When Walter Alexander Willis first appeared in fandom there was little to indicate how important and influential a figure he would become. Belfast was far removed geographically from the fannish mainstream but Willis and the other fans in that city were to make Irish Fandom the most celebrated fan group of the 1950s. It all began on a rainy afternoon towards the end of World War II when Willis and the girl he'd been dating for nearly a year, Madeleine Bryan, took shelter in a newsagent's. Only when they reached simultaneously for the same copy of a BRE ASTOUNDING did each realise that the other read SF. "I think I first realised his intentions were honourable, when he started to let me read the novelette first", Madeleine later remarked of that day. They married in 1945 and bought a house, 170 Upper Newtownards Road, that would eventually be known as 'Oblique House' and become one of the most famous fannish gathering places of all. Irish Fandom had not been born yet, however.
In the summer of 1947 the Willises discovered, in a second-hand bookshop on Austin Street, something whose existence they had not previously suspected: a US edition of ASTOUNDING. This led to a frantic scouring of Belfast and surrounding districts that didn't produce any other issues but which did turn up a copy of Walter Gillings' prozine FANTASY. In the letter section was a missive from a Belfast fan, one James White. Walt Willis wrote to him and White replied on 26th August, a day thereafter known as Irish Fandom day, and arranged to meet. The group had been born, but for the first few months they were content to do little more than read through each other's books and magazines and to combine their collecting efforts. In December 1947, Willis came across an ad for the British Fantasy Library in one of the prozines and wrote off for details. The reply came in the form of a scribbled note from Ron Holmes and a mess of duplicated BFL material, including OPERATION FANTAST. Since OF offered magazines that Willis wanted he got in touch with editor Ken Slater about them and also asked if Slater could put him in touch with any other fans in Belfast. He couldn't. In March 1948 the third OF appeared, and among its enclosures was a copy of the first issue of Norman Ashfield's fanzine, ALEMBIC. As Willis recalls:
"It was this that started me off as a fanzine publisher, for Madeleine held it up and said, 'Surely you could do better than that!', and I thought maybe I could. It wasn't that we had such contempt for ALEMBIC, it was rather that it was more our sort of thing than OF had been. OF had news items and all sorts of proper magazine stuff, whereas ALEMBIC was just comments and general talk by Norman. Besides, this was only the second fanzine I'd seen, and it made me realise that there was no closed shop."Irish Fandom's first fanzine was to have a prolonged gestation, with early difficulties being encountered with the printing:
"When I'd got the draft typed up I made enquiries as to how much it would cost to have it professionally duplicated. Then the project was quietly abandoned. Until one afternoon a week or so later I happened to call on a friend who worked in a chemist's shop. I went up to the attic to help him sort out the junk while we were talking, and I came across an odd looking metal box festooned with levers. It was a little printing press the boss had bought ages ago to run off billheads, and then dumped in the attic and forgotten. I borrowed it and smuggled it out under my coat, along with a composing stick and all the type we could find."With a printing press to hand, even such a rudimentary flat-bed, Willis and White set to with enthusiasm, White even going so far as to produce 'woodcut' art for the issue using plywood and a razor. After "some 100 hours backbreaking toil" they had produced the first issue of SLANT, a 12-page half-foolscap production. Now all they needed to do was distribute it. To this end Willis had decided to take advantage of the BFL's offer to distribute fanzines with its own BOOKLIST and in September had written to John Gunn enquiring as to the next mailing, which was scheduled for 15th October 1948. SLANT was ready by 11th October so Willis asked if it could go out with the mailing. There was no reply, and the mailing was duly dispatched on 20th October. On receiving it, Willis wrote asking for the next mailing date and offering to pay part of the mailing costs. Again there was no reply, and that mailing went out on 9th November. Willis wrote yet again, this time offering to send the next mailing out for Gunn (he and White couldn't send out SLANT themselves - they had no addresses). Consequently, a parcel arrived on Christmas Day containing 200 copies of the December BOOKLIST and what Gunn's covering letter described as "the only copy of the Directory of Anglo-fandom in existence". As Willis recalls:
"There was neither stamps nor money enclosed, and indeed we never did get any recompense for the cost of the mailing, but it didn't matter anyway because there was no postal collection until after Boxing Day. We spent most of the intervening time writing addresses and sticking wrappers for about 150 people - the 49 noted as fully paid-up members of the BFL plus 101 others chosen more or less at random - and on 27th December 1948 the first fanzine ever published in Ireland was released on an unsuspecting fandom."
A largely positive response to SLANT provided the impetus for a second issue but as it was nearing completion it looked as though it was going to face the same distribution problems as the first issue had. By now the Science Fantasy Society was up and running and Willis was eager to have SLANT 2 sent out with SCIENCE FANTASY NEWS but again things dragged on for months and though SLANT 2 was ready in May it was July before it went out. The problem was that Viną Clarke was already taking most of the running of the SFS on his own shoulders, and illness had delayed SFN 4. By way of a subscription, US fan Eva Firestone had enrolled Willis in America's NFFF after the first SLANT and the NFFF membership roster provided the fanzine with a US mailing list. This was Willis's first link with US fandom, a link that was to contribute much to fandom in the 1950s.
The third SLANT proved no easier to get out than it predecessors. Willis and White were toiling away in order to meet the 19th December date given by Ted Tubb as the deadline for inclusion in the bumper SFS Christmas mailing, when disaster struck in the form of the impression lever on the press shattering as the last page was being produced. Later, in an amazing act of generosity, US fan Manly Bannister was to make a gift of his own press and ship it over to Irish Fandom, but meanwhile they had a problem. Willis had to ask Ken Bulmer to run the last page off on the Epicentre's newly-acquired rotary Gestetner. Then there was the problem of distribution. In a replay of the previous Christmas, Willis had volunteered to send out the whole of the Christmas mailing from Belfast:
"Ghod knows why: partly out of innocent helpfulness I suppose and probably partly so I could make sure that the good copies of SLANT went to the right people. Anyhow, it was a mistake."From the Epicentre came copies of the Gestetnered back page of SLANT, address labels, lists, ALEMBICs, SFNs stapled and loose, SFS Christmas cards, BFL Newsletters, and copies of Bulmer's fanzine, NIRVANA (a publication that only ever saw one full issue, mentions of apparently limited-distribution later issues being a hoax). It was hard work but Willis eventually got them sorted and mailed out.
Early in 1950 Irish Fandom acquired a new member when a hitherto unknown Northern Irish fan was contacted as a result of a letter he had printed in Gillings' FANTASY REVIEW. This was George Charters, and though he visited the group at Willis' invitation it would be a while before he became more than just an occasional visitor.
