(An abbreviated excerpt from Curt's 2014 TAFF Trip Report, forthcoming....)
Fish & Chips at a pub in Cambridge. Indian cabbies arguing animatedly in Hindi on a side street in Reading. Dropping by unannounced at a small country Fire Station, getting a full tour and being presented with their uniform shirt when they learn that I was a firefighter from America. No. 88, Gray's Inn Road, London. Punting on the Cam. The beach at Clacton-on-Sea. Shaking the hand of a 94-year old tail-gunner on an RAF Lancaster bomber in WWII and being told, "you've just shaken the hand that once shook the hand of Winston Churchill, my lad." The Worldcon.
The Fans. From across England, from across Europe, from across the world; always, the Fans.
The hard part of writing a trip report seems to lie in getting started. I went to England as the 2014 TAFF delegate in August of 2014, and after all this time my memories of that trip comprise a whirling mass of amazing and improbable wonders that still swirl through my every waking thought like a 3D kaleidoscope as big as my mind. I point at one bright spot in that whirl of memories and it opens up to replay that moment in England. There I am, walking through the gate at Heathrow airport and being met by two of my favorite people in Fandom, Keith Freeman and Claire Brialey. There, and I'm setting in a pub in Reading with Keith, Dave Langford, Martin Hoare, Uncle Johnny and Audrey, where I had my first taste of British pub ale. There, and I'm at the Globe theater in London watching Anthony and Cleopatra with two Australian friends; Clare MacDonald-Sims of Melbourne and my cousin Nick Falkner of Adelaide. There, and I'm watching the only two flyable WWII era RAF Lancaster bombers left in the world today fly past as I stand on the beach at Clacton-on-Sea. And there, and there and THERE, and I'm at Loncon 3; the 2014 World Science Fiction Convention in London. And then the kaleidoscope turns and I'm back there once again....
Slightly behind schedule, my flight finally arrived
Reading, Berkshire – it says here in the guidebook – is the largest town in England that isn't a city. It's located 36 miles due west of central London, has a maritime climate, and a population of roughly 156,000 people and at least 4 fans. Actually it doesn't say that last bit about the fans in the guidebook; I performed that survey all on my own. There may well be more than 4 fans in Reading – Keith did mention that there was some sort of science fiction club – but I was only there for 2 or 3 days and didn't get around to meeting everybody. It was to Reading – pronounced "red – ing" that I went after Keith Freeman picked me up at Heathrow Airport just outside London on August 9th, my first day in England. After a rather long and decidedly weird overnight flight – I'll write about the sheer ecstasy of modern airline travel elsewhere sometime soon – I staggered in moderately sleep-deprived stupor through long serpentine lines of my fellow travelers – who, curiously, all seemed to be either excitable and athletic looking young people on their way to or from some sort of sports camp, or irritated and rumpled looking business types who watched sharply for any chance to cut the line, and I eventually found myself at a Customs desk where I handed over my brand new passport to a young woman with a uniform and a badge and – I gathered – the authority to ask me many pointed questions about who I was, why I had come to England, who I was staying with, what I was going to do, and so forth. I suspect that she also had the authority to order me back on a plane and out of the country – or worse – if she found my answers lacking. When I confessed that I was there to attend a convention she perked up and asked "exactly what kind of a convention, sir?"
In an instant, somewhere in the back of my mind, the ever lurking monster of paranoia – fed by a lifetime of scorn and ridicule over my love of science fiction – awoke. I could feel the spirits of all of my high school English teachers crowding close around me in cackling glee as if to say, "we told you that all those crazy sci-fi stories would ruin your life!" Before those spirits could call in a legion of my friends and family for reinforcement, I drew myself up, looked that Customs agent in the eye and replied in clear and ringing tones, "I'm here to attend Loncon 3 – the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention!"
The Customs lady smiled. "Oh yes," she said as she stamped my passport. "I know about that. Have a good time, and welcome to the United Kingdom." And as easily as that I was waved towards the exit and into England. The first sight to greet me once through those doors was a fannish one. Keith Freeman – with whom I'd stay for a couple of days, and a surprise greeter; Claire Brialey, who had taken a break from her job in central London and come out to greet the arriving TAFF delegate.
