PLATEN STORIES (1)

Introductory Bit: Zen and the Art of Egotripping

"The only proper place for old fanzine articles is in old fanzines," declares that merciless critic D.West, in a reprint anthology of his own old fanzine articles. "Bloody hell," declared the much less merciless critic D.Langford on rereading his Novacon 6 report (tentatively earmarked for this very booklet) and discovering that its opening lines parodied some pretentious 1976 fanzine piece of which I no longer have even the faintest recollection. Personally, I blame the Second Law of Thermodynamics....

The Conspiracy '87 mob has given me this ego-swelling opportunity to show you all my old fan articles, hundreds of pages of drunkenness recollected in tranquillity. Some of the 1970s snapshots look a bit faded and embarrassing now ("You had to be there, you know"); others vanished into the gaping maws of anthologies like those published for the 1979 British Worldcon, and even I haven't the gall to re-reprint them. What follows is more a snapshot of Langfordian Man circa 1987, a patchwork of those pieces I myself can re-read (and imagine you reading) without too overwhelming an urge to spend Conspiracy with a blanket over my head.

Such selective reprinting, D.West would be quick to inform us, distorts and falsifies the true history of fanzines! I thought of so many responses to this, beginning with "So what?", that none of them ever got written. Things are always more teemingly complicated in reality than in fanzines. Thus:

Outwardly it may seem that, just like everybody else in the universe, I get all tongue-tied in the face of urgency and peril. Actually, of course, there are any number of words seething and pullulating within, only they tend to pile up in a despairing log-jam. Anyone anticipating some appalling concrete example at this point is either very good at picking up subtle verbal cues or has read a Langford anecdote before....

This train of thought started early one morning in 1985, when Hazel was about to zoom off to her Civil Service course in London, and I was lolling in habitual apathy (not to mention bed), and the phone rang. Reflex led me downstairs, where Hazel was saying "What?" to the instrument. She put it down.

"Somebody who sounded like, er, Bryan Barrett said 'What are the Hugo nominations worth?' Then the line was cut off." As I blearily speculated about corrupt nomination-counters angling for bribes, the phone rang again.

"It's... It's Andy Porter, and he says he'll tell you the Hugo nominations if you pay for the phone call."

I thought quick as greased treacle. What I wanted to say to the famous editor of SF Chronicle was, look mate, there must be sixty items on that list, none of them easily spellable, especially across 3000 miles, and Hazel is leaving for London in 3.14 nanoseconds, and even if I sit here for a full hour at my expense while you spell out hard words like "novel" I still won't trust my ears enough to publish the damned list until I see it in writing, so.... Too much. Reduced to dumb show, I shook my head vigorously. "No thanks," Hazel relayed. Amazed outrage came buzzing and crackling from New York.

"He says, don't you want to know about your nominations?" Hazel eyed my hungover features. "No, Andy, it's happened so often we don't really find it exciting..."

Collapse of stout party far across the Atlantic. Exit Hazel at something like the speed of light. Alone in his pyjamas, our hero muses on how apathy and incoherence can convey the impression of Supreme Cool.

Shortly afterwards my volubility was again put to the test, with almost equal success. I was in the bath. As one might have predicted, the phone rang. In several trices, I was dripping alertly over the receiver and making intelligent grunts at something from the Telegraph magazine which wished to pick my and Brian Stableford's brains. Thank God, it wasn't Adrian Berry. As I focused gradually on his requirements (being a paragraph by paragraph translation of the hard bits in a book carefully written for the mass market and butchered by editors who worried about people not understanding such words as "ecology"), the doorbell rang. I made my excuses and lurched that way, to find that our endemic builders had ingeniously painted the door fast shut....

Here the honourable course of action would have been to call through the letterbox, "I'm awfully sorry, but since I am clad only in a towel while being interviewed by the Telegraph, and will need either a crowbar or the assistance of a larger person than you to open this door, owing to the fact that the expensive rubber draught excluder has been converted by the action of allegedly dry paint into something resembling superglue... might I trouble you to call at some more convenient time?" These golden words did not occur to me as I peered through the frosted glass panel to discern a fluorescent Labour canvasser's badge on the new visitor: what I actually shouted through the letterbox was "I'm in the bath!"

In retrospect, I don't think she believed me.

I hope this explains why my introduction isn't longer.


