"No matter what happens, travel gives you a story to tell."
– appropriate Jewish aphorism
I was incredibly excited.
I was so excited that it seemed impossible to keep from bursting, and thereby require a cleanup team to get bits of Shiffman off the walls and out of the rug.
However, it turned out that I had hidden resources – and lasted to that golden morn of Friday, April 10, 1981. The Deborah of Broadway Terrace, Sue-rae Rosenfeld, had suggested in a moment of inspiration that there be a sendoff party before the flight. It was a brilliant suggestion, getting the TAFF trip off to an early start and obtaining an early space reservation in my TAFF report.
I put in a lot of extra time at work that week, trying to get as much cleared away as possible. I was guaranteed my mere two weeks away by the production manager at Christian Dior Sleepwear and Ladies' Intimate Apparel, but it turned out to be a much busier time of year than anyone had expected. The big show of the company's lines was scheduled for shortly after my return, and everyone was getting very manic.
It's hell in women's undies.
My cheap watch had given up the ghost the week before. I filled in the temporally hag-ridden interval with my pocket-watch and a loaner from my Dad. But I needed a new watch, and it seemed that this particular day would be a good day for shopping. "Time flies," I thought in a cliched manner, "and I had better be able to measure it!" There were plenty of stores on Thirty-Second Street that carried what I wanted, and so I headed over to the peculiarly titled "Camera World and Sound." How does a camera sound? "Click," primarily, unless it's a Japanese model.
Eli Cohen called about the party at my parents' before my flight. We worked fairly near to one another, and so arranged to meet at our usual corner by the Empire State building. That edifice is of a fair size, and so is difficult to misplace. Anyway, arrangements made, I took a break from clawing through a tangled skein of flesh, fabric and fashion (so to speak) and went off to lunch. Huzzah!
The day was warm – a springtime foreshadowing of the steampot that New York would become in the summer. I walked west along Thirty-Second Street from Madison Avenue, looked at the back of the Horace Greeley Statue at Greeley Square ("Go West, Young Man!"), and ended up at Broadway and CAMERA WORLD AND SOUND. Super.... I spotted the watch in the window that would suit my needs, a Casio with alarm and date features. Not a bad price, I thought, and went in. It took a while to get the attention of the expatriate Israelis at the timepiece counters – I suffer from unnoticeability from time to time. Wonders, I was noticed ... yes, I want that watch... he writes out the order... "pay at the register" ... "have a nice day." And time to return to the AM-1 Garment Computer without lunch – aha! I found a street hotdog cart, and that frankfurter with brown mustard along with a long orange juice (freshly squeezed Florida orange juice) from the corner stand became my noontime repast.
I went back to a busy VDT and a goodly pile of work. I tend to get rather wrapped up with the work, so that around 5 PM I was surprised to look up and notice the extreme absence of anyone in the room. That left me alone to do the SSAVE (a tape of all storage channels) – an operation that sometimes takes as long as a half-hour. Ghod looked kindly upon me, at 5:15 I was on my way to meet Eli.
"I'm sorry to be late," I puffed as I ran across Fifth Avenue. "More problems. I just got a new watch and need the instruction booklet – I didn't get one when I bought it."
"Oh sure," said Eli, " – it's getting late 'though – are you sure you need it?"
"I think so ... it beeps on the hour and today's not Tuesday the twenty-fifth...."
"No ..." replied Eli, "... that's quite true." And we were off to C.W.&S.
It was a wonderful scene as the clerk searched for a loose booklet only to end up giving me one taped to another box. Swell.
"We'll take the E train from Penn Station," I called. We set off for there. Eli then pointed out that the F train was closer, so we ran back towards Greeley Square for the entrance there. We were waiting for the light at the street corner to change when Eli asked another question.
"Do you have film?"
"Whuh? No, No – I'd expect that they'll have film in Britain...."
"Sure, but at a ridiculous price ... you better get it here."
"But it's getting LATE!" I whined. I'd misplaced my cool. I had to concede the sensibility of Eli's suggestion, and we hurried back to the camera store row that exists on Thirty-Second Street. There I bought six rolls of color print film, threw them into my bag and ran off again towards the F train.