Curt Phillips & Claire Brialey
I must pause here and discuss Claire and her monumental efforts both before, during, and after my two weeks in England to make certain that I prepared properly, arrived safely, was constantly under the supervision of qualified fans who wouldn't let me wander off and get run over by the number 6 bus from Basingstoke (a possibility which I believe Claire had evaluated and had correctly concluded was small, but impossible to dismiss outright); that I'd always have a ready supply of food, shelter, transport, and fanzines; that I'd get to see as much as possible of what I wanted to see and do in England and meet as many of the fans whom I'd long wanted to meet in England; and that above all else I'd have the best TAFF trip to England that I possibly could. It was wonderful! You see, those who know Claire Brialey best know that one of her many superpowers is her superior ability to plan things. To plan just about anything at all, evidently. Claire had been one of my TAFF nominators and as such she evidently felt some responsibility to make sure that my trip got off to a good start. One example among many: Immediately upon greeting me at the airport, Claire handed me a TAFF goodie bag which she'd put together for me. It contained:
- An umbrella
- A pre-paid cell phone with charger
- An Oyster card (which is a pass to travel on the trains and busses of London) with a very generous prepayment on it. It even came in a Loncon 3 Oyster card holder
- Banana Wings 56
- Loncon 3 Progress Reports #1, #2, and #3
- A Loncon 3 mousepad
- An Intersection (the previous UK Worldcon in 2005) DVD with fanhistorical photos and other stuff
- A "London A-Z" book of city maps and other London travel guides
- Two boxes of OXO cubes for my British mother-in-law (because Claire knew that my M-in-L had asked me to get some for her while I was in the country
- Two packages of Flake candy bars (because Claire knew that this is the favorite candy bar of my wife Lizbeth – who is also British)
It's good to be the TAFF delegate; but it's even better to be a friend of Claire Brialey's!
After talking a bit about some plans for later in my trip, Claire went off back to work and Keith expertly stowed me and my luggage into his car for the hour long drive to Reading. Keith and Wendy – his wife – are very good friends of Liz and myself and stayed with us the previous summer while they toured the Southeastern US. Plus they had hosted Liz and her mother a few years prior to that when those two traveled over to England without me, so we talked and caught up as old friends do. This was my first experience with British driving and I have to admit that I found Left-side-of-the-road driving decidedly unnerving. Keith made it all look so easy; as though he was completely unaware that to me it looked like the way that people would drive in Alice's Wonderland. You know, Through the Looking Glass? Compact British cars shot by us in the other lane continuously. I kept expecting to see Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond race by us in quarter-million pound sports cars, but sadly they never did. After watching for a while I realized that although I might be able to manage to drive in England myself if I concentrated very hard and never let myself get distracted, sooner or later I would get distracted or would let my concentration lapse just for an instant, and the local Reading news would be reporting about the crazy American who wound up under a bus from trying to drive on the right hand side of the road. Happily, I never once had to try to drive anywhere during my two weeks in England thanks to all my British friends assuming – quite correctly – that I'd in all likelihood get myself killed if they let me try it. I didn't miss the experience one little bit. Instead I just gazed at the English countryside that we drove past and imagined how it all must have looked 75 years earlier in the early days of WWII. The war years are a constant preoccupation of mine and looking about me I found reminders of 1939-1945 everywhere I looked.
"Windsor Castle over there", Keith remarked, as we drove past a formidable looking fortress off to the East. And he wasn't kidding; it was Windsor Castle! "Do you suppose the Queen is in residence?" I asked. "I doubt it", replied Keith, apologetically, as though he'd somehow failed me by not insuring that the Queen remained at home during my visit. "She usually spends the summers in Scotland, I believe."
"That's too bad", I mused. "So she'll have to miss the Worldcon then, do you think?"
"I suppose that's so" replied Keith. "But then I don't think she's actually a Fan, really."
"What?", I shot back, astounded. "You mean she doesn't even watch Dr. Who?"
