READING 'N' OXFORD
by Irwin Hirsh
(First published in Thyme 119, January 1998, edited by Alan Stewart)
Prior to leaving Australia Wendy and I approached the British Consul about a reference for Reading, Berkshire. In response we were sent a copy of a British Tourist Authority sponsored book "An Australian's Britain & Ireland." Sitting in the kitchen of Dave and Hazel Langford's home I read aloud the official view of their city:
This large commercial city just west of London is probably not worth a special visit.
I stopped and wondered aloud if the BTA offers a different view to prospective visitors from other countries. Then I continued on with the entry, which consisted purely of the links Reading has to the world of literature: that Oscar Wilde served most of his two year sentence for homosexual offences at Reading Gaol; that in the 13th century a monk from Reading Abbey wrote the ballad which begins "Summer is icumen in. Lhude sing cuccu!"; and that T. E. Lawrence, while changing trains at Reading Station, lost nearly the whole of the only copy of his handwritten, 250,000-word manuscript for the book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
"We keep on inviting Stephen Donaldson around," Dave told us, "but he never accepts the invitation."
And I can only presume that the BTA has never considered the concept of visiting fannish friends as coming under the idea of a special visit. Though to be fair there is something to their pejorative use of the term "commercial city". Reading's close proximity to London and, particularly, Heathrow has made it an attractive place for industry to set up shop without having to endure the costs associated with being in London. And back in 1987 the city was going through an expansionory phase, with roadworks and buildings projects going on all over the place. Hazel had the theory that it was all tied up with some EEC directive. They have all these red cones (aka witches hats) which have to be put to some use.
This expansion also had a personal effect on the Langfords. One evening when going out to dinner Hazel stopped and forlornly looked over to a pile of rubble covering the corner site where a fork in the road begins. "That used to be our favourite Indian restaurant," she sniffed.
Earlier Dave and Hazel had given us a tour of their large, many-storeyed, book-filled home, and a guide of the local sights to be seen out their windows. "That line of trees signifies the end of the University," Hazel told us, and pointing to a broken white line on the window sill Dave added "And this signifies the birds in the area."
I can't say we timed our visit too well. Dave had come down with some post-Conspiracy flu and a house of visitors wouldn't have helped him recover. On the other hand there were aspects of our visit where Dave didn't help himself. When Wendy and I decided to spend a day in Oxford Dave decided against a quiet, restful day alone and hitched a ride with us. After we'd visited three of his favourite pubs Dave put on his science-fiction-writer's-hat and predicted the future: "I can see it now! 'Langford took us on a tour of pubs in Oxford when we wanted to sample the high life of bookshops and the colleges.'"
So on we went and got a Langford tour of the university town. First off was Brasenose College where Dave studied physics. We stood in the quad and had a number of sections of bricks pointed out to us, and anecdotes provided of what went on on the other side of the walls we were looking at. We went into the College Chapel where Dave and Hazel were married. "It's a pity the chaplain has become famous and moved on. I've never met a chap who most enjoyed a gin and tonic." Then we wandered off to the Sheldonian Theatre and gazed upon the spot where Dave become a Bachelor. We climbed up to the Theatre's dome, where we got a great view of the city. Standing there taking in a view of city's towers and spires Dave realised that he'd never been up here. "The highest I ever got in Oxford was at my college. They barred us from various areas, changing the locks on the doors. So we took molds of the locks and worked out the master. One day I'll have to go back there and read my old graffiti."
We also had a great time visiting the city's bookshops. In one shop Dave told us he'd often see a famous author or two browsing the shelves; L Ron Hubbard wasn't one of them. Out near the edge of a newer part of the city (an area which so un-Oxford like) we visited Dave's favourite second-hand bookshop. As Dave and I considered various books in the sf section Dave told me about the time he spent a few minutes pondering a Brian Aldiss novel. Having decided not to buy it he put the book on the shelf, only to turn around and find that Aldiss had been standing there watching it all.
The Hirshs weren't the Langfords only visitors during those few days. Our first two days in Reading coincided with Bill and Mary Burns' final two days of their Conspiracy trip. They displayed a wide fannish knowledge, reflecting upon their acting as US agent for many things British. Talking to and getting to know them, listening to the fannish views and anecdotes, I wished their interest in fanzines extended beyond agenting and into contributing. One of our evenings together began with a meal of Hazel's patented and tasty Sludge, and ended in hours of fannish chat. Discussing Dave's recent acquistion of a couple of Hugos I pointed out to Bill and Mary that we, as Ansible's Aussie and US agents, can now describe ourselves as Hugo Winning Agents. We tried to convince Dave that he should give his Ansible Hugo to us, because if we'd done a lousy job as agents he would have had had a lower readership and subsequently a lower voter base. "We'll let you keep the awards for Best FanWriter," we told him.
The next day Wendy and I spent wandering around Reading, which struck us as a place not worthy of a special visit. It did afford us the opportunity to say we've shopped in Marks and Spencer, so it all wasn't all bad. We also found a highly fannish bookshop, full of books with titles like "The Duffers Guide to Spain", "The Duffers Guide to Greece", "TAFF's Acre" and Dave's own "War in 2080". Dave hasn't too thrilled with our news of the latter, and I was confused by this response. What I didn't know was that whenever a publisher has placed one of his books on the remaindered list Dave (or David, as he is known in the professional world) has purchased all the copies the publisher had, and has been turning a tidy profit on-selling them to willing booksellers. With a number of copies of "War" still in that particular bookshop Dave wouldn't be expecting a purchase order for further copies in the near future. I did my best to make up for this loss of revenue by relieving Dave of a copy of his novel "The Space Eater". Dave celebrated the transaction by converting my copy into one of those un-rare signed editions.
That evening was spent with another Langford house-guest, Joyce Scrivner, who travelled down to Reading after spending the day in Oxford. She'd purchased a booklet about the university, which included a list of notable graduates to the various colleges. Joyce wasn't impressed with the range by which 'notable' was defined so she whisked out a pen and proceeded to make some important additions to the lists. "I know what colleges you two went to," she told Dave and Hazel "But what Kevin Smith? And didn't Malcolm Edwards go to Oxford? ... and ..."
Joyce had also caught the Conspiracy-bug, and to hear she and Dave suffering was to listen to a duelling-banjos type duel:
"Hey! That's my line."
By the time Wendy and I woke the next morning Hazel was at work, Joyce was somewhere over the Atlantic on her way home, and Dave had decided he was in dire need of a visit to the doctor. "He said I've had too much conventioning and especially too much Scientology. He's diagnosed me an anti-Scientology pill. All should be right soon" he told us upon his return.
By then our bags were packed and it was time for Wendy and I to go west in search of further evidence of British fannish life. "Thanks for having us."
"Thanks for being had."