A Tale from Downunder

THE NIGHT THE MELBOURNE SF CLUB BURNT DOWN

By Mervyn Barrett

-Originally published in Sam Long’s QWERTYUIOP 8.

When I lived in Melbourne, Captain Cook’s Cottage was where the Myer Music Bowl is now, and if you wanted to go out to Coburg by tram via Hawthorn, the journey could take you several days, and even then you mightn’t get there. The Melbourne Science Fiction club was in Somerset Place, a narrow back alley which in those days walked (a quieter time, when streets never ran anywhere) fifty yards in from Little Bourke Street and then stopped. Mervyn Binns had talked McGill’s bookstore into giving us the top floor of their warehouse and we had, and had room for, a duplicator, bookshelves, a home-made non-regulation sized ping-pong table (an ideal collating surface), a few rows of old cinema seats and lots of science Fiction fans. On a mezzanine floor up above the rafters was a room containing three toilet cubicles and a washbasin.

In those days the Crown and all things best and British were revered. That a Union Jack, which we found in the rafters, was hung from a clubroom window for the duration of a visit by Queen Elizabeth even though we knew that Somerset Place wasn’t one of the streets chosen for the royal procession is, I think, a fair indication of our loyalty and the strength of our patriotic feelings.

There was more law and order in those days, too. The State’s Attorney General practically worked himself to death keeping everything pure and upright by suppressing any book or film he thought might outrage public decency or damage public morals, even though anything that reached Victoria had already passed through the fine net of Commonwealth censorship. “Victoria has certain standards,” he would say. This, of course, was before his wife died in mysterious circumstances and he went off to Sydney after deciding quite objectively he was in charge of the police and public prosecutor’s office – that there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding his wife’s death and therefore no need for an autopsy or an investigation.

Some time earlier, long before I went to live there and long before the Melbourne Science Fiction Club nearly burnt down, they’d cut Moorabbin Airport in half and put half of it down by Albert Lake with the idea that an airport with seaplane facilities close to a major city would put them so far ahead in the aviation game that they’d probably get a lot of business then going to Orly or Croydon. World War II interfered with this project, though, and so in order to recoup some of their money the western runway was sold for housing lots and became the suburbs of Prahran and St Kilda. What was left was grassed over and called Albert Park, and the main hanger was filled with ping-pong tables one could rent by the hour – still can, I would think — and there my girlfriend Jill and I would go sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, stopping first at the truck that retailed freshly cooked hot donuts which we’d eat and wash down with coffee from the ping-pongery buffet before touching bat to ball. Sometimes John Foyster came with us, and once or twice Dick Jenssen.

Dick Jenssen considered himself club champion at ping-pong, chess and just about everything else, but I think that John Foyster could have, and probably did, in fact legitimately dispute this. And besides John had status as a PUBLISHING Giant. Dick, though, always bought two copies of books and magazines, one to read and one for his shelves (often rebinding the shelf volume, which is a one-up thing to do).

The clubroom was on the top floor, and in those days it was reached by a hydraulic lift one worked by pulling on a rope. (McGill’s didn’t like us tracking through their offices on the in-between floors.) It was a fairly rudimentary kind of lift, with no cage door, back wall, or roof: just a floor, two sides and a beam across the top to which the cables were attached. Don Lattimer had a good trick he would play with this lift. When someone below called out for the lift, Don would get in it, start it down, then cling to the side of the lift shaft and let the cage go down without him. The unsuspecting fan would get into the lift, start it up, and be surprised in mid-journey by a great shrieking thing dropping from nowhere onto the floor beside him.

Besides being able to play jokes in lift shafts, Don’s more significant claim to fame was being an original member of the MSFC and in being the club’s bookbinder. He bound the library’s paperbacks into hard bindings and bound volumes of SF magazines. He bound books for members too, to order, rebinding Pogo or Oz books in elegant new bindings with exotic endpapers to suit the tastes of their owners.

If you walked at dusk from Jolimont up to Spring Street through the Fitzroy Gardens, the possums, coming down from their trees to begin their night’s work of staring at people, would come over to eat off your hand (if you weren’t careful) and then, if instead of continuing up Spring Street toward the Scientology Centre or the exhibition buildings, you turned left at the Treasury buildings and walked down Collins Street, with a bit of luck you’d get to Exhibition Street and the Southern Cross Hotel, which is where the 1975 Worldcon will be held.

