckee your missus?' To fire blindly at the taunting voices was to give your position away. The struggle for Burma, a country larger than France, is a record of disillusion and heroism on both sides. The main protagonists, Britain and Japan (and the USA, as far as it entered the picture) were far distant from the scene of action. This factor contributed enormously to local difficulties. It explains too why very few war photographers were present to place the struggle on visual record.     Disease -- malaria, dysentery and various fevers -- accounted for as many men as did Japanese bullets and bayonets. Supplying the British XIVth Army was a very low priority where Churchill was concerned. That army felt itself neglected and abandoned to rot in miserable circumstances. It called itself, in a mood of romantic despair, the `Forgotten Army'. The label has stuck, and not without reason.     It was the insignia of that army I stitched on to my jungle greens in Mhow, before our detachment was shipped towards the leafy fighting terrain in Burma.     Not for the first time, my life was about to begin anew. But change, uncertainty, had been a feature of life in the years leading up to the outbreak of war with Germany.