Bam! The pool cue slammed into the back of my skull. I whirled around to face my attacker while at the same time checking my head with my left hand to feel if any important bits had fallen off. Being a TAFF winner was turning out to be far more dangerous than I had expected. I'd thought my biggest worry would be drunken fans pissing on my shoes -- never in my worst TAFF-related nightmares did I imagine that someone would use a pool cue to change the shape of my cranium from convex to concave.
Wait a minute. If you feel bewildered, it's because I've gotten ahead of myself. Doing a TAFF report in non-chronological installments in various fanzines can get very confusing, what with all the jumping back and forth through the timestream, not to mention splashing about in the puddles of my memory. Let me start over and I'll try to set the time and place.
It was 1979, the year I made my trip from the United States to the United Kingdom and the last year I could keep from seriously regarding Ronald Reagan as a potential occupant of the White House. My trip was due to winning the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund, while Reagan's later success was due to the corrupt nature of America's capitalistic system and was in no way attributable to my actions overseas. There are those who maintain that both elections were indicative of the gullibility of the voters but I consider that attitude to be decidedly unfannish. It was Charles Burbee himself who told me that he voted for me but not to get big-headed about it since he had also voted for Richard Nixon. I'm pretty sure he was talking about different elections. In any case, I take a certain amount of pride in knowing that neither Nixon nor Reagan (nor Margaret Thatcher for that matter) has ever won TAFF (and no doubt they feel the same about me and the Presidency).
My TAFF trip didn't make the cover of Time, or get mentioned in the personality snippets of People, and even the National Enquirer refused to print the story when I told them that I couldn't supply photographs of Space Aliens on Earth, but this fanzine is publishing part of my TAFF report. (Any pictures of space aliens you find on my pages were provided by Brian.) This installment concerns one of my adventures when I was in the Newcastle area.
Newcastle, or I guess I should say Newcastle-upon-Tyne to be proper and to distinguish it from Newcastle-under-Lyme where I didn't have any adventures whatsoever, had been a special British city in my mind for many years before I ever went there. You see, Newcastle was the home of The Animals, which was my favorite group of the horde of rock'n'roll bands that made up the British Invasion of America in the 1960s. At the time of my trip, however, the Animals had long since broken up and so Newcastle was then better known to me as the home of the Gannets. Despite what some members might have claimed, the Gannets weren't a rock'n'roll band at all but rather they were the local SF group. Unlike in the US where fans who belong to clubs are known by names such as LASFans, NESFans, MoSFans, WSFans, et boring cetera, fans in Britain go under far more colorful names such as the Rats, the Brummies, the Surrey Limpwrists, and the Gannets. I think this difference in attitudes towards group names is a good indication of the differences in attitudes in general between the fandoms separated by the Atlantic Ocean. A gannet is a fish-eating bird (sort of a silly goose) which can understandably be identified with a port city like Newcastle. The fannish cartoon representation of a gannet is of a pudgy bird wearing a beanie, clutching a pint of Newcastle Brown Ale in one hand-like wing, and displaying a less than sober smile on its beak. In 1979 the Gannets had so much energy and so many members interested in fanzines that, in addition to their individual fanzines, they were also doing a regular group fanzine called Gannetscrapbook. This was not the same as other clubzines I had seen because each issue was edited by a different member of the group (chosen through some mystical method of rotation.) Naturally this led to fluctuations in terms of quality and style since each Gannet had his own ideas as to just how it should be done and this played bloody hell with traditional concepts of continuity, but it also gave the fanzine a special feeling and flavor (excuse me, 'flavour') all its own. This was the sort of environment in which I found myself.
The adventure I'm going to tell you about only involves three of the Gannets -- Harry Bell, Kevin and Sue Williams -- but that's quite enough thank you. You are probably already aware of Harry since he is the best known of all Gannets and is one of fandom's most popular artists (it was Harry who created the cartoony Gannet emblem) and publisher of a great many fanzines which have given increased meaning to the term 'infrequent'. So I don't think I need to introduce him to you -- besides I gave him the full treatment in an earlier installment of my TAFF report (in Wing Window #7) when I told how Harry Bell revealed secret facts about toilet paper.
You might not be quite as familiar with Kev and Sue Williams. To begin with, they are man and wife, and not brother and sister. I want to make that clear since on one or two occasions when my brain wasn't functioning at its usual lightning-fast rate I made an embarrassing reference to 'Kev and Sue Smith'. Needless to say such remarks generated laughter and abuse directed towards me. There I was giving a future TAFF winner (Kev Smith) an unexpected bridge, and forcing poor Sue Williams to commit bigamy (or worse). I guess I just got confused by the abundance of Kevins in British fandom at the time. Still it could have been worse: I could have said 'Kev and Sue Easthope.'
