It's life, Jim, but not as we know it

30th September 2011 at 01:00
Space travel, moon landings and global warming inspired the late science-fiction author J.T. McIntosh. Now his work has become the subject of an out-of-this-world project for pupils from his neighbourhood. Jean McLeish reports

He was one of the world's most popular science-fiction writers in the Fifties and Sixties - but Jim MacGregor was a quiet Scotsman who kept a low profile.

He declined an invitation from Yale University to talk about his work and once turned down an offer to make a television series from one of his scripts. They were chances others would have grabbed with both hands.

But ironically the man who wrote fabulous, futuristic fiction about intergalactic space travel had a fear of flying and preferred the quiet comforts of home to the high life. "He was a quiet and very private man - that's how I would describe him", says his widow Margaret MacGregor, sitting by the fireside at the family home in Aberdeen.

Her husband Jim had been a teacher and journalist and by the time she met and married him in 1961, he was already a full-time author. He wrote 26 science- fiction novels under the name of his old schoolfriend J.T. McIntosh. With titles such as World Out of Mind, Worlds Apart and Born Leader, his books were hugely popular in America and translated into six languages with sales worldwide.

Now, three years after his death at the age of 83, there's a revival of interest in the Aberdeen novelist's life and work, thanks to pupils and teachers at the city's Torry Academy.

A group of first-year pupils at the school embarked on a cross-curricular project about him in their English class, exploring the career of this enigmatic author, who lived an apparently ordinary life, but was writing extraordinary stories, just a stone's throw from their school.

Their research culminated in a popular exhibition about him over the summer in Aberdeen Central Library, encouraging renewed interest in one of the city's most successful, but largely unrecognised authors. The writer's family - including widow Margaret and their grandchildren - came along to celebrate the launch. "We were just thrilled about it," Mrs MacGregor says.

The idea for the project and exhibition came from the school's support for learning teacher, Dr Albert Bil, a respected local archivist and historian. He was approached for his opinion about Mr MacGregor's surviving archive and correspondence by bookseller Cliff Milne, a friend of the MacGregor family, who encouraged them not to throw it out.

"I suggested we should approach the National Library of Scotland because it was so outstanding," says Dr Bil. That archive material is now with the National Library and there has recently been renewed interest in the author's work in Italy.

It was Dr Bil's idea to create a pilot Curriculum for Excellence project for new first-years, based on the writer's life story, in collaboration with English teacher Pamela McDonald.

"Lots of people in Aberdeen had never heard of him before the library put on the display. He was an international science-fiction writer who in his day was making lots and lots of money, but not even his neighbours knew how successful he was," says Dr Bil.

This also meant the research was challenging. Jim MacGregor had kept himself to himself throughout his life, rarely gave interviews and used pseudonyms. But a short memoir compiled in 1986 gives insight into the man behind the highly imaginative fiction.

Investigating this sci-fi world was an ideal opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, encouraging pupils to learn more about a range of topics, including science and the planets.

Their teachers were particularly keen on the venture because this was a Scottish writer, a great achiever who had lived within the school's local community.

"We wanted something innovative, exciting and fresh. J.T. McIntosh was the inspiration for the unit, which then spread out," says Mrs McDonald.

"We were able to use ICT, we looked into the history of J.T. McIntosh. We were delving and exploring and finding things out. We were getting the pupils active and involved, trying to challenge them and giving them quite a lot of responsibility to explore for themselves."

Children designed book covers inspired by 1950s science-fiction jackets, they researched the author's bibliography on the internet, drew artwork, wrote stories and explored this fantastic other world of aliens, robots and space travel to distant planets.

Following their research, the class prepared storyboards and illustrations for the exhibition, then used the project as a springboard to further work on fantasy within the Dr Who television series.

Their science-fiction work neatly followed a Space Day transition project the children had done in P7, when NASA astronaut Bill McArthur and geologist Stephanie Stockman visited them at Torry Academy for discussions and activities based around space exploration.

A third of the 18 children who worked on the project spoke English as a second language and, since J.T McIntosh was so widely translated, the Polish children were able to read out what had been written about him in their language and translate it for their classmates.

