"Tell all the truth -- but tell it Slant" -- Emily Dickinson
"Yours is the right to the action for its own sake; the fruits of the action are not yours," as the Bhaghavad-Gita says -- by which Krishna doubtless meant that it's all very well to invent fannish myths to play around with, but you can't anticipate the uses to which they'll be put.
Oddly enough, this very point came up late one night at the 1985 Eastercon as we sat around a table decorated with the exuberantly drunk Langford and Harris, and tried to explain Swedish fandom to Walter A. Willis. Then we had to explain it all over again, several days later in Donaghadee, because Walter wanted to make sure we'd actually said what he remembered us saying.
"They take their fanhistory very seriously -- " Patrick began ...
"-- or rather, other people's fanhistory," Teresa amended ...
"-- they worship the collected works of John Berry, which they all seem to have memorized --"
"-- they have ghoodminton tournaments on their convention programs --"
"-- they actually wear propeller beanies, actually and truly --"
"-- their fanzines are so full of fanspeak you almost can't read them; every other word has the intrusive fannish 'h', like in 'bheer' --"
"-- and those are the ones supposedly in English --"
"-- the fanzines in Swedish are worse, you almost can make sense of them, seeing how every third word is something like 'Lhord Roscoe' or 'mimeografensvals' --"
"-- there was one illustrated heading on an article -- looked like it was drawn on-stencil with a paper clip -- showing two Hugo-shaped rockets shooting at each other, and one of them was labelled 'Fandom' and the other 'Monden' --"
" -- as though you fifties fans really were gods to them, no kidding around -- I can't pick up any whiff of humor or irony in it at all. They have long-winded arguments about the precise and specific attributes of correct fannishness, sounding for all the world like they absolutely mean every bit of it --"
"-- by now I imagine they know the internal layout of Oblique House better than you do."
Walter listened with widening eyes, leaning far forward. When we'd finished falling over the ends of each others' sentences he sat back to scratch his head, and let out a deep breath. "My God," he said. "What. Have. We. Done. ... I think that's the appropriate kind of response, don't you?"
We've wondered. They do it in a foreign language; maybe that's all it takes to shift the entire apparatus of myth-making from deliberate silliness into apparent absurdity. Who knows? In translation anyone's fanwriting might come out weirdly askew, like the protocols of some crackpot religion. Perhaps Sverlfandom is into some kind of high art: Son of Dada. And on the other hand, as Terry Carr once solemnly explained to Teresa, you might as well laugh. The world is a very funny place, whether or not the humor you find it is fair to its subjects...
"The Swedes may not be doing that any more," Teresa pointed out. "We read all that stuff back around 1981, and most of it was the work of Anders Bellis and Ahrvid Engholm."
"What are they up to now?" Walter asked, very bravely we thought.
"I hear they've all bought copies of Fanzines in Theory and Practice and are busy reading up on it."
Meanwhile, back in Donaghadee, Walter and Madeleine Willis are kind, gentle, funny people who live in realtime and show no signs of imminent apotheosis. It would be a discourtesy and a stupid one to boot, we thought, to obsess on fannish mythology to the exclusion of enjoying their actual company during our visit. Still there were Hyphen-ghosts all over the house: a twenty-cup capacity teapot, Walter's lovingly preserved old notebook from his first visit to the States, out of which he wrote The Harp Stateside (in the middle of one page, a single sentence: "I hope the hotel doesn't sue"); Madeleine's recipe for the mysterious "coffee kisses" that turn out to be a sort of sandwich cookie. Walter's offhanded innocence when he said he hoped the untried electric blanket in the guest room wouldn't malfunction and cook us overnight should have been familiar enough to tip us off. This thought occurred to us only after he'd added, "It'd give a whole new meaning to the concept of 'joint candidacy'..."
"Aaaargh," replied Patrick in his usual sprightly manner. Or, as Teresa later said with her mouth, "It is an act of virtue to treat one's fannish elders with respectful sobriety. You give them lots more straight lines that way."
Should it have been obvious that on the nightstand in the guest room there'd be a copy of The Enchanted Duplicator with "Gideon" written on the cover, or that the postcard view out the window would be of a startlingly familiar lighthouse? And next, Walter's assuring us that a little-known feature of fabulous fannish memory is its tendency to run counter to time, as witness the lighthouse: when ATom started drawing the things on the back covers of Hyphen, Walter and Madeleine hadn't yet moved to Donaghadee. Believe and be saved. Newtownards Road is a major arterial leading into Belfast; the former Oblique House is a big brick row-house in a street full of same. You wouldn't notice it on your own. Our route one day taking us past this historical site, we duly appreciate it while Madeleine tells us a long funny story about the travails of selling the house, Walter adding as we drive away that when the woman who finally bought the place moved in she installed a huge harp in the front room where you could see it quite clearly through the window.