THE HORROR! THE HORROR! Hazel recently made and carried out our joint decision to have a decent carpet fitted in the front room. Now one of the stories which most terrified me when I was little was "The Whistling Room" from William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, in which the floor of the vilely haunted chamber puckers up into a monstrous pair of obscene whistling lips. Shudder, shudder. It happens that we've had air-vents cut in our lower walls to help dry out the musty underfloor and cellar. So when during recent high winds I wandered into that accursed front room and saw what the carpet was doing, I naturally fled screaming, trying hard to remember Carnacki's favourite deus ex machina, the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual....

Our next party, if the wind is right, will feature the sensation of riding a flexible captive hovercraft -- another British First. [1983]


ARTS SUPPLEMENT: I nearly took a photograph the other day. It was an amazing sight, a low lorry with bales of hay piled absurdly high on the back, bulging out several feet to either side of the actual vehicle: the whole ensemble was parked at our front gate, giving us a chance to stare and realize that with the present state of Reading's roads, there was no way in which that hay-load could escape the town without being scraped off or going backwards along a one-way street. Presumably the policeman haranguing the driver was of much the same opinion, as hinted by the impassive way he waved his arms in the air. It was only the lack of film in my camera which has spared you a photograph captioned: "Hay Wain by Constable". [1984]


NAMEDROP: Oh yes, I rubbed shoulders with W.H.Auden at Oxford -- but only once, in the entrance to W.H.Smith's, by mistake. Nevertheless the conversation is engraved on my cortex in letters of fire. "Grunt," he said poetically from the Olympian heights. "Sorry," I wittily riposted, and got off his foot. [1982]

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The Book of War: Chapter 2080

[As placed by THE GIDEONS INTERNATIONAL on every editorial desk at David & Charles (Publishing) Ltd.]

1 In that year it came to pass that the writings of the humble scribe who was called David the Unhearing were to be sold in all the land; as it was foretold by the prophet David and the prophet Charles.

2 Now the Editor said unto the scribe, Lo, only by great burnt offerings on the altar of Publicity canst such a miserable one as thou earn the love of all the people, and prosper.

3 And verily I say unto you, more easy is it for Joyce Scrivner to pass through the eye of a needle than for the prophet David and the prophet Charles to part with a decent publicity budget.

4 And the scribe who is called David the Unhearing said unto the Editor, Pardon?

5 And after a time the scribe said unto the Editor, Bloody hell, is it verily so?

6 And the editor said unto the scribe, More blessed is it to give than to receive, unless thou art content with but a small ad in the back of the Gamekeepers' and Poachers' Gazette.

7 Whereat the scribe brought forth flagons of old wine, and flagons of new wine, and cheese and onion crisps brought he also; and the Editor saw that they were good, and he mentioned a publicity budget of two thousand shekels.

8 For the prophet David and the prophet Charles did prophesy a new star that would rise in the south-west; yea, even over Newton Abbot would it rise, and on it would they put their shirts.

9 And they called this star Bridge Books, which was also called the new David and Charles imprint, and published its name abroad; and loud hosannas were heard in the editorial department, and the sacred name of Bestseller was freely bandied.

10 And lo, there were signs and portents, and four-colour ads in The Bookseller, and they who sate in Newton Abbot looked on their Bridge Books imprint and said, This one will run and run.

11 And the scribe's first book of prophecies, of wars and rumours of wars, this his first book was set amid the ranks of cherubim and seraphim as a Bridge Book; and he thought of the two thousand shekels publicity budget, and he burped faintly, and knew that it was good.

12 But in that time it came to pass that word of these mighty prophecies was borne unto a far northern tribe, which was unclean and dealt in remainders.

13 And they of the far northern tribe were wont to call themselves Bridge Books; and their elders waxed wroth against those who took their name in vain, and did sorely clamour for the vengeance of the Lord on David and Charles.

14 And the prophet David and the prophet Charles did rend their garments; and in Newton Abbot the name of Bridge Books was a byword and a hissing.

15 And Bridge Books begat Westbridge Books.

16 Now those who sate in Newton Abbot said, Let more shekels be offered up as a sacrifice, to be a pleasant smell in the nostrils of the public, that the name of Westbridge Books (which is also called the even newer David and Charles imprint) be exalted in all the land.

17 And in that hour an accountant stood before them, and he said unto them, Not bloody likely.

18 And he said, Thy publicity budget is as a green field smitten with ten thousand thousand locusts; thy silver coins are loosed, thy golden ones are broken, thy credit is broken at the bank and thy name is mud in the City.

