Interesting Times:
Michael Ashley and the Condition of England
Abi Frost

The sainted Robert Lichtman specifies nothing too 'dependent on knowing the personalities and quirks of various British fans (i.e. not a gossip send-up)'. A shame, say I; surely TAFF's all about getting to know each other's personalities and quirks. So I shall sharpen my TAFF campaign and demonstrate my merits by telling readers all about the other TAFF candidates. The truth may shock you, but I can no longer be gagged.

The Northern Sting

Elsewhere, no doubt, my honourable and learned opponent, Michael Ashley, is even now tearing at your heartstrings with an account of life in the gritty North, where men are men and women are superbeings, last resort of the true English proletariat, ground down (but never downhearted) by the imperious demands of soft, effete, overpaid Southern yuppies. Don't believe the hype. These days, it's the South that is suffering. Here, formerly prosperous publishers (many, if not all, of them, nominators of 'Ashley Watkins') stand by the burnt-out shell of Soho's once-glitzy Groucho Club, panhandling for the price of a lead title; riots break out in supermarkets if they don't mark the ciabatta down to half-price on the dot of four; Hugo-winning fanwriters spend Monday nights in a Reading bar called 'Oscar's' in the -- so far fruitless -- hope of selling their bodies for the price of a cheese and onion sandwich. Or even an onion sandwich, and excuse me while I take one out of my lunchbox. That's how bad it is. (Sniff.)

Meanwhile, in the North it's fleshpot time all round. Shopping centres are packed, tills jingling as they sell off the designer grunge-goodies nobody in London can afford. Over-rushed waiters in expense-account restaurants snarl contemptuously when they have to get out the special cheap menu for the occasional customer who speaks with a short A and doesn't address them as tha'. Why, in Keighley they think nothing at all of spending -- ooh, 50p each -- on a bag of chips. In Harringay it's one bag between four, and that leaves nothing for the bus-fare.

How has the North achieved this new prosperity? By ripping off Southerners with theme-parks, that's how. You can visit the D H Lawrence Country, the Brontë Country, the Last of the Summer Wine Country (after a sentimental TV comedy about the good old warm-hearted North), and, of course, the Saliromania Country. Yes, that's right; Michael's life is a fictional construct for the money-grubbing Bradford tourist trade.

This came about when the Conservative Group on Bradford Council realised their town was missing the boat. Other Northern areas prospered as unemployed Southerners, whether right-wingers yearning to laugh once again in the faces of the 'poor', or left-wingers desperate for one more hit of that magic liberal guilt, flocked to their theme-parks to be relieved of what little money they had saved from the boom years of the late eighties. Bradford had to acquire a literary heritage, fast, or collapse under the contradictions of capitalism. In a cardboard box in the Parks and Libraries department, they found it: a set of Saliromania.

Not quite as phallocentric as Lawrence, true; unfortunately not as deranged as Emily Brontë, or remotely as nauseating as Last of the Summer Wine -- but it would have to do. Today, we can admire their brilliance at making the best of a bad job. 'Michael's room', knee-deep in vomit-stained porno fanzines, broken rave records and used beer-cans oozing cigarette ends, draws the crowds again and again, despite an admission price close to a week's commission for a desperate Islington estate-agent. On 'special opening nights', hardened masochists pay extra to be sneered at by 'Michael' himself, their inadvertent bodily emissions adding that special authentic note to the decor. Little do they know that 'Michael' himself rarely if ever attends these occasions; a sensitive soul, he leaves them to his stand-ins, Harry Bond and Kevin 'The Carrot' McVeg.

