Random Reading 13
David Langford

The Spad-Gas and the Offog

In 2008 I attended an unusually time-binding convention, Cytricon V in Kettering, England, held to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Cytricon IV in the same town and hotel. (An event at which the British Science Fiction Association was founded -- but that, O Best Beloved, is another story.) The Cytricon V guests of honour were venerable fans who'd been there in 1958. One was Peter Mabey, who during general chatter in the bar urged me to read an Anthony Armstrong story called (he rather thought) "The Spad-Gas", and to ponder its possible influence.

I knew Armstrong (George Anthony Armstrong Willis, 1897-1976) as a one-time regular Punch humorist under the byline "A.A." As the Encyclopedia of Fantasy records, he wrote a string of amusing spoof fairy-stories collected in The Prince who Hiccupped and Other Tales (1932) and The Pack of Pieces (1942; reissued as The Naughty Princess 1945). "The Spad-Gas" was apparently one of his cheery sketches of army barracks life between the wars, assembled in at least five volumes. After long search I discovered that the Armstrong omnibus Warriors Paraded (1938) includes the collection Captain Bayonet and Others (1937), whose lead story is "Captain Bayonet and the Spad-Gas."

Spoilers, spoilers! One morning, Captain Ledger the battalion quartermaster checks his inventory and gleefully reports that a forgotten hut containing spare fire-fighting equipment has two important deficiencies. The "Union, Four-Inch, Brass, Fire-hose" is soon found masquerading as a paperweight on Captain Bayonet's own desk, but the "Spad-Gas" is missing. Helpful lieutenants agree that "a spad-gas was terribly expensive and, anyway, the last fellow who lost one had been cashiered." Consternation ensues.

At length a cunning plan is devised. Having established by subtle probes that the quartermaster himself has no idea what a spad-gas actually is, the sergeant-major gets a brand-new one run up in the armoury: "a queer bit of metal with odd corners and a couple of tubes. It looked like a cross between something in the fourth dimension and an ultra-modern sculpture. -- 'Daffodil and tin-opener'." End of problem. Later an ancient inventory sheet comes to light, the original from which generations of copy-typists had mistaken their cue. The significant item proves to be a Spade, G.S. [General Service].

Compare this with Eric Frank Russell's "Allamagoosa" (1955 Astounding), winner of a Hugo for best short story. Russell's setting is likewise military, Space Navy rather than Army. A formal inspection is announced. The ship's galley inventory includes an "offog" that can't be found. Gambling that the officious inspector has no idea what an offog actually is, the captain tells his radio officer to manufacture a brand-new one. This has copious dials, switches and flashing lights: "It looked like a radio ham's idea of a fruit machine." End of problem? Some time later it emerges that the inventory item is a typo and should read "off. dog" -- the ship's official dog, a friendly mutt named Peaslake. (Dogs of indeterminate breed are endemic in the Armstrong barracks.)

If Armstrong was his inspiration, Russell still deserves much credit for converting the anecdote into a real and funny short story. Replacing that boring spade with the lively Peaslake is a brilliant stroke: of course everyone regards the Off. Dog as a crew member, not a piece of equipment. Russell plays fair with clues: Peaslake is prominently visible in the narrative and we learn at different times that checklist item V1098, the offog, is preceded by V1097, Peaslake's drinking-bowl, and followed by V1099, Peaslake's collar. Justice requires me to note that Armstrong prepares the way for his typo surprise with a brief running gag about the "Union, Four-Inch ..." being called a Four-inch Onion.

Better still, Russell followed Theodore Sturgeon's advice and asked the next question. What happens now? Armstrong is content with his anecdote; Russell's hapless captain realizes he must get rid of the fake before any future inspection by someone who knows what an offog looks like. Thus he transmits a report that the offog unfortunately "came apart under gravitational stress ... Material used as fuel." Only after the resulting interstellar panic -- what and who else might come apart under such stress? -- does he learn the awful truth.

Even the gravitational stress is arguably foreshadowed in Warriors Paraded. "Dropping the Cat", in the included volume Livestock in Barracks (1929), opens with a heated messroom debate about whether cats always fall on their feet. The Adjutant remarks "that he had never calculated -- even roughly -- the internal stresses of a cat." On the same page and in the same paragraph, another officer draws "weird diagrams of imaginary cats' supposed passages through space (with and without gravitational attraction) ..." Close enough for an eager influence-hunter like Sam Moskowitz to claim a link?

It seems entirely plausible that Eric Frank Russell read this comic omnibus -- several times reprinted, until at least 1950 -- and saw his opportunity for a science-fictional twist. But perhaps both he and Armstrong are retelling some military ur-story of faking one's way through an inspection, a yarn that might date from the First World War, the nineteenth century, or Caesar's campaigns? Either way, I'm glad to have met Captain Bayonet's outfit at last; and "Allamagoosa" still makes me smile. Thank you, Peter Mabey.