19 Vanity of vanities, said the accountant, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

20 And he said, I think we could run to a small ad in the back of the Gamekeepers' and Poachers' Gazette.

21 So be it, said the prophet David and the prophet Charles; and they washed their hands.

22 And it came to pass that the book of the scribe was sold in considerably less than all the land.

23 And when in after years the scribe came to look upon the David and Charles Catalogue which is the holy book of Newton Abbot, he saw that the name of Westbridge Books was without form, and void, and had utterly passed away from the face of the earth.

24 And the Editor said, Well, that's showbiz.

Here endeth the first lesson....


One Hundred Years Ago

...An assembly of folk devoted to the bizarre and fantastic byways of our English prose was held -- some said impiously! -- over the week-end of Easter in this year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-Two. With great courtesy, the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge made a free loan of their premises at Burlington House: and from the seventh to the tenth day of April, a motley and animated throng held sway in that place.

"They are strange, mad folk," said a serving maid with whom we conversed. "Forever babbling of Magnetism and perpetual motion machines! But I dare say they do no harm."

The honoured guest of the occasion could of course be none other than M.Jules Verne, whose risible romances such as From the Earth to the Moon direct in 97 hours 20 minutes, and a trip around it command a great following among the fanatics or "fans" of such ephemera. Why, some of these are even impelled by their devotion to assume strange garb: we were puzzled to observe individuals striding like clockwork automata about the corridors of Burlington House, wearing stiff hats and clutching furled umbrellas in defiance of all indoor custom. All was explained, though, when we learned that such "fans" choose this means of expressing their devotion to M.Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, and in particular its hero Phileas Fogg, whose supposed garb they thus slavishly imitate. Among the cognoscenti, it seems, these folk are known as "Foggers" or "Foggies" and are regarded with no little disdain.

And indeed, the esteem in which M.Verne himself is held would appear to be by no means universal. When the schedule of the proceedings called for him to deliver a rousing speech, there were murmurings at the announcement that M.Verne proposed instead to read passages from his forthcoming work Le rayon vert (The Green Ray -- without doubt, a melodrama about fish); and the assembly became positively mutinous when it transpired that the passages were to be read only in French without benefit of translation. John Bull still has scant patience with alien tongues!

"The vanity and complacency of M.Verne passes all belief," we were told by one "young Turk", a fellow of some fifteen or sixteen years who through precocity had contrived to become an honoured "fan" guest in his own right. "It is a shabby travesty," this young Master Herbert Wells continued, "that a fellow who has not even the grace to live in England should be allowed to continue as President of Britain's Own Speculative and Fantastic Association; or the BoSFA, as we term it."

The impudent Master Wells then went on to read to us from a projected scientific romance of his own, called, if memory serves us aright, The Chronic Argonauts. Suffice it to say that this congeries of juvenilia lacks altogether the underlying support of edifying scientific realism so evident in M.Verne's From the Earth to the Moon or A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

But Master Wells was not to be deterred. "Then, too," he cried, "the entire field of fantastic writing is being polluted by vile commercialism. A novel should be an autonomous work, a work which stands sturdy and alone -- yet look at M.Verne! Did he not scribble Around the Moon as a sequel to 'cash in' upon the unmerited success of From the Earth to the Moon? Can you deny that even now he speaks of debasing the work of another and better man with an addendum of his own crass devising -- I refer to M.Verne's projected continuation of the late Mr Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym? The effrontery of it! Even British authors, of whom one might expect better, are succumbing to this same rot: Sammy Butler told me at a room party last night that he's planning a sequel to Erewhon, and that Bible-thumper George MacDonald openly admits having hacked out a follow-up for The Princess and the Goblin, for publication next year. Such burgeoning fantasies are a cancer on the body of Scientific Romance. It's all Carroll's fault, of course, with his best-seller cult and sequels and spin-offs -- see that moron there with his Why Is 6 x 7 The Oldest Rule In The Book? badge. Yes, I tell you that this artistic corruption of the sequel, the continuation, the series and the trilogy is a unique evil of our own time...."

We made our excuses and left Master Wells holding forth, making tendentious statements about Mr Gladstone's Government to a group of cronies who were perhaps a trifle the worse for their indulgence in refreshments.

