Three days, two communities

Leigh Edmonds is a long-time SF fan with a keen interest in fanzines; we were lucky to score this convention report.

Like most people, I imagine, I live in more than one community. There is work, where I live, family and the people I chose to associate with for fun. They form a kind of boolean diagram of my life in which many of the facets intersect and others do not. In my life there are two interests that barely overlap, except for the Queen’s Birthday long weekend when there is an sf convention and a scale model Expo in Melbourne at the same time.

I am able to take part in both these activities by only indulging in a little of each so that, even though both events run for the entire weekend, I only take in a day of each. This also gives me a day in between to rest after one event and prepare for the other.

The only reason I go to sf conventions these days is to catch up with old friends and to talk about the project I’ve embarked upon to research and write a history of Australian sf fandom. It is many years since I read more than a novel or two a year so I have no knowledge of (and little interest in) the current state of sf. I also find the current craze for doing nothing but writing the stuff strangely perplexing because there are many more interesting things one could be doing – like researching and writing history.

The only reason I go to sf conventions these days is to catch up with old friends and to talk about the project I’ve embarked upon

[As an aside here, I think that studies of the past and speculations about the future have more in common than most people think. We can know a bit about the past from the historical evidence that survives from it and we can know a little about the future from understanding historical trends. Both the past and the future are redolent with possibilities for exploration and interpretation, and for the exercise of our imaginations. What I can’t understand is why so many people are fixated on the tiny little sliver of time during which the future passes through the present to become the past. What a blinkered way of understanding the full scope of our world.]

Last year Bruce Gillespie handed me a slot on the program of that convention to talk about something and I ended up putting on a panel session on ‘Australian sf fandom in Australia in the 1950s’. During that session it occurred to me that it might be interesting to run another panel session, this time talking about what happened in Australian fandom in the 1960s. Dick Jenssen, one of the participants in the 1950s panel, suggested that he was not very conversant with what happened in the 1960s and dobbed in Bill Wright to take his place, which Bill agreed to. So I proposed a panel session on the 1960s to the convention organizers this year and they accepted; I then arranged with Lee Harding, Bill Wright and Rob Gerrand to meet in the café at the convention hotel an hour before the panel to catch up and talk about what we would talk about during the session.

Having made all the necessary preparations, I arrived at the Jasper Hotel on the Saturday morning of the long weekend. The tram running up from the city was full of happy looking people but it turned out that all but me were heading for the very popular Victoria Markets (and tourist trap) which is nearby.

Inside the hotel the atmosphere was much more quiet. I think that might be my overall impression of this year’s convention in comparison to the one last year which was also a National convention. This year there were less people and less noise, also less vibrancy in the atmosphere around the event. There was nothing on the ground floor to tell me that there was a convention there and the big room that had been central to events last year was vacant. Coming in off the street there was little to indicate there was a convention at all, so it was just as well that I knew to go upstairs to find the event.

There were a few people hanging around in the central area and the information/registration desk where I presented myself to get a name tag and a pocket program. Only moments later I saw Roman Orszanski, the first of a succession of old-time fans and friends that I kept on meeting at the convention. We conversed, he helped me get my name tag onto a lanyard, and we wandered into the book room to see what is going on these days. Having a house stuffed full of books already I am no longer a big book buyer so I set myself the limit of buying only one book. There were, however, so many to choose from and the advice I got from the sellers behind their tables so nebulous, that eventually I bought nothing. Thus my ignorance of the current state of stf writing in Australia remains at basement level.

After last year, when I spent most of the convention talking to people rather than taking in the panel items, I resolved that this year I would take the pulse of the convention by going to things on the program. These days, at history conferences, I find the most comfortable room, sit in it and let the items on the program flow around me – it’s a good way to find out about things that I would otherwise not be interested in. I decided to do the same thing this time and found myself in a room where four women were talking about something called ‘Breaking the Mold’. Having come in late I have no idea what mold they were planning to break but the drift of the conversation seemed to be that writing should be about characters who develop through changing or expanding themselves, probably through going through stressful situations. Thus we learned that one of the panelists had recently undergone a couple of life threatening situations and this had challenged her to rethink her life’s journey. There were similar comments about the need for external stimulus for people to change and therefore, presumably, become better, or at least more interesting, people. I came away from this session with the overall impression that sf is no longer a fiction of ideas, it is a fiction of character development – which wouldn’t make it much different from mundane fiction in my book, (if I had bought one).

