All Our Yesterdays 22
by Harry Warner Jr.

Ah! Sweet Idiocy!

Very often, today’s fan is badly disappointed when he finally holds in his hands at last a copy of some famous fan publication of the past. I’ve heard about the disillusionment with Spaceways from contemporary fans who can’t figure out why it used to win first place in polls during World War Two. Quandry was recently pooh-poohed as a badly overrated fanzine, by a fan who hadn’t been active during its existence. Undoubtedly, every new fan who sees for the first time a copy of “The Enchanted Duplicator” must fight to conceal to himself or others the disappointment that he experiences to find this scrawny and slightly inky thin booklet is the famed Willis production. There must be several causes for such reactions. In fandom as in other phases of life, too big a build-up is damaging to the topic; in imagination the unknown and desired object takes on proportions and qualities it couldn’t hope to possess in actuality. Then there’s the zeitgeist factor. Today’s fan can’t see the famous publication of the past through yesterday’s eyes. There is also a certain amount of general upgrading in the average appearance and literary quality of fan publications as the years pass. The publication that was outstanding of a couple of decades ago is closer to the average of excellence today.

All this leads up to the fact that you had better resign yourself to this chilling fact: you’re going to be disappointed, if you have never seen “Ah! Sweet Idiocy!”, have heard much about it, and are destined someday to put your very own eyetracks on the famed Laney memoirs. This disappointment won’t last very long, once you begin to read. But you’d better be prepared for a letdown, if you have thought of this one-shot as something glittering and sublime in appearance. There is nothing in it but typing — no illustrations, no lettering guides or hand drawn headings. It is mimeographed in legible but erratic style on a poor grade paper that is turning brown from the edges inwards, even though my copy has been kept in a light-tight envelope down through the years. There are no covers and there are some typing errors and badly corrected strikeovers. But all those dreary details are forgotten, after you’ve ploughed through the rather tiresome four-page preamble, and immerse yourself in the account of what Laney did in fandom.

“Ah! Sweet Idiocy!” got its major distribution through FAPA. The first 72 of its 129 pages were distributed in the spring of 1958 mailing, and the remainder in the summer mailing of the same year. Later, Laney sold some additional copies to non-FAPA members. I don’t know if there’s any truth to the legend that he never possessed a stapled copy of his fan memoirs.

If your knowledge of fan history from this era shortly after the first atom bombs is shaky, you might assume some wrong things about “Ah! Sweet Idiocy!” It is now the final summing up of Laney’s fan activities. He remained on the fringes of fandom for a half-dozen years after writing it, kept in contact with a few individuals for another year or two after that. Some of his most exciting FAPA hassles, for instance, occurred after the memoirs appeared. Neither is this something startlingly new and original that Laney introduced to fandom. He was following a hallowed tradition which most fans obeyed at this particular time: when you think you’ve had it in fandom, do something spectacular to call attention to your gafiation. Often this took the form of a cynical and bitter letter to this or that fanzine, or an article blasting all fandom as a useless or dangerous institution. But there was a more direct and specific predecessor to Laney’s mammoth article. This was “Memoirs of a Superfluous Fan” which T. Bruce Yerke had begun to distribute in FAPA in 1944. It was never completed, but it resembled strikingly the attitudes and general purposes of “Ah! Sweet Idiocy!” Laney undoubtedly had this as an either conscious or subconscious influence, when he sat down to cut stencils in the same city, writing about many of the same individuals whom Yerke had been concerned with.

Laney’s stated reason for his magnum opus can be found in the preamble:

“It occurred to me that if I here to start setting down my recollections it might help my self-analysis, would certainly give me something to keep me at home and away from money-spending temptations.... And it always had seemed silly to me to write anything on paper when it is just as easy to put it in stencils.”

This may seem to be the first use of a philosophy that has been reiterated endlessly in fanzines since then: when in doubt, use a stencil. Originally, Laney and Ackerman planned to publish the memoirs with Fantasy Foundation money, putting the profits from the sale of copies back into that organisation. A series of personality clashes in Los Angeles kept this from occurring. In the end, with symbolism of frightening complexity, Laney traded his copy of “The Outsider and Others” for Al Ashley’s mimeograph, and Laney and Burbee became the publishers.

Despite the volume’s fame, no fan has seriously toyed with the idea of reprinting it. It is so long that even with elite type, it would be an enormous amount of work. Moreover, Laney possessed a magical immunity from libel action, and it isn’t likely that any reprinter would fare so well. Laney names names in many narrations about matters which would undoubtedly have caused lawsuits to rain on the head of any fan who had less ability at striking back at enemies with the typewriter. In other places, he does not identify his topic but gives enough detail for anyone to deduce who was meant, and such circumstances are normally meant for the courts too. Even so, “Ah! Sweet Idiocy!” is packed tightly with long sections which are sheer delight to read and absolutely safe to reprint. I would guess that it could be boiled down to a 50-page reprint version that would be much milder but still agreeable, by skipping the actionable portions and the duller blow-by-blow accounts of fan politics in Los Angeles.

