from Dave Langford, 94 London Road, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 5AU, UK. Phone (0734) 665804. April 85, probably....
Outwardly it may seem that, just like anybody else in the universe, I get all tongue-tied in the face of urgency and peril. Actually, of course, there are any number of words seething and pullulating within, only they tend to pile up in a despairing log-jam. Anyone anticipating some appalling concrete example at this point is either very good at picking up subtle verbal cues or has read a Langford fanzine before...
This train of thought was started early one morning when Hazel was about to zoom off to her Civil Service course in London, and I was lolling in habitual apathy (not to mention bed), and the phone rang. Reflex led me down-stairs, where Hazel was saying 'What?' to the instrument. She put it down.
'Somebody who sounded like, er, Bryan Barrett said 'What are the Hugo nominations worth?' Then the line was cut off.' As I blearily speculated about corrupt Australian nomination-counters angling for bribes, the phone rang again.
'It's... It's Andy Porter, and he says he'll tell you the Hugo nominations if you pay for the phone call.'
I thought quick as greased treacle. What I wanted to say to Andy was, look mate, there are going to be at least sixty items on that list, none of them easily spellable, especially across 3000 miles, and Hazel is leaving for London in 3.14 nanoseconds, and even if I sit here for a full hour at my expense while you spell out difficult words like 'novel' I still won't trust my ears enough to publish the damned list until I see it in writing anyway, so ... All too much. Reduced to dumb show, I shook my head vigorously. 'No thanks,' Hazel relayed. Amazed outrage came buzzing and crackling from New York.
'He says, don't you want to know about your nominations?' Hazel eyed my hungover features. 'No, Andy, it's happened so often we don't really find it exciting....'
Collapse of stout party far across the Atlantic. Exit Hazel at something like the speed of light. Alone in his pyjamas, our hero muses on how apathy and incoherence can put across an impression of Supreme Cool.
Shortly afterwards my volubility was again put to the test, with almost equal success. I was in the bath. As one might have predicted, the phone rang. In a trice, or several trices, I was dripping alertly over the receiver and making intelligent grunts at something from the Telegraph magazine which wished to pick my and Brian Stableford's brains. Thank god, it wasn't Adrian Berry. As I focused gradually on his requirements (which appeared to be a paragraph by paragraph translation of the hard bits in a book carefully written for the mass market and butchered by editors who worried about people not understanding such words as 'ecology'), the doorbell rang. I made my excuses and lurched that way, to find that our endemic builders had ingeniously painted the door fast shut....
Here the honourable course of action would have been to call through the letterbox, 'I'm awfully sorry, but since I am clad only in a towel while being interviewed by the Telegraph, and will require either a crowbar or the assistance of a larger person than you to open this door, owing to the fact that the expensive rubber draught excluder has been converted by the action of allegedly dry paint into something resembling superglue ... might I trouble you to call at some more convenient time?' These golden words did not occur to me as I peered through the frosted glass panel to discern a fluorescent Labour canvasser's badge on the new visitor: what I actually shouted through the letterbox was 'I'm in the bath!'
In retrospect, I don't think she believed me.
Pause for a postcard from Teresa Nielsen Hayden, mysteriously dated 'Donaghadee, April 10' which happens to be my birthday... 'Strange dreams in Strathclyde. Was at a convention – Walpurgisnacht affair, shrieking costume fans everywhere. Heard rumour about some self-appointed Enforcers at con, meting out judgements to obnoxious costumed types. Retired to my hotel room to have shower; while momentarily dashing out of bathroom, wrapped in towel, to retrieve something, Enforcers and their shrieking retinue burst into room: 3 judges, all in Dominican nuns' robes and Groucho Marx nose-and-glasses (an extremely effective disguise I myself used one Halloween), plus assorted slavering yahoos eager to carry out their dicta. My towel is declared a costume, despite protestations, and I am condemned to stand in hotel lobby all night thus attired. Doing my best steely-eyed Clint Eastwood imitation I ask if they work for hotel or con committee: they answer 'no' and I declare them to be without jurisdiction. Judges' followers and hangers-on laugh nastily and move toward me. At last, despairing moment, I draw myself up and announce: 'Very well, but I'm writing to Ansible about this!' They all cringe away, I am saved, the dream ends, and I wake up...' (TNH) OK, who's been terrifying our esteemed visitors with Hugh Mascetti stories?