Response to SLANT 3 was disappointing but in March 1950 Willis received a momentous letter, not that it appeared that way at the time. It was a request for a subscription that began "Dear Mr Ellis...", and its writer was Chuck Harris. The following month Willis received a fanzine containing a story by Harris that impressed him sufficiently to ask Harris to submit one to SLANT. "You really startle me", Harris jokingly replied, "do you mean you'll consider publishing a story by me without paying me for it?" As Willis remembers:
"The story when it arrived turned out to be about a werewolf who picked up a girl in India who when confronted by a death worse than fate turned out to be a weretiger. James White saw the gimmick after the second paragraph and I told Chuck this when rejecting the story, which was the beginning of the great White/Harris 'Feud'. At about this time Chuck had a regular thing about werewolves and produced the first line of a story about a whole group of them which was really a classic among first lines: 'The family were changing for dinner'..."In the autumn of 1950 Willis visited England. One of those he had hoped to visit was Chuck Harris, but it was not to be. On 24th August Harris wrote to Willis and revealed what he'd hitherto kept a secret:
"...I don't think you'll be seeing me when you come over. During the war I caught meningitis, whilst in the Navy, and it destroyed both auditory nerves. Hence I am completely deaf. Lip-reading is a very exacting science (harder than Dianetics!) and I'm not very proficient. Most of the 'conversation' has to be written down for me, and it makes things rather difficult."Willis took the boat to Liverpool where he visited Eric Frank Russell. Then it was on to Leicester to stay with Mike Tealby, editor of WONDER. Here Willis made a note of the name of an unknown Belfast fan who had written to Tealby, the then British agent for OPERATION FANTAST, enquiring about whether there were other fans in that city. He also put out a one-shot fanzine with Tealby, SLANDER. This was a combination of the names of their regular fanzines (SLANT + WONDER) and carried a semi-serious attack on the London Circle, whose inactivity had long been a source of irritation to provincial fans. The culmination of Willis's trip was a visit to London. Arriving on a Thursday he met Viną Clarke and Ted Carnell in a J.Lyons teashop and then went on with them to the White Horse:
"I don't remember much about that, but afterwards Ken and Viną invited me to stay at The Epicentre, and I do remember that. It may have changed my whole life, and it certainly changed my writing style. Hitherto everything I'd written had been either serious and solemn or tense and turgid, but within a few weeks of getting back I was writing...more or less the way I write now. Yes, I had spent a night at The Epicentre and I had become a fan."
On 10th October 1950 the Belfast fan whose name Willis had noted while staying with Mike Tealby showed up at Oblique House.("The Belfast Triangle is...now a quadrilateral" he wrote in a letter to The Epicentre later). A 19 year-old, this newcomer turned out to be an artist and a writer, and keen to get involved with fanzines - all in all a valuable addition to Irish Fandom. He went on to produce what are probably the most famous of all the SLANT contents, the much-reprinted 'Fanmanship Lectures', which tell how to achieve Big Name Fan status by means of various Machiavellian techniques. His name was Bob Shaw.
In November 1950 Willis received a letter of comment from a new American fan called Lee Hoffman that praised SLANT and asked for contributions to her fanzine, QUANDRY, "...if you ever feel so inclined". He did feel so inclined and in March 1951 QUANDRY carried the first installment of his celebrated column 'The Harp That Once Or Twice'. This would see forty-four installments over eighteen years, survive four changes of fanzine, and help make Willis a fannish legend.
A publication new to the scene at this point - its first issue was dated 14 April 1950 - was a weekly comic called EAGLE. EAGLE's lead strip was 'Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future', one that was of particular importance to British fandom in that it would be their first introduction to SF for a generation of fans who would rise to prominence in the late-60s and early-70s. The strip featured the intrepid spaceman's adventures against the Mekon, a green-skinned Venusian despot, and his Treens. It was written and drawn by Frank Hampson and during its first three months Arthur C.Clarke served as its 'scientific advisor', though as he later admitted the strip was so well researched that he usually had little to do in that capacity. Interestingly, in the strip Dare's own scientific advisor was a woman and the head of Earth's space forces was a black man, quite radical for the time. Nevertheless, an underlying assumption of the strip (and indeed of some British SF of the period) was that Britain would continue to be a first-rank world power and would naturally play a large part in any future for humanity in space. Britain had been a superpower prior to World War II, albeit a declining one as the British Empire was gradually being dismantled, and there were many who still saw her that way, not least among them those in Government. Such people were in for a rude awakening later in the decade when Britain was to receive a sharp lesson in the new realities of power in the post-war world. These were the dying days of Empire, and it was also the era of Austerity. The war had been over for years but the economy had yet to recover and there was still rationing, with the Chancellor of the Exchequor, Sir Stafford Cripps, exhorting the nation to ever greater sacrifice. A great malaise hung over the land, and in such a climate it's perhaps not too surprising that fans of the day saw in fandom an escape from the grim, grey world they inhabited, a place to let their hair down and have fun. It also explains why so many went out of their way not to offend each other, and attempted to avoid feuds and anything else that could impare their enjoyment of fandom. Unfortunately, they were not always successful in this aim, as we shall see.
Ken Slater's OPERATION FANTAST had developed from its original form into something not exactly a club, or a book and magazine selling business, but rather a hybrid of both, an operation unique in the history of fandom. As Slater recalls:
"OPERATION FANTAST grew into a very loosely organised group of fans who all wanted to 'do their own thing' in various ways, and found that OF offered a sort of umbrella or shield which enabled them to do these things. By modern standards membership was not very high - on a worldwide basis it peaked around the middle of 1950, with some 800 people; it had passed 500 in late-1949, when I had had to introduce a printed fanzine - the effort of producing it by hand on a duplicator was too great. The 'membership' changed, but remained fairly constant between 600-700..."Currency restrictions being what they were at the time Slater had to resort to some fairly ingenious schemes to send and receive SF books and magazines overseas, evolving elaborate chains of barter and assigning units of exchange value to various items. With the numbers using its services at the time, and with such innovations as the OF Contact Bureau, it's hardly surprising that OF became the main route into fandom for new fans - and given that Slater not only ran OF but had set up the SFS, the national fan organisation, it's easy to see why he's usually credited with getting British fandom on its feet again after the war.
Another war started in June 1950, when North Korea invaded the South. The Korean War would last three years and involve the deaths of people from many countries before it finally ended. Ironically, June 1950 also saw the launch of something else that would eventually involve people from many countries, though far fewer and in much more constructive activity. That month, OF reported that Ted Carnell was organising a European convention in London for 1951, to coincide with that year's Festival of Britain. Guest of Honour was to be L.Sprague de Camp and it was hoped that as many continental fans as possible would attend. Slater suggested 'EUCON' as a name for the convention, of which more was to be heard in the months that followed.
Among the many ads that OF regularly carried around this time was one for pre-war fan G.Ken Chapman, who was now a bookseller specialising in Arkham House publications, and another for Derek Pickles of Bradford who offered 'A New Service for fandom - press cuttings on all fantasy matters and fan subjects, from British papers and periodicals', a service he had started at the suggestion of Slater. In November, Pickles put out the first issue of PHANTASMAGORIA, which joined the small but swelling ranks of British fanzines. At this point these consisted of SLANT, OF, SFN, WONDER and, as of spring, Bob Foster's SLUDGE (a fanzine that would see three issues before folding the following January, a fate ALEMBIC had suffered a few months earlier). PHANTASMAGORIA (or 'Pht' as it would become known to London Circle members when it began criticising their lethargy) contained the first installment of a column by Willis, 'The Outpost', relating his visit to The Epicentre. The column was carried in the first four issues. Apart from London and Belfast one of the few cities known to have an active fan group at this point was Birmingham. The Birmingham Science Fiction Circle was apparently formed in 1949 by Bert Barton and held weekly meetings, in a pub somewhere in the Digbeth area of the city, at which between six and twenty members would be present. The group never produced any fanzines, so far as is known, and so there's little we can tell about them but it is known that the group was written up in the 'Evening Despatch', a local newspaper, and that the really keen members would occasionally organise a trip to London in order to attend the White Horse and get the chance to speak to famous authors. This appears to have been the limit of their contact with fandom nationally. Still, the 1950s were to prove a boom-time for SF clubs and other cities were soon to develop thriving fan groups of their own.