Kevin Williams was in charge of operations at Seacon (the 1979 Worldcon) and as such was instrumental in keeping the convention running smoothly. With a job like that, however, he was kept so busy that he wasn't all that visible during the convention, at least during the day, and so I ended up seeing more of him after the con than while it was going on. Kevin has dark hair and a matching moustache and a pair of glasses which only slightly distorts the fannish twinkle in his eyes.
I realize that this is the sort of physical description which could apply equally well to Seacon chairman Peter Weston or several hundred other fans, but I assure you that Kevin Williams is not a clone of Peter Weston. Sue Williams can vouch for that. Being in charge of operations implies a high degree of organization and an ability to manage time wisely and during Seacon these qualities certainly applied to Kev. Outside the Worldcon however ... well let's just say that these traits of his couldn't withstand the Harry Bell syndrome. In an effort to get Harry to do a regular fanzine Kevin offered to help out and the jointly edited Out of the Blue was the result. Clearly both Kevin and Harry felt that Kevin's extra push would result in a frequent fanzine. Out of the Blue has been an excellent fanzine, filled with witty writing and great art, but it has been anything but frequent. The two of them began work on the fanzine some six months before the worldcon and ended up only missing Seacon by four pages. So we can no longer say that punctuality is Kevin Williams's middle name (and a good thing too because punctuality makes for a terrible middle name).
Sue Williams has neither Harry Bell's blond hair nor her husband's moustache, so in terms of physical appearance she can only be described as a very attractive brunette. Her activities at the worldcon involved both Harry Bell and bedsheets. Wipe that smirk off your face because it wasn't anything like what you're thinking. Sue was in charge of preparing the huge Seacon backdrop. As you probably remember Harry had created a delightful emblem for the British worldcon bid which consisted of a Harry Bell-type critter encircled by a banner reading: 'Britain is fine in '79!' which was featured not only on literature but also on hundreds of buttons. After winning the right to hold the 1979 worldcon, the Seacon committee continued to use this as the convention symbol. It was Sue's job to transform this button-sized illustration into a movie screen-sized banner. She made this by sewing several bedsheets together and then painstakingly copying the image onto it. After this was done, she then had to iron the backdrop so that it looked wrinkle-free when it was unfurled from the ceiling during the worldcon opening ceremonies. She ended up using the floor of her workroom at the hotel, as an ironing board but that was even more complex than it sounds since the banner was larger than the floorspace of the hotel workroom. With the aid of assistants she got the job done and the backdrop made for an impressive sight. It was a magnificent symbol for the Worldcon and at the same time served as a very nice tribute to Harry Bell, who was the fan guest of honor at Seacon. Sue Williams is the only person I know who has used an iron to do her fanac.
I was staying at Harry Bell's house in Gateshead -- Gateshead is just across the river from Newcastle and is its largest suburb although it is a major city in its own rights even if its only claim to fame is that Harry Bell lives there -- so the Williamses picked us up and took me off for a history lesson. I had made some sort of remark about how I was living in the Washington, D.C. area where there were plenty of buildings far older than anything I was used to in the American Midwest and they had just sort of snorted and said that bloody colonials don't even know what old is. This trio of Gannets were going to take me to see the Housesteads Roman Fort to give me the proper perspective on things.
The Roman ruins were in the upper part of Northumberland, near the border with Scotland which is a longer drive from Newcastle than it looks on the map, due in part because of the nature of the British roadway system which, apart from the M series of highways, isn't really geared for speedy travel. Our journey took a bit longer also because we were going to stop at a pub for lunch along the way. Not just any pub, mind you, but a pub that none of the Gannets had been to before. Although there were a great many pubs between Newcastle and Housesteads Roman Fort, this was no easy proposition since they had made this journey before which meant that there were few pubs along the way that they hadn't already sampled. Evidently this was a point of honor with them. It certainly made for an interesting trip since every time we neared a pub, we'd slow down and compare notes to see if anyone had been in the pub in question and invariably the answer was yes and we'd tool along until the next one. My ruse of calling out 'There's one I haven't been to before!' must have been clumsy because they saw through it every time. Looking back on it, I think that rather than trying to find a 'virgin' pub, they were actually trying to find the one pub in all of Northumberland where I could get hit in the head with a pool cue.
The pub looked innocent enough from the outside, in fact it looked most inviting in its country setting. Then again, a venus flytrap looks nice from the outside, too.
