David Langford

[Dave Langford is a Welsh-born fiction writer, critic, humorist and essayist. He publishes Ansible, the newsletter of the science fiction world and a recipient of numerous prizes over the years. Dave himself has won many awards for his writing, including (since this essay about him was written) a Hugo Award for the best short story of the year – see the note at the end of this. CP’s article about Langford was written in 1998, for the programme booklet of a science fiction convention in the USA where he was Guest of Honour. This article may be downloaded, but may not be uploaded or printed elsewhere.]

I first met Dave Langford a quarter of a century ago when he and a crowd of other students from Oxford University descended on one of the monthly London sf meetings at the Globe.

The early 1970s in the Globe were a time of peaceful fannish pursuits. We liked nothing more than to flash sunray lamps surreptitiously at John Brosnan, to see if his nose would drop off, or start a rumour that Gollancz needed an editorial director and watch Malcolm Edwards run down the road waving his copy of Vector. When we wanted a drink we stood next to John Jarrold and looked thirsty. Every now and then Mike Moorcock would drop by and tell us how many Elric novels he’d written that week. John Brunner was always at the Globe cracking puns in Hungarian. (We think it was Hungarian; they weren’t funny, anyway.) None of us was very brainy, but we got by. Suddenly into this pleasant backwater entered a large, cheerful and dauntingly noisy band of brainy young Oxford students. Dave Langford stood out in this crowd: he’s always been taller and brainier than everyone else, We quickly informed Langford and his pals of the house rules: (1) You buy drinks for us, unless (2) John Jarrold is there, when he’ll buy drinks for us, and (3) after three months you’re allowed to stand next to John Jarrold.

They had already started publishing fanzines and they passed a few of them around. They were full of jokes and parodies and some of them were even pretty good. Good jokes were a bit of a novelty in those days, unless you were maybe Hungarian.

Not long after this, Dave invited me to give a talk one evening at OUSFS: Oxford University Science Fiction Society. I drove down to Oxford with my carefully prepared speech, which as I recall made out the case that the Nixon Watergate tape transcript was actually a science fiction novel and ought to be nominated for a Nebula. I arrived at Dave’s room close to Brasenose College. The first thing that happened was that Dave pulled up most of the floorboards to reveal an incredible arsenal of explosives. He satirically referred to them as ‘fireworks’. Until then, my concept of a firework was a cardboard tube wrapped in coloured paper with a paper fuse sticking out of the top. Dave’s fireworks were the size of footballs, they were wrapped in stiff brown paper, had wire fuses and anti-tamper devices and you half-expected to find instructions about telephoning newspapers with a password.

He led me to a steak house, where a group of brainy-looking students were waiting. We had a most enjoyable meal: at Dave’s subversive urging I came out with all the best gossip about familiar topics of horror, such as John Brosnan’s nose, Peter Nicholls’s pot-belly and Malcolm Edwards’s career, cracked a few Hungarian puns, gave a witty dissertation on current science fiction and culminated my dinner talk by mounting the definitive argument that the Watergate tapes were really sf. Half an hour later, in a bleak lecture hall, I discovered that I had just eaten dinner with my entire audience, who were now waiting politely for my talk.

A couple of years later, Dave left Oxford, was recruited by the Ministry of Defence and went to work for something called AWE. This place is so highly secret that I’m not allowed to reveal what the initials mean. All I can tell you is that AWE is in a village in Berkshire, where people regularly go to protest against the local research establishment interested in atomic weapons.

You might think this appointment was ultimately connected with the sort of things he kept under his floorboards. But no; Dave’s real talents were quickly spotted. For the best part of five years he served on two policy committees, where he was appointed to take the minutes. His main qualification for this was, of course, that of all the people present he was the only one who was deaf.

Here we are touching on something that strikes at the heart of the Langford Paradox. Dave is a rather amiable and harmless-looking man. At any fan gathering he will spend the evening cupping his ear hopefully in all the wrong directions, but then later will be found to have overheard only those things that were not meant to be overheard. Thus is derived much of the material for Ansible, the legendary scandal sheet of British fandom, published regularly once a month, a frequent winner of the Best Fanzine Hugo.

