A Visit to Festus Pragnell
This anecdote about the contrast between authors' public and private personae was penned by C. S. Youd and appeared in BEM, an English fanzine edited by Mal Ashworth. Festus Pragnell was, despite the sound of his name, a real writer.
I don’t recall just when or how I discovered that Festus Pragnell lived in Southampton, nor the source from which I gleaned his exact address. I suppose I must have written to him, expressing my fifteen-year-old admiration of his works, but there’s no recollection of that, either. All I do know is that I set out on my journey Pragnell-wards one evening and that some obscure sense of reverence forbade my using my bike – the normal means I had of getting to Southampton and, in particular, to the little bookstall off East Street which was my back-number treasure-trove. Instead I walked the two miles to Swaythling, and took a tram the rest of the way.
The preconceived views adolescents have of authors they admire are frequently even more idealistic and unsound than their views of the opposite sex. I was no exception to this. Any name that had appeared over a story in Wonder represented something a little larger than life; in the case of the author of The Green Man of Greypec, it had taken on a quasi-angelic quality. Shock No. 1: Festus was no immaculate, pipe-smoking character drinking cocktails in a cosy den carpeted with Chinese rugs. He was a large, untidy man, shirt-sleeved amid that domestic confusion to which I was quite accustomed at home but which here, in the context of so great an author, struck my mind nurtured on futuristic fantasies as perilously near squalor.
The second shock was in the realization that there was no point of contact between my own mind and that of the revered author, and that the failing – as it seemed to me then – was all on his side. I wanted to talk about science-fiction, which was the passion that consumed my days to the exclusion of practically everything else; particularly I wanted to talk about the science-fiction which Festus himself had written. The world of Greypec (or was it Kilsona? – memory fades) was real to me, and there was a wild excitement in the thought that I might be able to discuss this world with someone to whom it must be more real still, because he had created it. It took many long years and the pains and travails of authorship on my own part to understand that the reality of the world an author creates in fiction is beyond communication, and that the person least able to discuss it is the author himself. At the time I was aware only of my disappointment, a disappointment made more bitter by the absence of science-fiction magazines from Festus’ home, and his casual comment that he hadn’t read any science-fiction for a year or so.
Nor had it occurred to me that Festus might be under the urge to communicate, though on different matters. Being older, he was better able to make his attempts at this. He talked, and talked. He discussed his upbringing under his fanatically religious grandmother, and spewed out the hatred and disgust which disguised his love of God. To me, with an upbringing casually atheistic, God seemed too unimportant a subject to stir the emotions. He discussed his small daughter, and his desire to bring her up in what is still, I believe, quaintly regarded in some quarters as “freedom”. I had the truly self-centered adolescent’s loathing for all small children, as creatures demanding help and protection and giving nothing in return. He discussed the properties of diamonds, and his own belief that if a synthesis could be found, diamond would replace all forms of hard plating. I knew nothing of diamond, and cared even less.
The evening wore on, and I reeled under the flood of talk, unable to cope with it or halt it. It grew late, and I glanced at he clock. Festus ignored the glance and launched into an exposition of Freudian psychoanalysis. I believe Mrs. Pragnell went to bed at some stage. Festus continued to declaim. I fidgeted; he took no notice. I tried to remedy matters by ceasing even perfunctory murmurs of agreement. Festus, it was clear, no longer needed them.
When at last he released me at the front door, it was very late indeed – around midnight. I waited for some time at the nearest tram stop before, reluctantly and miserably, starting to walk the five or six miles between it and my home. When I had walked for about five minutes, I heard the singing of a distant tram, and raced for a stop to catch it. But it was heading in the opposite direction, returning to the depot.
I reached home, sometime between one and two in the morning, to find my parents abroad and anxious. But their anxiety made no impression on my own disillusion. One of my favorite science-fiction authors had proved to be an untidy bore.
* * * *
Years later, as I propped up the bar at the Globe, a burly and vaguely familiar figure shambled in, and was introduced by Ted Carnell as none other than Festus Pragnell. I metaphorically smacked by lips as I shook hands with him. I knew now that religion was worth getting worked up about, and was ready to argue any donkey’s hind leg off on the subject. With small children of my own, I knew just what was wrong about “free discipline”, and was ready to state my findings at length. And as for diamond, five years of helping to edit a technical journal on the subject would enable me to knock man-sized holes in any suggestion of using it for armor-plating.
I should have known better, of course. The years slide by, and they change other people while they are changing us. Festus wasn’t interested in religion, in child-upbringing, in the properties of diamond. Festus had a new passion –
Vitamins. And I didn’t know a damn thing about them then.