At last someone has written down the stories of all the pipe-chuffing uncle-figures who were once my heroes. And what a great job Francis Spufford has done.
It would be easy to caricature the quiet, understated passion of men whose ambition stretches from the suburbs to the stars. While Spufford's writing is full of funny human detail, he never takes that easy line. Instead, he overcomes the challenge of linking a list of contrasting stories to reveal a larger theme: how successive sons of a fading empire have tried to make their technological dreams come true in a changing political and economic climate. This is a celebration of the true "White Heat of a new technological revolution" - a heat that still burns in the hearts of individual scientists, inventors and professional engineers.
As one who nearly joined their ranks, please indulge me while I add my own anecdote to Spufford's excellent book. I vividly remember a holiday in 1975, on the day when one of the Viking landers touched down on Mars. While the family were sitting down to watch Patrick Moore and the first pictures from the surface of an alien world, we heard that the local chippy had acquired a new-fangled invention - a "microwave" oven. Dad rushed out and returned with chicken cooked from raw in the magic rays. It was pale and pasty, but somehow that didn't matter. We sat munching it with soggy chips in front of the telly and it felt like the dawn of our very own Space Age. Soggy chips and vaunting ambition is what this book is all about.
"Backroom Boys" starts with a chapter about the early British space programme ("Flying Spitfires to Other Planets") and ends with the "Beagle 2" mission to Mars. There's a scrotum-crawling irony about the way the latter turned out to be such a dog of spacecraft. Somehow, when you read this book you know that Britain's been here before.
Most technological dreams turn out different to our expectations. But that's not a reason to give up trying. If you still have hope that invention and technical creativity might hold some of the answers to the difficult problems we face on this planet, give this book a read.