Earlier, just in off our flight, we'd marveled at the suburban tidiness of the airport, with its modern-looking branches of "Ulsterbank" and "Ulsterbus." It wasn't what we had imagined while being frisked three separate times back in Manchester (Teresa nervously joking that whatever it was they were looking for, she was glad there wouldn't be one of it on our flight) and nothing at all like the alternate-world mythic dystopian Northern Ireland we'd read about in the New York Times. Driving out along the airport access road Walter told us we'd just passed our last checkpoint. As we rounded a curve we saw a small car stopped dead in the middle of the oncoming lane, with a middle-aged couple sitting frozen in the front seat. Soldiers in fatigues conversed with them through the windows on either side; another soldier crouched in the road in front of them, levelling a bazooka at their windshield. Walter didn't even blink, just drove on, conversing amiably. We swallowed hard, remembering Shelby Vick's giant cockroach and the politeness of not screaming hysterically at things your host affects not to notice. Besides, do we break pace for people sleeping in doorways in freezing weather, or ranting schizophrenics in the subways? Travel reminds you of what you take for granted.
On examination our notebooks turn up the usual collection of unhelpful random jottings, too many of which go in for botany. We were disconcerted by Northern Ireland's aggressive vegetation, all of it a deep dayglo green and sprouting in every available thimbleful of soil. One large public building had its bas-relief frieze covered in wire mesh to prevent the planting of bombs, and between pigeons and windblown dust the whole pediment was coming up in flowers. (A sign on the highway: "Heavy Plant Crossing," which we found alarmingly suggestive.) Surprised, we tried to explain to Walter that those tall decorative plants in Donaghadee's front yards were yucca, a very long way from home and flourishing in entirely the wrong climate.
Fascinating fannish conversation? Of course, but mostly what remains are a few potsherd one-liners: "He said, 'Fuck knows' -- which might not be elegant but which lip-reads easily." Or (pertinently?), "It's like the professor of ichthyology who complained that every time he recalled the name of a student, he lost the name of a fish." In fairness to IF's reputation for verbal brilliance, be it noted that we arrived in Belfast in a post-convention fog, with only a few scintilla and change left in our own pockets.
Himself is tall (as ever; nothing new to report there), deliberate, and catches jokes in mid-trajectory. His voice is extraordinarily soft and -- a strange thing in a fan -- he's in the habit of letting the other person start talking first. (Teresa claims that after all these years, she's forgotten what one does under those circumstances.) The conversations we remember best were slow and broad, and like all good conversations cannot be wholly recapitulated. On one discussion we discussed The Enchanted Duplicator and the durability of its insights, how we keep returning to it as one of the touchstones of our fannish universe. Walter said that co-writing it with Bob Shaw was one of those strange infrequent experiences where the words fall straight off your fingers and onto the page -- "Writing it was like reading it, only slower." Onwards to his observation that "no egoboo is ever wasted"; that everything you put into fandom returns to you eventually, if sometimes belatedly and by circuitous means. We agree, and compare notes, offering in trade our pleasure at getting writing-egoboo from Walter or layout-egoboo from Redd Boggs after years of lovingly pillaging their work; jointly we ratify the proposition that it's never too late for a letter of comment. And Walter talked quietly about a dream he had had in the wake of George Charters's snowed-in and underattended funeral: of walking sadly down a Bangor street near George's home, and coming upon an open door to a large and brilliantly lit room where all the friends whose lives George Charters had touched were having a party to celebrate their good fortune in having known him: a true memorial. And when he awoke he realized, why yes, that's the way it was.
... And more, and further, matters little and big, much of it exchanged en route on various excursions. Which is not to say you should have been there (there wouldn't have been room in the car), only that we wish we'd been there longer.
A digression, on digressiveness: Once we got back to London we compared notes with Greg Pickersgill. We'd watched him Saturday afternoon at the Eastercon working his courage up -- a process involving an hour spent bouncing up and down in place while muttering "Hup. Hup hup hup" under his breath -- before going up and introducing himself to Walter by saying, "What can you say to someone who changed your life?" (Which is true. It were that half-run of old Hyphens Greg found in his neohood as done it to him. But as Walter later commented, "What can you say to someone who comes up to you and says, 'What can you say to someone who...'?") Of the long conversation that followed Greg would only say that it comprehended many points and could not be summarized. The sole fragment we have from it, beyond the introductions, is as inscrutable as anything in our notebooks: God knows how, but they wandered into a discussion of what it's like periodically to realise, with a start, that you're married to a Very Short Woman.
