The TransAtlantic Hearing Aid

Third Bit: From Pole to Pole

Saturday 30 August 1980

In strange countries one should glut oneself to the full on strange new experiences. With this in mind, we started the day by breakfasting with Martin Hoare – someone I never usually see before opening time. He welcomed us with many a heartfelt groan, saying "Aren't... hangovers... terrible..." but shortly cheered up enough to enumerate another half-dozen or so delightful American ladies who'd fallen victim to his seductive charms. I wondered if that famous gastric bulge made it easier for him to pass as a native and insinuate his way into their bosoms.

Hazel, meanwhile, had ordered tea and was studying the result. Her teabag had an unwell look; it was feebly drowning in a cup of lukewarm milk-and-water, a fluid which stayed resolutely off-grey despite all attempts to put the teabag out of its misery with a spoon. At last Hazel accepted defeat and tried a sip. "It's amazing how they get it to taste of nothing at all."

"US technology brings you germ-free tea," I suggested, still happily assaulting a plate piled with what, at home, would have been about two and a half "full English breakfasts". But the mention of liquids had started a train of thought in Martin's mind. Moving in response to some ancestral rhythm, he consulted his watch. It was 9.42 in the morning. "Back home," he said with emotion, "the pubs have just closed!"

"What I need to do is make my mark on US fans," I said. "No, not like with Joseph. To bring them some of Britfandom's eternal truths. I wonder..."

"They don't know how to enjoy themselves over here," Martin said vindictively. "What they need is more hangovers."

Later I sat with Hazel in the Sheraton foyer, still musing on how to make some uniquely British impression on the teeming millions all around. A vague idea was stirring, brought on by famous fanartist Marc Schirmeister. (Who'd explained to me that the Nicholls Encyclopaedia of SF was a terrible, lousy book, because it was all opinionated. It is the duty of such a work to give the true facts – none of those repulsive opinions which often go so far as to hint that certain authors may not be all that good.) It was another of those fannish echoes which kept haunting me like the queasy spectre of a Novacon banquet: something in Schirm's tone of voice, something in the pattern of his hair and beard, was strangely reminiscent of D. West. Even after four days of Noreascon, I never worked out how to break this to him gently.

The train of thought that started with D. West had barely escaped the station when the communication cord was pulled: my eye was caught by a seductive, apple-green mini-dress lowering itself onto a seat just in front of us. The contents, even viewed from behind, could be none other than Taral. Silently I searched my bag for a Twll-Ddu 18 (cover by some chap called... well well, what a coincidence), and with infinite stealth manoeuvred it all the way round his sylphlike form. There came the noise of a tiny – oops – the tiny noise of a jaw dropping. Majestically, Taral swung round, revealing himself to look so like his self-portraits that the absence of pointy ears was disconcerting. Inconspicuously, at the same time, Victoria Vayne turned from where she'd been effacing herself next to him, and contrived to look almost as realistic as Taral's drawings of her – right down to the habitual look of alarm. Some similar recognition process, with added elements of clairvoyance and sheer guesswork, must have been going on in Taral's mind: he presently said, "Oh, I'd have recognized you from Jim Barker's cartoons." Plainly he and Stu Shiffman, who'd made the same ludicrous claim, were in a conspiracy together.

In the chat that followed, Victoria continued to look alarmed while Taral told me more than I wished to know about Dotti Stefl, possibly famous infant FAAn nominee.

"Well, we have infant fans too," I observed. "We have practically nothing else. These days, any Brit over twenty is an old fan and tired – we all sit around waiting for the dynamic infant talent to start doing something."

Taral said, approximately, "Yes, but do your infant fans have doting mothers who by nameless means organize fanzine contributions for them and then produce the fanzine for them and subsequently wheedle scores of misguided friends into voting for the rotten results?"

"Ah," I said noncommittally. "It's about time for that TAFF auction," I added decisively.

The TAFF/DUFF auction proved to be another oasis of non-hugeness in Noreascon – a far cry from Britain's massively commercialized events where hundreds of people are gulled by unscrupulous sharks and Rog Peyton. There was no such corruption here. There was no such audience. Trapped behind a trestle table (which, overcome by the glory of the occasion, kept trying to prostrate itself), I smiled winningly at a restless gathering of 25 while people like Terry Hughes and Joyce Scrivner rushed out to play at press-gangs.

The table was covered with arcana, mostly minor: I discovered some Canadian dollar bills and personalized one with a suitably imperial signature. ("With love – Liz"). "Maybe we could auction something?" I said as the audience evaporated.

