In the dark days before we had E2, people used to meet in pubs. Yes, even literary people, and some scientists. They had their own watering holes, safe havens where people could gather to share interesting - perhaps only slightly exaggerated - stories about their work. Places like the White Hart, which was located somewhere in London, "on one of those anonymous little lanes leading down from Fleet Street to the Embankment". In this cozy little establishment, there were three main types of regulars - the literary types, the scientists, and the "interested laymen". It is probable that a great many of the latter were working for the Government, but one was never quite sure which government that was. Any interested parties are advised to contact Arthur C. Clarke, who now lives in Sri Lanka and no longer frequents the White Hart - which has, in fact, been closed after a change of ownership drove many of the regulars to the nearby, but less cozy, "Sphere".

I'm sure that to many of our regular patrons it will seem that funny science fiction was invented by Douglas Adams, although Harry Harrison's early ventures may be remembered by a few. Mention Arthur C. Clarke to these young whippersnappers and most of them will exclaim, "oh yes, the one who wrote '2001'. The bloke who said that thing about advanced technologies and magic...", with all the gravity and reverence most properly used when speaking of knighted elder statesmen of science fiction who invented communications satellites. But there is another side to Sir Arthur, a comic side that can only be seen in the pages of an extremely funny book called "Tales from the White Hart". Published in 1957, "Tales" is a collection of short stories written between 1954 and 1957. All of the stories take place in a most peculiar London pub, where the regulars compete with each other in the telling of highly improbable tall tales of science. Chief entertainer in this motley group is Harry Purvis, B.Sc. (at least), Ph.D. (probably) F.R.S. (it has been rumoured), who tells more stretchers than a Cairo perfume salesman.

This underrated classic of science fiction is now out of print, but still available in many used bookstores. It must be noted that since its publication, a good many of the scientific principles discussed in its pages have been thoroughly investigated, and to modern readers much of the book may not seem like science fiction at all. But the gentle humour of the stories, the brilliantly lucid science writing (even when the science is imaginary!), and the character of Harry Purvis - a sort of scientist Walter Mitty whose eventual downfall is wrought by a shrewish wife, killed in one of his tales but not in reality - are simply timeless.

Oops. sid has pointed out to me that the book is, in fact, still (or once again) in print, and available from Amazon. I've gotten so used to seeing SF classics go out of print that I hadn't even checked there. Now go buy it.

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