I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read The War of the Worlds, or any of H.G. Wells’ work in fact. Not intentionally, of course, there are just so many books to read and, if I’m honest, science fiction isn’t really my gig (although conversely I am a huge Margaret Atwood fan).
This meant I approached A Slip Under the Microscope with really little or no knowledge of the author.
My friend Lois chose this week’s Little Black Classic. She read Wells’ The Truth About Pyecraft for her book group, and her Dad is an advocate of the writer.
I read the book a couple of weeks ago, buried under a blanket on my sofa, on a nippy Sunday morning. Coffee, toast, jammies. Bliss.
I chose to read A Slip Under the Microscope first, despite it being the second short story in this edition.
It opens in a laboratory within The College of Science, with dissections in glass jars and anatomical drawings lining the walls. Wells paints a wonderful image of the space, paying heed to very specific, chaotic details of a classroom.
I liked the description of a classically cold and poor student in his digs
“he would sit on the bed of his room in Chelsea with his coat and a muffler, and write out the lecture notes”
I’ve been there.
Here we meet Hill, the son of a humble cobbler. He is shabbily dressed, opinionated and clearly intelligent.
His rival is Wedderburn (great name), another intelligent student and the son of a respected optician. Both boys, of different social classes, are vying for the attention of a Miss Haysman.
Hill is besotted. His ambition fades as his love for Miss Haysman deepens. But he manages top marks in the class, along with Wedderburn.
The two young men fight to be top dog in both the classroom and in Miss Haysman’s affections.
“she was the Queen of Beauty in a tournament of scalpels and stumpy pencils”
The main action takes place in the laboratory. A mystery specimen is placed on a slip under a microscope. Each student in turn studies the specimen and has to return to their desk to identify it with a sketch.
There is an implicit instruction to not move the slip, its precise positioning purposely blurring the identity and ensuring a more challenging examination.
Alas, on his turn, Hill moves it, purely out of habit when studying a specimen under a microscope. We’re privy to his internal debate – does he confess, does he lie? He wants to beat Wedderburn. He chooses to remain silent and return to his desk.
He gets the highest score in class, closely followed by arch enemy Wedderburn. Hill is racked with guilt and so goes to his lecturer to confess. He is punished as a cheat, fails the course and so loses his scholarship.
Wedderburn and Miss Haysman learn of Hill’s action, and his confession. The tell-tale says “what can you expect? His father is a cobbler.”
And that’s it. I wasn’t really sure what to make of this short story. It presents a moral dilemma, loaded with anguish and regret, but didn’t toy with my emotions or present an irresistible plot as much as I had hoped for.
I enjoyed the first short story, The Door in the Wall, far more.
A boy discovers a lone green door in Kensington, behind which lies a fantastical land, an escape from the streets of London. Here he strokes the ears of two tame panthers, makes friends with a beautiful girl, and admires expansive gardens with trickling fountains. The world is all his own.
“the Door in the Wall was a real door, leading through a real wall to immortal realities.”
The door and its hidden garden haunts him. He tells his Father and Aunt who don’t believe him, scolding him for his lies.
Years later, he finds it on Campden Hill, realising it wasn’t a dream! He confides in a friend, who tells their schoolmates and they accuse him of a being a liar.
Then, when he was 17 and in a cab in Earl’s Court, he saw the door once more!
“Who wants to pat panthers on the way to dinner with pretty women and distinguished men?”
After his death, his friend reflects on his friend’s stories of the Door in the Wall – was he mad and hallucinating, or did the door and its enchanted land exist?
I set out into London’s own enchanted lands in search of adventures new, inspired by Wells.
I want to tell you that I left on a crisp winter day, with blue skies overhead and frost glazing the pavements, my face numb with the freshness of the season.
I didn’t, and it wasn’t.
I skipped out to be greeted by a bitingly cold wind and that sideways rain that cuts into you. Every fibre of my being shivered. I should be in bed writing, I thought. But I persevered and caught the tube to Marylebone for Hanover Terrace, where Wells lived.
It was even wetter when I disembarked at Baker Street. I fought against the blustering wind as I walked along a beautiful stretch of road – even through the haze of weather it was impressive.
Firstly, facing Regents Park, was the London Business School, an expansive corridor of Regency architecture, with a colonnaded facade and manicured gardens.
Shortly after, I arrived at Hanover Terrace, which is of a similar appearance to the previous, but clearly residential, with cars dotting the front drive.
These houses are magnificent, if rather intimidating, and clearly have residents of worth.
I trotted along (the feeling in my toes waning by this point) until I reached No. 13 – Wells’ house, where the writer lived and passed away.
I wanted to really drink it in, but there was a security officer patrolling. No genuinely, there was.
I made awkward small talk with the official, who wore a bullet proof vest. He had clearly clocked and followed me. He kept close to me while I snapped these few photographs.
I left, concerned he would wrestle me to the ground if I stayed much longer, and he followed, presumably to be sure of my exit, six steps behind at all times.
Who knew little 5″2″ me could be quite so threatening.
Disgruntled and slightly threatened by this, I made my way back through the elements to meet Lois and regale the story of this week’s classic.
It was cold. It was wet. It was miserable. See exhibit A:
This was taken shortly before I slipped on a particularly wet pavement. As I peeled myself off the ground, using an obliging railing as leverage, I concluded that this summarises winter for me. Sitting on a wet pavement, feeling strangely intimidated.
I looked around for a door in a wall, to transport me to away from the cold and the rain to worlds new and mystical. But, on this occasion, my search was in vain.
I settled for a reviving cup of a tea and a catch up with my friend.
Thank you Lois for choosing this week’s Little Black Classic, and for comforting me in my chilly condition!
Next time I will be blogging about The Communist Manifesto.