Like many another British fan of the early-1950s, Eric Bentcliffe of Stockport (a town near Manchester) got into fandom via Ken Slater's OPERATION FANTAST. A mention of OF in a prozine letter column led him to contact Slater, to join the SFS and, via OF's Contact Bureau, to be put in touch with Manchester fan, Dave Cohen. Cohen had already contacted, by letter, two other fans in the area - Frank Richards and 'Taffy' Williams - and when Bentcliffe wrote to him he suggested that all four of them should meet up one evening at the Oxford Hotel in central Manchester. This meeting took place in late-January 1951 and, as Bentcliffe recalls:
"...was quite remarkably pleasant. Most of you have had the experience, at one time or another, of suddenly realising that you are with kindred spirits and can actually discuss your shared interest. Since science-fiction in Britain was then a much denigrated literary medium, this was perhaps the first time any of us had talked about it without encountering the legendary 'pursed lip and curled eye' which mention of SF usually inspired. We talked, mainly, about our favourite authors and stories but, inevitably, as the evening came to a close euphoria took over and we talked of how pleasant it would be to have an SF club in Manchester so we could do it more often."Having realised that the Oxford Hotel was not really a suitable venue, being the gathering place for the local prostitutes ("...at first their casual smiles had been taken as tacit approval of our discussions..."), Cohen suggested they meet in future at the Waterloo Hotel in Cheetham Hill which was close to his home in the city's Hightown district and had a private meeting room they could use. A newspaper item brought in more recruits and the Nor'west Science Fantasy Club (NSFC) was born.
Despite long periods when nothing was heard from it the Science Fantasy Society continued on in its limping way, but it was clear there was little real enthusiasm for the organisation. Ken Slater made a final attempt to inject some life into it around this time by arranging for one Egerton Sykes, an individual whose sole qualification seemed to be that he was perpetually on the verge of setting off for Mt. Ararat in search of the Ark, to take over as secretary of the SFS. However, the London Circle was as disinclined to be organised as ever and when Sykes showed up at the White Horse he was told, apparently none too diplomatically, that there was no money or publicity to be made out of organising fandom. He was never heard from again.
Unlike modern-day conventions, those of this period were often organised only weeks in advance. This was possible mainly because of the low numbers involved at the time and the fact that all that was usually involved was hiring a room (such as that above the White Horse) for a day or two. In 1950 no-one got around to it so there wasn't a convention that year, but in May 1951 the international convention first announced by Carnell almost a year previously, took place in London. Timed to coincide with the Festival of Britain, the Festival Convention (later christened FESTIVENTION) was the longest and most successful held in Britain to that point. Preliminary sessions were held in the White Horse on the nights of Thursday 10th and Friday 11th May, followed by Saturday and Sunday at the Royal Hotel in Bloomsbury, and a final, unofficial, session in the Havelock pub on Gray's Inn Rd on Monday evening.
Though L.Sprague de Camp was originally going to be the convention's Guest of Honour, it was Forrest J Ackerman who actually filled that role. He was present at the White Horse on the Thursday night, as were his wife Wendayne, Canada's Lyell Crane, Holland's Ben Abas, Sweeden's Sigvard Ostlund, Prof. A.M.Low, and the entirety of Irish Fandom (they had travelled over together on the boat). Attendance that night was around 60, the largest collection of fans ever seen in the White Horse. The following evening 40 turned up, including such Northern fans as Mike Rosenblum, Derek and Mavis Pickles, and Doug Mayer.
On Saturday the main sessions of the convention began at the Royal Hotel. Ted Carnell officially opened the proceedings, Walter Gillings followed with a gloomy speech forecasting an end to the publishing boom SF was then enjoying, Forrest Ackerman gave a lively account of SF publishing in the US, and Bill Temple brought the roof down with a speech on 'SF Serial Writing' that was another episode in his 'feud' with Arthur C.Clarke involving the synopsis for a serial in which he and Clarke crossed space in a giant onion, propelled by its 'mitogenetic rays' (!). Later Ted Tubb, assisted by Charlie Duncombe, kept everyone hugely entertained with his auctioneering flair, and after the buffet/dinner break BBC producer John Keir Cross gave a talk on his efforts to introduce SF into the BBC. This was followed by a speech by Arthur C.Clarke, already a regular on TV science programmes, about the possibilities in televised SF and fantasy.'The SF Soap Opera Company' (Audrey Lovett, Fred Brown, Ken Bulmer, Ted Carnell, Charlie Duncombe, and Ted Tubb) then showed the BBC how it should be done with a skit titled 'Who Goes Where'.
During Sunday Morning Ted Carnell gave a speech on the future course of NEW WORLDS, and in the afternoon the overseas guests were presented. Each gave a report on the state of SF and fandom in their country, Forrest J Ackerman speaking for the US, Georges Gallet for France, Ben Abas for Holland, Sigvard Ostlund for Sweden, Ken Paynter for Australia, and Lyell Crane for Canada. Wendayne Ackerman spoke of the SF and fantasy she'd read during her childhood in Germany. Walt Willis rose to tumultuous applause and gave a report on SF in Ireland which consisted of a description of an SF book in Gaelic. The next item was the presentation of a certain set of SF awards whose trophy consisted of a metal rocketship on a wooden base. Sound familiar? No, it wasn't the Hugos but the International Fantasy Awards. These awards had apparently been conceived by John Wyndham, Les Flood, Frank Cooper, and Ken Chapman at the White Horse the previous month and hastily produced in time for the convention. They were intended as the first in a series of annual awards for merit in the field of SF writing and art. These first IFA Awards were won by George R.Stewart's EARTH ABIDES and Ley and Bonestell's 'Conquest of Space'. The first Science Fiction Achievement Awards, to give the Hugos their formal title, were not presented until two years later at the 1953 Worldcon, and it's possible their design was influenced by that of the IFA awards. 'Hugo' as a nickname was devised by Bob Madle who, with Hal Lynch, had done most of the actual work on those awards. In the afternoon Wendayne Ackerman gave a talk on Dianetics and in the evening the convention was rounded off with another auction and the showing of various short films.
On Monday, with the convention officially over, many fans took the opportunity to explore the Festival of Britain Exhibition itself. Like the Empire Exhibition of 1926 before it, this was a post-war exhibition intended to celebrate British achievement in the world, her trade and technology, science and art. In many ways it resembled the American World's Fairs, even so far as featuring a 'skylon' and 'dome of discovery' that were reminiscent of the trylon and perisphere featured at New York's 1939 World's Fair. In the evening there was a meeting in the Havelock pub where some 40 or so fans, led by an enthusiastic Dave Cohen, gathered to celebrate the completion of a successful con and to talk about the following year's con.
