We’re still in the depths of winter here in London, with a preponderance of grey skies, rain, sleet and outdoor temperatures not very far above zero. Actually I find winter extremely pleasant at times, but the cold and rain can grow rather monotonous… Hence I thought I’d just brighten up this blog today by introducing an issue in colour.
This picture is the cover from a book I bought second-hand many years ago. I can’t remember exactly where I got it; perhaps from one of the second-hand book stalls at Norwich market or maybe at a fascinating and completely ramshackle old shop called The Scientific Anglian, which was hidden away in the backstreets of Norwich but is gone now, alas (that bookshop merits a blog post of its very own, I realise.)
It has also been a long time since I read this story – Return to the Lost Planet, by Angus MacVicar, published in 1954 – but my recollection is of an adventure that would have appealed to the sort of children who wanted something more science-oriented than Enid Blyton and thrilled to tales of rocket ships and planets of peril rather than (or maybe in addition to) mysterious castles and islands.
The book is one of a series, about a boy called Jeremy who goes to live with his uncle Lachlan, who lives on a Scottish island and also happens to be an inventor and space explorer. The eponymous lost planet – Hesikos – occupies an orbit between that of Mars and Jupiter and is therefore prone to getting very cold, and this is the case at the beginning of the second book Return to the Lost Planet, which finds Dr Lachlan McKinnon stranded on Hesikos in his damaged craft and trapped by the encroaching ice. Somehow – within four months! – a new spaceship must be constructed and a rescue mission organised.
It’s delightfully escapist. Just imagine having an eccentric relative who lived on an island and could build spaceships in his back yard without requiring some sort of gigantic corporation, an army of minions, endless red tape and a vast slice of the nation’s GDP. It’s surprising just how few people are needed to launch spacecraft in this story – you need a decent engineer of course, a professor or two, someone to do the admin, another person to make a good cup of tea now and then… And imagine being able to hop aboard said spaceship and travel to other planets without being bothered by such mundanities as passports, money, visas, quarantine, border controls or health and safety. Heaven! Wouldn’t it just be fantastic if life was like that.
What I find appealing about these novels is that they hark back to a more optimistic and uncomplicated age, when it was easier to write tales of space travel and discovery without being bogged down too much in the mire of geopolitics. True, these are also children’s stories and so tend to be about unbridled possibilities, without dwelling too much on the real-life limitations, drawbacks and disappointments familiar to our adult selves. Ultimately, perhaps, I’m looking back to my own childhood, when the world seemed to be a truly marvellous place and when anything might have been possible.
Incidentally, Angus MacVicar was a prolific and successful Scottish author who died in 2001 at the age of 93, and I wonder what he made of this rather odd and unheroic post-Apollo era of space exploration (orbiting telescopes and robotic Mars rovers but no starships or Moon bases.)
Who knows, though – he might not have found it so depressing. After all, there are still wonders to be found in the universe. And if they fall short, there always remain to be explored the infinite wealth and vastness of the human imagination.