The Eternal Now (1944), by Murray Leinster

As I explained in this post last year, as a schoolboy almost fifty years ago I read large quantities of science fiction, including three works that remained lost to me until the arrival of the internet three decades later. The first of these, as described in that post, was Second Ending, by James White. The second of these was a novelette entitled The Eternal Now, by the extremely prolific American author William Fitzgerald Jenkins, published under his most commonly used pen name Murray Leinster. The story first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories in September 1944 and was reprinted in Fantastic Story Magazine in January 1953. Its first and to date only appearance in book form was in the 1965 anthology The Shape of Things, edited by Damon Knight.

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It was in this volume, with its surrealist artwork by Eugene Berman (for years I wrongly assumed that it was by Dali), that I first encountered Leinster’s chilling tale of a world frozen in time.

The story’ protagonists are two rival scientists: Dr Harry Brett and Professor Aldous Cable. With a name like Harry Brett, the first named just has to be the good guy. Prof. Cable is the villain, his frustrations at being unable to match Brett’s achievements having driven him to the brink of madness. The story begins in an office building on Forty-second Street, New York. Brett is being introduced to a “a very pretty girl” (as a young woman might have been described in 1944) named Laura Hunt by the latter’s uncle when… “He felt an intolerable shock in every atom. It was like a blow which hit him simultaneously all over, inside and out. He had a feeling of falling endlessly and a sensation of bitter cold. His eyes were closed, and he opened them…

He and Ms Hunt find themselves in a ghostly, frozen world, devoid of sound, colour, or smells. They appear to be in a city, on a terrace outside a penthouse – but in its Stygian gloom, it is unlike any city they have ever seen. There is a climbing plant with grey leaves and grey stalks. When Brett’s jacket brushes against a leaf, the jacket is ripped. Brett examines the seemingly fragile leaf and finds that it is rigid and immovable, harder than iron. He strikes a match – in its light, the leaf’s colour is restored. Similarly, his own dead-grey skin appears normal once more. He is struck by a horrible suspicion about what has happened, but he decides for now not to share his knowledge with Hunt.

Four years earlier, Brett had made an alarming discovery. Einstein had shown that an object travelling close to the speed of light has almost infinite mass and a time rate close to zero. Brett had found that the reverse also applies: if you remove the mass from an object, its time rate will become almost infinite. He built a mass-nullifier and tested it with a live mouse. In just a second, the mouse became a heap of dust. Somebody at such an accelerated time rate could experience decades or indeed a whole lifetime, while no more than an infinitesimal fraction of a second passed in normal time. Terrified by the implications of his discovery, Brett had abandoned his experiments and destroyed his apparatus. But somebody else has made the same discovery and used it to bring them both here – and Brett had a pretty good idea who it is….

Aldous Cable had for a time been the youngest full Professor of Physics in America, but his reputation had never increased. A vain and arrogant man, he was constantly announcing enormously important discoveries that never quite worked out in practice. The reality was that he was not qualified for original and independent research, and eventually he had had to resign his professorship and work as Brett’s assistant. He had proved to be capable in this role – but he certainly wasn’t happy about it. Now Brett realises that Cable has managed to reproduce his experiments and build a mass-nullifier for himself. He obviously intends Brett to share the fate of his experimental mouse – and Hunt, with whom he was shaking hands, has been inadvertently caught up in the feud. The two of them are trapped in a world in which time is frozen, illuminated only by the ghostly grey light of gravitational vibrations. Normal colour can only be restored with matches and other sources of light brought into the accelerated time state.

Then Hunt notices a yellow glow coming from inside the apartment. Inside, they find the source of the glow is a flashlight. Somebody has used a mass nullifier on it and left it there for them to find. Next, they come to a stairwell, lit by the yellow glow of a candle. Further yellow glows have evidently been left as markers. With no other choice, Brett and Hunt follow the trail towards a lighted door. By now, Brett is in no doubt that Cable is responsible for what has happened. There will be a gloating message from Cable recalling the mouse experiment and promising to look out for the heap of dust he will soon become. But he is wrong. Inside a candlelit room is Cable himself, accompanied by about a dozen others.

