A new year, a new issue! As we mentioned, winning a Hugo Award at Magicon was very
flattering, but that surreal Saturday night at Magicon isn't really what we'll
remember most about Magicon. Meeting Walt and Madeleine Willis is. Walt and
Madeleine were part of the now almost legendary Irish Fandom (or IF) of the 1950s,
which also included Bob Shaw, James White, and the subject (and writer) of the
I hope he isn't constantly frowning at the thought of my allusions to his old age in the many fables of Irish Fandom in which he was always featured. He was venerable, of course, but mostly alert to the ramifications of his surroundings. Even when I went 'over the top' in my descriptions of his senility, he really enjoyed the allusions, especially in my "Twilight of the Ghods" (in Hyphen 16, of 1956). The plot was suggested by Walt and Madeleine Willis; Robert Heinlein had promised to visit Oblique House in 1956, and Walt and Madeleine were obviously enthralled at this prestigious visit and desired to hire a butler for the evening...
George raised himself to a sitting position, and, rapping his crutch against the wall, signified his intention of wanting to take part in the conversation.
"Walt," he croaked, "I have held a great variety of, er, occupations in my time, and it has, er, heh heh, always been my ambition to be a, er, heh heh, butler. It would be the fulfillment of my, er, wildest dream if I could, er, heh heh, butler on this most important occasion. Heh heh."
This shook Willis, folks. I could see that he didn't want to hurt George's feelings, as none of us did, but after all, Robert Heinlein was a pretty important person.
"I'm sorry, George..." began Walt. George looked downwards, a spasm of resignation flickering over his venerable form. There was a silence for several seconds, and then Willis, doing the stupid thing and letting sentiment overcome his common sense, gave a big sigh and nodded to George.
With a terrific show of exuberance, George gripped the side of his bath chair, staggered to his feet, and hobbled from the room, cackling to himself happily.
A message was received that Heinlein's plane had landed in Dublin instead of Belfast, and therefore he would not be visiting Oblique House. In order not to disappoint George, Walt Willis decided to impersonate Heinlein, George having poor eyesight. I was one of the first visitors, and George was on duty, ready to receive Heinlein...
I felt quite proud when I saw George the following night. He opened the door majestically to my ring, and I nearly collapsed in the airlock at the sight of him. He looked like a penguin, his remaining silver locks brushed back carefully over his pate.
"Welcome to Oblique House, sor," he said, addressing the hallstand.
"It's me, George," I hissed.
It hit him like a physical blow.
"Third time tonight," he complained. "How do I look?"
"I gotta hand it to you," I cringed, pushing him gently out of the way as I passed, noting his red waistcoat and buckled shoes.
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In his brief biography (in Hyphen 16), George reveals he was born in County Roscommon in southern Ireland in 1910. His second christian name initial is ‘L', and he quite wittily alludes to the mystery of it (I have transposed third to first person):
Many people, and even fans, wonder what the 'L' stands for. It is just not true that I was called 'Lancelot' because I suffered so much from boils in my youth. Indeed, on this sore point no information is forthcoming. Some think that because I stand over six feet tall the 'L' stands for 'Longfellow'. Others think that the 'L' stands for 'Yngvi'...
He lists the titles of books he kept as a young child, considering that Through Flood and Flame, King of the Air, and The Second Form Master at St. Syril's might be categorised as science fiction!
His interest in science fiction was stimulated to such an extent that he describes traveling on a tram in Belfast when he was a young man, and seeing the words MARTIAN HOSTEL on a building. It registering slowly in his mind because he was reading an sf novel at the time. He leapt off the tram, and discovered to his chagrin that it was the SAMARITAN HOSPITAL.
Throughout the Second World War he worked in an aircraft factory in Belfast, but studiously traced "...two trickles of sf, Astounding and Unknown." In 1947, through the pages of Wonder, he made contact with prominent English fans, and ultimately got in touch with Irish Fandom.
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George was a supreme punster, well suited to the cut and thrust of the rapid verbal interplay by members of IF, always able to deliver many a bon mot of subtle sophistication. He was also a poet, and in Grue 28 (in 1959), his poem on Ghoodminton was published, written in the style of "Hiawatha." Herewith a quote...
A memorable pastiche.
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The final meeting of Irish Fandom took place at Oblique House on 26th April 1965, attended by Walt and Madeleine Willis, James White, Bob and Sadie Shaw, George Charters, and myself. I met George quite regularly after that, until I left Belfast and returned to England in the early seventies. George still worked at the same aircraft factory as previously mentioned -- he had obtained the sinecure of working permanently on the night shift; almost every week he called to see me in the evening before the commencement of his nightly sojourn. I know his eyesight troubled him, yet he drove from his home in Bangor to Belfast every night. He parked his car in a neighbour's drive, once, unfortunately, when the neighbour was already parked there. We drank tea and ate toast, and philosophised about the old days.
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In 1987, Walt Willis published a special issue of Hyphen to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Irish Fandom, for which I wrote a story, "The Re-union." The plot concerned my wish to hire an actor to impersonate George and call at Oblique House so that we would have a complete attendance at a commemorative meeting. Three other members of IF had the same idea, resulting in four pseudo George Charters appearing at the meeting. At the end of the amazing scenario, Walt Willis bade us all sit down...
Suddenly something like an electric shock ran up my legs, up my spine. My hair stood rampant; tears sprang to my eyes. The other three also sat transfixed. There was a sudden chill in the air, followed by a warmth that somehow seemed relaxing...happy...familiar?
We looked at each other, eyes blinking in astonishment. "Gentlemen," said Walt, his voice firmly under control, "we are complete."
That story came from my heart.
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George Charters upheld the finer Victorian principles of kindness, modesty, and thoughtfulness, and was polite and chivalrous to women (he wasn't married!). He saw and appreciated the best in everyone, and was always a stalwart of Irish Fandom.
All illustrations by Kurt Erichsen