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Chandler, Arthur Bertram (Bert) (1912–1984)

Arguably A. Bertram Chandler was the most widely enjoyed of all Australian writers of popular fiction. Yet in his adopted country, notwithstanding a recent small surge of interest that might have produced fuller recognition, he was scarcely known at all.

By contrast his science fiction — particularly his tales of the Antipodes-inspired 'Rim Worlds', and of the peripatetic John Grimes (base: Port Woomera) — were warmly appreciated in the United States, where two years ago he was guest of honour at the Chicago World Science Fiction Convention. In Japan, where he was even more lavishly honoured, he was a cult figure.

A dealer in a romantic genre of literature, "Bert" Chandler was a romantic in most departments of his life, in his "quite notorious unrequited love affair with airships", the ardour with which he embraced Zionism after his marriage to his Jewish second wife, his enthusiasm for Ned Kelly and his legend, his own keen adoptive patriotism.

Most of those characteristics seem superficially anomalous. Mr Chandler, who died in his sleep in a Sydney hospital earlier this month, often denied being a science-fiction writer. "I write sea stories, set in space," he would say. And, indeed, there was little recognisable "science" in his yarns: the mechanics of interstellar travel, and communication, were evocatively but vaguely drawn.

Born in March 1912, in the Military Hospital, Aldershot, England, the future writer was never to know his father, killed in the first salvoes of World War I. Later he knew, remembered and was mesmerised by the dirigibles that bombed his small-boy's London.

Prevented from attending university by failure to matriculate from a minor English public school (largely because he failed to take Scripture seriously), Chandler instead took up an apprenticeship with the Sun Shipping Company of London. Later he served with the Shaw Savill Line, later still, plying the lesser ports of Australia and New Zealand, which were to inspire his Rim Worlds series, with the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand.

It was during the Shaw Savill period that he self-apprenticed himself as a writer, first contributing articles to the Nautical Magazine, later developing into fiction, drawing upon his seaman's expertise. A rat-infested hulk he served on provided the inspiration for his most famous (and least typical) tale, 'Giant Killer'.

In the 1940s he had the good fortune, during regular calls at New York, to come under the guidance of John Campbell, editor of Astounding, and midwife to a generation's science fiction: 'Giant Killer' was submitted three times, in widely divergent garb, before Campbell would accept it.

Chandler came to Australia after the break-up of his first marriage, and in pursuit of his second wife, Susan. By stages, his work became more demonstrably Australian and so, in the US and Japan, strange and rare.

Paradoxical as it seems, it can be argued that at the time of his death, at 72, Chandler had only recently reached full stride as a writer. For most of his life his literary output had been slotted in between lengthy stints as a merchant naval commander, and consisted largely of short stories.

Mandatory retirement from the sea meant a greater concentration on novels. From a flat at King's Cross, and from cabins on a series of pensioned-off vessels in Sydney harbour required to keep a master mariner on board while they waited the scrap yard, latterly from a nudist colony north of Sydney, there came a rush of tales of his alter-ego, John Grimes. A critic's suggestion that Grimes was the "Hornblower of space" soon produced a descent from the English admiral. He also became quite avowedly Australian: home base, Port Woomera.

Most of these yarns were little more than picaresque. He confessed that he never knew, when he began one, where or how it would end.

Possibly the only novel he ever actually researched was 'Kelly Country', out last year, a delightful "alternative history" which has Kelly triumphant at Glenrowan, and for a long time afterwards. He researched much of the history for it in Canberra.

Though it comes through inadequately in the book, his technological research, which took him to Washington DC among other places, was equally erudite: the steam-powered tanks, and the airships with which Kelly triumphed, were all patented, practical, yet ignored, in the world of 100 years ago.

Gregarious despite a slight speech defect, Chandler never retreated to the Olympus to which many of his US and Japanese fans, in particular, would have consigned him.

An arguably minor figure in literary history, he was a major one in his own genre, and in popular writing — outside his own country. Yet Australia, through the undoubted goodwill for this country that he did so much to generate through his writing elsewhere in the world, is more greatly bereft than it now realises.

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'Chandler, Arthur Bertram (Bert) (1912–1984)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/chandler-arthur-bertram-bert-12307/text35499, accessed 19 September 2019.

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