"Not since that Tennant fellow replaced Matt Smith, or so I've heard" he said, conspiratorially. That's when I knew that Keith was pulling my leg, but I didn't let on that I knew. I did, however, make a mental note to repeat that comment to Matt Smith if I bumped into him at Loncon 3.
Near Keith & Wendy's in Reading
We shortly arrived in Reading, somehow bypassing the highly built-up downtown area that one sees pictures of in the Wikipedia article about Reading, and driving straight into the residential area where Keith and Wendy live at the end of a cul-de-sac. Wendy greeted me with a beaming face and a very nice lunch of ham sandwiches and Coca-Colas, a supply of which she had laid in especially for my visit after observing that I seemed to live on the stuff back home in Virginia. Very thoughtful of her. Wendy is quite adept at planning things herself and kept me very well fed, entertained and comfortable throughout my stay. It was Wendy who introduced me to a British tv series I'd never heard of before called Mrs. Brown's Boys, which turned out to be a hilarious domestic comedy that I doubt we'll ever see broadcast in America due to, well ... er, you might want to go to YouTube and search on that title to find out for yourself why we'll probably never see it broadcast in America. "Thought you'd like that", remarked Wendy with a grin. After assuring Keith that no, I wasn't a bit tired, he and I went out to walk to a fish & chips shop that Keith favored to fetch the evening meal, and along the way we stopped in at a few of the small grocery stores and thrift shops nearby. Those small grocery stores – which the British just refer to as "the shops" are about the size of a small gas station food shop in America but they have a much more comprehensive line of items that I suspect are to some degree tailored by the shop owners to meet the needs and wants of the local neighborhood. I popped in to one of them just to get a sense of the place and was amazed to see that you could find just about everything in there. Newspapers, magazines, fresh fruit, candies, all manner of basic foods including fresh fish and meats, household supplies of every kind. Later in the trip I visited a large grocery store called Tesco's that was much like similar stores in the US, but clearly one could get just about everything one actually needs in those smaller neighborhood shops, plus you can get to know the shop owner and make an actual connection to the neighborhood itself. It used to be that way in America, long ago – or so I'm told. But that was before my time and I never had any real idea of just how much we've lost in this country by allowing large mega-stores to drive our small shops out of business. That point struck me there in Reading that afternoon.
Knowing that hunting for used books is a passion of mine, Keith led me into a couple of nearby thrift shops, which all look very much like thrift shops in Virginia only these in Reading had cooler stuff. This first one had an interesting used book section with far more US editions than I was expecting. In fact, throughout my trip I noticed US editions in every book shop new or used that I visited, and I don't mean just a handful. One large book shop in Cambridge turned out to have a very through stock of books that seemed to include around 20% US editions. And all the used book shops I visited had a great many US editions throughout their stock. One of my goals on this trip was to look for and buy some of the more obscure British SF that had never been published in American editions. Unfortunately I didn't see any such books – not one – until I got to London and entered the Loncon 3 Dealer's Room and Fan Lounge, but that's a story for another article. I did find one good book in that first thrift store; a very nice first edition of a Robert Bloch hardback, The Night of the Ripper. That was a nice book to find on either side of the Atlantic, and it only cost 49p, or about 75 to 80 cents. Doing quick pounds to dollars conversions in my head was a talent that failed me constantly in England, but then I didn't really buy very much aside from occasional meals at the convention. I wound up spending a lot of time with fans in pubs during those two weeks and buying the TAFF delegate a drink or a meal seemed to be the thing to do. I had to actually insist on stepping in to buy a group of fans a round of drinks one afternoon after they'd all taken turns buying rounds themselves. And I could – and probably will – write a whole separate article on drinking in England. You see, I don't drink, usually. Just don't like the taste of beer and never have developed the habit of drinking it in America. But in England one doesn't generally go out to a restaurant, one goes out to a pub, and pubs mean drinking. Well, I didn't have to worry about driving anywhere, so I determined to try a taste of a tall glass of beer that was placed in front of me on my second day in Reading. You know what? I rather liked it. Beer in England is a far superior thing when compared to that found in America. The taste just isn't even in the same league and I can't understand why American beer brewers can't be bothered to travel to England to learn how to do it properly. Money – no doubt – is at the heart of it.
