FIRST DAYS IN LONDONTOWN
by Irwin Hirsh
(First published in Empties 12, November 1993, edited by Martin Tudor)
We reached our exit after half an hour, and ventured off the M-road and into the 'suburbs' of London and towards Carshalton. It was here that I felt we'd arrived, for the roads were as they should be. Our modern media has done a fine job of painting a picture of what London looked like. The roads were narrow and windy and, with trees and buildings situated close to the road and tightly packed, almost tunnel-like. Cars generally had to be parked half on the footpath, even on the main roads. The weather was also doing its bit to please the expectant tourist; it was a warm day, as it should be for late summer, but overcast. The clouds added to the tunnel-like atmosphere.
John guided the car into Harrow Rd, which is situated on the side of the small hill. The road curves at the peak, and as if in welcome to a visiting Aussie, the road opened up into a wide open expanse across the bend. Rather than allow the wasted space of a road 30 meters wide the council had sectioned off a small cricket-pitch size plot to the side, and planted a tree and a lawn. And above this patch of green was the newly painted rich-blue front door of 43 Harrow Rd, and beyond that door was the home of the Harveys. "The good thing about having guests," said Eve, "is that in preparation you get all those odd things done around the home. For ages that door had needed painting."
John and Eve helped dump our bags in the guest room, gave us a tour of their home, allowed us the run of the kitchen and discussed their plans for our first day in London. Figuring that we'd want a quiet day so that we could get over our jet-lag, they would be going out to visit Eve's dad. And at about midday that is what they did. Left to our own devices we took the opportunity to explore the house - two rooms upstairs, two rooms downstairs (not including the bathroom and kitchen), joined together by a steep set of stairs. In Australian terms it would be known as a terrace house, over there it is known as a "two-up, two-down" and was to be the most common form of housing we stayed in while in Britain. The only uncommon thing about the Harveys' place was that the rooms were smaller than promised by British tv.
Even though we were tired it was still only early afternoon and we'd figured that the best way of overcoming jet-lag would be to force ourselves to stay up as late into the evening as we could, and try to get into a normal morning-to-evening routine. Armed with a copy of London A-Z (or Lonways as we'd called it, in recognition of Melways - the best of Melbourne's street directories) we went to explore the local area. An ice-cream van had been hailed down by a group of children and we decided that here was as good a place as any to spend our first bit of British money. And get our first bit of culture clash; instead of giving us the price of, say, a single cone dipped in chocolate, the menu told us the price of such things as a "Screwball", a "99" and an "Oyster", with no indication of what those things are. Rather than ask for an explanation of the menu I merely ordered a couple of single cones, much to the bafflement of the ice-cream man, and amusement of the kids who had noticed our accents and were probably wondering what foreigners were doing in deepest Carshalton.
We only wandered for a few hundred meters, in an area close to Harrow Rd, but in that space we found three distinct groups of shops. Having once been told that it was possible, as recently as the years immediately after the second world war, to tell in what street of London someone lived in just by listening to their accent, I could now see why. If one's local area has as its focal point the local shops Carshalton was a group of very small local areas each no more than a couple hundred meters across.
Back at the Harveys we settled down in front of the television. We wanted to watch some of the third day of Marylebone Cricket Club's Bicentennial cricket match but this proved near impossible. The station which had the rights to telecast the match didn't value them too highly, deciding that they would gives us only a minute or two action every ten or fifteen minutes. Annoyed with the lack of respect given to the great game we took to flicking to the other stations, where we found the ads of interest. What struck was the absence of any accents, except where provided for humourous effect. Also of interest was how familiar they were to the ads back home. None were actual copies of the Aussie model (or vice-versa) but the feel and style were the same.
Eve and John came home mid-afternoon and mentioned that some friends were coming over for dinner but there would be no hassle if we missed the whole evening. The effects of jet-lag were starting to take effect, and so we dragged our ever-limp bodies upstairs, but not wanting to sleep through the whole evening (only to wake up at 3.30am. and not being able to get back to sleep) we asked to be woken up in the early evening. Despite the unfamiliar bed I had no trouble falling asleep. The next thing I was aware of was John, standing in the doorway and telling me that dinner will be on in half an hour. "Thanks, John" I mumbled, and as I heard his footsteps going down the stairs I woke Wendy. After a few moments of hovering in that stage between being fully asleep and fully awake I got up, dressed and went downstairs.
