Then Part 5: Loosening Up. Rob Hansen

Today we return to Then, Rob Hansen’s history of fandom in the UK and Ireland. He’s edited it especially for us to focus on the impact of Irish fandom, and we’ve been publishing it in bitesized chunks. We’re examining the impact of Walt Willis today, a key member of Irish Fandom. If you want to read the rest of this fascinating history, scroll down to the bottom for the previous entries, and a link to Rob’s website. We also hope that tales like this really inspire Irish fandom, which is alive and well, and bidding for a Worldcon in Dublin 2019!!

5. Loosening Up


Jophan and his Shield of Umor

Art by Dan Steffan
Photo by Madeleine Willis

In the beginning UK fandom had been mainly sercon (serious and constructive) and to its members its purpose, to use the description applied to the pre-war SFA, was “…to encourage publishers to pay more attention to scientifiction and to stimulate public interest in science”. Later it developed more light-hearted elements, but SF was still the focus of fandom. Then came Walt Willis. Analysing the effect of Willis on fanzines and their contents, Bob Shaw expressed the view that the appearance of SLANT and HYPHEN had caused a gradual but very real change in fanzines, saying:

“The humour-zine became the name for fan publications and I don’t think it’s any
exaggeration to say that this was almost entirely due to the influence of the Willis
creed. In 1952, while I was resident in London, Vincent Clarke said sombrely,
concerning the New Look in fanzines: ‘Willis has a lot to answer for'”.

Indeed he does. Under Willis, who was doubtless influenced in this regard by Lee Hoffman, a new type of fanzine and fandom evolved whose focus was not so much SF as fandom itself, though the interest in SF was still there. Relations between fandom’s sercon and fannish wings were not always harmonious, but by 1954 external developments, in the form of SF’s increasing popularity were beginning to affect them both. Writing in HYPHEN, William F. Temple observed that:

“Today SF batters you with more magazines and books than you could hope to read
if you did nothing else all day. It’s all over the cinema and TV screens, and drools
from the radio. It infests advertisment hoardings, strip cartoons, kids’ comics,
toy-shops, literary weeklies, and pantomimes. It’s even been mentioned at The Globe.
We always wanted to spread SF, and now, God help us, we’ve done it. And somehow
in the stampede the magic has been trampled underfoot.”

The Globe of course was the pub which had superseded the White Horse as the venue for London fandom’s Thursday night gatherings. Willis replied:

“Fandom does seem to be passing through a period of self-evaluation at the moment.
For years its ostensible purpose was to promote science fiction; but now that SF
has been promoted it snubs its old friends and scorns its humble beginnings. Fans
are now ‘unrepresentative’, an esoteric clique… and the serious constructive fans
have been left as high and dry as the rest of us — in fact more so, because they
have lost their entire reason for existence.”

THE ENCHANTED DUPLICATOR, a 26-page parable by Bob Shaw and Walt Willis, struck a deep chord in the fannish consciousness and has been reprinted many times since (see An allegorical work telling the tale of Jophan’s journey from Mundane to the land of Fandom and of his quest for the fabled Enchanted Duplicator, TED made its first appearance in February ’54. Following the demise of the US component of Sixth Fandom and the changes alluded to above, Willis had felt that fandom needed to be re-defined, but even he was surprised by the reception TED received:

“The Enchanted Duplicator was received by fandom with such awe-inspiring enthusiasm
that it must obviously have filled some deep-felt want for a new basis for our hobby,
now that our former proselytising zeal for science fiction no longer seemed to make
sense. More surprisingly, it was warmly received by people like Ken Slater and the
new generation of serious-constructive fans in the North whose attitude to fandom
it had criticised by implication.”

(Free ebook version here: Also, my mid-90s Chuck Harris-approved ‘sequel’ can be found here:

Meanwhile, the London-Manchester feud had taken on a new dimension thanks to a plan to subvert the SUPERMANCON that went by the codename ‘Operation Armageddon’. This had first been been mooted during a party given by Ted Tubb at CORONCON and had begun to take form in September during a visit to Belfast by Vince Clarke. Clarke’s stay at Oblique House, jokingly dubbed ‘AVCON’, was later written up by Willis for his American ‘Harp’ column:

“The affair was treated as a convention (Robert Bloch, Shelby Vick and others also
having been invited but unfortunately unable to attend) and there was an official
programme. Item 6 was ‘In Secret Session: Proposals for brightening up the SUPERMANCON’.
We found that the idea had already occurred to some of the London Circle. We kicked
around a lot of wild and hilarious ideas, but when Vince Clarke went home we thought
that would be the end of it. It is an axiom in Irish Fandom that the London Circle
never get anything done unless they have to.”

Not this time. Some time later OPERATION ARMAGEDDON, a one-sheet flyer for the project, appeared. Produced by Clarke and defining the project as: “A plan to brighten up the SUPERMANCON…without the co-operation of the Manchester group…”, this sheet listed a number of mischievous and disruptive ways by which this objective could be achieved, many of them dating from Clarke’s Belfast trip.

As it turned it wasn’t necessary to put Operation Armageddon into action at SUPERMANCON. The official programme began on time but soon disintegrated almost completely, without needing help from London fandom. Far from being the disaster it could have been, this proved the salvation of the convention, the chaos being so complete that both committee and attendees treated it as a joke. In fact, the convention generated so much good humour that the North-South conflict evaporated, years of acrimony washed away by common adversity and the cameraderie of good times shared. Writing about this later, Willis waxed poetic:

“It was as if all the sins of British fandom — the smugness of the North, the malice
of the South, the snobbery of the Old Guard — as if they were all expiated by the
SUPERMANCON committee as they crucified themselves in the Grosvenor Hotel. The point
was that they bore their agony in such a way as to demonstrate the inherent goodness
of fan. If they had showed signs of bitterness or pomposity in their ordeal things
might have been very different. Instead they met every disaster with such informality
and good humour that they won people’s sympathy. In the face of this sporting attitude
the London Circle (though admittedly things might have been different if Bert Campbell
had arrived on schedule) dropped their plans for sabotage. Not one of the fiendish
plots hatched over the last nine months in Operation Armageddon was put into effect.
The official programme was allowed to die peacefully by mutual consent. It was the way
it died that was important. Last year in London it lingered on in agony. People sat
around, bored and irritated, waiting for life to be pronounced extinct. This year
people realised at quite an early stage that the official programme was already part
of the pavement of Hell, and it was at this point that the British Convention
completed the transition that had begun last year in the Bonnington.”

‘Then’ on the Dublin 2019 Blog:

Part 1 Belfast Rising
Part 2 Going International
Part 3 Hoaxes and Cons
Part 4 Transatlantic Travels

Rob Hansen’s Then (A work always in progress) at Ansible.