The TransAtlantic Hearing Aid

Fifth Bit: Running Down

Monday 1 September 1980

Unwearied by his trip to Boston, undaunted by the impact of 7000 Americans (often all in the same lift), undismayed by his third failure to win a fan Hugo, unshattered by subsequent frivolity, sorrow-drownings and snubs, our hero leaps lithely and with sparkling eyes from his untroubled sleep, ready to scintillate as never before on this final day of Noreascon. Only one disturbing thought troubles the limpid clarity of his mind, the realization that this chapter's opening paragraph is all a pack of lies...

"Ohhh," I moaned as I studied breakfast. Breakfast, I had austerely decided, would be a mere sip of orange juice: but this was America, land of plenty, and something over a pint of glistening and vitamin-crammed gunge had arrived. (Little did I know that scant days later, Harry Bell would expound to an unbelieving Dan Steffan the details of Bell's Health Principle, whereby you sink much orange juice at breakfast time, have a good puke, and thus cleanse out your system to face the rigours of the day. I myself lack the dedication for this regime.) The orange juice rippled its vitamins derisively at me. Some fiend had frosted my eyeballs overnight, and strange ringings filed my ears.

"Listen," said Hazel with her head on one side. "The Muzak here is exactly the same as it is at home." "Ohhh," I commented.

My personal and entirely unoriginal theory is that the fannish metabolism alters when you reach a big convention. Con conditioning takes over; an unspecified selection of glands start trickling overtime; the need for sleep mysteriously dwindles; fatigue poisons are discreetly stowed away, to be either purged by Bell's Health Principle or spewed into your bloodstream in a single loathsome cataract when the biological alarm-clock sounds 'Con Over'. Thus my Eastercon Monday reflexes had gone sproing or possibly even spung, converting me at the twitch of a gland into a fully paid-up member of the walking dead. And because this was America, Land of Plenty, there was still a day's conventioning to go.

"I'll finish your orange juice if you like," said Hazel.

Afterwards she steered me in the general direction of the Sheraton, where Noreascon was still so implausibly happening: past the DONT WALK signs which made me long for small, luminous and self-adhesive apostrophes, through the maze of glass corridors which confusingly linked the ground floors of all the buildings near the Sheraton, around and into various Americans. Had I been less numb-brained I might well have hauled out that Isherwood quote: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." It seemed to cover the situation. But then, if I'd been in a condition to disinter that line I'd have gone on to pass critical remarks on my lens (thick and murky, with little flaws in it that kept moving about), exposure meter (needle wrapped hard around the peg) and aperture (damn this funny foreign food).

At the hotel we met people like Malcolm Edwards and Avedon Carol, not that there are people like them, who ascribed their unnatural gaiety and sparkle to having avoided the deleterious practice of going to bed. I tried to sneer at them, but they appeared not to notice. Oh well. It was time for the Monday morning routine of recording-not-thinking, the time when you hear the exotic, quintessentially fannish and memorable things which have happened over the weekend to every single convention member but yourself. Avedon had succeeded either in encompassing the rite of the Astral Pole or in bribing Malcolm and Chris to say she had, all this at some ghastly hour about dawn. A 'Galactic Mercenary', apprehended while forcing the swimming pool doors after hours for skinny-dipping purposes, had done wonders for hotel relations by breaking a security man's arm. Other soi-disant fans had improved the shining hour by hurling rocks from windows on the twenty-somethingth floor. The committee was struggling to keep such facts dark, and had already suppressed two Alexis Gilliland cartoons intended for Mike Glyer's daily newsletter Lobster Tales. One concerned Kate Wilhelm (aliens in UFO: We took the GoH in the middle of her speech -- and got a standing ovation! Fans are strange.): her speech had allegedly followed the anti-science party line and was later described by Mike Glyer as 'bumper-sticker clichés'. The suppression of the other was still less explicable, the caption merely being, approximately, Tell Harlan Ellison stories -- the crowd is going to sleep! Committees are strange... Martin Hoare was saying, to anyone who would listen, "Katy told me to enjoy myself and sample US women -- so I've (word garbled in transmission) a different one every night." Bob Shaw had been not wholly enthralled when rung out of bed at 3am to hear about his fanwriter Hugo. ("Hello... Bob?" "Nnnnggg?" "Bob, you've won the Hugo!" "Urrrrr." "Well, congrats and goodbye!" "Gaaaaah.") Peter Nicholls, on the other hand, was said to have waited up all night, pacing restlessly, spraying nibbled fingernail fragments like machine-gun fire, endlessly rereading the Encyclopaedia to convince himself of its worth. And Jackie Lichtenberg...

