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"MESSAGES FROM MARS MADE ME DO IT"

Greg Pickersgill, February 1988;

published in the Follycon Program Book -  Easter 1988

"It was around midnight, and I was in my usual confused state. I mean, you know, nothing works right: the women, the jobs, the no-jobs, the weather, the dogs. Finally you just sit in a kind of stricken state and wait like youíre sitting on the bus-stop bench waiting for death.Ē

So hereís our man, and itís not even midnight, and heís poncing around quoting Charles Bukowski as if heís been having a hard time of it. Boy, has he ever had it good. Here he is an Eastercon Fan Guest of Honour well dug in on the lee side of the hill. What, you expect cans of Guinness brought to you as well?

ďAn absorption in the past is often a repudiation of the present, not the least vice that nostalgia encourages, and a repudiation of the present, by distortion and false memory, is a repudiation of the self.Ē Geoffrey Wolff said that.

Hush! Hush! I Heard Somebody Calliní My Name!

I used to want to be somebody. Back then I must have known who. Probably someone who had his name on the cover of Fantasy and Science Fiction once or twice a year, put out a good fanzine occasionally, and was Number Four or Five Fan Face (then as now I liked to have someone to look up to). Whatever happened to that? The first two seem presently unlikely to say the least, and the third seems to have become more notoriety than fame. I canít say this is exactly how Iíd like it to be, so even though I cherish some illusions still, twenty years of anything, especially fandom, has a way of making one come to terms.

In 1968 I went to my first convention. It was the second Eastercon ever to have more than 200 members -  and as a newcomer I was just as ignored at it as newcomers to 800+ member Eastercons are today. I had made  a few contacts through the BSFA before that, though, and they helped me come away with the idea that there was something in this convention business and it was worth waiting a whole year to try again. Iíve been to a lot of conventions since then, and though few have been wholly satisfyingógiving that chance blend of ideas, novelty, and desperate fun that I think constitutes a truly fine conventionóI still think theyíre a good idea someone really ought to do something with.

There were less empty barns in those days, and with only one convention a year fan activity centred around the fanzine. I did a few, too few to mention, really, though they enjoyed a certain vogue. There was Fouler  (with assistance from now gone-fan Leroy Kettle), Ritblat, Seamonsters (with gone-fan Simone Walsh), and Stop Breaking Down. Nineteen issues. Not much, even with a handful of APA contributions. Actually, I still think some of the material is good. Much of my own material is as true to me today as then, and probably better written too.

Then I realised I could talk in public. Annual visits to the Silicon training farm got me going, arguing from the front and back in the Ian Williams Debate, a barely regulated shouting match that is my model for all but the most formal convention programming. Having run the Fan Room at the 1977 Eastercon, and done a lot of work in the Ď79 Worldcon Fanroom, I ended up working on both the Mexicons (ingroupish elitist conventions that run off with the attitude that a couple of hundred people with an interest in books and fanzines can have a good time without the benefit of other distractions) and, working under Linda Pickersgill, running the Fan Room at Conspiracy, which was a real eye-opener, not least in the way that many fans, including some of the most prominent and American, were such endless complainers and whingers.

Doesnít seem much to occupy twenty years. But hey, I do other stuff. Spending a weekís pay on an encyclopaedia of SF Magazines means Serious Collector to me, especially now I have this nagging urge to convert the few stray copies of Imaginative Tales, SFS, and Future I have into complete sets. And Iím still missing a few early SF Book Club editions too. I dunno, though, is this an adequate interest in science fiction (which of course it is widely believed no true fan should have, Hah!) or just what non-collectors call anal-retentive. Who cares. I am what I am and thatís all that I am.

FandomóAs Serious As Your Life

In a way Iíve been unlucky. By nature a home-type person and coming originally from a time and place where an interest in science fiction placed one well outside the norm, circumstances have conspired so that my entire social life is composed of fans and fan oriented events. In a way Iíve been lucky, because this means thereís a nice setup available whenever TV and blues records and old SF magazines and histories and biographies need a bit of competition. Sometimes I even get to talk about some of these things too, amidst the gossip, backbiting, and character assassination that fans do so enjoy. But as unluck would have it, though, this means one also has to contend with the loonies, schizos, hyper-active kids of all ages, and gunfighters (ďHah, you think youíre somebody, Iíll show everybody what a shit you really are ). None of that makes for happy partying or the deep pursuance of great thought, and certainly dispels childish notions of the joyful family of friends that is fandom. The fortunate part, though, is that it is, sometimes. Depending on who you talk to. Fans arenít slans, thatís true, some arenít even real human beings, but Tony Berry, heís alright.

