Chapter 1: HELLO AMERICA
The pretty awful photo of me that appeared in
the convention programme book
- my fault for not sending a better one. God, I miss that hair.
The biggest problem I'd have to face was jet-lag ... or so seasoned fannish
travellers had informed me. It could ruin my whole convention, they had said,
and I was courting disaster with my insane decision to fly directly to Los
Angeles for the first night of the Worldcon rather than arrive a few days early
so as to acclimatise to the time and temperature difference in Southern
California. The thing to do, it seemed, was not to have jet-lag hit you when you
arrived at your destination -- so I didn't. No, I set out from home
suffering from the effects of jet-lag. What with SILICON up in Newcastle the
previous weekend and all the sleep I'd lost due to the unnaturally high
temperatures and feverish humidity of the past few days, I was pretty certain I
exactly what jet-lag felt like. Thursday 30th August was the big day and
I woke up yawning. I did a lot more yawning on my trip to the airport, and it
was while yawning that I made my first contact with the scientifictional
meta-reality I was to slip into more than once in the weeks to come....
It's the proud boast of British Rail that their Victoria to Gatwick shuttle
train will get you to that far-flung airport in 30 minutes. After 45 minutes I
began to doubt this. We had stopped on the line no more than 150 yards or so
from Gatwick station and the train showed little inclination to travel any
further. It was a lovely day, the sun streaming in through the windows
suppressing any discontent the passengers might have felt at this turn of
events. Apart from the monotonous clicking of my jaw as I yawned the only noise
in the carriage was the conversation of the two young Australians discussing the
recently postponed flight of the US Space Shuttle. Seated opposite them was a
middle-aged Texan who listened to them for some minutes before deciding to join
in. I sensed some fun in the making and pricked up my ears. The Texan revealed
that he was "in communications" and had "worked for NASA for 15
years before moving on in the late-70s". The Aussies listened politely to
this before putting the all-important question.
"What about toilets?" asked one.
"How d'you take a leak up there, sport?" asked the other.
The Texan was clearly flustered by this and I couldn't help chuckling at his
discomfit. He recovered quickly, however, and explained that his 15 years in
communications with NASA hadn't brought him into contact with the problems of
waste disposal in orbit all that often. Gosh, I hadn't even reached the airport
yet and already I'd encountered talk of space travel and bodily functions! It
was going to be a good convention.
We got into Gatwick 20 minutes later than advertised but the long lead-
times demanded by airlines made this no more than a minor annoyance. I was still
able to check my baggage in and make my way in the general direction of the
departure lounge at a leisurely pace. This was only the second time I'd ever
been to Gatwick. Such was the impression my visit of five years earlier had made
on me that the airport seemed totally strange and unfamiliar. Fortunately I am a
fan, so I was able to find my way to the departure lounge by means of my cosmic
mind, broad mental horizons, and the many signposts.
The departure lounge for transatlantic flights from Gatwick is in a circular
building called by the reassuringly stefnal name of 'the Satellite' and has
aircraft radiating from its gates like poles from a capstan. You reach this
unique structure from the main terminal building by means of a totally automated
shuttle, a high-speed and high-level train that whisks you along a gently
curving track and deposits you in the Satellite with a whoosh of automatic doors
and the sound of a loop-taped voice telling you to alight. Since the distance it
covers is little more than a hundred yards a simple tunnel would have provided
an adequate link, but what do I know? As the shuttle whooshed off on its return
journey I looked around and got the distinct impression I'd been dumped inside
the head of a giant mushroom. Only it wasn't a mushroom at all, but a doughnut.
The entire departure lounge was a torus that fit snuggly over the duty-free shop
at its centre, a very smart and comfortably furnished torus that I tried very
hard to relax in, but couldn't. I was too nervous. It was beginning to slowly
dawn on me just what was about to happen. Everything had seemed unreal so far,
but soon I'd be on a plane headed for Los Angeles and an American Worldcon, the
duly elected TAFF delegate and the 25th to cross the Atlantic under the auspices
of the fund. Would I live up to the expectations of those in the US who had
voted for me? I'd soon find out.
