Slow Train to Nirvana

Reprinted in Slow Train to Immortality: A collection of British fan writing and art, 1995-2009, produced for Corflu Cobalt, March 2010


they was a rappin the fat scat
diamond dialectos of points and taps
they drew themselves a be-bop midnight map
they said ‘do you got a map to the next joint?’
do you got a map to the next joint?

“Woody and Dutch on the slow train to Peking”
Rickie Lee Jones & David Kalish


What is the shape of fandom? If we were to draw a map of this fabulous land we occupy where would its borders lie, where the major roads that cross it, where the father of rivers curling unvexed to the sea? From this plain what jagged peaks can we see? From this high eminence, what city is it that stretches below us? We’ve been doing this for generations now, father and daughter, talking about the blank places on our map. Here be dragons. But we have no more sense of which map we are in than the ant marching over the creased and coloured paper. And still, as each new fan editor comes along, they can’t resist pointing somewhere vaguely into the sunrise, tracing imprecise lines on airy maps, and saying this is fandom, here I stand.

I’m sorry, I can’t help it. As I trace a dotted trackway through the current crop of fanzines I find them swinging back to the same starting points: what is this fandom? How can you know where you are going if you don’t define where you come from?

So Eve Harvey lays down one marker in Wallbanger 15: “I’m here because I like people. I want to see the world through other’s eyes and sf fans do tend to expose more of their innermost feelings than other social groups... We are complete wholes, and I relish the opportunity to put the jigsaw pieces together.” Which sounds good, but it suggests a territory of greater extent than most others seem to cover, a sort of soul-baring Ubermensch which subsumes all other subsets of humanity. All human life is, indeed, here, from Ken Lake fantasising his sex life in The Time Traveller’s Journal to Dop living his sex fantasies in The Disillusionist, but you can’t help feeling that they are here because this is what fanzines do, that they would have no context outside fandom. There is a famous scene in one of Brian Moore’s novels (The Emperor of Ice Cream) in which the protagonist, a would-be writer, attends his mother’s funeral and finds himself watching the entire event dispassionately in terms of how he would put it into fictional form; in the same way Dop sits through a life training session as an outsider, casting the experience already into a fanzine article. Julie Rigby opens The Time Traveller’s Journal by saying: “Reading all the fanzines that have been given to me, and meeting their editors, has finally made me take the plunge and return the favour by giving out my own fanzine. It’s the only way I feel I can thank people for putting so much hard work into their own fanzines.” Jack Davies makes a similar point in The Crash Test Dummies, while Kev McVeigh sums the situation up in Second Coming? Slight Return: “There’s a fanzine renaissance going on in the UK right now ...I don’t want to miss out on all the fun.”

Fanzines, it would seem, are self-perpetuating. Their very existence prompts more, we see them, scraps of paper handed round at conventions, as signposts leading us yet deeper into the woodland. Estimates vary as to how many fanzines were handed out at Novacon in 1995—the only consensus seems to be that there were more than could be read—but their very profusion, this dusty unread pile in the corner, acts as a siren call to the traveller in the land of fandom. And more fanzines emerge, by a process that seems almost like spontaneous generation.

But what goes in to the fanzines? Why, another contribution to the dialogue (multi-logue?), the on-going conversation in which we tell ourselves where we are and what we are doing. This is fandom, we say! It was there at length in the previous issue of this very fanzine, it is there, to some degree, in each of the seven fanzines before me for review; it was there in my own fanzine, as Chris Terran reminds me in his review in The Time Traveller’s Journal: “some agonised navel-gazing.” Ah, but fanzine reviews are part of the same agony—or at least, they were. It’s too early to tell for sure if there is a fanzine renaissance going on, despite the apparent profusion of titles—all this tells us is that there are a lot of people getting the urge to produce fanzines, there’s no clear sign that there’s a corresponding interest in reading them, in partaking in the fanzine experience in any way other than as producer. Of all the fanzines here, only Balloons Over Bristol has what approaches a decent LoC column, but Balloons has a long track record, Christina Lake andCo have been building up what we might as well call “customer loyalty” over a long time (Eve Harvey’s Wallbanger has been going for considerably longer, but it has been erratic to say the least over recent decades). But even in Balloons, Christina sees fit to decorate her fanzine reviews with a “handy loc rating”, a jokey but nonetheless revealing recognition that fanzines can no longer live by LoCs alone. The dialogue is (nearly) all one way.

