Life's Little Ironies:
Abi Frost


Well, here they all are in this slummocky hotel in Birmingham, they are leaning on the bar and they are having a goodish time all things considered, when in she sashays, all fur coat and no knickers, madame herself, the original genuine lady fanzine reviewer....

"So what have you been doing for the last two years?" they are saying, as she tries ineffectively to borrow a fiver from each of them. Well, a certain amount of leaning on bars moaning about how it ain't what it was in the good old days, a fair bit of gathering daft young acolytes, the odd feud, the occasional totally unexpected burst of activity followed by gnomic depressive silence, not to mention the truly wonderful one and only world's greatest ever, the MEXICON....

Yes, my effort to become the female Pickersgill seems on the whole to be going according to schedule. "Ah," says the perceptive Leah Higgins, "but why should you want to? What's with this guy that the world needs him so?"

Well, somebody's got to do it. The age demands it; and if the call won't be answered from South Ealing-Les-Deux-Eglises, why then nature abhors a vacuum. "Yes, but why?" persists my little blond friend. "What's so great about fanzine fandom that you're so concerned about this guy who only ever wrote about fanzine fandom and what was up with it and these days does nothing at all but grope people?"

I'm glad you asked me that question; it gives me a chance to say something about Martin Tudor's fanzine. While not exactly the best fanzine around at the moment, it's a fairly substantial production, it appears often enough to gain a few M. Edwards wolf-cub points, it's clearly the product of a genuine desire to Do Something and in the continued absence of TAPPEN, STILL IT MOVES, NABU or what you will, it deserves a tiny pat on the back. Why, then, did an attempt to write a long review of the fifth issue make me want to cry? (Come to the fanzine room, kid, if there is one at NOVACON.)

Probably because of my own mixed and ill-informed feelings about the fanzines of the 1970s, if you must know. Not the littlest irony around is contained in my own history as a fanzine fan. Briefly, I appeared on the scene after YORCON in 1979, as a result of an orgy of fanzine-reading in Mike Dickinson's flat during the days after the con. The fanzines I read were, naturally enough, the Rat fanzines and their friends and relations, plus (as a good Leeds Group groupie) GROSS ENCOUNTERS and WALLBANGER.

(The irony lies in the fact that the galloping entropy which killed off the '70s fanzines was already well under way: TRUE RAT was well dead, SEAMONSTERS at its last gasp; despite their promisess the Charnocks never did another SHREW; GROSS ENCOUNTERS started its bizarre transmutation into a recruiting sheet. Only Eve Harvey (sporadically) and David Langford soldiered on, the latter producing a few more TWLL DDUs, and finally finding his perfect medium in ANSIBLE.)

Well, there you go. Nevertheless, and unlikely as it may seem, my own career as a fanwriter up till the Rat Renaissance of 1981 was constantly informed and influenced by the wide-eyed belief that, once everyone had recovered from the Worldcon, the whole mature interactive culture that I'd seen in 70s fanzine fandom would start moving again. That given, it seemed perfectly reasonable to fill in time sitting in one's own little corner doing one's thing.

Various other people did the same. We became a happy enough little collection of wandering comets, keeping in touch but not interacting very much in our written productions. We began to sort out a pecking order among ourselves, I think, and to grope towards some kind of rational theory as to why we were doing it. We began, in short, to "re-invent the wheel"; which, pace Greg Pickersgill and his Riddley Walker imagery, is actually rather necessary when your culture has lost the wheel. The sort of learning process we were going through is essentially internal.

Into this pubescent culture came TAPPEN. Quite why I felt threatened by it -- and hence predicted a new authoritarianism and a flood of arselicking imitators -- is an interesting question, and one I think more likely to be answered by psychoanalysis than fanzine criticism. In fact, no such imitators appeared; but TAPPEN was an important revitalising force, not least because it led to the revival of EPSILON, and the appearance of Malcolm Edwards' own DRUNKARD'S TALK/SOCIAL DISEASE. But that's another story.

The fanzine that does seem to have spawned a number of imitators, strangely enough, is Simon Ounsley's STILL IT MOVES. EMPTIES and ABDUMP, at least, seem to have SIM as some sort of original model. What they lack, of course, is the unique editorial presence of Our Greatest Living Fanwriter. (Note the participle in that phrase.)

