I had thought of calling this "THE NIGHT THE PEN FELL ON JILL", but desisted
upon reflecting that it'd promptly type me as a Thurber fans - when I'm positively
*not* a Thurber fan. I have therefore decided to call it:
A WEEKEND TO BURN
by Archie Mercer
It really started on the Saturday morning, when I was queuing for the six minutes past ten bus. I say queuing - one or two others did start off by waiting with me, but soon gave up and moved off elsewhere. I stuck it out till the last, then referring back to my assorted timetables I discovered to my horror that although there were no less that THREE buses down for six minutes past ten, all of them either didn't run at all on Saturdays, or if they did then they went round by an alternative route.
By the time I'd come to this conclusion, and discovered what the time actually was, it was clear that I'd missed the 10.45 train. So as the next one wasn't till twelve-Something, I promptly crossed the road and waited for a bus going the other way.
This procedure isn't actually as cockeyed as it probably looks because I happen to live on the main road between Lincoln and Newark. Lincoln is the nearer place but Newark is on the main line and, I reasoned, both an earlier *and* a quicker train should be available. So I waited another age - a bit longer than I'd already waited fruitlessly on the other side of the road - and sure enough a bus eventually picked me up and conveyed me straight to Newark. I arrived at Newark Station dead on 12 o'clock, all set to be in London by early afternoon - to learn that the next train to London wasn't due till 2pm.
And it was late coming, at that.
I had been hoping for a meal on the train. However, I should have remembered - meals on trains are strictly non-functional. One boards the thing ravenously hungry just after the normal meal time, only to find them calling for participants in the tea meal. This I considered grossly insulting, so hungry I remained.
The journey wasn't all that bad though, and the train actually got back on schedule by the time it arrived on the outskirts of London. It lost several minutes again outside Kings Cross station of course - but then it always does - leaving me an hour or so to represent what had been intended as a good afternoon's shopping.
As a result I didn't get much territory covered I glanced into most of the second-hand and paperback shops in the vicinity of the Charing Cross Road, but might almost as well not have as I didn't feel there was actually time to LOOK.
After which, back through the underground to the Parker residence. A word of explanation seems to be in order at this point. The main attraction of Fannish London that weekend was the arrival of Bruce Burn from New Zealand, complete with all-night party at Ella's to welcome him. The idea was for half a dozen London based fans to travel down to Southampton Friday evening, spend the night c/o Jill Adams (who lives there), meet Bruce off the boat when it docked Saturday morning and escort him to town and to Ella's, where a small crowd of assorted fans would be on hand to celebrate. Which is where I was supposed to come into the picture.
So I emerged from the underground at Queens Park station, wended my way down Canterbury Road and rang the "Parker" bell on the recessed doorway that led to the upper premises above the abandoned horse-butchery. In a while feet pattered on the stairs, and the door was opened by a youthful fan whose face was a new one on me. He knew me though.
"Hello”, he said, "you're Archie" - as if daring me to deny a fact so patently obvious to anyone above the mental age of two months. "I'm Chris," he continued.
He was too - Chris Miller, young fan from the far northern city of Barrow-in-Furness, with whom I'd been corresponding. Naturally, if one comes south to meet someone from New Zealand the first person one meets just HAS to come from even farther north than oneself. Stands to reason. Or something.
Upstairs, several fans were sitting around waiting for the party to begin. Present then, or soon afterwards, were Ella Parker (of course - after all, she lives there), Ethel Lindsay, Ron Bennett, Arthur Thomson, Ken Cheslin and Potter, Ted Forsyth, Don Geldart, Jhim Linwood and Groves. Alan Rispin hadn't arrived yet.
More to the point, perhaps - neither had Bruce Burn.
Going upstairs to the spare room to dump my kit, found a woman in bed. A very nice woman too, name of Irene Potter. Fanning for two, as she is just at present, she suffers from what seems to be known in oriental fandom as chthonic gynaecology, which she finds somewhat unsettling at times. Leaving her to rest her weary pregnant carcass, I returned downstairs to learn the Awful Truth about Bruce Burn. This was that the boat had been delayed a day or so, and would not now be docking until the Sunday morning.
