Time now for a trip back to the 1950s and the 'Golden Age' of British fandom. This year's Chicon 2000 was the most recent of six Chicago worldcons, but none have been closer together than nine years so it's probably fairly easy for any attendees to remember which events occurred at which Chicons. This is not the case for other conventions, for example the British Eastercons of the mid-1950s when four in a row were held in the city of Kettering. So many memorable things happened at that series of conventions, it could easily become a bit of a jumble.
'Lord of the Jumble' by Ron Bennett; 
  title illo by Kurt Erichsen
It doesn't matter in the slightest, of course, but when one looks back across the years to some fond memory, there's often a tendency to fix that memory in a time frame. Aunt Agatha being eaten by a had dock that time in Blackpool helps peg and secure the incident in the memory, and we can allow our memory to branch out from there.

And, of course, it's a tremendous help if we've only been to Blackpool once in our lives (yes, yes, I know that some would regard the experience as once being once too often). And it's the same with conventions. Ah, yes, there's Richard Lynch at the Anchorage con in nineteen whatever. No problem at all, but when conventions take place in the same venue over a period of years which are not too far apart, like the five or six (See! One even loses count!) in Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel, the memories begin to merge.

And so we come to the amalgam of the British annual conventions held in Kettering from 1955 through 1958. Four in a row and I defy anyone to remember exactly which events took place in which year. The scenes which spring to memory are simply a pleasant jumble. I have the feeling that very few people in fandom outside the small but select Kettering group headed by the then equally unknown Denny Cowen had even heard of the place, a quiet, small, market town nestling in the rolling Northamptonshire heartlands.

There had been some discussion in fanzines and correspondence prior to the first con about the high room rates being mentioned. "You'll never get anyone to pay more than £l.00 a night," was the cry. The rate was twenty-one shillings, one guinea, equivalent at the time to a whole $3.00.

The hotel itself, the George, was quiet and peaceful, too (the sort of place which served jam scones and tea at four in the afternoon), a state of affairs which caused Terry Jeeves to comment, upon arrival, "It's a pity to do it in a place like this." There were two wings to the building, the old and the new (which held some bedrooms which were -- rare in those days -- en suite), linked by a downstairs lounge and an upstairs corridor. I found myself in Room 201 in the new wing and had the same room during all subsequent conventions, including the informal weekend gathering in 1967 a short time before I flew out to take up my post in Singapore.

Soon British fandom of the day had descended in force: Ken and Pamela Bulmer, Jim and Dorothy Ratigan, Ron (Pam Bulmer's brother) and Daphne Buckmaster, Vince Clarke, Joy Goodwin, Walt Willis, Chuck Harris, The Cheltenham Group (Eric and Margaret Jones, Bob Richardson, and Les Childs), Shirley Marriott, Tony Klein, Bill Harry, Eric Bentcliffe, Bobbie Wild, John Brunner, Dan Morgan, Ken Potter, Irene Core, Archie Mercer, Ken Slater, Don Allen and Con Turner from Gateshead, Cyril Whittaker, Jill Michiewhite and artist Jack Wilson (all three from Spalding), Nebula's Peter Hamilton, Ken McIntyre, Norman Wansborough, Mike Wallace, ATom, the entire Liverpool shebang (Norman and Ina Shorrock, Stan Nuttall, Don MacKay, John Owen, John Roles, Pat Doolan, Frank Milnes, and the city's in vogue pro, Dave Gardner), Jill Adams, Laurence Sandfield, Ted Carnell, Paul and Joan Hammet, Dave Cohen (who was reporting the weekend for the Vargo Statten Magazine), Jimmy White, Ethel Lindsay, Brian Varley, Frances Evans, Phil Rogers, Mal Ashworth, Shiela O'Donnell, Syd Bounds, Frank Arnold, Charlie Duncombe, Nic Oosterband (the editor of the Dutch pro-mag Planeet)... far too many for the George to accommodate. And so for what I think was the first time, overflow hotels, the Royal and the Sun, just along the road, were employed.