"You want to keep the good stuff until the crowd's bigger," Rusty Hevelin explained, sweeping everything into a pile of Good Stuff. He studied the Canadian dollar thoughtfully. "I got $20 for one of these at Kansas City." The crowd continued to get smaller, but was reinforced as the press-gang drove in a new contingent. We settled down to auction TAFF/DUFF goodies to a replenished audience of, actually, 25. Instantly Joyce began the loathsome practice of conditional bidding (as when Number of the Beastly comes up for auction here – "20p if you tear it up!" "25p if he eats it!" "27½p if he feeds it to the hotel manager!!" "28p if he grinds it up and gives it to the hotel manager as an enema!!!" Etcetera). The lot in question was a set of brightly coloured kiddies' spaceman transfers – decals, as they decadently call them there – "75¢ if Dave Langford takes them home and sticks them on Joe Nicholas!"

Thus British traditions were upheld. I believe some kind of consummation took place at Novacon.

One highlight was the selling of Stu's hierophantic pole, a gold-painted cardboard prong slightly taller than me, which had played a sinister part in certain Roscoe ceremonies I'd contrived to miss, and which was now offered as a handyman's implement with 1001 uses about the garden or bedroom. This reminded me of something: D. West... pole... Suddenly it was my duty to auction a second cassette of the New Astral Leauge Album (the first was conveyed as a Charnockian gift to Terry Hughes, who merrily mentioned that he didn't own a player). "Side 1: The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Astral Leauge..." Instant frenzy, with Mike Glicksohn bidding frantically against all comers, against nearby chairs, against himself. After he'd been permitted to part with $10 for this "very badly recorded" (John Harvey, Melody Maker) item, we frenetically flogged everything moveable: Keith Curtis was restrained with difficulty from selling the trestle table, the creaky partitions, the floor and the audience, while I realized vast sums for an Institute of Professional Civil Servants card and a (complimentary) Omni ticket to see Arthur C. Clarke hitch his reputation to a sky elevator in London.

(This last was a mistake. The ticket fell into the hands of Robin Johnson, who later described how he'd met this strange redhaired person from Omni, and how this person had spied the ticket protruding from his pocket in an envelope with 'Dave Langford' on it, and how he or she had been most hurt that anyone should have been forced to pay money for it... Oh, the drinks I had to buy Andie Oppenheimer when I got home.)

The auction over and my pointless notion for Making An Impression now fully formed, Hazel and I stole away: through the glass-walled shopping centre outside the Sheraton, down an escalator thick with roller-skate freaks who seemed to trundle up and down all day for the sheer joy and inconvenience of it, out into Boston's broad, clean and generally un-NewYorklike streets, searching for a suitably equipped hardware shop, no, store...

Sunday 24 May 1981

"Now if I win TAFF," said Gregory, "I won't fuck around in the SFWA room all the time the way you did. Bloody hell. I'd have an exhibition, a display of British fandom to tell all those cretins what they're missing – tell them how much better fandom is over here..."

"Yes But," I mumbled. And after a bit: "Yes, but they'd never see it; display space cost money at Noreascon anyway, expect possibly in the fan room, and no one ever seemed to find the fan room. I certainly didn't."

This being the Greg and Linda Pickersgill Spring Bank Holiday Piss-up, the actual conversation was less to the point, and the faculty of memory completely blunted. To continue the reconstruction:

"Bloody hell," said Greg, "I'd take it out into the corridors, I'd have this display ready to set up anywhere and I'd rub their noses in it, not arse around the way you did."

Unfortunately we were denied the chance to see how Greg's supreme tact and diplomacy would have conveyed the wonders of British fandom to the heathen... but that, Best Beloved, is another story.

Saturday 30 August 1980, continued

The five-foot broom handle cost $2.79, which of course meant I had to pay $2.93, the local equivalent of VAT (Massachusetts Sales Tax) being invariably kept as a surprise rather than included in the pricetag. Now at last I was ready to answer certain queries of Avedon's about the Astral Leauge; and I suspected I had a conversation piece more arresting than any mere display. Almost too arresting, I thought as I avoided the eye of a vast and flabby US Cop laden with bazookas, howitzers and tactical nuclear weaponry.

"Feel pretty damn silly carrying this," I muttered in a backsliding way.

"You've been silly for years," said the ever-reassuring Hazel as we plunged back again into the surging, anonymous crowds of Noreascon.