I spent most of the convention talking to people rather than taking in the panel items

Next was a session on ’zines. There were only a few people at this one so most of the participants formed themselves into a circle to chat amongst themselves while a few of us who were not insiders huddled nearby. I’ve written a bit about the differences between ’zine culture and old fashioned sf fanzines elsewhere, so let’s not go into that again. As far as I can see, ’zines are individual expressions produced in a consumer culture and fanzines were (and still are if you know where to look) a shared form of communication. The difference between these two cultures was brought home to me when one participant handed another a ’zine and the recipient asked the giver how much (money) they wanted for it. There was an exchange of ideas about our different cultures during this session but, I think, no real understanding of the philosophy of the other group, and nobody felt the need to cross over into the other genre of self publishing, being too set in our ways. I’m old and therefore set in my way, I wonder what their story is.

As this session finished we were herded out of the room to clear it for the Guest of Honour Speech. This meant getting up from out seats, going out into the hall, getting into the queue and then trooping back in again. This was a novel experience for me, not having been to many conventions organized in the modern fashion.

I’ve only recently become aware of Cat Sparks; a name that I see through mutual ‘Friends’ on Face book and I met for a moment at Monash University last year. Her talk was a fascinating ramble through her life, illustrated with many photographs. Cat’s speech went very nicely and was very entertaining. She has had many lives and lifestyles which she recounted while telling us about the path that led he to be coming, among other things, what we once used to call a ‘filthy pro’. It involved photographing bands in Sydney, working for the State Premier, taking photos at archeological digs in exotic places and much more. It also involved a growing association with the science fiction community and fandom in Australia, so there were lots of photos of fans I’d known when I was involved back in the 1980s. It seemed that Cat was encountering fandom around the same time that Valma and I were finding our way onto other life paths and so, although we have many friends in common, we had not met until recently.

Cat’s concluding comments were also interesting. She told us that her hope had been to become a writer and that when she started meeting published authors they had seemed like exceptional people. But as she progressed and, in particular, as she became a published author herself, these people became friends and colleagues. As part of this she had come to see fandom as a hindrance to the development of the genre and that she would have preferred it to go away because it held back its importance and growth. (I smiles as I thought about how Graham Stone and the Futurians had thought the same thing.) Cat had since learned, however, the value of fandom as part of the science fiction community and thanked us all for listening.

Much applause and time for lunch. It all becomes a bit vague after this and my resolve to attend some of the formal programming evaporated. I think that Bruce Gillespie and I wandered downstairs to get something to eat and with that came a glass or two of bourbon (in memory of Bob Tucker, of course). Thus I recall sitting in the café area talking with Bruce and Bill Wright and, at various other times, Perry Middlemiss and then Lee Harding and then a few other people. I could not tell you what we talked about because I can’t remember, but I do remember that it was important and entertaining. At one stage Bill Wright and I made our way upstairs with the intention of going to the Fan Fund Auction but, on peering into the room, it seemed too full to take another two bodies, so we tottered down to the café again. I did not drink very much in honour of Bob Tucker’s memory, really, I had a panel session to moderate and wanted to retain some control over my faculties.

Around four in the afternoon Rob Gerrand arrived and joined Lee and Bill while we talked about what we were going to talk about – with diversions into other topics of mutual interest. Then we went upstairs and presented the panel session on ‘Australian sf fandom in the 1960s’ at which we talked about some of the things that we had talked about in the café. For interesting insights into what was said during the panel you’ll have to wait until I get around to sending Roman a copy of the recording I made of the session. I was a little disappointed that most of the fans in the room where people who remembered old time fandom but not many of the new generation of fans. But I was not surprised, there was a book launching with grog and nibbles on at the same time in another room, and I always like a good book launch.

