CLOUD CHAMBER THIRTEEN musings on the Horror Of It All from Dave Langford, (COA) 94 LONDON ROAD, READING, BERKSHIRE, RG1 5AU, England. 11 July 1982
Hazel and I have actually moved. We have changed our address. (Silence.) An epic transition, that's what we've achieved. (More silence.) Come on, surely such a unique and earth-shattering event deserves a round of applause, a universal wave of sympathy, a rushing of International Red Cross parcels to the afflicted zone? Oh. Oh, I see. Other people do it too, you say, just as other people get married and spawn and die and (except conceivably in the last case) also regard the whole thing as a pretty cosmic event. You may have a point there, yes, but mere logical argument isn't going to stop me droning on as though I'd just fought World War III over the last couple of weeks, or personally witnessed the coming of the Antichrist, or received an impeccably produced fanzine from Keith Walker.
Long ago and far away (well, a couple of years ago and in our old house a mile away) Hazel and I developed grandiose plans to avoid having to move. Shifting all those books, these typewriters, those filing cabinets, those fanzines, would be a fearful nightmare, we told one another wisely, and how right we were. Our scheme for universal domination and perpetual immobility involved an intricate land-swapping deal which I dreamt up one night after six or seven pints of inspiration; the old house at 22 Northumberland Avenue had a ridiculously long garden (the shed at the far end was only dimly visible through a blue haze of distance, and it was wisest to take a few days' provisions when setting out to seek the lawnmower) while along the side of said garden ran a ridiculously disused pathway giving access to a local school which didn't want access from that side anyway. Phase 1 of the Master Plan went rumbling into motion as I sent successive letters to the school headmaster, the local education authority, the council planning office, the Royal County of Berkshire Property Department, some solicitors, building societies and suchlike riffraff, and (for reasons never too clearly explained) the Superintendent of Parks & Woodland. In phrases too fulsome, verbose and polysyllabic to be set down here (I have some pride), these letters contained a camouflaged version of my Plan, which in its simplest terms would have read: "I've thought of this way to hugely enhance the value of my property by a land exchange which will do no one else any good at all...."
After a pause sufficient for the traditional monkeys to have polished off Shakespeare , submitted all the tragedies to George Scithers and collected a 'futility' rejection slip for each, the forces of Berkshire began to move. 'Yes," they replied. A year and a half after my original letter, our garden became fifty feet shorter and several feet wider, and next to the house there was now room for a glorious extension to house wild parties and the ever-increasing book collection (preferably in different rooms). A year after this golden moment, the council even got round to building a promised new fence to define the new bottom of our garden, cutting us off forever from the distant horizon where the shed would have been if it hadn't come to pieces in my rough hands as I struggled to lug it closer to the house.
Manifestly we'd never need to move house now. Illimitable space was ours for the taking, requiring only that we build a few brick walls around it. Starry-eyed, Hazel and I began to sketch out an extension barely smaller than the original house; only with difficulty did I prevent her adding minarets and pinnacles,and only with even greater difficulty did she block my plans for a vast cellar out of which real beer (none of your fizzy stuff) could be hand-pumped to the office, the dining room, the bedroom....
"Ha," said the architect whom we then called in. "Wouldn't be surprised if they've got an easement here." With a convulsive motion he flung back this iron lid on the newly-acquired bit of land, something we'd failed to notice until then, and vanished down a brick shaft into the bowels of the earth. Strange cries echoed up from the depths, as though he'd met an alligator or a Harlan Ellison story down there. He returned, slightly flushed: "Main sewer," he carolled happily. "Can't build anything big on that," he continued in a paean of joy, "That plan of yours is right out," he concluded, barely able to contain his ecstasy.
"So?" we asked suspiciously.
"So we'll just have to stick to one storey, that's all, and that means I can find you some standard designs which will be much easier to draw up –"
"It'll be a box!" Hazel shrieked. "They're all boxes! I've seen these standard extensions, and always it's a horrible little rectangular box just stuck down there by the side of the house looking like nothing on earth and completely out of keeping with the brickwork! A box!"
The architect paled slightly, then rallied and drew himself up to his full height of not very much at all. "Naturally anything which I design will be a symphony of brickwork which at once blends imperceptibly into the original scheme and highlights its inner beauties in an, as it were, contrapuntal mode," he did not say, but it was something along those lines. Haughtily he went away, and Hazel and I looked at one another with a wild surmise.