Several of those who had been going down under the old arrangement were unfortunately no longer able to make it. However, the opposite applied in my case - whereas I couldn't have made Southampton from Lincoln in the required time, now I could, so I duly added my name to the roster for Southampton. By this time the drinks had been opened and the party officially - Bruce Burn or no Bruce Burn - got under way.
The next event that I can recollect - apart from the temporary incursion of Tom Porter, young Newcastle-type fan currently on the town - was the decision of the Potters to evacuate, and Arthur's obligingly departing to run them home.
Which he somehow contrived to do, only he seemed to be taking an unduly long time about it. The explanation he gave when he finally DID get back amongst us was that he'd Got Lost, and found himself on Hampstead Heath. A likely story, so naturally it was accepted without question.
Arthur now contrived to take charge of the proceedings. Lining us up in two squads - a panel of older fans and an "audience" of younger ones - he started a session going on the inner meaning of fandom or something equally blah blah blah. Still, it contrived to pass the time fannishly until Ron - who was running the Southampton expedition - decided it was high time we were going. He rang for a taxi, and when it arrived - with what seemed agonising tardiness - five of us piled in - Ron, Jhim, Don, Ted and myself (Alan Rispin still not having arrived yet). There was about thirty-five minutes before the train left Waterloo, and Ella's flat being considerably north of the river we were all on tenterhooks lest the driver should not be able to make it in time.
Actually he did it in more like fifteen, and there was ample time for me to get a ticket, the others to try sundry slot-machines, and to view the scenery (-"There's a man and woman snogging on one seat, and two men snogging on another" - Jhim Linwood) before we boarded the waiting train, found ourselves five vacant seats in the same compartment, and set off on another stage of this highly mobile week-end. As Shakespeare had it, then, "Unto Southampton we do shift our scene".
We alighted an Southampton at some unearthly hour. It was light, but not very. We milled around aimlessly for a few minutes looking for signs of navigational life, then struck out boldly in the direction that some bright spark probably Ron - suggested. And lo and behold, after not many minutes we were standing outside the gate of a veritable dock, whilst good old Ron dickered with the policeman on duty at the entrance.
There we learned that this boat, the "Castle Fleece", would be docking at No. 2 Dock, whose entrance was about a mile away.
So off once again we set, across a patch of green and verdant wasteland that didn't look as though it had long been reclaimed from the sea. I may as well mention here as anywhere that everything I saw about Southampton (with the inevitable exception of the customs shed) I liked - it was all pleasant and green and like that, even the waste ground. A bit further along there were a few small commercial premises - depots and things for various firms - including one belonging to the "Itches Transport Co." which raised a small laugh. The other side of the wasteland was an area of ornamental gardens and verges and things, including a somewhat non-functional pair of toilets - they each had their separate entrances but the casual user had to go right up the path almost to the door in order to determine which was which. Naturally, I picked on the ladies. Over another road and round corner, and there was another dock entrance. Yes, said Ron - this was the one. Several other miscellaneous people were standing around the entrance, which proved it. Trouble was there was a policeman standing on duty at THIS entrance too, and whether it was the right one or not, his instructions seemed to be to keep us off.
Which would have been all right, except that the spots of rain that had been just beginning were turning into quite a shower.
Putting, on our macs, we found temporary shelter under the eaves of the dock post office and in a telephone booth. I was rather sorry I'd brought my mac with me - I'd left most of my kit at Ella's, but had borrowed one of her blankets on the grounds that having no jacket I might be cold in the train. I hadn't been, but if only my mac had likewise been lacking, I'd have had the perfect opportunity to dress up as Moondog. However, it was not to be, and Ella's blanket remained dry. Ella's probably happier that way, anyway, even if I'm not.