A fellow called David Piper asked me at the 1987 Worldcon whether Iíd become a Fandom Is a Way of Life guy deliberately. Obviously not, though I do believe that all life is fandom of one sort or another, ours being the only one (probably) that calls itself by that name. I take fandom seriously enough, thatís true, as seriously as anything that involves other people deserves to be, What youíre doing, you might as well do properly, itís as serious as that.

Leader Without a Country, Prophet Without a Following.

Fan Guest of Honour. Me. Now thereís a funny thing. Iíve always worried about Guests of Honour. Are they? What does it mean? Whose choice? What Honour anyway? I dunno. I dithered and moped about this for months and was finally talked into it by people like Linda and Martin Tudor and John Jarrold and Anne Hamill, all of whose opinions I respect. I was made to believe I would be doing something useful and helpful, that I could carry the flag this time for our small world. I like to be helpful and do the decent thing, I like heroic gestures. Lilian Edwards, whose opinion I equally value, thought I was crazy, and was selling out my principles, but by then that bit of reinforcement was too late. It always seems too late. I hadnít even been doing much of anything at the time other than frontline Worldcon stuff, and of course mind-controlling a large segment of British fandoni, all of whom are too dumb to come up with an individual idea between them. (I masked this latter pernicious activity by lying around on the floor at home playing Muddy Waters lps).

Anyway, Fan of What, for godsake? SF fan, comics fan, media fan, Iím bits of all those. Games fan or computer fan, certainly not, no more than costume fan or re-creation fan. Fan Fan almost certainly, but these days the Ďfannishí fans occupy so many tracks I donít have the wheels or time to cover them all. So what does it come down to. Maybe being in the same place for so long turns you into a monument. Coelocanth or croc, me, an old rhino left over from a mythical Golden Age when all people at conventions were fans and all fans went to conventions. Is this perhaps just a reflex accolade given because Iíve managed to hang on this long, or what? Are the criteria for Guest of Honour choices wrong, should someone on the way up, or in the central heat of their fan career be a better choice of Fan Guest of Honour. Should we be aware that FGoH might translate as Boring Old Fart?

Who I am or what Iíve done means little to most of you reading this, other than perhaps a memory of that bastard who tried to stop you throwing paper planes in the Conspiracy Fanroom. And a fair proportion of those who do know me are less than delighted to see me in this position. Iím not so sure about it myself. Fan Guests of Honour have been scooped from some pretty deep trenches in the course of this decade (and isnít it peculiar that as the proportion of Ďfansí in the classic sense has declined within Eastercon membership, so the FGoH, a rarity before 1979, has become a near fixture) and Iím hardly ecstatic about standing shoulder to shoulder with a couple of them. It all seems a bit hopeless and futile and a pathetic remnant of the past, a ceremonial of lost empire, a cheap aristocracy of no real validity. Itís kind of sad and lacks dignity.

So why did I do it. I donít know. They asked me nicely. Linda said I deserved it. Jimmy Robertson was doing the Fan Room. Iím guilty. We all like our heads patted. What can you say, in fandom success is best measured by othersí reactions, you find where you are by a sort of radar plot of other peoplesí opinions. You canít be a great fanwriter by declaiming yourself one. You canít do anything unless other people think your ideas are worthwhile. You become, god help us, a Big Name Fan because other people think you are. You canít elect yourself. In my case some people think Iíve done good, some think Iím an evil bastard, and some used to think I shit gold and now proclaim I was putting lead in the water supply all along. Oh well, you know what they say, consistency requires us to be as ignorant today as we were a year ago. All I did was what I did, anyway.

Despite what Iíve said, I like fandom. I like a lot of the people in it, and I love a few. Some are my best friends. A good time in fandom, at a convention or elsewhere, is one of the best times on Earth, and one reason I sometimes get more than a little harsh about it is that I canít help wanting to do something about thc things and people I feel are jamming up the works.

Why am I Here and What am I Supposed to Do?

Hello, I am your Fan Guest of Honour, and I will give it all I can. All questions answered honestly. My name is Greg Pickersgill.

ďI am tired of sitting behind the lines with an imperfect recording device receiving inaccurate bulletins...I must reach the Front.Ē óWilliam Burroughs, the one and only.

from EASTER WINE


a fanthology produced by
CLAIRE BRIALEY and MARK PLUMMER
for the 2003 Eastercon.

