We're going to begin this issue with a remembrance of a friend and a longtime
contributor to Mimosa. On October 20th of last
year, about a month after we returned home from Australia, Walter Willis died. He'd
been ill for about a year, following a stroke, and spent much of that time
hospitalized. There's not much to say about Walt Willis that isn't a superlative.
He was the most prominent member of fandom's most famous fan organization, the
legendary Irish Fandom of the 1950s. Bob Shaw, another member of IF and one of
fandom's finest writers and humorists, once described Willis as "the best writer
he'd ever known." Harry Warner, Jr., in his book, A Wealth of Fable,
describes Walt as the "best and most gifted fan of the 1950s, who also might qualify
as the Number One Fan of any and all decades." Here's a tribute to Walt by another
member of IF, who tells us that the following "is not really an account of Walt's
fannish career, but rather my remembrance of him during the whirlwind days of Irish
I met Walt Willis for the first time in 1954. I worked at the local constabulary HQ, in Belfast, and during the hour's lunch time I toured bookshops selling science fiction magazines, and oft noted in them that Walt Willis, of 170 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast, was the publisher of the mysterious 'fanzine' Hyphen, which was always favourably reviewed. I wrote to him, asking for an appointment, and in due course I hied to Oblique House on a trolley bus, thinking that arriving there on a rusty pedal cycle would not create a good impression.
We met at the portals of Oblique House, albeit complete strangers, although, shrewdly, we already knew a great deal about each other. In his "I Remember Me" column in Mimosa 20, Walt revealed that as he was a senior Civil Servant at the Northern Ireland Parliament Building in Stormont (to the south of Belfast), he was thus able to 'pull' my personal file and study the contents -- an Englishman in the police seeking contact with Irish Fandom? I also made discreet enquiries about Mr. Willis in the Ministry, and discovered he was quite an important person in the Civil Service.
Walt told me all about fandom and lent me the Slant and Hyphen files, and the following Tuesday I arrived for a meeting of Irish Fandom -- James White, Bob Shaw, George Charters and Walt and Madeleine Willis -- and was given a demonstration of 'ghoodminton'. Simply, it was hitting a shuttlecock across a net, attempting to hit the opposing floor, for a point. It was quite interesting; I was offered a game, and partnered Bob Shaw against Walt and James. At this juncture I must point out that I was an athlete, physically very strong, and most certainly always played to win, whatever the sport may be. I had been in the army for almost five years, and was a serving police officer. None of the Irish Fandom members had ever encountered violence, but I was a veteran of fighting and rioting, although my most serious injuries were obtained playing soccer for police teams. (Once, I recall being carried away after a soccer injury, with my arms dangling limply on either side of a stretcher, and I heard someone comment, "He isn't a very good player, but you've got to admire his tenacity.") So I played ghoodminton in this diehard fashion, thumping my heavily-soled boots on the floorboards and vigorously attacking the shuttlecock.
Walt Willis wrote to Chuck Harris regarding my initiation into ghoodminton, "Much blood was spilled during the encounter; fortunately most of it was John Berry's."
And so, for a number of years, I played ghoodminton in a vicious manner, always striving to win, leaping about in my hobnail boots. Circa 1960, I visited Oblique House for a meeting of Irish Fandom, and Walt met me, looking rather pale. He asked me to accompany him to the lounge, which was directly underneath the fanac room, threw the doors open and invited me to enter. It looked as though a blizzard had struck.
"Madeleine was having tea here this afternoon with the Curate, and suddenly the ceiling shattered and covered them with plaster." He looked down at my hobnail boots with furrowed brows, and I got the message.
"The ceiling probably shattered because of the continuous heavy hammering on the floorboards during our games of ghoodminton." His eyes suddenly twinkled humorously, crow's feet creases at their corners almost reaching his ears. "But don't worry, John. It will be very expensive to get the ceiling replastered, but insurance will cover the cost. Pray continue playing in your usual manner."
This kindness and consideration was typical of him, always being tactful, never raising his voice. But I don't recollect ever playing ghoodminton again so aggressively...
# # # #
WAW was without doubt one of fandom's greatest punsters, primarily because of the lightning speed of his repartee. We can all think of witticisms we should have proffered in conversations moments, hours, even days after the prompting, but Walt's riposte was always razor sharp.
Here are four masterly variations on a theme. The Willises had moved from Oblique House in 1965, and many years later we returned there for a meeting. Walt had persuaded the incumbent occupant to permit us me hour in the house before she returned from choir practice:
"Presumably," I offered in quiet triumph, "our chorister hostess was fearful of her recital being ruined if we were present?"
"Yes," said Walt, "it was a clear case of Pre-Minstrel Tension."
James White and Bob Shaw nodded sagely at this, but whereas thirty years ago word-play would have continued like sparks from an anvil, we all sat quietly holding our breaths.
"I heard," I gabbled, losing my composure, "from Jean Linard that since he moved to Provence he has had to construct a reinforced wing to his house to keep out the wind blowing down the Rhine valley."
"I have heard such things," agreed Walt. "I think it is called a Pre-Mistral Extension."
But again the conversation expired. Desperately I went on; would Willis hit the hat trick?
"Previously," I said, "his wife used to writhe in agony with sinus trouble, which could only be relieved by an inhalent."
"Ah yes, Pre-Menthol Tortion," said Willis, his face showing the strain of unaccustomed activity.
Later, a question of finances was introduced:
I saw a spark suddenly appear in Walt's eyes, the portent of a flash of sheer genius I'd seen so often in the past. What had inspired him; what train of thought had caused his high, noble forehead to wrinkle?