Later, Walt Willis wrote a report on the convention, called 'The Harp in England', that was serialised in QUANDRY. The report was somewhat different in style from those he was to write about later conventions, however:
"The British Convention of 1951 was the first I had ever been at, and the 15-page report on it I wrote for QUANDRY was frighteningly uninhibited. At least it frightens me now when I re-read it. It didn't frighten me at the time partly because I didn't yet know personally any of the people on the official programme, and partly because I was under a peculiar misapprehension about them. I thought of them as pros, remote godlike figures who moved and had their being on a higher plane altogether. Nothing a scruffy little fan could say about them could ruffle their Olympian composure. So I was cheerfully caustic about everything from the food to the Convention Chairman."The first warning Willis got that he had stirred things up was a letter from Viną Clarke to Madeleine Willis, in which he affected to believe she was Walt's widow. Ted Carnell said he thought the report "stank" and there was other evidence of discord, but the affair soon blew over.
The convention was also reported in the July SFN ("...official organ of the zombie organisation...", as Willis termed it), but it was the editorial in that issue that would prove more significant. In it Viną Clarke, finally fed-up with running the organisation almost single-handedly, decided that something needed to be done about the SFS:
"The British Science Fantasy Society has been tottering along for some time now. Rising Phoenix-like from Ken Slater's enthusiasm, it was hamstrung from birth by various unexpected calls upon the leisure time of the original members, and has never really overcome the resistance of the British fan to be Organised. The original dues paid in by members are very near the vanishing point, and we have been debating whether it is worth- while keeping up the SFS when so few appear to be in need of a national organisation, and a new development here in London has brought us to the point where a decision has to be made."The 'development' was an offer to relieve Clarke and Bulmer of much of the tedious mechanical work involved in producing SFN, one which Clarke felt could be better utilised by an independent SFN not tied to a moribund organisation. He continued:
"Therefore, if you think the SFS should continue, we would be glad to hear from you and will give every consideration to your reasons. If the general opinion is that an independent organ with the aims outlined above, a review 'zine for your opinions more than an amateur story magazine would be a satisfactory substitute for a Society, then this issue of SFN will be the last published under the aegis of the SFS. SCIENCE FANTASY NEWS Vol 2, No.1 will be an independent 'zine, and that issue will be sent when published to all present SFS members and to many other fans."He finished the editorial with this thought:
"The SFS is not the first British SF society to rise and fall, and will probably not be the last...but through it all, that peculiar, nebulous body calling itself British SF Fandom goes cheerfully on, and that, friends, is practically indestructible!"In September SFN Vol 2, No.1, duly appeared and in the letter column SFS founder Ken Slater reflected on the organisation's history:
"As founder member, etc., of the SFS, let me be one of the first to admit that it has been a glorious...flop. Perhaps it would have been more successful if the 'flaming enthusiasm' with which I originally conceived the thing had continued to keep it warmed up, but the long-range at which I should have had to handle it prevented me from even trying to do it myself. I still recall the afternoon we spent hammering the table in Owen Plumridge's house. Actually, I can recall the excellent tea Mrs Plumridge gave us with much greater ease than any of the conversation, but still I recall we had doubts even then...Frankly, I am surprised it held together so long.As Clarke had expected virtually no-one who wrote thought the society should continue and so, on the front page, he was able to announce:
Nope. British fandom flatly refuses to be organised. Chapman and Smith both warned me. So did many other folk. But there ain't no proof like tasting, and brother, it tastes foul! So let's hide the body, shall we?"
"...we do hereby declare the Science Fantasy Society to be dead...and lying down."So died the SFS, and SFN became Clarke's own fanzine going on to become a lively and intelligent newszine and all-round a much better fanzine than it had been as the official organ of the SFS.
On Sunday 14th October the 'North Eastern SF Conference', or NECON, was held in Bradford. It was organised by Derek Pickles and his sister Mavis, and had Ken and Joyce Slater as Guests of Honour, though in the event Joyce was unable to attend due to family illness. Not that NECON started off as a convention. As Derek Pickles recalls:
"Ken and Joyce Slater were going to visit Mavis and I and visit Dell's Books. We mentioned it in letters and so forth, and so many wanted to meet the Slaters because they'd come into fandom/SF reading through OF that we finished up with a one day con. In conjunction with the NECON, I organised the *first* public exhibition of Science Fiction and Fantasy under that title. There was a full display, several showcases on two floors of the old Central Library in Bradford. There were books, magazines, cover paintings from mags, stills from films. Mike Rosenblum provided rare items from his collection, Max Levitin new books and magazines from Dell's Books. Mavis and I provided fanzines and fanart. This was the first Public Display in the UK."NECON is notable both for being the first post-war gathering of fans in the North and also the first convention attended by Dave Wood and Ken Potter of Lancaster. These two had met at Boy Scout camp in August 1950, struck up a friendship, and soon after put out a fanzine called TRIUMPH. In June 1951 they put out SCIENTIFICTION (being unaware, presumably, of the pre-war Gillings 'zine of the same name). As Wood wrote of it the following March:
"...the first was a flop, the second not much better; No.3 was quite good. We put quite a bit of work into it to produce before the NECON, which we attended. After NECON, Ken and I decided to turn out separate 'zines, and since then I have done five issues of CENTAURUS, and Ken's turned out 4 issues of BEYOND and 3 of STELLAR, his present mag."These fanzines were half-quarto size and hand-written, and had outside contributions in the form of art and stories from Alan Hunter and Terry Jeeves. However, NECON had more of an effect on Wood and Potter than just deciding them to do separate fanzines...
Two months earlier, at Wood's fifteenth birthday party, he and Potter had formed the grandly named 'Junior Society of SF Readers' (the assembled guests being the charter members). This had come to nothing, but the convention got them thinking along similar lines again. When Potter submitted a story to OPERATION FANTAST and mentioned the idea in a covering letter, editor Ken Slater ran an ad for what he called 'The British Teenage Fantasy and Science Fiction Society', and in short order Potter and Wood's society had fifteen members. These early young stalwarts included Pete Taylor, Shirley Marriott, Tony Cooper, and John Brunner, and even attracted Howard Griffiths of Wales and Scotland's Matt Elder. Wood wrote about this group in a piece called 'The Junior Fanatics' (a name they hadn't officially adopted at this point) for the first and only issue of George Clements's VOID (a name which would go on to much greater fame later in the decade as the title of an American fanzine), which appeared in November. More was to be heard of the Junior Fanatics in the months that followed.
Another consequence of NECON was that fans from Bradford, where it was held, decided to form their own group, whose first meeting took place in November. So it was that NECON organisers Derek and Mavis Pickles found themselves heading up the Bradford Science Fiction Association, which held its early, fortnightly, meetings at a cafe in the centre of Bradford until acquiring a clubroom at 3 Rawson Market Chambers. A fannish spring had arrived, and fandom was also stirring into life in other British cities...
Towards the end of 1951 Liverpool experienced the beginnings of a fannish renaissance. It started when Jeff Espley asked old-time fans Frank Milnes and Les Johnson, then running the Milcross Book Service on Brownlow Hill, for the addresses of other SF readers in that city. He wrote to those on the list they gave him and on 12th November 1951 the Liverpool Science Fiction Society (usually referred to as LSFS - or, more simply, the Liverpool Group) held its inaugural meeting at the rear of the Milcross shop. The club's first officers were John Roles - Chairman, Jeff Espley - Secretary, and Norman Shorrock - Treasurer. Other early members included Tom Owens, Dave Gardner, and Norman Weedall. NSFCer Eric Bentcliffe, who lived a mere thirty miles away, was also a frequent visitor.