We suspended ourselves in the rush hour crowd within the subway car.
There was a good crowd at my parents' house in Flushing (famed in song and story). I had, with the connivance of the parental units, invited some of my best friends for dinner and to see me off at Kennedy Airport. Well, they hadn't been able to come, so Eli and I were greeted by the impatient cries of Sue-Rae Rosenfeld, Moshe Feder, Lis Eisenberg, D. Potter and Bill Wagner. My sister's friend Debbie Sprung was there too – getting a bit of exercise staying out of Bill's arm's reach. They are a lunatic crew and I was glad to have them there. Larry Carmody, my erstwhile co-editor, was not able to make it, covering a truly spectacular junior high school basketball game for NEWSDAY (the commuters' friend).
Such, then, is life.
My mother, archetypal Jewish mother that she is, made entirely too much food. Bill Wagner attempted to compensate for our low numbers by taking the traditional Internal Revenue share ... this seemed to solve the problem, though everyone else now had short rations.
Then to the airport, said my mother. She always gets a bit paranoid about the traffic on the highway. Fine, I thought, but I still had some last minute packing to do. My companions didn't take that too well. "Fugghead" was commonly heard. But we did get out of there, and into the cars and south on the Van Wyck Expressway to JFK.
Can't take them anywhere – they always embarrass me! By the time I get checked in at the terminal I've gotten tired and a bit giddy – not enough sleep the night before. My parents weren't too clinging. However, my mother had that expression on her face that I'd last seen fourteen or more years before when I first went off to Summer Camp. I assured her that I would be fine.
She asked me to tell Dave and Hazel Langford to look after me. sigh I don't think she could quite believe that I was twenty-seven years old.
They did get me on the plane – let's see my notes there:
"Fri. Nite – I feel incredibly bubbly [Can you believe I wrote "bubbly"?] – I'm sure that it's partly from the lack of sleep last night (anticipation and threads of Jonathan Carroll's THE LAND OF LAUGHS in my head) and partly from the sheer exhaustion of the workday and exhilaration of this special adventure. [Gee, I'm a real goshwowboyoboy type, aren't I?] It worked out so perfectly – the dinner with the family and close friends, the airport tomfoolery [Hey! Good name for a musical review!] and all. Wagner is the absolutely perfect Goon.
'Everyone,' he called out at the boarding gate, 'this man is being deported for income tax evasion!' and 'Make room – he's running away from his four wives!' He's a good buddy – glad there's a fan downstairs when I hold Fanoclast meetings.
D. Potter – tall, black and beautiful – says to bring her back a test tube of Thames water. I remember her hiding from my sister Robin's camera. It's ridiculous that she should be so camera-shy. Sue-Rae instructs me to tell the Queen 'mazel- tov' on the impending wedding of her son. I promise to do that – if HRM shows up at Yorcon.
The Adventure starts...."
Right... the TWA flight scheduled for 11 PM departure was forty-five minutes late. It seemed somehow natural after all the subway delays of the last few days. The takeoff is one of my favorite experiences of air travel (right next to landing safely). The rapid rush forward is a very fine thing, and then the wonder of tons of metal leaping into the air. I always feel sorry for those who dislike air travel. It's one of the great things of modern technological living.
I leaned back and fell asleep.
"The brutal Saxon invaders drove the Britons westward into Wales and compelled them to become Welsh; it is now considered doubtful whether this was a Good Thing. Memorable among the Saxon warriors were Hengist and his wife (or horse?) Horsa. Hengist made himself King in the South. Thus Hengist was the first English King and his wife (or horse), Horsa, the first English Queen (or horse). The country was now almost entirely inhabited by Saxons and was therefore renamed England, and thus (naturally) soon became C. of E. This was a Good Thing ..."
– 1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman © 1931
" – Et la route, fait elle aussi un grand tour?
– Oh, bien certainement, etant donne qu'elle circonvient ala destinee et le bon sens.
– Puisqu'il le faut, alors! dit Jurgen; d'ailleurs je suis toujours dispose a gouter n'importe quel breuvage au moins un fois.
