I remember it was an alarming sensation, stepping cautiously into a London pub meeting jam-full of people – often strangely bearded people – who apparently all knew each other and were intensely chatting away. Which, if any, were the ones I'd corresponded with and who'd assured me it was all great fun? Dared I actually walk up to this or that group of evidently elitist bastards and butt in, risking a cold and hostile stare? Had I come too early, too late, or even on the wrong evening? Jitter, jitter. Then I was lucky enough to spot a familar face at the bar and everything started to be OK....
All this took place in December 1994 at a gathering for users of the CIX computer net, coincidentally held at the Wellington where the monthly London sf piss-ups occur. Oh dear: it's clear that after decades in fandom I'm still not quite sure how to make contact with any greater confidence than when I walked nervously into one of the very last Globe meetings circa 1973 or 1974. (By my next visit these London affairs had moved to the One Tun.) That time I'd come with a couple of university cronies, and don't remember talking to anyone else all evening.
But this had been just one of multiple 'first contacts'. Earlier there was the Alien Sphinx, a one-eyed, tentacled and intensely silly creature on what was surely an amateur magazine cover seen pinned to the college notice-board on my first day there. With characteristic fannish efficiency, this poster bore the magazine name – Sfinx – but no hint of price or contact address. Thus my immense brain was able to infer the lumbering presence of the Oxford University SF Group, and presently I became the extremely shy person on the fringes of their meetings.
Had I kept a diary it might be possible to reconstruct my long slither down the insidious slope: writing silly stories for Sfinx, arguing with other aspirants at the magazine's workshop sessions (including almost godlike figures like Rob Holdstock, who had actually had a short story published in a real magazine), tasting the heady wine of audience appreciation when I found OUSFG would actually listen to and laugh at my first sf series – the galaxy-smashing adventures of Cosmic Agent Mac Malsenn (anag: Lensman), finding myself mysteriously elected OUSFG President despite reciting the entirety of The Hunting of the Snark from memory at one notably drunken meeting....
Which in turn led to my being the group's cultural envoy to Novacon 3 in Birmingham, with a brief to buy lots of sf for its library. This mission was slightly skimped owing to a cascade of new First Contacts – notably Chris Priest, who made the mistake of encouraging me and next summer found himself at my mercy in a punt on the Isis. Returning from that first-ever convention to an OUSFG meeting that same night, I met a new recruit called Hazel whom unaccountably I didn't get around to marrying until 1976.
In between came yet another important Contact. Besides much-appreciated sf review magazines like Vector and early issues of Foundation, the above-mentioned group library contained a few esoteric fanzines (one was called Les Spinge) which seemed almost deliberately baffling and hermetic. Rather like the in-joky 'fanzines' I'd invented and produced at school, independently of the sf/fan world ... but that didn't occur to me at the time. It seemed a forbiddingly closed world. Then, around 1975, Leroy Kettle started giving me his own tatty gossip-leaflet True Rat at One Tun meetings, probably to make me go away and stop pathetically whining for a copy. True Rat was joyously scabrous and funny in a way I hadn't met before in fanzines: though largely about an in-group of London fans ('Ratfandom') it exposed its subject-matter to the world, and after laughing yourself silly at Roy's mockery of the foibles of – say – John Brosnan, Malcolm Edwards or Greg Pickersgill, you also discovered that you knew the victims a bit better.
This was something I yearned to imitate; but I think we'll draw a thick and radiation-proof veil over my first efforts to do so. All I can say is, one thing leads to another – in my case, well over 200 fanzines. One of these days I'll get it right.