On later with the Ounsleylatry. I must return to EMPTIES 5, and the reason why, despite two reasonable articles and a few good letters, it filled me with cosmic despair. I sat down to review it and a few others shortly after MEXICON, my head filled with musings on the ironic fact that I, one-time poncey literary iconoclast, had changed into a Pickersgill acolyte, good-old-dayser and general Mexifan. I had, I reflected, thoroughly internalised a personal vision of Ratfandom and its twin glories, its triumphs over the Fuckers, its creation of a mature literary culture.... And then I started reading through EMPTIES 5, and saw, spread out before me in all its cloying horror, my own internalised vision of The World the Rats Destroyed.

You must understand that at this level, There Is No History, There Are Only Texts. My personal text of the late 60s fan culture is quite probably woefully inaccurate in terms of the sort of 'objective' fan history that Mal Ashworth demands in EPSILON 16. Apart from anything else, it's largely derived from highly subjective secondary sources: the writings of Pickersgill and West. But it's all I have, and it's an important part of my relationship with 70s fanzines.

The keywords in this vision include 'sweet', 'hobbyist', 'ego-massage', 'waffle', 'pointless'. The key words in the vision of what came after are 'analysis' and 'creativity'.

The twin glories of British fanzine fandom in the 70s were the establishment of a strong, analytical tradition, and the use of fanzines as a medium for a certain sort of literary art. The two aspects worked together, to produce something which appears now to have been unique. If one wants to be schematic about it, one could assign each half of the tradition to one of two key people; Gregory and Leroy, the FOULER boys.

It seems to me that Gregory's half, the analytical tradition, is what differentiates fanzine fandom from the sort of thing described in EMPTIES 5: bell-ringing societies, Gilbert and Sullivan Clubs, the weird and anachronistic 'fhandom' of Sweden. EMPTIES 5 appears to be a 'theme issue' (though Tudor never explicitly says so) about 'other fandoms'; however, of the six featured articles, only two have any sort of success in terms of the analytical tradition, and one of these does so (up to a point, Lord Copper) in spite of its writer's stated intentions.

There is one other article which seems to me completely successful, but it is an oddity in terms of the others. This is Judith Hanna's 'From a Land Down Under'. This is up to Hanna's usual pretty high standard, but its only relation to the theme (if any) of the issue is a brief reference to the interaction between Australian fandom and CND in her university days. Otherwise, the piece is essentially an exercise in Hanna's usual mode: writing about the feelings underlying her political commitment. This is fine; this is what she wants to write about and she does it perfectly well. In fact, this sort of personal writing about politics seems to be a distinctive contribution of 80s fandom; but I digress. Judith Hanna, on this showing at least, has no quarrel with the Great Tradition; she just happens to want to do something else.

Steve Green, on the other hand, explicitly rejects the Great Tradition while apparently working in one of its characteristic modes: fanzine reviews. Paul Kincaid has demolished this particular column and its successor in TO CRAUNCH THE MARMOSET; actually, I have rather mixed feelings about them. Where I know the fanzine under review, I can generally see what Green means; and at times, as in his review of GROSS ENCOUNTERS 11, he displays an almost KTFish sharpness of tone and command of hyperbolic imagery. What these reviews don't give me, and apparently were not intended to, is any sense of the fine shading of fandom. There's no acknowledgment that, to take extreme examples, there's any difference in intention, articulation, position within the culture, between STILL IT MOVES and RUDE BITCH. Green prefers to summarise content and play little who's in what group games. Contrary to what is often asserted, I think it is possible to do rather more than this in a brief listings format; I remember Rob Jackson's MATRIX column, much maligned at the time, but actually very useful to me as a neo wanting to know who to trade with. Jackson, with no more space per fanzine than Green allows himself here, gave me an idea of what particular fanzines were like.

Jackson was a conscientious reviewer, trying to give a brief overview of the scene, informed by whatever his own theory of fanzine fandom was. I think Green has a theory -- he has some idea of what he's doing editing fanzines and why he does it -- but he deliberately does not use it in writing these fanzine reviews. If put on the spot, he would no doubt plead innocence; only KTFers have a theory, you see. The (here unstated) purpose of these reviews is to boost the Brum renaissance.

