The TransAtlantic Hearing Aid

Fourth Bit: The Day of the Jackpot

8 December 1981

This is ridiculous, you know. It's more than fifteen months since Sunday at Noreascon; most of the relevant brain cells have died or gone into hiding. Could this Boston trip have been real? Today I woke up to a white world, the first unexpected snowfall of the English winter, and a note from early-rising Hazel saying I DON'T BELIEVE IT EITHER. There seems no way to connect with a notebook page whose first entries are about the buzzing heat in Boston and the fact that flies kept landing on my toes. Still... do we not have cosmic minds?

Sunday 31 August 1980

"Flies keep landing on my toes," I said, and wriggled those bits of toe that stuck out of my sandals. Hazel looked away, preferring even a Boston drugstore's display of electric vibrators ('super satisfaction for all parts of the body') to the sight of the toes she had promised to love and cherish. She has this theory that they are oversized and malformed; but Boston's flies seemed happy enough with their steaming bulk. We moved down the street, by now so almost accustomed to the USA that a radio warning of imminent 96° temperatures provoked no more than mild screams. Not even pausing to worry about a slot-machine advertising US STAMPS IN SANITARY FOLDERS (perhaps the 13¢ worth of folder is needed to keep the flies from the gum), we penetrated the Noreascon hotel and allowed our British reserve and likewise our brains to be eroded by the Aussiecon bidding film Antifan Strikes Back. The image of someone reeling from a Macdonalds in the grip of Alien's face-hugger is not one to be forgotten, even after fifteen months of trying.

That Sunday morning at Noreascon was quiet. "Too quiet... I don't like it," I said to Hazel with characteristic originality.

"Ahh... the drums... the flies," she responded, causing me to flash a quick glance at my toes. All clear. The flies were resting in preparation for a later assault -- and so was fandom, with the appalling pyrotechnics of the Hugo ceremony approaching at a remorseless rate of sixty seconds per minute. In the relative calm I met the celebrated fan Ed Meskys: he murmured something to me, and I nodded encouragingly to him. Nobody had told him I was deaf. Nobody had told me he was blind. He murmured something else as I waved goodbye, and another fannish meeting of minds was over.

More people drifted through the foyers. I admired -- at as close range as I could manage -- a badge on the bosom of a moderately ravishing young lady who travelled under the name Starr Fyre: the badge read I AM NOT A MAN! I AM A FREE NUMBER! This view was blocked by the sudden appearance of Mike Glyer, who towered high over me and to some considerable way to either side of me. I'd been reading his convention newsletter Lobster Tales, specifically an item about the two tons of ice imported to chill Coke and (occasionally) other things on Saturday night; it was the work of mere minutes to assemble a lightning quip contrasting this with approximately eleven tons of beer consumed at the far smaller 1979 British Worldcon, but before I'd adjusted the semicolons Mike was far away and working on the next newsletter but three. Instead we found Joyce Scrivner, who does not tower high over me but has talents in other directions: "Linda Bushyager went to this party once," she told me, "a party where John Norman was, because she wanted to look at his wife's back. And do you know, all the other women were in low-cut evening dress but John Norman's wife was wearing this outfit with a high collar and long sleeves..."

From these flagellatory thoughts it was a natural step to the agonies of the Astral Leauge Initiation. Joyce had begun to enjoy watching people submit themselves to the ritual pole rather as spaghetti submits to a fork; she hurried me downstairs to put Carey Handfield to the question. Carey was manning the fannish tables which lay on the naked face of the Lower Exhibit hall like some lonely Foreign Legion outpost amid the encircling Sahara. Tears filled his eyes at the sight of human features after so long in isolation; he announced his readiness to pit himself against any mere pole provided he was told what to do... and perhaps, for the benefit of readers as yet unenlightened by missionaries of the all-potent Astral Leauge, I should pause to explain the task required of neophytes (the technical term is 'suckers').

