How Unlike the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen

I Was a Prisoner of the Civil Service

[A Reader's Predigest exclusive best-seller condensed to a few handy, bitesize paragraphs. To reconstitute the complete book, simply add words.]

The Escape Officer looked at me with steely eyes. "So you want to get out of Boundary Hall Hostel?"

"God, yes. It's hell in here."

"There's only one way, Langford, and it's not an easy one. (Damn these flies.) You'll need funds, external contacts. And more than that ..." He paused. The soundtrack throbbed with heavy, ominous chords.

"I can take it, sir."

"You have to get ... married."

T minus 4.5 MONTHS (25 Jan 1976)

A house! It was big enough for me, Hazel and the books, so we set the wheels in motion; very soon I was telling Kev Smith all about it, on a commuter train.

"The study," I said, "is merely Day-Glo pink and orange. But the dining room ... oh dear. The walls are covered with virulent pink and purple blossoms, carnivorous orchids! " A woman nearby was leaning towards us in fascination.

"They writhe and squirm on the walls, and reach out with numberless tentacles to entwine their doomed victim. Slowly the disgusting fleshy petals draw him in, dribbling a hot froth of digestive juices --"

The woman suddenly decided to sit elsewhere.

T minus 4 MONTHS

The theatricals (Hazel's phrase) were to be conducted in my old college chapel. We called on the chaplain and found him supine on a chaise-longue.

"Sorry I'm unable to get up," he beamed: "I was at a service this morning and they gave me a great deal of gin afterwards."

There seemed nothing to say.

T minus 3 MONTHS

The obligatory wedding-present list was long and silly. It began with the ghost of Hamlet's father -- "List, list, list:" - - and continued through stuffed ravens (pref. mounted on pallid bust of Pallas), vegetable rack for stretching carrots, Gestetner duplicator (some hope) to the mysterious entry "TORTOISE: viable". This beast is to be called Fang: I visualise daily feeding sessions in which I fend off the ravenous reptile with a chair while hurling it buckets of steaming entrails.

T minus 23 DAYS

We now owned a house.

Snarling and grunting, I wedged a dozen files into the car boot. From the windows of Boundary Hall canteen, various nerds watched wonderingly as endless boxes of books were shoved onto the back seat. I could sense their whispers: "Surely he's finished now?" (No.) "Why doesn't he put anything on the front seat?" (Because, you oafs, I'm picking up Hazel.) Langford, the conversation piece. I hope their food got cold.

Even keener interest came when I hauled the bookcase from my room. "He'll never get that in!" By this time I was hamming it up, and after lengthy study of the rear door (Too small? Too small.), walked widdershins about Fred the Car, scratching my head the while. Their eyes followed me. Pity I'd packed all the paper: be nice to have set up a sign. "Collapsed Matter" Kinetic Artform. All My Own Work. Give Generously.

The bookcase scraped through the front passenger door, and with a dextrous twist of several little-used muscles I slid it across the pile in the back. Simultaneously, something happened in my spine; the watchers in the canteen were delighted to see me writhing and massaging myself. Their food should not only get cold, it should sprout Bac. botulinus.

Bits and pieces: a pile of fanzines wedged in here. A shoe tastefully arranged there. (They may well wonder about the other shoe. Me too.) Doors securely shut.

As a climax to the show, I turned to the canteen windows and solemnly bowed. Within, the nerds took a sudden, embarrassed interest in their congealing food; and presently, with derisive toots of the horn and crashes of the gears, Fred moved off ...

T minus 21 DAYS

The shock of marriage would certainly drive me to drink. (I was already there, but perhaps it would drive more drink to me.) Solitary drinking is a fearful vice; accordingly I fixed a housewarming party for June 19th, one week after the wedding, thinking that with enough guests as smokescreen I could sit in a corner and get down to some solitary drinking.

T minus 5 DAYS

The special licence appeared, a fearsome document covering a couple of square feet (of wall: Hazel hung it there as the huntress' trophy.); in it, the Archbishop of Canterbury addresses me with undue familiarity as his beloved in Christ. Seeing our full names thereon reminded me of a difficulty I had in early '73, when I took out a girl named Gita. Mentioning her to my mother produced an agonised cry: "She's not black, is she?" (I think she was Polish.)

