The decade of the 1950s was arguably fandom's Golden Age, especially for British and
Irish fandom; Walt Willis was just one of the major fan talents on the loose then.
Another was Ron Bennett, who returns to our pages with another new fanzine article
about an old fanzine. In his previous article, Ron exPLOYned the origins of his
1950s fanzine, PLOY. This time we learn the Secret Origins and history of
his focal point 1960s newszine, Skyrack.
Belgian Big Name Fan, Jan Jansen, first came up with the idea that the fandom of the day needed a newszine and in the mid-fifties turned out the qualitative but short-lived Contact.
A year or two later, Terry Carr and Ron Ellik came out with their superb and award-winning Fanac but as far as British fandom was concerned Fanac didn't quite fill a need, so in 1959 I decided to try putting out a small newszine which would cater primarily for the British fan.
Initially, the name was a problem. I had hoped, in homage to the Bloomington Newsletter, to have the name of the Yorkshire town in which I lived in the title, but 'The Harrogate Newsletter' didn't sound quite right. Even if the town was the birthplace of Michael Rennie!
As well as being split into the famous three Ridings, the county of Yorkshire, where I've spent most of my life, is divided into various administrative districts, Harrogate being in the Claro Division. 'The Claro Newsletter' was given brief consideration, but was soon discarded.
But wait! Fifteen miles south of Harrogate is the reasonably sized city of Leeds, famous for the growth of the wool trade, for ready-made clothing, for Joseph Priestley's experiments with oxygen and, of course (he adds mischievously), the world's first science-fiction convention.
Leeds is in the administrative district of Skyrack.
As a title, The Skyrack Newsletter had more of a ring to it. It neatly echoed Fanac and there was a nice SF cachet about the first syllable, Sky.
Except, of course, that such an interpretation of the name is a complete misnomer.
Way back in the days of the Anglo-Saxons... Vince will remember... disputes between various villages were sorted out at regular meetings of village elders. They'd vote by holding up their swords or staffs, and a poll of these weapons would be taken. The meetings became known as 'Wappontakes', and so did the areas they covered. Leeds was in the Wappontake of Skyrack, for it was at the Skyr-Ack, the Shire Oak, that the meeting took place.
The old tree, then but a gnarled stump -- you know the feeling, too, eh? -- was finally pulled down in the early forties when it was deemed to be a threat to traffic. Presumably, it had the tendency to leap out at passing trolley cars. There's now only a plaque in the wall and two neighboring public houses, The Original Oak and The Skyrack. And I know that you can't wait to learn that they're just up the road from the Headingley cricket ground where England plays its test matches.
The first issue of The Skyrack Newsletter, appeared in April 1959. Its four mimeoed, quarto sides carried a short report of the British EasterCon in Birmingham. It cost six pre-decimal pence (two and a half decimal) and a six issue subscription could be obtained for half-a-crown (2/6d) or 35 cents from my Stateside rep, the now greatly-missed Bob Pavlat of Hyattsville, Maryland. I copied Fanac's practice of a masthead cartoon, this initial offering being a John Owen captioned Rotsler illo.
My own favorite from Skyrack's lengthy run of cartoons was one by Eddie Jones which was based on the famous Charles Addams picture of the pair of unicorns watching Noah's ark sailing away without them. Eddie's version showed a couple of Atom's typical BEMs watching Arthur leave on his 1964 TAFF trip to PacifiCon II in Oakland.
My intention was to maintain a monthly roll-over schedule, that is to say an issue would appear a month after the previous issue unless some newsworthy item came to hand which would really necessitate an issue prior to that monthly deadline, In which case the following issue would be scheduled for a month after that 'interim' issue. This system worked well (for me, anyway) and was adhered to until the newsletter's declining years.
For the second issue (1st May 1959), Eddie Jones produced a masthead 'SKYRACK' lettering which I kept throughout the newsletter's life and then slid it into commercial mundania by adopting it for my later book, magazine, and comic selling business.
Issue number 6 was the first of the pre-monthlies, appearing a fortnight after number 5 when I was working temporarily in London, meeting different fans nightly and of course 'news' was flooding in from every quarter. Shortly after this there appeared a couple of scurrilous sheets called Skyhack and Skyreck, hilarious parodies which I suspect were the brain children of Archie Mercer and George Locke, both leading fans and notable humorists of the day. George was at this time appearing regularly in Amazing and Fantastic under the pseudonym Gordon Walters.
Despite thus having been overshadowed in the humor stakes by these scandalous sheets, I continued to produce the Real McCoy and number 7 warned, naturally enough, "Beware of Imitations."
This issue also featured a masthead cartoon by dear ol' Arthur Thomson, the first of many fine cartoons Atom drew, several, for special occasions, straight on to stencil.
So, over the next six years Skyrack went on its merry way, appearing on its monthly roll-over schedule, recording British conventions, fan meetings like the London Symposium and, of course, informal meetings and parties. Fanzines were reviewed and changes of address noted. There were fan feuds, too, of course, but at all times I tried to keep the reportage light and entertaining. Mostly, of course, I didn't have to try; the fans who sent in news accounts and snippets of information were well ahead of me there.
Typical headlines were: 'Berry Fund Successful', 'PittCon Push by Pondfund Planners' (Terrible! Definitely my favorite!), 'London Circle Disrupts', 'Ford by a Landslide', 'Bentcliffe for Pittsburgh', 'Amis for LXIcon', 'Ella Parker for Seacon', 'Scithers in Town', 'TAFF Doubles Voting Fee', 'Brian for Yugoslavia', 'Welcome Back Wally', 'Nova Bows Out', 'Tom All the Way', 'Atom Goes TAFF', 'Death of Don Ford', 'Oblique House Gets Mundane Slant' and 'LonCon Programme Takes Shape'.