The rain was getting steadily worse, and when we learned of a reasonably nearby cafe that was supposed to be open, we unanimously decided to make tracks for same. We reached it, divested ourselves of our soaked macs, and looked around for service. A male member of the staff who took our orders apologized for there not being waitress service that early in the morning. As the other two tables the establishment boasted were being served by a girl, this started us speculating upon such deep philosophical mysteries as "when is a waitress not a waitress?" We achieved a set of muddy coffees, and some of us tried to order more solid fare, but the bloke proved so adept at turning a deaf ear that most of us gave up the fight in disgust. Outside the rain was belting it down for all it was worth, and the place began to fill with the human flotsam of the storm - mainly docker-types. Came a lull, and we grabbed our macs and evacuated the place not really very much more refreshed than when we came in.
We made the bus shelter just across the road from the dock entrance, before the rain came on full spate again. The gutters were flowing full, and I was getting worried lest the pavement too should be covered, inasmuch as I was wearing sandals. We laughed when we saw the policeman leaping wildly from island to island as he sought access to the further side of the dock gate. Ron Bennett stated a whistling session. That was all very well except that whenever anybody caught up `with him he promptly changed the tune. Then there was another lull, and as people seemed to be passing through the gates now, we decided to follow them. In our turn we discovered for ourselves just why the policeman had had to leap, then we were inside with nobody trying to stop us, and we were able to take shelter in a large building some little way along before the next step-up in the tempo of the storm.
The lower floor of the building didn't seem to be anything in particular - just a shambles of packing-cases, loading equipment, little offices and the like with sundry stairs, escalators and goods elevators leading upwards. We, together with quite a crowd of other people bent on similar errands to our own, congregated in an open entrance that gave right on to the middle of a largeish ship that was lying alongside. This ship sported the name, not of "Castle 'Fleece', but rather of "Castel Felice", which, inasmuch as the vessel was supposed to belong to an Italian line, made much better sense. And it was clearly the vessel we sought. Passengers were lining the rails several deep and we now had the job of identifying the fan who had come all this way to meet us. We held aloft George-Locke-art-dept posters, one of them depicting a spivvish type standing upside down with the lettering "Go Home Bruce Burn - New Zealand Needs You", and the other a clever parody on the Nuclear Disarmament campaign, reading "Ban the Burn" with a rocket taking on the shape of the familiar CND symbol. All in vain - nobody could read them at that distance.
However, by dint of much shouting, our wants were made known to those on, board ship and eventually Bruce Burn made his appearance. Although for quite a while we'd been pointing out face after face to each other asking is that him, once it WAS him we all recognised him immediately and sought to make ourselves known. This we effected by the brilliant stratagem of - now the rain had stopped for a while - going right forward to the edge of the dock from where we were in convenient loud talking distance, and the posters could actually (I *THINK*) be read from shipboard. We held converse for a few minutes, then some port official drove us away from the water's edge, with the information that the proper place for us was the balcony that ran along somewhere above our heads.
Access to the upper portions of the building seemed to be feasible only in one place, at the end we'd come in, ascent and descent being made by means of a twin-set of one escalator and one flight of stairs. The escalator was cunningly scheduled so that it was always running in the opposite direction to that in which one happened to be going at the time, so we used the stairs. At the top we found ourselves in the segregated end of a large customs shed, access to the functional portions of which was strictly forbidden, but from where said portions could be watched. The balcony we were after, however, was on a higher floor still, and up the next lot of stairs (without a parallel escalator this time) we went. Right at the top was a door.
Which was securely locked.
This was duly reported to officialdom, which could come up with no better answer that this being Sunday, the person whose job it was to open that particular door wasn't around. However, officialdom did its best, and after we'd spent a few frustrated minutes crouching at the top of the stairs, somebody (I think he was another visitor like ourselves) came back with a key that fitted - and we were through. The balcony ran right along to the end of the shed, and we soon located Bruce again, this time several decks lower than us, and somewhat frustrated in his turn because we kept bobbing up somewhere else whenever he managed to force his way opposite to where we stood.. We settled in the end for the end, where we were able to take shelter from the next rainstorm in a covered passageway. Emerging from there, we leaned on the rail looking down on Bruce - who was now somewhere up in the bows - and watching a dockside crane loading an enormous cargo of chairs which the crew promptly unpacked. Apparently the ship was running short of chairs or something. We were at a height equivalent to several stories above dock level, but that surprisingly enough didn't give me any qualms - what DID make me feel uneasy though was the crane. High as we were, this nevertheless towered about as high again above us, and - in particular - bulked only a few short yards away from the balcony. It was contemplation not of the height which I was on, but of the narrow gap betwixt crane and balcony and the height of that gap above the ground that made me shudder.
