Obituary: Christopher Hodder-Williams
Monday 22 May 1995
He was an individualist from his schooldays. His housemaster at Eton, John Herbert, "recognised the futility of attempting to force me into the standard mould", Hodder-Williams told me the first time we met. "Instead, he helped equip me with those qualities needed by a man who is determined to do things his way."
He served as a lieutenant in the Royal Signals in the Middle East from 1944 to 1948, then spent a year working for the publishers Hodder and Stoughton, where his father Ralph was chairman. He worked on music and films in Kenya, before going to New York in 1952 to write music on Broadway. He co-wrote at least one song with Noel Coward. Returning to Britain he wrote up his New York experiences for the magazine Melody Maker, and spent several years playing piano in jazz bands and writing marvellously witty songs for theatre revues and for bands like the Steve Race Orchestra, sometimes for as many as three live shows a week on the new ITV channel. Sadly, few recordings of these songs still exist.
In 1958 he submitted the first of his 15 novels, a thriller called The Cummins Report, to the family firm, under the pseudonym James Brogan. His second, the following year, launched him into the world of science fiction, though he sometimes preferred his own term, "fiction science". Chain Reaction was one of the very first novels to deal with the dangers of nuclear radiation, a persistent theme in his work.
Hodder-Williams was also a pilot, and his next three novels drew on this experience; reviewers labelled him the natural successor to Nevil Shute. One of these, The Higher They Fly (1963), he turned into a television play in its year of publication; and he wrote a number of Armchair Theatre plays, including the classic The Ship That Couldn't Stop, in the early Sixties.
It was with his next four books that he really made his mark in fiction. The Main Experiment (1964), The Egg-Shaped Thing (1966), Fistful of Digits (1968) and 98.4 (1969), each feature "a man who is determined to do things his own way", and who is caught up in a struggle against a scientific or bureaucratic establishment. In each, it is not technology which is the danger, but man's unthinking subservience to it. Hodder-Williams was more worried about the effect of machines on people than about the machines themselves. As one character in Fistful of Digits says, "Many people fear computers, because they seem to impersonate human beings. But they are wrong. What they should fear is the opposite: human beings who impersonate computers." The altering of personality was another recurrent theme.
In 1974 Hodder-Williams published what many consider his most disturbing book, Coward's Paradise. The novel - not science fiction - takes the form of the diary of an author who is suffering from acute anxiety. The specialists perform a lobotomy to "cure" him and he is left completely unable to write. It was a popular operation at the time, but Hodder-Williams was utterly opposed to it. "I think the centre of anxiety is the centre of the personality," he once told me; "if you try and knock that out, you're knocking out the person."
Christopher Hodder-Williams married his second wife Deidre in 1967. It was Deidre's belief in him and loving support of him which kept him writing both words and music through the illnesses of his last few years. Shortly before his death he completed a new novel, Schizorama, a hard-hitting account of just how people are expected to cope when released with little or no back-up under "care in the community". In his books and in his life he fought Establishment stupidity - with persistence, but always with humour.
David V. Barrett
John Christopher Hodder-Williams, writer and composer: born London 25 August 1926; twice married (one son, one daughter); died London 15 May 1995.
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