Well, yawns young Leah, who the hell cares anyway"? We can't all be D. West, thank God. I reply that an understanding of what one is actually doing in contributing to the making of works of art -- which may be most imperfectly articulated -- is essential to artistic success. This is why the great theorists of fandom -- Pickersgill, West, and lately Anne Warren -- are important. One develops one's own personal theory -- or at least, one may if one chooses -by reading these people, comparing their perception of the world with one's own, balancing, modifying. It is a continuing process, not a matter of discovering Final Truth.

This is why one must put up with sexist behaviour, ego-flattening psychological quizzes, or losing the odd round of double-or-quits. This is the quid pro quo.

Green thinks (or says he thinks) he can do better then (say) Pickersgill or Nicholas by ignoring the analytical tradition which informs their work. He implicitly claims to be seeing fanzines as a harmless hobby-game, a matter of scoring brownie points here and there, not a question of creating and developing a medium for works of art. The extent to which his reviews are successful is the extent to which he is deceiving either the reader of himself.

Poot to him, then. What of the rest? Ahrvid Engholm's piece on Swedish fandom is predictably mind-boggling. I first encountered this bizarre culture, all beanies and interpolated 'h's, at the last British Worldcon (August 1979) in the form of a fanzine called DO NOT LAUGH. Brimming as I was with undigested Rattery, I naturally thought it was a parody, possibly something to do with the JLAS. Not a bit of it. There is really a fandom in the world where one can say such things as "[a certain fanzine] introduced a lot of new fannish concepts, like the worship of Roscoe, the importance of egoboo, the meaning of fanslang and the necessity of mimeographs," and expect to be taken seriously. This list seems to me almost to sum up everything that is tedious, redundant and boys-clubbish about fandom; however, I suppose it's harmless enough, so long as it stays in Sweden. (I must be mellowing.) What I do find extraordinary is Engholm's assumption that readers of EMPTIES will share his belief that these things are important; he's had quite a bit of contact with British fans, and he must realise that even Born-Again Fifties' Fandom is rather less obsessively 'fhannish'. Why not explain the appeal of it all? And failing that, why no editorial comment?

This leaves Maureen Porter (on bellringing), Helen McNabb (G&S), and Paul Vincent (on Dungeons and Dragons). The authors of the first two (if not the articles themselves) came up through TWP, and I would say on the basis of what I've read there that both are capable of better. All three articles essay the comparison between fannish fandom and the other 'fandom' under discussion, and hence they are operating in the area that belongs to the analytical tradition; however, only Paul Vincent is actually working within the tradition itself.

McNabb and Porter simply describe. With the odd noun changed, their articles might almost serve as an introduction to fanzine fandom for G&S fans or bellringers, if you see what I mean. The difference is that G&S or bellringing are simply hobbies. They lack interaction, they lack any development of ideas, they lack the analytical tradition. Fanzine fandom is a culture, which produces art, which develops and changes with time and the introduction of new ideas; it is alive. (Just.) It has the long and glorious analytical tradition through which it seeks to understand itself. Porter and McNabb treat it simply as a hobby on a par with the others.

Vincent on the other hand, attacks a question which must have occurred to most of us. "Other people have fanzines, and conventions; how come ours are so different?" He attempts to answer it with reference to Dungeons and Dragons players (and makes it clear that what applies here may not elsewhere); looks at the reasons for the tone of D&D fanzines and conventions, and then draws a few conclusions. Read the fanzine if you want to know what they are; I think, on the evidence he presents and my own scanty knowledge of the matter, that he's proved his case. He has helped me understand something.

As a writer, pure and simple, Vincent is not as good as Maureen Porter. She has her moments of neo-classical elegance; Vincent's style is restricted to the standard casual brummie drone. But he has something interesting to say and she, in this case, doesn't.

So much for EMPTIES 5. As art, most of the writing is not up to scratch; the major exception being Judith Hanna. As analysis, only Vincent has anything substantial to offer. So what have we? On the evidence of EMPTIES, we have a fandom which is content to witter on about hobbies, mildly, inoffensively; simple ego-massage for those who like to see themselves in some kind of print. What we don't have is a real fanzine culture such as we had in the 70s -- or even, dear god, in the very early 80s.

