(What Has Gone On Before: In the closing scene of the last chapter
Eric Bentcliffe's little daughter, Lindsay, rushes down to greet Stiles
the words "Jesus! It's Jesus from America!")
Lindsay, however, was mistaken.
I'm of two minds about children: sometimes they are very nice to have around -- and, on the other hand, many of them seem cunning vicious, bent on leaving gum on the railings. I was a child myself once, and I recall memories that now seem too embarrassing. F' example, leaning over the roof ledge to drop a balloon full of india ink (!) on a Big Kid who happened to be dressed in a fine, brand new S. J. Kleins $47.50 suit that his mother had saved for months for, scrimping for months so that her Michael Patrick could around that street -- right under my balloon full of india ink. Pow! (Chuckle.)
Be that as it may, there are good kids out there who have managed to transcend the basic rottenness so common to their lot, while still remaining children. Lindsay was one of these; I was shortly charmed.
Calling me Jesus was the first big step.
In the last day or so of preparing for my trip, it suddenly struck me that somewhere in the stores of New York were items that might be sought after in the United Kingdom. It was far too late to think up a list and do some shopping. I later discovered that there were a few people interested in the underground press -- kicked myself for not having brought copies of the San Francisco Oracle, the world's most eccentrically beautiful newspaper. In my last moments, however, I had managed to parcel away some copies of Marvel comics. Lindsay thought these were fascinating articles, and I wound up reading each of them to her. Eight times each, I think.
She liked the Hulk best: "If I gave him a sweetie, would he be good?"
It had been getting warm and muggy in New York, and the chill of the evening reminded me that I was in England, another country (my first); the Bentcliffes and I retired to the living room and settled down in front of the fireplace. Eric showed slides from previous conventions while I looked for familiar faces. Couldn't find any. (I had a mild feeling of apprehension the first few days of my trip; I had grown cozy with NY fans, Californians, and even a few from the Midwest and South -- how would things go with an unfamiliar fandom?) Eric also played a few tapes for me, in particular "First and Last Fen". This is, for any who are unfamiliar, a taped historical epic of fandom in its most trying times, from Marc Fanthony's speech on the steps of the vomitorium (starting our tradition of long talks at the con banquets), to the dread inquisition -- faans being put to the question after being forced to listen to long talks at a banquet. The tape was fun. I wish we had more of that in the US, but then we never had the Goon Show as inspiration.
I think that if I had a year in England, I'd spend my first week curled up in front of a television set in order to get the feel of the culture -- tuning in certain channels just to enjoy the novelty of experiencing the absence of commercials and perhaps a presence of mind. For, after all, those who have seen American flicks know that our land is infested with cowboys, gangsters, and weird and perverty psychopaths. At any rate, I was curious to see what BBC was all about. Eric turned on his set for me just in time to catch a situation comedy. The scene; the interior of an aristocratic manor house, furnished in the Victorian style. A butler leans against a fireplace mantle. In strides Col. Blimp.
"Jaspers!" he yells. "What the hell are you doing standing about like a bloody nance? Get down to the damned cellar and fetch me my bottle!"
That was a cultural shock. Like turning on Ed Sullivan and watching the Fugs sing "Saran Wrap". Tuning in another station, I learned that when U.S. comedian Godfrey Cambridge is in England, he affects a marked English accent. Amazing.
And then Martin Luther King's funeral was on the news. We watched the end of the last of the New Frontier, said the same kind of things you probably did -- it seemed trite and hollow. I had a curious feeling of apathy that comes from déjà vu; another name on the long list of people who have struggled to accomplish something, only to be toppled by mindless violence. It struck me that as the American representative at the coming convention I might be called upon to do some explaining about the state of our United States. I'd be hard pressed.
Lindsay popped into my room at some unholy hour (I had forgotten to wind my watch), bounced on the bed and announced breakfast. After bringing the room into focus and trying a few experimental grunts and gurgles, I discovered that Lindsay was offering me my camera. "You said you'd take my picture today!" said Lindsay. So I agreed, and she jumped into a large cardboard box at the foot of the bed, posing.
