The Melbourne Science Fiction Group

Part 6: by Race Mathews

Melbourne tackled matters in a different spirit. The five of us – Bob McCubbin, Mervyn Binns, Dick Jenssen, Lee Harding and myself – made up the core of the Melbourne Science Fiction Group. The inaugural meeting of the MSFG took place in the living room of my home in Hampton on 9 May 1952. Lee records the occasion as having been instigated by a sort of collaboration between Bob McCubbin and Race Mathews. In Dick’s characteristically tongue-in-cheek view:

Race, I’m sure, was the guiding light in the foundation of the Melbourne Science Fiction Group, for it was he who brought together those who would constitute its nucleus. (If it seems remarkable that a 16-year-old could accomplish this – that is, the formation of the club, not the seduction to science fiction of a youth of but 15 tender years (me) – it must be remembered that Race was a boy of remarkable precocity. He always seemed old to me – an Olympian of wisdom. Baby-faced he was, Lee, but rather in the manner I’ve always imagined Odd John would be).

Turning to the inaugural meeting, Dick continued:

The fen of Melbourne began to meet in each other’s houses sometime in 1951, I believe, and the first I attended was at Race’s. That bus trip from the station, Middle Brighton, was a focal point of space-time, for on my journey I met Bob McCubbin. We were, as I recall, the only two on the vehicle and somehow as these things happen, began to talk and discuss our common passion. I soon discovered, however, that Bob had many another passion, and by the time we had reached Race’s I had learned that Japanese women had beautiful (the word conveys most inadequately Bob’s look of remembered joy) purple nipples, firm and delightful to touch, hold and squeeze. My mind had been opened up to whole new worlds, for Bob had been loquacious on subjects whose delicacy forbids my mentioning them here . . .

Bob’s tendency to hold forth at length at the drop of the proverbial hat on the sexual attributes of women in Japan – where he had served as an Army Education Officer with the occupying forces – was to assume legendary status in fan circles. Exposed to it – albeit in modified form – on the occasion of his first visit to my home shortly after our initial encounter in Franklin’s, my parents concluded that he was a paedophile, with designs on my body, and further meetings with him were for a time forbidden. In fact, Bob’s proclivities were in my experience exclusively heterosexual and theoretical. Asked on one occasion how she felt about science fiction, his wife replied that it kept him away from chasing other women. If at that stage of his life he harboured any active aspiration to stray – as opposed to relishing past episodes in retrospect – it remained a well-kept secret.

By Lee’s account, the inaugural meeting was a great success:

Many of the oldtimers turned up: Bob McCubbin was there, and I’m pretty sure Marshal McLennan and Wog Hockley were, too. From then on the group held monthly meetings at members’ houses in rotation – those members who had decent homes and whose wives/parents et al. were tolerant enough to allow the onslaught of eighteen to twenty fans plus supper afterwards.

Lee had missed out on the inaugural meeting as he did on those immediately following it because his work as a photographer was constantly taking him to country areas remote from Melbourne. Vol Molesworth’s A History of Australian Fandom 1935-1963 adds to the list of those present Gordon Kirby from the OBBC. The overlap between story-paper collecting and fandom was illustrated again when Jack Murtagh – an OBBC member from New Zealand, and the owner of one of the largest story-paper collections in the world, the largest collection of cigarette cards outside Britain and New Zealand’s largest collection of movie memorabilia – attended the fourth Sydney SF Convention.

Melbourne exemplified the unfractious face of Australian fandom. Meetings revolved around talk, letters, barter and chess. Puritanism too was pervasive. At a relatively early stage – following a night when 19 fans packed into the modest living room of Bob’s house in Auburn – proceedings transferred to a Swanston Street cafe called Val’s. Shock and horror prevailed when Val’s turned out to be a meeting place for some of the more courageous lesbians of the day, whose coming-out from the closet was just getting underway. Dick has recalled being taken aside by his family’s landlady and warned in a conspiratorial whisper Be careful, Dick, they’re a bunch of queens. His account continued I didn’t know what a queen was, but if she had said “poofters” I should have caught her meaning instantly. Bob McCubbin was insistent that Extroverts and introverts we may be, but perverts never. Given that the membership of the MSFG at that stage was exclusively male, its interest for Val’s clientele is unlikely to have been other than miniscule. Nevertheless, future meetings were held in the austerely asexual surroundings of the basement room of the Latrobe Street Manchester United Order of Oddfellows (MUOOF) hall, in comforting proximity to the Russell Street police headquarters.

A letter of 17 December 1952 over the signature of the Grand Secretary and Past Grand Master of the MUOOF – a Mr G. L. Coulter – confirmed fortnightly bookings throughout 1953, at a nightly cost of 12/6. According to Lee:

We had the basement room and the use of a cupboard for the library in the hall outside. Hardly convivial, but in those days we weren’t particularly interested in the comforts of the home. Despite the endeavours of the more voracious fans – myself included – the Group staunchly resisted any attempt to organise itself in any way, and still manages to do so until this day. Bob McCubbin was the self-elected Chairman at all times, but there were no organised evenings and no minutes were kept. We were just a bunch of guys getting together and swapping yarns – and trading a few magazines at the same time.

A further activity was arranging to have magazines bound professionally by Don Latimer, whose family had a binding business. Although Don’s bindings in many instances were works of art, the niceties of collecting were neglected sometimes by his workmates. My set of the Arkham Sampler was returned to me resplendent in three full leather volumes, but with the original magazine covers carefully removed. Such were the passions of the day that, prior to Don’s arrival on the MSFG scene, I had had magazines such as my set of Famous Fantastic Mysteries and my British Reprint Edition copies of Unknown Worlds bound for me by a fan in Wales. Bob McCubbin as I recall followed a policy of having Don bind everything he owned. Personalised bookplates by professional SF illustrators such as those whose work featured regularly in Astounding were available from overseas suppliers, but MSFG members preferred the local product from Keith Maclelland, a fellow fan and talented commercial artist. The content of some collections seemed at times to be secondary in the eyes of their owners to their often opulent appearances.

MSFG members went together at times to such SF films as were screened commercially, but that the MSFG might arrange screenings of its own had as yet not occurred to us. Remo Parlanti and Tony Santos became the first MSFG members who reflected in name at least the changing ethnic composition of Australian society. A less welcome recruit was Gordon Walkenden, who sold me my first LP records – the Forest Murmurs from Siegfreid and the Rienzi overture – and shortly moved to Adelaide. A subsequent letter from a leading Adelaide fan of the day – a Mrs Joyce – to Graham Stone read in part:

Gordon Walkenden of Melbourne now lives at 153 South Terrace, Adelaide, and oh! how we all wish he was back in Melbourne! He has a voice like a foghorn and loves to hear it raised in song. In the last three meetings we have had him to the point that, if he keeps it up the others will either gang up on him or stop coming. Never have I seen such a pill! I even told him to shut up, a thing I didn’t think I was capable of saying to a guest, and he continued merrily on!

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