With Rod and Gun [Further] Up John Jarrold

Tolkien has a lot to answer for: the present spate of six-book trilogies, endless volumes of posthumous and not very well embalmed fragments, Stephen Donaldson, Terry Brooks, and John Jarrold.

Yes – travel back in time with me to 1972, and see the infant Jarrold discovering fandom through one of its least trendy portals, the Tolkien Society. I like to imagine him painfully tracing Elvish script, and taking the lead in frenzied debates as to whether Frodo's later malaise could best be diagnosed as TB, leprosy or herpes. Even now, any casual mention of the Land of Mordor fills John's eyes with misty nostalgia and his glass with beer, as he drinks to forget. (Admittedly, other stimuli can produce the same effect – words like "SF", "Mexico", "America", and "the".)

I was first introduced into his awesome presence in 1974, during an early Pieria writers' meeting at Rob Holdstock's literary pigsty. We each took turns to read a story, after which everyone else would explain how utterly worthless, clichéd, unsaleable and otherwise quite good it had been.

The Jarrold contribution was called "The Deathbird". He frankly admitted that there was some other little-known SF story with this title, which he'd been careful not to read for fear of Influence. As I remember it, the unfortunate hero was endlessly pursued across a broken landscape by this vast malignant bird whose only goal in life was to track him down and crap on him. (Luckily I forget the details. Come to think of it, I'd forgotten them by the time I was supposed to comment on the story, only five minutes after hearing it.) Most of the people at that meeting later became professional authors, but John valued his street-credibility too much to fall into this common trap.

Instead he won a name for himself in London fandom as generous and pissed. Fanzines of the period awarded him the title "bemused drunk" (Graham Charnock, Vibrator), and mentioned in passing that "we'd all love him just as much if he didn't buy so many rounds, but I hope no one tells him so" (can't trace this one, but probably it was Leroy Kettle).

Soon he began to publish his still current and still infrequent fanzine Prevert, of which it has so often been said "Isn't that a typo?" No, it's a deeply subtle allusion to Dr Strangelove. I was much impressed by an early issue in which the editor smugly described how he'd been to a Worldcon and mingled with Larry Niven. Envy, envy, I thought, this being a long time before my final illusions were shattered by reading The Integral Trees.

Since we're wallowing in history, let's look at a contemporary review of the first-ever Jarroldzine, in True Rat 6:

Friendly young drunkard John Jarrold put down his large whisky just long enough to get out Prevert 1, which, with its smutty white paper, poor duplication, inverted middle page, layout and stapling bears an unnatural resemblance to True Rat 1, or, of course, to any partially ept first ever issue. Highlight is Bob Shaw's excellent-as-usual article 'Allies in Wonderland', arts and farts in chilly Newcastle. Lowlights are the book reviews.... If John can establish a less hurried and less self-conscious editorial presence and can coincide that with a few moments of sobriety, he might do OK. Send him an article. I'm sure he buy you shome drinksh. [Leroy Kettle]

This review must have had its effect, because these days "John Jarrold" and "self-conscious" are concepts it's pretty hard to get into the same room, let alone the same sentence.

After years of carefully orchestrated obscurity, our hero came into his own with an astonishing piece of street theatre at Silicon 7 in 1983. Silicon traditionally ruins its unwary members' bodies and minds in a marathon of games with which fans should not meddle: that year, the keynote challenge was The Brothers Karamazov (one of Stanisław Lem's lesser-known space operas). A recorded dramatization was provided, with gaps in the dialogue which aspiring thespians were invited to fill with their own emotive interpretations. Fan after fan read the lines from the script, and betrayed a deeply sensitive lack of talent.

When J.Jarrold was placed in the hot-seat, the convention reeled in unison at his panache and his well-stirred mix of accents – including Bogart, Vladivar, von Stroheim, Lower Slobbovian and, above all, Mexican. Deafness luckily saved many of my brain-cells; the rest of the gathering was less fortunate, as proved when for the first time in the history of Silicon Silly Games, there was a mass request for a repeat performance. Arriba!

Thus, somewhat indirectly, was born Mexican Fandom ("We don' need no steenkin' badges!"); and Mexican fandom begat Mexicon, which put "written science fiction" back into conventions – in the form of Russell Hoban playing with clockwork mice, Geoff Ryman in drag, and Alasdair Gray conducting his famous horizontal meditation seminar in the entrance to the con hall. And, of course, that first Mexicon's committee included not only two papier-mache cacti but also John Jarrold.

There are lots more anecdotes about John's legendary cool, as when after Mexicon he impressed visiting US punk fan Lucy Huntzinger by a pub crawl during which he sank nineteen pints without turning a hair. She was still more impressed as, still not turning a hair, he nonchalantly showed her the contents of his stomach on several consecutive stations of the Piccadilly Line.

More recently he's been seized by wanderlust. "I confidently expect to be living in New York by the end of 1986" – believe this if you like. In late 1985 the American TAFF administrators, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, were alarmed by a transatlantic phone call in which John announced his intention of ending it all. It was around 3am, New York time. "I can't stand Britain any longer," he approximately cried (it is not known whether 'Britain' is here an euphemism for 'Margaret Thatcher'). "I'm going to ... take the first plane from Heathrow! See you tomorrow!"

Then he hung up.

An alarmed Patrick rang his UK counterpart Rob Hansen, who rang the Jarrold house: no John. Hours went by in silence and suspense. Was JJ poised in airborne transition, like someone in a particularly bad Dune sequel, about to make the evolutionary quantum leap and become Supercool USA?

Later, quizzed by Mr Hansen, he explained: "I couldn't get a flight so I came back home."

For contributions such as this to fandom as we know it, John walked off in 1985 with the Nova Award for Best Fanzine (Prevert again), to massed cries of enthusiasm, admiration and disbelief.

A man of legend, as you see. Treat him with the care he deserves: buy him lots of nice tonic water. When at 3am he enquires about buses to the airport, discourage him with the committee's treasured bondage equipment. And beware of asking for a repeat performance of his famous ethnic impersonations ... there's the terrible danger that he might do it. Frankly, I don't know that English-Scots relations could survive John's version of a Glaswegian accent.