The TransAtlantic Hearing Aid

First Bit: Travelling Hopefully

Wednesday 27 August 1980

"I shall be sick," Hazel told me with a sort of satisfied determination. "I was sick in France and sick in Germany and sick in Austria and ... well, every country in Europe except Liechtenstein."

"You need good aim to be sick in Liechtenstein," I agreed. We were fibrillating about the house in a highly organised panic; it was one day and 3000 miles to Noreascon; I was a little bit worried because I'd never actually travelled in a plane, and Hazel was very worried indeed because she had. This was scarcely the time to be suffering the pangs of post-convention depression (not to mention Weltschmerz, Angst and shrivelled wallet) ... but attending Silicon a couple of days before had seemed a Good Idea on the theory that it would disrupt our biorhythms, and so prepare us for the appalling sensory impact of the TAFF trip. Thus it came about that, when we leapt gladly from bed on the morning of our long-awaited journey to America, we were thoroughly knackered.

On the table was the packet of peanuts we'd bought on the way to Silicon and subsequently carried all the way back. "Have a peanut," I said to the distraught Hazel. "Think of nice thoughts. Be cheerful. Gosh, I had an interesting dream last night, I dreamt I was hiding 110mm film cartridges inside hollowed-out copies of The Complete Poetry of Robert Browning and William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, neither of which I have read. Think of that."

"I was dreaming we were off to the Sudan," she wailed. "Waaaaaah. If only we were."

We quivered our way through a breakfast less hearty than a condemned man's, Hazel carving obsessively at an orange while I sliced an apple into tiny tiny pieces. The doors and windows of 22 Northumberland Avenue were ritually sealed like the tomb of Tutankhamun. A last minute check disclosed that my case did indeed contain 300 fanzines and books and auction material and an Astral Leauge cassette for Terry Hughes (which he was on no account to play to Jackie Lichtenberg) and a bottle of liqueur demanded by Joyce Scrivner and the Dramamine recommended by Andrew the omniscient Stephenson and the whisky I'd won as part of the Welshfandom quiz team at Silicon. (I invariably ended up prescribing myself this instead of the Dramamine, which was not cost-effective.) Also, in odd corners, we'd contrived to pack some clothes. One item of hand luggage was a John Le Carré omnibus in a protective plain-paper jacket, on which some idiot Langford had scrawled Sex-Seeräuber aus den Blutig Asteroid for the benefit of customs men. (While checking that this was properly misspelled, I found that the German for sex-appeal in women is erotische Anziehungskraft, while for men it's Sex-Appeal. Think of that.) Last of all we packed the ex-Silicon peanuts, and with simulated heartiness explained to each other that a brisk mile's walk to Reading station would make us vibrantly healthy and fit. As a foreseeable result, we were still grey-faced and breathless when we at last fell out of our train, as though from an iron lung, into the airport complex at Gatwick.

New readers should begin with this paragraph, and should on no account confuse themselves by prior study of the material above. We were visiting the USA to undergo Noreascon, the 1980 World SF Convention in Boston, our highly altruistic purpose being to test certain crackpot statements put about by a fellow called Columbus, and to find out whether it's possible to achieve the hallowed state of insobriety using only American beer. (It is, but there's a scientifically interesting time-reversal effect whereby said beer makes you ill before it makes you drunk.) The expedition was sponsored by the good old Transatlantic Fan Fund, which has been defying US regulations about undesirable aliens ever since it started (informally) in 1952: realising my opportunity, I very swiftly arranged to be born in 1953. In the olden days it took most of the gross national product of fandom merely to boost the victim beyond the three-mile limit; as for getting back, you could only hope that a kindly US government would note the unwholesomeness of this British person and come through with a deportation order. Thus it was that such former TAFF delegates as Ken Bulmer and Peter Weston were restored to our bosoms.

By 1980, however, British fans were so rich and capitalistic that enormous lemming-like hordes made the pilgrimage to Noreascon; innumerable thronging masses flowing westwards like some great race migration; groaning DC-10s so crammed with tight-packed British bodies that the incalculable pressure converted Freddie Laker's airline food into nodules of collapsed matter, not that it made much difference; colossal swarms of incoming British fans who blackened the sky over Boston in their numberless myriads. You may mock, but I counted at least thirty, enough to cause a marked plummet in this country's statistics for crimes of indecency and postal fraud during the period of Noreascon. And of course the most enormous of all these hordes were Jim Barker and Harry Bell, who chose to fly over with the Langford entourage.