Take a five-foot broompole. Take several drinks. Stand. Hold the pole horizontally before you, in both hands -- hands a couple of feet apart, palms up, fingers curled round pole. The hands may optionally slide along the pole, but the grip must not alter throughout the ceremony. Lower the still-horizontal pole and step first with one foot and then with the other over the section of pole between your hands. The pole is now behind you: maintaining the grip, bring it back over your head until you are again holding it horizontally before you (though with uncomfortably twisted wrists, as you will find). This was the easy part. Now raise your right leg -- 'left' and 'right' may be exchanged throughout the following if desired -- and manoeuvre the right foot around the right-hand side of your right arm and back over the pole towards you. You should now feel less than comfortable. It only remains to duck your head under the pole and -- still without releasing your deathlike grip on it -- continue the motion so that your torso follows your head, and your whole right leg follows your right foot, through the 'hoop' defined by arms and pole. In the penultimate position you find yourself standing shakily with the still-gripped pole passing between your legs. A backwards step with the left leg over the pole returns you to square one in a glow of triumph, fulfilment and Astral Mastery. Have another drink and spend four days in traction.

The most elementary Visualization of the Cosmic All reveals that the sticking-place of all this comes in the antepenultimate motion, as pole and right knee jam firmly against one another and further progress seems unwise, not to say impossible. Carey showed the relentless driving force that had made him chairman of the Australia in 83 Worldcon Bid (Failed), and crashed through the preliminaries with contemptuous ease. Then, screwing his courage to the sticking-place, he stuck. Great veins bulged out all over him, and from his spine came a noise as of distant Rice Krispies.

"Let me give you a push," said Joyce with solicitous giggles, approaching the puce and straining form while your narrator stealthily moved backwards. "It just needs a push here --"

The effect was rather as though she'd taken a flying kick at a trembler fuse. Carey's fingers gave way; the pent-up energy of his pose lashed out in a multigravity thrust which brought the pole close to escape velocity. It failed to escape, Joyce having accurately blocked the launch window with her stomach; before you could say "Action and reaction are equal and opposite, and act on different bodies," she had sat down with a thoughtful expression.

"You didn't actually pass the test, Carey," I managed to say above the mingled groans.

By this time Hazel had broken into groans of her own: "Heat," she said feebly, and "Smoke," and "People." Again we went separate ways, she searching for cool and quiet in our hotel and I for free booze in the SFWA suite. Some fans never realized that Hazel was at that worldcon; typically she'd be lying down in our room while I lay with equal aplomb on the floor of some convenient party.

During my pre-floor period in the SFWA room I struggled to collect huge names to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing trip report; once again I had to make do with Barry Malzberg.

"Hello, Barry Malzberg," I said brightly to the moaning figure of my hero.

"Ohhhhhh," he told me, looking up with the air of a Spanish Inquisition client deciding that after all he had preferred the thumbscrews to the rack.

"I was reading your first novel last month and --"

"Oh God! No! Not my first one! No! No!"

"Er... Screen?"

"Ohhh. No, that was my ninth. I can just about... live with that one." He slumped in his chair, apparently comparing the joys of chatting to me with those of the rack. I slipped away before he could reach an unflattering verdict.

Alexis Gilliland sat at a table looking distinguished and drawing a cartoon every 35 seconds. Next to him, Dolly Gilliland managed not to blench when reminded that Avedon had invited the Langfords to stay in Washington for as long as they liked and to enjoy the full hospitality of the Gilliland home. Nearly famous author Connie Willis explained how the notoriety of her exclusion from the John W. Campbell 'new writer' award was doing her career no end of good. "I published this one story ten years ago and I'm sure they disqualified me because it was so bad, I mean it was really awful, it makes me shudder just to think of it..." F&SF person Anne Jordan scattered free copies of the October issue, cover story by Britain's own Ian Watson...

"I know Ian Watson," I said ingratiatingly. "I even touched him once."