Many and varied were the entertainments offered during the four days of this strange "convention" affair. At a discussion of the supernatural, a Mr Stoker strongly argued that something might yet be made of the old theme of Vampirism: we could not help but agree with those who observed that the matter was so hackneyed and generally "done to death" that no hope for it might be entertained. M.Louis Pasteur of France discoursed upon "The Germ Theory of Convention Banquets", and quaintly asked to be refreshed with boiled water when he grew hoarse. Another discussion, on the theme (said to be traditional) of the Fair Sex and their part in fantastic literature, was ill-attended: the panel of gentlemen on the podium strove manfully to wring an hour's discussion from the subject of the late Mrs Shelley. Still less popular was the unattended lecture entitled "Genetic Engineering", given by a dubious Germanic visitor called Gregor Mendel, whom we later saw departing with an air of disillusionment.

But such formal events were by no means the whole of it. Mr Oscar Wilde, a gay young author in his twenties who only last year published a volume of poetry, was merrily welcoming inexperienced "neofans", treating them to glasses of absinthe, and often inviting them upstairs for private discussions of the unnatural and supernatural. A callow medical student named Conan Doyle was fearfully affected by this absinthe, and to the amusement of all his face became hideous after a mere sip of the potion: nearby, Mr Robert Louis Stevenson, who was autographing copies of his latest work New Arabian Nights, was heard to say aloud, "What a frightful, cataclysmic change of features and of spirit! I wonder... there might well be a notion for a book in that scene of transformation."

"I wish I'd written it," said Mr Wilde.

"You will, Oscar, you will," jested Mr Stevenson.

An unkempt young fellow with a straggling ginger beard introduced himself to us as Mr George Bernard Shaw, and favoured us with a disquisition upon fantastic literature's legendary Golden Age.

"I assure you its past; it doesnt exist any more," he said with some force (we noted with interest his refusal to employ apostrophes). "Poe, Frankenstein, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Vernes better works, The Coming Race, Utopia, The Battle of Dorking, Erewhon and of course Gullivers Travels... I could name dozens more. Theres no chance that the future can equal these peaks of the Golden Age. The genres played out now. The Life Force will have to shew itself in some other way in future. There can be no hope for the heroic fantasy trilogy after Wagner, but... perhaps the drama...?"

Certainly no reasonable man could disagree; there can be only one Golden Age, and that of the fantastic or speculative romance is assuredly past. But such disagreeable truths are easily put out of mind when one listens to the exuberance of the "Foggies" and of "true fans" like Mr Wilde or the visiting German enthusiast Herr Krafft-Ebing. Both these noteworthy gentlemen propose to describe this Easter's gathering at suitable length in their "fanzines" (respectively titled The Yellow Book and Psychopathia Sexualis), which will be published -- in the quaint phrasing of the coterie -- "Real Soon Now".

The only sombre note to be struck in this charmingly eccentric week-end concerned the celebrated Mr Charles Darwin, who delivered a serious and scientific talk establishing almost conclusively that the various races of Mankind were descended from the late Bishop Wilberforce. Alas, Mr Darwin suffered a misadventure with a pork pie of dubious antecedents and on the nineteenth day of April shuffled off this mortal coil....

[Locus, May 1882]


DOREYSPEAK: Fans will remember that in A Clockwork Orange the reader was indoctrinated with a sort of Russian slang, ultimately emerging (or so Burgess claimed) with some rudimentary knowledge of that language. This approach has now been adopted by an as yet unsung hero of linguistics, through the unexpected medium of a fanzine....

However indless and stupi evrything in Gross Enounters is though by inumerable BSFA chieftans, it posesses appreiators in the intelligencia. Arabid reviwer whom we interviwed said: "Only suare and unhygenic peopl call it stupi, thus losing thei creibility: non-appreiators have entred a state of rigamortis. Evertime on reads it, espeially in the evning after inumerable Guinesses for sustainess, on falls aroun laughin at the ver strange reviwing and evnts."

Readers are invited to calculate how much more space would have been wasted if this sample passage had been printed without using Alan Dorey's admirable contractions (culled from his linguistic-reform tract, camouflaged as Gross Encounters 4). And this is but the beginning: in GE4's 77 neologisms we are privileged to glimpse the white-hot crucible of language in the making. Primordial forms appear, contractions as yet unevolved like revi ws and su ely. In such Joycean exuberance it's not surprising to find occasional wittily retrograde steps -- tha t, no where, what so ever -- and bizarre mutant forms defying comprehension: tazis, wnat, olf, ir, guve, fis, dort and holdtsock.

Thus we begin to lose contact with English itself, drifting out into chaos. From the simple elisions and pleasing ambiguities (e.g. viscious as applied to Ritchie Smith's stomach tackles) of elemental Doreyspeak, one is lured into a maelstrom of half-understood concepts like reoad and repsonse and Koe Nicholas. On has thw feeling of being incesaantly watxhed, on's imformal converstaion id tunred to farntically corruscating indlessness... as evrything goes black, on optomistically feels on kight almost guve an interpretation of such words as guve....

