The Thin Dead Line
Abi Frost

Me, I was born to be a journalist. It took until 1974, with James Fenton's magnificent despatches from Saigon in the very last days for me to realise that crashing through the jungle with my Nikon and my Olympia, clambering through minefields to get snappy quotes from the guerrillas and still getting back to a Telex before opening time was the secret fantasy at the heart of my self-image; that was me, and the other things I'd been or thought of being were not. The fantasy must have formed probably before I could talk, let alone read the New Statesman; all that (a little romanticised), was what my daddy did when I was small.

And it was precisely because my daddy did it that I never considered news journalism as a career while I had the chance. Never mind why I didn't want to be like me dad, or work with the people he worked with; just consider the fact that he could have fixed me a job just round the corner from Fleet Street, while my Oxford contemporaries were clawing each other's eyes out for a job on the Sticksville Gazette -- and I never asked him to. Resolve, if you are young enough for it to be relevant, never to be so silly yourself.

This moral tale is a way of putting off doing myself what I so grandly tell others not to do: apologising for, and explaining a little, the fact that these pages are not the most brilliant thing you have ever seen. I have to admit that I didn't (and still don't) like the idea of a tiny women-only apa at all, and really have very little need for one. I don't suffer from les crises de nerfs at the thought of flinging my work out at an apathetic world, and actually feel that anyone who does ought to consider whether she ought to be writing at all, as opposed to (say) painting or decorating cakes. On the other hand, the idea of a short run did appeal, since I've often thought of experimenting with hand-printing techniques to make a fanzine that was designed rather than "laid out"; I am far too much of a pro to think it worth it if there's no real text and no readers, and too idle to do it on 9O copies of New River Blues. But...


All you rank amateurs, you self-expressers, you meaningful communicators, you upholders of fine old fannish traditions, you forgers of a new matriarchal culture, do not know the poisonous emanations of that little word. Now, my daddy was a wire-service man, and taught me in my cradle that the deadline must not be crossed; death indeed lurked on t'other side,, If you're a Sun hack, and the Mirror gets the story before you, the worst that can happen is an ego-bruising session with Sir Larry Lamb. If you work for AP, and Reuter's beat you, then you lose the company money. The company sells your story to subscribing papers, you see, and all the papers also subscribe to the competition. Too much of that and yer out on yer ear, or in a desk job at thirty.

Still, a news deadline is an ephemeral thing; another day, another story, another dollar. Book deadlines are tougher, since if you miss one you have to catch up for the next. And what do you do if your authors are a modernist silversmith who is neurotically precise about everything, but is too exhausted from trying to write, teach and do his own work to remember what he's being precise about, and a philosopher of design who is rather more easy going, but exhausted from working for the last four years with the other one?

If you can't guess I'll tell you. You talk to them for hours on the phone; whenever you ring one you immediately call the other, so that they don't muddle each other. You meet Michael (the silversmith) at the designer's house at eight, and work with him till one-thirty (at night, after a full day at the office) . You sit Richard (the philosopher) clown in your office and bring him coffee instead of proof-reading, and make up the proof-reading later. You don't muck around with apazines.

Well, if we want to go to the ball, but can't quite raise the price of a Gina Fratini, we have a look in the rag-bag. The rag-bag, in this case full of unfinished fanzine projects and bits I wrote for this apa but threw aside, has an embarrassing habit of coming up with the sort of thing I'd jeer at other people for including in their bit. Like this, for instance:

I wonder if anyone can remember the Matrix cover that that was a reply to? It was a West cartoon, involving some pretty weak joke about a lady space-captain being raped by an alien. I still like my cartoon, but have this horror of an apa full of moans about sexism in fanzines. If fanzines are sexist, that is because ser-sahty is, and anyway, all these things are more complex than the soggy end of the rad-fem movement would have us believe.

One of my favourite jokes is a rape joke:

"Help, help, I've been graped"

"You mean raped, surely?"

"No, there was a bunch of them"

I like that joke's diffusion (or defusing) of the real horror of gang rape in favour of a very silly and feeble pun; I think that's one of the functions of jokes. I also like the pun for Empsonian reasons: "graped" actually sounds more like "groped" than "raped", and some feminists would like to have it (and suggest, ho ho) that groping is a milder avatar of rape. (I'm not so sure, but I'm aware of the concept.) In fact, I think many dirty (or mildly rude) jokes are really a way of putting a rather subtle concept over in an accessible way, since we all have some grasp of the technicalities of sex. There is a joke about a sex-education lecturer and a heckler: here is something I derived from it. Prof Empson, world-famous author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, is lecturing to a nasty rough Oxford audience:

Empson: There are seven types of Ambiguity....