Somewhere in the last mailing I seem to have entangled myself in the webs of Dave Bridges' thoughts, yielding the sensation of being run over by a particularly philosophical and introspective bus. Effortlessly he makes me feel guilty for saying dismissive things about Frank Herbert's latest assault on the world's forests; but as I slink off I meet Dave coming the other way, patting me on the back and consolingly explaining that even if the book wasn't worth reviewing, the review was worth writing as a vehicle for the colossal Langford ego.
This also appears to be the view of my groupies. You probably didn't know I had groupies: neither did I until, visiting a 'GamesFair' at Reading U to chat with White Dwarf and Imagine staff (and to glug cheap beer at the Students' Union, be honest Langford), I encountered a little knot of fans who appeared to have read and memorized every dismissive remark ever made in my WD review column. 'You really put the knife into Donaldson,' they enthused. 'And the way you stomped on Hubbard – great! Didn't like the last column much, though – s bit wishy-washy.' It dawned on me that this lot didn't want to see my book praised, even if it were the greatest thing since sliced golfballs. They merely wanted blood. They wanted an outrageous Langford performance.
Which is slightly depressing when, however addicted to abusive hyperbole when the mood is on me, I have tried to be reasonably honest. Even, good grief, objective in spots. It would have been fun to set the verbal demolition squads on the new Frank Herbert, while avoiding the bother of reading the damned thing ... and abusive reviews are easier to write anyway.... Unfortunately I blew it, by peeping into Heretics of Dune and finding it not too bad at all. Tough luck, groupies.
The terror of the word processor continues. 'Straight onto stencil' work – yes, I bash it out just like that, with the added fillip of being able to tidy away the typos afterwards. Carbon copies: I used to hate them, since I always mistyped the top copy, and the resulting carbons sprouted ugly illegible bits like buboes which had to be covered with healing white gunge and amended with a pen – but no more of that. Above all, counting words: it used to be hellish doing a review which had to be 390-400 words, constantly counting and recounting and trying at the same time to preserve the review's shape.... Now I press two keys, and snigger as I mention that you're reading a 1575-word document, folks.
Luckily this isn't mere elitist gloating: the things keep getting cheaper, and soon 'obsolete' second-hand systems will be available for peanuts, and Frank's APA will insist that material be submitted on disk for reproduction via the Dorey laser-printer, and ... ahem, got carried away.
Last month I had a savage battle with a dictionary, crossing out all sorts of words I felt shouldn't be there, No, I haven't become a highly paid consultant with the OED: I've been trying to clean up the spelling-check wordlist supplied on the word processor disk. 'Emperoress' was fairly explicable, and one felt one could almost supply the missing letter in 'logitudinal', 'usaid' and 'moutaineer'. 'Saftey' and 'innoculation' even had a kind of fannish feel. The entries which baffled me most were 'strmummy' and 'undp'; the most charming was presumably a kind of Irish fruit – 'londonberry'.
Does anybody really trust these machines to check their spelling? (Of course my native arrogance insists that my spelling is at all times perfect, but grudgingly I admit to the occasional typo.)
Once when I was little, I played on a Cornish beach, and half-buried at the bottom of a sandy pool I found a tiny ivory figurine, an exquisite Madonna. (NB: I am not now nor have I ever been a Catholic.) And I washed the precious thing and showed it to my mother, who said: 'Throw it away, it's an orange pip.' Trouble is, she was right. That's my life.