1991 TAFF Report: Pam Wells

Chapter 1

Published 1996 in Attitude 7 ed Michael Abbott, John Dallman & Pam Wells

1 • All Gone to Look for America

America is such a big place -- how does anyone ever decide which bits of it to visit in any one trip? I've just been planning my first visit to America since my TAFF tour in 1991, and finding it every bit as hard as it was then to settle on where I want to go. There's so much to choose from, and so many willing hosts to meet. Unlike five years ago, I now know how much there is to look forward to over there. I want to see it all, and I want to see it now.

Before I ran for TAFF, I'd never particularly wanted to visit the States. Iceland, yes -- I'd been there on holiday a few years back, and I was totally impressed by the place. But nowhere else in the world has held such magic for me, in my mind. America was a good place to visit because that was where so many of my friends lived, and TAFF could get me there.

Choosing which places to see isn't the easiest of tasks. I mean, America is huge. I had a short-list of places I really wanted to visit, and knew I'd only be able to get to about a quarter of them. So I concentrated on the absolute essentials. The West Coast. San Francisco, because Lucy Huntzinger used to live there and told me such wonderful things about the place. Seattle, because Lilian Edwards and Christina Lake rated it as the best place on their TAFF trip. Chicago, because that was where the Worldcon was, and Madison and Minneapolis, because they were both active fan cities near enough to Chicago. I had a Plan, which was to meet as many local people as possible beforehand, so that I'd be likely to know some other fans when I got to the con. All through my preparations I knew that the Worldcon was the bit of the trip that I'd have the most trouble with. I dislike large conventions, and this would be the biggest one I'd ever attended, and certainly somewhere between five and ten times larger than the average British Eastercon. Having some familiar faces in the crowd would make me feel somewhat less daunted by the whole prospect.

It was a little bit odd to construct a trip with no East Coast fan centres on it, perhaps, but I figured that those places would be more affordable to me if I ever went back, and I'd let TAFF pay for the farther flung destinations! (Pragmatic, and true.)

The trouble with America, when you look at it as a lump like this, is that there's always more. The trip I'm planning this year is built around going to Corflu. I've wanted to go to a Corflu ever since they started back in the 1980s, but I could never afford the trip -- and as soon as it looked like I might be able to, I fell into a long patch of work problems. In 1993, I thought I might be at Corflu 10 in Madison (which would have been a wonderful revisit to an old fannish haunt from my TAFF trip) but redundancy intervened. Then I hoped to go to Corflu 12 in Las Vegas a couple of years later, but I'd just started a new job after a total of four redundancies in the previous five years, and I couldn't spare the money or risk asking for the time off. This year I'm still in that same job, and feeling secure enough to take a long holiday and spend all the credit I can get my hands on for one trip. So Corflu Nashville, here I come!

Organising this holiday is in some ways just like planning my TAFF trip. Having a set window -- the three weeks between Corflu and Eastercon -- gives me a clear block of time to fill. My approach to the holiday is that if I'm going all the way to America, I might as well get to three or four different destinations while I'm there rather than fly straight in and out again. I mean, you'll get the jet-lag anyway, right, so why not make it worth it?

The process of narrowing down the destinations was even harder this time, because I wanted to go back to all the places from my TAFF trip, and I wanted to visit all the places I wasn't able to get to on my TAFF trip. I couldn't do either, of course. But I did make my task easier by refusing to let myself revisit anywhere I'd already been. This narrowed down the entire subcontinent of North America to North-America-except-for-five-cities -- not much of a limitation, but helpful enough to construct an interesting trip without too many frustrations.

I really wanted to get to places like Texas and Canada, Boston and New Orleans, but had to leave them out. I tried to narrow down the field of potential destinations to places where I knew plenty of people, because those aspects -- the hanging out, the parties, the late night conversations in people's living rooms -- were what I most enjoyed from my TAFF trip. So first on the list had to be Las Vegas, home of a whole new fan group that had sprung up since my TAFF trip. I'm intrigued about how such a huge group of people manage to co-edit a fanzine (from where I sit, it's hard enough with just three editors!) and how they've coalesced from bugger all into a Huge Fannish Presence in less than five years. And then there was the East Coast, which I neglected entirely last time. New York and Washington DC seemed like the obvious choices here -- partly as cultural centres, and partly because I know (and know of) so many people in and around those areas.

US fandom seems so spread out sometimes. I guess this is hardly surprising, given the size of North America compared with tiny little Britain. But, just like UK fandom, it seems to be largely centred around major towns and cities -- London, Leeds, Cambridge, Croydon, Glasgow, Sheffield, Bristol and Birmingham could substitute for New York, Minneapolis, Madison, Seattle, Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco and, er, Birmingham. But the amount of time it takes to visit fans in and around the different cities is a whole order of magnitude larger in the States than over here. For example, I invited Geri Sullivan to come along to the party that Moshe Feder has rashly agreed to throw for me in New York. She thanked me, but pointed out that I shouldn't count on seeing her there because it's a 1200 mile round trip from Minneapolis. Over here, I think nothing of going to Birmingham or Sheffield or Bristol or Cambridge for a party. And Jackie McRobert's ex-boyfriend seems to spend more of his local fanac time in Leeds than in Glasgow these days.