Of course, it was fun playing news editor and trying to scoop the rest of fandom with some pieces of news, primarily Hugo winners and TAFF results.
From Stateside WorldCons Bob Pavlat used to send me Western Union cablegrams made up of the names of the Hugo winners, so that, for example, I was able to have ready the last three pages of an issue, printed, addressed and stamped and with the front page awaiting only Bob's cable from the 1960 PittCon which read "HEINLEIN KEYES SERLING FSF EMSH CRY 380 STANDOV HEINLEIN." From this I was able to concoct a page-long item announcing the Hugo winners that year as being Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon", Serling's The Twilight Zone, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Ed Emshwiller for his artwork, and the Seattle fanzine Cry of the Nameless. Heinlein received a standing ovation and there were 380 attendees, nowadays the number of fans who attend a room party. The issue was in the mails within hours and, sent airmail to the States, was awaiting PittCon attendees when they returned home.
I was also grateful to various TAFF officers who helped me in similar circumstances. The British officer would let me know the European count at the deadline and the American officer would send me a similar cable. I'd add together the two sets of figures and again an issue awaiting only the front page would be in the mails as soon as possible after the voting deadline. On a couple of occasions, Atom conjured up mastheads to cover any contingency, so that the issue which finally appeared would have a personalized and highly pertinent cartoon.
Of course, it wouldn't have been me if I'd not taken advantage of the possibilities offered by this situation. The 1962 TAFF race was a straight fight between Ethel Lindsay and Eddie Jones. Atom had provided me with cartoons for either outcome. When the Western Union cablegram rolled in and the combined US and European figures showed Ethel to be the victor, I did what any red-blooded fan editor would have done. I ran off a special one-copy front page especially for the lady. Yes, a special front page announcing that Eddie had been elected TAFF delegate that year. Just for Ethel.
Naturally, the correct version was sent along by the following mail. Ethel and Eddie were on the phone to each other immediately they'd received their copies, each happily and sincerely congratulating the other. Of course Ethel was not left to suffer for very long. Dozens of fans phoned her the same morning offering their congratulations. One of the first had been her close friend, Ella Parker. "Oh!" Ella said. "One of Bennett's jokes."
She had had reason to know. In February 1961, Ella had told me in confidence that she intended attending the Seattle WorldCon later that year. She'd been saving for the trip and with a loan from her brother Fred could just about manage the trip. On no account, Ethel told me, should I breath a word of her intentions nor mention her plans in Skyrack. It should be explained that at that time Ella was undoubtedly British fandom's focal point, not only for her bulky and qualitative fanzine, Orion. Ella invariably had out of town fans lodging at her apartment (I spent several school vacations with her and Fred) and Friday evening was open house. The majority of fans who took advantage of Ella's continuous hospitality were on the whole a pretty young bunch. Ella was of the opinion -- and I for one didn't disagree -- that if it became known that she intended going to Seattle someone was certain to set up a fund to ensure that she visited Seattle and had a fine time there. An Ella for SeaCon Fund was the last thing Ella wanted.
So, sworn to secrecy, Skyrack #29 duly made no mention of Ella's intentions. Except, of course, for the copy Ella received. Its headline read "Ella Parker for SeaCon." Ella missed the dateline on her special copy, 29th February 1961 and dashed off a lengthy letter to me which she sent express special delivery and which must have burnt the mailman's fingers. It certainly scorched the paper on which it was written.
After Ella had mailed the letter, she phoned Ethel Lindsay who, naturally enough had no idea about what Ella was complaining. After all, her copy's headline read "AMIS FOR LXICON." Ella sent me a cable which read simply, "BENNETT YOU BASTARD." She didn't hold the gag against me and referred to me in similar vein, albeit affectionately, for the remainder of our association.
After mid-1965, the newsletter lost its impetus a little, perhaps because I was struggling with a new mortgage, a new son, teaching evening classes, taking a crack at pro-writing and attempting to run a mail-order second hand book and magazine business, all in addition, of course, to teaching at a local primary school where out-of-school hours were devoted to coaching a successful schoolboy soccer team. Skyrack had become a low priority item. And something of a chore. Publication slipped to a bi-monthly and even a quarterly schedule and even with three(!) issues in April 1966, the writing was on the wall. For example, Skyrack #93 appeared in November 1966 and #94, with a helpful, "Oh, come on now -- you remember Skyrack," didn't show up until August 1967 four weeks before I moved to take up a post in Singapore.
The following issue therefore holds the undisputed distinguished record of being the only fan publication to appear from the island republic. So far, anyway.
There was one more issue to come, a meager offering comprising mostly advertisements, but produced in July 1971 to cover the deaths of John W. Campbell, Jr. and August Derleth. A sad ending to the run.
I don't think that the newsletter very often bubbled to the surface of my thoughts during the next couple of decades until fan historians like Rob Hansen and Richard Lynch began to ask questions about certain documented events. Heavens! Had I had even the slightest intimation that Skyrack was to be viewed as some sort of record of the times, I think that I'd have taken more care with that documentation. There always was a tendency to assume that the reader was au fait with the background of reported events. I'm certain that today's newszines fall into the same trap, and I don't really think that it could be otherwise.
For myself, I'm fortunate in possessing a personal memory book of the period, full of incidents and events worth savoring and overflowing with the names of hundreds of people who influenced my outlook and who enriched my life.
All illustrations by Charlie Williams