Duty called again, this time taking on the repellant form of a panel titled "The Alien Viewpoint: North American Fandom from an Overseas Perspective – How We Look to Them". Vaguely resentful of being 'them' – didn't they know yet that they were 'them'? – I counted the audience while Pascal Thomas was giving the history of French fandom since Agincourt (or possibly Keith Curtis was describing Aussie fandom since the first GUFF trips to Botanybaycon). By a weird and fascinating coincidence, there was precisely one audience member for each word of the event's title: take that, Koestler! Familiar questions came up; I recall being asked whether fans in my strange alien land conformed to the stereotype of being social misfits, and tediously suggesting that this, though true, was not so much a cause of entering fandom as an effect. When I mention that this was the wittiest remark of the session, you'll appreciate that the sparkling repartee had gone a bit flat – probably since there were next to no Americans present to writhe (as intended) at the searing home truths from abroad.

Afterwards I was waylaid in the great bare Lower Exhibit Hall by unexpectedly huge Mass. fan Ron Salomon – whose letters, so often featured in the WAHF column of Twll-Ddu, had somehow conveyed the impression of greater slimness. He asked about the broomstick – the Astral Pole – I was almost nonchalantly carrying, and I told him all, fearful lest he call me a cretin. Instead he presented me with a practically genuine Boston Red Sox helmet he'd secreted about his person, and insisted on photographing me with this and the pole appropriately disposed. Only later did I wonder whether his insistence on this picture might have been a subtle way of indicating that I was a cretin.

But the venture into poleish jokes was rather a success. People would ask about it, and I would explain the Astral Leauge Initiation – you know, the one where you involve yourself with the pole in a manner not convenient to describe, emerging either with aplomb and Astral Mastery or with a hernia. (If you emerge with a broken pole you are Rob Holdstock, a contingency which did not arise at Noreascon.) "It's impossible!" I remember the people in the Ops room saying after my luridly graphic description of the stresses involved. "It's impossible!" they said again after I'd demonstrated. "OK, I'll try it..." said all too many incautious fans. From this ordeal one could continue painlessly with such intriguing snippets as the fact that the Leauge was founded in the US bicentennial year; one could teach them devotional hymns of that vintage ("When dinosaurs did rule the earth/The Leauge was yet to be –/ But now we stretch from pole to pole/In Cosmic Harmoneee!"), and imperceptibly digress into a series of gripping Britfannish anecdotes. Best of all, the audience was a captive one, either struggling to extricate itself from the pole's embraces, or – after failing, or succeeding – simply lying helpless.

If only I knew what Schadenfreude meant.

In this manner I fell into conversation with countless strangers (something normally as inviting as falling into a cesspit) and imparted the truths of our fandom. Admittedly some fans could not, as they say, bear very much reality: after her semi-abortive assault on the pole, six-foot-six D. Potter towered creakily over me and pleaded guilty but arthritic. Avedon was next to try, her failure being characteristically many times more spectacular than most successes (Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, etc). When the concussed bystanders had been removed, she offered to try again at some more convenient time and place such as 5am on Monday morning under a table in the SFWA suite. Momentarily I doubted her sincerity.

Internal pangs were felt, not all of them caused by astral manifestations, and we allowed Joyce to lead us and the Bushyagers and Jon Stopa off for food – Hazel first extracting a promise that Joyce would restrain herself from coaxing tardy waiters (as on Friday night) in tones calculated to wring cries of protest from the occupants of passing Concordes. Luckily tonight's noshery ('Hillary's') boasted paper napkins, plates, waiters, food and other luxuries we'd had trouble finding on the night before: beguiled by this relative poshness, I ordered a dish whose menu description was a veritable prose poem, a feast of words, a half-page of culinary pornography which set me dribbling uncontrollably.

It turned out to be a hamburger.

The subject of writers' workshops somehow came up (the hamburger merely threatened to): Joyce mentioned with a capacious shudder that she'd done time at Clarion, and, not knowing she'd had this writing career, I asked about the effect on her writing career.


"I suppose Harlan shouted at you and demoralized you utterly," I said at random, mouth full of burger-by-any-other-name.

Linda: "That's just what happened!"

Joyce: "He took an intense dislike to me and spent half an hour telling me how useless I was right in the middle of everyone." She shuddered again, and offered Hazel a taste from her plate. There was a pause. Then a muffled consultation. Then Hazel wailed: "I've just eaten a scallop! I thought Joyce said a shallot! I've just eaten a small, rubbery sea creature– " Words cannot express the loathing in her tones.