Anne J. was unmoved; again I reminded myself that editors and publishers have often met several authors and become disenchanted.

"Editors are just people who cannot write," she told the unsurprised room.

Onward, to a talk by Taral on fan art: but foolishly I still carried the fatal pole, and everything was delayed while Moshe Feder failed, twice. Taral himself then mastered the pole by a series of incredible writhings, while all present shaded their eyes against flashes of fluorescent red underpants from beneath that apple-green kilt.

"I have rubber limbs," he said, proudly unknotting himself. Avedon had gone pale, and repeated that she was only limber and lissom at certain phases of the moon, and couldn't possibly attempt this contortion before five in the morning.

I even remember some of Taral's slides, for the usual self-centred reasons. Up went an Alicia Austin drawing (circa 1967), and I muttered "Bloody hell, it's a Beardsley pastiche." Up went a drawing from Salome (circa 1894), and Taral dropped the name of Aubrey Beardsley on uncomprehending fannish heads, and I committed flagrant acts of autobackpatting for hours after.

To fortify myself for the horrors of the Hugo ceremony, I accompanied Taral (and Victoria Vayne, and Marc Schirmeister) to a nearby Chinese Spaghetti House renowned for such delights as Ravioli Won Ton. Not much fortification was achieved, since the other 5751 convention members -- Sunday afternoon's count -- were also trying to eat before Hugo time. Over the next hour the queue ahead of us dwindled to 5730 or so; the two cartoonists had covered all the available paper with doodles of great clinical interest (a drawing of a famine is very like the drawing of a muchness) and our hopes of sweet and sour lasagna had demolished the third law of thermodynamics as they plunged below absolute zero. Eyes averted from the delicious plates of tagliatelle Szechuan on other tables, ears popped against the muffled click of spaghetti-swathed chopsticks, the fannish party shuffled out into the night.

On the street, the meeting was called to order. The British Delegate observed that the Hugo ceremony was starting in mere seconds, and that although he did not doubt it to be a load of cobblers he nevertheless felt it his duty to attend one item on the main programme. He had his credibility to think of, he added unconvincingly. The Chairman (Taral) expressed his opinion of the Hugos, adding that he would swop the whole lot for a decent meal. The British Delegate proposed a compromise solution making use of natural resources such as the high-speed pizza shop visible nearby. The Lady Member from Toronto then took the floor and described in some detail all the frightful things which would happen to her delicate metabolism should she even set foot inside the junk-food emporium alluded to. The motion was put that the meeting should disperse in an orderly fashion, and the British Delegate found himself standing alone outside the pizza place...

The impression left by the few confused minutes I spent inside was of Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' (not featured in the Taral Slide Show) with monstrous pizzas substituting for the squalid gin bottles. No plates. No cutlery. Bloated for a dollar, ulcerated for two dollars. Still chewing carbonized crusts and wiping greasy fingers on my handkerchief, I sprinted down the aisle of the Hynes auditorium to enjoy the wondrous ceremony for which I had sacrificed so much.

There I sat down -- and suddenly, almost before I knew what was happening, nothing happened. Things continued not to happen for some while; there was time to gaze around at the ranks on ranks of sweaty bodies filling the vast hall and threatening to bring the almost-as-vast balconies crashing down. Close by was the British contingent: Jim Barker representing Bob Shaw, Malcolm Edwards and Chris Atkinson representing Peter 'Encyclopaedia' Nicholls, and Chris Priest representing Chris Priest. We agreed to be unstinting in our applause for all the British items nominated, no matter what deafening silences filled the rest of the hall...