Cable has indeed built a mass nullifier. He has used it to bring a group of people he had previously impressed with his boasting into the accelerated time state. They were terrified but entirely at his mercy. Only Cable’s mass nullifier could bring food and water into their world. Cable also used it to steal large quantities of jewellery, which he distributed to his unwilling followers. Eventually, Cable had agreed to return to the normal world – only to find that his mass nullifier would not take them back. The device could bring things from the normal time state, but it could not put them back.

Cable had dismantled and reassembled the mass nullifier to no effect. He had built two more, but they too worked in only one direction. Finally, he had been forced to turn to the man whose success has driven him all but insane with jealousy. He locks Brett and Hunt in a small room he has outfitted as a workshop and orders Brett to make the mass nullifier work. With the device working, he will send his group, Hunt, and himself back to normal time – but he makes it clear that he doesn’t intend for Brett to join them.

With a working mass nullifier, Brett could steal, abduct, or murder with complete impunity. But Brett realises there is another trick Cable could pull that could destroy cities or even entire countries. He could do this even with his one-way nullifier, and if he thinks of it, he is certainly insane enough to do it….

You will not be surprised to learn that a) Brett soon figures out what is wrong with Cable’s mass nullifier; b) he and Hunt escape Cable’s clutches; c) they rescue Cable’s followers; d) Cable comes to a sticky end; and e) Brett and Hunt live happily ever after. For the full details see this spoiler.

As with Second Ending, The Eternal Now was a title that stuck in the mind, but Murray Leinster was an author I was at that time unfamiliar with. A couple of years later, I did read some of his work but unlike with James White I did not make the connection. The authorship of The Eternal Now remained unknown until early in 2000, when I managed to identify it with the assistance of the primitive search engines of that time. I didn’t come across Google until 2002, but even with Google it’s not particularly easy to find as a search on ‘The Eternal Now’ brings up over a quarter of a billion hits. A book by Paul Tillich with the same title is a confounding factor. However, I did eventually manage to identify Murray Leinster as the author and The Shape of Things as the anthology I had read thirty years earlier. I recognised the book cover, triggering a memory that had remained dormant for all those years. From there it was a simple matter to source a paperback copy online.

The Eternal Now acknowledges its origin of its plot in The New Accelerator, by H. G. Wells, in which a Professor Gibberne invents an elixir that produces similar effects to Leinster’s mass nullifier. The concept of people experiencing an accelerated time rate also featured in the Star Trek original series episode Wink of an Eye. All of these stories suffer from the same fundamental plot flaw: not only would leaves and water be reduced to immovable solids, but the air would also become solid and anybody experiencing such accelerated time rates would die almost instantly.

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The educational cruises of the BI Line

The words ‘educational cruise’ give an insight into life in Britain fifty years ago, and a world very different from that of today. There was, of course, no internet, no Facebook, no Instagram. Devices like smartphones were still science fiction, as was the idea of computers as mundane household appliances. Air travel had only just become affordable, and holidays abroad were still a novelty. The 1960s saw considerable social changes, but they were still the era of the post-war consensus. By today’s standards, both Labour and the Conservatives would be viewed as hard left. The idea of ‘the common good’ still had some currency among big companies and running affordable cruises for school children was an obvious idea for shipping company directors not obsessed by the bottom line.

Educational cruising began in the 1930s using troopships, that were otherwise idle during the summer months. They allowed the pupils to see for themselves places they had otherwise for the most part come across only in history and geography lessons. The war put an end to these first educational cruises, and they were not resumed after the war as National Service kept the troopships busy. However, the British Government ended National Service and the use of ships for troop movements in 1960, and the British India Steam Navigation Company (BI) decided to convert the 1937-built 11,600-ton troopship MS Dunera to a full-time ‘schoolroom at sea’, with dormitories, classrooms, swimming pool, games rooms, a library, and assembly rooms. The Dunera began her new life as an educational cruise ship in 1961, and she was joined by her half-sister MS Devonia a year later. The educational cruise program was a success, and in 1965 a third ship was added.

The 20,500-ton 480 ft (146 m) SS Nevasa had been built for BI to government order and was launched on the Clyde in November 1955; she and with her sister ship the Bibby Line’s SS Oxfordshire were the largest troopships ever built in the United Kingdom. She could accommodate 500 officers and their families and 1,000 NCOs and men on the troop deck. She was thus almost new when the end of trooping at sea made her redundant. She was laid up in the River Fal, Cornwall, in 1962 but in 1965 BI decided to return her to service as their third educational cruise ship. The conversion, carried out at Falmouth, cost £500,000. (The Oxfordshire was renamed Fairstar and repurposed first as an immigrant ship on the Australia run, and later as a cruise ship.)