I too was eating around, or whatever is the correct analogy to sleeping around, Linda having hurled me many a scrap from her plate. Only the tiny, crimson heart of her six-inch cubical steak seemed to appeal: in due course I gobbled all the rest – all of it that was actually cooked. Gratefully I told Linda she'd saved me from disappointment by letting me nibble her alms. This appeared to worry her vaguely.

Onward, to the AntiMasquerade party – whose humane purpose and timing should be sufficiently obvious. Someone called Robert Whitaker, mysteriously divining that I like R.A. Lafferty, drew me aside and in a low monotone imparted the plots of all Lafferty's unpublished works – including one said to be unpublishable, 56 characters being introduced and briefly biographized before chapter 2. Just like a TAFF report, really... By now the uproar was such that Avedon, tiring of my witty ripostes of "What?" to her profound comments such as "What?", decided to teach me sign language. Fingertips of vertical right hand drop to touch horizontal left hand: "Stand." The same, only upside-down: "Understand." The same as that, but this time the fingertips fail to connect: "Misunderstand." I was struggling to look convinced by this when I noticed the very weird Gil Gaier making signs of his own at me, from across the room. So uncontrollable were his giggles that, although he refused to translate, I deduced these signs to be secretly disgusting.

"Gaier doesn't need sign language to be disgusting," our Lafferty expert reminded us.

"Here's a good one," said Avedon exuberantly, and moved a hand horizontally in front of her eyes as though wiping her contact lenses with its edge. "Pasteurize."

I fled screaming.

At a gathering of unfamous-looking folk – said to be George R.R. Martin's birthday party – we found Chris Priest, who recoiled slightly and asked of the world at large, "I travelled 3000 miles to meet this man?" Wriggling further into the roomful of sardine impersonators, I recognized Alex Eisenstein: before getting too close I cautiously enquired whether he'd seen my Foundation review of his wife.

"No, no, what did you say about her?"

"Nice things," I assured him, relaxing slightly. "Mind you, if I see Charles L. Grant I'm going to hide under the table..."

"Quick – behind you!"

Spinning round in alarm, I narrowly escaped being crushed beneath hugely named George R.R. Martin and hugely bodied Gardner Dozois, who paused to induct me into the Hugo Losers' Club. How sad that within 24 hours of this act of kindness, George would again be summarily ejected from the club. Twice.

Hazel expressed a wish to wrestle in private with the continuing malignancy of her small rubbery sea creature: I trailed along as escort. In the crowded lift, packed with gregarious folk who playfully brandished their swords, Hazel turned and took a sudden, absorbed interest in the wall. "What's the matter?" I whispered. "Are you going to be sick?" Little muffled noises were the only reply. After several floors of entrances and exits (during which the sword-wielders were gradually replaced by equally hilarious gun-pointers) she emerged ashen-faced from her shell. "That was Harlan Ellison."

This explained a lot. Hazel has never forgiven HE for being so ungracious about the quid pro quo that night he tweaked her nose. But the small and loud one has his virtues, for he'd listened with fascination to Paul Kincaid's lurid account of the Jacqueline Lichtenberg Appreciation Society, and allowed that it was "doing a good job".

Returning after a little while (still absent-mindedly clutching the now-famous pole, which gave added confidence in the darker streets), I stumbled through endless degenerate scenes. Imagine a con report by Peter Nicholls out of Dante... with Joyce implausibly cast in the role of Virgil. It started in the placid Limbo of a Clarion party, where pretentious young authors were summarily irrigated by Damon Knight's squirt gun. Knight looked awesomely patriarchal with his endless grey hair and beard, like a major prophet who'd taken advantage of the early-retirement scheme; having instructed me that a TAFF delegate was much more enviable than a Worldcon GoH, he confided an unlikely number of Stories About Harlan – indicating that in my report I was to attribute the cleaner ones to Kate Wilhelm. Luckily for fandom, I'd never learnt shorthand and those anecdotes are safe in Limbo... Kate Wilhelm herself was also present, looking like a favourite aunt but possessed of a mean touch with the squirt-gun. She won my heart by stating – after being fearsomely warned against my uncouth foreign mumbles – that she could understand me perfectly. Good for her. I couldn't... A lovely (it says here) lady called Jan Miele grabbed the Langford notebook and inscribed ethnic phrases suitable for adding local colour to my account of Noreascon, while her agent hovered fearfully behind and muttered "10%! 10%!" I hope the local colour wasn't meant too personally: ain't got sense to pound sand into a rat hole... suck sour owl shit!... anybody'd do that'd eat shit, run rabbits and bark at the moon... mind like a steel trap rusted shut. H'mmm.