In not very many days there came a fantastically derailed set of plans, right down to the brand of tea the builders were to drink while not engaged in the traditional British 15-minute work break. Hazel looked at the plans. I looked at the plans, and at Hazel, and cowered slightly.
"IT'S A BOX!!!"
"What it is," I said unconvincingly, "is that the fiat roof highlights the beauty of our sloping one, as it were contrapuntally, while 1he robust dissonance of the picture window at the front provides a striking yet satisfying contrast with the totally different design of the existing sash windows. Apart from that, it!s a rotten little box."
"Send it back and make him change it," said Hazel with finality.
The little architect was all too ready to change it, asking only for a few more days of Creative Thought and a corresponding huge increase to his bill. "The way you want it, it's more expensive," he said plaintively. "I was trying to save you money."
"A tent would be even cheaper, but –" I observed distantly, and realized my mistake as a red gleam came into the architect's tiny eyes and somewhere an invisible cash register went ting as an extra few pounds' pique money was added to our final bill.
More time passed, months creeping by with the glacial inexorability of some vast, slow force of nature or even the post office itself. Three years from the formulation of the Master Plan, we were finally ready with plans, detailedplanning permission (without which you are not allowed to erect anything in this crowded country) and even the all-dreaded ouilding regulations permission (aimed to ensure that whatever you finally build will be safe, sturdy, enduring and too expensive). l+ was February I9S2. The glorious transformation of 22 Northumberland Avenue, Reading, seemed an inevitable outcome.
Then we called in the builder.
Believe me, Ming the Merciless would have been outclassed. The galaxy-smashing supervillains of our favourite literature were relegated to mere puny delinquents by comparison with the light of destruction which shone in our builder's eyes. Not that he was unsympathetic, you understand. He couldn't wait to start. First he would bore innumerable holes through the wall of the upstairs front room. "But that's my office!" I wailed: "The whole point of building an extension rather than moving is so I can keep working in my office." After the holes had been bored and jacks inserted to stop everything collapsing, the demon builder then proposed to remove the wall of the room underneath and, with all phasers blasting on maximum intensity, to ravage unchecked through the remaining habitable downstairs room, and finally to overrun every other room with fire and the sword on the flimsy pretext of rewiring and laying new gas pipes.
"But,' we said, and babbled incoherent things like "7000 books ... desks ... typewriters ... filing cabinets ... duplicator ... copier ... computer ..."
"Furniture," Hazel suggested.
"That too," I said.
"All that'll have to go into storage," the builder said cheerily, unwilling to let mere chattels obstruct his planned path of devastation.
"We'll let you know," we said.
"No," said Hazel 0.3 nanoseconds after the builder's departure.
"Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new," I agreed.
Like lapsed believers who rush at once to the opposite extreme, the collapse of our five-year master plan sent us out the very next day to parade through the forbidden temples of every estate agent in Reading. There was the pushy agent who loudly insisted we had to sell our house through him as a first priority before even considering beginning to think of looking at any others: he would have done well with the Feckle Freezer Co, perhaps, but we never dared go back lest ho start selling us insurance or encyclopedias. There were all the dim agents who listened carefully to our demand for a large old house in the university area with at least four bedrooms, and months later were stil1 posting an unending succession of brochures for small new three-bodroomed houses in poxy new estates several miles out of Reading. There were the reclusive or hermetic agents who wrote down all our requirements and for some reason never came up with anything at all. And there were the friendly agents who'd sold us 22 Northumberland Avenue and even remembered us (can it be that sensitive fannish faces do indeed stick in the imagination?). We staggered home with a small pantechnicon load of papers which (after elimination of anything small, new, misplaced, or liable to make Hazel cry "It's a box!") reduced themselves to three possibles.
That evening we stalked through the fog all round the university area of Reading, which bristled with FOR SALE signs bearing the names of already-visited agents who were obviously in a conspiracy to conceal these triffic-looking homesfrom unworthy ones such as the Langfords. Whenever we enquired about one of these veritable palaces there would be a sudden look of consternation from the relevant agent; a flurried search through the files; an emergence with smiles of huge relief: "Ah, we've just sold that one...."
