I've known Walter Alexander Willis for six years, ever since I was a reasonably active and constructive fan. The past tense in the latter half of that sentance is directly attributable to Mr. Willis, and, sometimes, when I think I might have been a filthy rich professional by now, I almost wish that the charming Celt had kept to hi-fi and his collection of La Cie Parisienne.
I've no idea what my fellow writers are saying about WAW ... keep it clean, boys ... but as an active British fan from pre-Willis times I can truthfully say that, as far as I can see, he has done more than any fan in post-war years to change the face of British fandom.
Before the War we had never, on this side of the Atlantic, produced a humorist of the calibre of Bloch, Tucker or Knight, and when the remnants of fandom started to gather together after '45 the atmosphere was sober, serious and constructive ... as was natural in the circumstances. By '48 we were making an attempt to gather into one Society all the active fans in the country, and to create new ones. There was no attempt to create an esoteric group; fandom was for getting together and discussing s-f books and magazines, then, and the tables of the White Horse, the weekly meeting place of the London Circle in those days, were littered with prozines at every meeting.
Into this endeavour to become organised an unknown Irish fan introduced a printed fanzine. Printed, when there were only three or four duplicated fanzines covering the whole country! In the Science Fantasy Society we regarded this entrant to the active field with very mixed feelings; a fan with that amount of spare energy could have been more usefully employed, we felt, in turning out a modest duplicated 'zine and spending the rest of his time in being an Active Society Member. Like most serious-minded societies, we were extremely short of Active Society Members. The tone of the 'zine too ... poking fun at s-f and practically everything associated with it! How could we attract those elusive outsiders when in fandom the Sacred subject was held up to ridicule?
Thus, WAW found the then active British fans somewhat less than enthusiastic, and exhibiting his very distinctive trait of independence of organisation in fandom, he turned to the States. There he found a fandom that hadn't been so disrupted by the war, where the time-binding essence of "Trufandom" had caught his imagination, and in a very short time, he had far more contacts with Stateside fen than with Europeans.
In Britain the Society struggled for a short time, but there just weren't enough active fans to keep the thing going. Those of us with some initiative but not enough time for organisation became disenchanted with serious constructivism, and fanning for the fun of it was a darned sight more interesting. Look at Slant ... getting more interested help than a serious organ ever would, because, to people like myself, the Right Kind of Fan became, not the fellow interested in s-f, but in Fandom.
Now, we've had brought to our notice recently a distinctive feature of US fandom that has hitherto remained virtually unknown to British fandom; the existence of a large band of US fans who are not members of fanzine fandom. These null-F's, if I may call them that, attend Conventions, discuss s-f, and regard themselves as fans, but never write for fanzines or receive them.
This state of affairs is very different in Britain. Here, if a fan is an active fan then he publishes fanzines, organises Conventions, and partakes generally in all activities; very few Null-F's are prominent in Convention organising, meetings, etc., and even those who are, such as Ted Carnell, have a fanzine background.
Thus, fanzine fandom became entranced with the beautiful job WAW made of Slant, and later Hyphen, and in the humorous material he poured out, and British fanzine fandom was active fandom. From such fanzines introduced by WAW to British fandom as Oopsla, Quandry, etc., which reported Conventions in the 6th Fandom manner, British fans built up a visualisation of their ideal Con. Disregarding the minor fact that the reports they most liked were invariably slanted towards humour, they went ahead and organised Conventions that staggered Walt.
With the example of Hyphen to inspire them, fans leaned heavily to humour in all their activities, and when, in '54, native s-f boomed, the serious and constructive reader who encountered fandom never had a chance. If you could quote yourself onto Hyphen's bacover, write a fanzine article interlarded with puns, or cartoon, the red carpet was unrolled; otherwise, you were not unwelcome but there was just no place where you could expound your feelings on the latest Amazing or Astounding.
Walt had not, I think, created this atmosphere by intent, and, of course, he was not alone, but his influence pervaded the field. He published the epic Enchanted Duplicator, was always sympathetic towards requests for materiel from neo-faneds, and was conscientious in writing fair and inevitably witty letters of comment. But it was by example that he showed British fans how to enjoy fanning and how, sometimes, to introduce a note of serious criticism and sincerity when needed.
The preponderance of fanzine writers and editors in British actifandom has meant that until recently Walt influenced the whole field of fan expression here, and it is only in the last year or so, with little from Belfast and the emergence into activity of the hybrid s-f/jazz fan, that any quantity of material has been published that has not, consciously or sub-consciously, set itself against the standard of "Good enough for Hyphen".
It's difficult to assess the ultimate value of the fannish anarchy that now prevails in Britain, where the only national fan club is, significantly enough, a fanzine publishing association. There is no association which can be entered by the youngster who is interested in exchanging opinions and hearing news concerning s-f ... which is, basically, the first step towards the curious entity known as s-f fandom taken by the usual reader. The Immortal Storm of the early '50's will require some deep psychological delvings.
"We want articles, preferably humorous. We'd ask for serious articles too, only they're usually so damned dull." Thus ran a Willis request for material.
Being a contemporary of Walt's in fandom has meant the total defeat of dullness. I've differed with him, sometimes quite bitterly, but the man is exhilarating, charming ... and, after reading this, embarassed. Walter A. Willis is quite definitely a Good Man.
--A. Vincent Clarke, 1957
Data entry by Judy Bemis