The programme items were held in a reasonably-sized hall situated at the back of the hotel across a small yard which was used as a car park. (Though not many fans in those far-off days owned a car.) The programme wasn't the continuous multi-layered "I want to see seventeen items and they're all on at the same time, 3.30am" affairs of today. Nice and gentle, as I told you. Kettering itself was, on the lines of, "We'll start at eleven. Most people will have been up and will have finished breakfast by then." And, dutifully, virtually every fan would take his or her seat for whatever fare was being offered.

It didn't take some fans very long to explore the town and arrive back at the hotel full of the joys every collector would like to experience on a daily basis. The enjoyment might be in the chase and the hunt, but in the final netting of the game (who says I mix my metaphors?), it's pure ecstasy, man, pure ecstasy! Eric Jones was the first to arrive back at the George and show his purchases to the group sitting enjoying morning coffee in the downstairs lounge, a small pile of Clayton Astounding which he'd uncovered in a small place along the road. I don't recall finishing the coffee before we all hurried out to find this treasure trove, which turned out to be the Collectors' Shop. What a place! Butterflies in cases, cigarette cards, coins, stamps, old magazines... Old magazines! In no time at all, we'd denuded the place of old pulps and were happily carrying our goodies back to the George.

When some years later I found myself a used book and magazine dealer who was sliding over into the world of comic books, I visited that shop on a number of occasions and even had an irregular correspondence with its owner, who had the same name as the Scottish collector, fan, and letter-hack, Fred Smith. I was honoured by being allowed in the shop's upper storey, which housed items like a roomful of Agatha Christie paperbacks, and an adjacent room stacked from floor to ceiling with piles of silver age comic books. They weren't there long!

The conventions themselves have become a tangle of memories. There were lots of photographs taken by everyone. I have a picture of myself sitting crosslegged, wearing a towel round my head to act as a turban and playing a wooden recorder on the flat roof outside the upstairs corridor. Spread out before me are the pulp magazines I must have purchased down the road. Don't ask me what deep and significant meaning all that was supposed to have, but I do remember that the snap was taken by Bill Harry, who later became editor of Mersey Beat, the Liverpool weekly which charted the rise and rise of the Beatles. Several photos I have show Eric Jones, who later initiated the Noble Order of the Knights of St. Fanthony, inside a gigantic mock-up of an Arthur "ATom" Thomson BEM.

One programme item at one of the cons stands out from the rest, a demonstration of hypnotism by one Harry Carr, who had Eric Jones and Hal Kennedy, a Newcastle fan of the day, arguing about the result of a football match. Ted Tubb tried to enter the ranks of those being hypnotized, remarking that he could do with the sleep. I've no idea why, and I'm not asking for suggestions, thank you very much, but on one occasion I was carried, upside down, with my head banging on each step (there are some things one just can't forget), by Norman Shorrock and gang of eager helpers. Somehow -- with one bound he was free -- I managed to escape and was chased by the screaming horde. (Actually, there was probably more laughter than any screaming, but, well, a lifetime of reading purple prose...) I dodged round a corner, threw open a door leading to a down staircase and whipped speed ily across the corridor into one of the bathrooms. The Screaming Horde rushed past and clattered down the stairs. Yeh, and crept silently back again, didn't they, so that when I emerged, triumphantly, from the bath room, there they all were to pounce on me once again.

Zap guns -- water pistols to the mundane -- were much in evidence. One fan made a great point of insisting he zap opponents in the mouth, which didn't cause too many objections once it was discovered that he was using gin instead of water. One fan, a highly respected doctor in the mundane world, upset the owner of the screen which had been brought in for the film show by ruining its silver coating with an errant zap but bought the thing on the spot, thereby negating any complaint.