Later I met one Dorothy Yamamoto, and was duly warned: "You know what Chinese girls are like." I didn't, and she was Japanese, so ... Oh. Hello, Hazel. Nice Hazel. You realise all this is pure fantasy? Ouch.

T minus 4
T minus 3
T minus 2 ... 1 ...

I went to work as usual. I thought no-one noticed a thing, but at the end of the week they gave me a wedding gift of tranquillisers.

ZERO HOUR (11 June 1976)
or, Langford's Last Party as a Free Man

An episode best left veiled in discretion. Participants: Keith Oborn, Dermot, Mike (Better Man) Rohan, Dai Price and Martin. These are the guilty men. The hours before closing time were adumbrated in a letter from Dai.

"Remember the wise words of Herbert --

"I must have beer. Beer is the mind-killer. Beer is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my beer. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. When the beer has gone there will be nothing. Only 'I will' remains."

Me again. Subsequently, Dai produced his collection of single-malt miniatures. After that, the dark. Sound of 'Hymns & Arias' echoing through North Oxford. Deb Hickenlooper's attempts to force coffee into us. Presently I locked myself in the toilet and (hem hem) coughed a good deal. What with coughings and flushings of the toilet, it was perhaps inevitable that my denture should vanish forever, that I should sink into premarital oblivion with a yawning void replacing one incisor ...

Laugh and I'll kill you.

AFTERMATH

And the next day Hazel was married.

Me too.

Twll-Ddu 3


Dear Sir ... "Two Skulls"

"Why have I got a mould-patch on top of my stamens?" said Hazel.

I didn't know what to think.

"Someone once won the John W. Campbell award for Beyond Apollen," I countered. "Say it again. A-mould-patch-on-top-of-your-stamens ... Good grief."

Hazel was dumbstruck. "Where do you suppose I keep my stamens?" she said wonderingly.

"Well --" I am the soul of tact. But then I saw the mole wrench (Ship Through Newport Home Of The) lying on top of the kitchen scales, and it all came together. Reality is so depressing. And my wife says that my imagination needs cleaning.

(Later: "Why have I got a mole wrench on top of my spice jars?"

"Less chance of a misunderstanding, me dear.")

Communication gaps: they follow me around. Ever since I failed to achieve a meaningful dialogue with the motorbike that came at me, I've been without a hearing-aid, which doesn't help: and the little card the hospital gave me is very depressing. REPORT BACK TO US OR SEE YOUR OWN DOCTOR IF YOU DEVELOP HEADACHE, VOMITING OR IF YOU FEEL DROWSY. In this weather I'm permanently sleepy and prone to headaches --

"Hello? The hospital? I have this dreadful drowsy feeling. It's been getting worse for hours. No, the card says nothing about it being all right at 5am. Oh."

Communication gap, see?

It was shortly after Hazel had tipped half a pound of sultanas into the tool-box that the phone call came. "The police have found Cedric and Clarissa!" my father whispered darkly. The fear rose in me, then, like an ebony tidal wave, and did a lurching polka in my guts. (Imagery courtesy of R. Zelazny.)

Cedric and Clarissa were skulls, the detritus of long-dead medical students, acquired by myself at Oxford and painstakingly cleansed (of dust, only dust) with Flesh-destroyer, the current name for Sunlight Lemon Liquid, cheapest and nastiest detergent on the market. Clarissa, being in a woefully trepanned state, had occasionally done duty -- lined with aluminium foil -- as a peanut-bowl; while Cedric's foramen magnum was just large enough to take a ten-watt bulb, so it was the work of half an hour to arrange that his eye-sockets should flash a sinister red ...

Since Mother didn't much fancy them, they were boarded out with my good aunt Louise until I could find a happy home for the little dears. Then Louise moved, cleverly leaving both Clarissa and Cedric hanging in a plastic bag from the roof of the garage.

