The scene is the Tower of London before the invention of tourists. Sir Walter Raleigh is picking his nose and trying to think of good bits to put into his draft History of England. Suddenly, through the window, he sees a fight between some workmen doing repairs! One rude mechanical actually gets killed. Enter, shortly after, two kindly friends:
FRIEND 1: Oi, mush! How's the incarceration?
RALEIGH: Hey, see that punch-up? Great stuff. Makes a bleeding change, I can tell you.
FRIEND 2: Oh yeah. This big brickie had it in for his mate 'cos of, wossname –
RALEIGH: No, it was the other guy started it, pissing round with a culverin.
FRIEND 1: Come off it, sunshine! It was all an argument about the theme of the misuse of power in Measure for Measure, and....
RALEIGH: Bleeding heck! A bit of sodding history happens right outside my window and I still can't get it straight! (Hurls manuscript History into the fire, but allows FRIENDS to retrieve most of it, not without exchanging glances and significantly tapping their temples.)
I still feel like that about Conspiracy '87, and my remaining friends were significantly slow to retrieve the special Conspiracy-report Ansible 51 from its richly deserved flames. If you think you have vast Ansible subscription credit (i.e. money sent to me – not contributors' goodwill credits, which butter few parsnips) and not unreasonably don't trust me to do more fanzines, ask for a refund, or a subscription transfer to Critical Wave, or beg me to fritter it all away on beer.
Another fable is the true but deeply allegorical story of the man who went Beep. He came to us from a firm of restoration experts – that is, builders, but with an aura of smart suits, cellphones and Gucci filofaxes which clearly indicated that you wouldn't get 20% off by paying in greasy fivers.
Our natural politesse prevented us from making any comment. Perhaps he merely had the loudest digital watch in the world, and liked to stand out from the other wallies who in cinemas and public places emit a chirping chorus every hour on the hour. He went on talking about the soggy ceiling, the fearful fungus and the bit of roof which needed restoration, and quoted prices more appropriate to complete urban renewal.
Obviously he was being radiopaged but didn't wish to interrupt his sales talk. We dutifully kept staring out at the Brain, a convoluted mass of expanding foam with which I'd tried to patch the little flat roof over the bay window downstairs. The Brain, our expert conveyed, had been a bad idea. (But not as bad as that of the previous builders, whose gooey sealant had stayed gooey over two years, as the new workers were to find when they removed the ceiling and it oozed all over them like a Shaun Hutson novel.)
It seemed to be growing ever more penetrating, not to say embarrassing. I hinted delicately that we wouldn't mind if he answered his beeper. He smiled politely and arranged a date on which skilled artisans would fail to turn up and demolish portions of our home. What urbanity, what cool.
We ushered him out, grateful to have this source of piercing noise removed before my hearing aid fell apart with the shock. Neither Hazel nor I could resist giggling at this chap who smooth-talked imperturbably while regularly going...
"But he's gone," Hazel said after a bit.
I can only add that it was most inconsiderate of our totally forgotten smoke alarm to choose that morning to start rending the air with its "battery getting low" warning.
And now, my children, whenever I'm tempted to write an article about the deplorable state of apathy in British SF or fanzines, I deter myself by recollecting the man who went Beep.
Sglodion 1, June 1989
Beyond the Fields We Know
People keep saying doomy things about how that noble institution the fanzine has become a pale reflection of that evil cancerous growth the convention, and as an example of a particularly evil cancerous growth they point to me. My sin has been to let conventions push me (by offers of free meals and huge drinks) into writing speeches which afterwards I traitorously publish as fanzine articles, thus subordinating that noble institution etc etc. Since what I write for audiences is deeply similar to my other stuff – with perhaps fewer semicolons, parentheses within parentheses, and words I'm not too sure I can pronounce – one might just as well heap praise on the convention for acting as midwife to a fanzine article....
(Speaking of which, I'm still having a severe attack of Gosh Wow at being invited as a guest to Orycon 11 in Portland, Oregon [Nov 10-12 1989]. No American con has previously displayed such supreme taste. Oh damn, I'll have to write a speech.)