So focus this uneasy stereopticon on the true Secret Master of IF. Madeleine is short, quick and sharp-witted, possessed of fiercely blue eyes and an overwhelming conviction that her visitors are perpetually in danger of death by starvation (they aren't). Though -- as she explained while unloading a succession of goodies from her deepfreeze -- she's switched over to storeboughten baked goods in order to have more time for golfing; and indeed, there's a framed photograph in the upstairs hallway of her being the Heroic Lady Captain of the Donaghadee Golf Club. She followed this with a brief oration in praise of Women's Liberation (Teresa hoping meanwhile that this wasn't prompted by her confessing to a fondness for needlework -- a hope rewarded, as it turned out, since Madeleine knits and before we left bestowed upon Teresa a bagful of handy end bits of leftover yarn); conducted a rapid survey of our eating habits and telephoned the Whites to say "It's wonderful, they'll eat anything"; and altogether struck us as the only person we've ever met who's shorter, faster-talking, and more prone to Useful Remarks than the women in Patrick's family, and she doesn't constantly exhort you to take lots of vitamins the way they do. It may be that she's religious about food instead. The one time we saw her at a loss was when Patrick, in good American fashion, topped his serving of apple tart with cheese. This has mutated in memory into a Walt Kellyesque cartoon in which Madeleine says WOWF!, eyes bugging out, while her hat (she wasn't actually wearing one) flies straight up into the air.
Linear narrative is the least of what happened, but we did actually Do Things in our 48 hours there: driving down through Down, for instance, in a great southerly loop whose furthest point was (how not?) a visit to Scrabo Tower, the original model for the Tower of Trufandom. It sits on an isolated rocky height at the head of Strangford Lough (the lough on first sight shimmering in the sun, the biggest set of mudflats we'd ever seen; the tide was out and the shorebirds were very happy about it). In theory Scrabo was built to honor somebody-or-other last century, but one suspects that sooner or later an excuse would have been found to build a tower there anyway, the site being irresistible.
For the record, The Enchanted Duplicator is unreliable on this one point -- the way you get to the Tower is by following the signs for Scrabo Country Club. Got that? Okay, you're now a True Fan. (Though when Walter looked around for the country club's parking lot and said he wasn't quite sure -- they'd changed things since he was last there -- and Madeleine replied, "Don't worry. I think I know the way," we found ourselves simultaneously biting our tongues to avoid quoting in unison, "If you are a True Fan, you will know the way." We have some self-restraint). Madeleine struck out through the underbrush at the edge of the parking lot and, sure enough, turned up what was clearly the path to the tower.
Halfway up the hill we came upon the Scrabo Golf Course, which we stared at quite stupidly while bracing ourselves against a wind off the lough that would have served to lift a kite braced with two-by-fours. "My God," Teresa said, almost shouting over the roar in her ears, "do people -- actually -- golf -- up -- here?"
"Oh, yes," Madeleine said imperturbably. "It's a good day when we can beat the Scrabo golfers."
The tower itself is tall and square, built of rough brown stone blocks, and pretty much looks like everybody's idea of what a generic tower should be, which is a virtue in allegorical objects. That aside, the view alone is worth the trip. We watched the Mountains of Mourne do a fan-dance with the assistance of some erratic cloud-cover, and Walter pointed out the site of the famous battle wherein the Men of Ulster were temporarily felled by the traditional Weakness of the Men of Ulster, an odd knack they had for suddenly falling asleep. Teresa fell over in their memory.
Another day we drove from Donaghadee up to Portstewart, to have tea with the Whites, give James his Doc Weir Award, and commit a silly oneshot on the impressive new White word processor by way of christening it. The official presentation of the Doc Weir Award was thorough, taking place six times so that James could be photographed trying to Look Naughty with Teresa while she presented the cup and certificate. Our own snapshots reveal that neither party has the least talent for visible wickedness; the photo of James demonstrating Psneeronics is much more striking. Meanwhile Peggy White laid out lavish quantities of food and conversation, including a lively reenactment of the time she got stuck on a program item debating male vs. female superiority. At a loss for points of feminist theory to argue, she improvised by marching over to a short member of the opposing team (she's not far shy of six feet), putting her hand on the top of his head, and announcing, "I, for one, object to being referred to as The Little Woman!" To her great relief the point carried the day, which she thought was a great piece of luck but which we viewed as Ideologically Sound.
Driving about with Walter and Madeleine we saw a hallucinogenic great lot of Ireland on the move and selected portions of it standing more or less still, and God knows the whole visit was buried in conversation: histories general and personal and fannish, notes and queries, stray bits of gossip, and what's that thing over there? As a result orderly recollection here loses out completely, though it's been behind on the scoreboard all along. From the many delusions available we cherished the one that seemed most useful at the time: that James Joyce was a mimetic realist, trying only to describe the place accurately. Not true, impossible in fact, but ...