I don't think I could have taken that crane-driver's job.
It was now maybe seven or half-past, and the whisper had it that they'd be ashore by ten. As Jill Adams had arranged to have breakfast ready for us all, we thought this was a bit thick, and hoped sincerely that they'd be able to improve considerably on this. The rain kept coming back, and as the movement of passengers into the customs hall seemed imminent, we decided to forsake Bruce's company until he arrived in the latter location. So we trooped back downstairs again to customs Hall level and settled ourselves on one of several wooden benches that a benevolent officialdom had thoughtfully provided for the comfort of waiting delegations.
And there we waited. And waited. And waited.
Eight o'clock came and went, and then half-past, and even nine. This was ridiculous. In fact, we frequently mentioned precisely this very fact to each other. And, every time, agreement was unanimous. Ridiculous it certainly was.
Luggage was appearing all over the customs hall, lined up in alphabetical rows dressed to a low bench affair that ran down the length of the place. And at the far end, long lines of (we could only suppose) ship-passengers were assembled. But never a customs man was in sight. Then all of a sudden the end of the hall furthest from us was a mass of blue-uniformed peak-capped officers representing Her Majesty's Commissioners of Customs and Excise. There seemed to be furious activity at the far end of the hall, and the odd disembarkee soon began to roll through. This, I thought, looked distinctly promising. Assuming that they were starting at the letter "A", Mr. Burn's turn should not be much longer delayed.
Unfortunately, they weren't (it transpired) dealing with the ordinary passengers at all right then. And so, of course, his was.
It was then noticed that the dockside cranes were still landing passengers' luggage on the outside platform, and at the rate they were going it might take anything up to all day. Then - once again at last - passenger-types began circulating amongst the luggage, claiming their own and moving with it to the bench-counter. Several times somebody thought he'd spotted Bruce somewhere in the shambles, but each time proved to be a false alarm. Now the customs officers began infiltrating down the counter, and we could actually *see* that business had really started. The nearest letter to us was "Z", and we were speculating on the possible "Z" surnames involved - at least I was. We weren't communicating all that well except to agree periodically that it was ridiculous - when Bruce suddenly appeared just the other side of the impenetrable segregation-barrier and for the first time we were able to get right up close to him.
Or, rather, three of us were, Ron and Ted having already chickened out - with the not unreasonable-sounding excuse that it was only fair to notify Jill of the delay - and gone on ahead, together with all our baggage in order to leave the remaining three more scope for helping with Bruce's.
Bruce was now able to explain - it must have passed ten o'clock by this time - that the passengers being dealt with at that moment were those who were in theory due to proceed from the docks under their own arrangements rather than taking the boat-train for London. And as Bruce had not realised that he'd in fact be in the former category, he would have to wait to be processed with the latter. Then he was away again, and we three resumed our sentry-duty standing around at various vantage-points to catch him in good time as he came through, cleared.
Eleven o'clock went by.
A diversion-was caused by Jhim and myself deciding it was time we located a toilet. We prowled almost the entire length of the downstairs premises unsuccessfully, then ventured forth into the open, to ask a handy policeman. This worthy promptly asked us if we meant male or female. For a moment we wondered just what mickey the man thought he was coming, but it turned out he was being perfectly serious. It seems that the weaker sex frequently deputize their menfolk to go and ask embarrassing questions of the sort.
Then back to the upstairs location, and more waiting. Bruce Burn eventually came through, free and smiling, at just on twelve o'clock midday.