– La Haulte Histoire de Jurgen"
– The Silver Stallion by James Branch Cabell
Actually beginning the descent to Heathrow came as a bit of a surprise. I viewed it as just another evial attempt by TWA to wake me up just as I was falling asleep again.
Every time I'd drop off, we'd be forced to wake up and eat or drink something. My body, stubborn fella, refused to assimilate the airline food. It was second guessing me again.
They showed a film called Coast to Coast which I caught snippets of each time I awoke. It looked really terrible, about a rich woman (Candice Bergen or Dyan Cannon) who escapes from a sanitarium and hooks up with a cross-country truckdriver. I decided to view it as a picaresque quest tale with elements of the Theater of the Absurd. I'm sure it made more sense that way.
The elderly Irish gentleman seated adjacently woke me up as the plane began to land. "This is it, kid," I thought to myself. "Your chance to answer the musical question, 'Does England really Swing Like a Pendulum Do?'"
Going towards the British Customs, we fresh arrivals encountered various signs exhorting us to practice auto-selectsia. As people well-socialized by our Modern Culture often do, we followed these signs to the letter. This meant that we divided ourselves into groups defined as "British and Commonwealth passport-holders," "European Economic Community passport-holders," and "Other overseas arrivals."
I take direction easily.
Snaking towards passport examination, I entertained the brief fantasy of running into Ian Maule there at Heathrow. (I later learned that his Customary duties involved large foreign crates rather than interrogating overweight American tourists). I was prepared for a scenario full of extremely heavy irony and coincidence.
Nope, that didn't work out. One more tired civil servant stamped my crisp new passport with the photo that made me look three weeks dead. I assured him that my purpose in visiting his country (99 year lease) was the pleasure of infusing dollars into the economy – although not in those words, of course.
It went more like:
"... uh ... I'm visiting ... like friends ... and ... uh, sightseeing ..."
Adlibbing is not my mundane-world forte. Still, more signs and portents beckoned me: "Way Out" and Red and Green zones for customs. Since the only thing I had to declare was that I was damn glad to have arrived, I made my way out through the left ("Nothing to Declare") side. This side was empty except for a large Pakistani family stopped by a Customs officer. He was examining what appeared to be a small sack of grain. Freddy Laker should have been providing better meals than that....
Flight 708 had come late. I wondered what my reception would be. Steve Stiles, my slan-like memory remembered, had been greeted by a little girl belonging to Eric Bentcliffe who identified him as Jesus. Walt Willis had found himself the object of competition by rival fan delegations on both his trips. The Langfords with accompanying Jim Barker and Harry Bell had been met by an extremely sweaty and hyper Stu Shiffman. I determined not to look like the hunchbacked Mexican dwarf that they expected through some s/e/a/ air change.
I made my way past the grasping hands of the riffraff there to meet international terrorists and other religious leaders. The mass of faces soon resolved into the shaggy-headed Dave and distressed-yet-joyful Hazel Langford. We waved wildly at each other and I moved towards them. When we were close enough Mister Langford, highly original nuclear physicist that he is, declared "Welcome to Britain in the name of the Surrey Limpwrists!" My brain added "... and the Great Jehovah."
The rest is history – sort of. We headed towards the parking area while the Langfords filled my waiting ears with multiple horrors.
Amid apologies about the state of their car, they explained about traffic jams at the airport and sinisterly steep ramps that forced Hazel to get out to lessen the load. She ended up having to walk up the ramp while Dave eased the Ford Anglia up. "Isn't it warm!" they said. Since I was wearing a denim vest and my heavy new trenchcoat I was able to agree.
The much deprecated 1966 Ford Anglia proved to be a small pale-green vehicle that looked like a shrunken version of the 1956 Ford Fairlane driven by my parents 1956-1966. I decided that the Langfords were so anxious to make a good impression on one used to US juggernauts that they were over reacting. It did occur to me, however, that there might be trouble fitting my suitcase. That object appeared at first to be around half the size of the whole car.
