Another reason that the 1950s could be considered as fandom's Golden Age is because of Irish Fandom. Some people believe that Irish Fandom was really just a segment of British Fandom, but it had its own unique characteristics, as well as characters: James White, George Charters, John Berry, and Bob Shaw. The centrum of Irish Fandom was located at Oblique House, the home of Walter and Madeleine Willis in Belfast. Walt returns now, with another installment of the best from his correspondence file, this time about the discovery of an amazing art talent and a revelation from John Brunner.
'I Remember Me' by Walt Willis; title illo by Sheryl 
I discovered Arthur Thomson the way the Law of Gravity discovered Isaac Newton. One day in October 1954, as I was sitting under a deadline for Hyphen 11, the apple fell on me in the shape of a handwritten letter from a strange address in London. There was, as I remember, nothing particularly striking about the letter itself, just a subscription to Hyphen, but the writer had, as a mere afterthought apparently, scribbled a little drawing at the bottom, and another on the back of the envelope.

I can at least claim the credit for recognising genius when it comes up and hits me in the eye. After years of headshaking over the laboured drawing and threadbare ideas of most fan artists, my old eyes popped out of their worn sockets at the sight of this easy fluent style and the original sense of humour that it seemed so perfectly to express. I replied by return of post, full of enthusiasm; I didn't even wait to get home from work, but wrote from the office, so I don't have a copy of the letter. And I don't even have Arthur's letter, either, because I sent it back to him to do the cartoon properly; it appeared in Hyphen 11 -- page 23, if anyone wants to gaze in awe at the first explosion of ATom in fandom.

Arthur's second letter arrived in an enormous envelope containing two big drawing books filled with cartoons, and great sheaves of loose pages. He told me later that when he got my letter, he sat down and did about 30 drawings straight off, thereby proving that for generating energy in fans, egoboo has carbohydrates beaten to a frazzle.

I also learned (from six handwritten pages of ruled foolscap) that he was already experimenting with stencils, which a friend at work had run off for him, and that...

I'm Scotch myself, born and bred. Came to London about 1931. So I'm not a mercurial unworldly crazy Scotchman (wife's English, a steadying influence) and whiskey is my Ghod (scotch of course). But my grandfather came from Northern Ireland (could we be related, huh?). Not me and my grandfather...oh, you've got it.

Later, on 29th November, Arthur wrote to report his first meeting with Chuck Harris.

Well, I think the visit to Chuck's was a success. We hit it off together from the word go. Chuck is one of the nicest fellows I've met and I think we can become firm friends. I'll say again, we really got on well. Going to meet him in London Saturday and have a look at Gestetners.

When Chuck found out that I can write and draw with either hand, he almost chained me up to the Gestetner with a pile of stencils to work on.


Met Chuck up London Saturday morning, and we tromped round town, gazing in Gestetner office windows; that was all we could do as the damn places were closed. So we went and had something to eat and a good natter. We got on terrifically. We just seemed to blend in with each other. I think we shall probably combine and become a 'gestalt'.

Through reading most fanzines for the past year in a few months, I've sort of caught up with fandom and now I seem to be waiting with my tongue hanging out, for things happening. Can't wait for 'Ketcon', can't wait to do more stuff for Hyphen, can't wait to meet other fans. I must be bitten pretty badly by the virus.

Notice how my writing gets worse. I am doing this at work, and keeping my head swivelling about for the foreman.

It can't have been long after this that Arthur was deputed by his mates to approach the management about some dispute. He was so impressive that the management put him in charge. This is one of the episodes I had in mind when writing The Enchanted Convention, which is basically about how fannish skills can help in the mundane world.

I was going to go on about the arrival on the scene of John Berry, but I came across this letter from John Brunner, which seems timely in view of John's sudden death at Intersection. It sets out his relationship with fandom. The story to which he refers, "The Watchers," had appeared in my fanzine, Slant. It was John's first published work.

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Pilot Officer J.K.H Brunner
Royal Air Force Bletchley

Dear Walt,

Nice to see you again, even if it was only at odd moments [at the convention] throughout the day and night. I meant to say quite a lot of things to you, chiefly apologies for not writing in such a long time, and inquiries as to whether this Aussie publication was going to use "The Watchers" after all, but still more mostly to say the hell with that letter of mine to you a while ago which got into Hyphen where it had no real reason to be, because it'll take me months to live that down.

I seem to recall that in it I was arguing that the divorcing of sf and fandom was a Bad Thing. Walt, I was nuts. Sf is a good excuse and that's all. I've seen the light, I'm saved. I can only blame the Air Force and a bad attack of rationalization for my earlier and indiscreet statements.

This weekend has reminded me of what I'd forgotten -- that there are people in the world who are sane enough to be crazy. I wish to Ghod I could find the time and the money to get right up to my neck in fandom and then duck my head. It's like finding a friend after hating the world for twenty years; it just feels right -- and it took this weekend to wake me up to it.

In `52, when I was dabbling my toe in fandom, I was a kid fresh out of school. I'd written "Thou Good and Faithful" and hadn't got to worry about selling something else for pocket money until it ran out. But fresh out of school and missing my few close friends, I was feeling unsociable more than somewhat. The Air Force has made me hate the world more still. In between, I've tried to find a niche I could fit into in jazz fandom -- but there's nothing in jazz fandom that I can find that even approximates to Fandom with a capital F. I've been called an intellectual masquerading as a lowbrow. Not true: I know my erudition shows sometimes, but it's part of me as I am and not an acquired, deliberate gloss, and nowhere, barring fandom, is there a place where I believe I can be me.

I think I ought to fit after all, despite everything; I think I've been trying to exist in my intellect too long, and it can't be done. Next January, I get out of this insane rat-race, and then I am going to spend a year at home writing (if I make 500 pounds out of it that year I shall go on) and fanning. I like fans. I feel that for too long I've been trying to live on an intellectual level way beyond my years. But that's bound to be a pretense any way you look at it. I'm tired of it, and I know it, and I think that at long last I may really be starting to grow up. Congratulate me on my first birthday.

You know, this is rapidly becoming a soul-searching expose ('The Truth About Brunner'). Hell with it all -- and fen, you have been warned. I'm getting in.

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Next: John Berry and Irish Fandom*

Title illustration by Sheryl Birkhead

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