Beachcombings

When John Clute visited Reading and surveyed my book collection with a polysyllabically critical eye, I was quickly crushed by remarks like: 'Ugh! You permit reprint editions on your shelves?' At the end of it all, he allowed as how there were two books in that 25,000-odd which he wouldn't mind owning. One was the first edition of Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic. The other was a 1931 collection of bits by newspaper columnist J.B. Morton or 'Beachcomber' (1893-1979). That Beachcomber column ran for over fifty years and spawned at least twenty such volumes of selected extracts, leading me to the erroneous belief that I could attain riches and book publication by writing a long-running column for Interzone ... but I digress.

Speaking of Beachcomber -- yes, experienced fans will have recognized the tell-tale signs of a highly contrived Langford opening link -- one of my rare contributions to fan history is a tentative theory of his influence on fannish terminology. At one of the early British Eastercons, Cytricon in 1955, the Liverpool SF Group convulsed the audience with their 'tapera' (tape opera) The March of Slime, which included ad jingles for a product fated to enrich our microcosm's language:

Blog's the stuff for work, Blog's the stuff for play,
Blog's the stuff, when you feel rough, to chase the blues away ...

Now among the hotchpotch of weird fragments that made up his columns ('SIXTY HORSES WEDGED IN CHIMNEY / The story to fit this sensational headline has not turned up yet.'), Beachcomber had a similar habit of inserting joke ads. One collection, Captain Foulenough and Company (1944), contains the following sensitive, aristocratic dialogue:

'Why is Sir Arthur looking so gloomy, Sir Harry?'

'Poor devil! It's like this, Sir George. [Lowers voice.] His capillaries, set end to end, wouldn't circle the earth more than once.'

'Phugh! That's dreadful, Sir Harry. Poor blighter! Is there no hope?'

'Oh yes, Sir George: BLOGGO. A year ago my capillaries, set end to end, would barely have reached China. Today they would circle the earth three times. But where are you dashing off to, Sir George?'

'I'm going to buy some BLOGGO for Sir Arthur ...'

So was Bloggo a fabulous fannish influence that led to Blog? (And what indeed of resonances between the rival product Slobbo and Lower Slobbovia?) I have no hesitation in leaving the question undecided, and digressing in the direction of Beachcomber's other -- far more frequently mentioned -- universal panacea, called Snibbo. Snibbo had a million uses, including art restoration ('For three years I was a martyr to dirty pictures. Then one day a friend told me about Snibbo ...') and treatment of obscure psychological symptoms:

Dear Sir -- For many years I thought there was a little Persian milkman in iron trousers riding a zebra round my room. Then I was recommended to take Snibbo, and I have not seen that little Persian milkman since. (Signed) F. Toggleton.
[If you suffer from little Persian milkmen, mice in tartan overcoats, yellow gasworks with bristles all over them, neuralgia, depression or boils, write for the free Snibbo Booklet, recommended by 123,784 doctors.]

Any critic who pursues sources and influences with the enthusiasm of the late Sam Moskowitz would surely detect a link between Snibbo and the fannish enterprise which likewise offers solutions for absolutely everything ... Widower's Wonderful Products, the brainchild of Eric Needham.

King Canute defied the tide,
But couldn't stop it flooding:
He should have made a barricade
Of WIDOWER'S XMAS PUDDING.

See Geri Sullivan's Idea 6 for many more, as creatively misremembered by Chuch Harris.... There is a compulsive fannish charm about this kind of template verse, although I admit the only Widower's quatrains which I myself have written are the following dubious specimens:

Harlan's shrieking mad this week,
Regretting wrong decisions:
He missed our sale of one last bale
Of WIDOWER'S DANGEROUS VISIONS.

From voodoo gods to Joan-the-Wads,
And hex-charms drawn in crayon,
Our magic stall's what John Clute calls
The WIDOWER'S APOTROPAION.

On Van Vogt Day we think Null-A,
We drink a slannish dram --
And true fans send each dearest friend
A WIDOWER'S SEVAGRAM.

But I did once do a series of fearful sf clerihews....

Theodore Sturgeon
Allowed his emotions to burgeon:
On sighting a friendly visage, he
Always attempted syzygy.

Marion Zimmer Bradley
's fan club doesn't do badly,
Since founded and urged to carry on
By Zimmer Bradley (Marion).

Jerry Pournelle,
When his Mote in God's Eye wouldn't sell,
Asked friend Larry to cure its failings
By putting in some aliens.

Digressing back into mainstream humour while keeping template verses in mind brings me to Paul Dehn's obscure little 1956 collection of essays and squibs, For Love and Money. (No sneering, Clute! Mine is a first edition, and -- what's more -- is printed for no apparent reason on pink paper.) For reasons which will emerge, this had been on my wants list for aeons, and ace book-hunter Brian 'It Will Cost More Than You Can Imagine' Ameringen finally tracked it down. Proudly he pressed the volume into my eager hands at the 1997 Clarke Awards party, only to snatch it back as he realized in embarrassed horror that his original purchase price -- probably about 20p -- was still pencilled inside. Me: 'I don't mind knowing the mark-up, I just want the book....' Brian, frantically accosting revellers: 'A rubber, a rubber, has anyone got a rubber?!' Fortunately he remembered not to put it this way to US visitors Norman Spinrad and Pat Cadigan.