Eric was engaged in profane activity that morning; jiggling at the top of a small ladder, he would reach into a small dark hole above him, disappear momentarily, and reappear clutching a bundle of yellowed fanzines. These he passed down to me. I was supposed to arrange them in artful piles for sorting. I'm afraid I wasn't that much help -- still enough of an addict to give a glad cry every few minutes, pause and paw through some rare old treasure like Cry of the Nameless #87, or a 30's political tract by one Don Wollheim. It was Bentcliffe's mad plan to auction off these irreplaceable treasures at the ThirdManCon ...
Eventually the fanzines were straightened out in even, if dusty, piles, and after one of Beryl's good lunches, Eric and I drove out to an area known as Bramall Park. Bramall Park turned out to be a picture postcard type of place, with gentle, sculptured hills and grassy slopes. Children gamboled on the lawns, young lovers strolled under shade trees, old people nodded on benches. Off in the distance, swans and geese glided over a glassy lake. Come to think of it, I believe there were some picture postcards of the place being sold.
A tranquil place, and very green, but the chief attraction was Bramall Hall, home of the Davenports ... the Davenports ... for over nineteen generations or 600 years. And it looked it. Oh, this isn't to say that the place was run down; quite the contrary. No, it looked quite presentable, and gaping with history, and I was taken with the concept that here was a very sturdy place that was older than the United States itself. I mean, we don't have too much that's really old in the US, unless you count dinosaur bones and Indian arrowheads, and those don't have much personality for those outside those fields of study.
It certainly had Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg beat all to hell.
How to describe it? You know, I can see the place as clearly as if it stood before me, but words, words ... At times like this we can be gripped with the inadequacy of words -- or more to the point, the inadequacy of this writer (who is really just an artist). If I had a canvas, I could paint a picture, but I only have this stencil ... and you can thank Arnie Katz for that. He had the option (although I was too polite to point it out) to use halftone photo offset process to duplicate this really great painting I was thinking of doing.
How to describe it? Well, it was big, and it was brown. With a thatched roof, white-washed plaster worked in with dark wood. Something like a ranch house.
(Fortunately, thanks to the Internet here in 2004, I can feature a picture of this "ranch house.")
While waiting for visiting hours to begin, I took a photo of Eric and he in turn took one of me. After a few minutes, the door opened, and a small gray-haired woman ushered us inside. If the outside had been interesting and historical, the inside had it beat in spades. The large room we found ourselves in was floored with stone, the four walls and low ceiling covered with intricate paneling. Crests and other carved icons stood over doors and windows and what had to be the world's largest fireplace -- a bit bigger than my own bedroom, I'd say. They didn't have central heating in those days, and I could see small stone benches within the fireplace; I suppose when whole oxen weren't being roasted and the coals were low, family and retainers would sit inside to be warmed by the hot stones.
Our hostess turned us over to a gentleman acting as a guide. Leading us through the many rooms, he gave detailed accounts of furnishings and the function of each room.
Evidently a great deal of attention had been given to religion within the four walls, for a lot of the structure had been given up to a chapel and private prayer rooms, as well as religious frescoes. I only listened with half an ear, as the lavish woodcarving and works caught most of my attention; truly beautiful. I suspected that Eric hadn't ever visited the place either, for he seemed as absorbed as I was. Later Bentcliffe confided that he had been contemplating the possibilities of the place as a future con site ...
As I mentioned, the building had been in one family for generations, but as the twentieth century rolled around, the family fortune dwindled, and the last surviving member had found it necessary to sell it to one of the vulgar newly rich; one Neville by name -- a modern renaissance man of the Victorian era who had made his fortune through the manufacture of leather girdles, horse collars or some such thing. Neville in his generosity had in turn left Bramall Hall and all the grounds -- considerable acreage -- to the government, to be set up as a public attraction.
Such being the case, I couldn't help but wonder at the faint tinge of loathing and scorn in our guide's tone whenever the name Neville came up. I soon caught the gist; Neville, in the throes of the wonders of the new age of science, had enthusiastically remodeled whole rooms in the Victorian style, converted the family prayer room into his pool parlor, set up apparatus for electrical experimentation in the priest's vestibule, sealed up hidden rooms (they still haven't found one), and in general handed the historians a tough job of restoration. Time and again , our guide would point out some vanished relic, explaining that that cretin Neville, in his ignorance ... I felt sorry for the man; here he had donated the place, and daily his name was being ritually reviled. He must be whirling like a turbine.