 

This is me, Gregory. What we have here is a two-for-one, a bolted-together pair of articles, a genuine reprint, but absolutely as originally formed from the primal thoughts rocketing about in my head. They were written 23 years apart, for a start.

The point is, though, that they're deeply connected by a theme that is at the core of most sf fans (yes, even you who live in the days of the webble and the instantaneous bookfinder...), and that's finding, buying, and collecting science fiction. This used to be a lot harder than it is today. Even when there was actually more science fiction being published.

This first piece appeared in the August 1977 issue of my fanzine STOP BREAKING DOWN, and read in conjuction with the second is amazing as it shows how little my writing style has changed over the years. Is that worrying, slightly?; I dunno.

THINK IíM GOING BACK

A while ago I did something which was pretty much as near to a holy pilgrimage as anything Iíve ever done. Simone and I just so happened to be rooting about in Tooting, which is a much better name than the rather dull and almost completely uninteresting area of London it is attached to deserves. Itís part of the rough, grubby, nasty, and downright bloody miserable part of London South of the Thames. Weíd gone there deliberately, working on the principle that such Ďquaintí little backwaters often have whole rows of secondhand shops in which one might, one day, pick up for a purely nominal fee whole runs of WEIRD TALES or SCIENCE FICTION MONTHLY, or complete mint sets of Lemon Pipers singles or Troggs albums. You know, typical collector's fantasy.

Anyway there we were, rooting, finding nothing but typical outer-suburban cheap and nasty remaindered-goods shops or places selling real junk, not the classy esoteric rubbish we were after. Wandering down the road we found ourselves in a place called Colliers Wood, which isnít a wood at all, but a horrid windswept plain containing one of the most farflung Underground stations and a lot of nondescript light industrial sites. Anyway, something turned over in my mind at the sight of the Colliers Wood streetsign, so at my urging we plodded on through the light drizzle and driving wind, around corners and over long-abandoned canal bridges until magically, and for the nth time proving that Iím Right at least 75% of the time about 75% of things, Colliers Wood High Street transmuted before our very eyes into Merton High Street. And sure enough, right ahead, was number 19 Merton High Street, a name and number which could well raise memories in people who first got into buying lots of sf in the middle sixties, particularly if I add that the whole address is actually 19 Abbey Parade, Merton High Street. Yeah, right, that Leroy Kettle over there; it is in fact the home of PLUS BOOKS mail order operation, the outfit you first discovered (along with L. Walton of Liverpool, and anyone who can tell me what happened to him will receive his just reward) when you searched frantically for sf pushers in the book and magazine section of the EXCHANGE & MART.

Well out in the rain whole waves of nostalgia swept over me. Apart from being a regular mail-order customer I had actually once visited the shop, a Big Deal as Iíd lived 250 miles away at the time. I can hardly remember when; Ď69 perhaps, maybe Ď68 or before. But visit it I had done and with great profit too, coming away with two big boxes of stuff including whole years of AMAZING and FANTASTIC and generally filling lotsa gaps in my collection. Spent about £15, which was a Lot in those days. I must have been quite young too, as I remember the bloke in the shop making some sarcastic remarks about how his mother wouldnít "have allowed him to waste so much money on a load of trash". I remember making some feeble rationale at the time, and feeling obscurely guilty about the whole self-indulgent transaction.

Back in the running world the shop looked just the same; same flaking yellow paint, same rundown, desolate street, same gray sky lowering over the oddly small building (South London buildings are short, hardly ever over two stories), even the same crossing that I unthinkingly ran across joyfully bearing my scifi booty on that longago day. I was almost run down by a van driven by a young black guy, who pulled up so sharply he was almost hit by three cars himself. He wasnít happy about it.