About this time, Don Allen was producing a fanzine, Satellite, from the Newcastle area in the northeast. It ran a regular column by someone hiding behind the pseudonym 'Vitriol'. The columns were made up of snide insinuations about fandom in general and certain fans in particular, though no fan was ever named. And, as you might imagine, they were the topic of conversation in many letter columns and much correspondence. I'd discussed the topic with Con Turner when he visited Harrogate, and he rolled with laughter. 'Vitriol' was actually a fan named Ted Mason, who was unknown outside the local area and was simply having a bit of fun. He made up the 'insinuations' in a general way without having anyone in mind, and was constantly amazed at and amused by the manner in which fans projected these fictitious 'insinuations' on to actual personalities.

illo by Kurt Erichsen It seemed a good idea to parody this little Satellite enterprise and I wrote a short piece for the Leeds fanzine, Orbit, entitled "Acid Drops," under the byline 'Redd Grayson' in which I invented various happenings at Kettering. One of the questions I posed was to ask what had happened when a certain young lady had visited the bedroom of a well-known fan editor who had supposedly been taken ill. Almost immediately, Pamela Bulmer sent along a letter of comment in which she made plain her annoyance and disgust. Apparently there had been a fan-ed taken ill at the con and he had spent a day in bed. And yes, he'd been visited by his girl friend. Pamela had been with her and nothing improper had occurred and to suggest, even to suggest, that anything had...etc etc. It was the first I'd heard that anyone had even been taken ill or had spent some time in bed and I told Pamela so, but she wasn't convinced. Perhaps I should have referred to "Shamey" Marriott returning to her bedroom one night to find that a young fan had managed to persuade one of the hotel staff to let him in the room, and was naked in bed, awaiting the very attractive femmefan's return. She threw him out bodily into the corridor. His clothes followed some time later.

Very welcome at the different conventions were the various overseas visitors: Lee and Larry Shaw (on their honeymoon), Ed Hamilton and Leigh Brackett, Dick Wilson, and Dave Kyle, who impressed us with his sharp-edge no-nonsense delivery when he outlined plans for the 1956 New York convention, of which he was chairman. It was our introduction to Dave, who has been a regular and welcome visitor to these shores over so many years. He wore sunglasses when he stood up to deliver his talk and pointed out that they were "good for three hours' sleep -- in appearance."

I have a fond memory of Dave visiting Harrogate and coming along to meet me at the school at which I was teaching. I introduced him to our deputy head-teacher (vice-principal), "This is Mrs. Crowther, our deputy head," I said.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Head," Dave said brightly, holding out her hand. It really amused her, and she always commented on the incident whenever I met her in later years.

It was at the `56 convention, too, that the first fen from the continent made an appearance. There was Germany's Anna Steul and also Belgium's Jan Jansen, who was co-editor (with Dave Vendelmans) of the English-language Alpha and who later began to publish Contact, the first fannish newsletter. Enthusiastic about sf and fandom to a ridiculous degree, Jan had a keen sense of humour and, as an excellent linguist (in addition to his native Flemish, he spoke English, German, French, and Spanish), was regarded as something of a novelty, and was in great demand.

I'd first met Jan the previous year when I'd attended the mid-summer Antwerp convention. I made a return trip the same year (a trip during which I was also kindly hosted by the Benford family down in Frankfurt and spent a couple of days on the Rhein-Main Air Base itself, having been smuggled on it by Ellis Mills). And of course when I later had a three year stint working near Mons in southern Belgium, Jan and I were frequent visitors to each other's home. On some occasions, Jan would come south to Mons by train and I'd run him home in the evening. The idea was merely to drop him off -- this about midnight and high tail it the eighty miles to Mons, but I'd invariably accept the invitation to a cup of coffee -- and would get back to Mons at goodness knows what time in the early hours. (I once drove the return journey in a couple of minutes under the hour, and this, mind you, necessitating a drive through the center of Brussels!) Sadly, earlier this year I paid another visit to Antwerp, but this time for Jan's funeral.

It was in Kettering that I descended into the low world of gambling; I was introduced to three card brag, the British army's own version of poker. The game caught on wildly, Ron Ellik particularly being a keen protagonist. It was at one session that Norman Shorrock, who was a stamp dealer, ran out of ready money during one hand and placed in the kitty an 1840 Penny Black on which he put a certain value. Perhaps I shouldn't own up to winning the hand with a flush. And yes, I do still have the stamp. And no, I'm not giving it back.