Bruce's luggage, contemplation of which had been causing us some concern, proved to be easily portable - one heavy suitcase (the worst item for personal transportation, as suitcases so often are), one bulging rucksack, a large open basket containing (amongst other things) an item for the OMPA mailing and (fannish touch, this) a battered-looking portable typewriter. The OMPAzine, incidentally, thus became so far as I'm aware the second such to come under Customs scrutiny (SCIENCE FICTION FIVE-YEARLY, because it came in such a large parcel, was the first. This was probably the first time the Customs had to pass a bulk OMPAzine as personal accompanied luggage, though.) Anyway, this gave us one item each, and we set off to look for a bus. Whilst waiting for this, however, we sidetracked ourselves into a pub on the grounds that They Were Open, and it was high time Bruce was introduced to our insular habit of drinking. After a quick round, the bus was transmuted into a taxi, and in a few minutes time we disembarked outside Jill's house.
There we were met by a pleasantly shy young man who introduced himself as John Adams, husband to Jill of that ilk, and by an even shyer small girl name of Penny. It transpired that Jill, Ron, and Ted had gone back to the docks only a few minutes before, to see how we were getting on.
John proved to be considerably more fannishly knowledgeable than one had imagined, recognising some of our names immediately and we were soon sitting around the living-room drinking coffee (which three of us, at any, rate, sorely needed) and talking. Penny sat quietly doing jigsaw upon jigsaw - all the time we were there, she hardly did a thing else. Perhaps she LIKES jigsaws. And in the fullness of time the missing trio came back, and we were complete.
There was not very much time left, however, before the late afternoon train left for London and for various reasons we thought it advisable to be on it. Coffee was poured, buns and things were handed round (the breakfast theory had long ago been overtaken by events) and the talk continued. At one point, Penny left her jigsaw to go and get something from another room. She ran, sort, of - and the house, though pretty solidly built, *shook*.
"There goes Cecil!" I exclaimed as she galloped across the hall.
"The patter of tiny feet," said Jill, with a weary smile.
And damn it - she was, literally, entirely correct.
Then it was time to go. We gathered up the assorted luggage, and assembled in the front garden for a couple of photos before moving on down to the bus stop, and the train. Jill accompanied us to the station, and saw us into the corridors of a couple of the overcrowded coaches. Then we waved goodbye as the train pulled out. And back to London.
At first we were scattered up and down quite a length of corridor. I found myself with Bruce, and we continued comparing our respective local institutions, Bruce having expressed fascination at the umpteen little differences between the two countries ever since landing - if not before. In New Zealand, for instance, they don't have double-decker buses, or terrace houses, or.... (ask him yourself some time).
He was just beginning to clear up the mystery of how come New Zealand has a desert road without having a desert, when somebody else of the party squeezed through to our corner to inform us that there was room for us to become reunited further along.
There was - in the luggage van, and soon the six of us were once more together, plus - for a wonder all - our assorted gear still intact. I sat down on somebody's something - one of ours - and some non-fannish. type promptly moved something else, on which I was leaning rather heavily, out of the way. The result proved to be even less comfortable than standing up, so I stood up. For a time I watched a Chinese family, the two small children of which showed a most enviable capacity for slrrping in almost any position they happened to find themselves (uch as) half-off the lap of one or other of the parents. Then I noticed a series of hooks high up along the walls, so I hung my haversack from the nearest, rested my elbow in the resultant sling, and promptly fell asleep on my on two feet.
I was awakened by Ted Forsyth tickling me under the chin, but he only wanted to point out that there was now a better fannish-type seat (possibly Bruce's big rucksack) vacant. And it was dozing uneasily thereupon that I finished this particular stage of my week-end odyssey.
At Waterloo we split up. Ron, Don and Ted went down with Bruce to his uncle's in East Sheen or something, and Jhim Linwood. (who had very wisely brought his full week-ending kit with him) made tracks straight for St. Pancras and the next train back to Nottingham. He has since informed me that if I'd gone with him, I could have been back home myself by ten-thirty or so. However, I had to call at Ella's first to collect the rest of my stuff and give her back her (unused) blanket, so taking a couple of extra items from the others who would be turning up there again later, I now descended again to the Underground and caught the Bakerloo for Queen's Park once more.
