A handful of chanterelles simmered gently in cream is a pleasant and unusual way to start a day. The ordinary Roberts breakfast is a cup of black coffee and a cigarette, followed, as soon as I realize that I'm alive, by clumsily prepared toast, invariably eaten in such a manner as to get marmalade in my hair. That's always puzzled me actually. One day I'm going to stay awake all night and find out about that. Maybe I spread the marmalade with my comb? No matter; this is not the time to ponder on the darker secrets of life. The fact is that on this particular morning I was eating an unusual breakfast because it was an unusual day, one on which I was setting off for America and a two month TAFF trip. It seemed like I ought to make it a special occasion and besides I'd suffered to pick those chanterelles the previous afternoon, battling through nettles and brambles in an heroic effort to find the damn things. I couldn't take the fungi with me to the States and nobody else would touch them with a bargepole ('But Peter, they're bright orange ...'), so I had to eat them for breakfast or feed them to the neighbour's cat. I ate them slowly and deliberately, therefore, and used the time to ruminate on TAFF, America, the Worldcon, great aeroplane disasters, Gatwick, New York, Kojak, fans, easily lost tickets, airport strikes, the Atlantic Ocean, Terry Hughes, and Disneyworld. Damn near missed my train, chewing away like a zombie. But I managed to wake up in time, picked the pieces of chantarelle out of my hair, hoisted my bought the day before suitable for the younger camper lightweight orange rucksack onto my back, and strode purposefully off toward Dawlish railway station. It was 8.30 am on a fine and pleasant day: Saturday, August 23rd, 1977.
To get to New York from my house you've got to turn right at the end of Oakland Drive, cross the main road, and follow the path down the cliff and along the beach, past the bus shelter, till you come to the railway station. There you've got to convince the bloke in the ticket office that you don't want your regular day-return to Exeter because you're going to America. He hopes you have a nice journey, you buy your single to Paddington, and then, humming the Star-Spangled Banner, you go up the steps, onto the platform, and stare out across the English Channel until the train appears. You get in, find that it's absolutely packed, and remember it's August Bank Holiday and that everybody is taking the opportunity to go somewhere else for the weekend. You find that the only empty seat is in the bar, decide that this isn't so bad a situation after all, and spend an uneventful few hours drinking, smoking, looking out of the window, and listening to a tableful of not-very-sober Cornishmen playing euchre for small change.
By midday I was in London. I'd made as few advance arrangements as possible for the trip, but one thing that was organized was the flight to New york. At one time a whole bunch of British fans had planned to go over to Suncon and a charter flight had been arranged. In the event only Rob Jackson and myself ended up on the flight: Peter Mabey, who'd also booked, got put on another plane, the other travelling fans made separate plans, and a large number had just abandoned the trip altogether as dreams and designs crumbled in the face of a mercenary and mundane world. All this didn't unfortunately mean that Rob and I would have the plane to ourselves; the flight was a regular charter, the kind that has to be booked long in advance, and it was bound to be packed. That is, if it ever left the airport. The assistant air traffic controllers had decided to go on strike the previous Thursday. The weekend before they'd already caused long delays by working to rule; this weekend they'd walked out altogether and the tv and newspapers had been prophesying complete chaos. Rob had checked with our airline, British Caledonian, and they'd told travellers to arive on time. This, then, was what we were intending to do, though neither of us were feeling at all confident about the outcome. Check-in time was 4.00 pm; I was to meet Rob at the Victoria terminal above the railway station at 2.00 pm. I settled down in a nearby pub, bought myself a farewell Guinness, and waited. The skies clouded over and it began to drizzle.
Rob turned up grunting and groaning under the weight of two suitcases. 'Mayas?' I asked. He nodded and collapsed in a chair, arms hanging limply by his side. He'd been at the start of the Newcastle Silicon the previous night and had travelled down to London that morning; he didn't look too fresh and bouncy as a result, though doubtless an inner fannish gleam lurked somewhere beneath the exhaustion. We dragged the cases over to the check-in desk and were told that our flight was delayed ten hours; it might have been even worse, I suppose, and at least we were still in central London and not marooned out at Gatwick.
We decided to kill time till midnight; Rob scanned an evening paper and we settled on a cinema over in Baker Street which was showing a strange double-bill of Blazing Saddles and All the President's Men. That was ok, but didn't dispose of a great deal of time. We went off, therefore, into the side streets, found ourselves an Indian restaurant, and after that moved on to a nearby pub. That's where I started feeling pretty despondent. When you're keyed-up, bright-eyed, and ready to be off, any kind of wait is depressing; and besides, the pub we'd found wasn't exactly a palace of mirth. A bloke played an organ in a corner and was totally ignored for his trouble, the Guinness was flat and disgusting, and some wretch lurched into the table and knocked mine into my lap. Rob was responding to the mood of the place and sat reading computer printouts of Seacon 79 members. We should've been in New York by then. It was grim all round.