Together with his own Hugos for his uniquely funny fanwriting – recently collected by NESFA Press as The Silence of the Langford – Dave has won more Hugos than all other Brits combined. Indeed, it is sometimes said that Reading, Dave’s home town, has on average more Hugos per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

So, what is he like, this giant of fandom? Well, physically he’s pretty large. He’s also fast. Dave Langford is the fastest person I’ve ever met. He reads, types, writes, walks, eats (and all sorts of other activities, about which I can only speculate) more quickly than anyone else I know. For instance, I’m fairly tall myself and can walk quickly … but whenever I’ve had to walk with Dave (for five years Dave and I regularly went down the road in the traditional fannish search for a pub lunch) I’ve found myself trotting in his wake, yelling breathlessly at the deaf twit to slow down a bit, trying to trip him on corners and other pathetic attempts to keep up. He also talks quickly — if you get a chance to talk to him, listen carefully. The words flow fast and he never says anything you expect to hear. Listening to Dave can be a revelation.

Well, I left him a couple of paragraphs ago languishing at AWE. He quit that place as human conscience and the need for a living wage grew in him and he became a full-time writer. (This tells you how badly paid you are if you work for Britain’s Ministry of Defence.) He soon wrote a scurrilous book about a place uncannily similar to AWE: The Leaky Establishment is high comedy in the Kingsley Amis tradition and although for years was a rare item, eagerly sought by book collectors, it has recently been reissued in a handsome new paperback. Other books followed quickly, notably The Space Eater (which makes Starship Troopers look like something Robert A. Heinlein might have written), War in 2080, and one of my own favourites, the punchily titled An Account of a Meeting with Denizens of Another World, 1871.

An Account is a straight-faced send-up of the ‘alien encounter’ genre, which almost immediately entered the literature of these things. To Dave’s ill-concealed delight it has been solemnly adduced as Proving Things by many people who really ought to know better, including the famous (and, as it turned out, the rather gullible and latterly extremely cross) Whitley Strieber.

I happened to review this book for a national newspaper without realizing at first that the whole thing had been written by Dave. I’m relieved to say that I smelt a rat just in time.

Years later than all this, Dave and I started running a little software company together: a rather dire and discouraging thing to do, we eventually found. In the long hours of dealing with obdurately stupid customers, or endlessly recompiling programs, or printing dozens of manuals, or answering litigious letters from lawyers retained by big but ill-managed software companies, the one thing that kept us going was the fact that we were laughing ourselves silly all the time. Our manuals were scattered with in-jokes, many of them of fannish origin and type and therefore invisible to the obdurate. Most of the programs we sold were fairly serious as utilities, but silliness kept breaking out. The world is not perhaps yet ready for the unvarnished truth about Dave’s uniquely ingenious programs Menace, or FontRot, or even Drivel

No room here, indeed, for any more. Let me close by reminding you that in British fandom Dave Langford is regarded as a national treasure. We are loaning him to you for a few days. Take good care of him and please let us have him back.


Dave Langford has recently edited Maps – The Uncollected John Sladek. He has written two brilliant quiz books based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books: Unseen University Challenge and The Wyrdest Link. With the late, great Josh Kirby he published A Cosmic Cornucopia, and co-wrote with John Grant a subtle and emotionally sensitive novel called Guts: A Comedy of Manners.

Some of his funniest work has been his parodies — an excellent collection of these is He Do the Time Police in Different Voices, and some of his most prolific work is in reviewing and generally writing about science fiction — try Up Through an Empty House of Stars.

Dave is a multiple winner of the Hugo Award, in Best Fanzine and Best Fanwriter categories, but in 2001 he won the Hugo for Best Short Story for “Different Kinds of Darkness”. It was the first time a British-based British writer had won a Hugo in this category since Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” won the short story award in 1956. (British-born Charles Sheffield, a long-time resident of the USA, won a Hugo in 1994 for his story “Georgia on My Mind”.) Langford’s story, plus many other good ones, is collected in Different Kinds of Darkness.