Lindsay had gotten out of school, so we returned to pick up the rest of the Bentcliffe family in order to visit Jodrell Banks Observatory, site of one of -- if not the -- the world's largest radio telescopes, an instrument that had picked up and deciphered Russian moon photos ... much to the Soviets' discomfort. Glued to the window, digging the beautiful countryside, I was soon able to spot a bowl-shaped object in the distance. At first the size of a pepsi bottle, it loomed to cow size, then as big as a house, then bigger still. It seemed to cast a shadow over the road along which Eric steered. By craning my neck, I was able to catch glimpses of its uppermost rim whenever the clouds broke; this, however, was merely an appendage to the real Jodrell Banks telescope -- which was much larger.
The plan was, I believe, to ride to the top of the thing, but as luck would have it, visiting hours had been changed, and we had to turn back ... Next time, Eric!
According to the prearranged plan, I was to be dropped off at Harry Nadler's, the chairman and prime mover of the ThirdManCon. Briefly detouring in the outskirts of Manchester, we dropped some camera equipment off at Tony Edwards' home. It was his job to film events at the con and an ambitious plan -- to make a newsreel to be shown on the last day of the convention -- was also in the works. Tony's wife Margie popped out to say hello, and I was taken with the similarity of her personality to Miriam Knight's -- that is, a Golden Goojie Girl. (I met many opposite number types later at the convention, and it helped me in getting along with first meetings.) I was able to see more of the Edwardses at Buxton; a fun couple those two, we were dropping balloons full of india ink on the mundanes.
Harry Nadler reminded me of rich brown, Bill Burns had the aura of a Jon White or Alan Shaw. Nevertheless, both of them were hard at work. Ink-stained and hard at work at a strange clanking device when Eric and I arrived. Resembling a Rex Rotary in that it was both big and complicated, it shook the house madly as Nadler furiously whirled the crank, Burns feeding the beast paper and ink. At odd intervals the machine would grind to a halt while Harry swore and Bill offered up such consolation as "It isn't half bad, y'know," and "Two days to Buxton, Harry -- could be closer!" A leering poster of a vampire bem loomed over the whole attic room.
I knew then that these were trufans.
The convention was two days away, and the two committee chairmen were hard at work on the con program booklet, a profusely illustrated multi-colored affair. The machine was photo-offset; Harry worked as a printer and had been able to get it at a bargain rate. In recognition of my timely arrival, Harry selected a certain "stencil" -- metal plate, actually -- placed it on his duplicator and spun the handle. Paper crinkled and flew into the receiving tray, trailing black ink over surfaces. It was a mess. By careful translation, I was able to make out the message: "Welcome Steve Stiles, T.A.F.F. Man '68!" it said.
"Drat!" said Nadler. The plate was ruined. There was only one thing to do. I did it. I carefully redrew the surprise Welcome Steve Stiles message. So there wouldn't be a blank page in the program booklet, of course ...
By about 11:30, both of them had collapsed in a heap of prozines, and we eventually made it down to the living room to have some tea with Harry's wife, Marie. Marie seemed to be a jovial type, but it was obvious that the last-minute activity of putting on a con had put a strain on her. "Never again, Harry, never again!" she kept repeating, a slightly dazed look on her face. Having been around committee chairmen and their wives at moments like these, I could only sympathize with all parties.
After rapping a bit about my trip, Bill revealed that he had a spare bed at his home, and that I'd be welcome to try it on for size. I still hadn't completely adjusted to the change over in time zones and felt quite pooped -- it sounded very good.
On Wednesday morning I got up at ten and banged around until I was sure that Bill Burns was aware that I was awake, dressed and stumbled out looking for him. A smell of coffee, ham, and eggs greeted me, and I discovered Bill and his mother in the kitchen with a third place set for me.
The plan that day was to set off for the center of the city of Manchester in search of various last minute items for the convention. These items included film, take and -- I'm sure I don't know why -- clothes pins. As this would be my first look at a city in England by daylight, I was eager to make the trip. Eric had lived in a very suburban type area, and my only other look at the city proper had been by the failing light of evening.
By eleven we were ready and assembled on the sidewalk. A short stroll brought us to a bus stop, and it was here that I discovered a curious aspect of British habit; like, they line up in first come-first served order for buses and such, rather than making a mad dash with murderous elbows flying, devil take all. It was an awesome concept for a New Yorker to take in, and I stood numbly by absorbed in a minor satori. "It isn't half bad," said Bill Burns.