More obloquy should go to the magazines which pay me for what often looks very like fanwriting, albeit with computers occasionally replacing SF as the subject from which I'm digressing. Here's a bit from one of many pieces in Apricot File:
It was a near thing. Our street credibility could have been shattered. Computer hacks would have nudged one another in the pub, tittering and jeering at how Langford had sold out to the big publicity interests, and grovelled for a British Microhype Award – As Sponsored By The Sunday Times.
The crackly voice over the phone said, "We're the British Microcomputing Awards." (I managed to bite back the instinctive response of, "No thanks, we've already got one.") "We understand you, er, do a disk."
"Yes indeed! Our disk gives its buyers unlimited super powers, boundless sexual potency, and an uncanny ability to understand several sentences in MS-DOS manuals. Make the cheque out to – "
"No, it's the awards, you're in line for best utility software. Can we have all your literature?"
Blimey, I thought. "It's already in the post," I said. "What's the address?"
The second call came to my esteemed colleague Chris Priest. "We want free copies of all your stuff, pronto," they said ingratiatingly. "Will it run on a Apricot Xen computer?"
"Er, we're fairly positively certain it will but haven't been able to try."
"Oh! Why don't you ask Apricot to give you a free Xen? That's what we did."
It is nice to know that innocence still survives in this cruel world.
"Where do we send the software?" Chris asked with commendable restraint.
Not feeling like walking all the way downstairs to check the street number, the awards lady said: "I don't know yet, we'll ring tomorrow...."
The final phone call came many days later.
"Why haven't you sent us your software?"
"We stayed in all day for you to ring with the address, but you didn't."
"Oh, well, it's too late now."
And that, readers, is at least one of the reasons why our cheapo utilities failed to be up there with the international best-selling finalists, GEM, Sidekick and Windows.
...That particular magazine sank beneath me, like Ad Astra and Extro in the past. I stopped reviewing for White Dwarf in 1988 owing to inflation (the fantasy bloody trilogies kept getting fatter while my cheques stayed unchanged), and abandoned Knave when I found that the new editorial policy required a prose brilliance which I couldn't sustain: "Gosh, I've Never Seen One As Big As That," She Whispered Huskily, etc. In 1989 I was actually thrown out of a magazine column spot for the first time – mingy accountants at New Computer Express ordained that all future funny bits be staff-written to save money. I totter on with book reviews in the newish games mag GM and word processing homilies in 8000 Plus. My thanks for the unfailing support of fans who write, "I always skim through your column before putting the magazine back on the rack...."
Sglodion 1, June 1989
Several Days In May
20 May 1989: Hazel and I are brooding on Mexicon. Nottingham is terra incognita ("I bet," I said, "there'll be a Maid Marian Industrial Estate."). Shall we madly hire a car which will lie around being expensively unused for the actual con, or try the rail route already deplored to me by impartial committee man Greg Pickersgill? At once the phone rings and Hazel's father asks if we would care to accept a scrofulous, cast-off family vehicle to save the "waste" of having it scrapped. Plot turns like this would cause complaints in fiction.
With the remorselessness of Greek tragedy, Hazel's brother delivers the car and plunges us straight into horror with the information that someone has nicked the tax disc. Vast penalties loom. Spurred by fear, I suggest a ludicrous implausibility: could it have fallen off the windscreen and into the air vent? To universal scoffing we do things with probes and forceps. The magic piece of paper is in the air vent... but if this happens within seconds of acquiring the thing, what ghastly sequence of Langford Vehicular Horror Stories is to follow? I may have to do a fanzine.
Meanwhile, why does everyone fall around laughing when told about this car?
21 May: Tell Chris Priest about car. He falls around laughing. Tell Martin Hoare. He cheerily predicts that "my style of driving" will turn it over the moment I venture beyond 40mph. Tell my father, who asks, "The usual rusting death-trap, I suppose?" No, I say proudly, I am told it has a rustproof fibreglass body. He falls around laughing and asks if I've counted the wheels. Apparently there is a widespread theory that all 1976 Reliant Kittens have only three. I admit it's a naff name, but after double-checking I definitely make the wheel count four.