My flight, Northwest Orient NW45, was scheduled to leave at 1.30pm. Fifteen
minutes before this we began boarding and soon we were in the air. This being my
first time across the Atlantic I requested a window seat and got one -- over the
wing. I silently grumped and bitched about this particularly as a 747's wing
isn't a terribly reassuring sight. Quite apart from the pop-rivetted patches
randomly dotted about its surface, both the fully extended aerilons and the wing
itself flapped up and down in an alarming manner. Visions of a watery grave swam
before my eyes and I sank down in my seat feeling helpless in the face of a
cruel and uncaring fate. My misery was compounded by the ferocious air-
conditioning and the failure of the blanket covering my legs to resist the wind-
chill factor. Having given up on trying to understand the gibberish being
spouted by the Belgian couple occupying the seats between me and the aisle I
tried to catch some sleep. This proved a vain effort. I tossed, I turned, I
figetted, I draped the blanket across me in every conceivable way and a few
inconceivable ones as well, and all to no avail. Resigning myself to
sleeplessness I sighed, opened my eyes, glanced up at the screen on which the
in-flight movie was being shown, and focussed blearily on the words:
'I have a twelve-inch penis'
The film in question was SPLASH!, and the subtitle apparently because the
characters were speaking Swedish at that point. Despite these provocative words
at no time did the name 'Robert Holdstock' cross my mind. I hadn't bothered with
headphones since I had a feeling the film might contain offensive depictions of
women and because I was too cheap to pay the three buck hire-charge.
I have the ability to slip into a semi-comatose state when travelling alone,
one that while not particularly restful does at least make the hours fly by.
Thus, having checked that the small view of the Earth's surface visible behind
the wing was obscured by clouds, I slipped into this state and the hours flew
Not long after we'd taken off, the pilot had informed us that we were
leaving the UK high over northern Scotland and would soon pass within two
hundred miles of the tip of Iceland. Hours later he piped in again to let us
know we were approaching the coast of northern Canada, so I craned my neck to
look out of my window and saw what I took to be icebergs floating in the
Atlantic far below . What I was actually viewing, however, was a very fragmented
chunk of the northern Canadian coastline, as a ribbon of road zig-zagging across
the 'icebergs' proved. I was above a whole other continent for the first time in
my life and for some reason all I could think to ask myself was:
"Shouldn't those who call themselves 'Canadians' be natives of a place
called 'Canadia', and shouldn't people from Canada be 'Canadans'?"
It was an odd thought, irrelevant yet indicative of my somewhat
contradictory and confused state of mind at this point. Not that there weren't
good reasons for some degree of confusion on my part....
Justin Ackroyd, that year's GUFF winner and a well-seasoned traveller, had
suggested to me at SILICON that I set my watch to Los Angeles time as soon as I
boarded the plane. He himself swore by it, claiming it helped him adjust more
quickly. Having no reason to doubt him I took his advice. This was a mistake.
What no-one had seen fit to inform me of beforehand was that my direct flight to
Los Angeles was direct via Minneapolis where I'd have to switch planes. And
since Minneapolis is in a different time zone to Los Angeles all the captain's
announcements as to e.t.a's and the like were given in Central Standard Time.
Desperately trying to juggle three different times I soon became totally lost
and thoroughly confused. Many were the curses I heaped on Justin-bloody-Ackroyd
and his damned useless 'good advice'. On the positive side, this meant we
arrived in Minneapolis a couple of hours before I'd calculated we would.
