Part 5: by Race Mathews
An advertisement in one of my purchases introduced me to Ken Slater’s Operation Fantast network. Slater was a captain with the British Army on the Rhine. His purpose in life was putting science fiction readers in touch with one another. He also supplied American magazines and paperbacks to countries where the postwar dollar shortage meant they were otherwise un- available. Operation Fantast linked me with Roger Dard in Perth, who was Slater’s Australian representative. Roger turned out to be a fellow admirer of the Nelson Lee Library and also of the Aldine Press Dick Turpin Library, which had been a favourite of my grandfather’s generation. I loaned him my Lees and was loaned in return prewar issues of Astounding and Thrilling Wonder Stories.
Roger was also my introduction to fanzines – magazines produced on an amateur basis by science fiction enthusiasts, and devoted to reviews, gossip and creative writing – through his sporadically published Star Rover. His interests as a collector included the American Weird Tales, which for some inscrutable reason the Customs authorities had classified as a prohibited import. Roger’s efforts to reverse or circumvent the ban earned him a blacklisting on the part of officialdom, with the effect that his overseas parcels were routinely searched and items from them wherever possible confiscated. The persecution extended to the raiding of Roger’s home and seizure of parts of his collection. The aim plainly was to cower him into submission. Observing his difficulties and frustrations was a significant contribution to my education in the need for constant vigilance against censorship and petty bureaucracy in all their forms.
Roger in his turn gave me the address of Don Tuck, a 29-year-old Tasmanian fan who was boarding in Footscray. Don, Roger told me, had a collection of more than 1200 magazines, which was one of the biggest outside Britain and America. The first letter I received from him was written on the letterhead of the American National Fantasy Fan Federation. It described such meagre contact with other Melbourne fans as he had been able to establish:
I get a lot of interest out of just meeting one at a time and yarning with them. I met Gordon McDonald about six months ago and have a pow-wow with him every month or so now . . . I know of two others of the older mould – prewar but neither is active these days. Hockley in South Yarra I lend my books, and he is now quite keen on getting a few Astoundings. The other chap is McLennan, East Brunswick, who has every mag bar 2 up to the ban in 1940 but hasn’t much since; he’s a peculiar chap, very henpecked, and it is no pleasure seeing him so I haven’t dropped over for a couple of years.
Don, Gordon McDonald and I had a happy evening together in Gordon’s home at 40 Lees Street, Mackinnon, browsing over a collection of Astoundings which was nearly complete. Less happily, Don was shortly posted back to Tasmania, where his energies were devoted subsequently to the preparation of the mammoth Handbook of Science-Fiction – the precursor of Peter Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science Fiction – for which his place in fan history is forever assured. Gordon continued to collect magazines, but refused resolutely to involve himself in fandom. My appetite for contact having once been whetted, I hungered for more.
It was by Roger again that I was put in touch with Graham Stone, who was running the Australian Science Fiction Society (ASFS) from Box 61 in the Student Union House at Sydney University. Graham was the most diligent Australian fan organiser of the day. His ASFS was formed in 1951, as a loose affair, without constitution, rules or planned activities beyond locating fans introducing them to each other and issuing a more or less regular news sheet to keep them posted. A typical monthly mailing to members might include a copy of Graham’s fanzine Stopgap, publicity material about forthcoming books from science fiction publishers such as Gnome Press and Fantasy Press and other Australian fanzines such as Science Fiction Review and Vertical Horizons. The annual subscription was initially 2/6 and later 5/-. I was enrolled as member number 47, and attended the first postwar Australian science fiction convention, which the ASFS organised in Sydney on 22 March 1952.
In due course – on 28 August 1952 – I became the ASFS Local Secretary for Melbourne. Graham’s duty statement for the position read in part:
- To enrol new members of ASFS. Please forward addresses promptly to me, when serial numbers will be allotted and membership cards issued.
- To collect all new and renewed subscriptions of 5/- per year from members in the Melbourne metropolitan area; to retain these moneys as a fund to defray expenses of office; to recommend cancellation of expired memberships.
- To distribute to members in the metropolitan area all ASFS publications.
- To make the benefits of the Society known to readers of science fiction in general.
- To represent science fiction fandom in Melbourne externally: that is, to keep me advised of its activities, to act as a spokesman and contact bureau operative in connection with external correspondence, and in general to assume responsibility for its public relations as required.
By December 1952, membership Australiawide stood at 132. Graham commented that that was not bad going: On a straight population basis a national organisation in the US would have 2600 at least; in the UK, over 900. My personal experiences with the ASFS were less than uniformly satisfactory, through nobody’s fault but my own. My attendance at the 1952 convention had to be cut short when I left my wallet in a taxi and had only my small change to tide me over until I could scramble on to the earliest possible return flight for Melbourne. My appointment as Local Secretary for Melbourne was resigned on 19 September 1953, following sustained – and justified – complaints from Graham that my studies and other activities were causing me to devote insufficient time to the job.