22 May: Paul "John Grant" Barnett is visiting for varied reasons, and after Sunday night is luckily too hungover to fall around laughing. The car lies idle while we revise our Guts! for its lucky new publisher (straws will be drawn at Mexicon). This is tricky work, since all Paul's chapters are on this sort of disk and all mine are on that sort. Luckily I've written this wonderful transfer program which very nearly works, apart from throwing in an extra space at every pagebreak. This is easily solved by converting all pairs of spaces in the text. I fail to notice that thanks to a peculiarity of the WordPerfect word processor, the process also converts all dashes to single spaces. After a long day's revisionism the MS is left printing out: of course the ribbon fades to pale grey before we reach the pub, the paper jams at about our third round, and we reel home to find the last 60 pages mockingly printed on a single line. And, oops, I've run out of ribbons....
23 May: "The bearer of this scroll, namely, David Langford, is summoned to attend the quest of a lifetime. Your adventure begins at 11am prompt, outside Chislehurst (Kent) Railway Station!" Oh dear. Today is Paul's launch party for his other co-written efforts, Joe Dever's Legends Of Lone Wolf, being spinoffs from nothing less than Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks. The promoters wish to celebrate this in cavernous gloom, amid the savage clash and parry of rubber swords... and I, yes, unimportant Langford, have been chosen to accompany Paul on his quest for publicity.
Our adventure begins much earlier than 11am. All the best epics involve gruelling journeys through pitiless conditions; the London Transport strike forces us into major street credibility via a long stagger from Paddington to Charing Cross during the heatwave. "They wouldn't believe it, us two crossing London on soft drinks," I muse. Paul waves a bottle and cries, "Perrier louts." Shrivelled and sweat-drenched, we finally attain the Chislehurst Caves, and it all goes ape.
"You," I am told, "are Sir Conrad, a knight who prefers the banqueting hall to the battlefield." This sounds like journalistic typecasting. I beg to be something more suited to my critical image, like Langford Hackrender, barbarian scourge of the pulpsmiths, but this is not permitted. Shepherded by persons in arcane robes or knitted chainmail, a band of literati and media hacks bears hurricane lamps nervously into the tunnels.
The subterranean journey is of course punctuated by loud encounters which are doubtless thrillingly choreographed were it possible to see anything. Magical types fire off mystic cap-pistols, and there is a disquieting move towards audience participation. I enjoy the sadistic spectacle of a Radio Midlands chap being stripped of his symbiotic tape recorder and thrust whimpering into the darkness to hit things with a padded stick.
Our quest's goal is a dank, lamplit cavern where the party is plied with such delights as "swamp viper" (which I discover too late is cold smoked eel... backbone, skin and all). More welcome but no less dangerous is the "Laumspur cocktail" promised in the invitation: after finding this to consist of legendary tequila and alchemic vodka with just a smidgeon of herbal cranberry juice, I nervously switch to plonk. As the booze flows copiously, several guests grow very thoughtful about warnings that (a) no one should stray out of sight for fear of being lost in 22 chilly miles of caves, while (b) there are no toilets down here. Let us cast a diplomatic veil over the ensuing scenes.
"God, this is so naff," says a Real Journalist who does not appear to be taking any notes.
More role-playing fun lies in store! The now sodden visitors are invited to win a grand prize by solving riddles which costumed characters will pose on request. ("Who is the General with a fondness for crushed velvet?" Er, Haig?) Though boozily acquiescent, I fail to get the hang of this: approaching a hideously made-up dwarf wielding an inflatable axe, I try a tentative "Excuse me, good sir," and at once she takes huge offence.
Egged on by evil Paul, I have another go, this time selecting a fellow in a plethora of straps and studs capped by a nova-burst of bleached hair. "Hello, costumed person, tell me your riddle."
"I'm not in costume, you bastard," says Wayne, famous editor of GM magazine.
Paul and Joe Dever are dragged piteously off to sign 1000 copies of these Beaver-published "Lone Wolf" novels ("Look," says the inevitable someone, "an open Beaver." Kindly hands prevent his escalation to a split Beaver). I locate a native guide and head back towards the sun, falling over from time to time....
Pick up printer ribbons in Tottenham Court Road, as I discover to my surprise next morning.
