Made in England

Cristian Lazarescu’s view of the Science & SF Anglo-Romanian Exchange

Cristian Lazarescu is a physicist by qualification but who, subsequent to the cultural exchange, recently graduated from film school in Bucharest. His short film Harriers was shown at the 6th Festival of Fantastic Films.

Cristian is also a senior member of the editorial team that produces Quadrat, Romania's nearest answer to Britain's SF comic 2000AD and the Franco-American Heavy Metal.

A version of this article was first published in Curierul National (National Courier), a leading Romanian broadsheet newspaper.

So, what do you know about England?

The amorous tribulations of Charles and his Diana, those two proud representatives of a superannuated institution (monarchy, not marriage); Margaret Thatcher and Monty Python; The Beatles and Pink Floyd; the Knights of the Round Table; the most professional TV station in the whole World; and, for the readers of this column, Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells, the parents of modern science fiction.

Yet England is also the country in which the percentage of SF books, as a proportion of total sales, decreased from 3% in 1993 to 2.6% in 1994, while simultaneously the romantic fiction books sales increased from 6.2% to 7.8%.

This is the place where Antuza Genescu and I were parachuted at the end of a gloomy rainy September, for a week’s introduction to the UK prior to being Fan Guests at the 6th Festival of Fantastic Films. Indeed celluloid was the feature that characterized our odyssey whose dominant aspect could be discerned prior to arrival. Flying above London at night made it much easier to perceive the sublime in Blade Runner. Equally Gatwick Airport can be used, with just minor modifications, as stage for Star Trek, while the Phoenicians' houses -- the SF fans and scientists who supported our trip financially -- could become the floor for a horror B serial. Sherlock Holmes's museum (one early stop on our UK tour) is an even more hallucinatory experience it was as if you were walking, through rolls of hashish, straight into Conan Doyle's novels. And for the cinematic illusion to be complete, the crenellated figure of a stegosaurus springs from the London mist in front of the Museum of Natural History.

Hmmm... Let's put it another way.

Do you know what is the main element of cohesion in English society? The pub. The favourite place for socialising (especially for SF fans), a sort of combination between restaurant, bar and eating house, it does not consider itself as an exception in the insidious cinematization of reality. Somewhere in Maidstone, in the Strawberry Moon theme Pub, there is the Time Machine, the one H. G. Wells imagined. It floats above the tables, surrounded by test tubes with boiling strange potions, by books covered in leather and cobwebs within their leaves, by mysterious relics of long forgotten times or times not yet born. From time to time, stroboscopic lights pulse with Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds...

I feel a bit melancholic. What about a methodical approach?

September, 17th. We visited the Greenwich Observatory and took pictures at the left and at right of the meridian: the westerners at the left and the easterners at the right.

September, 18th. A terribly boring first half to the day, when a well-intentioned conservationist obstinately wants to explain each and very word on the slides projected two hours without break, but extraordinary in the second half, when we explored Beacon Wood, a nature reserve on a reclaimed industrial site, a descendant worthy of Broceliade and Mythago.

September, 19th... This is by far the silliest perspective of all. Maybe I should express my own point of view and add a bit of social analysis.

England is the faithful image of an alternate Romania in which the last 45 post-war red years never happened. Streets with pits where rain (common in London) gathers, quickly crossing the street wherever you can (the drivers, real gentlemen, stop the car so that you can cross, imagine that!), people playing the guitar or the bagpipe (dressed in the habitual kilt) lost in the labyrinth of London’s underground tube, homeless people sleeping in front of the central luxurious cinemas -- a variegated mob (more tourists than real Englishmen) -- and competing with the incredible traffic jam, the garbage left at the mercy of fate, but even the garbage has its own style here... In short, London is the heart of a huge empire, plunged in a prolongued agony...

A different sound, isn't it? But what will you say about the hidden camera?}/P>

A disguised black, whose stature is a good nomination for NBA and whose legs would make even Claudia Schiffer envious, advertises Tim Burton's latest film, Ed Wood, which is the biography of Edward Wood Jr. the worst director of all times (this is how he is considered in the official history of cinematography!); the meeting with the Deputy Mayor of Bexley (the borough on the Kentish outskirts of London where our hosts live) but who, coincidently, dies suddenly two days after he explains the way of democracy in England to us the Dracula land students (a quotation from the local press in Manchester); the BBC World Service interview, where for the first time in twenty years (as Mrs. Ruxandra Obreja said) something goes wrong with the tape recorder when the tape is torn -- new leaves to add to the C.N.I. file Badluck Iliescu.

Or the cultural shock?

All the British I have met are wonderful people, of rare warmness and generosity, but also proud representatives of a society that you can qualify using whatever words you like: eccentric, bizarre, strange, exotic and the list is open. They are fond of Star Trek - The Next Generation, Red Dwarf, The Prisoner, The X-Files, Babylon V and several others whose titles I can't remember now. Nobody has heard of Andrei Tarkovski, some kind of director... Iain M. Banks, of Scottish origin, is the most respected of the new British SF writers; but Borges or Marquez are completely unknown. The Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester (the concept includes not only SF and horror, but also fairy scenes, musicals, fairy tales, cartoons, even mainstream) vacillates between sublime (Vampyr or Blade Runner) and ridicule (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Ed Wood's "basic" work or the immortal drive-in cult movie Creature From the Black Lagoon 3-D!). It proves in fact to be a homage to the B series movies that enchanted the youth of 50-year old professional fans (though an oxymoron it is true). However, the most used adjective for SF (no matter what this term may mean) is ‘entertainment’ - something meant to relax: which gave me a new reason to feel exactly like I was in the middle of Romanian fandom. 'Fans from all countries, unite!' A slogan dear to any Romanian minister after the December 1989 Romanian revolution.

I think I shall stop here. What I want -- is not a common chronological account, but to suggest a certain frame of mind -- would suit better a documentary format or even a work of literary fiction. Then the neatest way to accomplish this task of reportage would be to say just what the cultural exchange was supposed to be and what it really meant to me.

  1. Getting familiar with the British way of life.
  2. Scientific problems and the role of science in everyday life.
  3. The rapport between science and science fiction (both as literature and in cinematic forms).

What else can I add, in addition to the Spartano-Draconic programme we were subjected to and meeting with some people that have ameliorated the deplorable impression I have about the human species? Maybe just two memories. The first that comes to mind is the night tour of London; five people packed in a Mini Morris (a kind of British Trabant) to whom the UK Parliament is described as a house full of chairs and the chairs are, as everybody knows, made to rest arses, which means that Parliament is full of arseholes. You will agree with me that it is a surprisingly plastic and adequate description - another common feature with the Romania of the 1990's. The second memory is of a fascinating late night run along a dark highway in the Kent countryside, the car vibrating in stereo to the metalo-symphonic rhythms of Meatloaf, cats’ eyes buried in the asphalt and fluorescent panels lighting in the night -- a strange psychedelic performance, that I can watch only half-awake as if under LSD influence,because I am so tired.

It is time I stopped here.

I shall let others remove my subjective Maya veil and to draw any necessary conclusions. You can choose whatever you like from my article or you can choose nothing.

The choice is yours.

Cristian Lazarescu

There have been other post-Iron Curtain fall East-West European SF cultural exchange activities including:-
          Eclipsing the Eclipse -- The First International Week of Science & SF
          Dracula & Worf: An Eastern European's Report of a Western European Visit
          Eastern European SF meets West

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