You will, however, see 'the real Michael' sometimes at the 'Advice Centre', an attraction which tops even 'Michael's room' in popularity. When it opened, it had a double function; besides its role in the theme-park, it enabled the Bradford Tories to abolish unemployment in a manner similar to that used by Stalin. The brimming poll-tax coffers were looted to pay those who had the temerity to lose their jobs (and perhaps consider not voting Conservative) to plead with 'Michael' to fill in benefit forms or refer them to drug rehabilitation centres. Ironically, as the tourist money rolled in, the entire population of Bradford was able to find more lucrative work selling Nintendo games to each other, and began to scorn the 'Advice Centre', and the unpleasant and growing necessity of rubbing shoulders with impoverished Southerners as the recession grew deeper. 'Michael' solved the problem, by giving 'advice' to the audience; this brilliant idea drew ever more visitors. On the rare occasions when takings fall, Northerners working in London Social Security offices are briefed to send desperate claimants to a 'special office in Bradford' which supposedly holds the missing files on their cases.

As visitors leave the centre, they are tempted by one more costly attraction: the 'last bus from Leeds'. Here 'Michael' lurches and sometimes vomits over them, handing out TAFF ballots and insulting one and all. They love it.

'Michael', of course, when his day's work is over, returns to Kelmore Grove and home. But he does not even enter 'Michael's room', going instead straight to his secret underground retreat, which is comfortably and tastefully decorated, with a prominent 'Thank you for not smoking' sign on every wall. To the sound of his favourite Beatles records, he may perhaps riffle through his treasured collection of Jane Austen first editions, or write a scholarly letter to the editor of the Church Times on some arcane crux of the Book of Common Prayer. Or so his employers think. But this cosy hideaway is not the only secret in Saliromania Country. Even the Bradford Tories do not know the whole truth.

Enter the Hack

It is a little-known fact of British political history that the events of the last 25 years have been entirely determined by the progress of a vicious feud between the Bradford Tories and the Birmingham Young Conservatives. The full story cannot possibly be told here: suffice it to say, that had Peter Weston's plan succeeded, one Rog Peyton -- not Bradford's candidate, Mrs Thatcher -- would have become Prime Minister in 1979. A key element in Weston's strategy was the formation of an elite cell, which met under cover as 'The Birmingham Science Fiction Group'. When his plan failed in 1979, Weston, a broken man, searched about for a suitable lieutenant to help him rise again. He eventually chose Martin Tudor.

Now, strangely enough, Tudor is not now nor ever has been a Young Conservative; he was, in fact, one of a number of innocent SF readers who joined the Brum Group by accident (and were encouraged to remain, since their membership fees helped fund the cell's activities). Nevertheless, Weston chose him, possibly because he was more reliable than his more ideologically sound colleagues. Tudor was instructed to break the Bradford Tories by means of a series of embarrassing hoaxes, and to ensure they stayed broken by forcing out their Downing Street stooge.

Being an SF fan, however, Tudor subtly twisted the original plan to incorporate the traditional concerns of SF fans. Thus, the drama of Mrs Thatcher's resignation, which gripped all Britain in the autumn of 1990, was in fact but a dry run for the TAFF candidacy of Tony Berry.

Berry is at best a shadowy and elusive figure. But he is believed at some time to have been a fanwriter, and as such may have played his part in Martin Tudor's hoaxes. Why, for example, was it a quantity of fanzines which was found during the desperate search for Bradford's literary heritage? The Australian critic Peter Nicholls, in his Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, hints as much: 'Berry may have been a prolific pseudonymous writer: pseudonyms with which he has been associated include "Rhodri James", "L Ron Hubbard", "Jonah Jorm" and an as-yet-unidentified author who may have been called "Ashley".'

The 'Berry-Ashley theory' has many vociferous supporters, but we must tread with care. Others point out that, some time before, the mysterious 'Ashley Watkins' had achieved some sort of hold over the publishing magnate, John Jarrold. The exact nature of their arrangement remains obscure, but explanations which feature one of them 'dressing in women's clothing' are, as we shall see, very much wide of the mark. While Nicholls is a widely respected author, the cautious will note that his co-editor, John Clute, appears not to share his adherence (if such it is) to the Berry-Ashley theory:

Tony Berry has been fingered as a Yeltsinite double-agent, a paranoid recluse with a taste for exotic bubblegum, Hannibal the Cannibal and the true leader of the Conservative Party. He is none of these. Berry the metafiction -- attractive in some ways though the concept might have been -- will not so much as stand up to brief scrutiny by a myopic porcupine. Such a creature might, however, with profit look to the endless, bland, Arctic wasteland of the prose, and see in an instant the obvious truth. Tony Berry is, in the usual literary, if not the strictly literal, sense, a Canadian.

