Any archeological dig through the history of science fiction fandom is bound to
uncover some pretty good fanzines. One of the better ones was Skyrack, an
energetic little newszine by British fan Ron Bennett, which lasted nearly one
hundred issues in its lifespan between 1959 and 1971. Skyrack's demise can
perhaps be attributed, at least in part, to Bennett's job-related relocation to
Singapore in the late 1960s. But therein, itself, lies a story...
I'd been warned that they'd get to me. The Communists, that is.
It was 1967 and I'd taken up a post in Singapore, teaching the children of British army personnel stationed on the island.
Before flying out to Singapore I'd attended a Ministry of Defence briefing session at which attendees had been warned that at some time during our tour of duty we would doubtlessly be "approached."
The dapper major who was apparently sufficiently important to be able to perform his duties in mufti hadn't been referring to the catamites and dubious characters who frequented the infamous Bugis Street; he meant an actual real-for-goodness reaching out by the Commies.
They were somewhat active in Singapore at that time. There was a great deal of apprehension among the British and the Singapore authorities, remember. The Vietnam war was in full swing and there existed the fear that if Vietnam fell the Communists would move toward and down the Malay Peninsula where each country would fall in turn, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore itself. It was known as the 'Domino' theory.
It wasn't that the Reds, apparently under all our beds, would offer us sacksful of rubles, pound notes or dollar bills (Singapore or U.S.). After all, we were teachers. We didn't have access to the plans of nuclear submarines or the like (though come to think of it, I was shown around the nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, when it took a break from patrolling the waters off Vietnam and paid a courtesy visit to Singapore) and it did seem most unlikely that the Hidden Masters of the Kremlin would be interested in Jimmy Smith's math homework, even if he had progressed on to the five times table.
It wasn't even that the Commies intended to recruit any of us to inveigle any high ranking official into some sort of compromising situation so that he could divulge whatever it was they wanted divulging, though no doubt had such a scenario actually come to fruition it would have been one heck of a bonus.
No, it was simply that we might inadvertently 'drop a stitch', let slip a little fact which would be unimportant on its own but when fitted with a couple of hundred other bits and pieces would help build up some sort of picture.
Heavens, didn't anyone remember that during the Second World War we'd been bombarded with propaganda posters warning us that CARELESS TALK COSTS LIVES?
So, okay, at some time during our time in Singapore there would be an Approach. Not only that, but we were even told the form said Approach would take. This always amazed me. The Communists always followed the same method. Our side knew what it was. Yet the Communists continued to employ it. When we were told the form the Approach would take, the entire gathering shook their heads. Unbelievable!
This approach, we'd been advised, would normally take the form of our landlord dropping in from time to time to discuss our comfort. Whether the furniture was to our liking. That sort of thing. On his fourth or fifth visit he would bring along a cousin who, in the normal course of conversation, would ask various simple questions such as "How do you like living in Singapore?" Or whether, as a civilian, we enjoyed working for the military. All exceedingly subtle.
Once I'd got myself established in Singapore I took a house on a year's rental. My landlady was a young Chinese Singaporean woman who would... guess what?... drop in from time to time to discuss the furnishings and the like.
True to Oriental convention, tea or a soft drink would first be offered the visitor and for a half hour or so the conversation would be on virtually any topic (usually the climate, the temperature, the humidity, a ritual observed at every visit and played like a tape recording) before Miss Lim would move on to the nitty gritty, satisfying herself as to her tenant's comfort. It would be churlish of me to suspect that during these visits she was calculating by what amount she could raise the ante on the expiry of the lease.
On her fifth visit Miss Lim brought with her a man of about forty. He was, well, you don't say, her cousin. Very pleasant fellow. All smiles. Good firm handshake. Thought the tea excellent. Loved the fruit cake.
"And how do you like working in Singapore?" he enquired.
I told him that I enjoyed teaching children, irrespective of where in the world I might be. I wondered as soon as the words were out of my mouth whether this might be interpreted as an indication that I'd be happy teaching somewhere in the Urals.
"Ah, so." He took a second... or was it a fourth?... piece of fruit cake. "And as a civilian, how do you like working for the army?"
I told him that I was a civilian and had no interest in military affairs. The army merely paid my salary. My interest was the children.
"Ah, so." He suddenly glanced at his wrist watch, looked pointedly at his cousin, our landlady, put down his half-devoured cake, stood and said that he must apologise. He had to leave. For an appointment. Off they went.
I reported the conversation to my Head of Establishment, the school principal, as soon as I arrived the following morning. He made a note of the date and the time.
And that was that. I didn't hear another word about the incident and I never again had the pleasure of meeting our landlady's charming cousin.
