|FOOTNOTES TO FANDOM #12 | FOOTNOTES Page | Obituary Page ||
LIFE FRACTAL 22r:
How I got into hi-fi but missed the 1943 Midvention
I recall that in the autumn of 1942 the RAF sent me on a lengthy radio course at the Birmingham College of Technology. It was a welcome respite from the rigours of camp life in the back of beyond to return to a big city, enjoy the comforts of civvy billets in down-town Edgbaston, and put my spare time to good use again. I promptly made contact with a local fan correspondent, Arthur Busby, to find out what had happened in fandom during my absence. He gave me an up-date and took me round to meet fellow fan Tom Hughes, who proved to be a hi-fi addict. Even in those days of 78s and radiograms there were enthusiasts who aspired to high-quality sound reproduction; Tom was one of this rare breed (rarer even than sf fans) and the performance of his home-built equipment impressed me no end. I was beginning to grasp the fundamentals of the requisite technology at the college classes, and decided, there and then, that I too could no longer tolerate the mellow distortions of your average commercial radiogram of the day... So I enthused to Marion, in my next letter home:
"I went round to see Arthur last night and after a chat we toddled over to meet Tom Hughes. Tom is a bachelor, mad keen on music and a collector of sf and scientific books generally. When we arrived, he'd just finished transferring his collection into a magnificent mahogany bookcase (converted from a vast display cabinet) which occupies virtually the whole of one wall of the room. Made me quite envious. I was promptly escorted into the next room to see/hear his brainchild in action. This is a record player constructed with his own hands... a marvellous bit of work, with a five-valve amplifier and assorted transformers occupying the top of a sideboard, a gramophone turntable perched perilously on a chair, and a huge speaker mounted in a separate wooden box. Even more marvellous, it works! The only trouble is that the volume control seems to operate from loud to louder; the place fairly .vibrates when a heavy orchestral piece is being played. In fact Tom has a habit of switching on full blast and then retiring to the next room to put the music in better perspective... We played Dante. Sonata and several ballet pieces, and wound up the evening with some solo piano. Quite an enjoyable concert, though I wonder how the neighbours survive."
Tom's record collection was extensive and filed in racks for easy access. The dead weight of all that shellac must have put a strain on the floor joists but probably had a helpful damping effect on any unwanted resonances set up when the system wan operational. As well as Tom's recitals, there were live concerts held regularly at the Town Hall, and soon I found myself involved in presenting gramophone sessions - jazz and classics - at the city YWCA, where entertainment (of -a staid and respectable variety) was provided for the forces. All in all, I found a surprising amount of music in wartime Brum.
In a letter written the following February Marion passed on news of a con - the Midvention - proposed by the recently formed British-Fantasy Society:
"It's to be held. at Easter: too bad you'll have left Brum by then! I dare say you'll have heard all about it by now, since Messrs. Busby & Hughes appear to form the Birmingham contribution to the committee."
I found Art and Tom despondent at the unrealistic plans they'd been asked to deal with:
"Thank Ghu I'm likely to miss the Midvention. Art and Tom have been saddled with the task of arranging everything, much to their disgust; all they've gotta do is find a hall to hold 50 fans for three nights, and accommodation for visitors! Arthur called down maledictions on the sponsor of the scheme... It's-practically impossible to find any halls for such a meeting locally; the Grand Plan hardly takes war conditions into account."
I guess I didn't have much sympathy with the efforts of the BPS to organise fandom at that time. The SFA had served a useful function in its day, linking fans and fan groups all over the country, and after its demise, fans maintained those contacts despite wartime restrictions. In 1942 thanks to the efforts of individual fans, newsletters and fanmags flourished, with generous American fans donating sf mags and supplies' of much-needed usable paper for faneds. There seemed little need to divert time and energy to running an essentially superfluous institution like the BPS, and before I was roped into the RAF I battled briefly alongside Doug Webster pushing the cause of fanarchy, but the organisation-lovers won the day... But I had to leave Art and Tom with their problems; right then I had my own preoccupations - the course was nearing its end, I faced practical tests and assessments at the college and there was a big question mark hanging over my future movements.
