For those not familiar with Irish Fandom of the 1950s, it consisted of a relatively
small group of hyperactive and very talented fans. John Berry was one. Another
was George Charters, perhaps the least well known of the group on this side of the
Atlantic, who was the subject of an article in Mimosa 13. There was
also James White, Bob and Sadie Shaw, and the Willises -- Walt and Madeleine. This
next article continues Walt's look back at that fan era, this time describing the
fan career of a real-world notable.
Bob Leman and other cognoscenti (and it's pleasant to see just how many there were) have drawn my attention to the fact that in Selected Letters of Phillip Larkin, 1950 to 1955, Larkin in a letter to Robert Conquest dated 19th April 1954 says:
"I never came across Willis, though several times I have heard Slant mentioned. The editor of these letters, Anthony Thwaite, has, by and large, done a commendable job in annotating such references, but he has failed to furnish a footnote for this one. The letter is dated a few weeks after Larkin left Belfast, after four years as Librarian of Queens University, and the context of Conquest's question is made clear by Larkin's reply here. Of course, it has to be about you. I confess I felt a flash of reflected glory in being able to claim the acquaintance of a fellow who was a topic in the correspondence of such admirable luminaries as Larkin and Conquest."
The name of Philip Larkin will be well known to readers of modern English poetry. That of Robert Conquest is even more famous, first as a poet, but more recently as an expert on Soviet Russia. His scholarly analysis of the Stalinist regime, in particular his account of the massacre of the peasantry by starvation, as part of the imposition of collective farming, did much to equate in the public mind the regime in Russia with that in Nazi Germany. It is true that Conquest was a subscriber to Slant. I have kept my old card index and it reveals that he subscribed in time to get Slant No. 6, and his subscription was continued by Hyphens Nos. 1 to 11, when it was renewed by a ten shilling note, until he was finally dropped for lack of response after Hyphen 27.
Two items survive of my correspondence with Conquest. The first was hand-written, dated 23rd June 1954:
I don't suppose you saw any of my recent attempts to defend SF to the intellectuals of the New Statesman. There was a bloody article by a dopey professor of radio astronomy attacking it in the March 13 issue. They published a pretty rude letter of mine countering this on March 20th.
The Moscow Literaturnaya Gazeta has now taken this up; I attach a copy of an article in their issue of June 3rd. (I have sent a copy to Astounding Science Fiction.) Very good fun. (You will remember their attack some years ago, reprinted in ASF of June 1949.)
Meanwhile, the New Statesman asked me to do a review, which was published in their June 12th number (and in which I have a crack at Lit.Gaz for their earlier article. I don't know where all this will end, as I was purposely provocative and hope for some more fuss from the intellectuals.)
I am greatly enjoying this. A friend of mine, the novelist and poet Kingsley Amis, is promising to back me up. It all proves that the top levels haven't yet been stormed adequately -- did you hear the abysmal nonsense talked by the Radio Critics about Childhood's End?
Further news from my side is that I am now a vile pro, having received an advance for an SF novel from Ward Lock and Company. I've only written the synopsis so far -- a bloody long thing -- so still have the creation to perform, but I take it that one becomes a pro by accepting the money, not on writing the order?
It shows how dopey I am in the pun-deciphering, which is the mark of a true Willis-fan, that I have only just realised that your interim sheet is Hi! Fen!
This letter was hand-written, and so must have been my reply because there is no carbon of it on file. However, Conquest's reply (a portion of which is reproduced below) was mostly typed.
Delighted to hear from you. Yes, I think it was worth having a bash at The Statesman, because it is almost the last little circle of people who feel themselves superior to science fiction -- but really it is only a mopping-up operation after you and your colleagues have borne the main brunt of years of campaigning.
There is certainly some SF in Eastern Europe -- I have read some of it myself. And it is inaccurate if fans take the Literaturnaya Gazeta article as proving the opposite. Still, Communist SF is extremely limited in type -- owing to the obvious directions in which the imagination cannot be allowed to stray; and SF as we know it is indeed banned, together with most of the rest of modern Western literature. So I do not think that the fan is really being unreasonable in concluding that the Russians are hostile to what he himself is reading. It is quite legitimate for fans to feel disgusted by the misrepresentations and bullying of the article. It is perfectly true that there is a lot of unpleasant SF, but Lit.Gaz's attack was not a legitimate criticism of this. What is really objectionable is that it was intended to show, in a dishonest fashion, to a public which has no opportunity for forming a judgement of its own, that Western literature is poisonous sadism. In fact, it was more hate-mongering of the sort you rightly deplore in another context. Lit.Gaz, incidentally, is a great purveyor of articles saying that war stories should glorify battle.