The jumbo began its gradual descent over a vast body of water I knew must be
one of the Great Lakes and took to be Lake Michigan, but which a later perusal
of the atlas shows to have been Lake Superior. As we continued to descend
through the clear Minnesotan skies I stared entranced at the view below, my
first ever of an American city. The houses were arranged in lots on a
grid-system that, while perfectly logical, looked totally alien to me. And so
much land to each house! At first I was confused by the large number of
turquoise specks scattered across the city but as we got lower these resolved
themselves into the swimming pools of the wealthy. Or maybe, given their number,
of the not-so-wealthy in American terms. Yes, I was definitely entering a
Minneapolis from the air
Shortly before landing, the other non-American passengers and I were given
copies of form I-94 W to fill out. This form, which is probably the end result
of millions of dollars and years of development by the US Immigration Service,
requires you to answer yes or no to a series of questions. It is a truly
remarkable document. These were my favorites:
Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving
moral turpitude or a violation related to a controlled substance; or been
arrested or convicted for two or more offenses for which the aggregate sentence
to confinement was five years or more; or are you seeking entry to engage in
criminal or immoral activities?
What's the point of a holiday without a little moral turpitude, I always
say. The next question was even better.
Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in
terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were you involved,
in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?
Bearing in mind that we'd never seen this document until a few minutes ago,
the final line provided the perfect ending:
IMPORTANT: If you have answered "YES" to any of
the above, please contact the American embassy BEFORE you travel to the
Assuming this were possible, anyone who does so is then informed by the
embassy that they're too stupid to be allowed into the US. What a bunch of
jokers those guys at Immigration must be, I thought, blissfully unaware of the
treat the US Customs Service had in store for me.
I think of myself as a relatively ordinary chap of fairly normal appearance
(good-looking, of course, but only averagely so) and not in any way unusual or
disreputable. This view was not shared by American customs. After the plane had
landed, I'd collected my suitcase and casually struggled over to the foreign
arrivals' desk with it, where my fellow passengers appeared to be having to
answer only the most cursory of questions before having their passports stamped
and being ushered into the land of the free. When I reached the desk, however, a
stern-faced customs officer ordered me to open my case and began rummaging
through my effects, asking me questions all the while:
Whereya going? Los Angeles. Why do you have a Washington address listed as
the place where you'll be staying? Uh ... there was only room for one address on
the form and that's where I'll be staying longest while I'm over here. What is
the purpose of your visit? To ... ah ... attend the World Science Fiction
Convention in Los Angeles and then to visit friends in various parts of the US.
And so on and so forth. The customs officer called in a second to go through
my hand-baggage and a third to run a computer-check on my passport. I began to
feel paranoid and racked my brain trying to remember if I'd done anything
particularly subversive. I was fairly certain I hadn't overthrown the state
recently, and also knew that I hadn't used my highly trusted position as a
draughtsman for a major grocery chain to spy for the Russians (though possibly
GUM might be interested in a little commercial espionage -- must find out what
they pay). Then I remembered. I had been on a couple of anti-nuclear marches in
London during the previous year and in the second I marched with a group of
American students under a banner that proclaimed them to be EMBARRASSED
AMERICANS AGAINST REAGAN. Could that be it? The banner had attracted a
lot of media attention and I'd marched at the front of the group. Such an action
was sure to get me branded a dangerous pinko in Ronald Reagan's Amerika, I
realised, as visions of my passport being stamped 'undesirable alien' swam
before my eyes. What would Avedon think of me being officially described as both
alien and undesirable, I wondered? I started to sweat and began to consider how
far I was prepared to compromise my principles to gain entry to America. If
pressed could I bring myself to say "Ronald Reagan is a great President and
a wonderful human being" without choking on the words, or would I be forced
to return to the UK, a fannish martyr? We shall never know because eventually
the customs officer gave my passport an entry stamp (somewhat reluctantly I
thought) that allowed me to stay in the US until March 1985, and told me to
re-pack my bags. It had been an unpleasant few minutes but I'd passed the
inspection and now I was in. I had entered America!