“Science fiction as consumer culture,” I muttered to myself

After that I’m sure the convention kicked on happily, but without me. I’d figured that if I made a quick dash I might get to the station just in time to catch the next train to Ballarat. Of course, the trams did not run to my schedule and I arrived at the station a couple of minutes after the train had left, leaving me with an hour to kill. While I was waiting I noted quite a few people wandering around the station in cosplay costumes. Years ago, when cosplay was called masquerading, we wouldn’t have been seen dead wandering the streets of Melbourne dress in such a way, but times have changed and I was reminded that the Melbourne Comicon had been taking place down at the Melbourne Convention Center at the same time as our convention. “Science fiction as consumer culture” I muttered to myself, as I buried my nose in a book — history rather than sf, of course.

The next day, Sunday, was a day or rest. So I did that and prepared for the following day when I jumped across to the other fragment of my boolean life.

In 1958 or 1959 my parents gave me for Christmas an Airfix kit of a Hawker Hurricane. I was hooked and have remained so. It was a minor hobby for many years but after I was assaulted in the street in 2001 and ended up with chronic pain problems, making scale models become a major feature of my life as a form of pain management.

we have meetings, we publish a newsletter, have a website

There is a small group of scale modellers in Ballarat called the Modellers of Ballarat (MoB of course). We have meetings, we publish a newsletter, have a website, put on an annual display and do other things. It is not a terribly intellectual mob but fairly intelligent – of a membership of less than twenty, three have PhDs and a couple of others had better things to do with their time than to get one. What I like about the juxtaposition between fandom and modelling is that one is about thinking and not doing much, and the other is about doing without thinking very much.

Over the years four of us have fallen into the habit of going down to the annual Model Expo that is put on by a consortium of the scale modelling clubs in Melbourne. (If you thought that fan politics or the politics of the ALP were convoluted, you haven’t seen the dark secrets of the scale modelling community.) It’s a big event run over three days in a huge hall out at the Sandown Race Course. It must cost a small fortune to put on. Part of the attraction of this event is looking at the models people enter into the competitions, part is the opportunity to spend lots of money and, just as importantly, it is an opportunity to chat with other practitioners of plastic.

it was like Aladdin’s Cave to us, full of endless wondrous treasures

Upstairs from Expo is another large hall where, on the Monday morning, the traditional ‘swap and sell’ takes place, at which almost no swapping and a lot of selling. When we first attended one of these it was like Aladdin’s Cave to us, full of endless wondrous treasures. Over time, however, we’ve become jaded and it has becomes ‘the same old stuff’. For some reason now lost in the mists of time we decided to go to these swap and sells and, after a couple of years, learned that before the public is admitted the people who are selling go around picking the eyes out of what is on offer. We thought it might be clever if we joined the ranks of the sellers so every year I book a table at the event, three of us troop in, put some kits for sale on our table and then wander around to see what is worth buying before the doors are opened to the public; in the spirit of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’.

So, having had a day of rest and put together twenty of so scale model kits that I’ve fallen out of love with, a car pulled up outside our front door, my bag of kits went into it and I followed, and off we set into the rising sun.

On board this car are four ageing youngsters from various backgrounds destined for a day of entertainment and self discovery. Let’s call them, for sake of convenience, ‘Mark’, ‘Wayne’, ‘Leigh’ and ‘Mick’. The are traveling in a commodious and obscenely comfortable car, usually called a ‘Statesman’ but, by this group who are aware of gender bias, a ‘Statesperson’. The driver is Mark, one of the most intelligent people you will ever meet, a medical practitioner by trade with a PhD which he gained by doing something complicated to the insides of rats in his youth. He now runs a pathology lab, and earns, to use his own technical description, a ‘shit load of money’. That is why they are traveling in his car which is by far the most comfortable available to them. (You thought that business class in Qantas was plush? You haven’t lived!) He spends his days either arguing with the hospital executive or peering into a microscope at things that are nearly dead, recently dead or capable of causing death and is therefore quite eccentric, if not mad.

Next to him sits Wayne who did exciting and dangerous things to his brain and body in his youth as a surfer and general degenerate. He is a retired member of the Federal Police Force and these days lives, with his exotic wife, let’s call here ‘Yvette’, in a farmhouse as far from the rest of humanity as is humanly possible. He is paranoid, if not mad.

In the back seat we find Leigh who did nothing terribly dangerous to his body, but definitely did dangerous things to his brain in his youth, and survived for many years in the public service as a result. He did his PhD by spending years studying what dead people once did and earns ‘not a shitload of money’. Fortunately the group is not traveling in his car. He spends his working days reading old pieces of paper and is therefore, like Mark, quite eccentric, if not mad.

some say that he might be the agent of an Eastern European power sent to infiltrate our little group

Beside Leigh sits Mick, a man of mystery. He is quietly spoken, when he speaks at all, and it is said by some that he might work for a living. Little is known about ‘Mick’ but some say that he might be the agent of an Eastern European power sent to infiltrate our little group and report to ‘higher authorities’. Nobody knows why anybody would want to do this, but it will do until we think of a better story. He could, of course, be an alien from another galaxy sent to us for ulterior purposes, but we have yet to see if his blood is green. He is probably the only sane member of the group.

For the sake of this report we need to introduce you to another character whom we will refer to as ‘Zim’. There are many interesting things to know about Zim who is a university lecturer in Mechanical Engineering, whose idea of fun is to go to Russia to look at German tanks, and who is more than eccentric and possibly quite mad. He was not in the car because he detests the global conspiracy that is International Plastic Modelers Society and would rather gnaw off his own testicles than be seen at Expo. However, for the purposes of this story, all you need to know is that Zim was once a driver in the Australian Army and regards other drivers who do not drive with his military precision as wankers, idiots and total losses to society. He doesn’t mind telling them so either, and in very colorful language which would only be better if he had been a driver in the Navy.

Introductions over, they head off down the Western Freeway towards the ‘big smoke’. This becomes a visible reality as the Statesperson comes to the escarpment leading down to Bacchus Marsh when they see the grey cancerous smog that lies like a blanket over Melbourne. ‘Do we really have to expose our lungs to that?’, they ask, but head bravely on.

Mark, as driver and navigator, also controls the CD player and has chosen to play his passengers a disk titled ‘The Shadows Greatest Hits’. There are twenty-five tracks on the CD and Leigh asks if The Shadows every had that many hits. This unkind jibe leads to a conversation in which many celebrities are exposed to their sarcastic wit. It is great entertainment but one of those occasions when you had to be there.

This hilarity is interposed with moments of quiet repose, broken only by the ceaseless twang of Hank Marvin’s guitar and the sound of turning pages as Leigh continues his quest for self-realization through the writing of Pythagoras, a relatively well known Greek philosopher. Mark, believing that Leigh is in need of greater self knowledge, has traditionally left on Leigh’s seat a tome titled ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Pythagoras’ (not its real title) which Leigh leafs through, reading aloud the occasional words of inspiration.

The trip passes delightfully for the first three-quarters of an hour and then the mood changes as the group arrive at the outskirts of Melbourne. Soon the road is littered with a thousand cars, many of them driven by halfwits who neither know the rules of the road or where they are going. It quickly emerges that those in the front seats, Mark and Wayne, are no less averse to commenting on the mental capacities of other drivers than Zim is. The only difference is in their willingness to share it aloud with the rest of the world. Some of Mark’s comments on other drivers are quite erudite – in a twisted kind of way – and it emerges that Wayne has learned a kind of police humour different to that in the army, but just as biting. The only one that remains in the memory later is an exasperated ‘What colour green are you waiting for?’ as they wait for the driver in front to come to his senses. Later on Mark and Wayne give a running commentary of the activities of the driver in front of them as they wait impatiently for that unfortunate to wake up and finish whatever he is doing with or to his mobile phone.

they experience a series of high-G manoeuvers in a car park

That is just before they experience a series of high-G manoeuvers in a car park that must have been designed by the memorable Charles Dodgson and Associates from which there seemed to be no escape. How they get there is also something of a mystery, having to do with arrows painted, or not painted, in road lanes in a freeway that seem half a mile wide. Being in the wrong lane Mark decides to resolve the problem by taking the next available road to the right and suddenly it is as though they have crashed Through the Looking Glass. They can see where they need to go, but can’t get there.