We got settled and I stretched out in the back seat. That was very nice after a cramped airline seat. We negotiated the highways in a Reading-ward direction. How odd it seemed to see the traffic reversed – even though I had expected it. The land on the sides of the highway was very green and flat and tended looking. That was strange and delightful. I'm used to ugly concrete and unmaintained greenery and even uglier adverts along the roads. I've spent too much time on the Long Island Espressway and the New Jersey Turnpike, I suppose, to have simply accepted these British roadways without remark. I just absorbed the sights... and eventually gave in to sleep.
I woke when we came to Reading, that Pearl of Berkshire. A highway sign indicated a choice of Basingstoke (ah, Basingstoke, m'dear) or Reading. Dave chose Reading and Home and Hearth.
By spectacular coincidence, Reading looks rather "British" to me. I haven't quite figured out why – aside from all the Britons and signs in English. We soon found ourselves on Northumberland Avenue, a quiet and clean residential street with two-way traffic. The famous Number Twenty-Two proved to be the end building of attached houses – right next door to a pleasant red-brick school (mercifully closed). Splendid, I thought, Childe Stuart to Schloss Langford comes. Dave gave me a hand with the bags and Hazel proudly led me in. It's a narrow house that seems well-filled with bulging bookcases, Art Nouveau posters by Alphonse Mucha (one of my favorites) and sundry items of interest. In short, you see, a fan's house.
A trip up the steep narrow stairway brought me up to the second (US terminology) or first (British) floor. Hazel ushered me into the guestroom that also served (in the slack season) as her library and office. It was dominated by a bunkbed, a bookcase filled with interesting volumes like Tuareg-English dictionaries, I Was A Teenage Pharoah (well, not really) and such things, and a large clothes cabinet. I particularly like the stuffed mongoose. There was a good view of the back garden out the window. I unpacked a bit, and Dave and I shared goodies. He presented me with an official "TAFF Delegate" and "Twll-Ddu" buttons, and even tried to teach me to pronounce the latter. Something along the line of "Tooolthee" if memory serves. Along with came the new ish of that fine fanzine – and the filthy swine even had the first installment of his TAFF report in it! In return, I presented him with the brand-new first-edition Dell paperback of The Snow Queen by the charming and wonderful Joan Vinge (of the well-known Frenkel Family Singers). I drew his attention to the great cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, whose work I've admired since their Ace Special period. In addition, I unveiled the annotated rehearsal script of The Mimeo Man (with additional material from the final script) which eventually was auctioned off by Rog Peyton at Yorcon II. Dave ooh'd and ah'd politely.
Hazel offered to rectify the deficiencies of the airline cuisine by giving me something superior to TWA's food-like material. This offer was eagerly accepted, and I was soon tucking into some sausage and baked beans. I discovered the wonders of Hazel's home-made apple chutney (I even brought back a jar of her "Apple Chutney of the Third Kind" 30Jan81) and HP Brown Sauce. This miracle substance is like "A-1" Steak Sauce but is actually rather superior.
"If you're not overcome with jetlag," said Dave, "we can show you the points of interest in revenge for your tour of Washington Heights." This sounded fine to me – I didn't feel tired at all. So we set off....
The tour was rather extensive. I discovered that "glebe" as in the nearby Glebe Road refers to land belonging or yielding revenue to a parish church or ecclesiastical benefice. Perhaps that meant that the area was once the property of the medieval Reading Abbey. The walking tour provided some interesting items. One humorous sign announced the firm of "Brain & Brain – Solicitors – Commissioners for Oaths." Sensing that this was more than someone's belief that Two Heads are Better than One, I probed further. Dave and Hazel informed me that, rather than being a person in charge of the National Cursing League, a commissioner for oaths is essentially the same as a US Notary Public.
A sojourn in a local bookstore pointed out my personal stupidity in failing to convert any of my dollars at the airport. This left me to wander and drool. An Inspector Gage mystery by H.R.F. Keating that I hadn't seen in New York? Pass it by, m'lad. Bernard Levin? Never heard of him before ... book looked interesting, though. I asked Dave and Hazel if they knew of a novel or book tie-in with the series An Englishman's Castle (a fascinating history drama set in Nazis-had-won 1970's). They hadn't even heard of the series, admitting that they didn't watch TV much.
