And now a tale of 1950s British fandom.
For a few years in the early 1950s, The Epicentre existed as a fabled fan residence.
In A Wealth of Fable, Harry Warner describes the Epicentre as "... the most famous spot in British fandom. It stood at 84 Drayton
Park, high in the wilds of Northern London. ... Vincent Clarke and Ken Bulmer were
living there in 1950. 'Every level surface was covered to the point of instability
by fanzines, prozines, letters, busts of Napoleon, and model ships, their outlines
blurred by a deep film of coal dust which sifted continuously in through the window,'
Walt Willis wrote. It was here that Bulmer invented the steam engine, after mistaking
the motions of a pot lid temporarily for anti-gravitic forces." The Epicentre
was also the origination point for many fanzines. Here is an anecdotal tale about how
some of those fanzines were produced and the machine with which they were produced.
And so on. That was the start of a pome of mine that Walt Willis printed in Hyphen 1 in May `52, heading it "Aghast Editorial." The bit about the bubble was pure (or perhaps impure) poetic license, but those lines and the catalogue of misfortunes that followed were a more-or-less accurate statement of the facts. In those days to be a duplicator owner meant you trod a narrow and inky path between optimism and insanity.
As it happened, when I became a publishing fan I entirely skipped the primitive jelly hektograph. No purple fingers for me. I was elected editor and publisher of a club fanzine in 1948, innocent that I was, and given -- by someone whose name has been expunged from my memory -- an Edison Diaphragm Mimeograph, commonly known as a Flatbed Duplicator.
Have you ever seen one in action? It's very similar to a simple silkscreen printer. There's a base with a frame hinged to it, and a silkscreen stretched across the frame. You attach a stencil to the screen, put a sheet of paper on the base, close the screen down onto it, get a roller which you've previously coated with ink, roll it across the screen and, hopefully, an even spread of ink will penetrate the stencil onto the paper.
Then you lift the frame, detach the paper, put another sheet in its place, close the screen down, re-ink the roller, run it across the screen, lift up the screen... A fast operator can probably do one every half-minute, not counting the intervals when you straighten up and scream about your aching back.
There was only one small advantage. The whole caboodle could be carried in a wooden box measuring 20" x 13" x 5" (not counting a couple of reams of paper), so it was quite possible to transport it to a small meeting of suckers fellow fans and have some communal help. And of course you were inspired by the fact that most of the early British fanzines were printed in exactly the same way. Oh pioneers!
I still had the flatbed when I moved into an apartment with Ken Bulmer, which I named 'The Epicentre' -- I had intended this to mean that it would be the Centre of Things Happening in Brit Fandom, though Willis later rather hurtfully described it as the dead centre. The Epicentre would have been a somewhat eccentric habitation even if fans hadn't been living there and covering every flat surface with sf magazines and fanzines. It was an old Victorian block, which stretched down one side of the road. The other side was occupied by a large brick wall. On the other side of the wall, which we could quite easily see over from our top floor, was a coal yard. This was where trains deposited coal from mysterious far-off places, to be picked up later by contractor's trucks.
Day and night, soft winds deposited coal dust against the house and, if we'd opened the windows even an inch, inside it as well, so we rarely did so. The atmosphere was pretty distinctive -- cooking smells and mimeo ink and Ken's pipe tobacco and yellowing pulp magazine pages.
Ken was only a year older than I, but he'd been an active fan in the early part of the War and I think the experience had aged him -- he always assumed (and still does) a sort of fatherly attitude towards me. There was the pipe too, of course. He obviously viewed the straining and sweating over the flatbed, and probably the depositing of freshly inked sheets over every available surface, with some distaste. When he was out one day, he spotted a rotary duplicator in a second-hand-goods store and bought it. Neither of us could have afforded a new one. It was a hefty piece of machinery and Ken always thought it peculiarly fannish that during the last few hundred yards of walking he was helped by a one-armed man.
This new technological marvel was my pride and joy. There were no instructions with it, of course, and I spent many an inky-fingered hour learning how the thing worked. It was a Gestetner No.6, which I discovered in an office machine handbook many years later was brand new in 1917, but history didn't concern me with the mighty mechanism standing on the kitchen table before me. Two drums with silkscreen wound around them, a wooden platform holding about 100 sheets of paper which you cranked up by hand every few copies (no automatic gearing), an opening to which you took a tube of ink and spread some of its contents onto one of the drums (no automatic inking)... I didn't realize how much was missing, just reveled in being able to turn the handle (three times) and produce a duplicated sheet (it was manually operated).
There were a few snags, of course. The ink flow was a bit sluggish. It really needed a warm atmosphere to spread easily, and after an attempt or two to thin it out by mixing oil with the ink -- it went on OK but penetrated to the back of the paper in two seconds -- we realised that we'd just have to heat the surroundings. This was easy enough. There was no central heating, but we had a gas oven in the kitchen. That summer we turned on the oven, raised the temperature to about 90° Fahrenheit, took off our shirts and turned the handle. It seemed to work, except for the odd drops of sweat on the paper, and that soon evaporated. Visiting fans would take their cold drinks into another room and discuss fanning, shouting out at intervals to ask if we were OK. We kept the door closed to keep the heat in, of course.
In the winter, things became awkward. The duplicator was on the table by the coal dust-darkened window, and on the side nearest the window the duplicating became faint. Bringing my knowledge of Science to bear -- for I was an SF fan, wasn't I? -- I deduced that on the window side the ink was cooled, and so didn't penetrate the stencil sufficiently. We turned up the oven. The kitchen shimmered in heat waves. Once when I opened the door onto the cold landing outside, clouds condensed around me. And No.6 still didn't work properly, in spite of imaginative cursing.
By the next summer, I further deduced that the impression-roller spring which pressed the paper against the stencil on that side was weak. I inserted two or three washers and the problem vanished. We turned the oven down to 90 degrees again and went back to standard cursing.
We learnt how to treat duplicating paper cruelly, flexing it and beating sheets against a flat surface so the guillotined edges wouldn't stick together. We learnt the best solvents for ink under the fingernails and on clothes. When Chuch Harris accidentally dropped a tea cup on the duplicator, we picked out the chips and repaired the gouged drums with Plaster of Paris.
No.6 repaid us. It turned out Convention programmes and Epicentre fanzines and other people's fanzines and even a couple of pages of the Willis Slant when his hand printing machine broke. I became quite fond of it.
It moved with me when the Epicentre broke up (literally -- the ceiling started falling down) and turned out the first Quote Cards (a minor fannish obsession for some years) and the details of OMPA, the first British APA, and lots more. I even started a two-part fanzine called Duplicating Without Tears, the first part about stencil-cutting, the second about machines available. I never did get around to the latter -- it was beginning to dawn on me that No.6 was a little old-fashioned.
It was more or less pensioned off in the late `50s, when I acquired a later model, but it wasn't junked. In 1984 or so, Terry Hill wanted coloured illustrations for his fanzine Microwave and good old No.6 churned out green pictures on pages already duplicated in black. But the years had taken their toll. Last time I looked at it, the rubber impression roller was soft and spongy -- 'perished'. I could, at some expense, have the roller recast, but now I'm beginning to feel my age slightly -- I'm six months older than Harry Warner -- and I can't honestly feel that it's worth it. Possible, at approx. 74 years old, it's time No.6 was given to the garbage man.
But I think I'll keep it a few more years -- just in case.
All illustrations by Joe Mayhew