Later, at the venue for the swap and sell, Leigh pays the table fee and asks, ‘Which table please?’. ‘46′ he is told, and another Charles Dodgson moment occurs. The organizers have thoughtfully put a big number in the middle of each table so sellers can find them easily. However, by the time that our group arrives, most of the other sellers are setting up so all the numbers are covered. There is nothing for them to do but wander around like Alice looking for vacant tables in the hope that one of them will be marked with the magic number 46. Finally, they arrive and pile all their stuff up high on the table. This becomes another Charles Dodgson moment because plastic model kits come in all shapes and sizes – and many in plastic bags – so stacking them so they won’t topple over is a challenge like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. And just when get it done perfectly somebody comes along who wants to look at the kit right at the bottom of the pile. (A year or two earlier Mark organized the pile of kits by the nationality of the country that the kit represented, a philosophically sound organizational principle which didn’t work out as well as one might have expected.)

Having resolved that problem, our intrepid adventurers take it in turn to go out to see what is of interest and needs buying. Being jaded old-timers they come back largely empty handed. Only Leigh comes back beaming. In the past couple of weeks he’d written about the demise of the second level airlines in Australia and thought he’d like to make some models of them, but they all flew Fokker Friendships and the only kit in the scale that he likes is an old one that is now as rare as rocking horse poo. And there, on a pile, are two of those unobtainable kits, and at a reasonable price too. Boyohboy!

our happy band is glad to be on the other side of the table from the hoard

The doors are opened to the public around 10am and they flooded in. The aisles between sellers tables are suddenly awash with swarms of eager buyers. They are, almost universally, not a pleasant lot to look upon and many of them are deficient in an understanding of the implications of the term ‘personal hygiene’. People don’t refer to the event as the ‘swap and smell’ for nothing. It is at this point in the morning that our happy band is glad to be on the other side of the table from the hoard because there is little sense of gentlemanly behavior out there as single minded buyers jostle to get a front spot looking over the piles of kits or to grab the best bargains.

Over their years of going to these events our group has noted the phases of the event. First there is the great surge as the hoard enters and tries to find and buy the kits that buyers are looking for, hopefully at a good price. This frantic period then develops into a more sedate period as those who have got what they want depart, leaving more space for the diminished hoard to circulate some more looking more carefully for the rare or the inexpensive kits. There is some haggling over prices in this stage, but the seller is still in the better position. This then develops into the third phase where the dedicated collectors, still with money in their pockets, wander around from table to table looking for things that might interest them at a price they like. By this stage many sellers are also keen to get rid of the kits that they have left so there is more haggling and some sellers go home with real bargains.

The second phase is usually the most interesting because people have time to stop and chat while looking over the kits. Friendships are formed and renewed at this time over discussions of the state of the hobby, the quality of kits or reminiscences of happier past times. Together sellers and buyers might look inside the box of a kit and chat about its quality while remembering the pleasant days of their youth spent with a hobby knife in one hand and a tube of Humbrol glue in the other. During this phase some buyers ask if they can look at the contents of a kit, often to check to see if all the parts are still there – this is a good ploy which Leigh has never done, and which has resulted in him opening a box months or years later to find vital pieces missing. This is also a time when a bad buyer can steal parts of kits while nobody is paying close attention and at some stage during the morning the transparent parts disappeared from one of Wayne’s kits, converting what had been something rare and valuable into a worthless box of plastic junk. It puts a cloud over the rest of the day.

the modern trend to perfect kits which almost make themselves is counter productive

As the rush turns to a trickle Mark and Leigh find themselves in deep discussion about Pythagoras’s ideas on the importance of struggle in bettering oneself. They decided that this life lesson should also be applied to the making of plastic model kits and that the modern trend to perfect kits which almost make themselves is counter productive to the development of well rounded modellers who are on the path to an understanding of their true selves – most are already well rounded, but in a different way. They extended this elevated philosophical concept to their sale pitch, informing potential buyers that although the kit they are thinking about buying is badly molded and bears little resemblance to the aircraft it is supposed to resemble, the struggle of making it will be very good for them. Strangely, this approach does not work, and our two salespersons receive some very strange looks. Perhaps scale modeling is not yet ready for philosophy.

