The Twinkling of an Eye, or my life as an Englishman, by Brian Aldiss

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Some years previously, one of the innumerable Framlingham bullies, a creature with the skin of a bullfrog and hyperthyroid eyes to match, grabbed me and declared that I resembled Adolf Hitler. Dragging me into his foul den, he pulled a lock of my hair down over my forehead and painted a moustache of black boot polish on my upper lip. I was then made to goose-step round a senior common room, giving the Sieg Heil for the delectation of all the other bullies – many of whom would doubtless have given their eyeteeth to dress up in Nazi uniforms, rape Slav women, and bugger each other while strangling Jews.

One day, back in August 2015 I happened to be in London not too far from Forbidden Planet, and spotted that Brian Aldiss, then almost 90, was doing a signing that evening. I got there just in time to buy this book and get his signature on it before sprinting for the 1935 Eurostar; whew! I knew that there would not be many more chances, and indeed it was the second and last time that I met Aldiss in person before his death, two years later. (This, a year earlier, was the first.)

I realised on reading this now that I had read it before, around the turn of the century; I don’t know what happened to my previous copy, but it was great to come back to it again. Even if you have no interest in his work, Aldiss is very good at the self-perception of the various elements and experiences that go to make up a human soul. He goes in some detail into his childhood, school days and military service (much of which has been recycled in his novels). He is frank about his marital difficulties, in both of his marriages, and even goes a bit mystical on how he managed to unblock himself psychically to become healthier.

He was also devoted to making British science fiction an accepted part of British literature, pushing hard to find allies. This despite himself not being initially all that strongly moored in fandom – when he woke up one morning to find that the 1962 Hugo Award for Hothouse had been left outside his door with the milk, he did not actually know what it was. But this did not last long; by 1965 he was the guest of honour at the second London Worldcon, and in 2014 the massed members of the third London Worldcon sang “Happy Birthday” to him at the closing ceremonies.

One winces for Aldiss occasionally – he was the architect of most of his own romantic misfortunes (though not of his first love affair, with the matron of his boarding school); a crooked accountant’s bad advice meant that he had at one point to sell his house and, (one senses this was worse) his science fiction collection. But he is admirably devoted to his children and to his second wife, who died after this written but before it was published in 1998. His daughter Wendy returned that devotion.

Recommended. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had spent longest on my unread shelf. Next on that pile is Make Your Brain Work: How to Maximize Your Efficiency, Productivity and Effectiveness, by Amy Brann.

The Twinkling of an Eye cover