From the distance comes the sound of a two-note fanfare, and from close at hand the sound of a grotty pizza rumbling in the aching void of D. Langford. Huge cheers as toastmaster Robert Silverberg bounds into view. Further fanfares. I strain to hear Silverberg's brief introduction to the ceremony, which goes on for forty-eight minutes. (While I strain to hear, Gordon Dickson strains to see: he only has his reading glasses and is employing Jim Barker as seeing-eye fan.) Silverberg quips meriting a brief and appreciative smile, or groan, are met with colossal torrents of applause which shake the building. Harlan Ellison leaps for no apparent reason onto the stage. Even vaster cheers! Silverberg makes his Ellison circumcision joke: Boston trembles at the ovation, and far across America the San Andreas Fault slips a few more inches. Howls of feedback from the PA system. Each mention of a famous name provokes yet huger cheering. There is even a mighty burst of applause at the announcement that George Pal is dead.

At last, after what seems like forty-eight minutes, the presentations begin. Gleaming Hugos stand neatly lined up on the table... but their time is not yet. Convention chairman Leslie Turek receives bound copies of all the Noreascon literature. George O. Smith receives the black spot in the form of the First Fandom Award, uttering loud cries of "It's about time!" An ill-looking Lou Tabakow collects the Big Heart Award... all this in far more time than it takes to tell, since the routine is for a celebrity to pace portentously onstage, and be applauded, and be introduced by Silverberg, and be applauded some more, and to make a little speech before pulling the winning name in slow motion from its envelope. Naturally all the nominees' names must be read out too when it comes to the Hugos, but these preliminary awards are apparently not the sort which have nominees.

"The Pat Terry Award for Humour in Science Fiction..." (What the devil is the Pat Terry Award for Humour in Science Fiction?)"... goes to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy!" Chris Priest, as Ranking British Name, is urged forward to accept the thing, and there is a chill silence while the billions of SFWA members he has alienated memorize his face. What next? "The Gandalf Award," Silverberg reads, not struggling too hard to conceal his distaste, "is under the, ah, aegis of Lin Carter..." There is no Lin Carter. Silence swells to fill the fall, broken only by what sounds like giggling from the British contingent. On, hastily, to the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer... "Barry Longyear!" Chris's knuckles whiten; a low moan comes from Malcolm; your reporter emits a faint noise which he later claims to have been an after-effect of the pizza.

At last, the Hugos. Good old Alexis Gilliland picks up the fanartist award, and reads out the slips from Chinese fortune cookies which (he asserts) infallibly predicted his success. Good old Bob Shaw wins as fanwriter; failed nominee Langford murmurs "The weed of fanwriting bears bitter fruit," and stifles his cries of rage and envy as Jim grabs the trophy. Suddenly, as if by magic, the Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy Award appears and its winner is named as Ray Bradbury. The British bloc fancies the uncharitable theory that when the reasonably Grand masters are exhausted, this award will by design go to Not-so-Grand masters such as its founder, Lin Carter.

Locus wins as best professional fanzine, Michael Whelan as professional artist, Alien as best convention banquet. Tension mounts in a certain quarter of the audience. Best nonfiction is indeed the Peter Nicholls Encyclopaedia of SF. Huge cheers from the British contingent; pause while Malcolm delivers the longest speech of acceptance so far, dwelling lovingly and interminably on the revised editions which this accolade may make possible. Best editor: George Scithers of Asimov's Skiffy Mag. Hoots and groans from the British contingent. The short story Hugo is presented by Harlan Ellison, who is swift to observe that "The short story, as we all know, is the single most difficult category of writing." George R.R. Martin wins with 'The Way of Cross and Dragon', and again a few minutes later with his novelette 'Sandkings'.

Chris smiles bravely as his own novelette 'Palely Loitering' bites the dust, and mutters something which sounds remarkably like "Better than losing to bloody John Varley."