We each got a draft of the house lager and I think we each got a plowman's lunch, at least I know I did. A plowman's lunch consists of a hunk of bread, some cheese and some fresh vegetables (like celery and carrots) and makes for a perfect light midday snack. The pub was crowded and the only available table was in the room adjacent to the bar where the pool/billiards table was. A game was in progress but there was plenty of clearance by our table, or so I thought as I sat there, the one with his back to the pool table. Perhaps the British go through some training at an early age that instructs them never to turn their backs to someone holding a pool cue but, if so, these Gannets failed to pass this information along to me. Being from the States I wasn't used to having dining tables in the same room with pool tables. In the pool halls I've known the only seats were along the walls where no one could get behind you. For whatever reason my sense of self-preservation must have been napping because I took my suicide seat. About three bites into my meal I heard a grunt from behind me which might have been 'Move!' but which didn't register with me. This was followed quickly by the buttend of a pool cue smashing into the back of my head as one of the players yanked the cue back for his shot. When I turned around in my seat the guy wasn't even paying me any attention. I would have returned his greeting in a proper American fashion except that I hadn't brought either a .357 Magnum or a chainsaw with me. Instead of creating an international incident, I mumbled into my beer that I hoped he had missed his shot. Harry tried to assure me that this was a traditional British welcome given to all TAFF delegates but I refused to be hoodwinked. (Clubbed, yes. Hoodwinked, no.) A planter's lunch with a planter's punch.
The sun was shining with only a few fluffy clouds in the sky during the entire journey through the English countryside, up till we reached the Roman fort. As soon as Kevin had shut the motor off, rain drops began splashing against the windshield. I was for seeing the ruins despite this and so were Harry, Kev and Sue. We hadn't come all this way to be put off by a little water. We had gone only a few paces from the car when Mother Nature realized that we were undaunted by a light rain and so it began in earnest. Huge drops of water and lots of them. We retreated to the car trunk where Kevin checked out their supply of raingear. There was one actual rain slicker which Sue got, of course, since she was no fool and besides the other three of us were intent on being manly men. Kevin had two lab coats from his work as a research chemist. He took one which fit him perfectly and I got the other one which would also have fit him perfectly. Unfortunately my girth was far greater than Kevin's so it managed to only cover part of me. In any case, lab coats were not designed to be water repellant so they quickly became soaked. Harry had a leather jacket with him and he was making do with that and his Omni bag. Ah yes, the Omni bag. As an advertising ploy at Seacon, Omni magazine was giving away free black plastic bags suitable for carrying book and magazine purchases and they were a hit in the hucksters room. Harry had one of these with him and turned it into an impromptu rainhat by pulling it over his head. As we ran up the rise to the ruins, we must have looked pretty damned foolish. We certainly felt that way. As we were standing on what was left of the wall dividing the Roman territory from the land of the unruly Picts, I think we must have looked like creative anachronists in reverse. No, not creative anachronists, but rather creative futurists ... only with limited resources. I will admit that if you look at Harry Bell through squinting, rain-filled eyes as I did that in profile the black shopping bag did rather look like a Roman Centurion's helmet except for the colour and the Omni logo on the side which sort of spoiled the effect. There was simply no way, however, that white lab coats could pass for breastplates, especially not when I couldn't even close mine around my chest.
The Roman fort was built along a natural ridge which the Romans had reinforced with the thick walls of the fort (sort of a Great Wall of China in miniature). While the land rose gently to the ridge on the side we walked up (the Roman side), on the other side of the wall it fell away rapidly. This meant that the Picts would have to charge up a steep slope when they attacked the Roman fort, which evidently was a hobby of theirs. Dashing up that ridge would both tire the enemy out and leave them as easy targets for quite a distance. I assume that raids against the Romans must have served as a sort of involuntary form of population control for the Picts since the survival rate from such attacks couldn't have been too great. Still it can not be denied that it was the Romans who left the country so the Picts must have known what they were doing.
It was easy to visualize such battles while standing on the wall but even if the four of us had been swept up by some rogue timewarp and deposited back in those days I think we would have done okay. No self-respecting Pict would have attacked any group of people that looked as ridiculous as we four SF fans with our lab coats and Omni bags.
We split up, each individually exploring the ruins. I went over to Harry and he pointed to a certain area of the stone ruins and informed me that that was a Roman latrine. I nodded appreciatively and wandered away before he could tell me any stories about Roman toilet paper. Kevin waved me over to his section of the wall and pointed out a different group of stones and confided to me that this was a Roman latrine. I thanked him for this insight an strolled over to where Sue was standing. She grabbed my arm and turned me to face yet another section of the ruins and let me know that here was a Roman latrine. Since these three distinct parts of the fort looked quite different from each other, I knew that someone (well two someones actually) had to be wrong. I was also beginning to get a bit worried about this apparent shared obsession with Roman latrines. What would Freud have made of this? Better yet, what would Laney have made of it? It wasn't until we went inside the visitors' building to make use of some modern day latrines that I saw a postcard which showed me what the true Roman latrine looked like.
After having thoroughly explored the Roman fort, we squished back to the car to head back to Newcastle. Naturally enough as soon as the car doors were opened the rain stopped. We sat there making puddles on the upholstery, smiling big smiles and feeling good about having done a bit of time travelling. As we headed off, one small part of my mind was wondering if that guy in the pub would have hit me with his pool cue if I had been wearing a white lab coat and a black Omni bag.