At the end of the year I didn't renew the lease on the house. My, what a suspicious mind you have! You're not suggesting that Miss Lim hiked up the rent, are you?
I moved out, into an identical house in the next street. My new landlord was a Mr. Kong. Very pleasant, accommodating fellow. He'd drop in from time to time, usually about once a month, to discuss the furnishings (excellent, comfortable rattan) and the like. There would be the usual preliminaries about the climate and so forth, always as though the subject was being broached for the first time. I suspect that Miss Lim, Mr. Kong and all the other thousands of Singapore property owners followed this sterile routine because they felt that they were pandering to the eccentricities of their tenants who would possibly lose face if the charade was not played out.
You're ahead of me, aren't you? On his fifth visit Mr. Kong brought with him his cousin, a man of about forty. Very pleasant fellow. All smiles. Good firm handshake. Thought the tea excellent. Loved the fruit cake.
"And how do you like working in Singapore?" he enquired. "And as a civilian, how do you like working for the army?"
After I'd said my piece he suddenly remembered an appointment and off they went. The next morning I made what was becoming the usual report and that was that. Never met the charming fellow again. Though I did wonder whether he knew Miss Lim's cousin.
A few months later the Russian champion soccer team, Dynamo of Tbilisi, visited Singapore to play three exhibition games against specially selected opponents. I attended the first in the company of a colleague, Carl Kelly. We took our places half way back in the center of the main grandstand. As is usual on these occasions we commented from time to time on the inadequacies of various players.
"This Singapore winger's hanging back too far," I said. "He should be further up the field."
The thick-set spectator sitting immediately in front of us turned round. "Yes," he said in an accent I didn't recognise. Nothing unusual about that. There were dozens of different nationalities living in Singapore. "He is dropping back too far. He should be standing alongside the Dynamo fullback."
"The centre-forward is too static, Carl remarked after a while.
Our thick-set friend turned round. "He should be moving around to distract the defence," he agreed.
This went on throughout the first half. During the fifteen minute interval our friend turned round and introduced himself as one of the Dynamo coaches.
We were surrounded by the Russian party, coaches, reserves, wives, girl-friends and supporters who had (been allowed to have) made the trip.
"So," our friend said, "you are serving in Singapore with the British army?"
We explained that we were teachers and had no contact with the military.
"Of course," our friend observed, "the British army has its wives and children with it. The children must be taught."
"Exactly," we agreed.
"And how many soldiers are there in Singapore?" our friend asked conversationally.
We'd no idea, we said, We repeated that we had no contact with the military other than as parents. In any case, I had a pretty fair idea that he already knew.
"And the climate here," our friend went on. "It is so different from Tbilisi. It must be different for you, too. It is possible to acclimatise, is it not?"
We discussed acclimatisation.
"And your forces here are not only army. There is your air force, too. And the navy in the north." He was just showing off with that one. "How many ships would you say there are at the naval base?"
We were finding it difficult to cope with all this oblique questioning. Couldn't understand why the fellow didn't get straight to the point.
We told him that we didn't even know where the naval base was.
The conversation moved on to the relative qualities of different British soccer teams. My home town team was ruling the roost at the time.
"Ah, yes. Leeds United. A fine team. All international players," enthused our friend, adding without changing his tone. "And how many soldiers did you say are based in Singapore?"
The next morning we reported this conversation to our school principal. About an hour later one of the school secretaries came into my classroom. Could I set the children some work and go downstairs to the principal's office?
I had some difficulty getting into the room. Carl was there and so were a dozen or so severe-looking men. Half of them were in uniform. They were all high ranking, one a brigadier. The only face I recognised was that of the SO1Edn, the senior officer in charge of education for the entire FARELF, the Far East Land Forces.
Carl and I were grilled for over an hour by three men in lightweight lounge suits. Every word we'd reported was discussed. Every nuance of tone with which we'd answered the Russian's questions was analysed. On two or three occasions we were told, "But previously you said such-and-such," which we hadn't. Every attempt was made to trip us up. We objected vehemently. Our principal objected vehemently. Our SO1 objected vehemently.
Eventually, one of the Lounge Suits told us. "Nothing that has taken place here today must be reported or discussed. Not even with your families. In fact," he added in the best ...or possibly the worst... tradition of B-movie Hollywood, "this meeting has never taken place."
We returned, shaken, definitely not stirred, to our classrooms. The meeting may not have taken place but the little horrors sitting angelically at their desks were more street wise than we'd credited.
"Sir," asked one boy when I came into the room, "Sir. Are you really a spy?"
Title illustration by Joe Mayhew