Saturday was cold. Reports in the Sunday press said that it had been the coldest Saturday for years. They weren't kidding.
About 1.30pm on Saturday the sky grew overcast and it began to snow. An icy wind blew the snow against the windows as I
looked out of them in trepidation.
"Are you still going out in this?" my wife said.
I grinned weakly and nodded.
"You're crazy" she said.
Winding an extra scarf around my throat, I hitched the hot-water bottle further up under my coat and waved goodbye
as bravely as I could. Outside the door I braced myself against the elements and went for the car. Inside the car I beat
my fingers back into life against the steering column, started up the engine, and drove off towards Inchmery in a flurry of
snow. I felt like an Arctic explorer. I felt like Hell.
Inchmery were pleased to see me. They hadn't known I was going to call for them and had been contemplating
hiring a dog-sled team to take them to Waterloo. Cunningly, Vince had decided that he had a cold and should stay at home.
We left him with Nicki on his lap, his feet under the bars of a large electric fire and a Cheshire-cat grin on the parts of his
face visible above his beard.
The rallying point at Waterloo was just outside the station. In the forecourt near the entrance, mounted on a granite
plinth, there's a large red stone lion. We were to meet under this. The three of us arrived to find nobody there except the
lion, who was crouched miserably on the plinth, beating his paws together and brushing the snow out of his mane. We took
up position under him to wait for the others. I decided to keep moving round in a small circle just in case I froze to the
ground. Jimmy Groves (the club secretary) and George Locke arrived within a few minutes, followed by Ella Parker and a
non-fan friend of the Potters called Don Geldart, who had travelled up from Hampshire to see the fun.
Whilst waiting for the Potters to turn up, I came in for a certain amount of ribald comment on the state of my nose.
The Thomson nose, which is exceedingly blister-prone in the summer, was putting on its winter performance. From a
normal pink colour it had run the gamut of the spectrum and now shone a bright blue-purple due to the cold. Ella Parker was
much taken with it, and said so in her usual forthright manner, like, “Mighod, will you take a look at his conk!” I was too
frozen by now to answer her back.
Finally, agreeing that discretion was the better part of valour, we fled to a nearby cafe to wait for the Potters,
leaving a note with directions for them tucked in the railings under the lion, who had turned blue and was lying on his back
with his feet in the air. The cafe was heavenly, it was warm. Everybody ordered hot tea or coffee and settled down to wait
in comfort for the Potters, except for one fool who, after a few minutes, suggested a volunteer go out and look for them.
Nobody else volunteered, so the idiot who made the suggestion had to go.
Outside, I buried my head further in my coat collar and trotted round to the lion. The Potters were there, stamping
their feet and studying the note that had been left for them. I led them back to the cafe. To their credit they almost caught up
with me on the way back.
Finally, a move to search for a clubroom began. We decided that one of us should stay behind to gather in any
reports that came back from the searchers. I was narrowly beaten to this position by Joy Clarke. Outside, we dispersed into
small groups and went off down different streets to search the area for any empty rooms that might be rentable. Ella Parker
and I went down the main road to an area known as Lower March. It was directly opposite the Old Vic Theatre, and as we
passed the theatre I couldn't help thinking that the actors inside must be feeling pretty damn chilly in their tights that after-
noon. The buildings through Lower Marsh consisted of fairly old-type property with shops on the ground floor and rooms
above, some with their own separate entrances. In the street itself there were market stalls. We started along the street
craning our necks at the windows looking for any empty ones.
After we'd shivered our way down a third of the street we saw some rooms above a ladies lingerie shop. I prodded
Ella through the door with instructions to ask about the place upstairs. Averting my eyes from the shop window full of such
things as two-way-stretch nylon girdles in satin at 49/lld, I stepped back to the pavement and waited. Ella disappeared inside
the shop past the small window which showed several sizes of Fullform cup-fitting Freeflow brassieres in shell-pink, natural
flesh, and ivory, at 23/6d.
I waited. The cold was still intense, my nose was still performing, and I felt wretched. Ella seemed to have been
gone hours. Finally I went into the shop and, peering between certain garments (l6/8d in sheer oyster, rose and shocking
pink) I managed to attract her attention and get her out of the shop. Her excuse for staying so long was that she couldn't just
walk in, ask about the rooms, and walk out again, which was why she happened to have these three parcels and would I carry
them for her?
