Autobiography

Stephen Webb

Authors tend to be boring people: spend your time tapping keys and there’s little opportunity to be interesting. There’s even less opportunity to be interesting if you fit your writing around the demands of a full-time job.

So I’m always surprised to be asked questions about my beliefs, pastimes, background. For those who really are interested, read on…


My education

I was born and bred in Middlesbrough (an industrial town in the North East of England; the header image above shows the town laid out in all its glory). My infant school, primary school, and secondary school no longer exist — they’ve long since been demolished. Acklam Hall, which housed my 6th Form College, at least still exists; it’s the only Grade I listed building in Middlesbrough. Nowadays, though, it offers instead a wedding venue and serviced office accommodation.

After ‘A’ levels I took a BSc Physics (1st class honors) at the University of Bristol. The city itself is a wonderful place, and some of my happiest memories are of my time at Bristol — the people, the town, and the university.

The physics department at Bristol has been associated with some illustrious names. Paul Dirac, who studied mathematics at Bristol, sat in on lectures about quantum theory by Arthur Tyndall. The Nobel Prize winners Nevill Mott and Cecil Frank were professors at Bristol. During my time as a student there it was a privilege to be taught by, among others, John Nye and Michael Berry.

After Bristol I took a PhD in theoretical particle physics at the University of Manchester. The city has been transformed since I was a student there. It’s much improved.

The physics department at Manchester is one of the largest in the UK, and a number of Nobel Prize winners have held positions there: JJ Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Lawrence Bragg, Niels Bohr, James Chadwick, Patrick Blackett, John Cockcroft, Hans Bethe, Nevill Mott (he moved to Bristol after Manchester), Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov.

To finish with the post-nominals, I’ve been elected M.Inst.P., C.Phys. and SFHEA. (Which reminds me of a scene from my all-time favourite TV show Cheers. Frasier Crane: “Everybody, I’d like you to meet my date, Dr Lilith Sternin, MD, PhD, EdD, APA.” Woody Boyd: “Boy, it sure isn’t spelled like it sounds.”)

My interests

Football
I’m just old enough to have seen the 1970 World Cup on TV. I watched the outrageous skills of Pele — the shot from the inside his own half against Czechoslovakia, the dummy against the Uruguay keeper, the header that forced that save from Gordon Banks — along with the incredible attacking flair of Jairzinho et al and, because I was young, I thought that this must be the general standard of football. I still love football, but it’s been downhill since 1970…

I’ve supported the Boro — Middlesbrough Football Club — for as long as I can remember. My first game: my dad took me to see Boro vs Benfica (a pre-season friendly on 10 August 1971; it was a 1-1 draw and, yes, Eusebio was playing).

Ayresome Park

My first visit to Ayresome Park saw me in the East Stand. When I was old enough, I graduated to standing in the Holgate.

For many years I was a season-ticket holder, both at Ayresome Park and then the Riverside. Now I live 312 miles away, so I only get to a few games each season.

My season ticket seat was in the top-right corner of this photo. I had to give it up when I moved to the south coast. Sigh…

The best player I’ve seen in a Boro shirt is, undoubtedly, Juninho. (I did once meet Wilf Mannion. But it was in a garden centre, and he was about 70. For people of my dad’s generation the “Golden Boy” was one of the all-time greats.) Although we’ve had many terrific players — Bryan Robson, Fabrizio Ravanelli, George Hardwick, Brian Clough, Bobby Murdoch, Graham Souness — we’ve seldom had a terrific team. Maybe next year…

Other sports
As a teenager I played cricket as well as football. (I was a better cricketer than footballer, but my main claim to cricketing fame is dropping a catch off Geoffrey Boycott in some informal close-of-play practice during a Yorkshire game at Acklam Park.) I rarely watch cricket now, but I still enjoy reading a good cricket book; compared to football, cricket has inspired far better literature.

As a kid I read everything I could about Sir Don Bradman. I didn’t see him play of course (he retired from the game 15 years before I was born) but my neighbour, a retired schoolmaster, shared his memories of playing against him in 1930. The Don’s achievements are staggering: they clearly will never be matched. Not only the best batsman of all time — the best sportsman.

Bradman in 1937, walking out to bat in the Third Test against England at the MCG. He scored 270. Wisden rated this the best innings of all time.

I know I shouldn’t like boxing — and most of the time I don’t — but I grew up watching Muhammad Ali. What a man.

And I’m grateful that I was around to see Usain Bolt run. I watched him run 9.58s for the 100m with a feeling of unreality — how can anybody be that quick?

Books
My collection of Asimov books is almost complete. Considering that he had over 500 books published, that should perhaps give you some idea of my reading interests. Or perhaps not — Isaac wrote not only science fiction, but also mysteries and limericks; and  books on science, literature, history, the Bible, Gilbert and Sullivan … pretty much everything, really!

There’s a separate section of this blog devoted to SF, so here are some non-SF books (in no particular order) that are important to me.

  • Pale Fire — Nabokov. This is such a clever book from a clever writer.
  • The Code of the Woosters — Wodehouse. All Wodehouse is wonderful, but this one with the “cow-creamer” is probably my favourite.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Pirsig. Decades after first reading this, I still don’t quite know what to make of it. But I’ve never been able to forget it.
  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics — Feynman. Ah, the red books…
  • Fatherland — Harris. Probably the best thriller I’ve read (although Gorky Park by Cruz Smith runs it close).

Films & TV
Nowadays I hardly watch television, and it’s been years since I last went to the cinema. Production values nowadays are undeniably better now than they were in the past, but it’s often to the detriment of story and characterisation. They tell me that we’re living through a golden age for filmed media, but consider the following list of my favorite films and TV and tell me: who’s making stuff as good as this today?

Forbidden Planet
I fell in love with this film the moment I heard the “electronic tonalities” by Bebe and Louis Barron. I like most SF films from 1950s, but Forbidden Planet is in an entirely different league to those others.

Cinema poster for Forbidden Planet

Chinatown
Although I love Forbidden Planet, I’m not blind to its weaknesses. But Chinatown is a perfect piece of cinema. Acting, script, direction, music, cinematography, costume … it’s flawless. If you’ve never seen it, treat yourself.

Cinema poster for Chinatown

Cheers
My favourite TV show of all time: funny, smart, terrific scripts, great actors…

Britain has produced some great TV comedies — Fawlty Towers, for example. But only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers were filmed; everyone involved knew that the quality would decline if further episodes were made. The writers of Cheers managed to maintain its quality for 275 episodes — amazing.

The intro screen for Cheers

Hill Street Blues
Easily the best cop show there’s been. The opening to each episode of Hill Street Blues was perfection — police car, sirens blaring, heads out into a cold, rainy street while a despatch operator says “We have a 9-11… Armed robbery in progress…” and the haunting theme tune begins…

The intro screen of Hill Street Blues

Tinker Tailor Solder Spy
When I read any of Le Carré’s books featuring George Smiley, I can’t help but picture Alec Guinness.

The intro screen of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy