originally published in VECTOR 250, January/February 2007,
BEHIND THE SCENES - Origins
by Peter Weston
A few months ago Greg Pickersgill and I speculated on how things might have turned out if the BSFA had never existed – or if it had failed early on, like the three – or maybe four – previous attempts at ‘national organisations’ in this country. I rather doubted if it would have made any difference to science fiction itself, although Chris Priest might still be an accountant and Rob Holdstock a specialist on Tropical Diseases. Oh – and Terry Pratchett could still be writing press releases for the electricity generating industry. But for British SF enthusiasts it would have been disastrous!
Let’s just go back a bit and look at the complex relationship between the BSFA and that larger, looser ‘fandom’ with which it has been inextricably entwined for nearly fifty years.
The very first fans – people like you and me, who loved reading and talking about science fiction – popped up in Britain almost as soon as the early SF magazines crossed the Atlantic in the late 1920s, and by 1937 there were enough of them - over twenty! – to hold the world’s very first science fiction convention in Leeds. They voted to set up the Science Fiction Association (SFA), which was rather optimistically ‘devoted to the stimulation of interest in science fiction and scientific progress.’ Unfortunately for their ambitions the SFA lasted little more than two years and had to be disbanded at the outbreak of war.
But the second attempt at a national organisation came soon afterwards, with the British Fantasy Society (no relationship to the modern British Fantasy Society) established in June 1942 by Michael Rosenblum and many of the same people who had been behind the earlier association. Its object was entirely practical; to help members get their hands on hard-to-find SF magazines through its extensive library, although the BFS also published news bulletins and organised several small conventions. At its peak it had over two hundred members but it failed to survive long after the end of hostilities and was wound-up in November 1946, having lasted just over four years.
By this time Captain K.F. Slater was on the scene with ‘Operation Fantast’, not exactly an national organisation but more of a trading network which bought, sold and swapped books and magazines. In mid-1948 he went further by putting out a circular titled ‘The Time Has Come’ which pushed the idea of a new national fan organisation, and the result was the Science Fantasy Society. Unfortunately, Ken Slater was posted to Germany, other committee members failed to share his ‘flaming enthusiasm’, and by September 1951 the SFS was declared ‘a glorious flop.’ Ken wrote at the time, “British fandom flatly refuses to be organised,” to which a wag later added, “and will form groups to prevent this from happening!”
With some relief science fiction fans returned to their accustomed state of anarchy. Local groups came and went throughout the fifties, Londoners met weekly at ‘The White Horse’ pub, and a convention was held every year, even a World SF Convention in 1957 which attracted nearly 300 members. But slowly and imperceptibly British fandom was running down, fans were getting older, less newcomers were coming in and every year fewer fanzines appeared. The national conventions were becoming unprogrammed, largely social events, and attendance was steadily declining – 150 in 1954; 115 in 1955; 80 in 1956; and in 1958 no more than fifty. It looked like there might not be another. What had gone wrong?
In Ken Slater’s opinion, fandom had turned in upon itself. “Fans and fan-magazines had stopped referring to anything remotely connected with science fiction, fandom had become a tight little clique, and any enquirer who wanted to know something about science fiction got a very rapid brush-off. It’s fairly simple to be enthusiastic about almost anything… but it gets difficult to be enthusiastic about being enthusiastic. And that is what fandom has been doing for some time now.”
Spurred by an impassioned diatribe (‘Don’t Just Sit There’) from long-time London activist Vince Clarke, the 1958 Kettering convention staged a discussion about the whole future of British fandom. Liverpool fan Dave Newman conducted the meeting at which it was agreed that both fanzines and conventions had moved so far away from science fiction that they were not likely to be attractive to newcomers, and worse, there were almost no channels of recruitment into British fandom anyway. After hours of lively debate it was decided that a new national organisation was the only answer, ostensibly devoted to the serious study of science fiction, but carrying material about fandom in its publications so that those hooked and nurtured in this way might eventually go on to a more personal involvement.
But even the name of the new organisation caused disagreement. Professional writer Ted Tubb argued that the very mention of the words ‘science fiction’ was guaranteed to provoke ridicule from the media. “We don’t want that to happen every time we meet the Press,” he said. Dave Newman retorted by saying, “Well, merely calling ourselves ‘The Imaginative Fiction Society’ is not going to make any difference – the Press will immediately say ‘Oh, they’re science fiction readers.’ My feeling is that avoiding the name ‘science fiction’ in the title is cowardice in the face of the enemy.” In the end the following motion was put forward: –
“This meeting proposes that a national science fiction society should be formed, whose aims and objects will be the encouragement of readership of science fiction and liaison and general social and literary contact between SF readers, and that the persons present in this room shall, when called upon to do so, fork out a sum of money (to be later agreed) to set up a capital fund for the formation of this society.”
That seemed a fair enough summary of what everyone wanted, tidied-up into formal language (although not actually mentioning the word ‘fandom’) and the proposal was passed unanimously. And so the British Science Fiction Association was formed, with Dave Newman as first Chairman, Archie Mercer as Treasurer, and Ted Tubb as editor of the official journal, Vector (a title proposed by Sheffield fan Terry Jeeves, who had been elected as joint Secretary along with fellow veteran Eric Bentcliffe). Additionally, it was agreed that the BSFA would be responsible for organising the annual conventions; from now onwards there would be continuity, accessibility, maybe even respectability!