By now, BI were running 60 educational cruises a year. But the Dunera and Devonia were thirty years old, so in 1967 they were retired and replaced by the SS Uganda, a 14,400-ton 517 ft (158 m) cargo-liner built 1952. The Uganda operated between London and East Africa, but increasingly she was losing passengers to air travel. Unlike the Nevasa, whose dormitories were equally suited to school children as to soldiers, the Uganda required major work to convert her to an educational cruise ship. Decks were inserted in her cargo holds, which now became the dormitory accommodation with a total of 920 berths. The conversion raised her passenger capacity from 300 to 1,226, her tonnage to 16,900 tons, and cost the substantial sum of £2.8 million.

The differing origins of the two ships is apparent in these photographs: the purposeful, no-nonsense appearance of the Nevasa (left) contrasts with that of the Uganda (right). The latter’s graceful lines had suffered to an extent during the conversion to an educational cruise ship, but she still retained the look of an ocean liner. Both were great looking ships – real ships, not like the motorised barges used for cruising now.

It is now fifty years since I sailed in the Nevasa with my school during the 1969 Easter Holiday. We were accompanied by schoolmasters Mr Terry (English) and Mr Stone (French). We flew out from Gatwick (Laker Air BAC 1-11) to join the ship at Venice. From the plane, I took this shot over the Alps.

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From the airport, we transferred to a watercraft, which took us through the canals of Venice to the ship.

Aboard, we were taken to our dormitory, Baffin, located near the bow on D Deck (the dorms were all named for either explorers or admirals). After an interminable wait for our turn to visit the ship’s canteen, we went ashore, and Mr Terry took us to a church he claimed had been the inspiration for the school’s late nineteenth century chapel. The chapel was indeed inspired by a Venetian church, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli, but having since visited it I am not convinced it’s the same church we were shown that day. We were then divided into groups of four and left to explore on our own. We visited a glass factory where I bought four glass animals. Sadly, all have long since broken, but I have never seen anything of comparable quality for the price on my many visits to Venice in adult life.

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An obligatory shot of the Bridge of Sighs.

We sailed overnight, and after a day at sea reached Dubrovnik in what was then Yugoslavia. During the day at sea, Messrs Stone and Terry gave us a talk about Dubrovnik. I’ve heard that pupils on term time cruises had several hours of regular lessons when at sea, but this was not the case for us. We simply had lectures about the ship’s next port of call. There were also activity groups – I joined the Chess club (I was a moderately good player who once finished runner-up in the junior school championship).

At sea.

Every evening at sea a movie was shown – “Clambake” (a musical starring Elvis Presley), “Who’s minding the mint?” (a comedy), “Yours, Mine, and Ours” (comedy starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda), and “Custer of the West” (starring Robert Shaw). There seemed to be a distinct lack of movies in the ship – I think these were the only four, and they were shown repeatedly. Most nights there was a disco (or ‘dance’ as it was known) on the after deck. It was very popular, but this was about six months before I first began to take an interest in girls and I often preferred the ship’s library. This featured a large illustrated book about the history of the Earth from its formation to then end of the last Ice Age (I wish I could remember its title). The fo’c’sle was open to dormitory passengers, and it was possible to stand there DiCaprio/Winslet style and get a fine view whenever the ship was close to land (which was often the case). It was a constant source of amusement to those standing in the fo’c’sle that somebody had carved the word ‘VAGINA’ into the paintwork there. The fo’c’sle was off-limits after sunset; this was always announced by playing “Sunset” over the tannoy.

I took a lot of pictures in Dubrovnik, more than I would take elsewhere. Note the Nevasa at anchor out to sea. The harbour was too small for the ship to dock, and we went ashore in the lifeboats. I’d borrowed my mum’s Kodak Instamatic camera for the trip; I got through two film cartridges over the whole seventeen days of the cruise. These were expensive, so I was a little more sparing on subsequent ports of call. Our stay in Dubrovnik was fairly brief: after a few hours exploration, we returned to the harbour where the lifeboats were waiting to take us back to the ship. As we got underway, “A life on the Ocean Wave”, “Hearts of Oak”, and “Rule Britannia” were played over the tannoy. This happened at every subsequent departure, and apparently was standard practice whenever Nevasa left port – a great tradition worthy of this fine ship.

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The next port of call was Heraklion, Crete, where we were taken to see the ancient Minoan site of Knossos on the outskirts of the city. At the time, I recall being astonished that dark red paintwork on the columns of the Palace and the vivid paintwork elsewhere could have survived for 3,500 years – I didn’t realise that I what I was seeing was the result of Sir Arthur Evans’ rather fanciful reconstruction less than half a century earlier. The above picture, originally missing, has now come to light, but I think I originally took at least one other.

From Crete we sailed to Rhodes, where again the ship had to anchor out to sea. But the conditions were too rough to use the lifeboats (!) and we were landed in some dubious-looking local vessels. I don’t remember too much else about Rhodes, but I took three photos of a place that I have since identified as Lindos. Now a major resort, it was apparently much quieter in 1969.

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We then sailed back to Italy, and our next port of call Naples. En route, we sailed through the Messina Strait and then made a close approach to Stromboli. No pictures of the latter, frustratingly.

We spent a few days in Naples, including a visit to Pompeii.

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Then it was on to Lisbon, our last port of call, passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on the way. Lisbon was for me the highlight of the trip, possibly because we stayed for three days and there was a lot to do. On arrival, we went on a coach trip to see a number of local sights. These included the Ponte 25 de Abri suspension bridge over the Tagus (then named for the dictator Antonio Salazar; he had recently been replaced by Marcelo Caetano, but the bloodless revolution that ended the dictatorship was still five years off). We saw the modernist Padrão dos Descobrimentos on the banks of the Tagus (frustratingly covered with scaffolding when I returned to Lisbon for the first time in 2016); the Jerónimos Monastery (which for many years afterwards I confused with Lisbon Cathedral); and a football stadium. I remember that practically everybody thought that this was Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, but somebody in the group said that it wasn’t. I wasn’t particularly into football at the time (in fact nobody in the group was), but everybody knew that Benfica was the Portuguese side Man Utd had beaten the previous year to become the first English (though not the first British) team to win the European Cup (now known as the Champions League). Based on the location of the other sights on the tour, I now believe that what we saw was the Estádio Nacional, where Celtic’s Lions of Lisbon did become the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967, a year before Man Utd.

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I took just one photograph in Lisbon, the final exposure on the film, of the Parque Eduardo VII.

From Lisbon, we sailed for Southampton. Ahead of schedule, we dropped anchor in Vigo Bay and held a regatta in the lifeboats (nobody was permitted to go ashore). Our boat was disqualified because some idiot took their lifejacket off. For the last night at sea, the school kids put on a cabaret, though I don’t recall anybody from our school taking part. Next morning found the ship entering the Solent. The then brand-new QE 2 was in port when we reached Southampton, and we passed her shortly before we docked. A coach was waiting to take us back to school, and from there I returned home for the remainder of my Easter Holiday.

I still regard the trip as one of the highlights of my schooldays, as do many others, and there is now a Facebook group “S.S. Uganda & S.S. Nevasa” for the now-ageing people who went on the educational cruises. For the record, 1) the food was nowhere near as bad as some people posting in that forum make out and 2) our cruise must have been the only one ever to avoid near-shipwreck in the Bay of Biscay.

Sadly, the Nevasa’s days were numbered. The oil crisis of 1973/74 meant that BI could not afford to keep both ships in service. The Nevasa was newer and faster than the Uganda, but her more powerful military-grade machinery meant that she was more expensive to run. Her final cruise was in December 1974, and she was scrapped in Taiwan in June 1975 just short of her twentieth birthday. With the benefit of hindsight, BI scrapped the wrong ship. In April 1982, Argentine forces invaded the Falklands and the UK government wasted no time in dispatching a naval task force to the South Atlantic to recapture the islands. The Uganda, midway through a cruise, was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence to serve as a hospital ship, a role for which a purpose-built troopship like the Nevasa would have been far better suited.

