Mike Ashley


It is a sad fact that writers all too rapidly become forgotten if their work falls out of print. For every H.P. Lovecraft or Robert A. Heinlein, whose works are never out of print, there are hundreds of writers who, for the lack of exposure, have drifted into the shadows awaiting, hopefully, rediscovery.

It would be wonderful if the moment has arrived for the rediscovery of William F. Temple. His close friend, Arthur C. Clarke, reflecting on the early days of British science-fiction fandom, said of Temple: 

I can recall that in the 1937-8 period most of us aspiring young writers looked up at him and his advanced years . . . with something like awe. And when he sold his novel The Four-Sided Triangle to the movies, our admiration (and envy) knew no bounds.

 Temple’s first published story, “The Kosso”, appeared in 1935 and so was just a few years ahead of that young generation of hopefuls that included not only Arthur C. Clarke but Sam Youd (the future “John Christopher”), David McIlwain (the future “Charles Eric Maine”), John F. Burke, Eric C. Williams, E.C. Tubb and others. Most of these had to wait until after the Second World War to begin their careers. Temple established himself before the War.

Of the British writers contributing to the new science-fiction magazines that were flourishing in the United States, only really John Beynon Harris (the future “John Wyndham”) had preceded Temple, and Harris kept himself somewhat removed from the heart of British fandom. Temple was right in the thick of it. He was one of the early members of the Science Fiction Association, founded in 1937, and the British Interplanetary Society.

Temple lived in London at that time and rented a flat in Gray’s Inn Road that he later shared with Arthur C. Clarke and Maurice K. Hanson. It became the hub of London fandom and it was from there, for a while, that the leading British fan magazine, Novae Terrae (the forerunner of New Worlds) was produced as well as the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

Whilst immersed in fan activities, and working full time as a clerk in the London Stock Exchange, Temple continued to sell stories to the magazines. An early classic, and one which has remained his best known story, was “The Four-Sided Triangle” first published in Amazing Stories in November 1939. It’s a science-fiction romance that turns to tragedy and back to romance. The girl in the story, Joan, was based on Temple’s own girlfriend, Joan Streeton, who became his wife on 16 September 1939, almost the same day that that issue of Amazing Stories was released. That original story, which was later expanded into a novel and subsequently filmed, leads off this collection.

Another of Temple’s early stories, also included in this volume, is “The Smile of the Sphinx”, which considers the extraterrestrial origins of cats. The story is set in and around Woolwich, where Temple had been born (in 1914), though he grew up in nearby Eltham. Eltham was also the home of the writer Edith Nesbit, author of The Railway Children, Five Children and It, and much else. Temple could remember buying apples from her when he was very young.

Temple’s early writing career was cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War. His wife Joan and new baby Anne were evacuated to Cornwall during the Blitz, which was fortunate as the London Flat was bombed a few months later. Temple was called up for military service and became a signaller in the Royal Artillery. He saw action throughout North Africa and Italy, including at the Anzio beachhead. He continued to write, producing the novel version of The Four-Sided Triangle whilst he was in service in North Africa. He lost the first half of the manuscript during the Battle of Takrouna in Tunisia in April 1943 and had to start all over again.

After the War, Temple became the one of the reliable cornerstones of the growing edifice of British sf. He resigned from the Stock Exchange in 1950 in order to write full time but it was still a difficult period to survive solely from a writing income and he returned to work, though he had another attempt at freelance writing in 1961. During his career he produced eleven novels and over a hundred short stories, plus a range of other works including a copious amount of fan journalism. Almost up to his last days he continued to send in long, usually humorous but sometimes caustic letters to amateur magazines, notably Richard E. Geis’s The Alien Critic (also titled Science Fiction Review).

His novels include a trilogy for young adults featuring Martin Magnus, a special investigator for the Scientific Bureau, whose adventures take him to Venus and Mars. Temple enjoyed crime and spy fiction. The very first novel he had completed, but which never sold, Master of the Doors, featured a Raffles-like hero who was a respected citizen by day but a master criminal at night. He later revised it as The Dangerous Edge and it became his second published novel in 1951. Shoot at the Moon (1966), which many—including me—consider his best novel, is a murder mystery in which, one at a time, members of a lunar expedition meet a violent death. His last published novel, The Fleshpots of Sansato (1968), involves the investigations of a spy trying to track down a scientist who has vanished in the sin-city of an alien world. This novel was brutally edited by the publisher and this soured Temple on the world of writing and for years he barely wrote a word.

 Thanks to the support of his lovely wife, Joan, and his two children Anne and Cliff, Temple did gradually return to writing and began a new novel, The Healer, about a faith-healer, but hopes were dashed when his agent told him it would never sell. Temple gave up, but his prologue to the novel, “Testimony”, survived and is included in the collection.

In between “The Four-Sided Triangle” and “Testimony” is included a wide selection of some of Temple’s best work. “Forget Me Not”, which I regard as his most powerful short story, inspired by the horrors of War and the Nazi concentration camps; the humorous “Conditioned Reflex” which considers the origins of human life; the ghostly “The Whispering Gallery”, which shows that Temple could turn out a good supernatural story when he had a mind to; “The Legend of Ernie Deacon” which almost presages virtual reality; “Uncle Buno” which reveals Temple’s attitude towards colonialism and racism, and “The Green Car”, an ingenious investigation into something that is investigating us.

William F. Temple died in 1989, aged 75, after a writing career that spanned fifty years. This selection is just a sample of what Temple produced during those fifty years, one that shows what a creative, polished and ingenious writer he was. It casts a light into the shadows into which his work has retreated and hopefully will encourage a search for more.