('Oh dear God, is it Novacon again?' forthcoming in Foundation)

Occam's Razor, however, with which Mr Clute might 'with profit' try shaving occasionally, suggests that Berry produced at least some of the 'Michael Ashley texts'. Evidently the plan was to get Bradford hooked on the lush lifestyle of Theme-Park City, then suddenly to reveal the hoax--leaving Bradford bankrupt and its electors baying for councillors' blood. (The role of 'Ashley Watkins' in the conspiracy was simpler, yet in many ways more devastating.) But it failed.

The Cruellest Month

Bradford certainly did well out of Tudor's machinations. By the early spring of 1992, the simple theme-park in Woodside had begun to take on something of the air of a religious cult-centre. In London, anyone who could afford a British Rail ticket to Bradford was well advised to afford a heavyweight bodyguard as well -- armed gangs stalked King's Cross Station ready to kill for the precious ticket to the shrine of Michael the Advice Worker. Other Northern theme-parks saw a devastating loss in audience. Haworth's Brontë Country served its last vicarage tea, as management abandoned workers to roam the moors forever crying 'Heathcliff!' Last of the Summer Wine was reduced to a dribble of smelly lees. In Nottinghamshire, the D H Lawrence Experience was closed down by armed police, as the actors hired to impersonate coal-miners responded to being put on short time by acting like striking miners. It seemed as if Bradford was sucking in all the money in recession-hit England.

Bradford's Conservative councillors literally rolled in money every morning, as a cheerful ritual prelude to the daily council meeting. They found another use for it too: buying their way back into control of the national Conservative Party. Tudor had cut one corner too many. By (as some sources will have it) installing his ghost-writer and TAFF candidate at No 10 Downing Street, he had put too much of a burden on the hapless Berry. Many commentators have remarked that John Major is well, yes, ever so nice, but not very interesting. Now, perhaps, we know why.

Weston, engrossed in the fulfilment of his anti-Bradford dream, and Tudor, hard at it achieving this while his own heart was set on winning TAFF for Birmingham, failed to notice a significant change in the political climate. Though their man was in place, Conservative Central Office was in Bradford's pocket. A General Election was forthcoming -- and Bradford desperately wanted to lose it.

Bradford depended by now on the permanent continuation of the recession. Once the proud manufacturing centre of the Yorkshire textile industry, it had abandoned this productive heritage for easy theme-park money. If the 'Michael' cult did not constantly expand, Bradford's Tories would lose power. But the cult depended on Southern recession. And if another Conservative government were elected, it would eventually have to engineer a pre-election boom in its Southern heartlands. Bradford's vast cash-reserves, however, could be used to manipulate the money-markets to keep any Labour government -- with its different electoral map -- in constant panic and permanent recession, with Bradford as a sole oasis of wealth and ultimate power.

The election was called for April. Central Office stooges commissioned suitably ludicrous advertising, and all seemed set fair for a thumping defeat. But nobody had briefed Major -- or Berry/Major as he had better be called. His masters, tied up in their own private projects, had never read the secret instructions Bradford's creatures sent. He sailed through the hustings his reassuringly unthrilling self, and won by a narrow, but sufficient, margin.

Find the Lady

The Bradford Tories were distraught. The only thing to do was to bluff it out, while secretly removing barrels of money from the Town Hall in preparation for eventual flight. They thought they had perhaps a few weeks; but as the months rolled by, the recession showed no sign of ending, and the Michael cult grew and grew. They relaxed, not knowing that 'Michael' had long ago disappeared, to be replaced by an altogether more charismatic figure.

