The TransAtlantic Hearing Aid

Seventh Bit: Yes! We Have Parakeet Diapers!

Wednesday-Thursday 3-4 September 1980

So bits of New England kept popping up before us like stage-sets hastily constructed to fool the solipsist in that skiffy story 'They'. Selina's apartment, where Hazel found a travel book whose revelations about the Tamachek (Tuareg) alphabet set her gloating a gloat which if done in the street would have frightened the horses. Quincy, Mass., where Martin lusted after a Snoopy telephone ("I want one for the office"), Hazel studied the US system of social security ("Not as efficient as ours") and in a fit of silliness I bought an Olde Englysshe typeball. (Possibly discovering my origins, the shopman remarked "Cheerio, old chap"; possibly uttering a hideous insult, I answered, "Pip-pip, old fruit.") An immense shopping mall lightyears from civilisation, where a traditional "English pub" beckoned us with its real plastic wooden panelling and promise of almost real beer; no sooner had we succumbed to its allure than we were bounced for Martin's hideous crime of wearing a T-shirt. Bloody hell, they don't do that at the Ritz, as I told the barman but to no avail.

"Plimoth Plantation" was a reconstruction of an early New England settlement, enclosed by a stockade from which hand-made iron brads ostentatiously protruded. We pretended not to notice the modern steel screws actually holding the thing together. Inside, flies were present in authentic numbers; the local populace, actors hamming it up in archaic dress, had huge fun treating sightseers as village idiots.

"Did you come on the great ship Gloriana this last week?"

"Er, actually it was the great ship DC-10."

"Nay, we know nothing of that," and significant exchanges of glances, tapping of foreheads.

Martin, being Martin, enquired about local taverns, sparking a terrific simulated argument wherein a mob-capped lady (with whom Hazel tended to side) excoriated the twin evils of men and booze, while pigs grunted and chickens pecked their way between the dingy wooden buildings. A sort of low-tech Disneyland.

Thinking back to all those other wood-frame houses, Hazel tactfully said: "Your architecture hasn't changed much since the seventeenth century, has it?" I was musing that such a reconstruction might never receive a Langford visit if it were 3000 miles closer to home. One goes abroad to see history. For all I know there are similar enclaves in Reading, folk with job titles like brockingman or fuggler, wielding with trained fingers their immemorial tools of weevilling-iron and scrotum-tongs, and pretending huge annoyance at the recent invasion of 1066.

Yes! We Have Parakeet Diapers said a never-explained shop window on the Plymouth seafront, while with the air of connoisseurs we rolled cinnamon-flavoured saltwater taffy around our mouths and wondered whether the sign NO BAREFEET ON STATE PIER merely interdicted a little-known Indian tribe. I looked at Plymouth Rock, which as the only pebble on the beach with a roof over it was manifestly the landmark to which any pilgrim ship would steer. In other respects it strongly resembled a rock and unlike the Brighton variant does not have the name going all the way through. Hazel probed the mysteries of why saltwater taffy failed to taste of salt water, and Martin recovered enough from the stark realization that in New England his name is a monosyllable ("Matn") to despatch semi-cheerful postcards saying "Weather hot, women warm, beer cold," only the former items having won his approval.

At the "Discount Center" in a town called Clancy we gritted our teeth and got down to the bread-and-butter of holiday duties, purchasing a musical toothbrush to annoy my little brother and an ethnic wooden aardvark to alarm Peter Roberts (only it was diverted to other friends – tough luck, Peter), not to mention a stout suitcase marked down to $5, made necessary by the huge piles of books already acquired. Thus fortified, we sought even huger piles in Boston's bookshops, Selina being gratifyingly startled when the sole SF novel on a table of grubby paperbacks just happened to be the one Brian Stableford had dedicated to the Langfords in exchange for bed and board. (He dropped in to visit, for about a year...) Our city tour took in a joke shop stocking a hundred varieties of cigarette paper (if it had been open we'd have bought some Grape Flavour Reefer Wrappers for, again, Peter Roberts), the handkerchief-sized Granary Burial Ground containing the remnants of B. Franklin, P. Revere et al, the Boston Market galleries which recalled that part of Oxford known as Little Trendy Street – oh, the horror of tables whose glass tops were held up by the arms and legs of supine chimps rendered either in fibreglass or beaten copper, as you pleased... I added choice specimens to my collection of signs, PLEASE ASK HOSTESS TO BE SEATED (would she obey?) and, on the side of a van, ALL PURPOSE TOMATOES.