After about an hour and a half of this only the stragglers are left, and there is not much left on our group’s table left to sell either. They pack up what was left, put in the Statesperson and make their way to Expo proper, pockets bulging with the money they have gathered and ready to spend it. The first hit on their pockets is the cost of entry which has doubled in the past few years.

Once inside they find that things are much as they had been on previous years; the sides of the vast hall are lined with people selling things and the interior is festooned with tables with scale models on them. Mark, who has an analytic bent, counts the number of models on display and reckons there are around 720. Leigh, who is similarly inclined, counted the number of trophies to be won and finds there are well over 100. This seems to make the odds of taking one home very high.

Our band of adventurers seems strangely listless as they wandered the hall, looking at the models and scanning the piles of kits, modeling paraphernalia, books and decals for something to spend their money on. All that can be said about them is that they must be old and jaded because they spend little money and gaze on the models half heartedly. Perhaps they have just run out of energy and excitement after a long day and they are, of course, getting quite old. Certainly there was a lot talent and patience on display on the tables, each model a little token of a great amount of time and effort spent in trying to achieve perfection. ‘Imagine the thousands of man-hours of effort put into all this,’ Leigh says as he waves his arms wide, encompassing the hall. ‘How much struggle though?’, asks Mark. ‘Too many people,’ adds Wayne as he thinks fondly of the peace and quiet of his country estate. Mick raises his eyebrows to add to the conversation.

Having seen, or at least glanced, on everything to be seen at Expo, the group piles back into the Statesperson and head for home. Out of a bag of CDs Leigh selected one of Jefferson Airplane hits to entertain them and the rest of the group, being of a similar age, agree. Thus they drive back from whence they came. In previous years Mark had steered the Statesperson along the freeways but this time adds variety to the drive by using the main roads. Now that VicRoads had almost completed building fences between these roads and the surrounding suburbs that part of the drive is very tiresome, broken only by the occasional reference from the front seat to the abilities of other drivers. This time, however, there are lots of shops and houses to look at and, as they approach the center of Melbourne, many, many high rise apartment buildings. They agree that one of the good reasons for going to Melbourne occasionally is to remind themselves of why they live in Ballarat (or thereabouts). This is reinforced as they watch the endless stream of cars going in the opposite direction, probably people who had escaped from Melbourne for the long weekend and are now doomed to return there. There had been an accident just near the turn off for the Bolte Bridge and the inbound lanes is a car park way back to the other side of the Westgate Bridge. Later, when they get to Pikes Reservoir and witness VicRoad’s latest achievement in buggering up the road system the, Melbourne bound traffic is banked up to well on the other side of Ballan. Again, the group rejoice that they did not live in Melbourne.

The final stopping place on these traditional trips is a roadhouse that serves passable food. The four sit at a table and munch on what they have bought. Mark, returning to the topic of Pythagoras, asks ‘Well, what have we learned today?’ They think, long and hard. Wayne decides to ignore the philosophical implications of the question and turns his attention back to his hamburger. Mick raises his eyebrows again to encompass the day’s experiences. Leigh can think of nothing that he has learned during the day to make himself a better person but, thinking back over the past three days, he finally comes up with an answer, ’I don’t know that I’ve learned anything but I’ve had a nice day out with good friends’.

Fortified by the knowledge that they have learned something from the day, the value of good friends, they return to the Statesperson, put on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers to add to their pleasure, and head for home.

Leigh Edmonds would like to give as his interests long walks along the beach at dawn while discussing world peace and puppy liberation. He would also like to own his own business jet so he could go to exotic places and drink buckets of champagne while transacting fabulous business deals. Sadly, instead he is a semi-retired historian who must list as his interests and activities making scale model aeroplanes, watching DVD boxed sets and muttering to himself about the lamentable state of the world. Before transforming himself into a historian he was a public servant and science fiction fan who published more fanzines than he can remember, went to endless conventions and did lots of other fabulous fannish stuff. More recently, one of his historians projects is the researching and writing a history of Australian science fiction fandom to the mid 1970s and, to this end, he published a little efanzine titled iOTA, which you can find on efanzines.com. He has also started a little website called ‘Leigh Edmonds Little Box of Stuff’ which isn’t very interesting at the moment but will, he plans, lead ultimately to world domination.