I followed the voices into the loungeroom and as I stopped in the doorway seven heads turned my way. "Oh look, an Australian" I could sense them thinking, and I turned to look behind me, as if to suggest that they weren't looking at me. "Damm, now we can't make any more Australian jokes," Eve said, and I just smiled sweetly.
"Nice of you to get up," Eve said by way introducing me to everyone there.
"What's that s'posed to mean?"
"I woke you an hour-and-a-half ago," John said, and I just smirked a surprised smirk as I planted myself in an empty chair. From that vantage I formally met everyone, who were Mike and Debbie Muir, Jim Goddard, and Ian and Janice Maule. The first three were people I'd never heard of, so their fannish careers were precised by way of introduction. Together they are Kerosina Books; individually they are old fans and tired. Ian and Janice, on the other hand, were known to me, particularly as they were the editors of the first non-Aussie fanzine ever sent to me other than by way of paid subscription. I rather liked the symmetry of meeting them on my first day in Britain. It's just a pity that I was in a jetlagged state and couldn't take it all in.
The main topic of conversation was on what we hoped to get out of Conspiracy. "Lots of sales!" was the word from the book publishers in the room and I promised to visit their bookroom table and at least consider buying something.
When we weren't talking about Conspiracy, the conversation turned to putting down yuppies. The term yuppie came out faster and thicker than in any conversation I'd ever heard, but as I was to discover British fandom has a yuppie fixation. Listening to the chatter I wondered where we would be if there weren't terms such as yuppie, used to lump a group of similiar people into a neat stereotype. Would we trash people who fit the yuppie stereotype if we didn't have the actual term?
I woke the next morning to find that our hosts were out on another Early Morning Run to the Airport to Meet a Visiting Aussie; this time the mind and body of Carey Handfield. The main item on the day's agenda was an afternoon party at Avedon Carol and Rob Hansen's new abode in Plashet Grove, East Ham. Carshalton to East Ham is quite a distance and John made the trip even longer with some slight detours through some of the more scenic parts of London - Brixton, which seemed to be one long line of boarded-up shops, Tower and London Bridges, the Bank of England, Lloyd's Insurance Building, the building where Eve works and other sights of the business area (the actual City of London). We did, however, miss out on The Oval. John didn't think to mention it till after we'd gone past, rather than on our approach, and by the time I'd turned around to look out the back window I couldn't see any cricket ground.
We eventually arrived in East Ham. Already I was comparing the area to Carshalton, finding it flatter, more compact, having less space and less differentation from one house to the next. Whether or not it is correct, the image I have of looking down Plashet Grove is of a hundred mirror images of Rob and Avedon's place. Ted White opened the door for us and as soon as I'd stepped inside, introduced Wendy to the doorman, and scanned the scene before us a fanzine was thrust into my hands. A most fannish welcome.
I wondered into the kitchen, which was where the action was taking place. All sorts of fannish fans were there. Judith Hanna and Joseph Nicholas, the latter sporting a delightfully, tacky pair of earrings, which dangled down almost to his shoulder. Patrick Neilsen Hayden remembered a conversation we had on a Seattle bus in 1980, while Teresa Neilsen Hayden seemed to spend half the time falling off a bar stool in laughter. In the center of the room an arm-waving American was dominating her conversation, and armed with the mental image of Atom illos from Pulp I immediately recognised her as being Avedon. Later I recognised Rob from Atom illos; in contrast Pam Wells looked nothing like the impression I'd gained the same Pulp illos. John Harvey put in a special effort pointing out all and sundry to me - "That's Owen Whiteoak over there sipping a drink, and over there are Linda Pickersgill and Jimmy Robertson...." and so on. I spotted Carey getting a big hug and enquired as to who it was from. "Don't you know Cindy Evans?" was the quizical reply.