In New England, as you see, it was the small differences that caught my eye. Washington and New York were far more obviously alien: Massachusetts kept seducing us with its familiarity – Chinatown in Boston is no different from the London version off Leicester Square – until suddenly we'd put a foot through the stage-set, slip on an all-purpose tomato, confront the enigma of parakeet diapers and realize again that this, for us, was a Phil Dick reality that didn't quite fit.

That we'd entered an alternate universe grew irrefutable on Thursday night. At the bedside was a heap of magazines; unearthing a 1979 Starlog Yearbook I read with growing unease that "In 1978 the TAFF winner was British fan and cartoonist Terry Jeeves." Now wait a minute...

Friday 5 September 1980

Waving from the "Route 128" station platform, Martin and Selina shrank out of sight, eventually, as Amtrak rushed us southward with all the mad haste of Remembrance of Things Past. The goal was Washington, where we planned to accept with all graciousness Avedon Carol's kind invitation to stay as long as we liked with Alexis and Dolly Gilliland. "Hi, I can't hear you," Dolly had told me reassuringly over the phone, so we knew it would be all right.

I sat, and sat, dipping into the Panshin's SF in Dimension (revised edition, each page better than the next), thoughts churning in even slower motion than the train, something like this –

Can this journey really be going to take nine hours?

Is this Panshin evasiveness about The Number of the Beast meant to be ironic?

Will we ever finish all these suitcase-sized tuna-fish sandwiches Selina's father made us?

Why not just say it's a rotten book instead of poncing around with metaphysics?

What is this abiding horror of bare feet which permeates New England?

Can I really be sitting opposite a pair of hamburger-eating nuns?

"Because of The Number of the Beast, SF-to-come will be non-linear. It will be imaginary and know it."


How many Zen Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb? Two, one to change the bulb and one to not-change the bulb. Fine, fine, but how can anyone stomach a whole book of these formula gags? In Boston it was a bestseller – maybe because anyone can do it.

(How many fans does it take to report a 6000-person convention? One to do bizarre things, and 5999 to write conflicting reports.)

Night, so soon?

Oh, a tunnel: doesn't New York look curiously unimpressive from underneath?

Can we really be only half-way?

Can I not force myself to eat one last tuna-fish sandwich?

Do the Panshins not appreciate that by using a worthless book as the fulcrum of their poxy "transcendence" argument they are lending it an undeserved importance?

Might this not be Washington? (No.)

Will the Bushyagers forgive me for not stopping off in Philadelphia?

Will my mouth ever cease to taste of tuna-fish sandwich?

How many Panshins does it take to transcend a lightbulb?

Have I bought too many books?

Have I not rather bought too few?

Are these inane reflections not reminiscent of Edward Lear's Corsican diary?

"Should there not be innumerable moufflons?"

...thus and thus, into a semi-coma; until, far later than any reasonable person could have imagined it, Washington happened.

Dolly Gilliland seized upon us with terrifying competence and threaded the vast echoing halls of Washington station, in which small-town shacks like Buckingham Palace might have been mislaid without effort. After half an hour's portage through deserted vaults we saw ahead a glimmer of evening light and another of Alexis, who instantly assumed the persona of all-knowing tourist guide, beginning with a sort of indoor Colosseum which functioned – though not just then – as a slide-show of Washington's wonders.

"When they've built the Nixon Monument," he drawled in tones impossible to disbelieve, "they'll be showing the Watergate story here. The musical."

We spiralled through sultry Washington in the Gilliland car, heads twisting right – left – right – left as Dolly and Alexis took turns to point out cosmically important landmarks, every third building another branch of the famous Smithsonian chain. Einstein's bronze statue with his three famous formulae engraved there (and in my confusion I could only remember two), the ponderous and marble Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, the White House, all looking unbelievably like their pictures, and what was this subdued mutter by my side? "All this monumental stuff reminds me of those newsreels of 1930s Berlin," said Hazel unforgivably.

