Harry Turner's Footnotes to Fandom
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Remembering Eric Frank Russell 1905-1978)

When, exactly, did I first meet up with Eric Frank Russell?

Eric Frank Russell in 1937, picture by Harold Gottliffe
Eric Frank Russell in 1937,
picture by Harold Gottliffe
I made contact with "organised" fandom early in 1937, some months after that very first convention. The pic of EFR alongside was taken (and given to me) by Harold Gottliffe, one of a party of Leeds fans who visited Liverpool and then called on me at Manchester in the summer of that year. Though I was a 17-year-old keen to meet kindred spirits, I guess I then regarded an admired author like EFR (15 years my senior!) as a somewhat remote and distant "hero".

I attended the first London SFA convention in April 1938, but have no recollection of meeting EFR there. Then the Manchester SFA branch was officially opened in May, and in June I visited Liverpool for the opening of the SFA branch there, but don't think that EFR was present at this gathering of a dozen or so local fans.

My first solid memory of meeting up with him is at a more select gathering —a British Interplanetary Society London meeting on Sunday 17 July 1938. This was held at the home of R.A. Smith in South Chingford, the BIS HQ at the time. Guest of honour was Bob Truax of the American Rocket Society, then a midshipman working at the US Navy experimental station at Chesapeake Bay and conveniently in the UK on a training cruise.

In those days the BIS strictly confined its activities to theoretical matters, so it was exhilarating to hear of the practical research that Bob was able to carry out using the academy machine shop facilities and the test grounds of the naval experimental station where he was stationed. I remember that an affable EFR (a BIS member) turned up unexpectedly later in the meeting and immediately livened up the proceedings.

When official business was concluded he became centre of a fannish group, the conversation flowed, and he kept us entertained with a continuous flow of tall stories until things broke up and people reluctantly went their various ways.

I realised that EFR was very much a kindred spirit. Having broken the ice, as it were, I kept in occasional touch with him from then on, and found we shared many interests—through letters and exchanges in fanzines, and the chain-letters that circulated in early wartime years. He introduced me to the works of Charles Fort, bowled me over with Sinister Barrier in Unknown, and wrote some printable (and unprintable) letters of comment when I started pubbing a fanzine, Zenith, in 1941.

I think he was called up in the RAF towards the end of 1941; by 1942 he'd settled in civvy billets in London on a four-month course and was able to meet some of the fans still there—a fan-gathering at Bill Temple's home (while Bill was on leave) at which he met Reg Medhurst, Art Williams, Joyce Fairbairn and Jimmy Rathbone. He was posted to Cranwell next and had a riotous stay (as reported in Futurian War Digest).

By then, I'd also been grabbed by the RAF, after enjoying a somewhat charmed period of "freedom" as the German air force did a good job in bombing the local records office on two occasions, and I had to report and supply my details anew each time. (In the event, my call-up papers arrived just just as Marion and I arranged to get married!).

The RAF distinguished between "wireless" and "radio" in the trade classifications and so far as I recall, EFR was working as a wireless mechanic, involved in maintenance and repair of general communications equipment. I found myself diverted to the trade of radio mechanic, which led to RDF-mechanic (radio-direction-finding), a title that was Americanised to radar mechanic at Yatesbury, early in 1943. (Arthur C. Clarke was an instructor at the Radio School there).

I still kept in touch with fandom for the next year or two, but contacts gradually slipped away, and then ended when I was posted to India just before the end of the war. Demob arrangements dragged and I didn't get out of the RAF and back home again until the very end of 1946. After which I was too busy picking up the threads of civilian life to bother much with fandom until the 1950s... by which time most of the prewar and wartime accumulated letters and papers had been thinned out by various moves and inevitable clearances.

I never caught up with EFR again. So, my contacts with him were limited to that immediate prewar and early wartime period. ... While there was a strong sercon ("serious & constructive") trend in British fandom in those early days, I always found EFK to have a subversive sense of humour. I lapped up Sinister Barrier when Unknown arrived, and EFR won me over wholeheartedly to Charles Fort.

Prior to my overseas posting during the war, I was despatched to Blackpool where we were brainwashed with lectures on jungle warfare to and Japanese booby-traps (which gave us a slight clue about our ultimate destination, although it was supposed to be a closely-guarded secret). Skimming through secondhand book stalls in search of reading matter for that journey, I was lucky to pick up the 1931 US edition of Fort's Lo!, which accompanied me on the voyage. It's survived the years and still lurks on my library shelves next to The Complete Books of Charles Fort. ■

Extracts from letters in 2001 to John L. Ingham, who was preparing a book about EFR.
["Into Your Tent" was published in 2010]


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