24 May: What? Who? How? Where? When? After a groan-laden day of the software business ("I've just seen your car," says Chris Priest, and falls around laughing) I reprint Guts!, all of it, and subsequently notice those missing dashes. Far overhead, Concorde passengers nervously complain about the screams.
25 May: Re-edit and re-reprint Guts! Rebellious thought that all this toil and pain wouldn't be so bad if it were actually a good novel.
26 May: Pleasant drive to Mexicon; that is, until the tyre explodes. With herculean efforts we bang and ricochet into a lay-by. "Fear not," I tell Hazel, "there is a spare, we are well provided, your father left the car all stocked with jacks and things." Having jacked up the Kitten with strange ease (aren't estate cars supposed to weigh more than this?), I find Hazel's father sets great store by his spanner, and has kept it. A trek to a nearby tea-van and the purchase of many cups results in the grudging loan of a genuine wheel-nut spanner. It is the wrong size. Keith and Wendy Freeman sail past and, seeing the sybaritic mugs of tea, do not rush to our aid. At risk of tannin poisoning, I set about further ingratiation with a view to the tea-man's adjustable wrench....
This sort of thing never happens with hired cars. I wonder why.
Mexicon: As Jorge Luis Borges inexplicably failed to write: "One of the churches of Tlön maintains Platonically that such and such a fizzy beer, such and such a greenish-yellow colour at breakfast time, such and such a programme stream, make up the only reality there is. All men, in the climactic instant of the real beer running out, are the same man. All conventions are the same convention." Mexicon is, as expected, fun, and as expected it soon blurs... aided by the surreal directions for reaching the main hall from the bar (which is on the same floor) by going up these stairs and through this labyrinth and along echoing corridors and round a bit and down another staircase except when the restaurant is closed in which case it's open as a short cut but wrong use of this route will incur instant terminal reprimand....
Bits I remember: Greg Pickersgill telling the opening-ceremony audience why I'm not on any panels. ("Because you're a deaf cretin, Langford.") Avedon Carol shouting for 48 minutes at a weeping Harry Bond just now convicted of Wrong Thoughts. ("This is a learning experience for him," mumbles D.West. "It would be wrong to intervene.") Algis Budrys writhing under the lash of Judith Hanna's opinions on Scientology (all her facts carefully credited to me). Three superlatively enlightened editors expressing cautious interest in Guts! before even being bought many drinks. Sneaking away for a quiet tandoori with Terry & Lyn Pratchett only to find three-quarters of Mexicon derisively crammed into our chosen restaurant. Alex Stewart showing off the cover of his fabled "sex in space" anthology, something other than the car at which fans can fall around laughing. And the discovery, almost exactly as predicted, of roads repellently named for Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, etc.
Bits I missed: Greg Pickersgill telling Rob Hansen the alleged error of his ways. ("I don't want to see you at any more conventions!") Katie McAulay – no more Hoare, please – scorning Paul McAuley as one of those pathetic Irish persons who can't even spell their own names. (Paul is considered by Chris Atkinson and Abi Frost as a potential toy-boy, but on closer examination gets rejected.) Hazel's explorations of Nottingham and forming of the conclusion that this is the best ever convention city for people who don't like conventions. ("But you haven't been to New Orleans," interposes T.Pratchett.)
Bad moments: Harry Bond saying, "I've just been looking on the fanzine pile and found a copy of your Cloud Chamber 1 dated 1976!" (Avedon's point of view instantly seems more reasonable.) Total inability to wedge answers to the Sunday-paper detective quiz into the femtosecond between Roz Kaveney reading out and answering each question. Virtuous attempt to survive Monday morning on foul low-alcohol drinks. Under the withering gaze of the rudest car park attendant known to exobiology, the Kitten loudly refuses to start.
Much later: "This is the smallest car I've ever been in!" says effusive Moshe Feder, but there is no room in the back seat for him to fall around laughing.
Sglodion 1, June 1989
The Charity Con
On Sunday 1 July 1990, I committed a shameful act. Though I was encouraged and abetted by Brian Stableford, the guilt lies heavy on me still ... well, no, it doesn't really.
Did you hear of what was to be the most gigantic computer show/charity event/SF convention ever held in Europe? "Compute for Charity" was the name. I learned about this blockbuster from a very tatty sheet of paper explaining that all manner of international SF megastars were attending: that is, Terry Pratchett. Unconfirmed wonders too stupefying for the human mind to comprehend were offered in smaller print, among them – as I was interested to discover – Dave Langford.
