Tuesday, January 06, 2009


One of the books I've liked most while reading for background for the Explosionist sequel is Otto Frisch's immensely likeable and engaging memoir What Little I Remember. I have gleaned from it some minor details that I may be able to use to fill out some things in the book's Copenhagen scenes, but of course lots of this stuff is not really usable, delightful as it may be.

In the world of my novels, for instance, we never visit England because it is part of a fascist European Federation whose borders the heroine is not allowed to cross; in my alternate England, moreover, there is certainly no longer any such thing as Woolworth's. Frisch on working conditions in the 1930s at Birkbeck College:
Of course I had been spoiled at Stern's institute where two first-rate mechanics and a good glass-blower were at our disposal, as well as a supply of up-to-date instruments and materials. I remember writing home from England that to build equipment was so much patchwork and make-do that after a few weeks of it my imagination boggled at the thought of asking for a piece of rubber tube 18 inches long! What saved me was the existence of Woolworth's. In those days no item cost more than sixpence. Admittedly a pair of socks cost a shilling; but Houtermans once insisted on buying one sock, explaining that it was a present for somebody who had only one leg. One could buy almost anything there. Once I bought a piece of ladies' black underwear; it was the easiest way of getting hold of some smooth black fabric for lining my cloud chamber. I didn't have the courage to charge the laboratory for that particular purchase.
A novel set and published in the late 1940s that includes a good description of what can be bought at Woolworth's: Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar!


  1. Sadly, an England without Woolworth's is no longer an alternate England. One less place for this poor graduate student to find cheap bin candy on her research trips.