There came a growing sense of crescendo as we approached the most famous edifice of all, which in later days we'd be proudly shown from every conceivable angle and then a few more. In blank nonrecognition we stared across the Potomac River at that unimposing frontage, or backage.

"That," said Alexis reverently, "is Watergate."

Both of us sat with a wild surmise, almost ashamed that we had no hats to doff, until the golden moment was past.

The sprawling Gilliland house, with huge party/meeting rooms and only intermittent space for actual living, might have been bought entirely for the convenience of the Washington SF Association. Indeed, as I learnt with mild bogglement, it was. "We wanted somewhere with privacy and big bedrooms, but we saw this one and said 'WSFA!'"

I saw how full it was that very night, and deduced: "WSFA!" But not only WSFA; the thronging members were bemused by an influx of Brits, and even of Terry Hughes, drawn by who knows what dread incantations from the Falls Church vault where from year to year he lies entombed in uncollated Motas. That party polarized, most of WSFA doing the things WSFA does in the largest basement room, while to Alexis' mingled pride and alarm the British and their cronies settled like a swarm of locusts upon his stocks of home brew in the adjacent cellar. Caring nothing for mere comfort, these sots perched themselves on crates of bottles, producing arcane indentations on their buttocks which Paul Kincaid tried to interest Hazel in as a new knitting pattern.

Jim Barker was still brimming over with JLAS news – "Roz Kaveney managed to stand the Noreascon meeting of the Jakkies for a whole seven minutes before she got driven away by its awfulness, and you may think that's not much, but Rochelle Reynolds only clocked up thirty seconds!" He made an expansive gesture with a can of Alexis' imported Theakston's Old Peculier – seemingly a dilute form of the deadly Yorkshire brew, specially for foreigners – and tipped quantities of it upon the groin of Avedon Carol. Menacingly she told him of how when Susan Wood was introduced to someone called Platt ("Don't mention Platt near Ted White!" cried Jack Chalker from somewhere) she knelt down with amazing grace and sank her teeth into his finger, and he tipped beer on her, and she pitched an ashtray at him...

No ashtray was to hand, but Jim got his comeuppance when Avedon introduced us round WSFA and certain cultured members asked, "What's Scotland?" Similarly, parts of DC fandom stared at me saying "What's TAFF?" and one Pat Kelly, after long concentration on Hazel's arcane English accent, was moved to ask: "What part of Australia do you come from?"

"They're all cretins anyway," Avedon said, or words to that effect, and plunged madly on with her introductions. "Here's Dave, he's a deaf gossip columnist!"

"Jerry Pournelle is deaf, which is why he shouts," confided Jack Chalker, looming at me in a way which made me hope he hadn't read my reviews of Jack Chalker books. Luckily the connection "British... shouting..." led him off at a peaceful tangent: "It's ironic Peter Weston should have shouted at me about SFWA things at Seacon – I'm usually the one who has to shout at the idiots in SFWA." The light in his eye may or may not have indicated a wistful longing to give up shouting at people, and instead to transform them into grotesque and degraded shapes, as done with relish in every Chalker novel I'd read.

Harry Bell ("British fans love to vomit. You Americans just don't know how to have a good time."), Jim, Dan Steffan, Steve Stiles and Alexis were indulging in sinister smoffery, promoting a Cartoonists' Popular Front to push Grant Canfield for TAFF in 1983. "What we have to do first is degafiate him," I thought I overheard.

Most of the evening, as with so many fannish evenings, was a pleasurable blur which (now that I've lost count of how often I was shown Alexis' Hugo and FAAn Awards, for example) might as well be concealed under the interlineation begged at the time by

Ted White – by special request of Ted White.

I don't know why either, but he dictated it Himself, and made me write it down and promise to use it somewhere real soon now. Five years... that's not too many.

We nearly even met the fabulous Martin Morse Wooster, only he was away at a sneak preview of Flash Gordon, no doubt making notes for his History of Fandom.

Avedon was currying favour for her own TAFF campaign by tempting Hazel with Armenian fanzines, and by sitting on the right knee of J. Barker. "My heart belongs to another," she hastily qualified. "And my body belongs to someone else entirely."