One thing led to another. Lured by promises of free train tickets, luxury accommodation, unlimited booze and egoboo, etc, I presently found myself sitting with Brian Stableford, en route to the fun city of Hull. "The only bright side I can see," he said after a few hours, "is quite a good bookshop I haven't visited for years." This, for Brian, was unusually cheerful and merry.
Thirty thousand people were to attend over the awesome weekend. Thirty thousand a day. No, forty thousand, said the final flyers. Huge media coverage was anticipated. The SF convention alone would dwarf all those puny British Worldcons. I managed somehow not to dwell on the echoes of publicity for other gigantic SF jamborees which never actually happened, like Space-Ex 84 and Project Starcast. The only thing we learn from history....
Hull looked OK, as I noticed while the crammed car sped out of it. One of the little things the grandiloquent literature had managed not to mention was just how far out of town Humberside College actually is. The guest accommodation had dwindled somehow to austere student bedrooms (no bath or shower but lots of friendly notices saying things like DO NOT REARRANGE THE FURNITURE AS THIS MAY CONSTITUTE A FIRE HAZARD). I will not mention the communal toilet, except that its enthusiastic flush left a wholly misleading pool of water to be negotiated by seekers after relief.
We found Terry already wearing the broad, evil grin of one who rather likes watching unsinkable vessels go down at the touch of a passing ice-cube. When we'd all walked quite a long way to a pub with a much-praised restaurant and the committee had started buying drinks, Brian perked up no end at the opportunity to convey to them that the large sign RESTAURANT CLOSED FOR REDECORATION very possibly meant what it said. Unbelievable complications ensued.
Saturday: Day One! The luxury breakfast was somewhat delayed, there being about an hour's difference between the committee's and the canteen's understanding of things, but it was certainly memorable. Not so much for the strange steamed-looking institutional bacon and other familiar convention joys, as for the subsequent queueing at a cash register where this aged and misanthropic canteen lady very slowly added up the prices of everything – "slice of bread, ur, that's, ur, 5p". We expostulated mildly at this waste of time, pointing out that we famous writers had freebie tickets. It was pityingly explained that a freebie ticket was worth only £1.85 of rigorously checked breakfast credit. A hiss of indrawn breath could be heard from stray students when the big spenders failed to go back and use up surplus pence on half a sausage or a fractional slice of bread.
Now, the convention. Suspicions that the record-beating SF convention idea was a last-minute extra, advertised exclusively through tatty flyers in the Wellington, were subtly confirmed. What had been laid on for us was a bare dingy room containing a bare dingy table behind which Terry, Brian and I sat glumly while a very small trickle of people looked in and went away again on ascertaining that we were not all-action computer games. (Bob Shaw was supposed to be coming too, but wisely didn't. I spotted one actual visiting fan.) This was the entirety of the SF bit, so besides the lack of any programme there was nowhere to give the advertised readings ... which discovery was the high spot of the day.
In a corner of the house of exile, the chap with the portable Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy computer was dispensing merriment. I can never remember his name: the first line of his address is, hilariously, "Hurling Reliant Robins III", and his on-screen Hitcher database is full of jokes as good as that. Relentless unfunniness is what we are talking about here. Or to be charitable, a failure to recognize that even Douglas Adams does not do Douglas Adams one-liners well every time, and does recognize the need to separate them with a bit of narrative. But "Hurling" means well, he flogs print-outs of the stuff for charity (that word again), and I do try not to cringe when, each time I see him, he looms up and demands an amusing inscription for the latest such wad of paper ... which inscription is not allowed to be any of the ones I've done before and forgotten, as those have been entered into the main hypertext. Embarrassments preserved forever.
In another corner, the "Octarine" SF/fantasy humour mob were struggling to create an instant fanzine. This proved a lifeline. We all wrote stuff for it because there was nothing else to do.
Let me make it clear that no actual cruelty was involved. Every hour or so, we were issued beer and sandwiches. Toilet access was allowed. Visiting privileges could probably have been negotiated. All the same....