Ireland itself, the physical geography, is misrepresented in all those lush travel posters. They don't do it justice: they merely reproduce what's capable of being photographed, the way a snapshot of a person with changeable facial expressions catches an arbitrary fractional sequence in mid-transformation. Pictures make it look as though the country stands still (it doesn't, ever); as though the Mountains of Mourne spend whole afternoons in sunlight, or half-seen through fog, or with cloud-shadows running over their slopes, when in truth they can do all of those things inside of five minutes and then disappear altogether for the next three hours. We drove through Antrim, up and down large rolling hills which are doubtless known as mountains locally: sun and shadow, fog and clarity, mists that re-texture the view depending on whether they're seen from a distance or up close, from inside their boundaries (a cool blue-gray, with only the nearest trees achieving full probability as we passed) or from the outside (with the sun at our backs the fog briefly turned bright gold: a beautiful thing). A lot of variety's gotten out of little weather and less mileage. Likewise the soil itself, here plentiful (farms, villages, tidy dense cultivation), suddenly sparse (forests, uplands, sheep strange to eyes used to the cotton-ball variety -- these appeared to have body-beards, long straight thatches of wool that looked to be a foot deep).
There are ruins everywhere. "Very convenient, this," said Teresa as we drove to Greyabbey en route to Scrabo. "At home I've travelled hundreds of miles to see ruins, but here they're on practically every corner, like grocery stores." But back in Arizona ruins sit inside a single frame (old, Indian: Hohokam, Anasazi), and even in Reading where we'd visited the Langfords the ruins were of the finite species. (The Langford taxonomy: old bits, ecclesiastical bits, mediaeval bits, Roman bits, and Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins.) Irish ruins are a constant quick-change half-seen slide show illustrating the whole (maybe?) of Irish history, recent industrial ruins in Belfast, sad tiny roofless stone cottages set in miniscule stone-wall-bordered plots of land (and in the midst of this pleasant day a whisper in your ear says "potato blight, intensive cultivation, famine, three million dead," while up ahead in the distance you can see a steep-sided mesa with planted fields extending up its sides as far as they can go, at an impossibly steep angle). The grand old Gothic ruin of Greyabbey, lost in God-knows-but-we-forget-which set of troubles. Dunluce Castle, stacked up and tumbling down at the northernmost coast of Antrim, looking down from cliffs far higher than its walls to where the sea chews away at the land that it sits on so that every so often another chunk of castle collapses into the sea.
Dunluce is hard to see. You have to squint past all the pictures in your head -- old engravings, the covers of innumerable Gothic novels -- trying to focus on the thing itself; a crumbling castle on the shores of a wild sea, vast lost antiquity and ruins that haven't seen the end of their own ruination. It is precisely and technically the Romantic Sublime, but then the light shifts again and Dunluce is its tangible prosaic self as well, a large wet pile of stones in a fenced-off field next to a parking lot. Meanwhile you're most unromantically lying flat on your stomach with your toes dug into the turf, trying to photograph the Antrim cliffs with your head hanging over the edge, and hoping not to tumble over yourself to become one with the castle's kitchens in the surf below. Meanwhile behind you Madeleine is suggesting that maybe we should all get back into the car? -- because (1) we're already behind schedule for tea with the Whites, and (2) it's cold out here. Older than Dunluce, there are occasional reminders that this was once St. Patrick's own neighborhood, and there are standing stones not quite as old as the hills that have seen all the rest come and go in succession. Then you drive over another hill and you're in a small unlovely town. On one wall are lines of graffiti, in utterly modern spray paint just like the subways of New York, except that these say WILLIAM OF ORANGE, 1689, NO SURRENDER, and FAITH, HOPE AND CHARITY.
Stacks of sliding transparencies: change and re-combination, made even more indeterminate (improbable?) by the added layers of fannish myth. A sense of certainty grows on us, that our understanding is absolutely imperfect. Of course everybody's is, all the time; but like God, the abstract idea and direct personal experience of it are two different things.
On the long midnight drive back from Portstewart we asked Walter and Madeleine various questions about Ireland's more recent Troubles. We knew more coming out than we did going in, and got to hear Madeleine's descriptions of her work with the peace party, Alliance (when she mentioned a position paper that she'd have to draft in the next few days and Walter observed that he'd probably get roped into the writing too, their ensuing discussion sounded oddly familiar), but on the whole Irish politics is probably best filed with Basque, ballet and quantum physics, subjects we cannot hope to master at our advanced age. No matter. There are other continua to navigate. We talked fandom back and forth, finally (perhaps) getting the measure of each other's accents; listening to them on their own time, their lives and journeys, trying to convey in turn what it's like in our own noisy, crowed fannish universe; binding up time in good fashion, all things coming together in imagination and the word. And it may have been that we were all very well pleased.
For sure, the next day we were sorry to leave.