AUTHENTIC SCIENCE FICTION was a British prozine that began life in January 1951 under the editorship of one L.G.Holmes, who was later replaced by Derrick Rowles, and then by H.J."Bert" Campbell, its sometime 'Technical Editor'. A regular at the White Horse, Campbell was a research chemist and had had a number of hard-science pieces printed in OPERATION FANTAST. AUTHENTIC was not one of the most highly regarded prozines of its day (mainly because low word-rates meant it seldom attracted first-rank fiction), but during Campbell's tenure it did publish 'The Rose' by Charles Harness. This was a first-rank piece and also evidence of Campbell's openness to unconventional work, as was his publication (in AUTHENTIC 51) of a tale concerning gender-confusion and eventual sex-change - fairly radical for the time. A shame it wasn't a better story.
The December 1951 AUTHENTIC, issue 16, ran a novel-length story by Campbell in which a great scientist battles for years on behalf of the dream of space flight with a band of loyal disciples, finally succeeds in getting a spacecraft built, and invites them to Ecuador to watch him blast-off on a successful flight to the moon. What makes this interesting is that the great scientist is Arthur C.Clarke (thinly disguised as 'Atah Cark') and the devoted band of followers are the London Circle, who appear as themselves under the leadership of Sed Linell (Ted Carnell). The story is a store of fan mythology and even parodies contemporary events such as the Clarke-Morley battle in the lettercolumns of 'Picture Post' over the latter's peculiar ideas about space flight. Walt Willis wrote about the story in his QUANDRY column and noted that:
"...the whole outing is nearly spoiled by a horrid cynical bespectacled fellow who hates Atah Cark and doesn't really believe in space flight and has to be done away with in the end. And who I like to think is really William F.Temple carrying his 'feud' with Clarke to the bitter end.The Belfast Triangle presented its compliments to the London Circle...and found themselves pariodied in 'Chaos in Minature' in AUTHENTIC 18. The hero's name was changed from Willy Wallis to Willy Grant before it hit the stands when the publisher pointed out to Campbell that the former name sounded a lot like that of a well known fan....
I got a review copy of this AUTHENTIC as early as the middle of November, and had the unspeakable joy of telling William F.Temple all about it. He wrote: 'I shocked Bert Campbell at the pub by hissing 'The Moon may be Heaven, but there'll be Hell to pay when it comes out.' His jaw dropped and his beard with it. He'd been keeping it all dark - he thought. I tried to shock Atah Cark too, but that, of course, was impossible. He'd read the book. In fact, I rather suspect he wrote it. I have a theory that H.J.Campbell is just another of Arthur's pseudonyms, and if one suddenly yanked Bert's beard off...I'll try it next Thursday, and let you know. Perhaps through a luminous trumpet'."
Though respecting Chuck Harris's reason for shying away from in-person contact with other fans, Willis nevertheless kept nudging him and the denizens of the Epicentre towards one another and eventually this process bore fruit. On 27th January 1952 Harris visited that hallowed place, and afterwards wrote excitedly to Willis of his first contact with other fans:
"Last night!!! Hell, I just can't describe everything that happened. It was the most enjoyable night that I've had out in a long time. I think Vince and Ken are really terrific. Even Gold couldn't have had a better welcome. Almost all the time I was there Vince balanced his portable on his knee and provided a sort of running commentary...Primarily, I went to see the duplicators but we never got around to it...I'm going again Sunday week!!"Looking back on this meeting many years later, Willis saw it not just as an event of great personal significance for Harris but the beginning of something larger:
"And so it started, the nucleus of what later came to be known as Sixth Fandom, the closest and happiest gestalt ever formed in international fandom. It lasted until the Great Mackenzie War ((Willis's own name for the interconnected series of conflicts that were to afflict British fandom in the latter half of the decade)), but that was a long time in the future, and meanwhile fandom became in one sense of the hackneyed phrase a way of life."Sixth Fandom as a group consisted of fans on both sides of the Atlantic and its focal point was Lee Hoffman's QUANDRY. Over here Sixth fandom was made up of people such as Harris, Clarke, Bulmer, and the members of Irish Fandom, while over there it's main stalwarts were people such as Hoffman, Bob Tucker, Bob Bloch, Max Keasler, and Shelby Vick. The name itself derived from a system devised by Bob Silverberg for numbering distinct periods of fannish activity in the US, the period they then found themselves in being reckoned the sixth under his system. It was to be the most fruitful and harmonious period in US/UK fannish relations there has ever been.
In June 1951, fanartist Alun Hunter had sent out a circular about the 'Fantasy Artists Group' he hoped to set up, and early in 1952 this emerged as the Fantasy Art Society under the auspices of Operation Fantast. The FAS acted as a clearing house for fanzine artwork and was "...made up of amateur and semi-professional artists who specialise in science fiction and fantasy artwork...". Its mainstays were to be Hunter and Harry Turner, though it drew in other artists such as Ken McIntyre who, after making contact with fandom at the 1952 national convention, was to contribute artwork to many of the decade's fanzines and prozines. In February 1952 the first FANTASY ART SOCIETY NEWSLETTER appeared, edited by Hunter.
Within two months of its inauguration, and following a brief period where they met in a room over a cafe, the Liverpool group acquired a small clubroom in the cellar of 13A St.Vincent Street. They called it 'The Space Dive', and held their 'official' meetings there on Monday evenings. Tom Owens wrote enthusiastically about it:
"Monday 7th January saw us installed in our new HQ (we believe we are the only SF society in Great Britain who rent their own premises). During the following fortnight members were to be seen at all hours of the day and night, painting, decorating, hammering, and CURSING etc!!! Not only did we have to completely renovate the 'Dive' but we also had to prepare it for our recruitment drive on the week commencing February the 10th. During the week the Gaumont were showing the then current 'The Day The Earth Stood Still'. We arranged with the manager to display a number of Science Fiction books and covers in the Foyer, and in return we advertised the film at our premises. We had the walls of the Space Dive covered with SF magazines. In all there must have been about one thousand magazines gracing the now clean walls. In addition to this our treasurer, Norman, constructed a model of a spaceship which stood 5'4" in height. This, placed in a lunar setting contrived by another of our members, looked extremely effective. Several other members volunteered to stand outside the Gaumont and hand out a leaflet explaining the Society's activities and aims.The resulting committee saw Frank Milnes as Chairman, John Roles as Vice-Chairman, Trevor Donnan as Librarian, and Norman Shorrock remaining as Treasurer. Tom Owens was appointed to assist Shorrock and Donnan in their duties. However, all this shouldn't be taken as evidence that the Liverpool group were as earnest as their Manchester counterparts (who had a habit of organising 'educational trips' to biscuit factories and the like, which caused great amusement among other fans, particularly those in London). As Dave Gardner explains:
We were surprisingly successful and as a result of our increased membership it was found necessary to re-elect our committee. We thought this desirable so as to allow the new members a say in the constitution of the Society."
"It was decided then that the Society should be completely informal, despite the fact that we had elected officers and voted in a set of rules and regulations. Nobody's nose is put out of joint. No one pays the slightest attention to the chairman's calls to order; and the chairman wouldn't know what to do if anyone did. The resulting chaos is highly satisfactory."