I sneaked out for an inspection of the rival delights and found that our minute ration of visitors was a fair sample. Dozens if not scores of people must have been flowing through the event every few hours. Out on the campus boy scouts were much in evidence, giving displays of Basic Tent Lurking and touting noxious-looking hot dogs.
After some research I found the book room hidden in a tangle of buildings. This contained copies of our stuff, but was deserted. I bought a paperback I didn't want, out of sheer pity for the despairing chap behind the trestle tables who had believed the publicity and ordered things in fifties. Local Book Dealer Slays Charity Committee And Self.
The main hall had a dozen tatty stands of computer stuff for sale (not state of the art, not cheap). The stands were tatty because they'd been hastily cobbled together by the organizers when the city council failed to lend some as promised. The council's failure was ascribed to the fact that Hull's own municipal festival began on that same day, and miraculously coincided with the students' rag week.
One began to suspect that the 40,000 visitors who daily pass through Hull in hope of a computer/SF event were being ensnared by desperate fun in the city centre.
Brian cracked first. "A bookshop, I need a bookshop...." Dramatic montage of bus stops, the Stableford nose for books twitching through central Hull, the sudden triumphant dive into an arcade, the discovery that the place now sold only remainders. It had begun to rain heavily and didn't slacken until we returned. The event's signs were hand-crafted in felt pen on sheets of corrugated cardboard (including the main one at the main gate), and all now lay soggy and detumescent. A body of water had appeared between the main area and our room, helping to curb that excessive flow of visitors.
Very late on Saturday the media took an interest when, as reported by my sources, someone from the local paper popped in and said, "What's all this then?" Useful publicity in the following Wednesday's edition was practically guaranteed. Meanwhile, our massed skiffy guests became homicidal when the promised Saturday night party proved to consist of a loud empty disco and a louder TV set on which all the surviving organizers were watching the World Cup. Terry preached open sedition to the Escape Committee. We stole out to a takeaway and made our own entertainment: that is, I tried to eat Chinese gloop without a knife or fork, and the other two fell around so painfully they nearly dropped their chips.
When Terry didn't appear at Sunday's grim breakfast, Brian and I suspected the worst. He'd made his break. (It later turned out that he'd decided that sleeping in was more soothing than a breakfast like that.) We looked in on the SF ghetto, and the last straw for Brian came when he was asked to pay for the instant fanzine with his piece in. For charity. Explosion of noted author. (This might conceivably have been a joke. I wheedled one by post later on.)
The Reading contingent grabbed its luggage and slunk off. Actually, lingering traces of conscience made me suggest that we first visit the book room to sign anything required, but the afflicted dealer hadn't felt up to opening that day. Boy scouts watched and reported our every move as we headed to the station: "You were seen," said Terry in a gleeful phone call. After a few days the whole ghastly mess almost began to seem funny.
One of the mighty organizers wrote to me later. "We hope you enjoyed the weekend, even though it was shorter than you intended! The show was a success...." What? The ingredients of success appeared to be mounds of left-over (that is, unsold) games software for future sale, plus other donated goodies and in particular "the face of severely handicapped (and very intelligent) boy Carl when ICI presented him with a complete Amiga system". Only a rotten curmudgeon would sneer at that. But is it barely possible that the donations could have been raked in and the success notched up without actually needing to stage such a shambolic weekend in Hull?
Sglodion 3, April 1991
Charity, bloody charity. When I filled most of Sglodion 2 with polemic leading up to the plugging of an Excruciatingly Worthy Cause, I was chock-full of honest anger, sincerity and all that stuff. It's hard to sustain this over a full year of rephrasing the issues for different audiences, and now I (and co-conspirator Paul Barnett) mainly feel tired....
Anyone who wants the documents – SG2 and various fund news-sheets – is welcome to send a quid for photocopies. For other newcomers, the condensed version goes: British UFO writer Jenny Randles had been pissing freely on the excesses of far-out UFO-conspiracy-theory loons, was written up in the Manchester Evening News in terms sufficiently distorted to permit a libel action, was sued (along with the paper) by said loons, and had no money. We disliked the idea of any writer getting bankrupted for (a) uttering the common-sense viewpoint almost universal among scientists and SF people, and (b) being creatively misrepresented in a scummy provincial newspaper. Hence the fund.