But if these fanzines are not producing vast interest in the way of LoCs—and as Christina points out, that could simply be shellshock from the mountains of fanzines produced at Novacon: where on earth do you start to read?—is the dialogue being sustained by fanzine reviews? In the past, the liveliest periods of fanzine production have also been the liveliest and most trenchant periods of fanzine criticism: Greg Pickersgill and D. West in the mid-70s, D. West on into the 80s; even the vitriolic overload of KTF (Kill The Fuckers) reviewing as practiced by Alan Dorey and Joseph Nicholas in the late-70s had its part in a buoyant fanzine scene. Today? Well, two of the fanzines feature fanzine review columns, by Christina Lake in Balloons Over Bristol and by Chris Terran in The Time Traveller’s Journal. In each instance, they are far and away the best things in the respective fanzines. The writers are clearly engaged with their subject, which evokes not just good writing but also clear, informed and informative ideas. (Chris Terran’s moment in the confessional after each review is as much a needless indulgence as Christina Lake’s loc rating, as if both feel they have to dress their review up with something more than the unadorned fanzine). But two things are notable about these reviews. In the first place, although both take as their starting points the fanzines handed out at Novacon (and both reach into the beginning of the year with Alison Freebairn’s Pogonophobia ) neither makes even a token attempt to deal with the entire bundle (11 out of 30+ by Christina, 4 by Chris—they overlap on Pogonophobia and Maureen Kincaid Speller’s Snufkin’s Bum—this current review column splits the difference, 7 fanzines, though that happens to be all the fanzines that came my way at or around Eastercon, a convention which saw a considerable reduction in fanzine activity compared to Novacon). The second thing is that both columns are intelligent and descriptive, but they are primarily appreciations; there is no argument with the notion of a fanzine, no battling with the quality or intent or content or reproduction of the fanzine. The spirit of the age, I suppose, but taken with the constant umming and ahing over what is a fanzine and, more frequently, why am I doing a fanzine, it suggests an uncertainty about the entire enterprise.

A fanzine is a symbol on the map, a marker in the broad sense for what is fandom and in the narrower sense for what am I as a fan—Eve Harvey’s glimpse of “the world through other’s eyes”. Fandom, from these examples, is defined almost entirely by the individuality of the fanzine editor. Beyond the two fanzine review columns mentioned there is one article about fandom (in Wallbanger), two articles that touch upon conventions (in Bobe and Balloons Over Bristol), no article about science fiction—“Wallbanger has never been very interested in science fiction because science fiction isn’t why I’m here” declares Eve Harvey, though she is only making explicit what is implicit everywhere else. Whether such topics should be at the heart of a fanzine is open to debate—both Wallbanger and Balloons Over Bristol refer to Mike Siddall and Greg Pickersgill propounding just such views at MiS-saigon—but their absence from a fanzine does seem to remove a commonality. The landscape mapped by a fanzine should be both strange and familiar—as well as marking out the mysterious (Here be dragons) it should say here is a way of looking at the country we share. If one takes Eve Harvey’s call for other perspectives too literally, we would end up with fanzines that tell us we have nothing in common as everyone spirals off in different directions, and that would knock away the thing that made fanzines happen in the first place.