We greeted one another with rather sickly smiles, as though congregating at the guillotine rather than the Gatwick booking desk: only John Harvey, Jim and Harry's tumbril-driver, seemed unconcerned. The atmosphere of brooding dread had made its effect even on John by the time our instinctive footsteps reached the airport bar, and presently a hideous, unnatural scene transpired. Imagine Margaret Thatcher raping Norman Tebbit on the front bench of the Commons; imagine a hat-trick of Hugo awards going to Perry Rhodan novels; imagine, if you can, Rog Peyton giving away free books; perhaps then you can contemplate the thought of four case-hardened and cirrhosed British fans sitting trembling and in cold blood drinking fruit-juice.

At gate 20 I lurched through the metal-detector with an air of bravado, and the whole thing fell sideways and said Thud while red lights went on everywhere and a Customs man with large black bags under his eyes droned: "Oh dear, you've broken my nice detector, I'll have to charge you for that, sir." I had to perform an action replay, this time omitting the air of bravado.

Jim, Harry, Hazel and I stood for a long time in a departure lounge which doubled as a sauna. "My father says travelling on a plane is just like travelling on a coach, Hazel said without conviction. "He says you can't tell the difference."

Jim wanted to change the subject, and mysteriously remarked that he'd dominated (sic) Joe Nicholas for GUFF. I wrote this furtively, feeling not so much, well, nervous, perish the thought, as eager to concentrate on any old trivia.... Harry offered a paltry sum for the use of my notes when we got back ("If we get back," Hazel muttered), but blew the deal with a crack about how he was used to bad handwriting. Lots of people had warned all of us about one hidden peril of enormous altitudes and terrifying speeds: apparently one's feet are liable to swell up. We agreed to be on our guard against this calamity. Around this time Hazel's ultrasonic screams were interrupted by crackly noises from a hi-fi system not as good as British Rail's: time to cringe our way abroad.

A few crowd scenes later, we sat watching a safety film about likely appalling disasters that would presently happen to us, with close-up shots of oxygen masks falling from the ceiling to dangle in the manner of giant spiders in some Hammer film, or springing from the seat-backs at astonished passengers like something out of Alien. At least they didn't dwell on the perils of bloated feet, which were beginning to prey on our minds. Suddenly the screen went blank owing to Laker Skytrain's version of the law of averages: we'd been put aboard 15 minutes before takeoff time, which was balanced by taking off 15 minutes after takeoff time. As we tilted up and away from England, a weak voice said from the depths of the seat next to mine: "Will you please tell my father, if we ever see him again, that one can tell we're not in a coach...."

The high pint of airborne excitement came when I'd finally extricated myself from the safety belt, and instantly the interrupted Your Guide to Paranoia film started where it left off, with awful voices booming "Once again let me remind you to fasten your seat-belts ready for takeoff!" Lightning nervous collapse. After this came relative tedium: Hazel and I ended up sitting miles from Harry and Jim, and were spared even the mild excitement of watching Harry's feet swell up (which, he later told us, they did). I pretended to read a book while Hazel peered gloomily, and without benefit of headphones, at our in-flight film The Black Stallion. Whenever I looked up, the screen was full of this black stallion charging over land and sea, once underwater and once – I swear – upside down.

"This film is entirely an advertisement for Lloyd's Bank" said the dismal voice at my side.

I paid a few experimental visits to the bog, walking and otherwise comporting myself very carefully since everyone knows DC-10s aren't too strong. This level of excitement persisted for some hours, or subjectively some months (all to do with relativity, I believe) until we were showered with Customs forms asking shrewd questions about our planned importation of "fruit, meat, snails and all living organisms". Ambiguities in the regulations made it seem like a good moment to play safe and gobble the Silicon peanuts, but the mere thought gave a sensation of dust and ashes in the mouth (as had the Laker beef strog. substitute). I decided it was easier to be a smuggler.

America came up and hit us with a bump; we skidded and trundled along fifty or sixty miles of runway, coming to rest in the corner of JFK Airport furthest from help. Shortly before the oxygen ran out, we were rescued from this wasteland by an enormous bus-cum-hydraulic-lift last seen as a walk-on gadget in Thunderbirds. The authorities, still not wishing to let America burst on us all at once and cause culture shock, next provided an acclimatization chamber for aliens. Here we stewed in 81°F and high humidity, watching each other flow to the floor and spread out into puddles. US citizens were mere blurs as they whizzed through Immigration, while humble Brits had their names checked against a vast list of undesirables by an official who seemed unable to read passport photos without moving his lips.