I was posted from Birmingham at the end of February, long before con matters were resolved. I heard that the con did materialise, much later, in different and less ambitious circumstances. The date slipped to the end of April and the venue was moved to Leicester - much to the relief of Art and Tom, no doubt! They attended the event together with visitors including Art Williams, Don Houston, Terry Overton and Ron Holmes. And the usual good time appears to have been had by all...
I had plans to visit D.R.Smith, the fannish Sage of Nuneaton, before leaving Brum. Don was a friend of long standing; a fan who gained considerable repute over the years for his long and interesting letters, and prolific contributions to fanmags, as well as his Olympian aloofness from gatherings of fans. The bus service to Nuneaton proved virtually non-existent and my occasional attempts to hitch had been damp ignominious failures. With time running out I made a last effort, only to be foiled by the commanding officer's desire for a formal 'passing out' ceremony, plus group photographs of classes and tutors. I'd wangled out of some official Red Army celebrations that were going on, only to find myself mobilised with a working party shifting all the chairs out of the YWCA so that everyone could be huddled together in one of those panoramic group portrait shots. Needless to say, it took hours of maneouvering before the desired results were achieved, and then the chairs had to be carted back... The upshot was that I never did get to meet DRS.
But in other respects, I felt my time had not been wasted. Frequent discussions in class and discreet distribution of spare copies of Manchester Interplanetary Society Journals had won over several converts to space travel at the college - including my tutor. So the word spread, with the majority of the class moving to Bolton, while the rest of us were dispatched to Yatesbury, in deepest Wiltshire, to continue our training on more hush-hush developments...
FRACTAL FLASHBACK 22s:
"Sausage town plan towed in a hole"
That outrageous Guardian headline revived old memories when it caught my eye on 13 June 1988, leading to a story of a community project "to revive the old Wiltshire sausage town of Calne". Calne happened to be the nearest village to the RAF Yatesbury camp which sprawled along the Chippenham-Marlborough road to within walking distance of the Avebury Stones. In those days the economic mainstay of Caine was the mighty Harris sausage, pie & bacon factory, now - alas! - demolished. But in wartime Harris's prospered and their products figured prominently in the daily menu of the Yatesbury canteen: their bacon and bangers relieved the monotony of a diet seemingly based on baked beans. And their pies proved to be a delicacy that satisfied trencherman and gourmet alike... noble-sized pies, freshly baked, with glazed crusty pastry that melted in the mouth, and a succulent spicy solid meat filling. They were a treat that I sorely missed when I moved on in my RAF career. Even now, some 46 years later, I feel the digestive juices flowing at the thought of coming off night duty, marching with the squad along the mile or so separating technical site and main camp in the early hours to invade the canteen before the rest of the camp stirred, and tuck into newly-delivered supplies of Harris's pies, freshly cut into generous slices, perhaps supplemented with plump tomatoes and bowls of Original Branston pickle. It was one of the supreme consolations of life in trying times.
LIFE FRACTAL 22t:
Interlude with Ego*
*(An early nickname of Arthur C.Clarke - ed.)
On the very first day at Yatesbury Radio School I wrote home exultantly:
"I think Arthur Clarke is still here. At least there's a corporal in charge of a squad that marched past who was his double! I've not yet found out where he's quartered, so if you happen to have that postcard he sent me at Redcar, it'd be a help. Of course, I might bump into him again some time..."
So, with one thing and another,- adjusting to camp routines after the sloth of civilian lodgings, being put on night shift, and getting familiar with the geography - several days passed before I tracked Arthur down. He was in a block of huts not far from my new abode. When we did meet all our spare time that day was spent exchanging news:
"This morning I was dragged off by Arthur into the store room of his hut.where he thrust a homemade telescope through the drawn blackout curtain to project an image of the sun on the opposite wall. There was a large sunspot group visible which we studied with interest until the sun disappeared behind a drainpipe. Then we sat and talked about the Junior Astronomical Association and its demise... (An organisation headed by Marion for many years) He's got his typewriter here and keeps a file of all potential BIS members he's met. He's due to give a talk on rocket propulsion at the month end. (After a discussion with the bods in my hut this evening I've made 'em all promise to turn up - with a few sceptics it should be a hectic session!) This afternoon Arthur was running a gramophone concert and roped me in to help with the records: quite a good programme - Cockaigne overture, Walton's first symphony, the Dvorak violin concerto and Borodin's second symphony. Well attended, too. We carried on playing records long after the audience had departed. I had thought after all the concerts at Brum, that musical life here would be dead, but apparently the station C.O. is keen on music so we get record concerts on camp every Tuesday and Sunday evening."
