Edited by Pete Birks
by Stephen Agar
Hopefully, these brief glimpses into zine production 20 years ago will help to illustrate what it was all like way back then, in the days before cheap photocopying, computers and Chris Tringham.
Issue One (1st November 1974)
Two pages of lime green foolscap with just about legible mimeo printing, cost 51/2p plus postage and a print run of 50. Those were the days. Can’t be many of these still knocking about. 21/2 sides were devoted to ScotDipCon IV hosted by Wink Thompson in an improbably-sounding place called Rhu. Twenty years ago practically everyone heavily involved in the hobby knew everyone else on a personal basis and while ScotDipCon IV was essentially a housecon for 14 or so people, the rolecall of those attending reads like a Who’s Who of origins of the UK Postal Diplomacy Hobby – Birks (Greatest Hits), Sharp (Dolchstoß), Doubleday (Gallimaufry), Morris (Frigate), Herd (Hannibal), Sherrad (Our Enry), Walsh (Tarkus), Allen (The Norns), Wakefield (Misteimer), Haughan (Howay the Lads), Yare (Grafeti), Bennett (O.J.) which probably accounts for a majority of active UK zines at the time (though it took Willy another 3 years before he launched HtL). Events like these just don’t happen anymore. People are no longer willing to drive 400 miles for a HouseCon, would dislike the idea of having to conduct a raffle to find out who gets the spare single bed (Birks apparently), and anyway there really isn’t the community of spirit behind those that actually run the zines anymore. Shame. I can’t leave ScotDipCon IV without reporting that on entering an Indian Restaurant with Sharp, Doubleday etc. Pete Birks refused Indian food on the ground that it was “unpatriotic” and ordered Steak and Chips! Still, it was 20 years ago and no doubt Pete has lived it down by now.
Issue one ended up with some comments on the Calhamer Awards scandal. To refresh your memory, the Independent Diplomacy Association (based in the USA) had a ballot to give various awards to deserving zines, GMs, editors etc. and they were completely swamped by UK votes for UK zines (at Richard Sharp’s instigation) and thus UK zines took nearly all the awards (much to the chagrin of our US friends). Hartley Patterson and John Piggott thought it was jingoistic and undemocratic. Pete’s view was that while people may not have been voting on merit, why they voted was not important, only who they voted for. As Pete said, if someone wanted to vote for Ted Heath (God, that dates it, doesn’t it?) just because they like the colour of his tie, that’s democracy. Quite.
One sign of how things have changed is that Pete can make clear his intention to put out issue two with a couple of gamestarts courtesy of the Central Gamestart Service, for these were the days when people were discovering postal Diplomacy at the rate of one a day! If only it were so easy to start a zine today. Issue One ends with the exhortation “Best to get in on the ground floor of what could be the best/worst zine in Diplomacy. I can tell you one thing, though, it won’t be mediocre!”
Issue Two (5th Decmber 1974)
Up to 7 sides already and Pete got his two gamestarts as well. The issue established what was to become a stock formula of the early Greatest Hits – cartoons drawn on stencils by hand, run-downs on NGC get-togethers (who won what etc.), not to forget various accounts of Birks’s fortunes at poker (£17 up this time, Richard Sharp lost £6), and SF book reviews (this time courtesy of Steve Doubleday). Between issue one and issue two Pete had been elected Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the University of Kent (standing on a moderate ticket he narrowly saw off the Trotskyist challenge). However, this was a bye-election and Pete had to stand all over again in February (only he chnaged his mind and hence only held the post for a few weeks).
The affair of the Calhammer Awards stitch-up just refused to die, John Piggott writing to defend his position that the “clearly insane Sharp” should not have done what he did. John brought the news that the IDA Council had refused to pass a motion supported by Edi Birsan that the Calhamer Awards be regionalised next year to stop the Brits doing the same again. Pete expressed his thanks that “insane megalomaniacs like Edi Birsan” had been held back by sensible people like Nicky Ulanov.
Another example of how times change can be found in the press for NGC90 – how many GMs today would publish the press “Are the Austrians all Yids?” I certainly wouldn’t.
Issue Three (3rd January 1975)
Down to A4 size now, but up to 12 sides and three games. Odd that I should have noticed the offensive press noted above, because Pete notes in issue 3 that a n unidentified subscriber objected to the above press and suggested that Pete should have censored it. Pete disagreed and said that he would print anything uncensored (subject to the libel laws). I presume that after 1976 he modified his policy to take account of the Race Relations Act.
I suppose it wasn’t until I read these early Greatest Hits that I realised exactly how much these original old hacks actually spent in each other’s company. Greatest Hits is littered with things like “I met Sharp in the Lamb last Friday…” or met “at Dave Johnson’s last Saturday, and quite a time it was too!… Adrien Baird was Austria and Tricky Dicky Sharp himself was France.” Mind you, Pete close proximity to Richard Sharp at this time may also have had something to do with the fact that Pete was helping him duplicate Dolchstoß which at 28 pages and a circulation of over 300 must have been no joke. Pete claims to have done 14 pages after 8 hours solid work and having used a mimeo duplicator I can believe him.
The Calhamer fiasco trundled on, but by this time just about everyone was bored with it. Pete slagged off Hartley Patterson for writing an anti-Richard Sharp piece in his UK News column in Diplomacy World, while John Boyer (the US IDA Chairman of the “Calhamer Awards Committee”) wrote to Pete saying that we should all be nice to each other etc. etc. In those days the Americans constructed Committees to talk about doing things to serve every aspect of their Diplomacy hobby – this Calhamer Awards Committee even had regional quotas (5 US, 3 UK, 2 Canadian). The idea of anyone taking anything like this quite so seriously today is unthinkable.
On the hobby news front Pete reports the fold of Brian Yare’s Grafeti (who at least had the courtesy to tell the world that he was folding – unlike Bolshevik Star, Orion or Our Enry).
Issue Four (24th January 1975)
16 sides and four games running (including what I take to be Victor Logna and Tony Crouch’s debut game). Birks was seeing Sharp every lunchtime in The Lamb as well as at Housecons at weekends (which may explain why Pete has always seemed old for his tender years – too much time spent in the company of his distant elders during a formative period of his life). Well, Sharp was 32 back in 1975.
There were a few sparks in issue 4. Hartley Patterson declares himself pissed off at being attacked by Pete for his column in Diplomacy World and promptly wrote to Pete telling him he was resigning from it. Of course Pete immediately wrote to Walt Buchana (the editor of Diplomacy World) and offered to do the column himself (the offer was later accepted). All good confrontational stuff. Issue four also contained what I thought was a fairly reasonable letter from Will Haven (a noteworthy think in itself) which Pete replied to in an uncalled for vitriolic vein (e.g. “This letter gets my vote of the year for the most consecutive mass of lies, half-truths, and idiocy. Bellicus 20 was likeable only in the sense that it was so bad that if I didn’t laugh at it I would probably break into tears, or perhaps fall asleep.” – was it any wonder that Will Haven became so paranoid?). You know if I wrote tracts like that these days I’d be lynched – people just won’t stand for it anymore. Sometimes the sort of thing Pete was writing 20 years ago makes me look like a fluffy bunny in comparison.