Getting Together

Last month I mentioned recent deaths in the SF world, and hoped the man with the scythe would take a holiday. Very soon, though, we'd lost several more, including America's famous Damon Knight and England's sadly underrated Richard Cowper (pen-name of John Murry). For me, the link between them was the Milford SF conferences.

What everyone remembers about Damon Knight is his joke story (later a Twilight Zone episode) about helpful aliens who shower us with benefits and carry a handbook titled "To Serve Man", the punchline being that it's a cookbook. Another squib, "Eripmav", short enough to have had a t-shirt edition, describes a vegetable vampire who naturally gets a steak through the heart.

More seriously, Knight wrote the first truly intelligent, informed book of SF criticism, In Search of Wonder (1956), and co-founded the Milford conferences, where SF professionals met for uninhibited discussion of each others' work. Much metaphorical blood flowed. When the Milford idea was exported to Britain by James Blish in 1972, a Very Famous Author reportedly stormed out in a huff after his story was "workshopped" – never to return.

Meeting the witty and charming Richard Cowper was a regular highlight of British Milfords. I remember him opening discussion of a tale by promising young author Robert Holdstock, with an enormous grin and the words: "It is truly said that those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising ..."

They were gruelling events, but rewarding. A whole week in a small, grotty hotel, frantically reading manuscripts and thinking of appropriate things to say at the fraught workshop sessions where everyone spoke in turn and stories got pulverized word by word. The rough justice was that you couldn't join the fray without submitting a manuscript of your own. Everyone went under the knife.

Somehow we found time for silly literary games like Call My Bluff, into which Richard Cowper would impishly toss bizarre words he'd been researching all year. Everyone laughed at his obviously false definition of "tappen" as "the mucous plug which closes the rectum of a polar bear during hibernation." But oh dear, there it was in the OED.

The Milford hotel had a tiny games room where George R.R. Martin and Christopher Priest spent vast sums battling for top score on a video game called Meteoroids, and where we all resented the expensive pool table. Being a practical man, Richard devised cunningly shaped wads of paper to bung up the pockets and prevent pool-balls escaping to oblivion. These became known as the Cowper Tappens. One day the hotel boss walked in just as they were being inserted. Deep embarrassment.

Oh gosh, the Milford memories do come flooding back. John Brunner's awful, awful puns. French author Patrice Duvic borrowing my typewriter and (being used to the AZERTY rather than the QWERTY layout) alarming bystanders after each typo with cries of "Aagh! French letter!" Lisa Tuttle's MS about a demon lover glimpsed as something like a black bin-liner floating on the breeze – leading Garry Kilworth to manifest himself to her, winsomely clad only in a black plastic bin-liner. Professional editor Toby Roxburgh visiting to offer his own brutal comments on all the stories, uniting us into an outraged group mind as Richard stalked the corridors pretending to sharpen an enormous knife.

Then there was Geoff Ryman's critique of the catering: "Imagine something on your plate that you would not wish to step in if you saw it on the pavement, and which requires only diced carrot to look like a special effect for Ken Russell's The Devils: a Milford breakfast. Grey runny powdered egg on greasy bread. God, the food was terrible ..." Ah, nostalgia.

The one time I met Damon Knight at a convention, he squirted water at me from the "zap gun" he used to subdue importunate fans, and complained that US Milfords (once all-star events held in Knight's own vast house) were now full of young punks. The British conferences started to seem that way when Richard Cowper gave up writing in the mid-1980s and many of the old guard stopped coming – but Milford UK still goes on, no doubt full of young punks.

Meanwhile, thanks to Richard and the rest, I have a lot of good memories. He was a fine writer too. Somehow I never expected to attend his funeral.

David Langford once took a frisbee to Milford UK, and found it trumped by Richard Cowper's two authentic boomerangs.