Dave Jenrette, who came to the con with his wife, Rusty, in 1956 was bitten by the brag bug. He also introduced us to canned beer, which had to be opened with a small piercing tool. "Shake the can first," he said, "so that the flavor circulates." When the can was pierced the resultant beer spout hit the ceiling. Dave was posted over here at the time, flying nicely-primed nuclear bombs around in the skies for SAC. His colleagues were shipped home on a regular basis with nervous breakdowns. He hailed from Florida and had been well-known in fandom under the surname of Howard, the adjustment being made when he joined the Air Force and the authorities insisted on his original name, rather than that under which he'd been brought up after his mother had remarried. This pleased his wife. "Anyone can be called Howard," Rusty said, "but how many people are called Jenrette?"

The couple invited me down to stay with them and drove me to their Norfolk home from the convention where we spent an afternoon trying to work out the chances of obtaining the different hands in three card brag. During the visit it occurred to us that we were the only fans who had actually met the popular but very reclusive Alan Dodd and so the plot was hatched, not to create a fan as Sandy Sanderson had done with Joan W. Carr, but to uncreate one, namely Alan. We immediately produced a small fanzine in which we announced that because a German fan named Helmuth Gebogen had paid a visit to 'Alan's' home in Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire and had discovered only a relative of mine living there, we had decided to 'come clean' and admit that there was no such person as 'Alan Dodd' -- he was a hoax! (I don't think that Alan was best pleased.)

The 'Joan Carr' hoax perpetrated by Sandy has been well documented, but for the single reader who doesn't know the ins and outs: Harold "Sandy" Sanderson was a sergeant in the army and was stationed in the Middle East, in Cyprus and in Egypt. While he was there, he wrote back that he'd met a woman, also a sergeant at the same posting, who was keen on sf, and that he'd introduced her to fandom. In no time she was in correspondence with virtually every British fan. Except, of course, that she didn't exist; the letters had been written and signed by Sandy using green ink instead of the colour he usually employed. Only a few femme fans and two or three of Sandy's friends in his home town, Manchester, sf group were in on the secret and great lengths were made by them to keep the hoax going. Sandy even managed to have 'Joan' posted with him when he moved from one station to another.

At that time, I was living in Liverpool and had one evening gone over to pay a social call on the Manchester mob. During the evening I'd mentioned that no, I wasn't married; the 'Joan Bennett' (nicknamed 'Jinx') about whom I'd written in various fanzine stories was simply a fictitious character concocted for the stories. I told them that I wasn't intending to fool anyone into thinking that she was real (it could have been somewhat awkward when I struck up a relationship with a girl friend). My reply seemed to satisfy everyone that I wasn't trying to create a female fan hoax. "Anyway," one of the well-oiled group of Manchester fen told me, "it's already been done."

This, of course, referred to Sandy's invention of 'Joan Carr', and as different accounts have recorded, the hoax had now been blown, and fandom sat back, or leaned forward, or whatever fandoms do in such a circumstance, and waited with baited breath for me to blow the whistle. It could be waiting still. Someone out there was bestowing upon me a degree of perspicacity, awareness, and intelligence which I simply didn't, and don't, possess. If that careless remark had meant anything to me at all, it was that somewhere in fandom's untapped past, someone had invented someone. Heavens, as noted by Harry Warner in the previous issue of Mimosa, one fan had even invented a fan personality which was, in reality, his cat! {{ed. note: see "The Summer of `39" in Mimosa 25 }} And Joan was, after all, a real person to us all, and that the remark referred to her simply didn't occur to me.

Apparently, at one Kettering room party -- perhaps the occasion when Dave Newman shaved off half his handle bar moustache and went down to breakfast the following morning in order to win a bet and raise funds for TAFF -- a reference was made to Joan and Sandy, and those in the know looked across at me to gauge my reaction and, with baited breath (it must be catching), wonder whether I was about to blow the whistle. Ah, they could all have breathed easily. The hoax was out shortly afterward, however.