The Southern Cross has a bowling alley, and Alan Perry was probably the first person to get his thumb stuck in one of their bowling balls. (“Mervyn, I’ve got my thumb caught in the bowling ball.”) Alan Perry’s connection with fandom is that he is the friend of a fan and he stopped at the Southern Cross soon after it opened. He didn’t think much of the breakfasts – let’s hope they’ve improved.

One of the Southern Cross’s greatest assets used to be that it was only a five-minute walk from the Mee Wah cafZ. The Mee Wah had the greatest Chinese food outside of Hong Kong that I’ve ever eaten. (Try the Chinese sausage, the scallops cooked in batter and served in sweet and sour sauce, the sliced steak in black bean sauce.) There was one trouble, though. If the sight of men wielding large sharp knives made you nervous, you didn’t go to the toilet there. To get to the toilet you had to pass through the kitchen, where a kitchen staff of unemployed dacoits, resting up between assassinations, kept themselves in practice by whittling slivers from the sides of beef at a frightening speed and with deadly accuracy.

There was one friend of ours, not a fan, who used to come to the film shows in the club because they were fun. (We’d drag along as many as possible and charge them admission to defray the expense of renting films.) It was a semi-party-ish atmosphere. Most everyone would bring a bottle, and drinks were traded and shared while the movies played. She even discharged herself from the hospital one night to come over to one of our screenings. She just put a coat on over her nightgown and walked out. We were screening “Metropolis” that night. Some time later she told me that while the movie was going on, her boyfriend – another non-fan we’d roped in – had taken her upstairs into one of the toilet cubicles for some fast vertical sex. No one disturbed them. Us true fans were all downstairs watching a robot that looked like Brigette Helm being cooked up inside a glass tube! I don’t want you to think from all this that the MSFC was made up of a bunch of debauched alcoholics or sex fiends – it wasn’t. What I’m trying to point out is that in those days in Melbourne, when the pubs still closed at 6pm, people were more prepared to make their own amusements.

Anyhow, it was because of the activities of the film group that the Melbourne Science Fiction Club almost burnt down. I’d started the group and used to run it: hustling films and running the little Ampro 16mm projector. When I left, Paul Stevens took over the group and did all sorts of enterprising things like renting proper cinemas so that 35 mm films could be shown and stuff like that. Then, some time later, when an enthusiast who happened to own a couple of 35 mm film projectors joined the club, they installed these in the clubroom and started showing classic old movies – some of them on nitrate film. Mervyn Binns had complete confidence in the projectionist and the equipment. “This guy really knew what he was doing.” He told me, but the introduction of nitrate film into the clubroom was just too much for one of the members, who had the clubroom inspected by the Health Department and closed down as a fire hazard. Admittedly nitrate film has one or two unfortunate characteristics like becoming unstable with age and being just plain highly inflammable and becoming downright explosive. But even when this is coupled with the fact that the clubroom was on the top floor of a 90-year-old brick building with wooden floors, roof, ceilings and staircases, that it had no fire escape and that its only entrance was through a narrow wooden staircase (which McGill’s grudgingly allowed to be used when the lift was finally taken out of commission when the Melbourne Water Board decided it was no longer an economical proposition to go to the trouble of supplying compressed water for it) one still has difficulty seeing the reason for his excessive nervousness.

Soon after this, Mervyn Binns left McGill’s and opened Space Age Books in Swanston Street, but that’s another story and someone else can tell you that one. What I’ve tried to do is tell you something about Melbourne as it was then. Before I started writing this, I went along to Oz house here in London and got a pamphlet titled “Interesting facts about Victoria” (which I suspect and hope must have a companion volume title “Boring facts about Victoria”) and a map. The map just made me more confused. Melbourne doesn’t seem to look the way it used to at all. So, when you see me at the Con in Melbourne, buy me a drink and say “hullo” and I’ll buy you a drink and say “hullo”, but if you want to get anywhere, don’t ask me for directions: ask a policeman. There’s no mistaking the policemen – they’re dressed up just like brass band musicians.

(Reprinted from the Aussiecon Worldcon Program book 1975, pages 54-56. The first Aussiecon was held at the Southern Cross hotel in Melbourne.)

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