The Jacqueline Lichtenberg Appreciation Society's spies had been exchanging data all weekend, many going badgeless and incognito in order not to excite the envy of disadvantaged American Jackiefans (or Jakkies). Malcolm had sent Rachel Holmen of Locus fame to have his review copy of Unto Zeor, Forever autographed by Jackie herself, and later recited the inscription at unexpected moments ("...hope you will enjoy reading and rereading this wonderful book many, many times for the remainder of your natural existence... Live long and prosper"), not to mention misquoting particularly scintillant lines ("Before him, the track narrowed out of sight in both directions"). Roz Kaveney had fearlessly penetrated a meeting of Lichtenberg/Lorrah/Bradley fandom, to discover these authors outspokenly admiring one another's work before a packed audience of eight devotees. Jean Lorrah, we learnt, was a professor of English literature at a midwestern university and had achieved tenure by writing on, and with, Jackie Lichtenberg. This shows the ineffable superiority of America's educational system. Where in effete Oxford or limp-wristed Cambridge would you find a Regius Professor of R. L. Fanthorpe? ...But here was JLAS pioneer Chris Priest with a new, evangelistic gleam in his eye. "I'm not a Jackie fan any more," he said. "I'm a Marion Zimmer Bradley fan now. And I'm a Barry B. Bongyear fan. He's important."

This JLAS gossip reminded me of the approaching Dave Langford Appreciation Society meeting. Noreascon, you see, had provided two semi-formal ways to chat with SF luminaries. Really famous authors with fanclubs were granted 'Special Interest Group Meetings', the only living authors qualifying for this accolade apparently being the Lichtenberg/Lorrah/Bradley trinity. Lesser talents were permitted to fill in a printed notice saying what subjects they (as omniscient authors) cared to talk about, whereupon an ad-hoc discussion group would happen if there was sufficient interest. Drunkenly I had put my name down as willing to discourse on TAFF, UK fandom and the JLAS (I crossed that last bit out in a fit of cowardice, mind you); now I drifted round to the relevant part of the gigantic registrations complex, eager to see what massive audience had been lured. Well, yes, you guessed it. Practised apologies washed over me: "Don't think we publicized this scheme enough... scheduled too early in the day... too late in the convention... rival attractions... noticeboard badly sited maybe..." Brooding on the rather, er, round number of people wishing to hear of TAFF and UK fandom, I decided firmly that real fans simply didn't study noticeboards devoted to professional egotripping. The DLAS was an idea whose time had not yet come.

Perceiving that I had all the joie de vivre of a slug overdosed with Valium, more and yet more people were hideously hearty at me. Mark Digre announced that "As a legal point, Massachusetts is not a state, it's a commonwealth." I wrote this down in the hope that it might make sense later on. Rochelle was handing out peaches she'd bought at a dollar a hundredweight or some such typical US price; glumly we reminded her that all this would have to stop when she moved to Britain, where peaches are sold individually at Sotheby's. Through grim jaws she cried "I'll give up anything, except some things!" A passing Carey Handfield added the last straw to my bag -- a stack of Australia in '83 flyers weighing rather more than our air luggage allowance. "Hand 'em out in Britain!" he shouted over his shoulder as he made a quick escape.

"It's people like that that made me resign from the A in 83 committee," confided Keith Curtis. "Carey is so pushy."

I groped for analogies. "The Peter Weston of Aussie fandom?"

"Exactly," said Keith, a huge smile spreading over his face. The vast mass of propaganda was eventually dumped on Terry Hughes -- a victim as always of his own niceness -- who sent it on by post.

All around us the convention was slowly running down, a table cleared here, a notice-board stripped there, displays going one by one into eclipse, a gradual thinning out of the 'real' fans. "Change and decay in all around I see," your hero said to Hazel, wondering whether the faint aroma of dissolution had anything to do with the clean clothes he'd forgotten to put on that morning. Hazel, perceptive as ever, guided me to the fast-food counter, where for the last time I made the not very taxing decision between Beer and Large Beer.