February also saw the first issue of STRAIGHT UP, a newszine from Fred Robinson of Cardiff. Destined to be the most prominent Welsh fan of the 1950s, Robinson established 'The Cymrades' ('Cymru' - pronounced 'kumree' - being the Welsh name for Wales) in Cardiff in 1952, Wales' first ever fan group. (Mike Rosenblum's DIRECTORY OF ANGLO FANDOM of January 1945 lists three fans in Aberystwyth, the biggest concentration in Wales at the time, but there's no evidence to suggest they ever formed a group.) Robinson was the only member of the group to be involved with fanzines and with fandom nationally, the other members presumably being non-active readers of SF. STRAIGHT UP only lasted a few issues, the fifth and final one appearing in October, and the following year Robinson started up CAMBER in its place, the first issue identifying it as being ostensibly the official organ of The Cymrades. Meanwhile, Britain's main newszine, SFN, was going through more changes...
The March 1952 SFN was the last issue to be published out of the Epicentre. The previous issue had described how the ceiling had fallen in on Ken Bulmer while he was reading Eric Frank Russell's 'The Star-Watchers', and in the editorial of this one Viną Clarke explained that the local authorities had decided that he and Bulmer would have to move out while extensive remodelling took place. Clarke moved back to Welling...and never returned. It was the end of the Epicentre, which now went the way of the Flat and the Red Bull before it. However, it was here that at least one professional writing career got its start. Bert Campbell complained about the terrible manscripts he was being sent and suggested that Bulmer and Clarke, with their knowledge of SF, could surely do better. As Clarke recalls:
"Ken was enthusiastic, I was less so. More time away from fanning? We went into that little Epicentre kitchen, produced a synopsis and first chapter which were approved, and finished 40 000 words writing alternate chapters. It didn't seem to me to be the basis of a career, but Ken had hopes."That same issue of SFN also carried a fan club column and reported that the Liverpool group was now 'firmly esconsed' in the Space Dive, that attendance at the White Horse was currently averaging 30+, that the Bradford group now had a membership of around a dozen, and that Tony Thorne of Gillingham was forming the Medway Science Fiction Fan Club and wanted all fans in the Kent area to get in touch with him. It also had a piece on a mysterious new organisation called the British Science Fiction Association...
The first that most British fans knew of this new BSFA was when the magazine 'Picture Post' carried a letter from the organisation, signed by its Assistant Secretary. Intrigued, Viną Clarke wrote to PP asking them to forward his letter to this gentleman, which they did. In response, Clarke received the following letter:
"Dear Sir,Since this was anything but sufficient, Clarke wrote directly to the asst. sec., a Mr Peermunde, and in reply received a postcard saying that the asst. sec, had resigned and so passed all letters on to BSFA Chairman, L.W.Nowlan. That was before Christmas, and though nothing had been heard from Nowlan directly in the meantime he had had letters announcing the formation of the BSFA in AUTHENTIC 19 and in the US prozine IMAGINATION. More would be heard about this mysterious organisation in the next SFN, after the national convention. Before this appeared, however, Viną Clarke was to initiate a devious plot against Irish Fandom. Called 'Operation Shamrookie' it was carried out with the help of an enthusiastic young neofan....
Further to your letter of the 6th inst., which I now have pleasure in answering more specifically by quoting an extract from our constitution:
a) To propogate in any fashion deemed applicable by the board, views, opinions, data and literature relative in any way to Science Fiction.
b) To co-operate with all branches of scientific, interplanetary, engineering associations and bodies.
c) To encourage scientific thoughts, to educate where necessary, and to aid and perpetuate mutual comradeship between Science Fiction Fans universally.
The membership fee is trivial, namely 3/6d per annum, for adult members, 2/- per annum for juniors, and is only charged to cover expenses. Hoping that the foregoing sufficiently answers your query,
Yours, etc., "
Mike Wilson had first made contact with fandom a couple of years earlier when, as a 16 year-old crew-member of a transatlantic liner, he had come along to a White Horse meeting during a shore leave and soon got to know all those present. He was a great fan of Arthur C.Clarke's writing, got to know him well, and introduced him to the joys of scuba-diving. In the spring of 1952, having turned 18 and left the sea, Wilson received his call-up papers, conscription being an ordeal all young men would have to endure until National Service was finally abolished in the early-60s. At the next White Horse meeting he cheerfully told Viną Clarke that he had to do his basic training at Ballymena in Northern Ireland and should be able to look up Walt Willis and the Belfast mob. Choking on his cider, Clarke instantly saw the possibilities in the situation and, in the weeks remaining before he left, briefed Wilson thoroughly. On the day prior to hid departure, Clarke shook his hand and said:
"Ghu speed...and remember, you're doing this for the London Circle and good old SFN, but we can't help you. You're on your own."Wilson's mission was to make contact with Irish Fandom pretending to be a new fan with no previous knowledge of fandom. He was to carry the hoax as far as he could so that the London Circle could boast, in a future SFN, about how they had managed to put one over on the Belfast mob. Armed with a BRE SUPER SCIENCE containing a mention of SLANT and calling himself James Wainwright, Wilson contacted Irish Fandom and then phoned Clarke at the White Horse to tell him that everything had worked just fine. Well, not quite. Clarke had suggested that Wilson write a few pieces of fan-fiction to show Willis but since Wilson, with the stiff Commando training schedule he had to follow, didn't have much time to write he fell back on the cowboy-in-SF parody he and Clarke had worked on together some months earlier. Shortly afterwards Clarke received a letter from Willis which contained:
"The usual flood of puns and wisecracks, and, attached to the back, a typed mss. I glanced at it and felt dizzy. It was Mike's Western satire on SF which I'd typed and mostly rewritten. Now, corn cast upon the waters, it floated back, from Walt. A note to it...'This is by neofan Jim Wainwright. Native of London, saw my name in SUPER SCIENCE. Never been to the WH. Never seen a fanzine. Never heard of KFS ((Ken Slater of OPERATION FANTAST)). No contact with fandom. Never seen a US prozine. Isn't he a natural?'This was from Bob Shaw, and began:
I just gaped. The story was packed full of fannish allusions to SF, and I wouldn't have let the thing within a parsec of Walt as things were. But here was Mike, calmly writing over-confident (I thought) postcards...maybe Walt had insulted a leprechaun, I thought. Then came another letter from Belfast..."
"I'm amazed, astounded, and galaxied. Who thought it up? What unknown John Stuart Mill conceived the idea? This is easily the biggest hoax fandom ever saw. When Walt told me there was a new fan, a soldier posted in Ballymena, I was overjoyed. We were both overjoyed. I wasn't there the first time he showed up, but Walt gave me a description of the young neo-fan with his pitiful handful of VARGO STATTENs. Walt was quite pleased with new chap's writing and showed me one of his efforts.Wilson had actually been at the FESTIVENTION but, since he was little-known outside of the London Circle, Clarke hoped none of the Belfast fans would remember him. Unfortunately Bob Shaw did, and was about to spill the beans at their first meeting in Belfast when Wilson slipped him a note Clarke had prepared against this eventuality. This read:
That was when the first doubt crossed my mind. It was too fannish - I could have sworn that the chap who had written that stuff had read the famous Bats Durston piece in GALAXY. I immediately suggested to Walt that one of the London Circle had been sent to spy on us. We both had a great laugh - naturally."
