Black Mail

by Walter A. Willis

(from Bob Tucker's Le Zombie #64, January 1955)

POISED AS I AM here between Britain and America, I often find myself having to explain one to the other. Puzzled neofans come to me with their little worries, plaintive questions like "What does PTO mean?", "How can they have 31 months in the year?", "What is Harlan Ellison?", "Why do they print their calendars sideways?" and so on. One of the things that puzzles Americans most are the sheaves of black paper they receive from time to time bearing British stamps. Some recipients merely throw them aside after an idle glance but others, fans being the sensitive finely wrought creatures that they are, worry themselves into an early FAPA membership by fears that they are being put on the spot -- that these sheaves of black paper are a fannish equivalent of the black spot that Captain Kidd used to serve on his friends when they got his goat.

I can comfort these unhappy people. These sheaves of black paper are nothing but British fanzines! If you examine them closely you will often be able to distinguish individual words, and investigators with high powered microscopes report definite traces of margins round the edges. (Much the best place for margins.)

This British peculiarity, this psychopathic abhorrence for open spaces in fanzines, has been remarked on by many people but until this moment nobody has explained the real reason for it. It is not meanness, nor the high cost of paper, nor any obvious cause like that. It is simply that every British faned walks in the shadow of fear, knowing himself to be a hunted man, a law-breaker, an enemy of society. He is the victim of a guilt complex that compels him to shun the free wide spaces beloved of US faneds and to crowd his materiel into a confined space as if huddling together for protection.

How this comes about is a sad and terrible story, and I suggest that the more sensitive and highly strung people among my audience stop reading at this point and go to see Them. It begins just as the new British faned, innocent of the doom that lies in wait for him, is happily completing his first issue. Determined that there shall be no mishap in conveying the glory of it to the world, he consults the Post Office Guide. This is an enormous red book which tells you everything you could possibly want to know about the Post Office except what is happening to your mail. He looks up the section on "Printed Papers" and there, under the heading "Admissible Documents" he finds the following fateful words:

"Reproductions of manuscripts or typewritten originals. Such reproductions, when obtained by a mechanical manifolding process, are accepted for transmission as printed papers if: They are handed in at a head (This itself is sufficiently confusing to anyone who has been in the Navy) or branch post office, or one of the more important rural sub-stations authorized to receive them; Special attention is drawn to the fact that they are reproductions of the kind specified; At least 20 packets containing precisely identical copies are handed in at the same time, and A form of Declaration, P241, is signed by the postee stating that all the copies are identical in text and bear nothing which is not permitted under the regulations related to printed papers."

Now, imagine what happens to the wretched British faned. First, he must forego his cherished plans to dash out to the mailbox with a half-dozen still wet copies for his best friends, closest rivals, and Rog Phillips. He must wait until the whole mailing is ready. Then he must find a suitcase big enough to hold it. Then he must get off work, because the Post Office closes at teatime.

But this is nothing compared to what follows. At last he is ready and staggers down to the Post Office with his load, wishing with every step that he hadn't published so many copies. It is an important Post Office, as the Law requires, and naturally there is a queue. If it were an American post office it would be a line, but it wouldn't be like this one. It consists of three old age pensioners drawing their pensions and arguing over their tobacco vouchers, two women drawing family allowances, four people drawing money from the savings bank, one consulting the register of electors, one changing his Health Service doctor, two buying television licenses and one a radio licence, two sending telegrams, one paying his telephone account, and three paying their National Insurance Contributions. There is even somebody trying to buy a stamp. Grateful for a rest the fan sits on his case, moving it forward nine inches every few minutes until eventually he arrives at the counter. With a last convulsive effort he hoists the case up onto it.

Before he can get his breath the clerk drags it over to the scales, looks at the dial, and drags it back to the counter.

"Too heavy," he says, "Send it by rail. Next?"

And before the faned can open his mouth the clerk is deep in conversation with a gentleman who wants to send three parcels to Nicaragua, airmail, special delivery, registered, and is having difficulty filling up the Customs Declaration.

"Excuse me," says the fan timidly, having now got his case open. "I want to mail these. Printed Papers."

He proffers a diffident fanzine.

The clerk looks at it with suspicion.