(To those who confidently informed us that no British solicitor would take on such a case, we cautiously remark that the solicitor concerned is himself a UFO, ahem, enthusiast of extreme views, and that one of the writs he issued was on his own behalf. I understand the Law Society is having its ear bent over this.)
People were generous. MJ-Balls brought in over £2500. This was only a fraction of what the case would have cost to fight in court, and lack of funds – along with the fact that the newspaper itself refused to fight on – forced a settlement.
To those who informed us that no court would allow the wallies to win a case like that, we observe that as so often in British justice, the money ran out long before the court stage. In the 1920s A.P.Herbert satirized the legal status of Magna Carta, and not much has changed. His judge quotes: "To no man will we sell, to no man deny, to no man delay, justice or right," and continues: "But we in this Court are well aware that these undertakings have very little relation to the harsh facts of experience. It is the whole business of the honourable profession of the Law to sell, delay and deny justice – to sell it to those who can afford it, to delay it if the client has money, and to deny it if he has not; and many of us wish that we could sell more justice than we do."
The reluctant settlement kept the total bill including defence costs down to around £3750. Jenny managed to meet the difference herself. As though this were TAFF, she is inclined to restart the fund for the benefit of the next such victim; good, but Paul and I are too shagged out to join in this.
There were lots of nice moments, from the first anonymous £100 cheque to the Auction of the Cloth of Gold at Microcon this February, where enormous sums flowed from an audience scarcely visible to the naked eye. Notes of encouragement came from Greg Bear, Arthur C.Clarke ("This sounds the sort of fight I'd love ... but I am very limited in time and energy."), Martin Gardner and many more; David Brin madly volunteered to testify if the case ever got to court; a million other writers and fans (listed in the above-mentioned news sheets) chipped in with cash and signed goodies for sale. Gosh.
Of course there were low points too, and none lower than when on John Brunner's eminently sensible-sounding advice I sent the entire story to that pundit of pundits, that champion of rationalism, that doyen of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal ... Isaac Asimov. He wrote, in full:
One of the things I've learned in my half-century as an s.f. writer is that what happens among s.f. fans is of no interest to anyone in the world. I would suggest that you ignore fannish squabbles and go about your serious business. In fact, if you really want to write books and do real s.f. don't waste your time publishing a fan magazine.
This really put me in my place, you bet. I hope that all the rest of my readers who are "of no interest to anyone in the world" will feel suitably crushed and cast away childish things.
My thanks again to everyone involved, except Isaac Asimov.
Sglodion 3, April 1991
Feather-Footed Through the Plashy Fen
Even in the boring old Reading townscape, we're surrounded by arcane life. One night as I tottered home from a London trip, a high-speed fox whizzed across the road and into next door's garden. I never saw it come out again, but not too long after (instead of the usual rock groups) this garden proved to contain a horse, which makes you think.
Another midnight, a terrifying white shape crashed through overhanging branches and pancaked in the local canal: when I'd stopped twitching I reasoned that it must be a swan, but what was a swan doing on top of a tree? ("They have enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perching.") It's similarly boggling to be buzzed in broad daylight by a heron not quite as big as a 747, flapping serenely down London Road towards – it seemed – an appointment at the Royal Berkshire Hospital.
We have also had ducks about the place, but they yielded to treatment.
Closer to earth, there was the epidemic of tiny moles. "Our front garden," I pointed out to Hazel, "is riddled with tiny moles who construct crumbly earth volcanoes with a hole one centimetre across."
"They can't be moles," she argued. "They must be large ants."
In the days that followed, the passers-by who are so generous with their bounty of burger wrappings, Coke bottles and depleted lager cans were much intrigued by this shambling figure which kept sneaking out and peering down minute holes in the grass. Eventually a small black bee with a lurid orange bum emerged, sneered at me in a way that indicated it knew all about squatters' rights, and flew off to ravish some dandelions.