I figured now was as good a time as any to test the truism in the statement that Fandom is travelling long distances to talk to your neighbours, and went to introduce myself to this transplanted Aussie. Cindy was living in London, working at the BBC as an assistant editor. Just three weeks earlier I had retired from a career as an assistant editor, so we talked a bit about the film industry, comparing the way things are Perth and Melbourne and London. Then in mid-conversation Cindy said "Hey, there is someone you have to meet." And with that she took my hand, lead me outside and introduced me to Greg Pickersgill.
Because everything I knew about him comes from second-hand sources Greg was, to me, one of the more mythic characters British fandom had to offer. And for someone with Greg's reputation he was doing little to disappoint. With his light shoulder leaning against the fence he was holding forth to Ted White and Bryan Barrett and me about Conspiracy and sundry. He was in a cheery mood, except whenever Conspiracy preparations entered the conversation. He was not happy with the rumour that the Metropole management had decided to coincide Conspiracy with interior renovations and he was pissed off with the way the Progress Reports were handled, having nothing but understanding for any overseas fans that were upset. "They paid good money for their memberships and the PRs are only line of communication we have with them. PR4 is going to arrive too late for anyone to act upon anything in it."
Ted felt that it would all work out okay. "The LA crowd will make sure that all their supporters get copies of the site selection ballot." But Greg just didn't care about about site selection: "Let Glyer and his chums have the fuckin' Worldcon. Let's start up an International SF Con and make it a truly International affair."
"That sounds okay, but how you going to make it work?" Ted asked. "Someone will end up dominating it."
"We'll just make it work," Greg said, conclusively, and that was that.
Wandering back inside I joined in a conversation with Linda and Owen. Both were interested in what sort of travel plans Wendy and I had. I rattled off our itinerary and Linda expressed wonder when I said that we would be away from home for four months. "When you Aussies travel, you really travel."
"Well, it's a long way to Europe, and I didn't want to come over for only a couple of weeks. We figured we may as well save up and make the most the opportunity we had in our time away."
They appreciated the point and asked if there was anything I was particularly looking forward to in the trip. The first thing that came into my head was the disappointment that I'd missed both the Australian and British elections. Both Thatcher and Hawke had to go to the polls in 1987, and when I won GUFF the talk was that both elections would be late in the year. It would've been interesting watching someone else's election close-up, and my own from a distance. Unfortunately both elections were already history.
Then we turned to important matters, like sport. "Tomorrow I'm going to the cricket at Lords and I'm hoping to get to a soccer match. A day at Lords and a British soccer match have been two things I've dreamt about, just to soak up the atmosphere."
"If ya' rily want ta see a grat match ya should see a Celtic/Rangers match. The atmosphere at their matches is amazing," Owen said, illustrating perfectly just what is missing from a tv broadcast of a sporting event.
I went wandering, and came across a Trivial Pursuit game, involving Wendy, Rob, and Kit and Rain, Ted White's daughters. Or more to the point I found Wendy, Kit and Rain against Rob. I was told later that a roomful of people vs Rob in Trivial Pursuit is the way things go, and given the state of this particular game it was easy to see why. When I began to watch Rob had 4 pieces of cheese to the girls' none. As I watched the play I was also to discover just how it is that he is able to beat all comers - he is a pedantic bastard. One question asked for the item Marco Polo brought back from the Orient. "Pasta," answered the girls, pleased to have finally cracked it for a bit of cheese. Quick as a flash Rob shot off a firm "Wrong... it was spaghetti."
The girls tried arguing the point, "... but spaghetti is pasta..." But Rob wouldn't move, "So is lasagna." Then the girls started pleading, "But look how far ahead you are. You're killing us." But Rob kept to his resolve, picked up the die, had his move and that was that. As it turned out, in that very next question Rob admitted to not knowing it was John F. Kennedy who said "I've been shot," causing Wendy to glance at me a look of victory. I'd long felt that a lot of Trivial Pursuit questions provide a clue to the answer, and I always use that particular question to support my thesis. (A lot of people have been shot, but how many would have their utterances heard, repeated, and years down the track, appear in a trivia game? The most likely candidate being....)