"The bearer is an agent of the London Circle. In the name of Lee Hoffman, Bob Tucker ((and other fan hoaxers)), keep your trap shut!"Shaw did, but Willis already had his suspicions, though initially, as he admits:
"I fell for it like a ton of bricks...I didn't dash into print with my discovery of this new fan, but I could easily have. When he showed me the piece he'd written I was delighted. I'd unearthed an amazing new talent... it was fan-type humour, puns and all. Why, it might have been written by Viną Clarke! I was so pleased... that the very next day I sent Viną Clarke's own work back to him with an enthusiastic note...looking for congratulations!With Clarke unaware that his 'agent' had been tumbled, Willis and Shaw planned on turning the situation to their advantage after the forthcoming national convention....
The next Sunday 'Wainwright' came down again, and this time was even more daring. He had me describe everyone in the London Circle and listened awed to my replies to his questions about the pro-authors I'd met. Still I didn't suspect. The utter grandeur, the breath-taking scope of the thing was blinding me. Ghod help me, I even made the laughable suggestion that he might be a member of the London Circle in disguise. Honest, I did. Wilson must have got over-confident then - no wonder - and he started making mistakes. After he'd gone I began to wonder...one doubt led to another and in a moment I was bathed in cold sweat. Like a drowning man, everything I'd said in the last couple of days went flashing through my ears.
Bob had left with 'Wainwright', but when he came back I told him my suspicions. He was very relieved. He'd suspected sooner than I had...his artist's eye had remembered Wilson's face...(we) agreed to let VinUkp think that everything was going according to plan...Bob wrote a conspiratorial letter congratulating him and promising full support...."
Staged in May, the LONCON of 1952 was, like the previous year's con, held in the Royal Hotel. As usual there was a special gathering in the White Horse on the night before the con ,and this time around the out-of-towners included James White, Walt Willis, Fred Robinson, Alan Hunter, and Dave Cohen. The convention proper was opened by Carnell at 2pm the next day and following his speech representatives of various groups gave reports on fan activity in their areas. Derek Pickles reported that the Bradford group had 23 members, Taffy Williams that Manchester had 50, Les Johnson that Liverpool had 22, and Tony Thorne that the Medway group had 25. These are fairly high figures and it may be that they included those who had only attended a few meetings of the various groups as well as regular members. This opening session quickly moved onto another matter of great fannish import...
Northern discontent with London fandom, dating from at least the advent of the British Fantasy Library, had been simmering for a while and finally found voice in a proposal for the next year's national convention. The Manchester group had turned up with a large poster advertising MANCON, a Northern regional convention they were planning for later in the year. They were also pushing for a national convention in Manchester in 1953 - SUPERMANCON. Dave Cohen and Eric Bentcliffe were the idea's main champions, but their's wasn't the only counter-bid. Willis and White had a not-terribly-serious proposal of their own. Viną Clarke reported the opening session shortly after the con:
"Curiously enough, the first thing to be discussed was where the next con would be held, and after each out-of-town speaker had described his club he'd insert a plug for his particular locality as the site, in most cases. Various accents floated through the PA system as the Bentcliffe-Cohen pair exhorted us to Come To Sunny Manchester, Derek ((Pickles)) advocated a con organised by People Who Make A Business Of It at Harrogate, and the Liverpudlians graciously admitted that anywhere did them.Too true. When it came to the vote London had heavily defeated Manchester, but Northern aspirations were not to be so easily squashed.
Walt, speaking in a low voice at roughly 250 words per minute, suggested James for the next Con Secretary, with the ringing slogan 'GAY PAREE IN '53!', an idea that was virtually ignored by the Chairman, and after the disadvantages of London in Coronation year had been pointed out (hotels packed, high prices, etc), and the advantages of London in Coronation year had been shown (plenty to see, more trains, etc), a vote was taken on a show of hands which London naturally won hands down (?). Ken Bulmer immediately asked if it would be called the Coronvention. There was a general feeling that Manchester, who were second in the voting, should have some sort of official backing next year in any case, and as the sessions closed soon afterwards, little groups could be seen arguing the fairness of the voting system and the possibilities of a postal vote...more will be heard about this I think."
LONCON was apparently a fairly quiet affair what with the absence of Gillings, Ackerman, and Arthur C.Clarke (who was in America and who had made a recording for the convention - it was played twice) and the non-participation of Temple. Ted Tubb's auctioneering was the highlight of the convention, but the con is not without interest from our point of view. It was here that the members of the British Teenage Fantasy and Science Fiction Society met each other for the first time. Deciding to dump the cumbersome name Slater had given them they dubbed themselves 'The Junior Fanatics', the name Wood had first called them in VOID, and resolved to put out a fanzine (to be called PERI) for August. They nominated Cooper to produce it, due to his father, Frank Cooper, having access to good printing facilities, but Cooper quit fandom, delaying the appearance of the first issue until January 1953. The second pair of IFAs were awarded at LONCON (Fiction to 'Fancies and Goodnights' by John Collier, and Non-Fiction to 'The Exploration of Space' by Arthur C.Clarke) and Walt Willis was one of the judges. Shortly after the convention the White-Harris 'feud' acquired a new dimension when they met for the first time (White brought along a false beard and dark glasses for the occasion) at Viną Clarke's home. Clarke phoned Harris to tell him that Willis and White were there, and Harris promptly rushed over to Welling to meet them. As he came up the path White burst out of the front door, zap-gun in hand, squirting wildly at his 'nemesis'. Then there was Operation Shamrookie....
On the final day of the convention Frank Arnold, who was presiding and held the mike, received a telegram that he opened before realising it was addressed to Clarke. "Telegram for Viną Clarke..." he intoned over the PA,"...from Northern Ireland." Clarke rushed over and grabbed it from Arnold, saying it was private. Arnold, however, had read it, and told the convention: "Viną is shy, but it's a telegram of best wishes from Northern Ireland...Ballymena." Clarke prayed the Irish fans hadn't heard and they pretended they hadn't, but that really marked the end of Operation Shamrookie. As Willis explains...
"When I came back from the con, full of plans, I found Wilson was being posted back to London and had to give them all up. Wilson came up one last day as 'Wainwright' and we 'allowed' him to do a few dirty jobs about the SLANT press-room and sent him off with a letter of introduction to VinUkp. But it was a poor substitute for the schemes we had. No, we have to admit that those lazy Londoners put it over on us. That time."When Wilson did eventually get back to London, after being posted all over the place first by the Army, he was debriefed by Clarke and Ted Tubb. Tubb began a piece on the affair titled 'I Was a Spy For The London Circle', but this was never actually completed. Willis mentioned it in a column in a US fanzine shortly after, and Clarke finally wrote the whole thing up many years later. It was British fandom's most successful hoax to date but it was to be eclipsed by a more audacious one that started the following year.