Really huge names are making the presentations now, guest of honour Kate Wilhelm handing over the novelette Hugo and other guest of honour Damon Knight following with the Hugo for novella (which goes to Barry Longyear's 'Enemy Mine' amid indescribable noises from the Brits). Now the top award, for best novel. Who swings more weight than Wilhelm and Knight at the con where they're joint guests of honour? Ah, of course, they'll present the novel Hugo jointly. But no! Amid the hugest cheers of the evening, risking sunburn from a holocaust of popping flashbulbs, wittily pinching the bottoms of any (female) attendants who stray too close, on comes jolly Isaac Asimov to do the honours. Somewhere in the audience a TAFF delegate who considers Disch's On Wings of Song to be the only decent book nominated is saying to himself, "I won't scream. Even if it goes to Titan I will -- not -- scream..."

"The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke," cries Asimov, and I scream. Cities are laid waste and aircraft hurled from their courses by the gale of cheering -- which, however, subsides with remarkable speed as the vast audience becomes a mob hell-bent for the exits...

Back in the outside world, the surging crowd and the past tense, I restrained myself from taking part in Moshe's 'Claude Degler Memorial Scavenger Hunt'. Somehow my sense of wonder reeled at the thought of locating a badge advertising an old Worldcon bid (losing bids scored extra), a box of lime jello (made-up jello scored extra), a ten of clubs with a naked lady/man on the back, a Necronomicon (not in English)... The most interesting item had been removed from the list after consideration of local conspiracy and kidnapping laws: no longer could you score points by producing a mundane.

The night disintegrated into parties. Almost instantly Rochelle Reynolds (now Dorey) received a mark of favour in the form of an intimately applied Harry Bell cartoon; "I'm never going to wash that elbow again," she declared. Harry was telling me this when Harlan Ellison himself approached us and made a ritual blessing -- "Stop fouling up the goddam hallway, you fucking Limeys." He went by. "I shall never wash that eardrum again," I said with fervour.

Roz Kaveney fancied going to the Hugo Losers' Party many hotels distant, and that way we went: "Jerry Pournelle's future history broke my thirty feet of bookshelves," she confided unconvincingly on the way, and also asked to be urgently warned should she be in danger of meeting Sandra Miesel -- some little matter of her Foundation review of a Miesel book on Poul Anderson...

The party was being thrown by Jim Baen of Ace, and I furtively slipped him a copy of my own jeu d'esprit on military technology and killing people, with the suggestion that it would fit just perfectly into the Ace list.

"Oh yes," he said, taking the hardback and throwing it into a drawer. "I've looked at it before. Felt it was a bit negative about warfare."

"Of course it's bloody negative about warfare!" I failed to say. Instead I expressed pious hopes that imminent Baen replacement Susan Allison would like the book, and madly went on to relate the description of her someone had given me earlier. "Tall and blonde and smells of money," I heard my mouth say as I stood aghast.

"Hey Susan..."

Susan Allison appeared. She barely seemed to come up to my waist. "Tall and blonde and smells of money," said J. Baen's voice from an infinite distance.

"Reeeeally?" She sniffed herself cautiously.

"Mmmmf," I replied as I fell backwards into illimitable black space. Well... at least she was blonde.

Some inward urge, I know not what, led me to abandon that party relatively soon. I left Roz teaching young skiffy writers to play charades, little knowing that mere hours later she would contrive to lock herself out on a hotel fire escape -- to be rescued only after long and piteous calls for help.

The British party, held in a wide corridor near that fifth-floor swimming pool, was loud, boozy, depraved and just like home. Bottles of imported Heineken lager were regarded with indifference by Brits and with seeming awe by the natives; masterminds Greg Pickersgill and Linda Karrh (now Pickersgill) offered variety in the form of a ready-mixed 'brandy Alexander' which Greg had decided he would rather like to live on for the rest of his life. It tasted like coffee-and-chocolate milk shake pepped up with the hard stuff; Graham England was deeply suspicious of it, and issued H. M. Government warnings about its fearful potency whenever I accepted a sip. Certainly it was effective enough to make me demonstrate the Astral Test anew: millions of US fans attempted it, but mastery was vouchsafed to a pitiful few. Returning to my beer-bottle after a brisk round of failed initiations, I found that kindly hands had dropped a cigarette end into it. Some victim of the pole had been revenged at last.