I’m sorry if this column is beginning to sound like a dispute with Eve Harvey, because in the same introductory remarks I have already quoted ad nauseam she points out that it is “our shared experiences [that act] as a bridge”. And for all that Eve sets herself against Mike Siddall and Greg Pickersgill, Wallbanger is still the most satisfyingly fannish of these fanzines. This is partly due to the structure, weaving LoCs and her thoughts on and responses to fandom inspired by those LoCs into a thread that loops all through the fanzine so that although there are two outside contributors (Lynda White and Darroll Pardoe) the fanzine feels as if it all springs from the one perspective: the editorial voice is strong. It is partly due to the subject. Despite her remarks about other experiences, her two ventures down that route—a day at the office, a night in Romania (sounds like a Marx Brothers film)—are the weakest pieces here, they lack structure and point. The thing about fans writing about topics other than fandom and science fiction is that the article somehow reflects back upon them anyway. They, or at least the ones that work best, that stand out as fanzine articles, are not arbitrary slices of life, they are structured and slanted to illuminate the nature of the fan. Christina Lake spotted this in her review of Maureen Kincaid Speller’s Snufkin’s Bum; a long sustained piece about going to a concert and the experience of being in an audience was interpreted by Christina as a comment on the experience of being at a convention, whether it was intentional or not the successful fanzine article resonates with the idea of being a fan. Eve’s slice of life slices away the fan from the life. But she more than makes up for it in her (penultimate?) account of her DUFF trip to Australia in 1985. The Australian convention is over, fans per se intrude only sporadically into the action, the Harveys are touring, tiring, looking forward to home: but the whole account is replete with the sensation of being a fan. It’s about life, it’s about what are, for most of us, blank places on the map (Here Be Wombats), it’s about seeing the world through other’s eyes; but what makes it speak to us is that it is also about who we are.

Neither of the other two genzines can muster anything like the same sense of personality, or the same engagement with fandom. Julie Rigby’s The Time Traveller’s Journal suffers from first-timer trepidation—despite raising the question of why people should put out a fanzine, she doesn’t actually answer it. Any answer would do (there is no right and wrong in this, just a need for purpose), but too often first-time editors imagine that the existence of their fanzine is answer enough (Jack Davies, the other virgin, suffers a little from the same syndrome). The Time Traveller’s Journal also suffers from too much reprinting from an apa. This can work only where the pieces stand as a unity in their own right, but what tends to happen is that pieces come to life from the brief, rapid to-and-fro of conversation within a limited group, but lose the life once taken out of that context. That has happened here, we get flashes of what seems like fine writing where the fineness has taken the place of the point. They have been written quickly for a forum where the immediate (with its implication of bare-faced honesty) counts; but here they need to have been re-written, shaped, turned into something that tells a larger story or opens a more revealing window. Julie’s own pieces—about taking her clothes off in front of 19 strange men (a piece which still manages to be remarkably and irritatingly coy) and about being rescued from drowning when a child (a piece which moves from breathless action to bathetic conclusion)—both reveal flickers of something that never quite takes shape. It is not enough to say I took all my clothes off, we need something of the feel of the occasion; in contrast the article about drowning could have ended earlier, the drama is dissipated when it is chained to an ending that does not rise above the ‘nice’. Add to this the fact that there is no editorial presence: we get a concatenation of articles, all (with the exception of Ken Lake’s overlong self-indulgence) too short, with no linking material, nothing to hold it together. Most of the pieces read as if they have been excerpted from something longer, and it doesn’t help that we get a variety of typefaces and sizes so that they even look as if they have been pulled from various sources (“Choices?” by Nesa Sivagnanam is nearly unreadable in my copy).

There’s the same sense of a missing unity in Balloons Over Bristol 10 which has been edited primarily by Christina Lake though it seems to be regarded as some sort of group effort, which may explain why it has no readily identifiable personality. In this issue they’ve emphasised the fragmentation by dividing the fanzine into four distinct sections. Section One is the fannish bit, or so it says here. A good fanzine review column and a decentish stab at a convention report done as a series of postcards (it ends up becoming too compressed to convey much flavour to someone who wasn’t there) certainly fit this description, but Tim Goodrick’s on-going “Miss Lee Letters”? These curious correspondences from a lonely and clearly distracted lodger are the stuff of pathos not the rough humour presented here and their reproduction leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But fannish this ain’t. Next we get “media”: okay, I lied when I said there was no article on sf, but this over-long and over-wrought pseudo-fanboy episode by episode analysis of the homosexual implications of Dr Who is not sf as we know it. It also doesn’t add a great deal to the fanzine. The section on music does: at least here there is a sense of personality, a humanity, a sense of exploring someone’s tastes and ideas that is part of Eve Harvey’s prescription. But even here there is a perfunctoriness to the two articles that leaves one floundering on the edge of a precipice thinking that the road was supposed to go on a little further from here...