This necessary fuel was for another snappily titled panel: "Time-Binding V: In Which Jophan Discovers Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll; Fandom in the 70s and Beyond." One gathered that someone hadn't been too clear about the difference between the 70s and the 60s. Another bare room off the Lower Exhibit hall, another audience outnumbered if not by the panellists then by the words in the panel title, another set of idiosyncratic introductions (Linda Bushyager, for example, getting an immense build-up not as a fan but as a celebrated sf novelist). The first thing that happened was that the panel junked the 70s in favour of predicting the 80s: "...electronic computerized fanzines... packaged convention kits with a videotape of Harlan, 400 empty beercans and a plastic clip-on hangover -- you stay awake for 48 hours and then open the package." The second exciting incident, for me, was too much like an extended metaphor to be true: my battery ran down. The one in my hearing aid, that is; for fifty minutes I confined myself to wise noddings at Mike Glyer's or Bruce Pelz's profoundly argued inaudibilities. Eventually our very own Greg Pickersgill rose up from the audience and shouted his way through this stupor, demanding that future Worldcon attendance be limited by such means as denying facilities to nerds, 'special interest groups', non-trufans... "Why should we let these cretins swamp our conventions?"

Answer: the Worldcon is now a juggernaut which no-one can stop, least of all 'us'. Those who follow the tradition of fanzine fandom are nicely treated and given their own programme track to play with, bread and circuses at a safe distance from the real programmes; the controls are in the hands of ever more ambitious sci-fi groups devoted to bigger and better conventions. Though there are exceptions, the most obvious being the fannish-fan power structure of Seacon '79, today's worldcons tend to consider traditional fandom as another tiresome and marginal 'special interest group' incomprehensible to the committee and requiring a skilled interpreter: Noreascon seemingly drafted Moshe Feder for just this purpose. (The Denver committee, I see, had never even heard of that obscure yet Hugo-nominated fannish fan Walt Willis. No, I don't expect every con-fan to know Walt -- but why didn't their equivalent of Moshe say "Aha..."?) Barring a financial crash or the dying away of the sci-fi (as opposed to sf) boom, we can extrapolate US con-running fandom as an expanding Irresistible Force hell-bent on collision with the Immovable Object represented by the last and largest convention facilities in the USA.

Which is what I would doubtless have said at that panel had my hearing aid been working. It mightn't have merited Greg's subsequent, cheering comment as I changed the batteries afterwards: "You were the only one there who knew anything about fandom in the 70s and you didn't bloody say anything."

Hazel guided the walking corpse away from the shambles of the panel. "It's all so unreal," she was saying. "We only hear all those concentrated American accents on TV... they're associated with unreality. I can't believe in these people."

So, for a bracing shot of home-grown speech, we nipped into one of Noreascon's perpetual film theatres and once again watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail. On every side Americans were laughing themselves into meltdown and having to be scooped up with asbestos shovels. "It makes you proud to be British," said Hazel.

That was our last Noreascon programme item. The rest of the afternoon was passed in such dissipations as lying down in the Copley Plaza hotel staring vacantly at the ceiling; having numerous showers in a vain attempt at post-convention decontamination; poking through the mounds of books and fanzines that had appeared everywhere in our room. ("Funny, I don't remember buying that --") Slightly revitalized, we ventured through the warm dusk in search of food: and found Boylston, the eatery-packed street running by the con hotel, jumping with activity. Medium-sized crowds, street musicians and even singers bawling their high notes into passing ears, shop windows ablaze, sense of numerous people having a good time: gad, how un-English. Even the bookshops were open, displaying such priceless treasures from far Cathay as the first novels of Messrs Holdstock and Stephenson, in British editions yet... Hazel had been fascinated by my Hogarthesque account of Sunday's sleazy pizza place: we found it, boldly ordered a large one with trimmings, and selected the finest Imitation Grape Soda the automated cellar could provide.

The meal arrived and the gourmets sat aghast. "We'll never get through this," Hazel predicted. "Shall I measure it?" She measured it. Fifteen inches across, one-third of an inch thick. "Pi R squared," I mumbled, "no, pizza R squared... good grief. We are about to eat fifty-nine cubic inches of best junk food, not counting the trimmings."