Later meetings were sporadic owing to changing shifts.But as the weeks passed, music continued to play a prominent part in the routine, in between technical training, and the inevitable 'bull' and fatigues. I became aware that a significant proportion of the instructors happened to be performing musicians, discreetly retained from the stream of trainees passing through the school to become mainstays of the resident station orchestra. On March 10 I wrote to Marion:
"Last night I went down to the music circle with Arthur... as well as the gramophone concerts, there's a station orchestra (with several ex-members of the BBC Symphony) which plays occasionally. When we got back to the huts Arthur left me with his telescope while he went for a shower. I had to balance the tube against the doorpost and crane my neck to get a peek at Jupiter before searching for the comet, which I picked up eventually. Have you spotted it yet? Evidently Arthur is a familiar figure hereabouts, since several passersby in the darkness made cracks like 'old Rocket Clarke up to his tricks again...' Which reminds me to ask if you'll bring along any new copies of the Scientific American when we get together. Arthur would like to see 'em as he's not been able to get hold of any copies for ages."
Marion's reply included mention of a steady stream of Astonishing Stories that had been arriving at home from an anonymous source; she didn't rate the contents very highly. We suspected that they were a tongue-in-cheek contribution from Doug Webster. When I mentioned this to Arthur it turned out he'd been starved of current sf also:
"I have discovered a means of disposing of those Astonishings that keep arriving. Arthur is willing to have 'em, so send it 'em on quick before he changes his mind..."
Arthur was a keen member of the 'current affairs' discussion group run at the camp, under the watchful eye of the welfare officer. Around the time I arrived a series of talks on the postwar world was planned, with speakers including Ellen Wilkinson, the Labour politician, Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador, and Winant, a US diplomat. I was also introduced to an independent discussion group - held in the neutral territory of the YMCA hut to evade the control of the welfare officer - run by an ardent marxist who was also planning a wall newspaper. Arthur had been inveigled into writing a series of science articles, and as he'd given me a glowing testimonial as an artist, I soon found myself designing headings and doing cartoons for the page displays. But my time for these diversions was severely restricted by having to work on a night shift.
Eventually I was switched to a day shift and I then realised that the big advantage of night work was that you dodged fatigues. Now my name started appearing on duty lists: one boring chore was lighting the instruction hut stoves on the technical site early in the mornings... I doubt if any chimney pipes had been cleaned out since the huts were first built - the fires never drew, and smoke billowed out of every crack and crevice until the stoves began to glow. It didn't help that we had to collect the wood the day before from an old chalet nearby, wood that was absolutely green and damp as a wet blanket, so that initial efforts at fire-raising merely carbonised the surface layer before the wood went out... So, we needed lots of paper to dry out the wood and start it burning before there was any hope of starting combustion of the near fire-proof coke provided as fuel. Scrounging around for the thin war-time dailies that were our main source of reading matter conflicted with the need to hoard copies to cover the newly-polished hut floor prior to weekly inspections, but fortunately there were two Canadians billeted in our hut who had papers sent regularly from home, and these were 100 page weekend issues with umpteen pages of comics. The slow progress getting the stoves working was at least eased by being able to catch up with the adventures of Little Orphan Annie, the Grumps, Bringing Up Father, and the Katzenjammer Kids and other familiar friends of my younger days... But fatigues tended to expand to fill the time available as I complained in a letter toward the end of the month:
"Not only were we fire-lighting on Monday but had to go on parade early for a session slinging rifles about, and then a PT period heaving heavy logs around. By the time I got to the Radio School I was worn out. Most of the class were yawning and dozing off during the lectures. And after all that, on my return to the main camp, I was put on guard duty that night. So I was glad to get to the music circle for a change and a rest last evening. Arthur was in charge again, so I gave him a lift with the records though unfortunately one of the pick-ups had been damaged and we had to manage -,,:with a single turntable, so it was a bit more stop and go than usual without the fading-in of sides. After all my recent exertions I tended to doze off now and again. However, Arthur has a habit of turning up the volume until the sound waves almost knock you over - no doubt you noticed that when you visited the Flat! - which kept me alert enough to cope with record changes. Needless to say, all requests from the front rows: 'to turn down the volume were ignored..."
