I crouch in the passenger seat as Andrew Stephenson urges his Mini into the uncharted North Circular. As my whole life passes before my eyes, I relive bygone Pieria meetings, an endless line of them fading into time's abyss ...
It starts with an envelope containing Advance Warning 1. The tone of this may be megalomaniac (Kev Smith: 'I do not intend to allow excessive verbosity ... lengthy and detailed defences of stories by authors will not be allowed') or verbose (Andrew: 'Dearly Beloved: It has been proposed that a number of us shall foregather at my pad for the purpose of perpetrating the eighth Pieria ...') or subtly witty (Rob Holdstock: 'We are prepared for you. The hatches are battened down, the sten guns oiled, the flesh processing plant at the bottom of the garden is churning into life again.') or merely odd (Garry Kilworth: 'To the west, phallanx on phallanx of SF writers prepare their critic repulsers ...' [sic], probably a phalic pun).
We are headed for Pieria 11, in Shoeburyness, at or beyond the edge of the world. The Mini is valiant but much loaded: it is also a lurid yellow, identical to Chris Morgan's. And thereby hangs a tale ... you thought it was the exhaust pipe?
There are already traditions, after less than three years. Chris, for example, customarily writes his hero with great gusto to a dismal fate: this sadistic glee has been defined as the Chris Morgan Smile – by Rob, who descriptively retitled Chris' last effort A SURVIVAL STORY ABOUT TEN PEOPLE IN THE SEYCHELLES KILLING EACH OTHER AND THINGS. (The hero is down a hole, trapped, broken limbs, agonizing pain ... 'Presently, the ants come.')
Another tradition concerns Rob's manuscripts. We once decided that something of his was like Delany in style, which seemed to annoy him. Even now, his first drafts remind one irresistibly of that author: you have only to study the speling,
Me? I just make lousy jokes.
Bypass excavations threaten from the right; on the left, a seductive sign attempts to lure us to Chigwell. Chigwell, says a now-crazed Andrew, is an unreal city, a cancerous growth which preys on London, stealing its lifeblood by tapping the traffic arteries, sending out signs which are but a snare and a delusion ... Certainly every turning, just now, seems to say CHIGWELL.
Pieria swarms with beards. Rob's and Andrew's are familiar landmarks, Kev's unspeakably satanic, Mike Rohan's severely restrained; Chris has a moustache which droops between the styles 'Mexican Bandit' and 'Fu Manchu'. John Jarrold often appears incipiently hirsute, but by and by he remembers to shave; conversely, Garry's neat growth seems a permanent part of his face. Does true personality reveal itself in the beard? Can Hirsutomancy strip bare the soul, if not the chin? Al Scott and I – not to mention Diana Reed – keep our true personalities to ourselves.
Reading her tales in a limpid little-girl voice, Diana causes eyes to pop as the plots unfold into labyrinthine complexity. My comments afterward are cunning exercises in generality, since I've no idea of what was going on – oh, how I loathe and envy those intellects who, according to themselves, seize the meaning at once.
Kev, as befits an incipient accountant, attacks everything with savage precision; he it was who began the practice of writing HATE at the top of one's notepad. Rob delivers opinions from behind stormclouds of beard, occasionally flashing conciliatory sheet-lighting smile. In Pieria 11 he makes a joke for maybe the first time in a story: 'I used to think fellatio was a character from Shakespeare.' (Until I discovered Chris Priest, I wish I'd thought of adding.) Diana, Chris and Andrew are deeply analytical in criticism, and so convincing, so persuasive, so right, that their disagreements induce multiple schizophrenia.
... We decide that the rash of unmapped roundabouts in the leprous north-east of the Smoke represents the products of Chigwell's sporulation. Hundreds of tiny Chigwells, burgeoning now in our very midst! The smoky air, unfit for man, is manifestly congenial to the Chigwelloid growths. But whence do the spores emerge?
For Pieria 9, the idea was to write stories based on Muses. Polyhymnia (sacred song) and Clio (history) were eventually prostituted to the cause of SF, by myself and Garry respectively, but the idea had small support. Pieria 10 had Themes – you take your notion from someone, usually Rob, and go on from there. This was more successful. Drunk with innovation, we voted to produce tales from given first lines at Pieria 11.
We should have known better.
'"Stamping on frogs," the Rigellian complained, "is not in accordance with protocol."'
'For his 94th birthday, I decided to give my father a woman.'
Thus two of the Lines, each of which became two stories. You should see the rejected ones.
... The story called 'The Power of the Frog' is in my folder now, on the back seat, in the Mini, on the A127, heading for Garry's and Pieria 11. The Chigwelloid fruiting bodies, ingeniously disguised as water-towers, are dimly visible to the south, We are already late. Pieria always starts late – not the only resemblance to a convention.