"I put them there," she explained, "so they wouldn't frighten the kids."

The person they did frighten, I discovered, was the policeman who'd bought the house ... Human remains in the garage? Instant suspicion! Worse, the gentleman with whom Louise had been living was nowhere to be found ...

"Naturally she could dispose of the other bones, sergeant, but a skull is less inconspicuous."

"Amazing, Mr Fairweather!"

"Elementary," said he.

In the Cwmbran police station, my aunt's story was scoffed at, and press releases were lovingly polished. In Reading, a Monty Pythonesque duo of crimefighters burst in on me.

"We'd like to ask you a few questions about some ... skulls," said the John Cleese figure, waiting for the blood to drain from my face and gurgle into my socks. "The skulls that I 'brought from Oxford and left in the keeping of my good aunt Louise?" I quipped. He permitted no emotion to soften his cruel features. "Mind if we come in?"

The other arm of the law was broken -- a passable Terry Jones in a large sling -- I was expecting something like, "When I found them skulls I fell over with the shock and did this to myself and I'll settle out of court for £5000."; but he said nothing and continued to say it for the duration of the visit. His big friend extracted a statement from me with practiced and agrammatic ease (I always have to correct policemen's grammar when they take statements ... h'mm, what a giveaway). A sense of anticlimax began to be felt, as I regaled him with details of the cellar where the skulls turned up, with a dead cat on the floor; or the naming of not only the relics he knew, but Cholmondley (fragmentary, painstakingly labelled, location unknown) too, and even the unspeakable Cecil (Hazel's special delight, a complete mummified head).

"Let's not bother with them, " he said despairingly, refusing cup after cup of tea. "Let's stick to the point."

So I signed on the dotted line and they went away. We are not likely (they said, with some relief) to be troubled again. The tool-box was still full of sultanas; I dismissed skulls from my mind.

An hour later, our hero was retrieving some impedimenta -- love that word -- from his nice new car. Across the road, a police car slid to a halt in that furtive way they have -- the driver shouted to me -- this was it! I shuffled across to discover what he was saying ...

"What's the number of your house?"

"Twenty-two."

"Thanks." He drove away.

I think it's the standard procedure with Nuisances: if you can't prosecute, hit 'em with a few lightning shafts of fear to teach 'em the error of their ways.

What next? Who knows?

Twll-Ddu 4


First Annual Spring Bank Holiday House Party

We set off in the usual way -- checking the various wedges that held the car together and hammering bits of bodywork more firmly into place -- and presently were bumping (that car bumps even on smooth roads) along the M4 to the normal soothing accompaniment of strange noises as of many milk-floats, with an overall roar of unbridled power like a passing Concorde but less muted and tranquil. It was with a certain sense of routine that I noted the 21-gun salute of backfiring which began about two miles from glorious Ealing; with practised ease I weaved from lane to lane, squeezing the vehicle through gaps which would have been too small but for its relativistic contraction, and ended up on the last piece of emergency stopping-lane before the end of the M4.

A sense of routine, I said ... this sort of thing happens all the time, and it was the work of a moment to remove the two wedges holding down the bonnet, fling wide the distributor cap and wiggle all the wires within, and reassemble the whole mess. It was then I discovered that the battery had mysteriously gone flat, while from hitherto undetected holes in the radiator came little jets of steam and boiling rusty water. We knowledgeable Vauxhall drivers are of course careful to stack several dozen old cider bottles of water in the back, even when only driving round the block: it proved that one of these had somehow bumped against one of the others so that the entertainment was enlivened with much dampness and broken glass. After a while the damage was sorted out and the car restored to perfect working order except for the trifling requirement of a push-start. We made a quick-head-count. Myself; Hazel. I tried to push the car with her in the front seat ready to start it, but I couldn't push hard enough and anyway she refused to touch the controls, not being of a mechanical turn of mind; so then she pushed the car with me inside and it sort of rocked and that was all; so then we both pushed it and that was fine except for my inability to leap inside and put the thing into gear without spraining all sorts of things and failing miserably besides.