I clamoured for fiercer pleasures, and Joyce led me off through infernal circles of stolen metaphor. Hugest of all was the circle of the Coke-drinkers, cursed for their folly with unending flatulence. Daemonic figures capered along the corridors, shrieking "Chicago's won the 82 bid but it's DNQ for now!!!"

"This has been willed where what is willed must be," Joyce may or may not have said.

A door with a Davis Publications card beckoned, and for a moment I imagined a beery oasis funded by the limitless profits of IASFM. Small hope. This was the circle where those who have sold their souls to George Scithers must suffer the eternal tedium of his voice. The room was darkened and beerless, with GS enthroned in one corner; pressing themselves against the far wall yet helpless to flee, the damned ones writhed at his cruel pontifications on "the... publishing... policy... of... Isaac... Asimov's... Science... Fic... tion..."

Joyce inveigled me into the next room, occupied by a furtive meeting of the Cult, that apa whose membership is limited for no apparent reason to 13. Here was the hell of ultimate elitism, its members doomed to eternal wrangling over the Cult's abysmal code of regulations; before my brain seized up altogether I crept away.

It was only a few floors down to the miserable Circle of the Exhibitionists, where fugitives from the earlier Masquerade struggled ineptly to enjoy themselves whilst still entangled in exotic costumes. Everywhere you looked there were flocks of Princess Leias, heaped in white drifts like the output of a faulty xerox and straining to follow conversation through their hairy earmuffs. Sandra Miesel was in a particularly bad way, having converted herself into a slightly kinky fire elemental by such expedients as gold fishnet stockings insufficiently adapted to be worn on the arms. Diabolically I enticed her webbed fingers with a copy of Twll-Ddu; she could barely hold it, and claimed (despite the suggestions of interested onlookers) that she had nowhere to put it. Debauched fans like Joni Stopa and Alyson Abramowitz offered their voluptuous kisses if only they too might have copies of Twll-Ddu: negotiations were scarcely under way when in a flash of lightning Joyce reappeared to save me from myself, or possibly from Alyson. (Joyce had this unflagging crusade to protect poor helpless Britons from people she suspected to be boring... but I think the various hatchets may have been buried now.)

"This has been willed," she may or may not have explained, "where what is willed must be."

We made our way down, through further circles of sometimes even drunken partying, with pauses for the occasional Astral Initiation. By now my throat was afire with the gobs of flaming magma which one Texan party pressed upon innocents, in the delusive guise of chili. (Devilish good, mind you.) An oddly-cloaked black fan burst out at us suddenly and fell over, wailing "Oh God, take me home!" Plainly he was feeling excessively damned, and I tried connecting him to my bottle of Bell's whisky. Instantly revitalized, he sat up (revealing the name Newton Ewell on his badge) and talked for forty minutes about black fandom and the decay of US fannishness into cretinousness and film animation and The War of the Worlds and... Impressed by this further proof of our Harry's godlike potency, I said goodbye with what grace I could manage from the floor as Joyce dragged me away by one leg. Further down yet: and here were Eli Cohen and Jane Hawkins, toiling along in (as Joseph would say) sisyphean manner with an enormous crate of cans.

"Where's the party?" Joyce and I asked eagerly. "Where're you taking the beer?"

"This isn't beer, it's 7-Up."

We made an excuse and left. Yes, definitely this was hell... On the ground floor there were numberless fans scattered hither and thither, inert, as though frozen in that final circle of ice: it looked like the end of Hamlet, as produced by Cecil B. DeMille. And at the heart of it all should have been the Evil One himself, yea, even Peter Nicholls, clutching and nibbling (lollipop-fashion) the body of some specially irredeemable fannish personage. At the heart of it all, as it turned out, we found Jim Barker. He proceeded to deal appropriately with the body of Joyce. I left them to it, remarking "8.6 even from the Russian judge!" as I hefted the Astral Pole and moved away.

"I've got a lot of con scandal I was going to tell you," came Jim's bitter but muffled voice. "And now I won't."

This may explain why – just like everyone else – I've failed to record the real dirt about Saturday night at Noreascon. Even the swarms of friends-for-life I made that night have faded from memory like the BSFA mailings of yesteryear. All the same, it was hellish good fun.