There were other sights, like the Town Hall-Library-Museum. The last had provided a good overview of local history, with relics of Roman, Saxon, Tudor and later times. Material on Reading Abbey, stuffed birds and animals, and a collection of Huntley & Palmer Biscuit tins. I can't help it – I'm an unrepentant history freak. I love that type of stuff.
We'd even walked past Reading Gaol, as in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Oscar Wilde wrote it while imprisoned there for having a "naughty" relationship with a peer's son. (Such things were not allowed, except in the private places of the rich and noble). There were some problems here – I'd get off some sterling quip and Dave would turn and say "Pardon?" This went on continuously: mumble, mumble ... pardon?
There were dozens of little commonplace things along the way that drew my interest. A Pieter Stuyvesant (Virginian cigarettes) sign made me realize that Nieuw Amsterdam was not so far away. 320 years – that's not too many... I absorbed everything! A sex shop was marked "Sex Shop" in so plain a way as to be like one of the "generic brand" food items marketed in Stateside supermarkets. I think it even had the stripes. There was an OxFam storefront and ironmongers and greengrocers and pubs. All the pubs had those hand-painted signs that Americans know from films. Some were very detailed, like the sign that hung outside the Wellington Arms, and some simple or crude. The shops were small, of various colored bricks and local stone. There wasn't a huge supermarket just around the corner.
I had begun to overdose on all the input by the time we returned to Northumberland Avenue. As a final assault on my short term memory storage, Dave pointed out a nearby house as the home of the Mayor and her husband.
We sat in the main room discussing British and North American Fandoms, the party on the next evening, plans to see Oxford Monday, and the infamous Martin Hoare and Katie McAulay's scheduled visit that evening.
We had tea, lots of tea. More, no doubt, than that dispensed by the Dreaded Flying NAAFI told of by the Goon Show. The Langfords were surprised to find that I liked tea. Americans, they said, were supposed to consume coffee to excess (hiya, Mr. Coffee Nerves). I despise coffee. And I also surprised them by taking my tea without milk, just a bit of sugar. Ah, well... my grandfather took his tea in a glass. People and their ways do tend to differ.
We were shaken from these startling revelations by the arrival of Kevin Smith. Mr. Smith wore his beard and height with great personal jauntiness – which seemed strange as he had just come from a collation of the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) official o/r/g/o/n/e/ samizdat at the University of Reading. Kev is/was another of those people that you seem to have been friends with forever – without having ever met. Such is the magic of fandom. Kev passed over a copy of Matrix in exchange for Twll-Ddu which wasn't quite a fair trade.
Kev, of course, wanted to know if I was being drowned with tea. Dave and Hazel, at this opening, leapt to inform him of my peculiar folk custom of taking my tea sans cowjuice. He was not quite as scandalized.
Kev couldn't stay long, having a trip back to Furthest Surbiton ahead of him. We'd see him the next night at the Langford's party however, so the briefness of the visit was not too much regretted.
All through this time, Hazel had been doing sundry things domestick in the kitchen. My offer of aid was declined, the kitchen being a private enterprise and I a welcome guest. Wonderful odors began to waft into where we sat before the gas fire. I anticipated wonderful things and continued reading Dave and Hazel excerpts from An American's Guide to Britain by Robin W. Winks. (I recognized his name from his excellent The Historian As Detective.) Some of it was quite absurd. I was not to read their like until I saw Alan Ferguson's tourist guide to the USA months later.
We had a delicious meal of pork curry – sharp but not sadistically intense – with Hazel's excellent home-made chutney on the side and papadum. We got into another comparative discussion about the USA and Britain. This time it was about fruits and vegetables and the difference in availability. The British don't have all of Florida's citrus crop shipped to them (as New York seems to have) and the year-round access to California's truck. Citrus fruit and such must come from Spain and north Africa or Israel. The species or varieties differ also – the cucumbers in Britain look rather eccentric – they have their own handles.
That meal was a fine and wonderful thing. By this point, time was starting to march on, so I went upstairs to rest until Martin and Katie appeared for the evening's programming.