We started the epic struggle. Formica table-tops all around were littered with past failures, pizzas whose invaders had landed boldly and ravaged far inland with fire and the sword before ultimately failing to conquer the central massif. This was the American Way of Life. In the end we awarded ourselves a victory on points, and made our greenish exit.

Hazel fancied some more sleep, while I was all for a final sip at the dregs of Noreascon... but when I arrived the con had been chopped off short. All flyers and free literature had been swept from the foyer; no signs or placards remained; little demolition groups were closing down the film theatres; rare and occasional fans scurried along the corridors as though aware that a frightful fiend did close behind them tread.

Long search disclosed a Bushyager party of the dead-dog persuasion, high up one of the Sheraton towers and jampacked with silent fans. The room was afflicted with a dismal periodic Sssshhhh! whenever an entrance or exit was made. Stu Shiffman beamed at me silently. AnneLaurie Logan mentioned in an undertone that Taral had "been snotty to too many people". Not to be outdone, Alyson Abramowitz complained inaudibly about Rob Jackson's standoffishness when they last met. Moshe pressed a microphone to my lips and in a whisper asked if he might tape the true pronunciation of Twll-Ddu.

"Twll-Ddu," I said with all the clarity I could muster.

"Ssssssshhhhhh!" said everyone, but it was too late. The forces of final disruption had got their fix on this party now. The door burst open. Framed in the opening stood a convention security man, as unmistakable an agent of fascist repression as an Imperial Storm Trooper, hung about with bleepers and walkie-talkie equipment. Only the Mace spray was missing. It was Martin Hoare.

"Hello," I said wonderingly.

"Could you please keep the noise down in here," he barked. "Hotel security is getting very uptight and they're now threatening to throw out anyone found without a Sheraton room key." Grimly he surveyed the trembling fans, and stalked out. Martin appeared to be in his element.

(Later I quizzed him about this transformation. "Well, I was working for C&C, Communications and Coordination, but the Security lot didn't seem to be doing their job properly so we took over and did that for them. I really got them organized, just like the way I ran Albacon... stopped fights... patrolled stairwells and fire escapes... made sure the hotel security people didn't get uptight..."

"But," I said. "But on Monday night they were uptight, nasty word, and threatening to throw out anyone found without a Sheraton room key."

"Oh, we exaggerated to make sure we kept the parties under control.")

Not knowing at the time that the eviction threat was but a paper tiger, I grovellingly begged for an escort to the incredibly secret TAFF/DUFF party which was next on my agenda: Ken Fletcher and Linda Lounsbury of DUFF fame obliged. It turned out that we had to evict ourselves, the event being back in the dread Copley Plaza, where Keith Curtis had assembled more Heineken than I'd seen together in one place at Noreascon: two dozen cans, say. Everyone was compulsorily permitted to inspect the Jack Chalker book which Harlan Ellison had inscribed for DUFF auction. "Jack Chalker is probably the finest writer in the USA -- of titles. But the books are no good. Chalker wrote 'Dance Band On The Titanic'; brilliant title, I had to read the story, and it's shit!" No doubt. (The book, I hear, later picked up a second inscription, from its author, on the subject of runt has-beens.)

The party went on as parties do, without the elegiac feel of a convention closing down, since that mood had been exhausted during the day. My magical aura of incapability returned to me. Ken tried to explain the astral significance of the apa-name Vootie. I took some ineffectual notes of the Curtis Dicta; "Jerry Pournelle is even worse than they say, he goes round bursting into other people's conversations and dominating them..." (Why couldn't I think of any huge names to drop, I wondered.) "It takes a fine mind to know just how far to bend a banana." (Now what was the context of that one?) "Charlie Brown is creepy... he puts the wind up me." (It doesn't say here whether he meant Peanuts or Locus, but one can guess.) "Hey, Dave, I shadowed you back from the Sheraton after the Saturday night, and you were sort of lurching about and bouncing off things..."

"I'm not writing that down," I said with dignity, and abandoned my notebook for the night. Presently I made my final excuses and left, aiming very carefully for the doorway. I did not bounce off it, though the jamb took a bit of a beating. Noreascon had had some good moments, I hazily decided, but there was a certain relief in knowing that, at last, it was all over.