Wendy and Carey were suffering from jetlag, I was leaning that way, and Eve and John wanted to prepare for the first day of the working week (which, for John, would include yet another Early Morning Run to the Airport to Meet Visiting Aussies, this time LynC and Clive Newell). So in the late afternoon we bode our farewells.
As John guided the car through the streets of London I pondered the party. At one stage someone worked out that there were even number of Australians, British and Americans there, with only the token Kiwi (in the form of Nigel Rowe) to upset the balance, and in this sense as a warm-up to the Worldcon it was useful. For me it was a strange party because for the most part I talked to people I already knew in person or people with whom I'd had relatively little contact. When it came to those people with whom I had some stronger on-paper contact I didn't know what to say. There was a bit of the shuffling of feet, and a few pleasantly polite hellos, but not much else. Sitting there in the back of the car I wondered if this was the way the worldcon would go for me, with all sorts of opportunities going begging.
* * * * * * * * *The next two days gave us our opportunity to get our first close-up look at parts of London. First up was an extended stay at Lord's cricket ground, home of the Marylebone Cricket Club, which was four days into hosting the five day match to celebrate its bicentennial. It had always been my intention to watch a days play at a stately English cricket ground, and as luck would have it I was there to watch a stately cricket match - the MCC v The Rest of the World. This was the stuff out of one of those Great Hypothetical Debates; pick the best 22 players in the world, divide them into two teams and give them a cricket ground to play on. Those who had played English county cricket during the 1987 season formed the MCC team, while those non-Poms who like only six months of cricket a year made up The Rest. What this meant is that West Indians Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge, who form one of the greatest opening partnerships in Test history, and who play together for Barbados in the West Indies domestic competition, were playing against each other for the first since ...since ...whenever it was that Haynes decided to give up playing English county cricket, I guess.
We went to the match with Carey, Justin Ackroyd and Perry Middlemiss, meeting the later two at Victoria Station and travelling the Underground out to St John's Wood station. We went with the flow from the station and found that all that separated Lord's cricket ground from the rest of the world was a dull 3 meter brick fence. There were no surrounding parklands, no approach to heighten the senses towards a days cricket, nothing majestic or impressive about it at all. "This is It? You mean, behind this brick wall is Lord's!" I said. Justin nodded in the affirmative. From the outside Lord's could've just have been a factory or a motor repair workshop. I thought about the previous day and realised that I may have been looking straight at The Oval but didn't see it as it didn't meet my idea of what a major cricket ground is like.
Inside those walls the place certainly had the look and feel of a cricket ground. A lush, green playing surface, elegant stands, the gentle thwack of willow hitting leather and applause following same. We had fine seats - looking straight across the wicket, allowing us to get a good perspective on both the game and the ground. A nice aspect about Lord's is that the playing area is small and the stands have been designed to keep the audience close to the cricketing action. This is in contrast to the Melbourne Cricket Ground where the playing area is large and the stands have been built back from the boundary; a fine design for watching a football game but a bit too stick figurish for cricket.
The day's play was also fine, and was in keeping with the exhibition and celebration nature with which it was planned. At the start of the day Captain Allan Border declared The Rest's first innings closed at the overnight score of 7 for 421. This left The Rest 34 runs behind on the first innings and two days to go; both sides were still in it and there was still enough time for a result. This day's play was dominated by a fine partnership between Graham Gooch and Greenidge, the latter scoring a century. Their partnership allowed Mike Gatting, MCC's captain, to declare the innings closed with about half an hours play left in the day, leaving The Rest with just over a day in which to score 353 runs to win. As he came to the wicket to open the innings Sunil Gavasker received a rousing round of applause. In the first innings Sunil scored a century, his first at Lords, and had announced his retirement from Test cricket. In this innings he closed out his international career by failing to score a run, bowled by Malcolm Marshall in the third over. At the end of the day The Rest were 1 for 13, and no side was holding a distinct advantage. While we wouldn't be at Lord's the next day we were looking forward to the promise of a great day.