Bee knowledge master Terry Pratchett explained soothingly that it wasn't like the totalitarian collectives of hive bees. "Yours," he said with authority, "are self-employed." Further outposts were discovered in the compost heap, which had taken to buzzing menacingly when prodded. A thought experiment immediately sprang to mind: the pear tree likes to hurl its fruit groundwards from thirty feet up to make a satisfying splat and crater, while the irritable Heap lay brooding and vibrating under that very tree. Ergo ... when autumn came, we stayed indoors a lot.
Indoors is no escape from the insect hordes who, not able to tackle their hulking human oppressors by brute force, have devised pitiless stratagems of guilt and fear. The aim of the Shrivelled Window-Sash Ladybird, for example, is to emerge from its ancestral breeding or hibernating grounds in our woodwork and to cling to the corner of the sunniest available window until we notice its withered form and feel bad. Visiting recently, a bemused Rob Hansen followed me around the house on ladybird patrol: coaxing the little bastards on to a convenient postcard sent by Eileen Gunn from Samarkand, and ejecting them before they could complete their act of suttee. What Rob was thinking is uncertain.
The Great Red-Bellied Inverted Beetle can inspire panic on its rare flights: it whirs and clatters across the room like a midget helicopter with rotor problems, to crash-land with great precision in the middle of whatever Hazel's reading. Being too inept to spread serious fear, this one also is fond of the suicide strategy. Every day for a period of several summer weeks, it or one of its cronies is to be found upside-down and helpless, perhaps feebly waving its little legs. Discover it too late and it is an ex-beetle. "My ichor is on your hands," the tiny corpse conveys. Rotten imperialist humans, providing flat surfaces on which harmless coleoptera can't right themselves.
Different emotions attend the discovery of that other beetle known to science as the Small Brown Oh God It's Not Woodworm Is It. Its natural habitat is bedroom floors, suspiciously near wardrobes, cupboards etc, and its natural state is dead. Though too big to fit in any woodworm-hole we've ever met, the things inspire all sorts of dread. Mutant hero woodworm? Death watch? Perhaps even the terribly boring marine worm? We keep nervously inspecting furniture, books and limbs for large enough holes.
Taxonomists should note that this one is not to be confused with the much smaller Lesser Pasta Beetle, which has the nasty habit of being vibrantly alive, unless you've actually cooked the pasta. This insect is attracted to the habitat of anyone who buys remaindered lasagna from a delicatessen about to close after several years' lack of custom. Driven by ancient migratory urges deep-programmed into its very genes, it then makes its way across the shelf to the poppadoms. At this stage its characteristic cry is a muted phut from under the grill.
With arthropod cunning, the Doomed Carpet Woodlouse seeks to implicate us even more directly in its passing. Like those unfortunate sods before the dread car of Juggernaut, it flings – well, places – itself where my bare foot is about to descend on the way to a morning cup of tea. This is a memorable experience yet to be commemorated by Dean R.Koontz or Stephen King.
Evicting woodlice is a losers' game. There are fourteen to fifteen billion of them constantly in residence, spilling over from the gigantic garden and cellar populations like Mexicans into the USA. It must be a savage life out there: you keep meeting specimens with only a single feeler at the front, which looks vaguely piratical. (I keep hoping for one with a row of tiny wooden legs down one side.) They like it indoors and resist eviction, hauling in all their legs and pretending to be limpets. Thousands of guilt points are scored if you squash one when trying to get a grip and eject it humanely.
Here, technology has been dazzlingly useful. To lift a recalcitrant louse, the superior intellect merely takes one of those sticky "post-it notes" and applies same to the beast's dingy grey armour. A flick at the window, and the victim is exiled for at least ten minutes while it finds its way back to a door-crack or airbrick. Can I patent this?
Meanwhile, perhaps the most disaster-prone of all our local life-forms is the Tiny Misplaced Puffball, a fungus which every year tries to grow at the edge of the front path ... until every year it succumbs to the jackboot of a postman who likes the short cut over the grass. This year, though, the grass also harbours the burrows of many a self-employed bee. The Royal Mail could be about to live in interesting times.
In next issue's nature notes we will discuss the eerie Call of Nature felt in our back garden by every cat for miles around, and the possibility of a target-seeking, servo-controlled laser deterrent which would operate on renewable energy sources and harmonize with the environment. "Cats," says Hazel, "are not environment."
Sglodion 3, April 1991