It may justly be objected that so far, EMPTIES has only been found wanting in Gregory's half of the equation, since purely literary intentions would not necessarily show up in the context of this particular issue. This is clearly fair enough, as far as it goes. It happens that the following issue contains three examples of one of the characteristic modes of the other side: the narrative convention report.

I must first say that I approve of the impulse behind their inclusion. It appears that Tudor found himself late with the issue, and used the delay to commission two MEXICON reports and pick up another from TWP. This clearly makes sense in terms of keeping the fanzine current, and it's an indication of the editor's basically sound motivations. However, of the three, only Lucy Huntzinger's has any sort of merit.

Huntzinger's report is quick, snappy, unified; she uses the historic present tense as a device to provide immediacy; she selects outstanding incidents to provide a sense of the crazy atmosphere of MEXICON, and her own feelings as a stranger to British conventions. The piece is short, and was clearly written in some haste; its success in spite of these restrictions is a measure of the writer's skill. She may have thought it all out beforehand, or she may simply have trusted to instinct -- there's no way one can tell; the point is that she has the confidence as a writer to go ahead and create.

Ken Lake and Lilian Edwards, on the other hand, are notably less successful. As a committee member, I would have been happy to have received Lake's report as a letter of comment. He has some praise for us, some criticisms; he makes some specific suggestions which might be worth discussing at MEXICON II meetings. Committees need this kind of response. But as a reader of fanzines, I find it tedious. The 'consumer report' style seems to be very much derived from the hobbyism model; it assumes that the reader and writer are somehow different from the committee which puts the con on. It is based on a hierarchical, professional view of conventions, which is neither accurate nor pleasing.

Edwards's piece is a reprint from TWP. Edwards is one of the more naturally talented writers in that doomed institution, but she has an almost wilful reluctance to look at and think about what she's writing with any sort of critical eye. As a narrative, her convention report sucks. She has quite simply failed to plan it, to ensure any sort of balance, any harmonious flow. The first third of the piece is a pedestrian account of the train journey up to Newcastle, the second shows some sign of trying to organise the matter at hand. around a theme; in the third, Edwards claims to have "no space" to describe a number of incidents which might have been more suitable raw material for her comic talents than the train journey, and then, far too briefly, outlines her opinion about the position of MEXICON in British fandom as a whole. Here was a chance to make a contribution to the analytical tradition, and Edwards, as too often, let it pass. I suspect she just sat down with a sheet of paper, wrote out the first things that came into her head, and when she started running out of space, fatally altered the pace of the narrative. Comedy, as any fool knows, is a matter of pace and timing; Lucy Huntzinger's piece shows that it's possible to take these into account in spite of lack of time and space.

So, the nation that bred Leroy Kettle now has to import its humorists from the USA. Woe unto the land! -- especially since, on the evidence of recent EPSILONs, Kettle himself has fallen off drastically. 'The Nerds of November', in EPSILON 15, strikes me as almost as dull and badly paced as Lilian Edwards' offering -- and Kettle doesn't have the (admittedly feeble) excuse of writing to meet an imminent APA deadline. It's a string of largely unrelated incidents, each amusingly written up, but not pulled together into any sort of unity. On a second reading, I tried hard to persuade myself that it was actually a parody of the notorious 'what-I-had-for-breakfast' syndrome; but not even I can delude myself on that scale for long enough.

One thing must be got clear; there are two aspects to Kettle in print. One is an immensely skilled creator of rapid-fire miniatures, the sort of thing that makes up 'Open Flie', or fills odd corners in TRUE RAT. For what it's worth, I think the new incarnation of Kettle I is actually better than the pre-Worldcon version -- more poised, more daring, more confident. The other Kettle writes (or wrote) at greater length, and had one extraordinarily rare talent. He was one of only two non-fiction prose writers who have, without resorting to the confessional style which is the denial of art, given some sense of what it feels like to be a fairly ordinary young man. He is Our Greatest Dead Fanwriter.

