Looking Backward

There's no blue commemorative plaque on John Wyndham's house, but now he has a memorial in South End Green, London. A nameless alleyway dedicated to wheelie-bin storage and identified as an escape route used in The Day of the Triffids now proudly bears the sign Triffid Alley. They missed a trick by not repeating the name in Braille.

Maybe one day there'll be a plaque at 32 Thorold Road, Ilford, which on 27 October 1930 housed the inaugural meeting of the Ilford Science Literary Circle – Britain's first SF fan group! Tea and crumpets were served, contemporary SF was read aloud, and history was made by a turnout of just six people.

No, I wasn't there, but I read the crib-sheet. The history of SF fandom is a deeply arcane subject, and for ages the only references were by Americans – such as Sam Moskowitz's The Immortal Storm from 1954, telling in prose of epic clunkiness the story of US fandom from the 1920s until World War II. Which, after Moskowitz's impassioned descriptions of apocalyptic fan feuds and brutal fan-political purges, seemed a distinct anticlimax.

History is full of oddments that escaped the history books, and the SF fan world is especially hard to track because so much early data appeared in low-circulation fanzines which, once their owners died, were promptly binned by a loving family. Much had been forgotten, but in the 1980s UK fan history received a shot in the arm. Young enthusiast Rob Hansen, fascinated by this retro stuff, teamed up with golden oldie Vince Clarke – who'd been active in 1930s UK fandom, dropped out in 1960, and twenty-odd years later returned with his vast archive of fannish documents and photos still intact.

The curtain is here lowered and raised again to skip over years of numbing research that spawned Rob Hansen's THEN: A History of Science Fiction Fandom in the UK, published as four hefty fanzine-format volumes from 1988 to 1993. Various tidied versions have been online since about 1995, and this year saw an ebook. Rob is currently working on a much expanded edition. Meanwhile, though less carefully preserved than L. Ron Hubbard's works (which the Scientologists once planned to inscribe on 1.8 million stainless steel plates preserved in time capsules, to kickstart post-holocaust rediscovery of the remainder shop), the information in THEN shouldn't easily be lost again.

One surprise was the revelation that British fandom had mislaid an entire national convention. According to the official record, three 1950s Eastercons were held at the George Hotel in Kettering (still shamefully denied its rightful blue plaque). Rob discovered a fourth, plunging the historical sequence into chaos because the 1971 "Eastercon 22" suddenly became the twenty-third Eastercon. Numerical sanity was only restored by Jesuitically declaring the 1951 convention to be a special international event, listed among Eastercons but without a number. Phew, that was a close one.

Another blue-plaque candidate identified in THEN is 88 Gray's Inn Road, London, home of The Flat – a short-lived SF powerhouse where Arthur C. Clarke and two fan friends lived at the end of the 1930s, and hosted the first meetings of the British Interplanetary Society. One of the Flat denizens, SF author William F. Temple, wrote a whole novel about their bizarre domestic life, eventually published in 2000 as 88 Gray's Inn Road: A Living-Space Odyssey. It's fun.

Personally I thought THEN got really exciting in the 1970s volume when at last my own name turned up; but not everyone regards this as the climax of The Decline and Fall of the Fannish Empire. No blue plaque for Mr Hansen, whose greatest accolade was to be mistyped in Brian Aldiss's autobiography: "the historian of fanzines, Rob Hanson". Way to go, Rob.

David Langford had a sevagram once, but the multiverses fell off.