"Oh God! It's you!" said Newton Ewell, entering and gazing on the classic Langford features with well-simulated horror. He mumbled a mumble about how I'd rescued him from a death worse than fate at Noreascon, something I myself could barely remember because it all happened long ago in Chapter 3.

But forces too appalling even to think about were converging on me. Suddenly Avedon had leapt forward to dominate the WSFA hordes, instructing them that they were all desperate to see and attempt the fabulous initiation of the Astral Leauge. Alexis and Dolly produced, with sinister smiles, a fair facsimile of the ritual pole. In an epidemic of malicious cowardice, fans in the know hastily pleaded excessive drunkenness, sobriety, obesity, arthritis, alopecia, anything. I felt the fierce light that beats upon a scaffold as under the pitiless gaze of WSFA, the pitiless giggles of my former friends and the proddings of Avedon, I found my mouth again saying, "First you hold it like this, then you put your foot through here, and –"

As I wove myself into a double reverse Gordian knot, there came an anonymous voice. "I heard the British were kinky, and now I know why." To my Welsh ears this was wounding, wounding.

From an improvised wheelchair I later saw the Astral Feat performed by remarkably few eager initiates, two in fact, one of whom was Charles Gilliland (son of the famous...). Charles, as Avedon noted, is young enough for it not to hurt – even D. West complains of being outperformed by his kids, you know.

Human sacrifice being the traditional culmination of any barbaric gathering, WSFA avoided anticlimax by starting to drift away. When the Brits were finally peeled from the home-brew fridge, it was found to be (as Alexis noted with mingled alarm and pride) empty.

En route to bed, Hazel and I paused twice to gape: firstly at the Gillilands' brand new $7000 Chinese-dragon-pattern carpet, which had actually been exposed to the fringes of the WSFA rout in an act of confidence unthinkable among fans used to Harry Bell or Greg Pickersgill; and secondly, for a long while, at an alien visitation outside the front door. The thick, buzzing night was like warm soup with flies in it, the porch lamp spilled just enough light to where It clung on the wall, and we'd never seen a praying mantis before. Improbably green, implausibly huge, it turned stiffly this way and that with all the unrealism of an SF special effect. We gaped.

"About four inches long," said Newton, who knew about these things. "Small. They go up to six inches or more in these parts." Hazel and I were on the whole thankful that we'd started in a small way. An endless flow of mantis lore came fluently from the Ewell lips, until we reluctantly accepted that the beast wasn't going to seize dramatically on passing flies, discharge laser beams, or cut a swathe of devastation across Tokyo. The mere fact that this SF monstrosity wasn't safely confined in a zoo sent us to bed, at last, with sense of wonder exuding from every pore.

Saturday-Sunday 6-7 September 1980

Again we were wafted off to be tourists, hurtling past notable places where Alexis worked or used to work, such as the Pentagon – a week's experience of American cars not saving me from the instinctive cringe each time my reflexes shrieked things about driving on the wrong side of the road.

With the aid of Terry Hughes we infested parts of the Smithsonian, where notices by each lift-door advised SAVE ENERGY / WALK UP ONE / WALK DOWN TWO, surely a rather energy-intensive algorithm for going down one floor. Almost the first exhibit was a rotten log pretending to be an ecological community: you touched the button and vile insects and fungi grew all over the wood. "The fannish community," Alexis explained. "The rotten log is SF and on it are all these strange growths..."

An exhibit of Iranian textile painting offered us a genuine cloth crudsheet; Hazel bewailed a lack of her favourite Tuaregs in a display of African tribes; homesickness touched my heart when nobody made a Rob Holdstock joke over the reconstruction of Homo erectus; Terry took thought for foreigners as a slide show of the Ice Age impended and he cheerfully said, "You folk should appreciate all these pieces of ice and snow."