Unfortuantely on can continue incessaantly in this dispicable veign. [1978]


THE WAYSIDE PULPIT: Once when I was little, I played on a Cornish beach, and half-buried at the bottom of a sandy pool I found a tiny ivory figurine, an exquisite Madonna. (NB: I am not now nor have I ever been a Catholic.) And I washed the precious thing and showed it to my mother, who said: "Throw it away, it's an orange pip." Trouble is, she was right. That's my life. [1985]


CLASH OF THE TITANS: A party highlight was the great Katie Hoare/Joseph Nicholas confrontation. Katie (Wife of Martin Hoare) considers Margaret Thatcher a feeble and wishy-washy person of left-wing views. Katie believes loudly in basic liberties like the right to hunt foxes and burn trade unionists. So there was revolutionary Joseph, deviating some way from the iron line of sobriety, gesticulating furiously in all directions, saying things like "The lickspittle running dogs of Toryism, the capitalist lackeys of the repressive Thatcherite junta -- " and being increasingly maddened since each time he came to the refrain "The Thatcherite junta" Katie would interrupt at 120 decibels, correcting his pronunciation with "Hoonta, hoonta." Joseph's spleen knew no bounds. His rhetoric rose in volume and pitch, his gestures traced the impossible outlines of hyperspheres and tesseracts. As a final crescendo loomed, Katie (who is tall and, er, Junoesque) leant forward with a tender smile and tickled the side of Joseph's jaw as a fond mother might tickle her baby. "Ahhh... coochy-coochy-coochy," she said. The effect was dramatic. Arrested in mid-rant, Joseph stood dumbfounded, his arms waving with manic energy, his lips unable to produce more than an intermittent splutter in the face of this outrage. It took him five minutes to regain speech. [1983]


WORDS, WORDS, WORDS: I was flipping through the Nebula Awards bulletin (after Ian Watson's grovelling request to add the Cavorite-like weight of my recommendation to his "Slow Birds", currently leading the novelette pack) and for the umpteenth time felt a grating crash of mental gears on sight of the novel title Where the Ni-Lach. The first few times I'd thought it must be a misprint. If it weren't for the hyphen, Lach might be a verb and the book would be about where the Ni did it, the filthy beasts. No question mark to make it part of a monosyllabic exchange: "Where the Ni-Lach?" "Tarzan not know. Piss off." Not enough of it to be a detached subordinate clause; it falls flat as aposiopesis; it's about as scientifictionally evocative as sandpaper drawn across one's fillings, and there's a hideous and no doubt intended temptation to buy the blasted book and see if context can possibly make sense of that title. Rage, spleen, bile. (Exits in general direction of pub, to a diminuendo mumble of "The hero[ine] surely couldn't be a member of the noted Ni-Lach cult of quantity surveyors who just happens to be called Where...?") [1983]


LIGHT SIGNALS: Just lately I've been rewiring our electrical eccentricities -- such as in the downstairs loo. Its former light circuit (as we gleefully informed visitors, frightening many into sudden constipation) was so arranged that on pressing the switch you announced your intentions to half the county by simultaneously activating a blaze of outside lighting in the garden. Far, far above, Concorde pilots still sloping upward from Heathrow would glance at Berkshire, nod wisely, and murmur "Langford's having a crap again...." [1985]


ALL-PURPOSE REVIEW: Who could resist this heady brew of innovative plot elements? Telepathic sex with a variety of cetaceans... dizzying excursions into cyberspace within the protagonist's self-aware pocket calculator... a trek across the entire surface of that incredible, galaxy-spanning Klein bottle known as Inworld, where magic works... emotional problems of a doomed cyborg space-pilot unable to have normal sex since orgasm propels him and his ship on a multi-lightyear jump... successive heroic quests for the ten lost Talismans of Power (grail, sword, ring, sceptre, crown, helm, orb, amulet, crystal and intergalactic warp-drive), helped and hindered by elves, dwarves and the Wild Hunt... harmless, cuddly pets which on exposure to radiation spawn terrifying, kilometres-long sandsnakes... maps, computer-generated graphics, and a long glossary detailing the clickspeech of the enigmatic alien Neppat. The actual writing, with its echoes of Robert Heinlein, Piers Anthony, Alan Dean Foster and Lionel Fanthorpe, mirrors perfectly the author's ambitions.... [1985]

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