A great day was not to be as it was cold, wet, and miserable. The day's play was abandoned, the match declared a draw and us five Aussies spent our day in central London. Our aim was to get some bearings for our future time back in London and meet vital tourist essentials such as cashing travellers cheques and buying postcards. We started out by meeting Eve for lunch in a City cellar pub, where us jeans-wearing travellers were surrounded by well heeled workers of the financial hub of Britain. A pint and some pub grub behind us we took to the rain-besoted streets. Our aim was St. Paul's Cathedral, taking shelter in doorways whenever the rain got too heavy.
After the determined pace of running outside I walked around St. Paul's aimlessly, relaxing as I allowed the size of church to unfold as I wandered down the North Aisle. Justin told us we'd get a good view of London from the top of the Christopher Wren's dome. Perry declined the suggestion so the rest of us treked up the series of spiral staircases to the top. The climb up is hard work so we stopped off for a rest at the Whispering Gallery. Located just where the dome joins the main body of the building, it provides a good spot from which to get a close look at the interior of the dome and a strong idea of the size and proportions of the building. As we looked down we spotted a seated Perry, arms folded, legs out stretched, head back. He appeared to be looking at us. A few seconds of wild arm waving and an eagle-eye revealed that he was asleep.
The Whispering Gallery derives its name from its acoustics. Sit with your back to the wall and you can have a normal conversation with someone sitting on the other side of the dome. Wendy and I gave it a go.
"Wendy," I said.
"Can you hear me?"
"That's funny, because I can hear you."
"Well I can't hear you."
"That's strange, because I can certainly hear you."
And so on I went, digging myself into a bigger hole. Eventually realising where all this was getting me I got up and suggested we continue on with our trek.
By the time we reached the top the rain had stopped but a cold wind was sending spray our way. We braved the elements, found a marvelous view and allowed Justin to do tour guide impersonations. The area immediately surrounding St. Paul's is made up of older, smaller buildings and with no major obstacles in the area we were able to get a far-reaching view of the city before us. From atop the dome I was impressed with the scene, though it did provide conflicting emotions. I was glad that London's skyscrappers weren't as tall as Melbourne's and Sydney's but the presence of those buildings was a dominate part of the cityscape, particularly looking west towards The City.
Back at ground level we dumped our bodies next to Perry. "Still getting over jet-lag, we noticed, eh Perry."
"Hmmph! You'll never guess who just woke me."
We shoot forth our guesses: "The Pope?", "Isaac Asimov?" "Lucy Huntzinger?"
"No," said the cheery one with the snarl, "Tim Reddan."
"You're right Perry, we didn't guess that one."
Perry's arms dropped to his side, letting his hands dangle, and looking at some point past the ceiling asked, "Can't a man who's travelled halfway across the world have a little rest in a church without being disturbed by a fellow Aussie?"
"It's worse than that, Perry. Tim's a Queenslander."
Justin decided a visit to Forbidden Planet was in order and like good little kiddies we followed him onto the streets. A brisk walk and short train ride later we were at a shop with sci-fi stuff in the window. Such was Justin's determination to look at books with Bug Eye Monsters on the covers that we weren't afforded the opportunity to gain an impression of the route we had just taken. On the other hand we did get a view of a man who just can't leave his job at home. As we entered the shop the woman behind the counter was telling a customer that she couldn't help him but he should look along the shelves anyway. Justin stopped the chap and after a short conversation the guy turned around and walked out of the store.
The woman behind the counter was not impressed. "It's alright," Justin said, "I just sent him to your other store." She was still not impressed. "I'm a bookseller in Australia," Justin added. I suspect that neither Wendy, Perry, Carey or I noticed the woman's response to that line, we were all too busy mumbling that time honoured phrase, "Bloody Justin!"
I wandered around the shelves idly looking at what the place had to offer but my heart wasn't in it. I wasn't on the prowl for any science fiction books and with this lack of motivation I'm unable to report as to how Forbidden Planet compares to the shops back home. However I did overhear a conversation between two teenagers: "This place ain't no good. There's not enough comics." I would've repeated Justin's advice but I was handicapped in not knowing where the other store is.
It was around about then that Wendy and I decided we'd had enough and it was about time to travel back to Carshalton and prepare for the next day's travel down to Brighton and the worldcon.