This bit might well have been called Epitaff had Walt Willis and Eric Bentcliffe not cunningly used the heading in their own reports, back in the days when Leonardo da Vinci was but a neofan. (Typical skullduggery that, stealing my title while I was still under age and unable to sue.) Certainly it felt like the final stage of something when – with the air of a deceitful swimmer inviting folks to sport with him amid the friendly ice-floes – I welcomed mighty BNF Stu Shiffman to these shores and to his even mightier responsibilities such as shouting at deaf Langford, listening to Alan Dorey, and looking at D. West. It was strangely instructive to experience the ritual of the meeting of the strange foreign fan, with roles now exchanged....
We set off in the car. The car wasn't a big car, but then its price was not a big price, i.e. nothing. My kindly aunt and uncle in Cornwall had decided that one of their spare vehicles was senile, moribund, mere yards from massive systemic collapse, not even worth the effort of pushing round to the scrapyard. 'Nobody in his right mind would touch the thing if you paid him,' they said to one another above the sound of stampeding rust. 'Wait a minute, though –'
'David, would you like to have a really nice little car,' came the phone call.
And, indeed, apart from the missing lamps and the fungoid growth all over the interior and the tasteful holes in the bodywork which so resemble my own little eyes (being vacant, with red rims) and the tendencies to not start, to do kangaroo impersonations on reluctantly starting, and to moult whenever parked or in motion, it was pretty good for a 1966 Ford Anglia. Especially if you remembered to top up the radiator every two hundred yards and to wear either a warm coat (because the heater didn't work) or no coat at all (because the interior cooling fan belonged to the same union as the heater). This car, we felt, would swiftly and almost painlessly introduce Stu to the Langford lifestyle, so typical of true fans in the UK. So I scrawled TWA flight 708 10:45 don't forget TAFF welcome banner on a bit of paper, and shortly before 10:00, pausing only to forget the TAFF welcome banner, we set off for Heathrow. In the car.
By thrusting the accelerator far down below the floor, meanwhile jumping up and down and shouting Vroom vroom!, I called forth the full power of the mighty internal combustion engine and carved up the M4 at a shade under 55mph. At 10:20 we fell off at the Heathrow junction, there to find an impacted mass of cars, buses and taxis stretching as far as the eye could see, tooting horns as far as the ear could hear, and emitting CO2 and lead derivatives as far as the nostril could smell. It was like bursting into one of those thought experiments where the velocity of light is a mere two miles an hour and once in a while drops to zero: as we crawled down the Heathrow motorway spur we had the familiar Lorentzian sensation of being compressed to an infinitely thin sheet, usually between two intolerant taxis. The Anglia's temperature gauge shifted up the scale from mild paranoia to strong hysterics; the emergency backup temperature indicator came into play, emitting its preliminary warning sign of 1000 cubic feet of superheated steam. At the roadside, slugs waved their eyestalks in derision as they effortlessly outstripped us.
Hazel made warning signs against the evil eye as at last we spied the much-dreaded Heathrow Hotel; after many adventures (second, third and fourth books of epic trilogy omitted here), Childe Langford to the Dark Tower came. In this case the fortress of ultimate evil took the questionable shape of the Terminal 3 car park, where it was revealed that our handbrake was not sufficient to hold a car, a driver and a passenger on such steep slopes as are commonly encountered on the ramps of multi-storey car parks.
Hazel had a nice walk of it.
A horde of panic-stricken Langfords finally burst into Terminal 3 a quarter of an hour late, fearful lest Stu had been sucked into the Underground never to be seen again, and found that Flight 4098 wasn't now expected until 11:25, while its luckless passengers would not escape HM Customs' stern questioning and probing of awkward bodily orifices until, say, 12:25. We grunted at each other breathlessly. The atmosphere was strongly tropical, plainly a pathetic attempt to give a false first impression of Britain's climate to these foreigners. We stood there.
'I suppose Stu does look the way he did before?' I said after a long while. 'Suppose he's grown a long white beard in Customs. Suppose he's had plastic surgery and now looks like a hunchbacked Mexican dwarf with only one leg....'
'Hush,' said the light of my life. 'I'm watching these interesting people. See the Hajji over there with his beard dyed red?'
'Maybe it's natural ... maybe he has Irish ancestors.'
'Gosh, look at that smashing lady in the black veil.'
'I should at least have brought a placard to tie to the umbrella, saying TAFF or something.... Also I should have brought my umbrella to tie the placard to.'
'Mmm, isn't that sari lovely?'
Then the trench-coated hero of TAFF made his titanic way from the Customs Hall, and there was much waving, and with blinding originality I said, 'Welcome to Britain in the name of the Surrey Limpwrists!'
The rest is history. You'll all have to wait for the Shiffman TAFF report to hear how his visit to Oxford culminated in a midnight drive to Reading wherein the car's electrical systems became incapable of powering the ignition and headlights at the same time. Don't miss By Starlight Across England, soon to be remaindered at your local bookshop.... ('Terrifying' – Hazel Langford.)