As the queue oozed forward I began to develop paranoid worries about what would happen to us in the enormous American wastes yonder, and speculated aloud: "Hey, do you think Stu Shiffman will meet us? Will we even recognize him? Does he look like those pictures he draws of himself? Is he not rather a hunchbacked Mexican dwarf with only one leg?" At this point Harry and Jim pointed out a chap two places down the queue from us, who by some chance happened to be a hunchbacked dwarf. Bloody hell. I hid behind a suitcase; Harry, greatly tickled by this, wrote down the incident in exhaustive detail (a week later, it was still the only entry in his notebook). Meanwhile Hazel announced: "There's a lady behind you with four hats on." None of us dared look round.

We bluffed our way through customs with the possibly illicit peanuts ("Medicinal, honest"), and surged through the barrier like surfers on the crest of the crowd, and there to meet us was a large delegation of none other than Ian Williams, who said, "Welcome to America in the name of the Fanoclasts!" – Wait a minute. Of course it wasn't Ian Williams but Stu Shiffman, who only looked very vaguely like him. ("The bulk is spread more evenly," Hazel observed.) This sort of false recognition was to happen several times, a disconcerting side effect of jet lag or con shock, culminating in the moment of dread when I temporarily perceived one poor, misunderstood chap as being D. West. Good grief.

Outside the temperature over JFK was 90°, and the air was shaking and wriggling just the way it does in the films, and there were millions of yellow taxis (I mean cabs) crawling as far as the eye could see, and Hazel and Harry went into a fit of giggles at the sight of a four-door limousine (four, that is, on either side). The next hour was extremely hot, sweaty, blasphemous and confused owing to the Barker/Bell axis and its mad desire to fly on to Boston later that very day, with all the problems of checking baggage in again almost as soon as it had been checked out, only at a different terminal half a mile away ... that sort of thing. Meanwhile I got out the sixty peculiar green tokens US fans had sent in exchange for fanzines, and found they were convertible at a ruinous rate of exchange into such drinks as an unlikely frothy pineapple juice. At last we piled damply into Stu's travelling oven, otherwise known as a Buick: culture shock hit Harry as he struggled to get in on the passenger side only to find this big wheel sort of thing in front of the seat. "Oh," he said intelligently.

The car was decorated with countless furry animals and dangling dolls. "This," said Stu, forestalling comment, "is my sister's car." As we drove mile after mile towards the edge of the airport, our steaming bodies sweated the interior atmosphere of the car into thin fog. A passenger who shall be nameless passed remarks about how he'd expected effete and decadent US cars to be air-conditioned. A driver who shall also be nameless explained that the car was indeed air-conditioned, only the air-conditioner was broken and please to remember it was his sister's car....

En route I began my collection of US road signs, like PED XING (surely a member of the Gang of Four) and YIELD (surely a signpost from Camelot). ENTER ONE VEHICLE AT A TIME ON GREEN sounded vaguely like musical chairs; NO STANDING ANY TIME might or might not have been aimed at pedestrians; there was a certain classic simplicity in WRONG WAY. As for STANDPIPE SIAMESE DIRECTLY BELOW, none of us Brits really dared to speculate.... Our immediate destination was that famous bit of New York whose mere mention brought a thrill to our hearts: Flushing. Stu parked the car with immense panache and knocked over a dustbin; I thought I heard a last faint murmur of "... my sister's car ..."

Entering the Shiffman parental home, we were instantly submerged in wave after wave of US hospitality, which we accepted in a happy yet glazed manner (it being about time, according to my internal clock, for me to stagger home from the pub and fall in the general direction of a bed). The house was cool and dim, and all Stu's achievements including his Seacon Hugo nomination were commemorated on the sitting-room walls, and out at the back Mrs. Shiffman dispensed an unfailing stream of cold fruit-juice, and watermelon slices, and instructions to go upstairs and freshen up, and "eggplant zucchini" (sounded ever so much more exotic than aubergine and courgettes and things), and responses to our dazed British comments on the hugeness of US cars. You really know you're in an alien land when you learn that any increase in petrol prices above 50¢ a gallon is monstrous, and that Americans have huge cars because they are safer on account of there being more metal and plastic between you and all the people you run into, and that weedy little British vehicles are wholly suicidal. Actually it was good fannish fun, the total informality of the Shiffmen senior being soothing to twitchy foreign nerves; I boggled myself to the point of internal haemorrhage by attempting to imagine my father (Denis G. Langford, FCA) receiving guests in the informal garb preferred by Stu's, consisting of shorts and a pendant.

