Michael Elder

Prolific science-fiction writer and 'Take the High Road' actor
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There was something about the novels of Michael Elder that made one wish to meet him. His science-fiction novels in particular - he published 14 of them with Robert Hale, for release primarily to libraries - were curmudgeonly but ingratiating, and were composed at a conspicuously higher level than many of his fellow writers for Hale managed to achieve. There seemed to be more to Elder than these tales could possibly reveal.

Michael Aiken Elder, writer and actor: born London 30 April 1931; married 1953 Sheila Donald (two sons); died Edinburgh 28 July 2004.

There was something about the novels of Michael Elder that made one wish to meet him. His science-fiction novels in particular - he published 14 of them with Robert Hale, for release primarily to libraries - were curmudgeonly but ingratiating, and were composed at a conspicuously higher level than many of his fellow writers for Hale managed to achieve. There seemed to be more to Elder than these tales could possibly reveal.

It turned out that there was no mystery in particular, but much of interest. Michael Aiken Elder was born in 1931 in London of Scottish parents. He suffered from diabetes from his early years. After he was evacuated to St Andrews at the beginning of the Second World War, he identified himself with Scotland and Scottish culture for the rest of his life, although he was educated in the South, at Dulwich and Rada, from where he graduated in 1951.

Well before graduation, he had begun his career as an actor in Scotland, playing the bandit in James Bridie's inexplicably popular Tobias and the Angel, and also published during his teens his first novel, The Affair at Invergarroch (1950), a young-adult tale in which some youngsters discover a mysterious treasure trove in the cathedral at Fife. From the beginning of his adult life, his two careers flourished in tandem.

As an actor, he concentrated on repertory work for the Citizens Theatre Company in Glasgow, and later for the Edinburgh Gateway Company. It is claimed that he featured in more than 1,000 radio broadcasts. His dramatic skills are clearly evident in his solo reading of Nigel Tranter's The Blue Trilogy on audio cassette (1997-98); but Scottish audiences may be most familiar with his role as the doctor (Elder's father had been a physician) in a long- running soap opera for Scottish Television, Take the High Road (some episodes were transmitted through ITV as The High Road), for which he wrote four novelisations from 1984 on, and a history of the sequence, 10 Years of Take the High Road (1990).

After a few novels in theatrical settings - the most memorable is perhaps The Phantom in the Wings (1957) - and some non-fiction books on various subjects, Elder began his relatively modest, but surprisingly prolific and occasionally challenging career as science-fiction writer. Of these novels, some stand out for their argumentative refusal to accede to the ongoing transformation of the world into an arena where surely the Scotland he knew could not survive.

The most vivid of these are perhaps Paradise is Not Enough (1970), a dystopia set in a highly mechanised future; a series of novels, beginning with Nowhere on Earth (1972), in which issues of colonisation and overpopulation are gazed upon - as though some northerner were gazing upon southern England - in horror; and two further linked novels, Oil-Seeker (1977) and Oil-Planet (1978), which are similarly grim about our chances of weathering planetary energy crises.

Elder was a stamp collector; a crossword-puzzle expert; an amateur ornithologist; and an intense and eloquent advocate of the Scottish ways of living. He was liked and loved throughout a wide theatrical circle, although he did not mix much with his fellow writers.

John Clute



Comments