"Doesn't look like printing to me," he says.
"No," says the fan, "It's duplicating."

He draws a deep breath.

"I hereby draw special attention to the fact that these are reproductions of manuscript or typewritten originals obtained by a mechanical manifolding process."
"You what?" says the clerk.
"I draw special attention," the faned repeats, " to the fact that these are reproductions of manuscript or typewritten originals obtained by a mechanical manifolding process. Page 247 of the Post Office Guide. Now you give me Declaration Form P241."
"Are you trying to teach me my job?" asks the clerk nastily.

He goes behind his panel, takes a surreptitious look at the Post Office Guide, and comes back with a small form which he slaps resentfully on the counter.

The fan closes his case again and shambles over to the far wall where the writing things are. Having filled out the form he then takes his place at the end of the line again.

Eventually he arrives back at the counter, submits the completed form, opens his case, and begins lifting bundles of his fanzine onto the counter. The clerk looks on in silence as the pile grows. Two hundred and fifty copies of a fanzine take up quite a lot of space.

Eventually the operation is completed. The clerk's voice is heard faintly from the other side of the mountain.

"What are these?"
"It's a fa---, a sort of magazine," says the fan.

The clerk takes a copy. A small avalanche now starts on his side of the counter and after a few moments he becomes visible again. He is seen to be still clutching a copy of the fanzine.

"What sort of a magazine?"
"Er....a science fiction fan magazine," says the fan awkwardly.
"You mean that crazy Dan Dare stuff?" asks the clerk. "My kid listens to that. Let's have a look at it."

He opens a copy and begins to read the editorial aloud, with growing puzzlement.

"Ghu....fandom....crudzine....ish....illos....egoboo.... Is this in English?"
"Yes," says the fan. "Those are, well, technical terms, sort of."
"HM," says the clerk. "Doesn't sound very scientific to me. And what about these pictures of naked women? What sort of science is that?"

He holds one up. The line, which has been listening with rapt attention, cranes forward to look.

"Er,.....biology, you know," says the fan desperately.
"First time I ever heard it called that," sneers the clerk.

The line titters, and the fan smiles a sickly smile.

The clerk glares at him.

"It's not a laughing matter. I suppose, with your profound knowledge of the Post Office Guide, you know what it says about sending indecent matter through Her Majesty's mails?"
"Yes," says the fan stoutly.

He doesn't, but then neither does the clerk. It is now a battle of wills, of bluff and counterbluff.

But I think I've harrowed your emotions enough to show you that no sensitive fan can be expected to go through this sort of ordeal more than once. Instead, he resolves to defy the law. He goes underground. He mails his fanzine illegally. During each night of the mailing he sneaks out with a bag full of copies of his fanzine, trudging from mailbox to mailbox and mailing a predetermined number in each. This number, this mailing quantum, is arrived at after careful and complicated calculation. It is evolved from an equation taking into account the number of collections per day, the number of magazines to be mailed, the estimated total number of postal packets mailed in the district, the estimated number of sorters employed by the postal authorities, their speed of operation, and their psychological make-up. The aim is to arrive at a mailing quantum which will produce an optimum rate of flow of fanzines through sorters. It must be a rate slow enough so that the sorter won't suddenly lose patience and exclaim, "My God, more of these things? Hey, Inspector!!" On the other hand it must be fast enough to get the mailing out within a reasonable time. There is, British faneds believe, an optimum rate of flow -- one that will be just below the sorter's threshold of perception, so that while he may be wondering vaguely whether he hasn't seen something like this item before, his subconscious is telling him that he has and he didn't do anything about it then, so why bother now? This is known among experts as the "Ah well" Level of Flow. (It is rumored that Ahwell Research Station was named after it.)

There are other minor consequences involved in this behaviour pattern imposed on British faneds. For instance they must at all costs avoid calling attention to their fmz by allowing them to be what the Post Office Guide calls "embarrassing postal packets". This does not mean ladies' underwear or French postcards, but things like soft fruit mailed in paper bags and fanzines with jagged staple ends sticking out. So all British fanzines are thoroughly bashed with a hammer before they are mailed. But I've told you enough of their worries, I hope, to persuade you to make allowances for British zines against American ones. They're beaten before they start.

Data entry by Judy Bemis