Meanwhile, in August 1951, a middle-aged schoolteacher named Bob McCubbin struck up a conversation with me while we were browsing side by side over the Franklin Lending Library’s stock of pre-war science fiction magazines in the Eastern Market, now long since replaced by the Southern Cross Hotel (*). As recalled by Lee Harding, an aspiring professional photographer at the time, who has since become a notable science fiction writer:
Old Man Franklin kept a booming paperback and marriage-manual business. At the rear of his shop, he also ran the largest lending library in the city. Some time prior to 1952 he bought up a lot of pre-war pulps from somewhere and had them individually bound, and opened a special SF section of the said library. The joining fee was a whopper, and indicated the importance placed upon American Magazines in those days: 2/10/0 as against 10/6 for regular library membership. In those dry days before the 1959 deluge (when most publishers must have dumped in Australia the accumulated backlog of five years publishing), dozens and dozens of eager fans must have found their way to Franklin’s and cavorted happily amongst the hundreds of volumes to be had . . . I can remember weekends – and WHAT weekends! – struggling home on a tram loaded up with five or six hardcover Startlings or Thrilling Wonders.
My monthly copies of Astounding were passed to me across the counter at the McGill’s newsagency in Elizabeth Street by a shop assistant who ultimately introduced himself as Mervyn Binns. Through Graham Stone, I renewed acquaintances with Dick Jenssen, a student at the school I had just left, who subsequently credited me with having introduced him to the Nelson Lee Library, American comics and science fiction. Dick’s given name was more formally Ditmar, and it was as Ditmars that Australia’s annual science fiction awards – counterparts of the American Hugo and Nebula awards – were ultimately introduced. A memoir of the times to which he has contributed reads in part:
It was the ubiquitous Race Thorson Mathews who first seduced me into the delights of the never- never world of science fiction, just as earlier, much earlier, he had corrupted my mind with the garish, and much-sought after publications known as (hush) American Comics. Race, I recall, had a large collection of English penny dreadfuls – the Nelson Lee Library – and I had a father in Shanghai, and then in Hong Kong, who supplied me with American comics. We arranged a swap, and matters progressed satisfactorily until the Customs began to clamp down on the dreadful influx of corrupting literature threatening to engulf our youth in a decadent tide of Nyokas and Captain Marvels, and Batmen, and Sheenas, and Heaps, and Airboys, and Stu Taylors, and Dr Sivanas, and Mr Mxyztplks, and etc. Nelson Lees dwindled as did the heady wonders of Buck Rogers in Fulcolour.
Trust Race, though. Before you could say SHAZAM! twice he had discovered a tiny place, quite near school and the St Kilda Junction, which had a supply, small it is true, but a supply nonetheless, of the forbidden fruits. Life was again livable. Well, Race was in the class below me at school, and I soon had to leave Grimwade House to enter the Big School. St Kilda Junction was out of bounds for a boarder, and I no longer had the pocket money I had been accustomed to, so I stopped frequenting the shop. But not Race.
About 18 months later, I was taken away from school on a whim of my father’s and whirled around the world to the East and England for a year, to absorb God knows what, and when I returned Race and I were in the same classes together. He re- introduced me to the little shop, this time not for comics, but for a far more insidious poison, one which still courses through my veins – science fiction. Astounding, Planet, Super Science . . . ah! even the British titles were hued with wonder, drenched in the promise of interplanetary orgies. Life was again worth living. I remember distinctly the first true SF magazine I ever read – a present from Race – Galaxy for May 1951, with The Wind Between the Worlds by Lester Del Rey, Tyrann by Asimov, Goodnight Mr James by Simak, plus many others. I have never been the same since. It would also have been Race who introduced me to Franklin’s library – I doubt if I would have found it myself – and I know he put me on to Slater, Chapman, and the other big sellers of the stuff.
Graham Stone also passed on my name to Lee – or, as he was then known, Leo – Harding. Lee’s letter introducing himself to me in April 1952 read in part:
I’m fifteen years of old age, a stf fan for five and an intelligent one for two. Get what I mean? I know the difference between a Bradbury and a Kuttner. I know my pen names too . . . At the moment I’m just a newcomer to Fandom, but in three months I’ve (1) joined Ken Slater’s Operation Fantast, (2) subscribed to Stone’s Stopgap, etc., (3) become a member of the Australian Science Fiction Society, (4) subscribed to Woomera, (5) have made arrangements to get good US magazines regularly, and all the British dittoes, except of course the four Spencer mags (ugh!), (7) (Am I boring you?) Stopped getting Thrills Inc. (again, ugh!), made contact with book-sellers Carnell and Chapman, (9) (Phew!) Begun my career of collecting rejection slips from stf magazines, under the guidance of Roger Dard.