I had been rattling about in my pockets for what I thought might be the necessary coinage, but when we got on board, I looked in vain for any kind of change box. Instead I followed Bill to the (get this) second story of the bus. And instead of tipping over from all that excess weight, we rolled merrily along; the view was marvelous. Ride double-decker buses all you can ...
A conductor came up and asked us our destination. Two 1/6d tickets were purchased, and I wondered at that as it seemed that there must be easy ways to beat the system, getting more mileage for your money. Bill replied that indeed there were a few deadbeats now and then, but an occasional spot check, recently instituted, had all but discouraged them.
By then my mind was fairly reeling with new and radical concepts, but the biggest surprise was yet to come -- seeing another passenger produce a cigarette and calmly lighting it up. It seems that you can smoke on public transportation, and the buses were well enough ventilated so as to prevent stuffiness. I puffed contentedly on a Newport while wondering about spitting, littering, and creating a public disturbance.
I'm a city boy. I dig cities of all kinds, and Manchester pretty much conformed to the universal layout and appearance of one. It wasn't as impressive as London was going to be for me, but it still had that difference in personality that kept my nose glued to the window. We passed residential areas, business sections, and slums for the poor and the black; the last looked pretty grim, worse than what I remembered from my few daring expeditions to Harlem. I would guess that Manchester is big in the coal business (I didn't have any guide books to tell me so), the worn buildings and streets were black from coal dust.
After some difficulty in locating the right kind of film, we finally collected all the wanted items at Lewis' Department Store, biggest in the city (I didn't have any guide books, but Bill Burns told me so), and headed back to Harry Nadler's place.
Harry and Marie were sitting in their living room, pale and wan but satisfied; the program booklet had been finished.
Two more of the Delta Group, Manchester's fan club, Charles Partington and Brian Marshall had also arrived, and we had been talking for a bit when there was a knock at the door. It was Gardner R Dozois, destined to be known as "Doozie" in the days following.
Gardner was a tall, heavy-set American GI with the look of a young Alfred Hitchcock. A new sf pro with no contact with organized fandom, he had read about the coming convention and cut out for greener pastures and like minds. It was his unasked-for claim to fame to have been written up in the Army Times in one of those cute "he believes in flying saucers" articles.
Gardner was affable and we were benign, but it was a classic first contact with fandom situation -- many awkward gaps in the conversation as if all concerned weren't quite sure about what kind of people they had fallen in with. Perhaps sensing this, Gardner made self-conscious observations on the differences between the American Way of Life and foreign nonsense; nothing too sophisticated, as like on double decker buses, but bombshells like, Gee, everyone drives on the wrong side of the road here. And those Germans may be Efficient but they sure build bad roads ... Gardner appeared to think that Europe should have known better. I'm afraid I didn't get it that Gardner was putting us all on, and, in fact, I righteously decided he was an asshole.
How often has time proven me wrong, though. I later radically reversed my opinion. In fact, I later enjoyed his company exploring London -- but that's another chapter ...
Harry took us on a tour of the Delta Group clubroom, an industrial loft filled with printing presses and type fonts. Unfortunately, most of these acquisitions had yet to be sorted out and put in order, but the place had a potential ... During the visit, Harry had made a few vague but interesting references to a fan in the neighborhood, Jim Rowbotham. I got intrigued, and soon we were knocking at his door. It seemed that Jim Rowbotham had a flying machine.
Well not exactly a flying machine. It sat in his backyard and looked rather like an inverted bathtub. It was a homemade hovercraft, and Jim was obviously proud of it.
Built of lightweight wood, a gigantic fan had been placed in the center of the craft. A fringe of rubber material ran all along the bottom, and the power source was a small motor.
Jim turned it on and, with a tremendous racket, his creation rose four inches above the ground. As I understood it hovercraft are becoming quite a hobby in England. Basic plans for their construction are available, materials are relatively inexpensive, and there is a spirit of competition in making and improving them. Jim had been working on his for a few months and hoped to have it a foot off the ground in time for the annual hovercraft rally. (I would have loved to attend.)
Back to the Nadler house, we started collating the program booklet. I believe there were more than six hundred of them. Round and round a table we went; it took me back to XERO days. "Never again, Harry -- promise me that!" said Marie. The night was young, would get older. Tomorrow I'd be taking the train to Buxton.]
To be continued....