So after dithering a bit we went in. Somehow incredibly it was just the same. Racks of romances, westerns, glamour mags (as they so quaintly label them),comics, and right ahead, just where it was before, the SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY CORNER, labelled in letters just that big. Fantastic. I was amazed. Just like Iíd never been away. Thereís a great feeling of permanence and stability comes over you at times like that, gives you the feeling that you actually know what is going on, and that everything will work out alright after all. Knockout. And stap me if it wasnít the same feller running the shop too; bit balder, his remaining hair a. bit longer, a bit paunchier (I let comparisons with Roger Peyton, purveyor of Fantastick Literatchur to the Gentry cross my mind) but himself nevertheless. Even as I rooted through the racks my mind raced through possible scenarios; ďHi, Iím the kid who came in here years ago and spent a lot and you said...Ē or even a line Iíd seriously considered on that longago day when I almost truly believed that anyone doing such a public work as selling sf would be only too pleased to meet his customers and bandy a little repartee and reminiscence with them: ďHello, Iím G.F. Pickersgill, of The Pines, Haylett Lane, Merlins Bridge, Haverfordwest, Pembs, and I send you orders every fortnight". Naive and foolish okay, and I never tried it either time, but maybe as Simone said when I explained the thought to her (in a voice just loud enough for the Man to hear just in case he was listening and .could be entranced by my memories too - truly, I am starryeyed to the last) just about anyone would remember a name and address like that, even decades later. However, he wasnít listening and didnít care even if he was, and there wasn't even much worth buying. Good things can't last. I bought a few things; a copy of the passably rare Philip Dick collection A HANDFUL OF DARKNESS which I gave to Malcolm Edwards as a bribe for something I've long since forgotten so it can't have worked, a copy of NEW WORLDS 72 which I later discovered I'd already got, SCIENCE FANTASY 22 which I did not have and was a true find, and the latest issue of FANTASTIC which I got more for old times sake than anything else as it was as dull an issue as usual these days. No sets of WEIRD TALES, not even a decent clutch of Ziff-Davis AMAZINGs. Even the porn section wans't worth more than a quarter of a hour's casual glance.

Still, it was nice, good memories are hard to find.

-------------------

This next bit was written on the 23rd November 2000 for the Memory Hole Mailing List (oh, see how we transfer so easily from manual typers, handcranked duplicators, and postage stamps to the science-fictional world of the internet!) and is really a continuation of the same story, even though the events detailed actually happened BEFORE those recounted in the SBD piece. It's a Stephen R Baxter world.... .

These bits could do with substantial annotation - after all how many know of Les Johnson (wrongly referred to as L Walton in the SBD piece) these days, but he was an important person in British sf before the Second World War (and in my youth, somewhat laterÖ) - but then we'd have the problem of rewrite over reprint, and that's not what this anthology requires. But it is wanting to know the stories behind such asides and allusions that entranced me on my first encounters with science fiction fandom back in 1966.  Maybe the trick will work for you too.

To: memoryhole@egroups.com
Subject: Re: [memoryhole] A FANNISH ROMAN A CLEF - Fanhistorians and Arthur C Clarke f...
From: gregory@gostak.demon.co.uk
Date: Thu, 23 Nov 2000 11:11:00 GMT

On Wed, 22 Nov 2000 15:08:03 EST, Jhim Linwood wrote:

>Bill's daughter married London fan Alan Bale and they lived with their baby over the Chiswick High Street branch of the Popular Book Centre in the 60's which he managed with the assistance of Bram Stokes who went on to higher things. Incidentally, "Arthur Sellings" (Robert Ley) managed the Caladonian Road branch. >
>Anyone know what happened to Alan? >

Arga warga - this is going to be about as offtopic as you can get and still be on the same planet. I'm (not) ashamed of myself! Oh well, it's all skiffy stuff anyway...

Incredible as it may seem the name Alan Bale is seldom far from my upper consciousness. When I was a young and serious sf reader and collector, back in the old days when hardly any sf existed and you just bought everything on the offchance it was worth reading, I was a big fan of the Popular Book Centre. I'm sure I was totally unaware that it was part of a chain (no matter how short) but somehow I'd come across an announcement that they were doing US-import sf by mail order from the Chiswick address. All this is over thirty years ago now but I still have vivid memories of getting their regular (duplicated on foolscap) lists with all those authors and publishers (Piers Anthony! Ballantine!) that you just didn't see in the shops round Merlin's Bridge. Hah, you didn't see them in the shops anywhere on the island at that time, probably.

I'd spend hours reading and rereading those lists making endless tickmarks and corrections as I worked out how to balance what I Absolutely Must Have against the actual pitiful sum of money available. Then the endless agonising wait for the package to be delivered, rushing out to the garage every morning to check (we did things differently back there and then!) until it actually arrived.

Wow, you can't believe how New and Alien it all seemed; US paperbacks seemed to be made of different stuff to your standard British Corgi or Panther, with brighter covers (not necessarily better - the Panthers of the midSixties with the 'melted glass' covers and the Penguin Surrealist detail series are still design classics), tighter binding, even the paper felt different. And that's not even getting into the sheer wonderment and novelty of knowing I'm reading something new and rare. The idea that I was into something that very few people in the British Isles were party to might have been slightly illusory, but also somehow powerful; way back then I used to be a determined proselytiser for sf, but at the same time there was something peculiarly fascinating about being possibly the only person in Wales with a copy of CHTHON or whatever. Daft.