"Er, um, it's a worry," I panted. I'm beginning to feel a mite feverish. I'm not really solvent, you know?
Willis leapt to his feet, his right hand formed into a fist as he tried to punch the ceiling. "PRE-MENSTRUM TERTION!" he screamed at the top of his voice.
# # # #
Walt was always telling me how good he was at playing golf, and gave me a dirty look when I asked, "was the golf club his handicap?"...
"Not worthy of you, Berry," he observed. "And I don't want you to write exaggerated articles for an American fanzine about my golfing prowess. You can write all you wish about my prozine kiosk, my tennis strokes, my jumping from the wardrobe onto the marital bed, my puns, and my driving skills, but to me, golf is deadly serious. I will permit you to come to Carnalea Golf Club [in County Down] provided I have your Word of Honour that you will not demean my golfing skills to the Americans."
Naturally I lied and said I wouldn't.
Walt and Madeleine went into the changing rooms. Walt proudly emerged wearing a thick knitted jumper bearing colourful and ostentatious designs, and his trousers were tucked into tartan socks just below his knees. Madeleine was delightfully kitted out in a thin jumper and brown shortie trousers. Walt explained to me rather kindly that he was well-known at the course, and would regard it as a personal favour if I didn't drive off until I was well away from the applauding crowd which had gathered around them.
I asked him what 'driving off' meant?
He gave a nervous laugh and dragged me away.
It was wonderful to see this proud and noble figure, this paragon of Fandom, addressing the ball. He placed it on a tee as if he intended to smash it back into its primordial atomic state. He stood menacingly over it, and raised his club (one of those things with a big lump of hard wood at the end of it), posed nonchalantly to show us sheer elegance, then swished the club downwards in a descending are of sheer slashing power. The force used was such that I swear the club coiled itself like a scarf around Walt's neck as he finished the shot.
"Half a sec, Walt," I breathed, and to save him the trouble of bending down, I picked up his golf ball and put it back on his tee. Red of face, Walt frightened the golf ball several times before he finally sent it skimming over the horizon...
# # # #
One afternoon, circa 1956, 1 received a telephone call in my office from WAW. I sensed excitement in his voice:
"Have you got three pounds to spare?" he hissed.
A quick search of my pockets revealed three shillings and seven pence.
"Nunno," I confessed.
"Well, call at 170 at noon tomorrow with three pounds, and I will present to you something to your distinct fannish advantage."
My wife lent me the requisite amount from the housekeeping cache, and next day I raced along the Belfast roads on my pedal cycle to 170. The front door was ajar. "Walt!" I shouted, and I could hear him pounding down the three flights of stairs, and he rushed down the hallway, a huge teeth-filled smile creased his face.
"Give," he panted.
I gave him the three pound notes. He opened the door to the lounge. "John," he said excitedly, "this is for you."
I peered round the door. How absolutely tremendous! Preening itself on the table top was a black metal Gestetner case! I trembled as I crossed the worn carpet, hefted the handle, and the removed casing revealed a pulsating Gestetner mimeograph. I cranked it, and the machine seemed to function perfectly. I looked at Walt, at the trace of tears of supreme self-satisfaction in his eyes.
"Magnificent, Walt," I said. "Surely it's worth about a hundred pounds.?"
"Got two of them at an Auction Sale for six pounds. No one else made a bid for them. Please arrange to take it away as soon as possible."
"Surely" I said. I shook his hand warmly. "Think of all the fanzines I can publish now, with stories about the members of Irish Fandom." And with that his air of bonhomie disappeared and was replaced by a frown. He and the other members of IF were somewhat miffed at the many stories I wrote about them in other fanzines, but he realised he had taken an irrevocable step. (I'm reminded of a pertinent quote from a contemporary article by a member of Irish Fandom: "Berry writes up everything. I did have the idea of shouting 'copyright' in a loud voice if anything of interest took place at an Irish Fandom meeting. But John, sensing that his supply of material was being imperilled only shook his head and retired to a corner to decide his countermove ... It was devastatingly simple. He now writes everything before it happens.")
Back in my fanac den, I examined the duper. Naturally, for merely three pounds it obviously had to be flawed, but I soon discovered the requisite deft manipulations to make it function properly, enabling me to eventually produce ninety fannish publications in the next few years, all due to Walt Willis's extreme thoughtfulness.
# # # #
I used to attend Irish Fandom meetings early, before anyone else arrived, so that I could really get to know Walt Willis, and bask in his wit and fannish knowledge. He had discovered me, and I told him that I had used, as a basis for my exaggerated humour, the style he had used in his early works. We talked about the many BNFs who had visited 170, and also the other members of IF. Not once did he say anything critical or detrimental about any of them, but always praised their diverse skills and personalities. He was of course particularly fond of James and Peggy White, Bob and Sadie Shaw and George Charters, and he was really delighted when Bob and Sadie stayed at 170 for a few weeks before emigrating to Canada.
I cannot state too highly that he was a particularly nice man. He was, as the secular cliche goes, "slow to chide and swift to bless." Actually, he was always quite modest about his prolific career in fandom: his famous fanzines Slant and Hyphen, his many-times reprinted The Enchanted Duplicator (co-written with Bob Shaw), and other notable fannish publications. He also appeared in lettercols for almost fifty years, always making salient points, working on the premise that if a fan sent a fanzine to him, he was duty bound to respond. It is so terribly sad that he was very seriously ill for such a long time. He had never caused anyone any pain or suffering, and yet he suffered himself.
He was a Great Man, a Great Fan, the ultimate BNF. I feel privileged to have known him, and to say that he counted me as a friend.
All illustrations by Diana Harlan Stein