Outside a shuttle bus waited to take us from 'International Arrivals' to the
'Domestic Flight Terminal'. During the short drive between the two I got my
first brief look at the US at ground level -- a stretch of road with a few cars
on it (which surprised me by being fairly small rather than the enormous gas-
guzzlers of myth and media) and some low industrial buildings. As fodder for
first impressions the scene left something to be desired.
The fact that we weren't given the number and time of our connecting flight
to L.A. ,coupled with my discovery that Americans place less emphasis on
adequate signposting than do the British, led to my spending a panic-stricken
five minutes dashing about the corridors of Minneapolis/St.Paul airport trying
to find out where the hell I was supposed to go and when I was supposed to be
there. During these tribulations I had my first encounter with American
plumbing. As I'd discover in the weeks to come, the public toilets in the
airport were fairly typical even though they seemed strange and alien to me. I
mean, urinals with individual hand-operated flushes?! And perhaps American guys
reading this can explain why all the cubicles contained a pack of paper toilet
seat covers yet totally lacked such commonplace British amenities as scrotum
adjusters and anal picks? Still, my experiences with US signs and sanitation,
and the eventual two-hour wait for the connecting flight, were more than
compensated for by the view from the window of the DC10 taking us to Los
Angeles. It was awesome.
We must have been thousands of feet up but the plains extended as far as the
eye could see, vanishing over the horizon in all directions, yet the mark of man
was everywhere. I'd seen large stretches of flatlands in the north of England
but they paled into insignificance next to this. I stared out of the window
entranced, fascinated by the country below, by the plains and how they gradually
gave way to desert high over Wyoming. The landscape was -- that word again --
alien; totally beyond my experience yet stirring my sense of wonder in a way
that no SF has ever done. It was at once humbling and exhilarating, awe-
inspiring and just a little frightening. Maybe it was the call of the genes, the
pagan affinity with the land of my Celtic ancestors echoing down the years, or
maybe not, but I hadn't realised the dead and arid wastes of our planet could
possess so strange and terrible a beauty. Transfixed by the view I only turned
from the window during that transcontinental flight to eat and tend to other
bodily functions, and so saw the shadows that brought the desert canyons into
such sharp relief lengthen into dusk with the dying afternoon as we neared the
West Coast. I was almost sorry when we left the desert behind and descended into
night as Los Angeles appeared before us, spread across the blackness like a
monstrous neon quilt.
Since I'd already entered the US at Minneapolis/St.Paul there were no
tedious formalities to be endured at LAX (not a name to inspire confidence in
the efficiency of the airport), so I headed straight for the baggage area. On
the way, I was delighted to spot the familiar figure of Lucy Huntzinger heading
towards me. We greeted each other, laughed, hugged, and turned to her companion,
a big bespectacled black man.
"Hi, I'm Ken Porter," he said, pumping my hand.
After retrieving my suitcase Ken drove us onto the freeway (via an airport
road where they drove on the left, for some bizarre reason) and we headed for
Anaheim. As Ken talked about the convention I looked about me at the giant neon
signs, the large cars, the road signs to exotic places like Santa Monica and
Ventura, letting the John Lennon album being played on the local station and the
warm air coming through the open windows wash over me. So this was Southern
The Hotel seemed to be miles from the airport, but driving along chatting to
Ken about blues music and trading fannish gossip with Lucy I didn't mind a bit.
Everything was right with the world and I was feeling great.
Harbour Blvd in the daytime
As we entered Anaheim and pulled onto Harbor Boulevard the skies over
Disneyland filled with exploding fireworks in a colourful display that lasted
for some minutes and grew more impressive the closer we got.
"That was amazing", I said, "but they really didn't have to
go to all that trouble to make me feel welcome."
The Anaheim Hilton and Towers was the main convention hotel for L.A.CON II
and is right next door to Disneyland, on Harbor Boulevard. When Ken dropped us
off in front of it I breathed a little sigh of relief. I'd spent 15 hours in
transit, lived through a day with 21 hours of light -- the longest I'd ever
known, and had covered 6000 miles. Now, at last, my journey was over.
I had arrived.