Since we'd been giving this hilarious open-air performance for nearly half an hour it seemed a good idea to invoke some reinforcements. Brushing muck and oil from my frivolous party ensemble, I wandered off to the phone and -- lifted the receiver!! A kindly policeman at the other end told me that garages on Bank Holidays were beyond the dreams of avarice and it would probably be cheaper to push our wreck in front of another car and claim the insurance. Failing that, he added hastily, a police car would be passing in a few minutes. I ran back in time to see someone who had offered aid driving away (his notion of aid was only along the lines of petrol transfusions, mind you). There followed a long pastoral scene at the romantic motorwayside, amid May blossom and bits of old car, while I pondered on the possibility of cutting the treads a bit deeper on my more illicit tyres and Hazel indulged in a quiet sulk.

Suddenly, before we knew what was happening, it happened. A huge vanload of two policemen was parked next to us and almost before I could utter my standard Opening Line In Friendly Encounters With The Law ("Hello") a large fatherly constable was explaining the rudiments of how batteries go flat. He then asked for a peep under the bonnet before going into the complications of bump-starting: this fatal request was the cause of it all and the constabulary must take full responsibility for the horror that followed. With embarrassment I eased out the little wedges which held the back, and levered up the creaking, rusted mass of the bonnet; he looked inside in the apparent hope that I'd missed something really obvious such as an absence of engine. The engine was there all right; baffled, he slunk back to the police van as doomed Langford lowered the bonnet, slowly, very slowly, to the sound of heavy, ominous music on the soundtrack -- and there was a snapping noise inside. Little did I know the awful etc etc ...

When initially offering to bump-start the wreck, the kindly police were most solicitous about possible damage to my bumpers. Nice of them, I thought; after all, they have these rubber bumpers and it can't do much harm. But when they saw the horrid reality they shuddered and interposed a cloth to protect their own bumpers ... And the car starts and it's a happy ending: We paid our final respects to the nice policemen and waited hours to creep back onto the motorway, and did so, and ten feet later I found what that little snapping noise under the bonnet had been. It was the catch that held the damn thing down.

After ten feet of motorway, the bonnet flipped into a vertical position and did a little dance on the wing mirrors. There were loud broken-glass noises and a solid BONG as fifty pounds of metal tried to get at me through the roof. I thought it might be wise to pull off the motorway once more. I thought several other things but managed to contain them; Hazel too must have been having a containment problem, as when we stopped again she instantly stamped off into the undergrowth and thought things she would have surely hesitated to utter.

The police were again very solicitous, and helped me carry the now totally detached bonnet round to put in the back of the car. As I opened the tailgate, the lock disintegrated and most of its guts came out on the end of the key. I forced it back in as nonchalantly as I could, and favoured the police with a friendly, sickly smile. We ended up driving to Ealing in a slow and bonnetless way -- this was the perfect time for it to rain all over the exposed high-tension leads, but the Fates obviously boggled at this and we made it without mishap bar a tendency to start sentences, "Suppose we'd been doing 80 in the fast lane --" ... such sentences never finished.

At 7a Lawrence Road, Hazel bitterly told the assembled revellers that if they wished hilarity they had but to go out and gaze on the remnants of our car. Due awe was expressed, Greg and Simone offering various useful bits of string. We then watched helpfully as a grunting Andrew Stephenson lashed the car together with consummate virtuosity, also string; could we have carried it upstairs he'd probably have attempted rewelding over the PickersWalsh stove. That was the last appearance of that car in this Twll-Ddu.

Within the hallowed portals were many strange attractions such as a display of notably pretentious letters of acceptance (I knew it was a mistake to use headed notepaper and six typefaces) plus a Competition for best editorial response to Ian Garbutt, whose lurid SBD [Stop Breaking Down] letter showed his determination to outdo even the fabled Tom Jones in mastery of logic, language and even spelling. Fascinating though this was, our grim destiny now led us to Acton Fair -- in Kev's car with big Mike Dickinson talking all the way about a Leeds-based near-millionaire book dealer who wants twenty tables at Yorcon and intends to stamp mere Peytons and Slaters out of existence.