Arriving back at Ella's, loaded with most of the non Burn-type gear of the party, I found Chris Miller there again. Nobody was using the big easy chair just inside the door, however, so I sankfully thank into its inviting depths. Now this chair of Ella's has two specific qualities, namely, (a) it's exceptionally easy to sink into, and (b) once you're in, it's even easier to simply STAY sunk. So I stayed there, whilst Ella poured me full of stockpot soup (an entire pudding basinful) and coffee. This latter probably kept me awake for the time being, but only just - I was in no mood to arise from The Chair, and an hour or more passed while I relaxed within its inviting depths. Eventually, just as it was beginning to get dark, I managed to bestir myself enough to get organised for a wash and a shave - the last shave, I decided on the spot, that I would have till Tuesday morning, however scruffy I might appear on Monday. I was fully aware that I had, forfeited all chance of arriving home at any even remotely reasonable hour by this time, the last functional train having long since departed, and I had no idea of what train I'd be catching now, nor even for sure by which route I'd be travelling. So I dawdled around, nattering to Ella and Chris and one or two others (such as Arthur Thomson) who had put in an appearance in the mean time. Eventually I decided to set myself a deadline - I'd leave at eight.
At about five minutes to said eight, came more feet on the stairs - 'twas Bennett, Forsyth, Geldart and Burn fresh from their side-trip to East Sheen and back, and ready to carry on with the interrupted "Welcome Bruce Burn" party of the night before. I left therefore somewhat after eight after all, Alan Rispin still not having arrived yet.
For the remainder of this highly mobile fannish week-end I'd be on my own.
At Kings Cross I' discovered that a Newark train left around eleven or twelve or something, so I kipped down in the waiting room for an hour or two. I slept on the train, then they woke me for Peterborough in case I wanted to get out there, but I slept through Grantham altogether and only woke up just in convenient time to get out at Newark as planned. Now Newark boasts two railway stations and a bus station, which are all situated at distances of something like a mile from each other. Buses don't run at that time of night, but in something over an hour's time there was supposed to be a train for Lincoln through the other station - so there I proceeded to proceed, on foot natch. First of all, I thought I'd missed the station altogether, then I found I could wander on to it via the pedestrian-gate of the level crossing, and did so. No wonder I'd missed the station - on investigation it proved to be otherwise locked up for the night, and entirely deserted. The waiting-room was locked, and the outside seats were covered with standing water - apparently the rain had been coming through the canopy all the way along. This, I thought grimly, is a hell of a way to run a railway. Then I discovered a large trolley part of which was relatively dry, so I lay down on that, covered myself with my plastic mac thing, and went back to sleep.
I was awakened by a sudden cacophony of banging and clattering that denoted barrows and trolleys being moved across the line. All at once both platforms were aswarm with porters. The gaslights were turned full on - the station had come...alive. It seemed that a train was imminently expected. It was. I duly boarded it, in exchange for Newark's share of national morning papers, disturbed one of two full-length sleepers who had hitherto been enjoying a darkened carriage to themselves, and set off again. This train didn't stop at Hykeham but ran straight through to Lincoln. It was either walk four miles or wait another hour or so for the first bus, so I wandered across to the bus station (in Lincoln these things are fairly compact) and tried the waiting-room door.
It, too, was locked.
Just In Case, I went round to try the side door of the waiting-room. This proved not merely to be unlocked - it wasn't even THERE. The door-less entrance gaped wide and inviting. Two or three other men were asleep on the long seats, and once again I lay down. This time I couldn't sleep, however. I might have done - in fact undoubtedly WOULD have done, but the bus-station was showing signs of waking up anyway, and I didn't have all that long to wait. So I caught the first bus home, arriving on the Mercatorial doorstep a few minutes after six a.m. I promptly took my outer clothes off, got into bed properly - and THEN I slept.
I was an hour and a half late for work that morning.
- HUNGRY #4 (July 1961, ed. Alan Rispin d/w OMPA #29)