Unlike Joy Hibbert, I actually do think that on balance men may have souls. They clearly have feelings, at any rate, but for reasons much discussed in the Women's Movement, have the most pathetic difficulty in externalising them. They aren't even particularly good at putting their feelings into art. A few men have succeeded in the non-fiction area (Jack Trevor Story and Jeffrey Bernard are examples), but outside fanzine fandom, the only ones I can think of are older men, who have lived hard, lost a lot, and don't give a damn any more. The complex and painful emotional turmoil that must go on inside younger men hardly gets a look-in -- which makes it more extraordinary that this culture should have produced two writers who can express it: Kettle II and Simon Ounsley,

Ounsley's speciality is the long, diffused, working out of a surreal image -- a convention taking place inside him, vegetable soup. (His grandest piece ever, 'Confessions of a Collector' in SIM 1, is actually a less explicit version of the same thing.) The emotions expressed fall into the area of a sort of melancholic confused innocence. Kettle II's emotional life seems more violent, more physical, and far better defended, but it's still there in the best pieces of writing.

This sort of psychological speculation is a dangerous game to play, especially when applied to people one knows and likes in person, so I propose to leave it at that. The interesting question is way this delicate, tactful, psychological genius should now be so definitively dead.

I suspect the reason is simply that these days the wretched man is happier. An art that is rooted in emotional strife cannot long survive a reasonable state of contentment; just look, if you will, at T.S. Eliot. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. Life is more important than art, ultimately, and it's not as if there weren't plenty of other people's pain in the world to be made into their own art.

A further point, just for the benefit of my TWP friends, is that if you race to TRUE RAT looking for long confessional outpourings, you won't find them. You will find a varied series of pieces whose subject matter is obscenity, drunkenness, obsessive accounts of bodily processes, leavened occasionally with mild domestic incidents. The art is in the way the subject matter is handled.

Thus far Our Greatest Dead Fanwriter. What of Our Second Greatest Just About Hanging-On Theorist -- Mr. Pickersgill? It seems to me that Gregory is not primarily an artist. He has enormous skill as a writer -- many politicians should envy his ability to produce lively, accessible polemic which sacrifices neither argument nor populism for each other. But his skills are always subordinate to a purpose -- the attempt to make the world a better place. He has taught himself to write in order to serve his social conscience.

That this social conscience should find its fullest expression in what, by any sensible standard, is a pretty small and unimportant corner of the world, is ironic and perhaps a little sad. (I sometimes speculate what night have happened if he'd got into the Young Socialists at 17 instead of fandom. Well, anything might be better than that wimp Kinnock ...) as things stand, though, we have Gregory and the Labour Party doesn't. I think it is a shame, and a crying indictment of recent fandom, the way the latter has to a large extent rejected him and the principles he stands for.

The fanzine culture of the 70s produced four writers who have some claim to be exceptional, based on a substantial body of work. (There is another -- Chris Atkinson -- but her great period was so short and produced so little that her claim must stay in question until she sits down and writes again.) Two theorists -- Pickersgill and West (the latter distinctly shading into the category of artist); two artists -- Kettle II arid Ounsley (the latter tentatively shading into a theorist, at times). I think the fact that fanzine fandom is a place where an intelligent person can operate is to a much larger extent then one would think owed to these four. We should honour them and listen to what they have to say. What do we actually do?

The only one for whom post-TAPPEN fandom has any respect is Ounsley: the most diffident, the gentlest, and as it happens the newest. To the others, the majority of fans of the generation after mine turn their backs. (There's some sign, admittedly, of a Kettle revival. I do think it's genuinely funny that Michael Ashley, one-time scourge of the Boring Old Rats, should have turned into an adoring Kettle-worshipper. But his letters in EPSILON, and nose from Born Again Fifties' Fandom, are more than balanced by the more mainstream fans who clearly loathe Kettle, for all the wrong old reasons.)

The new fandom says: We'd rather be weedy little hobbyists. We'd rather not think about what we're doing, or strive to make any sort of art. That's too competitive, too nasty, too damn difficult. Up yours, Gregory. Go fuck yourself, Leroy. Take a long walk off a short pier, D. Bloody Hell.

I still haven't convinced the straw woman I've called Leah Higgins. She shakes her head, and walks back into the bar to whisper to David Langford. Dear god, he cries, first Joseph then Bergeron and now Abi ...

I don't care. Losing one's marbles seems to be the fashion these days. I always preferred Lord Elgin's anyway.

-- ABI FROST, July/September 1984

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The statements attributed to Leah above are exaggerated extracts from a conversation about something else. The meanings they assume in context are not necessarily the opinions (if any) of Leah herself. Leah Higgins is not a hoax.

Stomach Pump 6 (1984)
ed. Steve Higgins