Fanthorpe Forever

Time flies. In the first year of SFX I wrote about the legendary Lionel Fanthorpe, who published 160-odd SF and supernatural books at breakneck speed in his spare time from 1954 to 1966, sometimes at the rate of one a week. Now Lionel has celebrated 50 years in print and – not being one to indulge in foolish modesty – organized his own SF convention to mark the occasion.

This was Reminiscon 50, held in a Cardiff hotel on 9 February 2002 (the great man's 67th birthday) with an all-star celebrity cast of Lionel Fanthorpe, feebly supported by such lesser lights as Jack Cohen, Terry Pratchett, Guy N. Smith, Brian Stableford, Colin Wilson, me, and the editor of Fortean Times. Watchers of Fortean TV will remember its presenter the Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe in black leathers and dog-collar, zooming around on an immense Harley-Davidson which was duly displayed at Reminiscon.

Lionel's nostalgia trip took us back to 1952 and his youthful attempts to sell an SF parody of John Masefield. "I must go back into space again, to the lonely space and the stars, And all I ask is a rocket ship and a job to do on Mars ..." British publishers unanimously said No, but one asked if he could write a 50,000-word book instead. John Spencer Ltd, publishers of the infamous Badger Books, wanted desperate authors who'd work for ten shillings per thousand words. The rest is history. And the Fanthorpe book count has now passed 250.

Reminiscon, a charity benefit event, also featured Lionel's family, Lionel's songs, Lionel's poetry, Lionel's one-act plays, Lionel on unsolved Fortean mysteries, Lionel on religion, and Lionel on Lionel. Others managed to slip in a few words when the guest of honour paused for breath ...

Brian Stableford argued ("It gets boring for the next 20 minutes, so everyone can go to sleep") that fantasy novels have triumphed over SF not because of Tolkien but owing to two terrible literary disasters of 1976: Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara and Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

Colin Wilson plugged his collaboration The Atlantis Blueprint, destined to overturn all previous theories of ancient history with its mindboggling proof of high-tech civilization flourishing some 100,000 years ago. Unfortunately, it seemed, the co-author had mysteriously got cold feet and deleted all the controversial bits – so these would have to be published in another book.

Terry Pratchett had just completed the new Discworld epic Night Watch (featuring author Ken Follett as the head of the Assassins' Guild: "Is that his own hair?"). If he took a break now, Terry explained, he'd have to tidy his office. This was too awful to contemplate. So he was already 8,000 words into his next Discworld novel The Wee Free Men (former working title For Fear of Little Men) ... Most memorable remark: "I never learned anything at school."

Having had an advance peep at Night Watch, I'd wondered why the name of the major character John Keel seemed familiar. Fortean Times jogged my memory, and I enjoyed introducing Terry to its editor Bob Rickard – who opened the current issue to its big feature on The Mothman Prophecies, based on a book by John Keel. No, Mr Pratchett had had no idea.

My own talk was about awful writing in SF, including some of Lionel's creative attempts at padding but not his personal favourite, the Pinky-Grey Rock scene from Galaxy 666 (1963). Desperate to keep the words flowing, he was reduced to describing a rock on his mantelpiece as an alien landscape:

"There were pinkish streaks among the rock, and it seemed that the chromatic tint from the atmosphere owed something to these. There were a number of white veins in the rock, which bore some resemblance to marble, but the majority of it was grey. It gave an over-all impression of greyness streaked with pink and white, rather than an over-all impression of whiteness tinged with grey and pink, or an over-all impression of pink streaked with grey and white."

The next paragraph starts, "Greyness was the predominant shade; neither black nor white but something midway between the two ..." And so on, and on. The maestro of padding had barely begun.

Reminiscon 50 was a terrific day, concluding with a slap-up banquet and a far too prolonged session in the hotel bar. The Rev. Lionel may not be the world's greatest SF writer – as he cheerfully admits – but he throws a hell of a good party. Roll on Reminiscon 60 in 2012 ...

David Langford's hangover has begin to subside.