There are the forms to fill in beforehand; there is the welcome company of SF people; there is the blending and fusion of memories, so that all Pierias are in retrospect a seamless whole; there is the eating and drinking (in between the deadly crit-sessions) – yes, very like a con. Particularly the silly answers on those forms. Rob was foolish enough to ask people what they didn't want to eat and subsequently wrote: 'I can assure you all, without naming names, that we will NOT serve up any mushrooms, bananas, humble pie, dinosaurs, a-four-letter-word-meaning-excreta, tripe, Rob's cooking, whale bone marrow mixed with the blood of an unborn octopus (sounds delicious!), salad, bedposts, old exhaust pipes, or Andrew's attempts at pies (who said that? ...)'
And one letter to Garry went 'I eat anything, but salad will not stay down, and its subsequent reappearance as a baroque ornamentation of walls, floors, people etc, makes it highly dangerous to press it upon me, or even to make me eat it ...'
Excuse the epicure-talk; I find food a fascinating subject, since I'm currently living in a hostel which loves to serve liquescent potato, 'fried' eggs fired coevally with the plates, and Totalitarian Veg, where the identity of the individual pea or bean is subordinated to the will of the state. One special dish is 'Durham Cutlet', apparently the missing link between the turd and the rissole. Hosting Pieria 9, I gave everyone hostel (some say 'hostile') food, thinking that their tales would plumb brilliant new depths of pessimism and despair when once they'd experienced that dark night of the stomach, Alas, the treacherous canteen produced a uniquely near-acceptable meal; the plan was foiled, a failure which Andrew emphasized by borrowing my typewriter and producing a light, witty story in 20 minutes.
... We are in Southend and everything should be easy. We are, in fact, nearly there. We are also just the tiniest bit lost.
Like all great literature, Pieria stories leave certain of their lines forever etched on the memory ...
Garry: 'There is nothing quite so beautiful as the sight of a telephone pole in full bloom.'
Rob: 'My insides tensed like insides do.' 'Cheung-Taylor smelled a rat the size of the Shipmeister.'
John: 'His teeth drew back into a snarl ...'
Me: '(Must avoid kicking him in the dogmas –)'
Chris (of a sunset): '... an upturned dish of dayglow ketchup.'
... We find the house – the dayglow mustard of the Morgan Mini is a useful short-range landmark – and guzzle pizzas before It begins. There is much discussion of the follies of editors, the purblindness of publishers; sipping lager, we eagerly compare our albums of rejection slips. Our time will come, ha ha. (Though some of us are selling stories. You know who.)
The crit-session, lasting – with brief pauses for vital bodily functions – until late at night, will conclude this time with a blockbuster 17,000-worder, read aloud, from Al. (In which the prose is decided to be 'not purple, but inclined to the puce.') Reading aloud, Garry complains, dulls the brain and makes sleeping difficult.
But for now it is my turn. Trembling, I take up the flimsy sheets and read. '"Stamping on frogs", the Rigellian complained ...' At least they laugh at one or two of the jokes, But Andrew frowns awfully and writes; Kev has already scrawled HATE on his notepad. It's been said that Pieria standards are as high as those of Milford (understandably – there is some overlap). Too soon, the story comes to an end. Then a pause, as critics gather their strength. Chris Morgan is to open for the prosecution.
Tomorrow there will be the journey home, the gauntlet of Chigwell to be run. This afternoon, though, I steel myself for the worst, and surreptitiously turn off my hearing aid.
This originally appeared as "The Enigmatic Nose #1: No, Not Pyorrhoea". Why "The Enigmatic Nose"? Good question: 29 years later, it took me some time to remember. But here, Best Beloved, is the tale ...
In our Oxford/OUSFG days, Kevin Smith – "Kev" in the above – and I had each developed a silly story-sequence to entertain (in some strange, twisted sense of the word) the OU science fiction group. His series was fantasy, starring Alcain the barbarian swordstwit, while mine was the space-operatic saga of Cosmic Agent Mac Malsenn: "It became necessary to destroy the universe in order to save it." Eventually these mighty-thewed heroes met in a deeply silly story for which the world is still not prepared, called "Then Time Is No Cage".
Just as "Malsenn" derives from Lensman, this was Kevin's best anagram of our purely descriptive working title "The Miscegenation". And – yes, I see you're ahead of me – one of the rejected alternatives became the overall title of my first ever fanzine column. There was a second instalment, but mercifully not a third.
Amazingly, some of Mac Malsenn's solo adventures actually made it into print. Three of these (though not the first couple, and definitely not "Then Time Is No Cage") are collected in He Do the Time Police in Different Voices.