By 3.15 am the British party consisted mainly of Joyce Scrivner. I tottered away in search of further fun but instead found the SFWA suite, now guarded by a magical talisman bearing the cruel runes MEMBERS AND GUESTS ONLY. Brushing this contemptuously aside, I discovered the place to be full of fans: Malcolm Edwards, Chris Atkinson, Avedon Carol. We sat on the floor mumbling at one another for an unconscionable time about cosmic subjects like the Astral Leauge and Jacqueline Lichtenberg and the art of drawing with felt pens on the sleeping form of Joseph Nicholas. Bored by now with the pole, I hid it in a cupboard for the SFWA to find.

Avedon exerted her wiles to discover what my fanzine title Twll-Ddu meant. I explained that twll was Welsh for hole, and ddu was Welsh for black --

"Black hole? Do you mean to say the name of your fanzine just means black hole?"

"Ah," I said, "But a name as unpronounceable as that is surely worthwhile no matter how mundanes translate it; and moreover, don't you realize that this is a Welsh pun, echoing the phrase twll d'un, which literally means 'the hole of a person'; knowing what you do of the Welsh people, you will grasp that the reference is not to the navel or nostril. Hence Twll d'un bob saes, 'all the English are arseholes' (saes being the Welsh version of Scots sassenach), a specially popular Welsh platitude. Being totally inept at languages I'm fascinated by snippets like that; by the information that the French have exactly the same idiom as twll d'un (only, of course, in French); by the news that 'black hole' can't be translated literally into Russian because in that language the two words together have, again, a below-the-belt application (female this time); by the fact that owing to the exigencies of Welsh gender-matching Twll-Ddu is in fact ungrammatical -- one of the d's shouldn't be there, I don't know which -- putting me in the quintessentially fannish quandry of having a typo for a title..."

Anyone who believes that I actually managed to say all this (without the benefit of later rewriting and embellishment) has probably not been around fandom very long.

The mumbling continued, and continued, until well after five in the morning: one of those pleasant times you can't write up because you never wrote it down. Alas, thanks to some obscure conservation law, this ended with the low point of all the convention. Susan Wood was at the party, looking unwell and much the worse for wear; she went briefly berserk and flung a bottle at Terry Carr in the room next to where we were talking. That's all. The revelry ended instantly; Terry was removed and stitched up; I was swept from the room in the general tide of eviction -- forgetting I was a SFWA member with a Right To Be There -- and went back to my hotel. I mention all this because I dislike the hushed silence which (especially since Susan's tragic death later that year) tended to add an undue weight of whispered speculation to an unfortunate incident which was over in seconds.

It was nearly half-past six that morning when I stumbled into our room, swapped grunts with Hazel and remembered to phone England with the Hugo results. Just for once, Chris Morgan's Birmingham SF Group Newsletter was going to scoop my Ansible. For a long while I was troubled with an alien voice which intoned "Wrong number": eventually it dawned on me (even as it dawned outside) that the voice wanted my room number. That settled, I contacted Chris and told him all; he cheered and groaned in the right places; and that should have been the end of the only transatlantic phone call I'd ever dialled. Its cost was missing from the hotel bill, though: long afterwards I learnt that the mysterious Voice had failed to take down my room number after all.

I know this because next day the Bell Telephone Company called Chris, and sternly told him that he'd received a call from the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Breaking down under their ruthless lack of questioning, he admitted this misdemeanour.

"We don't know the room number of the caller and we'd like either the name or number for our records."

Chris thought rapidly as if trained in Null-A. The transatlantic truth was revealed to him. "Yes," he said earnestly. "The caller was a Mr. Gernsback. G-E-R-N-S-B-A-C-K. His first name is Hugo..."

I hope the Bell Telephone Company doesn't read fanzines.