So much goodwill existed towards the new Association that most fans of the day joined immediately, and by the first anniversary Bentcliffe could proudly state that membership had passed the 100-mark. But the problem with this and any other voluntary organisation, the same conundrum that had killed both BFS and SFS, is ‘who exactly is going to do the work?’
After Kettering, nothing seemed to happen for several months. It was summer before Vector appeared, largely written by Ted Tubb himself, who then resigned, quite rightly feeling that he couldn’t spare precious writing time when he needed to be earning his living. Meanwhile Dave Newman moved from Liverpool to Bournemouth and vanished without trace. Jeeves and Bentcliffe carried on until the following spring and then stood down from office (with a feeling of relief, one feels), having ‘done their bit’.
Eric Bentcliffe had actually done rather more than he had been asked to do, by framing the first Constitution for the BSFA in such a way that it muddled and confused what had been a simple ‘mission statement.’ Deviating quite far from that original Kettering motion he produced an altogether more pretentious document mentioning neither ‘fandom’ nor the national convention, which after all was the reason for the whole thing’s existence. It began:-
“The association shall exist for the benefit of those interested in science fiction and allied branches of imaginative literature. It shall encourage the reading, writing and publishing of good literature of this class, shall assist and encourage contact between enthusiasts, shall provide liaison between its members and the SF profession, shall endeavour to present science fiction and associated art-forms to the Press and general public in an advantageous manner, and shall provide such amenities as may prove desirable for the use of members.”
When Vince Clarke saw this, he commented that “to be serious in the sense of setting up an organisation to improve the standard of science fiction strikes me as sheer egotism; SF criticism, yes, but it’s up to the pros to improve the output of the stuff itself. I’m for fandom first and SF second. I sincerely hope the BSFA won’t forget that it originated at a ‘social’ convention.”
But it did forget, and remarkably quickly, too! Almost immediately the BSFA began to distance itself from the fandom which had given it birth. That constitution had planted the seeds for this schizophrenic misunderstanding in the very first year, so that in 1964 an unholy row broke out when at the Peterborough convention one of the older members innocently mentioned the BSFA’s original purpose. North-East fan Phil Harbottle, then a newcomer, commented, “I nearly fell off my chair I was so surprised. Surely the BSFA stands for the advancement and recognition of British SF, and is only indirectly connected to fandom? One was given the impression that the BSFA is being run as a sufferance sideline by the fans.”
Well yes, that was exactly right, and the Association had been fortunate to find volunteers to carry it through those first difficult years. And even though its true purpose had been forgotten it had nevertheless succeeded brilliantly in fulfilling the original hopes of its founders. Through a campaign of advertising, PR, and word-of-mouth it had steadily brought in newcomers so that in 1964 a third or more of convention attendees were ‘new blood’, people like Charles Platt, Chris Priest, Rog Peyton and me, of course!
Without the BSFA conventions might have ended with Kettering, and even if they’d survived as shrunken ‘social weekends,’ who would know they existed? Without conventions the old fandom would have continued to atrophy, and all those newer people – like us – would have been isolated, without opportunity to learn more about our favourite reading matter. Yes, without the BSFA, organised fandom would almost certainly have died out in Britain – what Greg Pickersgill calls ‘the Doomsday scenario.’
“Would fandom have been re-invented anyway?” asks Greg, “by following hints and descriptions gained from such sources as Lin Carter's columns in IF magazine or mentions in NEW MAPS OF HELL? Dedicated SF specialists like Ken Slater would still exist, so would this make it inevitable that potential fans would get to know of each other and clump together again as a proto-fandom? Would fandom eventually have been re-invented as a coalescence of University SF societies? Has that actually happened anyway?”
All interesting questions, certainly, but would the absence of the BSFA have made much difference to professional science fiction? I don’t think so. Very few professional writers have actually come from the ranks of the fans during the last 40+ years other than the examples I noted at the beginning. While publishers have rarely taken the slightest notice of such a small (although admittedly vocal) part of their reading public. But for the fans, those keen types who write about science fiction, who congregate in clubs and societies and organise the ever-growing number of conventions, the people who take satisfaction in editing Vector and running the modern BSFA – how different, and how much greyer – their world would have been!
I said there had been three – or maybe four – previous attempts at 'national organisations' in this country (the fourth being Ken Slater's 'Operation Fantast', always difficult to pin-down but which certainly functioned as a sort of private-industry BSFA).
Really, though, I was only counting genuine groups, ones that managed to have substantial memberships for a period of years (for instance, right now I'm holding a copy of the 'Directory of Anglo-Fandom' put out in 1945 by Michael Rosenblum's British Fantasy Society, which lists 220 members in the UK). Besides those, there've been quite a few others which either existed solely in the minds of their perpetrators or lasted for five minutes with about as many 'members'. Oddly, two of these more dubious operations both called themselves 'the British Science Fiction Association'.
BSFA No.1 was a sincere sort of effort, set up in 1933 by the energetic Paul Enever in Hayes, Middlesex, but it existed for less than a year and probably had no more than half-a-dozen members, all local. BSFA No.2 was much more mysterious, and came to light in early 1952 when its 'chairman', an unknown by the name of L. W. Nowlan, claimed his organisation had been running for five years and had 130 members in the UK and 57 in the US. As Rob Hansen observed in THEN, 'It seems hardly credible that such a large international organisation could have existed for so long unnoticed by the rest of fandom, and it's almost certain that in actuality it never existed as much more than a grand delusion in the minds of Nowlan and a handful of others'.
So there we are – maybe it's a case of 'third time lucky'!