I stretched out on the top bunk but I didn't nap. I read the Twll-Ddu that Dave had given me. It contained, as I mentioned above, the first installment of the Dreaded Langford TAFF report. The filthy swine had filled it with many True Facts which he had obtained by the low trick of taking voluminous notes at every opportunity. It was enormously funny and true-to-life. I hoped to do as well, and resolved to "quip" more. The problem is, I thought, that I never remember them when faced with the paper in the typewriter.
Martin Hoare and his lady, Katie McAulay, arrived – and they seemed to have prepared for the evening by starting their drinking at home. As predicted by Dave, Martin urged seizing the moment and getting to the pub for some serious activity. Goshwow, I thought, a genuine English publick house. I now remembered meeting Martin at a stateside convention and we discovered mutual friends like Teresa Minambres.
Off we went to the Pheasant, a short walk away. Its sign, of course, showed a pheasant. The building, of local stone, was covered with a sweeping banner advertising a giveaway game sponsored by some brewer or bottler or other. It seemed more appropriate to a McDonald's.
The interior was panelled in wood and there was a large crowd around the bar. The sounds and textures of the voices swept over me. This type of atmosphere was strange. Nice Jewish boys shouldn't go to bars, y'know.
We found a corner table, and quickly covered it with filled glasses of a pleasant brew by the name of Director's. I only had a half-pint glass – being a half-pint type of person. I wasn't sure that my special pre-trip training with Larry Carmody had prepared me for a full-pint of British beer.
I found Katie's conversation amusing (in a nice way) – although I had to exhibit a "grain of patience" in having to actually defend the United States Postal Serpent against charges of grossly delaying the surface mailing of her company's magazine Your Camera and You. It apparently took millennia (or at least six weeks) for copies to reach North American subscribers. We all rigorously pointed out the decay in all Post Awful service, whether in the USA, Canada or the UK. Katie is a very pro-British booster. In retrospect, I find that Penelope Keith (of Brit sitcoms Good Neighbors and To The Manor Born) reminds me strongly of Katie. A rather posh upper-class accent.
I surprised myself by drinking another half-pint of Director's that evening, and Katie and Martin by not being a boozing American. I explained that I was not from a drinking family, etc. Not in stereotype, sorry, sahibs and memsabs. Huzzah. Katie was very understanding and explained that none of the U.S.'ers she'd ever met had confirmed the stereotype. I suppose that they were hoping to someday find one who did.
Meanwhile, with Hazel abstaining, Dave, Martin and Katie consumed Mass Quantities. We discussed computer systems with Martin, his several cars including a London taxi, and British comedy vs. US sitcoms in general – explaining why I like Monty Python and that Surreal Cosmic Bozo humor, Dave Allen and Reginald Perrin.
A man came around from the Seventh Day Adventists collecting for a medical mission. Martin and Katie gave. I admit privately (and perhaps... er... uncharitably) that I thought that they could obviously well afford it while the Langford's can't. Hazel told us about her attitude in regard to religious canvassing. She sends them straight from the door, no discourse. "Unless they're colored," she said. "Then I am polite and gently direct them hence. I suppose that I'm prejudiced – I like colored people."
We got back to the house eventually. We had to – they closed the pub. Unfortunately, despite my personal resolution, we ended up in an elaborate political discussion prompted by my own comparison of Prime Minister Thatcher and our own well-beloved (feh, pooie) Ronald. A bad move, for, while we were all agreed on the truly junior fascist quality of the folks in the top posts, this led to a rather frustrating comparison of US and British governmental systems. Katie seemed unable to accept the golly-gee wonderfulness of having a written constitution and Bill of Rights and regularly scheduled elections of the executive. Yes, Katie, the US system has been known to work – usually just when you don't expect it to.
Sleep, I have to get to sleep. Tomorrow is another day and another chapter. Sitting in the top bunk, I wrote up my memories of the day in great detail. I resolved to do this every night.
I didn't. Goodnight... as soon as I finish reading another chunk of Jane Langley's Memorial Hall Murder. An intriguing mystery, I thought as I fell asleep, whodunnit??