On the issue of sadism in SF, incidentally, my own feeling is that one needn't worry too much. Many educated people who like to think of themselves as humane are addicts of suitably disguised sadistic attitudes. Orwell says somewhere:
"An adolescent in a Glasgow slum worships Al Capone. A New Statesman reader worships Stalin. There is a difference in intellectual maturity, but none in moral outlook." (Critical Essays, page 154)
I think there is something more corrupting in the sadism which is obscured and justified by intellectual finagling. Indeed, I think the main attraction of Communism (in the Western world, that is) is that it enables someone to satisfy his sadistic inclinations while at the same time being provided with the luxury that it is all being done for 'humane' and 'liberal' reasons. It is comparable to the satisfactions of the hanging judge and the 'strict but fair' schoolmaster.
The only query one has is not whether people derive pleasure from fantasies, but whether this has a generally bad and demoralising effect. I expect you have seen the researches in America carried out in the cities in which lurid comics are forbidden, to discover whether there was any appreciable effect on juvenile delinquency compared with cities where they were freely sold. There was none.
Other things being equal, my own bias has always been in favour of permitting pornography, or any other sort of objectionable writing, rather than suppressing it. It is an unfortunate result of modern society that there is so much of this low mass culture. But stopping it has always been the corollary of censorship methods which have been a bloody sight worse for literature, common decency, and everything else one values.
Personally, I think it is clear that the Soviet system is, in all essential matters, as bad as the Nazi one, and that its theory that this system is suitable for imposition on the rest of the world is the greatest danger there is. On the other hand, I fancy that if we can solve our own problems and keep the Communist states from breaking out, while at the same time pointing out to them the advantages that would accrue if they ceased to exclude themselves from the world community, their internal tensions would finally force these states to evolve or perish.
As you'll probably have noticed, I didn't really appreciate Conquest's importance. At the time, he was mainly known to me as an anti-Soviet polemicist, and my politics then were more pro-Soviet than anything, based on the assumption that whatever was wrong in the Soviet Union, at least their hearts were in the right place. I don't have any recollection of further correspondence with Conquest, though I can't say what might not turn up in the files, but as far as I know, my last reference to him was in my report of the visit of Madeleine and myself to the World Fair in Seattle in 1962:
"Even now there is such a cloud of fatigue in that corridor of my memory that I cannot believe there would be much of interest in it to you. Except possibly the still vivid recollection of seeing at the exit from the U.S. Science Pavilion, in great gold letters on the wall, a quotation from a Hyphen subscriber. Unaccountably they failed to mention this fact, mentioning just the name, Robert Conquest -- presuming, no doubt, that his chief claim to immortality lies in his poetry and not in his letters of comment on Hyphen. Admittedly, he hasn't written many of the latter recently, his subscription having lapsed, but let that be a warning to you. Let your Hyphen subscription lapse, and you may find yourself reduced to writing on walls in Washington."
I see that at the same time I was writing to Conquest, I was also writing to Robert Bloch, trying to persuade him to move to Ireland:
Having just been defeated in the semifinal of our club tournament, I have now written a volume of scurrilous memoirs of the tennis club and retired into fandom...
About my proposal that you should pull up your skates and come and live out here, I have an item of information which will gladden your heart. You know the National Insurance Scheme we have over here? Of which the National Health Service is part. Well, Ted Tubb is now a full-time writer and as such is insured as 'self-employed' and stamps his own cards, etc. The other day he had a bad cold and didn't feel up to writing. So he went along to his NHS doctor and got a certificate that he was unable to follow his employment. He then claimed -- and received -- sick pay from the Government! Doesn't this open up a wonderful vista for authors? Couldn't you also claim for lack of inspiration, shortage of ideas, and from being burnt out? All as much occupational hazards of the writer as silicosis is of miners. I tell you, socialism is the answer writers have been seeking for years!
I must have written in similar terms to Damon Knight, because he commented as follows:
God heavens! This Tubb thing is apocalyptic! Will you kindly find out for me if he was able to live on what he got from the government, and if so, what the requirements are for immigration to the British Isles? I'm 99% serious about this. Damn, your butcher shops don't refrigerate their eats, though, do they? All those flies and maggots...
I couldn't tell if it was puke or a butterfly... And here's room for your name, address, and solar system... Gophers are turtles in Florida... We're running into some unstable isotopes... Zeitgeist indeed
Must tell you about the 'unstable isotopes' thing. We were watching a mess called Unknown World, a Lippert Picture, on television. These people had what they called an 'ovular bathysphere', otherwise called the 'cyclotram'; it was a rocket-shaped thing on treads, with rock-chewing blades at the nose. Well, they were in this thing, climbing up the side of Mount Mele to get to the crater, and the machine began to rock. One fellow consulted an oscilloscope, and that's when they said it...
Next: The discovery of Arthur Thomson, and more letters from Robert Bloch and damon knight.
Title illustration by Kip Williams