"I know now he was a famous science-fiction writer and I got to learn more about science fiction," says 13-year-old Gabriela Hubickova, who came to Aberdeen from the Czech Republic three years ago. "It's not the kind of thing I would read, though," she says.

Fourteen-year-old Amelia Pattillo designed a book jacket for the exhibition and thought the project was very interesting. She also wrote an article about the writer, based on her findings.

"It's pretty sad that people didn't get to know him," says James Jamieson, 13, now in S2. He explains how the writer's pen name came about: "He was with his friend in school and they said if they ever got famous, they would use the other one's name. So it was his friend's name he used."

According to Margaret MacGregor, the real J.T. McIntosh went on to become headteacher at Finzean School, near Banchory, and the two men remained lifelong friends.

In a filmed interview, children met and spoke to Mrs MacGregor, who admits with down-to-earth candour that science fiction isn't really her thing; she prefers Jim's adventure stories. "I read his novels - When the Ship Sank was my favourite and it was about a ship going down after the war," she says.

She was a widow with three young children when the couple met and married within six months in 1961. "I just thought he was very sedate and well mannered," she says of their whirlwind romance.

Her new husband owned a car he had bought in the Fifties, when there were very few on the road, and later bought a baby grand piano. But besides those luxuries, they lived like any other working-class family, occasionally struggling to make ends meet.

J.T. McIntosh was probably best known for his sci-fi novel One in Three Hundred, published in 1953 when he was 28. Pupils realised this was a man ahead of his time, writing in the Fifties about men landing on the moon and in graphic detail about the impact of global warming.

From his memoir, the class discovered more about the writer's past. After leaving school at Robert Gordon's College, he graduated with honours in English literature and language from Aberdeen University in 1947, supporting himself by playing piano in a local dance band.

He also taught English at Aberdeen Grammar, then worked as a journalist at the Bon Accord and Press and Journal newspapers in Aberdeen. When science fiction became sufficiently lucrative in the early Fifties, he was able to give up the day job for several years and concentrate on his writing full time.

But when tastes in science fiction changed later in the Sixties, he returned to writing in his spare time, teaching music in Aberdeenshire schools and working as a night sub-editor back at the Press and Journal until his retirement in 1986.

Aberdeen City Libraries is now building its collection of the works of J.T. McIntosh in response to the interest created by the Torry Academy exhibition.

Information services manager Susan Bell says she had never heard of the writer before the project, although they hold a few copies of his works.

"We were very interested in putting on this exhibition for two reasons. First, to showcase the work of the pupils in connection with the exhibition and bring it to a wider audience and, second, to raise the profile of J.T. McIntosh in Aberdeen," she says.

The library was so impressed with the school's efforts that it awarded pupils prizes and certificates to acknowledge their achievement and extended the two-month exhibition by a further month because of the interest in the largely forgotten writer.

His widow Margaret is quietly delighted at the interest in her husband's work. "I was just over the moon with the exhibition," she says. "And I thoroughly enjoyed a lovely afternoon with the children."


A short introduction to one of J.T. McIntosh's early science-fiction novels, World Out of Mind, gives an indication of the Scottish writer's popularity when it was published in the UK in 1953.

"This is the first novel to be published in this country by a writer whose name is known to all readers of the best science-fiction magazines in Great Britain and America," it declares.

A shortage of paper in this country after the war had led Jim MacGregor to pursue publication of his short stories in America.

"American magazines had all the paper they needed. If I couldn't publish in Britain because the market was so tiny, it clearly made sense to try America," he explains in his short memoir from 1986.

His most popular novel, One in Three Hundred, published in 1953, describes the impact of global warming, with earth doomed and a hazardous journey to Mars the only hope for survivors.

It might not be the last thing you'd want to read before you put out the light at night. "People were running, then tripping as the sidewalks split, screaming as their clothes began to smoulder. People were dashing into bathrooms, turning on the cold shower and being scalded by boiling water and steam that emerged.

"Others, unthinking, were running for lakes and pools, unaware that the water was already well on the way to being steam. Once more the astonishing thing would be that human beings lived so long, still moving, trying to survive in a world where every tree was blazing.

"All over one side of the planet people who were dead, their bodies roasted, still moved and shrieked and strived for blessed coolness which no longer existed."

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