Recalling our first meeting years later, he wrote:
I cleaned myself up one Sunday and went – in suit and collar and tie on an exceedingly warm summer’s day – to meet Mr Mathews. Race was sitting on the front lawn when I arrived, engrossed in The Onslaught from Rigel in Wonder Stories Annual, and after a rather un- certain handshake was exchanged, he took off his dark glasses and escorted me inside. He was a remarkably baby-faced youth of eighteen, long and lean and lanky, with legs that sprawled upon carpets like a tarantula. We chatted of things SFictional for a few hours, and I left with a vague promise that I would attend a fannish gathering he had planned at his home in a few weeks time – this was to be the unofficial inaugural meeting of what became known as the Melbourne Science Fiction Group.
Lee and I became good friends. This did not mean that we were uncritical of one another. When I failed to answer his letters regularly enough or at acceptable length, he remonstrated:
I’ve just about had it. If you don’t want your books back, okay. If you don’t want to correspond with me, okay again, but I still think its a dirty show. There’s plenty of important fans who don’t think its going out of their way to write to me regularly – Dard, Stone, Haddon, Solnsteff, Slater, Carnell and the rest. Tell me, how important are you?
A week later peace was restored. A further letter from Lee commenced:
I’m a cad! I’m a bounder. I’m ungrateful. I’m a Yank. I’m a no-hoper . . . Please, tear up or atomise that letter I wrote you. I’ve buried yours!
Lee was not alone in bringing a certain frenzy to everything he did. All our activities were coloured by the frenetic quality which prompted Sam Moskowitz to title his history of early American fandom The Immortal Storm.
The sheer frustration of dealing with fellow fans sometimes drove to distraction those who were at heart serious-minded organisers. In December 1951, Graham Stone poured out his feelings in a letter to me which read in part:
There can be no doubt that many readers of science fiction are inadequate individuals – what used to be called ‘escapists’, although the term is unsatisfactory. They make up for their defects in ordinary life by building themselves up in their own estimation. And you can’t think of yourself as superman very effectively if you admit others as your equals.
Many fans, while living more or less well-adjusted lives and not tending to paranoid superiority, are extreme intellectual snobs; ever critical of others, finding faults which might well be over-looked and so on . . . such fans are likely to adopt a reserved attitude to other fans, which will be reinforced by inspection of escapists, who are usually painfully obvious second-raters.
It may well be that these attitudes explain why the affairs of Sydney fans were conducted frequently in an atmo-sphere reminiscent of the Wars of the Roses.
A representative rift in the ranks of Sydney fandom concerned the Futurian Society of Sydney library. Graham supposed the library to be vested in a trust of which he was a member, and resigned on the grounds that the rules had been being broken since its inception, and breaches were continuing to occur. Others no less familiar with the facts of the matter adopted an opposite interpretation. The merits of the argument were less important than the heat and vituperation which it generated, or the fact that the effectiveness of the library was compromised throughout and beyond the duration of the dispute. Graham’s critics – notably Arthur Haddon, David Cohen and Bill Veney – attributed the fracas to an excess of ambition on Graham’s part, while the Stone camp – notably Graham and Vol Molesworth – saw similar flaws as characterising the critics. `Graham’, Bill Veney wrote, has done a lot to help fandom in Australia and there will always be a big and important place for him but he seems to be obsessed with a queer idea of making out that he is a “big name fan” and other fans just don’t exist. It is believed, wrote David Cohen at a later stage in the protracted controversy, that Stone-Molesworth would like to get their claws on the Library, but from what my spies tell me, some people would sooner burn it all up first:
Do you know that there is more hate for these two among the Futurians than there is among all the rest put together? They were barred from the Futurian committees in the end and told that if they put up for positions they would be voted out.
Unsurprisingly, the library issue was seen by Graham as involving misconceptions which were in part falsehoods deliberately spread. The situation in reality was that the protagonists were friendly correspondents and associates with fans in other states on an individual basis, but competitive and combative in the extreme with one another in the bearpit of Sydney fan politics. An attempt at conciliation on my part was rejected out of hand by Graham. I don’t know, he wrote, what this reconciliation line is in aid of. Why should I try to cultivate the favour of fandom’s disruptive elements?
(*) Interstate and overseas readers who remember the Southern Cross from AussieCon Two will be interested to know that it too has now passed away. – Paul