As it happened, we only ever looked at three houses and came to a final decision mere days after the great quest began. One house contained more rooms than we'd ever dreamed of, straggling in a narrow way over four or perhaps five storeys with little rooms everywhere: trouble was, there weren't any big rooms, as so necessary for drunken fannish parties and (not all that different) meetings of the almost famous 'Pieria' writers' mob (wherein drunken folk like Rob Holdstock, Andrew Stephenson, Garry Kilworth, Kev Smith, Joe Nicholas etc etc etc all gather to piss on the newest Langford story. This is all quite democratic since I have the reciprocal right to praise their latest efforts). The second house stank of death, not merely because someone had died in it only weeks before but also owing to the jolly decor of brown from top to bottom, the murderous gas mantles (yes, gas mantles) which jutted everywhere and did me an injury at least once, the vast garden which resembled the Amazon rain forest in everything including size end wrapped the whole dark house in a hideous dank embrace....
We bought the third house. It is rambling and peculiar, from the weevil-infested cellar to the upper reaches where thin air makes it difficult to breathe; there are inexplicable oddities like the room twenty-four feet long up on the second-and-a-half storey; the mysterious wires and pipes which erupt from walls or ceilings, run a little way and disappear into holes like startled mice; the apparent cupboards on the upper floors which give access to long grimy crawlspaces in the angles of the roof; the skylight which looks not at the sky but into a hidden roofspace lit by two more skylights; the owls which hoot and moan high up on the sinister Tower of Flints ... perhaps I exaggerate. The owner of all this was a Mrs Vieri, widow of a button importer, which did at least explain the five million buttons packed in neat boxes up in the attic room. "Actually she's Lady Vieri," the friendly agent said. "And I think she's Einstein's granddaughter or something as well." Every estate agent loves a lord, as they say, and Hazel was taken with this close approach to the nobility, even if she should have learnt better after meeting almost famous skiffy author Lord St Davids (who in tones of paralysing tedium told her all the things he had done in various wars, several times). Mrs Vieri's title proved to be an Italian one picked up via her ex-hubby, which doesn't really count, so Hazel stopped grovelling and started making friends – to such good effect that we were allowed to start shifting books into the long-neglected upper rooms of 94 London Road long before we contrived to own the place. I will only add that Mrs V is officially 65, the actual figure of 72 not being admitted except to people she's known for more than say 45 seconds, and is at once extremely small and hideously dynamic: I pale at the thought of her 30-mile walks every Wednesday, not to mention the little hobbies like caring for about a dozer 'old ladies' of 80-odd, supporting all local hospitals single-handed and running every charity within ten miles. Sometimes I feel even more useless than I look. However ...
However, we had the small problem of selling our house. It was easy, as it turned out. Someone walked in, peered round, announced his intention of converting the place to flats (flats! It was J.G. Ballard's 'Billennium' all over again),and slapped down a cash offer. "Selling your house is easy," we bragged for the next three months while the slow process of buying 94 London road creaked on: surveys, oaths signed in blood that we would do things like destroy all the wildlife (wet rot, weevils, Anobium punctatum or common furniture beetle – woodworm to you – everything except death-watch, it seemed) to pacify cruel Sir Jasper at the building society and have him give us a mortgage, lengthy waiting while the people who were selling Mrs V a house tried to finalize their divorce and decide which half of the house which of them would be selling....
(Proposition: No house deal is ever completed. Proof: The people who are moving in have to sell their former house, while those who are moving out have to buy a new one. Extend by induction to infinity. All purchases/sales in this infinite chain will need to be completed on the same day for financial reasons. From Murphy's Law, at least one transaction in the chain will fail through. The world is only saved by the existence of first-time buyers, naive and dewy-eyed creatures who don't have houses to sell and who wonder why estate agents fell upon them with flattery and blandishments: also there are people who leave their homes for the hereafter or – what in estate agents' terms is the same – rented accommodation. This glum aside leads us to:
The disaster came, of course, mere seconds before contracts could be irrevocably exchanged for the Northumberland, Avenue sale and the London Road purchase. Our friendly converter of formerly nice houses to flats had had time, after all the delay, to discover that on the whole Reading Council were inclined to piss from a great height upon such perpetrators of vileness. No chance of planning permission. No chance of our other old friend, buildings regulations permission. Suddenly, after three months during which it hadn't been on the market, we found ourselves the proud owners of an unsold house. Everything would have collapsed utterly had I not persuaded another evil Sir Jasper at Barclays Bank to hand over a vast loan, allowing us to buy the new place with nothing more to worry about than ruinous interest rates.