JRR Tolkien (at the back of the hall): No, eight!

E: There are SEVEN types of Ambiguity....

JRRT: Eight, you cretin!

E: Remove that man. I will continue. The first type of Ambiguity occurs when a detail is effective in several ways at once....

JRRT (from under six bouncers): NINE!

The joke is that neither knows everything the other does, although both insist on being dogmatic, whether sex positions or ambiguity is in question. But only lit-crit fans get it my way.

Still, even my mandarin soul was somewhat banjaxed by the arrival recently of the first genuinely sexist fanzine I've seen. Here, to prove it, is a bit from my aborted apazine Donna Juanita:

When women say that fanzines are offensive
To properly-raised female consciousnesses
I lightly say (as at my comprehensive)
Far more in life than sexism depresses.
But here right now I am on the defensive;
For here's a sexist zine -- and what a mess 'tis!
Old Rodin said he sculpted with his cock;
Does that explain the state of
Brighton Rock?

I've always liked writing verse, and discovered recently, with a conciliatory doggerel for Malcolm Edwards, that verse-form and rhyme-scheme are actually useful tools of communication. Verse is formal, giving a sort of ironic pomposity to what would be merely pompous in prose; it forces compression, since the verse actually needs to go on to the next subject, and thus stops one labouring the point, while the reader is happy to fill in any syntactical or syllogistic gaps.

So that's why I started on Donna Juanita; as a way of making the very first "open letter to Linda", full of the usual stinging stuff about neofans, nostalgia for the dear old Oxford Women's Action Group, and very dull and precise self-examination into something creative, fun to write, and glittering. Here's some more of it:

Now, sketches of the 'rude bits' can be charming
Chris Foss has proved this in
The Joy of Sex
(But where are all the windows?) or (cough) warming
So that you have to say "England expects..."
Or something, quickly, or just plain alarming;
But Walker's daubs of cunts aren't, and in context
(A girl's name heads each page) they're simply sick;
I got off lightly with a limp wee prick.

I can't on Byron's bones say I approve
Of this unhealthy thing, this "women's apa"
If one should need her writings to remove
From men's rude eyes, to sisters who will clap her,
However useless, how should she improve?
Alas, she's just a self-indulgent flapper.
So, donning my last ladderless blue stocking
I dedicate my typewriter to mocking.

This fanzine writing lark is all for pleasure
And where's the fun in writing something boring?
And having got a grip on Juan's measure
Why waste the thing on silly girls imploring
Me for indulgence -- what, give up this treasure
To those whose own stuff's bound to leave me snoring!
Perhaps I'm chopping wood for my own gibbet --
Still, fuck me if I'll write poems for Joy Hibbert.

The fact is, Linda, I'm a lousy sister
I'd rather talk to men than write for women....

.......Lack confidence? What, you and your friend Chrissie?
I should be such a bashful little missie!

By moon-light it glittered all right, but come the cold grey dawn... Part of professionalism is knowing when you're just not up to the job.

Helen Starkey, if no-one else, will spot that the metre is a bit off in places. More culpable, to my mind (Byron wavers too, sometimes), is the number of lines, even in those favourite stanzas, that simply don't work hard enough. They could carry more meaning, or the same amount of meaning more precisely; they could point up the unusual or undecorous words more thoroughly. Too many exist just to lead up to one good rhyme.

So poot to poetry, and to art too. Poot to Ten articles I dread seeing in this apa. The very last thing in the ragbag is Simsa's device: apposite quotations. Here's Billie Jean King, shamelessly chopped out of the current City Limits, who are quoting from her new book:

"I know this is going to break a few hearts, because it is an article of faith that if we can just get more women out there -- with our warm maternal instincts -- running the world, then it will quickly all be hearts and flowers, peace and justice throughout the world, starting promptly the day after tomorrow. But everything I see in tennis suggests the contrary, that if you place women in the positions of prominence and power traditionally held by men, it is not the position that changes, it is the women."

Couldn't have put it better myself; couldn't have put it at all, actually, as I don't have all those years in professional tennis to back up the assertion. There are some things one must be grateful for -- imagine having to play tennis all the time to earn a crust! (A bigger crust, admittedly.)

I never cared for sport, though I once got a huge sense of ACHIEVEMENT at about twelve when I jumped over a vaulting-horse without using my hands. I do have a sneaking envy for Sarah Potter, though, the first woman to play for a county cricket club (a minor one). For some unearthly reason cricket strikes me as a sensible sort of game. On the other hand, I never watch it on telly.

Perhaps instead of messing around with apas we should form a women's XI?

Gardens, Cotton Street, London E14

Last page typed five days after the deadline

See you at the mailing comments

The Women's Periodical 0 -- preliminary mailing (May 1982)