At this point the jollity of the occasion got the better of Stu himself, and shyly he confessed that, personally, he didn't drink beer. Seeing the look on Harry's face and feeling his TAFF chances beginning to plummet, he hastily promised to get into training. Harry sniffed, with that supercilious glint In the eye which betrays the true Gannetfan aristocrat: "Only masters can learn to drink Newcastle Brown in less than a year." Rather than argue about this, we wandered out to study Stu's promised View of the Empire State Building from the vantage point just down the road. There was an amazing noise in the dusk, like massive electrical corona discharges on every side, and Jim wondered whether there were rattlesnakes in the trees. (There are a lot of trees in Flushing.) It turned out to be an enormous chorus of synchronous crickets somewhere up there, presumably equipped with kilowatt amps and speakers. After a few minutes of peering towards where the Empire State should by rights have been, we gave up and contented ourselves with photographing Stu against the background of the non-view. He'd forgotten the intervening trees' habit of wearing leaves at that time of year.

I was too sleepy to take in much more, and indeed did become comatose on a sofa while Hazel watched singing TV commercials (briefly interspersed with short flashes of programme) and discovered that US know-how can make 'fruit' rhyme with 'yogurt' [1]. Meanwhile Stu ferried an equally dazed Messrs Barker and Bell to the airport for their desperate Boston dash; by and by his mother drove us all to Stu's apartment in Washington Heights, with hot air-blasts roaring through the windows like the exhaust of gigantic hair dryers, and a kaleidoscopic view of lights and famous places outside (it might have been less kaleidoscopic if I'd been less glazed). The East River, gosh, and Manhattan, gosh wow, and Broadway goshwowboyoboy, and Washington Heights ... the name Hazel couldn't forget was Throg's Neck Bridge. Nobody could tell her what a throg was [2]. Then we were stumbling through the fannish anthill of 19 Broadway Terrace, with rapid glimpses of famous D. Potter (whom I did not mistake for D. West – she's a tall thin advert for black-is-beautiful) and others, before falling into Stu's home. We'd been warned that this was a truly typical NY apartment with all the ethnic trimmings such as cockroaches: Hazel and I were quite disappointed not to hear the patter of little feet all over the floor and walls. In compensation for the lack of vermin Stu had such things as a stained-glass panel depicting the great fannish beaver-god Roscoe (founded in 1947) and an evangelical light switch left by former occupants. This paradigm of American culture had a switch housing shaped like Jesus embracing a couple of small brats, with the actual switch lever sticking from a theologically debatable portion of Jesus's body. Stu had practised his fanartistic skills by adding beaver-stigmata and propeller beanies, together with the motto Ad Luminem Ex Fiawol. Britain's cultural ambassadors gazed in wonder at the result.

We continued to be hot, sticky and tired. Perceiving this, Stu offered a couple of square feet of his air-conditioned bedroom, thus becoming a True Hero of the People (Third Class) despite said air-conditioner's habit of doing 747 impersonations for exactly as long as it took you to get used to the din, whereupon it would turn itself off so that the silence woke you up. Such was the report of an impassioned Hazel next morning: I, a veteran of slothfulness during thunderstorms, hysterical telephones and visitations of Concorde, didn't notice a thing. Deaf fandom rules.

Thursday 28 August 1980

We took our breakfast in properly American fashion, at a nearby restaurant; here I contrived to order ham, pancakes and maple syrup with a certain airy nonchalance which slipped slightly when they all arrived on the same plate. We congratulated Stu on his wondrous abilities of clairvoyance and ESP, scientific proof having been furnished the day before when he recognized me (or so he claimed) from cartoons by Jim Barker. He responded with fannish factoids ("Taral's a great guy only he's got no chin") and an attack on a Popular Tourist Fallacy: "There's more to New York than buildings.... There's more than one park here!" Held by his glittering eye, we meekly followed towards nearby parks, rivers and things.

Just as London fans – even Gerry Webb – don't generally live in Buckingham Palace, so NY fandom tends not to be found in those bits of New York you see in the colour supplements. Stu's area, Washington Heights, is comfortably sleazy, at the "uptown" end of Broadway which is miles and miles from the bright lights. Instead there are interesting spectacles like a tall sixty-degree cliff of bare earth and rock, terrifyingly overhung by buildings balanced on quantities of naked scaffolding. Street litter included hordes of torn playing cards, a scattering of abandoned TV sets and enough dog turds to befoul (as it were) occasional US claims that their streets are spotless while ours are all knee-deep. We took a short-cut through one station of the famous NY subway, which station was disguised behind a couple of tatty wooden doors set in a small cliff-face (there are numerous Heights in Washington Heights): such camouflage, plus a slight lack of signposting, may be why visitors are traditionally bewildered by the subway system. As we climbed higher the buildings did indeed give way to parks where Hazel smugly identified tulip trees and false acacias while I was charmed by the half-inch ants that crawled about still more listlessly than ourselves. The journey hadn't yet worn off and the world still seemed dreamlike, thus possibly proving that I lack even the stamina of a Peter Roberts.