KEV: "A fan rate for Book Room tables? Are there any non-pro booksellers?"

MIKE: "Well, people like Rog Peyton are pretty much amateurs in comparison."

To be fannish we all sneaked into the fair through a gap in the fence (which showed signs of strain as Dai Price assaulted it). There didn't seem to be an admission fee; it was the principle of the thing. Inside were thrilling events like motorcycle football, played with such cringing regard for safety that the goalies -- on foot -- were definitely the fastest movers on the field. Tiring of this after long milliseconds of dutiful attention, I felt an urge to investigate the rumoured CAMRA beer tent. It existed, but was of course closed. We had no choice but to move on to the funfair itself, where all fandom was plunged into war on the Dodgems. It did seem for a while that Andrew was driving carefully and trying not to hit others, but even I hesitate to make such calumnious assertions in print. (H'm: I almost said 'calumnious imputations' there, but caught myself in the nick of time. Joe Nicholas, who can still be very irritating sometimes, has this theory that Langfordian style, if such it can be called, is lifted bodily from the Saintlier flourishes of Leslie Charteris. Certainly Charteris has emitted at least one 'calumnious imputation': I must tread carefully, very carefully, lest our Joseph shriek, "Told you so!". )

When the beer tent finally opened we had to buy (hire) glasses in order to sample the exotic wares. As soon as I had parted with 45p for a pint mug, Daio shattered it in a spirit of playfulness. D. West was unhappy with Leroy's choice of beer for him, and complained a lot, especially about the lack of comment-hooks (i.e. references to D. West) in Twll-Ddu 11. "You had an unbroken record for ten issues," was his pained reproof. "Why throw away a winning formula?" Greg, meanwhile, pondered glumly on the coming nuclear holocaust: ale does this to him. (I exclude as inadmissible the theory that it was my cheery company which brought on the despair.)

That evening we settled to conviviality and the Ian Grabutt (sic) Competition. Joe wailed that the letter was so cretinous that detailed refutation would take pages. Since Joe takes pages to convey the information that he has received a fanzine, this comment should be taken with a pinch of health-salts. Disregarding him, I entered the competition several times to conceal my own lack of coherence and continuity. Bloody Charnock won, though, with bloody Smith as runyon, oops, runner up. Their letters should appear in the next issue of the transformed Stop Breaking Down, which Simone unblushingly announced would be called Seamonsters. Ahem. (Later she realised that this title had a double meaning, as in 'Simone stirs [up trouble] ...' She was stunned by this witty interpretation, while Greg was merely incredulous. "I saw that right away, " he growled.)

Eve Harvey tactfully told me that I was getting gross and fat and disgusting. This was an omen. Pleased with their earlier witty efforts, the restless fates were beginning to choreograph a brand-new sequence of misfortune and disaster ...

The next day, Sunday, we were moved by cowardice to resort to a train, arriving too late to capitalise on various rash offers of lifts from Ealing Broadway. After a walk we found the masses at play in a park near the official venue. They were recognisable from a distance as a fannish group by their almost total immobility; they stood silent and ritualistic with nothing but the occasional flash of a frisbee to distinguish them from statues.

I watched awhile, as my life was saved by resolute sucks at a can of beer supplied by sympathetic Pat Charnock. The game was an amazing spectacle. The contestants were arranged in a wide circle and most of the time did not even have the strength to throw the frisbee across a complete diameter. Thus Rob Hansen was stationed in the middle. "Fetch Rob! There's a good boy!" Greg indulged in occasional sprints, machismo oozing from his every pore. Big Dai Price, stripped to the waist, gradually went a sort of boiled colour, while the balding generation (Kev and Mike D.) were later prostrated by what may well have been sun, in part. D. West did not see fit to play ... he survived.