Anyway, there seemed to be a very personal hand at work on the other end - there'd be occasional notes and information tagged onto catalogs or with packages. I felt I was dealing with a fellow fan in some way.

(At much the same time as all this I was also buying books from the mail-order arm of Plus Books, just like PBC a secondhand book&magazine shop chain with an import sf line - I wrote up a bit about this in an issue of STOP BREAKING DOWN about twenty-odd years back and it's possibly my favorite bit of my own fanwriting (ought to be reprinted...) but I never got the co-conspirator feel I got from Popular Book Centre.)

Anyway, time went on and at my second convention in Oxford in 1969 (Galactic Fair! Gerry Webb! John Brunner! - and Joe Mugnaini's animation HEAT OF TEN THOUSAND SUNS, one of the most remarkable short films I've ever seen - whatever happened to it?) I met Roy Kettle. Had I But Known, indeed... . However it all seemed quite wonderful at the time, especially as he was also a PBC customer. Wow, commonality! To cut to the chase this all led to my one and only visit to the shop. I'd gone up to Coventry where Kettle was at university and stayed with him for a couple of weeks (this should have proved quickly enough that we didn't have that much in common or even an awful lot of friendship, but somehow we both persisted with the illusion for far too many years thereafter) and one of the things we did was take a day trip to London specifically to go to the PBC.

When we eventually got to Chiswick High Road the shop was shut. This seemed disastrous - neither of us had had enough sense to phone ahead and check on opening times. For some reason that eludes me to this day we endlessly hung around outside rather than simply going to a nearby pub and coming back to check occasionally. Probably lack of money, if the truth be told. It seemed to be hours before anything happened and then this rather fannish looking type (glasses, untidy, you know...) wandered along aimlessly and opened up. Alan Bale. 

I'd love to be able to recount the next hour or so in detail but I can't. All I can recall is sifting through masses of books and magazines of all kinds, endlessly computing how much I could afford to buy, and exchanging comments about books and so on with both Kettle and Bale. Two things stand out - the first haunts me to this day. In a pile of boxes along one side of the shop was what Alan claimed was an almost complete set of WEIRD TALES. I opened a couple and was appropriately amazed - these were things you only read about if you lived in West Wales - it seemed almost beyond understanding that anyone would actually be selling them, they were so rare. It transpired that Alan wanted £75 for the lot - a fantastic sum of money in those days, well over a month's salary for most people. But at the time my brain almost exploded with the sheer cheapness of it, the fact that you could get them at all, the chances of borrowing, stealing, selling something, to get that 75 quid.... . All came to nothing, of course, but I lived a dozen complex scenarios in my head within two minutes of him saying how much he wanted for them.

Anyway, I bought a bagful of FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION and some other recent magazines and was bloody glad to get them, and we left.

The other thing I recall about Alan was that he was seriously interest in Japanese culture, particularly the samurai (something of a common thing at the time - one time fan and present Fortean BNF Bob Rickard was also a Japanophile). Alan though seemed to be taking it seriously to the point of wanting to emigrate to Japan, in those days a fairly unusual concept as there was still a certain suspicion of the Japanese due to the Second War, and all of the disparaging beliefs that accompanied that; even Honda motorcycles were viewed with deep suspicion, and there was no concept at all of the coming Japanese domination in electronics!

I met Alan a couple of times after that at conventions (a couple of Novacons in the very early Seventies, maybe also Eastercon 22 at Worcester in 1971) - we weren't friends or anything but he was a pleasant and interesting person. I'm sure that he did say he positively intended going to Japan with his family but as to whether than happened I don't know. Like Jim Linwood I'd certainly like to know what happened to him - for a while he was important in my life.

As to why he often comes to mind these days, well, apart from my usual wallowing in nostalgia for the Good Old Days of being a neofan and that fabulous Back When sf was a rare and prized thing, I pass down the Chiswick High Road surprisingly often. Catherine's sister lives in Chiswick and when we visit we drive down the High Road and I invariably try to remember and locate that once-important shop. It doesn't help that I can't remember the number (386? 485?) but anyway it's probably a coffee shop today, Chiswick's become that kind of place.