Then, Part 3: ‘Hoaxes and Cons’: Rob Hansen

For this week’s midweek feature, we return to Rob Hansen’s ‘Then’. We’ve been serialising an edited version of his work, which focusses on Irish fandom and it’s development over the years. Today we look at ‘Operation Shamrookie’, a tale of infiltration and deceit!

3. Hoaxes and Cons


In 1952, Vince 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 by the name of Mike Wilson who 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 in Britain would have to endure until National Service was finally abolished in
the early-60s. At the next White Horse meeting he cheerfully told Vince 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 his 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?'”

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…”

This was from Bob Shaw, and began:

“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.

That was when the first doubt crossed my mind. It was <I>too</I> 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.”

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:

“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
Vin? Clarke! I was so pleased… that the very next day I sent Vin? Clarke’s
own work back to him with an enthusiastic note…looking for

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 Vin? think
that everything was going according to plan…Bob wrote a conspiratorial
letter congratulating him and promising full support….”

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….



Fanart for Loncon II

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 and Walt Willis. The convention proper was opened by Carnell at 2pm the next day

Shortly after the convention the White-Harris ‘feud’ acquired a new dimension when they met for the first time at Vince Clarke’s home (White brought along a false beard and dark glasses for the occasion). 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 Vince 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: “Vince 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 Vince. 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.

‘Then’ on the Dublin 2019 Blog:

Part 1 Belfast Rising
Part 2 Going International

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