Flying in America may be much cheaper, distance for distance, than in Europe, but there's still all that time to think of. And whatever we might think of British Rail, it's a whole order of magnitude better than Amtrak. You can get from most cities to most other cities by train here, still. And although comparatively few fans tend to drive, we can travel faster on British motorways than in the US, even though the distances we cover are far shorter. American TAFF winners coming to Britain must think it's a piece of piss.

There are also similarities between UK and US fandoms. New York fandom isn't, in exactly the same way that London fandom isn't. Both areas have lots of fans, but there isn't a cohesive 'fandom' in either metropolis. And, despite the obvious differences of style and outlook, I think that Minneapolis fandom is very similar to Leeds fandom: both have a gestalt; a very strong shared mood. But there's a huge difference when it comes to Worldcons: over here it seems to take the whole of UK fandom (plus hangers on) to run one, whereas there it seems to take the whole of a major city (plus hangers on), leaving the the rest of the country free to get on with whatever other fanac they choose.

One of my favourite things in fandom is putting faces to names. I'm hoping to put a lot of faces to a lot of names this trip, just like I did on my TAFF tour. It's a lot easier to do this in a different country -- these days, at British conventions, it's possible for me to spend my entire time hanging out with people I already know. I try to avoid falling into this trap, though, and usually only think of it as a successful convention if I've met at least one interesting new person. But in America that achievement is practically guaranteed. I have mental pictures of some of the people I trade fanzines or e-mail with, and I'm eager to see how different my mind-images will be from their bodies in the flesh.

At this point, I'm wondering what the differences between this trip and my TAFF trip will be. Will the experience of interaction with American fandom be different when I pay my own dime than when I was an Honoured Representative? Greg Pickersgill assures me that I won't notice a scrap of difference, but I'd like to hope that I will. This time I won't have that same apprehension, or that same sense of wonder, as when I was first driven along wide American avenues, on the wrong side of the road, looking in awe at all those detached wooden houses with all that space between them. It looked to me like something out of Anne Of Green Gables, though I know that wasn't set in Minneapolis...

This time I'm being met by my good friend Lucy Huntzinger from her local airport, and going to Corflu, the convention she's organising, the next day. Back then I was met by a whole bunch of Minneapolis fans who I mostly didn't know; I was delighted to walk through the airport arrivals area to find a group of people waving a bunch of flowers and a huge balloon with 'TAFF' emblazoned on it. The exhaustion of a transatlantic flight, including a long run through Chicago O'Hare airport (with a bad back and all my luggage) to make my connecting flight, was swept away by suddenly being the Star Arrival. I switched into performance mode, and thoroughly enjoyed the airport welcome party and the more traditional house party back at Geri Sullivan and Jeff Schalles' place -- the famous Toad Hall. I was tired, but I stayed up and partied. It was My Job, and it was a job I was delighted to have. I knew a little of the joy of being a Star, and I liked it. And I want more of it, wherever I can find it!

A couple of days ago, Lucy Huntzinger e-mailed me and asked if I'd be the MC for the auction at Corflu. This is one of the very best things that could have been asked of me -- it will give me the chance to be a little bit famous on this trip as well. Performing for My Public is something that I really enjoy. Is it just me, or am I really getting better at getting up on stage as the years go by? I certainly enjoy it all so much more now than in those shyer, nicer times of my early days in fandom. I only hope that my Britfan-centric patter goes over OK in front of an all-American audience, though...

I know that a Corflu will be a whole load different from a Worldcon. And I know there has been some talk about changing the destination of TAFF trips to smaller conventions such as Corflu. I think this would be a big mistake. The Worldcon, with its sheer size and magnitude of dauntingness, and its opportunities to meet people whose paths you would never otherwise cross, is vital to the delegate's experience of TAFF.

The first thing that strikes you about America is that it is huge. Seeing it from the perspective of cosy fan gatherings, local house parties and small special-interest conventions would never convey the same image. 'Huge' was a concept that gathered flesh throughout my TAFF trip. The Minnesota state fair in Minneapolis. Vast heaps of food at a Fish Fry in Madison. The Chicago Worldcon. The Olympic mountains to the west of Seattle. The amazing redwood trees in Northern California. The impres-sive amount of lingerie I could buy in my size. It all sort of fitted together. I wonder if on a second visit the hugeness of everything will hit me in quite the same way. Or has my mind expanded to accept it all as simply another sort of Normal now?

On that first trip, I was seeing America as a macrocosm, and trying to break it down into smaller, easier-to-handle chunks. This time, I'm seeing the microcosm straight off. I'm happier with Small Pictures; ones that will fit in my hand or my brain or my field of vision. This time I'm linking a series of episodes together into a trip; back then I was trying to break down a trip into a series of episodes. (Does that make any sense to anyone else except me?)

I'm hoping to use this holiday as a springboard from which to write up that TAFF trip, seeing America as I saw it then through these eyes now. I'm not sure it can be done, but it's the best plan I've got from this distance. I'm quite sure that the best time to write up a TAFF trip is within a year of returning from it, but I didn't -- and now those days, and that immediacy, are gone. I'm proud of the administration of TAFF I undertook, but I'll always be niggled by guilt if my trip report doesn't get written. Let this, then, be my first chapter.