There’s a similar feeling of being brought up short, of being short-changed, in Ian Sorensen’s Bobe. No, that’s not right, Ian makes no bones about it, this is a familiar amassing of anecdotes tied together to fake an article. The aim, the ambition, to make something more of it is there, but Ian can never resist a pun or a witty aside or a joke and they invariably resist any attempt to build greater weight onto such foundations. The “article”, linked by a series of trips south, usually to Leeds, and the misadventures and gungy experiences thus entailed, is carefully shaped, in fact it is probably as carefully worked and reworked as any of the pieces under review; but it is shaped towards the end of the punchline rather than the revelation. This is no bad thing. Everyone else is so serious about what they do, it is good to find something to laugh at in fandom—and this is a determinedly fannish fanzine, all the anecdotes, all the stories, all the jokes spring directly from contact with fandom. (Though I have to confess that I find Ian’s writing can be too slick to be genuinely rib-tickling, and for me the funniest moments in this fanzine come from D. West’s cartoons of “Famous Fannish Literary Secrets”: Little Lord Fauntleroy turning into Joseph Nicholas is only topped by the notion of Finnegans Wake as an alien abduction story.)

Ah, I see that the route map has taken me out of the city and into the country—we have left the genzines for the perzines, the one-man (and in these instances they all are man) operations. Here presumably the personality should have no difficulty coming across, because there are no external contributors getting in the way. Every word is shaped by the character and the interests of the editor. Ian Sorensen certainly has a strong personality, though it is sometimes difficult to see what it is behind the jokes. Dop, The Doppelgänger, Antony J. Shepherd doesn’t come across so clearly in The Disillusionist perhaps because, as his profusion of names might suggest, he feels too dispersed. There is a selection of short articles (wherein might lie part of the problem, they are all too short, six articles and a letter column in 14 pages doesn’t give any of them the space to really get going) each of which is meant to reveal one aspect of his character, neatly and in isolation. Thus we get his interest in the supernatural, his computer nerddom, his discovery of himself as a sexual submissive via the internet: but in the contents list each article has a one-sentence descriptor which really does sum the whole thing up. The articles themselves tell us little more than those single sentences do, and anyway it is hard to realise that the person interested in the supernatural in one article is the person attending the Life Training session in another, there is no continuation of character. There are individual good things here—the sexual revelation in the final article is brave and says everything that needs to be said in just a few short paragraphs—but it somehow doesn’t add up to a good fanzine.

Jack Davies does better with The Crash Test Dummies simply by restricting the fanzine to one piece. His title, “Living a Fanzine Life”, indicates the intent: his description of life and work in Wales circles constantly around the notion of himself in fandom. It is sometimes clumsy, sometimes reinvents a wheel we’ve all reinvented countless times before, but there is a refreshing straightforwardness which makes this one of the more attractive fanzines of the moment.

Which leaves Kev McVeigh’s fragment, Second Coming? Slight Return! which I’ve kept until last for one very simple reason: it fits Eve Harvey’s precept of what she looks for in a fanzine so neatly that it brings this article round in a satisfying circle. I draw attention to the structure of this piece precisely because one of the things I enjoyed about Kev’s fanzine was the way he had shaped it. He tells the story of a night when he found himself in Hamburg and ended up at a curiously unsatisfying Stone Roses concert, but worked into this is the story of how he got to be there. It is not high art, though it is probably more artfully written than anything else in these fanzines (with the possible exception of Eve’s faux-naif, straight-to-camera narrative of her Australia trip). This is not breast-baring, simple telling it like it is because the revelation makes up for all deficiencies in style, but we get a lot of Kev’s view of the world and what it is makes him who he is. Nor is it self-conscious fine writing, where the style is meant to disguise any deficiency of content, but it is consciously writing for effect. He is telling a story, and using literary tricks to make it as immediate as he can, and also to shape the story so it has a point.

If fanzines have a point, if they do map fandom for us, they do so by telling stories, stories in which we are the hero and the conscience and the perspective and the subject. The shape of fandom is the shape of our lives and our minds, but we have to form and reform the stories we tell in order to lend substance to that shape. It is not the isolation of other people’s experiences that makes them interesting but the commonality of them, that they stem from a shared world and a shared perspective. That is what fandom is, and that is what fanzines need to describe if they are going to continue to map fandom for us.