Hazel was pondering the comparative fewness of actual exhibits – "Can you imagine the British Museum wasting all this space?" – when we reached the first, baffling displays of 'Dynamics of Evolution'. I stared at a heap of 36 identical shrews evocatively labelled SHREWS, and eight stuffed SOOTY TERNS lying forlornly on their backs, and 221 GROUND BEETLES, none showing signs of evolving: apparently they embodied the diversity of animal life. We passed on to the heavily guarded Hope diamond, which I was afraid Hazel might covet, but she thought the setting vulgar and preferred sapphires anyway, an international incident thus being avoided until we got to the sapphires. I goggled at the even better guarded Moon rocks, speculating on the chance of one day purchasing a lump from the 300+ kilos of unexamined (thanks, I gather, to Senator Proxmire's merry men) samples, perhaps to replace the pumice stone in our bathroom...

Emerging much later, we passed further monumental things, knocking our heads three times against the car's floor at sight of the IRS building. Hordes of fans converged on 'Dino's Steak House', where I fancied the third biggest steak on offer, only to have Hazel complain "That's three times what I give you at home!"

"Well, this is America," I said feebly.

"Not so much a question of what Dave likes as of what Hazel lets him like," murmured a slanderous P. Kincaid, who may yet suffer for that.

All this was the preliminary to semi-drunken revels in Avedon's – actually Avedon's parents' – basement, a large room boasting a bar (bring your own drink), real bar stools, a pinball machine and other attributes enabling nostalgia-smitten Harry to pretend this was a pub really. He, Jim, Terry, Paul, various Gillilands and I took turns to lose miserably to Avedon at pinball, intimidated more than we chose to admit by the notice on the machine boasting a record score of 1,251,250 by The Fabulous Avedon Carol.

Upstairs Hazel, who collects strange alphabets and interesting peoples, was collecting the Armenian alphabet and Avedon's parents, who seemed happy to ignore the noises of destruction from their basement and did not confuse us much by being called Gary and Queenie Avedekian. "The Corpse and the Queen," their daughter translated. From time to time I nipped up to swap hearing-aid gossip and practice shouting with Mr. A, who wears twice as many aids as me. He at once demanded that Hazel come out and be received into the local Armenian church; or that was how it reached my ears...

"Can you trust her alone with that man," said Avedon earnestly, but already Hazel had gone, carolling "I'm enjoying myself at last!" It seemed a long while before she returned, making little noises of ecstasy and clutching a T-shirt blazoned with the Armenian alphabet. I had to dissuade her from trying to take the whole family home with us: she compromised by insisting on nominating Avedon for TAFF. Oh, the corruption that goes on behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, Jim had discovered that you could run two-player games on the pinball machine. His face split in an enormous grin, and those who knew Jim cast up their eyes in resignation and dread. "He's going to say it," I whispered as Charles Gilliland bagged the Player-1 position...

"I'll be the new Number Two!" said the famous producer of 'The Captive'.

It was after ten o'clock when Dolly, returning from watching what Avedon swore was the Miss America Pageant on TV, brought Mrs. A's offer of coffee all round. A hollow groan from Harry, who'd just been getting into the mood – 'The pubs don't close for an hour yet." I thought I saw teetotal Avedon making mental notes about us; later she merely remarked that if there had been any witty repartee she didn't remember it. Er, quite.

Next morning Hazel continued to enjoy herself. Having gleaned that there was a genuine authentic mosque in the vicinity, she demanded to see it. Dutifully we took off our shoes in the porch; a resentful acolyte issued Dolly and Hazel with shawls to cover their infidel hair. ("Argh!" said Hazel afterwards. "I carried my respectable long dress all this way and didn't think to wear it there...") The interior was huge, bare, brightly-tiled and impressive, with exotic carpets and almost no furniture bar a few chairs where women and children respectfully sat while men practised freestyle kneeling and banging of heads against the floor, as though in the throes of unheard disco music. Another and fiercer acolyte urged us to chairs when coordinated prayers and chants began. Allah akbar! Hazel was in raptures, Alexis impassive as always; Dolly kept saying through her teeth such enthusiastic things as, "We'll give you just five more minutes."

Eventually dragged outside by the combined efforts of three strong fans, Hazel was heard to say dreamily, "I could have stayed in there forever."

"It just seemed that way," came a chorus of three voices.