But tape recording was definitely 'in'. For the 1956 convention, Sandy had managed to hitch a space available flight (known over here as an 'indulgence' flight) to arrive at Kettering and burst into the lounge just as the Liverpool Group's taped play, Last and First Fen was being played and reference was being made to the happy couple. The Liverpool fans had, er, pooled their tremendous innovative and creative talents to produce a play which actually had some sort of a plot and in which the dialogue referred to dozens of fans and fannish events and legends. John Owen contributed most of the different voices and accents and immediately became known as 'The Man of a Thousand Voices'. The tape began with a voice purporting to be Dave Kyle's welcoming fans to the U.S., "home of the brave, land of the free. Can I sell you a ticket to a lynching?"

There was also a similar Liverpool tape the previous year, The March of Slime, spattered throughout with mock 'commercials' for a wonder product called 'Blog'. "Brush your shoes with Blog," spouted the announcer, and later, "Clean your teeth with Blog." How I wish I'd taken, and kept, notes of all the references. The hotel barmen concocted some vile brew and sold it as Blog to inquisitive locals who happened to wander into the hotel bar during the weekend.

Round about that time there was much talk in British fandom that we were becoming a little insular and, as it were, inbred. "We need to bring in new blood," was the cry. After all, there had to be more people 'out there' of similar ilk whom we would welcome and whose company we would enjoy. There was also the chance of course that we would be providing them with a coterie of friends who would benefit them, really rather an arrogant outlook on the face of it, but the idea really was altruistic.

So it was that at one Kettering con, attendees spent the afternoon discussing the best way to achieve this double-edged aim. Eventually, after the entire afternoon's serious debating (what a waste of time -- we could have been playing brag), a way forward was achieved, the formation of the British Science Fiction Association, and how many of its hundreds of members today realise or even suspect that the Association was formed primarily to bring people into fandom? "Heavens," said Ted Tubb, as we streamed out of the lounge where the discussion had taken place, "you know what we've done? We've organised!" Definitely a dirty word.

Odd memories flood back... the gentlemanly hunchbacked night porter whom some fan cruelly labelled "Boris"... of actually being offered the job of Nebula's assistant editor by Hamilton... Birmingham's Pete Emery spending all night sitting on some corridor stairs, telling a string of shaggy dog stories... the different card sessions... In those days, gambling in public places was illegal and we went a little worried when a friendly local copper came in during one session in the early hours, only for our fears to be allayed when he removed his tunic and took a seat at the table. I'm sure he won.

Or how about the time I went to Phil Rogers' room to tell him that a card session was about to start and found him there with a young lady fan and one of the hotel maids? A short time later, the card school came a-knocking at the door and the maid flew into a panic. "They can't find me in here with a guest," she flustered, so, naturally, we stuck her in the wardrobe and squatted on the floor with a pile of cards and a dummy kitty. Holding a hand of cards, I opened the door. "They're already playing brag," exclaimed John Roles, squatting down to join the game. After a while, he shifted his position and leaned back on the wardrobe door, which flew open to reveal the hideaway. (You simply can't make up that sort of thing!)

illo by Kurt Erichsen And there was the time when I'd left a party one evening to produce an APAzine on the flatbed duplicator I'd brought with me. (One had one's warped priorities in those days.) Quite a party, which happened to be interrupted by the local constabulary, not, however, the brag-playing variety, who were rather put out to find a young damsel dressed in a gym slip knocking back a few gin and tonics. (This was Joan Hammet, a very attractive woman who was actually in her twenties but who certainly looked about fourteen. Amazing.) The coppers were bent (sorry, I shouldn't use that word) on checking which guests at the party were resident in the hotel. The law was such that alcohol served after 10.30pm could be sold only to residents. The fuzz had the hotel register with them and asked each fan at the party his or her name and room number. Don Allen, who wasn't resident at the George, had been helping me with the APAzine production but had gone downstairs to join the (real) fun for a while. Ah, quick-thinking Don. Having only recently left me rolling away inkily in my room and having made sure that I hadn't come down to the party, he gave the police my name and room number.

"Blimey," said Chuck Harris, when this was explained to him, "I'd rather go to jail than be Ron Bennett!"

All illustrations by Kurt Erichsen

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