Where was I? One treasure in the Dehn book was his set of 'Alternative Endings to an Unwritten Ballad', which introduced a new template character to the world of letters. Samples:

I stole through the dungeons, while everyone slept,
Till I came to the cage where the Monster was kept.
There, locked in the arms of a Giant Baboon,
Rigid and smiling, lay ... MRS RAVOON!

I stood by the waters so green and so thick,
And I stirred at the scum with my old, withered stick;
When there rose through the ooze, like a monstrous balloon,
The bloated cadaver of MRS RAVOON.

And so on; I think you all get the idea. The interesting point was that, just like Widower's Wonderful Verses, Mrs Ravoon rapidly began to acquire imitators. Dehn was vaguely bemused by what he called Ravoon Sightings in distant and unexpected parts of the literary jungle. These outbreaks continued long after his death in 1976, and some later ones were published in John Julius Norwich's Christmas Cracker commonplace-book selections (guaranteed fannish, since the 1992 Cracker included highlights from Hazel's Language Lessons, as featured in Ansible) ...

Below the salt Channel they're drinking champagne
And ministers jostle to board the first train.
Emergency bells ring in French and Walloon,
For there on the buffers squats ... MRS RAVOON.

What could I do but send the whole dossier to that connoisseur of high fannishness and low taste in the arts, that martyr to dirty pictures, Chuch Harris? He was, as it were, ravished, and in his erratic letterzine Charrisma he put out a call for new Ravoon sightings. The tragedy was that no one wrote any. 'So okay,' Chuch told his readers philosophically, 'keep your measly talent under the bushel, and don't come creeping round me for these very special pies and exquisite pints of Tetley's bitter the very next time you see me ...'

Not wishing to inflict disappointment on this staunchest pillar of the wolf-whistling community, I scratched my head and tried to draft the next best thing -- some verses so deservedly rare that even John Clute probably doesn't have a first edition:

Who Needs Mrs Ravoon Anyway?

A sculptress who's famous in crafts and in arts
For moulded impressions of gentlemen's parts [1]
Invested her fortune in plaster of Paris
So she could immortalize ... CHARLES RANDOLPH HARRIS.

Prince Hamlet retreated in sudden dismay:
Was this the wrong universe, or the wrong play?
For a counterblast came as he skewered the arras,
A flood of invective from ... CHARLES RANDOLPH HARRIS.

It wasn't exhaustion, it wasn't the booze,
But the sight of our Lucy's strategic tattoos [2]
That weakened the man whom so few could embarrass,
And brought some rare blushes to ... CHARLES RANDOLPH HARRIS.

A New Age believer in mystical bliss
Suspected the gods might be taking the piss,
When a whiff of that dope known to Hindus as charas
Gave luminous visions of ... CHARLES RANDOLPH HARRIS.

All down the long coastline, North Wales to St Ives,
They lock up their daughters and shackle their wives,
For the rumour has run from Land's End to Beaumaris [3]:
'Tis the holiday fortnight of ... CHARLES RANDOLPH HARRIS.

Scholarly Footnotes

[1] One of Cynthia Plastercaster's subjects was my little brother Jon Langford of the Mekons and other rock groups (a True Fact). He is trying to live this down, which is why I feel it my duty to remind the world once in a while -- say weekly -- of his peculiar heroism in inserting tender parts of himself into a jar of gooey pink dental mould. As Jon proudly puts it, 'For God's sake never tell our Mother.'

[2] Lucy Huntzinger would prefer not to be identified as the subject of a veiled poetic allusion concealed in this line.

[3] Beaumaris is in Anglesey off the North Welsh coast, as any fule kno.

[4] There is no note [4], but here's an even more poignant and politically correct bonus verse:

A Hollywood actor of Charlie Chan fame,
Mishandled his accent and mangled that Name:
'Foleign devil who mocks the Impelial Palace!
It's the Thousand-Cuts Tolment for ... CHALLES LANDOLPH HALLIS.'

Never let it be said that I don't try hard to boost our Chuch's fame. Will someone let him know that the invoice from Proxyboo Ltd (Now A Wholly Owned Subsidiary Of Ansible Information) is in the post? Meanwhile, we pause and allow the great Beachcomber himself to have what John Clute might call the post-antepenultimate word:

ERRATUM. In my article on the Price of Milk, 'Horses' should have read 'Cows' throughout.

Finally ... in 1989, Edward Gorey published a tiny, tiny chapbook of illustrated verses entitled Q.R.V. -- reissued in merely miniature format as The Universal Solvent (1990). And Gorey's mysterious product Q.R.V. is indeed the modern-day Widower's Wonderful Snibbo, capable of almost anything:

She floats around
above the ground
Ignoring gravity;
Although they scoffed,
she rose aloft
By taking Q.R.V.

Or, somewhat more along the Harris line of aesthetics ...

If you would know
your privates grow
To such immensity
That all who saw
Would ooh in awe
Then write for Q.R.V.

Doctoral fame must surely await the first academic fan to write a lofty thesis called The Influence of Beachcomber and Widower's Wonderful Verses upon Edward Gorey. It could even be a collaboration between John Clute and Chuch Harris.


Afterthought. Long-time fan Chuch (alias Chuck) Harris was delighted by all the insults and sent an ecstatic letter -- one of his last, alas, since he died in July 1999.

I never got around to discussing the Burma Shave Ad template verses which seem to be indelibly impressed on the US fannish consciousness, but when rereading John Sladek's fiction in the wake of his untimely death in March 2000, I came across a mention of signs purportedly seen on the Interstate:

Beards grow faster
In the grave
Take it with you --