Next stop was another of Hazel's shrines, the National Geographic headquarters, which looked just as I'd always imagined a National Geographic headquarters should look. A temple more to my liking was Moonstone Bookcellars, the only underground specialist detective/SF bookshop in Washington: proprietor Phil Grossman was a fan himself, and lavishly handed out bookmarks, document cases and shopping bags bearing the Moonstone name and logo. "This is why people like to go round with the Gillilands," said Dolly smugly as we staggered under the weight of free gifts. Overwhelmed by this and by having filled out my Edward Gorey collection, I promised a free plug in the relevant section of TAFF report, and this has been it.

Eventually, alas, I was dragged outside by the combined efforts of three strong fans, and forced to read the Gettysburg Address from the inner marble wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Dolly's enthusiasm almost made me feel barbarous and provincial for never having memorized the thing at school – or Magna Carta either, for that matter. The actual memorial is a sort of vault enclosing a whopping statue, very much huger and in slightly better taste than what one of Chesterton's characters calls "our partly joyous institution of the Albert Memorial." We perhaps lack a sense of history, and don't even employ armed security guards to prevent kids approaching our memorials on impious roller-skates.

A long pool stretches away from Lincoln, like the one before the Taj Mahal, with an expanse of green park on either side: kites were flying here and there, and Dolly reminisced about once having to haul hers in because its string might have brought down the Presidential helicopter. Ah, America, land of opportunities unknown near Downing Street.

There was time for a final sightsee at the Torpedo Factory Art Centre, formerly a (surprise!) torpedo factory, where in dozens of little workshops an array of creative talent was converting raw materials of paint, metal, glass or enamel into money. Lulled into false security by the informal surroundings, one was suddenly blackjacked by the prices; a few more dragons, a few more unicorns, and it might have been the supply centre for those Noreascon dealers. Hazel and I scattered admiration this way and that, consulted our dwindling stock of travellers' cheques, and escaped empty-handed.

Being also empty-stomached, we were lured to the Hsain Foong Chinese restaurant by the promise of a first encounter with that great Sino-American delicacy, fortune cookies. The preliminaries included food and table talk; I misread "Hunan" as "Human" beef, leading to a series of gags about long cow. Dolly revealed that she was born in Reading, Pa., and Alexis that "Marx is to political theory what Khalil Gibran is to philosophy." Then came the great moment: Hazel's cookie told her, "You never miss the water till the well runs dry," and she became quite upset – "It's not true! When you've read as many books on the Sahara as I have..." Mine contained the sententious comment "It's nice to be important but it's important to be nice." "That," said Alexis with his usual tact, "means don't drag people into bookstores."

Later, when the rest had gone to bed, he treated me to a lecture on his version of "the oriental mode of production", whereby capitalist societies bog down in regulations and controls, thus achieving stasis rather than going bang in the revolution demanded by Marxist orthodoxy. For some reason my thoughts touched on the BSFA, and then moved on to contemplate Worldcon organization.

"This is a bit sercon," I seem to recall saying, out of my depth. Obligingly Alexis switched to telling me about his SF novels. "Somtow Sucharitkul is good at the high-flown stylistic stuff, poetic descriptions... I'm not, I'm good at plot and dialogue. What are you good at? What are you writing?"

Little did he know that this was a question to make me cringe, my first SF novel deadline being at the end of that year and the draft being woefully incomplete, not to say nonexistent. A day or two in New York, a flight home, and the bloody thing would have to be written. A bony, spectral hand seemed to clutch me by the goolies.

"Um," I said slowly and painfully. "I've written a title, The Space Eater, and, er..."

"Have another beer," said kind Alexis, letting me off the hook before I could blurt out the horrid truth – that the unwritten work already had the Panshin seal of disapproval owing to its not being Transcendental, so that naturally, I thought, nobody would ever buy it. (I was not as sensible then as I am now.)

With a sense of many missed opportunities in our too-rapid visit, we left the strange and alien American capital next morning, via a train called The Crescent whose air-conditioning turned our breath to white smoke and the smoke to tinkling crystals. To wander off to the toilet was to risk the fate of Captain Oates. Icebergs formed and bumped about in our veins as we trundled through the red-hot day, in what could only be Amtrak's Arctic acclimatization chamber, towards the frozen northern parallels of New York.