What exactly happened may only be known by the hardnosed publisher -- and one-time trusted employee of Robert Maxwell -- John Jarrold, whose strange relationship with 'Ashley Watkins' has been alluded to earlier. To fill in the picture, we must briefly return to a seemingly minor character in our story, the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

She leads a quiet life, biding her time until she is called back, as she thinks she will be, to her old job and her old home. Every day, when her work in the House of Lords is done, she goes to a secret room, where she changes her apparel and appearance with the speed born of long practice. A black wig, the clothing of a youngish man, some subtle make-up and the job is done. Quickly she ascends the staircase to her personal helicopter pad and flies to Bradford.

She knows she cannot trust the men who once put her in power; they have become too utterly corrupted by sheer greed. But she thinks she can hold them, when the time comes, in the palm of her hand. They will not dare deny her anything: for she is now the true fountain of the only thing they hold dear -- the proceeds of the cult of Michael, the Advice Worker. Smiling, she descends from the helicopter into 'Michael's house', in the guise of 'Ashley Watkins' -- the murdered actor (and science-fiction fan) who first played Michael Ashley.

Written 1992/1993 for Robert Lichtman's Trap Door but not submitted.
See commentary below:

Not in Knightsbridge any more

On the perils, spiritual and temporal, of mixing politics and fanwriting

This, you will have gathered, is an exercise in gesture politics: specifically, a gestural fanzine in support of my own TAFF campaign while there's still a minute bit of campaign time left. Like everyone else in this doomed country (with the possible exception of Arthur Scargill, who was firing on all cylinders when I went to hear him do his stuff in Hyde Park last month) I have been clinically depressed for the last half-year (well, those of us with any sense have been for eleven-and-three-quarter months, but somebody must have voted Tory), and the months have slid by full of excellent intentions involving funny, topical, one-sheet fanzines but empty of any inner conviction that there was much to be funny about. What finally kicked me to the keyboard was the realisation that it was Too Bloody Late to expect anyone else to publish Interesting Times while the TAFF campaign was running, and it would have zero point afterwards, and, in spite of everything, I still think it's funny. Well, mildly amusing, all right, Green?

I wrote the piece in response to Robert Lichtman's request for stuff by TAFF candidates for Trap Door; hung on to it for a bit as one does and then woke up one evening to discover that my little bit of froth about the Southern recession was suddenly Politically Incorrect due to the blasted pit closures. I mean we all knew that he's a bastard, he's a swine, what's his name? Heseltine! all along, but I honestly never thought he'd go so far as to take a personal interest in spazzing up my TAFF campaign. But ha, ha, the forces of socialism triumphed on this one, since I'd cunningly not put the thing in the post.

Because, had I done so, and life being what it is under a Tory government, Trap Door would inevitably have flopped through the letterboxes of Britain on the morning of some big demo or other, and people would naturally have taken it to read on the tube, and I would have been faced with Bridget Wilkinson or Mark Plummer or Rob Newton or god save the mark Dave Wingrove calling me ten kinds of a scab. And all that would be left for me to do would be to lie down humiliated in the rainy gutter to be trampled to pulp by the Socialist Workers' Party formation placard-waving team.

Sorry, Robert.

So here we have the first peril of mixing politics and fanwriting. The real world and the fan world operate on independent time-scales. The Americans have the cult of the perfectly crafted collection of 'fine fanwriting' which takes aeons to produce, while we here have the much more positive cult of lying staring at the ceiling wondering why we and fifty friends from safe seats didn't have the foresight to move to the Vale of Glamorgan in 1991. (The Vale being the lowest of the Tory majorities -- 45, I think it was.) Yet events in one may still have repercussions in the other. Safer, perhaps, or at least less bloody embarrassing, to confine one's fanwriting to tales of long-cherished adolescent angst, or controversial assertions of A Woman's Right to Wear Trousers to the Office, or shooting Nigel Richardson in a barrel.

Pause while I wonder how to condense into one sentence my standard rant about how pop feminism, the cult of 'self-esteem' and 'personal issues' politics have brought us to the sorry Tory-ridden state we are in today. Well, that seems to have done it, and they have certainly also contributed to the dire state of current British fan publishing.

Unfinished, unpublished one-shot (1993)