On we went down the road. Then, seeing another set of empty dusty windows, and as the shop below them was
also empty, we crossed the road to the market stalls where several barrow boys were warming themselves round a blazing
brazier on which they were piling broken wooden fruit-boxes. I wormed my way into a prominent position in front of the
fire and, while Ella was asking about the place opposite, began breaking up more fruit-boxes and adding them to the fire.
They told Ella that the empty place was owned by a shop a little way down the road, and we started off again. Before we
had gone far the men came after us and took back their brazier from me.
At the shop they had pointed out we went in, and here's where I began to get worried about the whole affair. Ella went up to the manager of the shop who was standing to one side, mentally totting up the afternoon's profit. She calmly asked him if the rooms down the street were for rent, as we wished to hire somewhere for use as a club. Immediately, I saw the manager's eyes veil over as his mind swung into gear with an almost audible click. I saw right away what he was thinking. “A C*L*U*B!..... Drinking...Gambling. Wild Wimmen... GOINGS ON!” I felt I had to put him right. I stepped forward and tried to say “A LITERARY club, of course,” but all I got out through my frozen lips was "A
Litiwally clwub of cawse". His eyes took in my bright purple nose, and I could see him consigning me to some dipsomaniac ward. He shook his head and we trailed out of the shop, me trying to explain to Ella that I had wanted to help.
We trudged on down the street. By now, visions of the cafe where we had left Joy, full of warmth and endless cups of hot tea, were rising up to torment me. Ella seemed made of sterner stuff as she strode on, her head swivelling from side to side in the quest for empty windows. I slunk along beside her beating my hands under my arms and wondering just how badly one can get frostbite in Britain. Finally we reached the end of the street. The last shop was open-fronted, and shelf after shelf of books were on display. It was the proverbial second-hand book shop and we both stopped to scan for SF. It was there, rows of it, new and second-hand. As Ella turned to take one last look up the street she received the final insult; a piece of grit from a chimney flew into her eye. I pulled her into the shop and tried to get it out. The proprietor came up to us, an old man swaddled in layers of overcoats and scarves. I finally got the grit out of Ella's eye and turned to ask him, forlornly, about the chances of an empty room in that locale. He gave the standard answer from any book-stall keeper to a fan’s query “there were some yesterday but they're gone now.” He went on to say that he would have let us have the rooms above his shop but they had
been badly bombed during the war. Ella's eyes were streaming with tears from the grit, mine were the same from the cold, and the old man seeing two such sympathetic characters launched into his favourite war story about the day the bomb fell on his shop. We stood there, listening to him, the tears streaming down our faces, until finally he too began sniffing and blurbling at his own tale. We left him, a pitiful figure saddened by his memories. Outside the shop we swung out of that street and wended our way back to the cafe where Joy was waiting. This road took us past a large block, of London County Council Offices, block after block of massive buildings. It was then I had
my great idea!
We finally stumbled into the cafe and managed to get an order for hot tea out of our frozen lips. After thawing out
slightly we were able to tell Joy our adventures and give her two addresses that might prove to be possibilities. On the third
cup of tea I heard a faint pounding at the cafe door and opened it to admit the half-frozen bodies of Ken and Irene Potter. A
few minutes later the rest of the crowd, Don Geldart, Sandy, George and Jimmy stumbled frozenly through the door.
After everybody had thawed out, the Potters so much so they were busy tackling some horrendous concoction of fudge and
cream disguised as a cake, we all reported to each other on our signal lack of success. When we started out we hadn't been
too hopeful that a club-room would be found, but there's always the chance in a million, though this afternoon it hadn't come
up. It was at this stage I broached my brainwave.
If, I expounded, we really wanted a club room in this area, it was ours for the taking. I pointed out of the cafe
windows where the bulk of the LCC offices loomed. Why not, I said, make our way into these office blocks when they are
working, and finding an empty room or two, just set up our duplicators and typers? Nobody would give us a second glance
in such a place, full as it is of all those offices and thousands of people.
Somehow though, the idea didn't seem to jell, and in fact proved the last straw. As it was getting dark the final cup
of tea was drunk, we gathered our coats and left the cafe. I drove Joy and Sandy back home then made for my own place at
top speed. About nine o'clock that evening, as I lay in a steaming hot bath feeling the beautiful warmth seep through my
frozen bones I reflected that we hadn't found rooms for the club, but we had made an important discovery that should be
written into the rules... NEVER LOOK FOR A CLUB ROOM WHEN THE TEMPERATURE IS UNDER 75°F.
...Arthur Thomson for The SFCoL Combozine (Easter 1960),
as previously reprinted in PROLAPSE #12 (August 2008).