The most depressing things about sf fandom are the obituaries and the funerals. At one recent funeral in south London, fans had flown in from Chicago, Minneapolis and Hong Kong (well ... one friend returned from a Hong Kong business trip at 5am that morning). But few of you will recognize the name of the man whose death caused such a stir: A. Vincent Clarke.
This is inner-circle fan stuff. Over 45 years ago Vince Clarke did collaborate on a couple of sf novels (with Kenneth Bulmer), but he's remembered for other 1950s achievements like publishing one of Britain's best sf newsletters, Science Fantasy News; helping found the British SF Association, still going strong; and being the first winner of TAFF, the TransAtlantic Fan Fund.
TAFF is a peculiarly fannish honour, which promotes goodwill (and occasional feuds) between European and North American fandom by raising money and sending delegates – chosen by vote – alternately from here to America and vice-versa. For personal reasons Vince couldn't make his 1954 trip, but the audience at his funeral send-off contained many fan fund winners, including the latest TAFF delegate who'd toured the USA in 1998. (I was the lucky fan in 1980.)
Owing to family complications Vince Clarke dropped out of the fan scene from 1960 to 1981, returning like a time traveller to marvel at future fandom. He cheerfully started publishing witty fanzines again, compiling bibliographies, setting fan historians right about the murky tangles of the 50s, encouraging newcomers to get involved, and generally being charming. The 1995 World SF Convention in Glasgow chose him as a guest of honour. It was eerie to hear all this coming from the pulpit at Vince's (humanist) funeral service, and weirder still when an obituary was quoted and turned out to be what I'd written for my own sf newsletter Ansible.
Looking back to those days when sf was still a freak minority interest gives a strange perspective. Bob Shaw was writing funny articles for fanzines rather than being a major professional; James White was selling stories but keeping his day job in a tailor's shop – where for friends he'd prepare special convention-going jackets, with a poacher's pocket big enough to hold wads of fanzines.
The conventions were peculiar, too. Though very much smaller than today's national "Eastercons", they were even rowdier ... because British fans had read write-ups of desperate fun at US conventions, and – not realizing that these reports were highly exaggerated – tried their best to outdo the Yanks. Respectable sf authors stalked the hotel with "zap guns", or water pistols to you and me. In drunken parties at one Manchester con, the empties were hurled from the windows to such cries as "I name this city ... Manchester!" Outside bedroom doors, a shambling procession chanted: "Go back to your wives ..."
And at that 1954 Manchester event, a younger and wickeder Vince Clarke was one organizer of Operation Armageddon, a satanic plot by the London SF Circle to disrupt the convention-running efforts of the "Bloody Provincials" up north. On the day, though, the Manchester committee was so magnificently incompetent that the convention needed no assistance to dissolve into happy chaos ... That year Vince also inaugurated a tradition of "quote cards" carrying cryptic fannish sayings, one of which reappeared in later sf novels: "If you didn't want crottled greeps, what did you order them for?"
Some things don't change. The other top 50s fanzine writer was Walt Willis, who also wrote the equivalent of this page for the professional magazine Nebula SF and spent one column pondering why C.S. Forester's "Hornblower" sea stories were so popular among sf fans. This would pass unnoticed if published today with the substitution of Patrick O'Brian, a great favourite of today's fans as they chatter on the rec.arts.sf.fandom newsgroup.
That Willis column also reviewed Sam Moskowitz's bombastic The Immortal Storm, a history of late-1930s fandom which made World War 2 seem like a total anticlimax. Typical soundbite: "But again stark drama was preparing her lines ... and what was to follow ... was to deal catastrophe to fandom as a whole. Ragnarok had caught the entire fan world napping!"
Now cyberspace is providing a home for scanned or retyped fragments of esoteric fan history on the web (see www.fanac.org). Some bits are fascinating, some in-joky or incomprehensible. But if you've ever read an sf fanzine or attended a convention ... it's your history too.
No wonder David Langford is looking nostalgically backward into time – this is his 50th regular column for SFX.