I was excused fatigues after a series of inoculations for something or other, but promptly lost interest in life thanks to a throbbing arm and the sight of my fellow-sufferers agonising around me:
"There was no music circle yesterday as there was a piano recital by Marjorie Few at the station theatre. I still felt groggy after my inoculations and decided not to go, but Arthur came in panting, all enthusiasm, to collect me. So I went. It was a great recital: a Beethoven sonata, preludes by Rachmaninoff and Chopin, and two pieces by Liszt. Apparently she was playing with the LPO at Marlborough and was persuaded to play for us before returning to London."
I had a request to go to Arthur's talk on the following Wednesday and write an unbiassed (!) report for the wall newspaper. Needless to say, it was Arthur who made the request... He had a big audience, mainly technical people, and there were raging arguments all over the camp for weeks after, with 'Spaceship' Clarke being regarded as a nut-case or a genius!
Shortly after, around mid-April, Arthur was told that he'd be sent on an officer training course in a matter of a week or so. We were both kept busy trying to catch up with each other's reading material before parting:
"Spent most of this evening waiting for a haircut, and reading The Glass Giant of Palomar in a hurry before Arthur departs. When I called on him, I found him lying on his bed with sf rnags on one side, the book on Lowell propped up in front of him, and the Scientific Americans buried under some laundry on the other side. He picked up an Astonishing, flicked through the pages briefly and then heaved it into his locker, seized the Lowell book and started to career through it at the rate of 60 pages per minute. Then with an impatient snort he dug out one of the Scientific Americans from under the pile of clothes and started to skim through Russell's article. Inadvertently he knocked over a pile of letters, cursed, leaned over to stop the avalanche, caught sight of me at the door, beamed heartily and explained that he'd just finished Russell's article and thought it particularly good! He tickles me; he's so impetuous, always in a devil of a rush to do innumerable things. And strangely enough, he does seem to get a lot done - or at least leaves that impression!"
Though only a few days later I was to write to Marion: "In the evening I was treated to the spectacle of Arthur packing up. What a commotion! He'd got three large suitcases and his kitbag spread over the floor, and kept whipping things out of one and into another, changing his mind and reversing the process a few seconds later. And he kept finding things at the bottom of the cases that he'd clean forgotten about, which slowed down the packing... We carried on a conversation separated by a growing pile of Arthur's belongings - eventually he disappeared altogether, although I could hear him cussing mildly in between exchanges of opinion. I left him to it and crept back to my hut... When I met up with him in the canteen at supper he was immersed in a book of war verse; apparently he'd not done any more packing after unearthing this volume. I can't see he'll ever get away at this rate!"
But go he did, as I reported on April 21:
"I'd managed to skip the rest of The Glass Giant of Palomar in time to pass it back - sad that the war has held up further progress after most of the difficulties had been surmounted. The money spent on experiments with fused quartz for the mirror was enough to have bought the 60" Yerkes telescope and equipment, yet the experiments weren't successful. Hale's efforts at getting money to back the 60", 100" and 200" telescopes certainly would sound well-nigh incredible in a novel. The BIS could do with engaging the services of someone with Hale's persuasiveness... Arthur has departed. He came dashing in just as I was breakfasting in bed this morning - he's going to Cosford, near Wolverhampton, for the next six weeks, but has no idea where he'll go from there. He did have hopes of returning here when he'd got his commission but apparently the prospect is remote..."
As a parting gift, Arthur returned all the copies of Astonishing. Fortunately I was immediately beseiged by a bod who'd spotted them in Arthur's hut and begged to borrow 'em as he was "keen on science fiction". I passed them on, with a health warning, and he bore them off in triumph... ■
FOOTNOTES TO FANDOM #12...
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