In May, Willis launched a new fanzine, one originally intended to fill the gap between issues of SLANT but which actually replaced it. So SLANT's seventh issue, earlier that year, was its last. Co-edited with Chuck Harris and rushed out in time for LONCON, the new zine was called HYPHEN and would go on to become perhaps the most celebrated fanzine of all time. (The second issue carried accounts, from both sides, of White's ambush of Harris.) Other new fanzines included SPACE TIMES, edited by Eric Bentcliffe and, making its first appearance in June, ASTRONEER, edited by Paul Sowerby and intended as the first issue of a quarterly official organ for the Manchester group. The Liverpool group's SPACE DIVERSIONS, edited by John Roles and Tom Owens, appeared in July.
AUTHENTIC 21 (May '52) carried a listing of British fan groups that, as well as groups already covered above, mentioned 'The Galilean Science Fiction Society' which was:
"...for fans under eighteen. The idea is an 'exchange of books, magazines, letters, and anything else, between British and American junior fans'."The magazine listed Shirley Marriott of Bournemouth as the Society's organiser, a woman already active in fandom nationally who would become more prominent towards the end of the decade.
In the June 1952 issue of SFN, Viną Clarke reported that he, Eric Bentcliffe, and Matt Elder of Glasgow, had all made independent efforts to find out more about the mysterious BSFA and the equally mysterious Nowlan, but none of them had received a reply from him. However, John Gutteridge of Shoreham-by-Sea, a new fan who wrote after reading of the BSFA in 'Picture Post' did get a reply, one which claimed that the Association had been formed five years earlier as a form of correspondence club and had 130 members in the UK and a further 57 in the US. Gutteridge's own membership card listed him as member 254. He was assured that his name would be placed on the January mailing list for fan and book lists, but in fact never heard from the BSFA again. Someone who did receive a lengthy response from Nowlan was Ken Slater, not that it shed any further light on the BSFA. It read, in part:
"We knew of ((various organisations such as the London group)) and also of the International Convention...my association was well represented, esoterically, by our Secretary and Librarian. But quite frankly, these activities are the very anithesis of our principles. Too many fan-clubs are tied-up with publishing bodies, agencies, authors circles, etc. etc. ad nauseum, and our Board feels that many of these clubs are just 'speakers' of various companies. Novels and mags are 'plugged' unashamedly and to our inexperienced eyes savour of commercialism --- the word 'fan' being an increment for the commission agents."Nowlan went on to criticise space-opera and then returned to his, ah, novel view of fandom and the English language:
"And the fan meetings, oh dear! Example 1. Mr F.E.Riddelli, President of the Trans-Rocketry Syst., author of 'Blue Dust of Venus', etc. etc., is also a fan at these esteemed gatherings. Quaite naice. Fans? Oh yeah? Example 2. Mr F.G.Ridelli, agent for this, that and the other, Editor of this, that and something else, chairman of this, that and -- Fan clubs, oh yeah?And so on, and so on. At the end of the letter (which was dated 12th December 1951), Nowlan claimed that BSFA membership stood at 92 in the UK, 22 in the US, and 16 in the Commonwealth. Numbers, it appears, had dropped substantially in the few weeks since the letter to Gutteridge.
No, me old china, fan-clubs don't exist in s-f (not true fan clubs - only this one). Like Communism in a democratic world, fandom cannot exist all the time such 'blurbs' are shoved around by newsletters, booklists and the like."
It seems hardly credible that such a large international organisation could have existed for so long unnoticed by the rest of fandom, and it's almost certain that in actuality it never existed as much more than a grand delusion in the minds of Nowlan, Peermunde, and a handful of others. And it may not be entirely coincidental that after this brief flurry of activity this BSFA was never heard of again. However, British fans at that time could have been forgiven for thinking that another fandom had been developing parallel to their own, one whose existence they had never suspected. As well as the BSFA, the June SFN also made mention of the Leytonstone Science Fiction and Progress Society, a group that had a letter printed around this time in the 'Sunday Pictorial' newspaper. Viną Clarke's enquiries never turned up anything more about the LSF&PS than that single mention, but what with this and the curious affair of the BSFA he was moved to speculate on where things were heading:
"We can see what's going to happen. One Thursday night we'll arrive at the White Horse and find all the tables and chairs missing. On enquiring, we'll find they've all been borrowed for a meeting of the London Science Fiction Club next door...."One useful bit of fallout from this glancing contact with an alternate universe was that Paul Enever, newly returned to London and to fandom (he was at the '52 convention), was moved to write a letter to SFN in response to the affair that outlined, for the first time, the true story of the pre-war Hayes BSFA.
That same June 1952 issue of SFN carried an announcement of the formation, by Matt Elder of Glasgow, of the 'Newlands SF Fan Club', and of the imminent arrival of Scotland's first SF prozine, NEBULA. It also contained details of MANCON, which was then scheduled for 28th September with Dave Cohen as Chairman. According to Clarke: "This, they say, Will Be The Most Entertaining Convention Ever Held". One piece of news it didn't carry concerned the formation, that same month, of the Lakeland Science Fiction Organisation...
Peter Campbell of Windermere, in the Lake District, may well have been one of the most isolated fans in Britain during the 1950s but that didn't stop him from being highly active. Probably because of his connection with Operation Fantast - he was operator of the OF Contact Bureau - Campbell created a primarily book-centred group in the Lakeland SF Organisation, one whose members were scattered across the country and who kept in touch by letter. The LSFO's chief attraction to most fans was its large lending library of SF, and the casual PAYL (Pay As You Like) system Campbell operated for its services. The LSFO issued a regular circular and Campbell himself produced a fanzine, ANDROMEDA, with Paul Enever and George Whiting as Associate Editors.
The wit and warmth in Willis's work, the skill and intelligence he brought to his writing were already working their potent magic in 1952 when American fan Shelby Vick organised a drive to bring him over to that year's Worldcon in Chicago. This had started with a casual enquiry at the end of one of Vick's letters to Willis in June 1951 as to whether there was any chance of Willis making it to NOLACON (that year's Worldcon in New Orleans). In the postscript to a later letter, Vick announced that he was starting a contest that eventually developed into a campaign to bring Willis to the US for the 1952 Worldcon. The campaign's slogan was 'WAW With The Crew In '52'. Neither Willis nor Hoffman thought the campaign would succeed, particularly as Willis was far less well known in the US in 1952 than Carnell had been when the Big Pond Fund was started and that had taken years to raise enough, but the money came in. Through auctions, donations, special fund-raising issues of their fanzines and the like, Sixth Fandom succeeded in raising enough to pay for the trip. Strangely, British fans had no part in the fund-raising. As Willis explains:
"I felt guilty about being invited to the States instead of fans who deserved it more, like Ken Slater, and had sort of kept the existence of it from British fandom."Not, however, from Chuck Harris who became the only British fan to contribute to the fund.
Willis set sail for America on 18th August 1952, and over the next six weeks travelled all over that vast land, meeting local fans and taking notes for a monumental trip report, 'The Harp Stateside' (first published serially in various US fanzines and then, in 1957, in a collected edition), that rightly came to be regarded as one of the classic fannish works and set a standard for all later travelling fans to aspire to.
Rob Hansen would welcome feedback and factual corrections, at: email@example.com
All material in THEN is copyright © by Rob Hansen, 1988-1994. The THEN files may be freely copied for private enjoyment or research but may not be republished (e.g. in printed or CD-ROM versions), distributed in modified form, incorporated into other works, or quoted out of context without the express written permission of the copyright holder.