The air remained warm and viscous: such impressive Sights as the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge had a disconcerting tendency to wobble when viewed through a fug resembling that in a convention bar at 2am (though slightly less polluted). Stu proved the Hudson to be fannish by pointing out the invisible beach where, he said, famed fan Moshe Feder had held the great coming-out picnic at which he ceased to eat kosher. I was also impressed by the perils of frontier life in this raw, turbulent land, as manifested in the large and fearsome stripy insect which wouldn't let thirsty Stu come near a drinking fountain.

Rather too soon, it was time for yet more travel. Our good host pointed us carefully at the 190th Street station and pushed; armed with much advice and an annotated map of the entire subway system furnished by kindly Andy Porter, we felt thoroughly unfitted for the venture. At least we couldn't get the fare wrong since it was 60¢ to everywhere; the train itself was a bit disconcerting since what rolled up to the grimy platform was an enormous mass of graffiti and pavement art, with a train concealed somewhere inside it. It seems that not content with scribbling all over every square inch of the interiors, true graffiti masters spend their nights breaking into the yards and decorating each coach on the outside too.... After a period of brutal sonic assault we reached Penn Station, whence the Amtrak trains leave for Boston and where Minneapolis fan M. K. Digre should be waiting to explain what such trains looked like; and there in the booking hall was none other than David Pringle, who – No, of course it wasn't, and Mark Digre is leaner and has bushier hair and things, and I've no idea at all why I kept making these mistakes.

At the Amtrak ticket office I flashed a Barclaycard to the tune of $40, which through some special fare offer broke down to $26.50 for the Head of the Family and $13.50 for his Spouse. "I'm a second class citizen" rejoiced the Spouse. As for Mark, he gets short shrift in my notes because I could only hear about every fifth word he spoke, and what's more he was travelling in a lush reserved seat of peculiar distinction while I'd only achieved plain cheapo travel. Sorry.... The Amtrak station procedure had been designed by fans of Kafka, so your uncertainty and dread mount ever higher as you gently simmer with hundreds of other victims of anomie in a largish hall, ignorant even of which platform your train will leave from. The only air conditioning – words I'd begun to look for hungrily, the way one might look for "Real Ale" at home – the only air conditioning was behind the glassed-in Amtrak booking desks, and we seriously debated the possibility of buying numerous local-journey tickets just to stay at the window and lean into its draught of cool air. Then Amtrak, masters of chaos, played their ace: the train was ready at last, and a light came on showing the way to its underground platform, and about five hundred people pulped themselves into a corridor and staircase designed for the use of anorexics walking in single file.

The train itself had the best air conditioning we'd yet encountered; we forgave Amtrak everything. There was also a bar, and they were forgiven still more. Possibly I shouldn't have been wearing a little badge in memory of back-room work at AWRE, which said TELL ME YOUR OFFICIAL SECRETS –

BARMAN: Hey, look, you got to tell him your secrets.

AMTRAK GUARD: No I ain't. I'm the Pope. Everyone's got to tell me all their secrets.

(Exit LANGFORD in confusion, spilling droplets of Ballantine beer, shortly to be reissued as "Del Rey".)

We spent the afternoon travelling northward with incredible lack of speed. At three o'clock the train crept through Stamford, where the thermometer on the State National Bank said 91° and we travellers gloated over the poor sods outside. At four, we passed Milford (Connecticut) and said Gosh to each other for scientifictional reasons: a wholly mistaken Gosh which we should have saved for Milford (Pennsylvania). Around then your narrator remembered the much-travelled peanuts from Silicon, and opened the packet, nervously expecting some fearful scourge to fly out and devastate the crops of America. Fancy bringing peanuts to the USA, like coals to Jimmy Carter. Next came the Providence cemetery where good old H. P. Lovecraft rests uneasily, brooding beneath a gibbous moon over the frightful couplet That is not dead which can eternal lie / And with strange aeons be completed by August Derleth or somebody and make a packet.... The most frenzied scrutiny failed to disclose any eldritch tentacles writhing from the graves, nor even a consolatory puddle of blasphemous ichor.

Then it was Boston, a cool evening and the smell of the sea; a surprisingly calm and pleasant-looking city, considering that it was already in the first convulsions of a peculiarly gigantic Worldcon.

"I haven't been sick yet," said an incredulous Hazel while we waited for the taxi. But could she keep it up? Read on....