Keith had called David Langford – the well-known fan, publisher of Ansible, and 1980 TAFF Delegate, Martin Hoare – technical wizard of British Fandom, John Neilsen-Hall – "Uncle Johnny" to trufans in the know, who – along with Unc's wife Audrey convened at The Roebuck, a pub in Reading. David and Martin live in Reading, and Unc and Audrey drove in just to see me as they weren't planning to go to Loncon.
Dave Langford, Curt Phillips & TARDIS
"Guess what I've got in my truck out there", said Martin, with a gleam in his eye. "No, I'll tell you", he said before I could guess. "I've got a Tardis", he announced in clear, ringing tones.
"Then why are you driving the truck", I asked. "Couldn't you just have arrived in the Tardis"?
"No, no", explained Martin. ""It's not a real Tardis; it's a full sized model that I'm hauling to London for the convention opening ceremonies."
And so he did. Dave Langford and I would later have our photo taken with that very same Tardis, and it was quite a nice one too. Martin was working with and possibly in charge of the Loncon 3 Tech Crew and had stopped off to have a drink with us while hauling of load of convention stuff to London. And just after Loncon he had to load it all back up in the truck and drive it all up to Glascow for the Eurocon the following weekend. Martin seems to be heavily involved with technical work in British conventions and I gather that he works at this professionally too. I'd hoped to meet up with him again in London but our paths rarely crossed there, and when they did Martin was on his way to solve one problem or another with the convention. But then I got the impression that Martin rather enjoys busying himself with making sure that things work well at these events.
I'd met Unc and Audrey before at the Richmond, Virginia Corflu just a few months earlier, and Unc and I hang out regularly at an on-line watering hole on Yahoo!, so we had a good time chatting about various matters of cosmic significance. This was my first time to meet Dave Langford though, and I was thoroughly impressed with everything about this legendary fan. I'd subscribed to Ansible – Dave's award winning news zine – many years ago when it was only published on paper, and had been reading the online version for the past several years. (You should too, and you can find it at http://news.ansible.uk/.) I'll admit that I was a little intimidated to meet him, but he immediately put me at ease by handing me a stack of booklets and fanzines "for your TAFF auctions", he explained with a smile. Dave was the TAFF delegate in 1980 and ever since has been the spiritual foundation of the fund. His TAFF website at http://taff.org.uk/ is labeled "The Trans Atlantic Fan Fund Unofficial Home", but that's the website that every TAFF administrator for many years has used as the best possible source for news and information on the fund. Everyone who has been involved with TAFF in any way, and all who will be in the future owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Dave Langford.
London – 42 miles straight ahead
That morning the newspaper that Keith read mentioned that "the worst storm of the year was currently drenching all of Britain". When Keith read this at the breakfast table I glanced out the window. It looked like a bright, clear day in Reading just then, and it stayed that way all the way to where we met Dave in the Roebuck's parking lot. Dave had just handed me that stack of fanzines I mentioned, and then said, "and here's something special for the auction" as he handed me a postcard autographed by noted writer Christopher Priest. Just as Dave handed that card over, a single solitary drop of rain; in fact, a particularly fat and wet drop of rain, fell from the brilliantly clear English sky, not only into Reading, not only into that car park, but right onto that card, hitting exactly on the spot where Christopher Priest had written his name in a rather vivid blue ink which, unfortunately, proved to be so soluble to water that in all likelihood, people in excessively dry and arid parts of the Earth probably use that ink to seed clouds from airplanes to make it rain. That single drop of water was absolutely the only evidence of rainfall that I encountered during my entire two week stay in England. You can still tell that it says "Christopher Priest", sort of, but one gets the impression of a Christopher Priest who was evidently undergoing a tremendously emotional experience when he signed it.
I'm still going to put it in the TAFF auction at Sasquan this summer, but I'm going to tell people that the water stain was caused by a tear from Dave Langford as he handed it to me that day in Reading, momentarily overcome by parting with such a rare sf-nal treasure. And who'll start the bidding?