We decided to move back to Victoria, where things improved. The journey itself cheered me up immediately: any kind of travel was what I wanted and the tube ride would do for a start. At least we were heading somewhere and in roughly the right direction. We also discovered a less depressing pub, altogether livelier, with a good juke-box, decent Guinness, and an amazing amount of rubbish scattered all over the floor. Ankle-deep in beer mats and crisp packets we felt more content.
Round about closing-time we went back to the station and took the train out to Gatwick. The airport itself is compact, modern, and a reasonable place to start a journey. The strike meant that a lot of people were hanging around or attempting to sleep in corners; but they seemed happy enough -- something to do with the bar still being open -- and there was more of a what-the-hell atmosphere rather than a pall of gloom and bad temper. Rob and I were given a couple of £1 meal vouchers as a token apology for the delay and we queued up to spend them on coffee and buns. We were mean enough to want our exact money's worth, though the bill only came to 89p. 'Right, what can I get for 11p?' I demanded of the cashier. 'A peach,' she said. So a peach we had.
We wandered around a bit and bought a whole flood of duty-free drink for the Suncon bidding party (ever seen a six-pack of whisky before?) and played a little cribbage till our flight was called. Somewhere around 3.30 am we crawled on to the plane.
I don't know what kind of plane it was. A jet, I suppose. Things like that don't fascinate me very much, though once upon a time I used to be interested in World War Two American fighter aircraft. The plane we went on definitely wasn't a Mustang or a Thunderbolt; you could tell by the markings.
The inside of the plane was basically a large tube crammed with seats. I wedged myself between Rob, who had his very own window, a woman who was reading Barthelme's Come Back, Dr. Caligari, and the six-pack of whisky. It wasn't very comfortable. Lights flashed, intercoms went on, the plane shuddered, and at some stage we were in the air.
To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time I'd ever been in an aeroplane. It didn't worry me at all. For a start I was glad to be going, after all the delay; but the main reason was a sense of resigned security. Strapped in my seat along with a load of other people, it seemed utterly pointless worrying about endless expanses of empty air under my feet. There wasn't anything that I had to do. Nothing depended on me. If all the passengers had been required to press buttons simultaneously in order to take off, I'd have been terrified. But all I had to do was choose between whisky and brandy when the free drinks came round.
Rob and I had planned on getting some sleep during the flight. After all, we could do with a few hours' kip after more than a full day's travelling and waiting around. British Caledonian, however, were in a state of some confusion. Basically, they were unsure whether to pretend that the evening flight was just a little late or whether to admit that it was four o'clock in the morning. The transatlantic time zone changes only complicated matters. In the end they did the usual thing and compromised. As a result we were served 'dinner' after two hours flying. Though I'm accustomed to eating at odd hours, I couldn't face an evening meal at 6.00 am, so I just stuck to coffee and whisky. Most other people went along with the idea that it was 8.00 p.m. and tucked into their 'dinners' like sheep. They, of course, then got caught out by the compromise, which consisted of serving 'breakfast' three hours later. Mine looked suspiciously like a swiftly re-named supper, so I stuck once again to the coffee. In between these curious meals were three hours of evening, night, or early morning, depending on what you'd chosen to believe. The sun had been rising when we left Britain and was continuing to rise, without much progress, as we crossed the Atlantic. It's the longest sunrise I've ever seen in my life. Ignoring the struggling sun, British Caledonian decided to put on a film for the evening entertainment. Most of the passengers, however, felt that it was about time they had some night and accordingly went into attitudes of sleep. This seemed both reasonable and intelligent, so I tried to do the same. However, wedged into my seat in an extraordinarily cramped position, sleep was impossible. I shifted into a more comfortable attitude -- left elbow propped up on the seat, right arm around my neck, one knee above my head and jammed against the seat in front, and the other leg jutting out into some clear space to one side, then twisting, below the knee, into a small hole between the seat and the whisky bottles. I shut my eyes and attempted to doze off. Sometime later I gave up and reopened my eyes. A train on the cinema screen was entering a station; it didn't stop. There was a series of slow motion shots of the train smashing through buffers, platforms, walls, tea stands, waiting-rooms, and hysterical travellers. Unconnected to the ear phones, the mayhem went on in eerie silence. Weird film to watch in the middle of the night on an aeroplane in the evening over the Atlantic in the early morning.
We reached New York at dawn.