It was the hour of my downfall. I joined in and presently crippled Malcolm with a well-aimed miss to the instep. He obviously invoked in retaliation all the occult powers bestowed by George Hay's interstellar contacts upon masters of the Foundation, for very soon there came a rending sound of the sort familiar to all connoisseurs of Brian Rix farce. Another Langford disaster! I backed away from the game and sat down, rather wishing that I was not wearing lurid red-and-white underpants. The situation had all the delicate subtlety of a banana skin. I lay on one side, trying to look unobtrusive, while Hazel fumbled ineffectually about the disaster area with safety pins ... a tableau so intriguing that the frisbee game instantly broke up and unfeeling wretches like K. J. Smith took the opportunity for coarse laughter.

Rude cries followed as I minced very carefully back to the flat. To avoid actual arrest I presently developed a technique of dangling a document case from hands clasped nonchalantly behind my back. This does not conceal the fact that South Ealing is a draughty place. We searched the flat for what seemed like minutes, finally discovering (beneath a pile of old Gregorian boots) a sewing-machine complete with needle and thread. I read the papers in an exposed state while Hazel displayed wifely virtuosity, and the job was just finished and me reinserted when Malcolm and Chris burst in, obviously hoping to catch me unawares. Though disappointed in this case, Chris's lust later led to sexist acts such as p*nch*ng my reupholstered but still cringing buttocks. The woman is dangerous.

A beard-discussion group came next on the agenda; it elicited the shameful truth that I Never Tried It because Hazel will not let me. It was suggested that Joe was trying it by degrees -- that the resistless march of his sideburns would eventually come to a head in the middle. This he denied. We moved on to a real programme item in the form of a quiz held in mid-air over the back garden, in a sort of wooden balcony like a steeplejack's cradle only not so safe and solid. There is a protective rail apparently made from balsa-wood; if one leant on it all those in the know turned white as BSFA paper. Simone asked searching questions from a book intended to test Sixth formers to their limits; the teams (Kettle, Charnock, Bell, Pickersgill vs. Edwards, Langford, Bridges, Piggot) suffered from forebrains bombed back to junior school age, and were helpless when asked about the diameter of Jupiter ("Big -- big, isn't it?" said Malcolm), the poetry of Wordsworth (much Charnockian disgust when this outmoded name was revealed) and hard botanical things which the inquisitor could not even pronounce. Big Greg concealed his ignorance in utter contempt ("That's a fucking stupid question --"); the rest mostly exaggerated their drunkenness into an excuse. Of course I would have known all the answers if I'd been able to hear the questions ...

So then I tottered out in search of food and drink, only to find a typically unfocussed Chris holding a box of sticky brown stuff. "Do you like fudge?" she asked. "Oh -- yes," I replied, only to be hurled to the ground by the whirlwind entrance of Hazel, who shrieked, "Don't touch it: don't touch it: it's got Things in it:" Chris was most put out when I obeyed orders and merely had a few Kong-sized fingers of Scotch instead. The Things must at any rate have been few in number, as Simone had eight bits of fudge and was slightly disappointed to note absolutely no Thingy effects. In the other room, meanwhile, Daio had transformed himself into an evil cardsharp (with overtones of Bernard Levin) by donning a pair of thick and sinister glasses. The ensemble cried out for cuffs and a green eyeshade.

Unfortunately I can offer no first-hand experience of Monday's doings. My spies inform me that feelthy pictures there were, provided by Jack Marsh and watched by all and sundry bar Malcolm and Chris, who lurked primly in the other room -- though Malcolm was seized many times with a need to visit the loo, passing slowly, very slowly, through the film-show in the course of each trip. Simone attempted later to attach some significance to the great frequency of Big John Piggott's dashes for relief, but a man has got to do what a man has got to do.

Days later, in the One Tun, Greg explained that it wasn't his fault, that he bore no responsibility, that all blame or credit was to go to Simone. So fervent were his disclaimers that I re-examined my own memories of the event, half-convinced that it must have been a flop after all instead of the roaring success I seemed to recall. Neither Greg nor Simone wished to be blamed for the choice of Guest of Honour (otherwise John Brunner would have complained that the GoH wasn't foreign) -- they put the matter to popular vote and of course Hazel was chosen, much to her dismay. She made a brief speech in Coptic, but no-one was listening at the time.

Twll-Ddu 12