In mere days we had sold the house again, this time to a rather repellent chap from British Rail who came around with his tame builder. Said builder kept going 'tut' at things like our wiring, windows, walls, floor, ceiling, roof, doors and other really quite minor things, and at the end of the tour explained to the repellent British Rail chap that it would cost nearly £3000 to make this rotten little slum inhabitable. I felt quite peeved, but the thought of the interest on that bank loan caused me to swallow my pride and accept the slightly insulting offer for the house which was the upshot of all this.
Then it was time to move in, a really cheapo economy-style move since we couldn't afford real removal men nor trust them to know which boxes of books were too flimsy to be stacked (the ones with PRICELESS MASTERPIECES scrawled over them contained valuables such as books by or featuring me). The low-cost removal van proved to be owned and driven by another vibrant lady whom Mrs V continually addressed as 'young woman' since Mrs Removals was a mere debutante of 65. I still have to go up to that huge room three flights of stairs from the front door, and assure myself periodically that these two ladies, plus a Hazel suffering from general prostration, plus ineffectual me, did somehow get our 7000 books up there during a heatwave. It's the sort of achievement which makes Erich von Däniken write books explaining how the primitive cave-dwellingReading tribes could never have managed it without the aid of a whole fleet of flying saucers armed with antigravity winches, teleportation units and large removal men. He would have added a second fleet on realizing our amazing feat of getting all the heavy furniture upstairs as well (as required by the evil Mortgage Pact; which demanded that the ground floor be woodwormed and damp-proofed real soon now, meaning that everything needed to be evacuable at a few minutes' notice).
Shortly after the move there was a distressing little scene with the man from British Rail, who rang and at great length enumerated all the things which he now realized had to be done to our appalling little heap of wattle-and-daub in Northumberland Avenue, things which he'd realized since the traumatic verdict of his tame builder in the previous week, and anyway, um, er, as it were, he was withdrawing his offer, so there. I suppressed the urge to shout something like "I suppose you can't afford even a bleeding hut on your pitiful strike pay!" (BR having roused great wrath in me recently by standing between me and many a merry event in London due to being on strike). Subsequently I rang the estate agents to say "That bugger's cocked the whole thing up, soddit!" ("Mr B----- has chosen to reconsider his purchase offer in the light of what he claims to be unacceptable renovation costs"), and I am ashamed to admit that I was tremendously cheered to be told, "Ah, we know about him – don't you listen to what he tells you – he can't afford to buy any house at all now, on account of he's lost his job for being such a militant union agitator that even the union didn't want him round the place any more...."
Even more recently we picked up another offer, from a chap who went to Cambridge – "So he must be all right, mustn't he," said Hazel. "Not as all right as if he'd been to Oxford," I allowed, "but he'll do."
This tiny saga of horror beyond one fan's comprehension does not yet come to any tidy end. We have, had a quick fannish housewarming here, largely distinguished by Grand Tours of the house inflicted by Hazel and self on anyone who would come, and by famous Abi Frost, who took note of Hazel's 'no smoking' rule and left for a quick fag – via the front window, offering all of London Road (otherwise Known as the A4) a long glimpse of turquoise-clad legs, and puffing her way about the front garden in her exotic party ensemble until everyone inside nad had the chance to say "With Abi out there you don't need to hang out a red light." Since then not a lot has happened: the Man from Cambridge is still (he says) eager to buy the old place, the evil British Telecom people are going to instal the necessary amplifier real soon now so I'll actually be able to hear the messages coming through on cur new number Reading (0734) 665804, the gasmen have found a leak (emergency team summoned, huge holes in front garden, Langford returns from One Tun meeting to find sign BEWARE OF THE PIT on front gate) and repaired same, the woodworm-killers, wet-rot-eradicators, floor-rebuilders and general causers of universal disruption promise to do their stuff next week, and Hazel is unwell with what she thinks is sinusitis but our new doctor feels must be a special form of depression which no just happens to have written a book about. Boy, that really makes us feel good ... though not very convinced.
"Never again," said Hazel. 'We're never going to move again."
"That's what we said in 1976," I recalled.
"Aaaaargh!" she commented; and on the whole, I agree. (12-7-82)