Particularly valuable are the little word sketches of almost everyone who did anything in Los Angeles fandom during the 1940’s. You’ll find nothing like them anywhere else. Typical is the one about Morojo:

“She is very short, and in my opinion, very pretty. Since she has listed it publicly, I’ll mention in passing that she is much older than most of the club members, having been born in 1904. She has led a fairly tough life, has been married and divorced twice, and the scrabble of raising a strapping son and supporting herself has left her singularly without the ability to enjoy herself freely and casually, though others enjoy her company tremendously. Her chief interest in the club was her interest with Forrest J Ackerman, with whom she kept company for several years, and I hope he fully recognises the extent of her services to him — keeping the club on a smooth financial keel throughout most of her membership, doing most of the drudgery of VOM and other Ackerman projects, and keeping the wolves from yapping about his heels in a score of other ways. Myrtle has an inquiring mind which is somewhat hampered by a too-conventional education, and thus is sometimes a sucker for something the least bit on the crackpot side. She is, however, an accomplished and stimulating conversationalist, and is well worth knowing from the intellectual point of view. And beneath that occasionally austere facade, there is one of the most kind hearted persons in Los Angeles, as plenty of club members past and present could testify. She is the first person most of the older members think of when they are in trouble, and in this selfish civilisation people like that are rare.”

Don’t be astonished that this contains no awful disclosures about some nastiness. The person whom “Ah! Sweet Idiocy!” criticises most severely is Francis T. Laney. He is very frank at describing the faults of others, but obviously was fond of most of them, makes it very clear that he liked Ackerman immensely after all the fusses, and he seems mainly sorry that these fine people have been led to do stupid things in fandom. The preamble even tries to bind up some of the wounds that E. Everett Evans receives from the pages in which Laney knocks him down and tramples on him. The preamble was written after the rest of the book, at a time when FTL had just learned about some extenuating circumstances involving EEE. But he is absolutely merciless towards his own failings, imagined or real. Sometimes he can look at them with amusement, such as what happened when he first discovered Merritt novels in the Munsey reprint magazines:

“I started reading them. Meanwhile, nature called me, and I carried the darned magazines into the bathroom with me. Utterly oblivious to where I was and what I was doing, I sat there on that WC nearly all night, utterly lost in Grayson’s weird adventures. When I finally finished ‘Snake Mother’, the spell broke, I tried to stand up, and was so cramped and cold that my legs would not support me. I collapsed into a heap, and lay there on the floor laughing at myself for being such a damned fool.”

Some of his other anecdotes are less amusing, when he clinically describes how he rigged a FAPA election to make certain that his candidates would win, or the bad light he casts on himself in his version of his trouble with his wife.

There is one more caution that I would like to leave with anyone who had come into fandom since the mid-40’s and reads the Laney memoirs. Even though “Ah! Sweet Idiocy!” is a superbly fascinating work, which had an incredible influence on the whole course of fanzine publishing, it was written by a human being. Therefore it is not perfect. Some of the things it describes have been told better by other fans. Alva Rogers’ account in Innuendo #11 of the famous night when Ackerman made his public debut as a drinking man is far superior to the references to this event in Laney’s work. Laney did not possess Burbee’s unique ability to make his readers burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter over the more remarkable actions of an Elmer Perdue or Al Ashley. Certain sections of “Ah! Sweet Idiocy!” indicate that Laney wasn’t quite as free of the fannish dross as he believed himself to be after having purged himself in the fire and heat of the Los Angeles fusses. There is one incredible section dealing with a project that sounds as if it had emerged from the Cosmic Circle in a particularly hectic moment: Someone had proposed a Los Angeles science fiction organisation complete with large club house which would actually be a secret hideaway for movie stars who would join it as a means of escaping from their public. The Laney who was so quick to see through the illusions that others set up for themselves thought that this was a marvellous scheme and was deeply hurt when other fans in the city failed to be respectful to the individuals who wanted to promote the deal. Laney could be very wrong about things, too. In one chapter, he tells of the delight that he found when he paid regular visits to the home of a quite prominent writer of murder mysteries. He contrasts by implication the ability of the habitués of this writer to handle liquor with the juvenilities of the LASFS. Only a year or two after Laney’s work was published, this writer was in an asylum for chronic alcoholism. Laney repeats that old error about Al Ashley’s IQ of 194. It wasn’t an IQ of 194; it was a score of 194 on a test that Speer was giving to various fans.

“Ah! Sweet Idiocy!” is in the public domain. I would dearly love to see the printable kernel of it reprinted in a volume that might also contain sections from the numerous other autobiographical articles that Laney published here and there. They would give a very accurate estimate of the writing ability and the character of the only fan who has ever been compared with Dean Swift without creating a storm of laughter.

Last revised: 1 March, 2006

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