Uganda’s 315 cabin passengers and 940 school children were landed in Naples and flown back to Blighty. When the ship docked in Naples, the undoubtedly disappointed school children reportedly sang “Rule Britannia“. After undergoing a hasty refit at Gibraltar, Uganda served with distinction in the Falklands War. During the conflict, 750 casualties including 150 Argentinians were treated aboard, and 504 surgical operations were conducted. Her wartime service over, she returned to Britain in August and after undergoing a refit at North Shields, she returned to educational cruising late in September.

It was to be a very brief comeback. In November, the Uganda was chartered for two years as a store ship between Ascension Island and the Falklands. Critics claimed that BI had realised that the Uganda was more profitable in military service than she was as an educational cruise ship, but the reality was that school bookings had fallen off due to uncertainty over when the ship would return to civilian service. After a further refit, she sailed back to the Falklands in January 1983. Her charter ended in April 1985, but after three years of military service, the Uganda – no spring chicken from the outset – was worn out, and BI never restored her as a cruise ship. She was laid up in the River Fal, and eventually scrapped in Taiwan, bringing to an end the era of educational cruising.

Lunar eclipse 21 January 2019

Weather thwarted attempts to obtain photographs of what will be the last total lunar eclipse visible from Britain until 16 May 2022. Good conditions prevailed until about 15 mins before the onset of totality, when the Moon disappeared into the clouds never to return.

I obtained a good shot of the uneclipsed Moon, and subsequent shots at around 40 percent and 80 percent totality. The so-called ‘blood moon’ effect was not visible, and the 80 percent shot looks very little different to an ordinary crescent Moon.

The starling murmuration at Aberystwyth Pier

Every evening at dusk during the winter months, thousands of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) swarm over Aberwrystwyth’s Royal Pier, before swooping down to roost for the night in the mass of girders underneath.

The phenomenon is known as ‘murmuration’, and it is one of the most spectacular wildlife displays in Britain. Local flocks are joined by migrants from northern Europe, who fly south to the relatively mild conditions of Britain. The swarming behaviour is thought to offer safety in numbers from predators such as peregrine falcons, who become confused by the swirling masses.

Aberwrystwyth, where the setting sun forms a fine backdrop to the phenomenon, is one of the most popular sites for observing murmurations, but it may also be viewed on other parts of the UK: Sussex, Brighton, Eastbourne, and other coastal towns in the south such as Bognor, Chichester, and Hastings; displays are also regularly seen over the Somerset Levels, Gretna Green, Blackpool Pier and the Fens of Cambridgeshire.

Highbury – the early days

Highbury – officially Arsenal Stadium, unoffically ‘The Home of Football’ – was Arsenal’s home ground from 6 September 1913 until 7 May 2006. Unable to increase the capacity of what was now an all-seater stadium, Arsenal built a new 60,000-seater stadium on a site barely a quarter of a mile away. Highbury was known for its Art Deco stands, built in the 1930s, when the club were champions five times and FA Cup winners twice. The stands exist to this day, their facades and listed features including the famous Marble Halls incorporated into a residential complex.

But for the first two decades of its existance, Highbury was far more workmanlike in its appearance, comprising a single gabled stand on one side and open terraces on the other. Designed by football stadium architect Archibald Leitch, the ground was hastily constructed ahead of the 1913-14 season as the then Woolwich Arsenal, newly relegated to the Second Division, relocated to North London.

Photographs showing the construction of the ground and the gabled East Stand, which though in use is still incomplete. Note that the houses seen beyond the under-construction North Bank terracing are still there to this day.

Three aerial views of the original stadium during the 1920s.

The ground as it was in the early 1930s, with a clock showing the minutes played mounted on the North Bank. The club was soon ordered to remove it as it was thought to undermine the authority of the referee, who was the sole timekeeper. An ordinary clock took its place; this was later moved to the south terracing (which in consequence became known as the Clock End) when the North Bank was covered. The gabled East Stand was still in use at this point, and there is a rare picture of the stand as seen from Avenall Road before a match against Aston Villa.

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The old and the new: the Art Deco West Stand opened in 1932, but the old East Stand would not be replaced until 1936. In fact, the club had not planned to build the replacement before 1941, but the stand was deteriorating and rather than making short term repairs, the club opted to bring forward its replacement.

This final group show the ground as completed in the 1930s, an early postwar view from inside the ground after the North Bank covering had been destroyed by wartime bombing, and the club offices in the East Stand.

Photo credits: Unknown.