Helena on the Fringe of Fandom – The Authentic Story

“I believe that if a convention is worth attending, it’s worth photographing – and the same goes for any other special event. It’s good to have something to remember it by, and it’s even better to be able to share it with others.”

Helena in the Captain’s Chair at the Galactic Tours convention, Melbourne, March 1986 (from Helena’s collection).

by Helena Binns, 2009

I was born Margaret Phyllis Duce, at Lilydale Hospital, 2 weeks after Pearl Harbour. My early years were spent with my family at my grandfather’s house on the outskirts of Healesville. When I was 8, we moved to East Warburton, where my father, with a gang of immigrant workmen, was building a bridge for the Country Roads Board. Later, when I started High School, we lived near and then in Alexandra.

My introduction to science fiction came when I was very young, perhaps 5 or 6, when my uncle Dave (my dad’s brother) showed me an illustrated book of Buck Rogers stories. I was just at that age where the distinction between reality and fiction was still a little blurred. I knew that talking animals weren’t possible, at least in this world. I wasn’t sure about rocket ships and worlds other than our own, but it all looked so fascinating that I didn’t care whether it was real or not, I just wanted more of it.

I read my first actual science fiction story when I was 7, in 1949. It was “Mewhu’s Jet” by Theodore Sturgeon, published in a British SF magazine that Dave had left lying about. It was about a little alien boy who gets stranded on Earth (does that plot sound familiar? I wonder if Spielberg read the same story.) The little ET gets about with a jet-propelled backpack, hence the title. I was very taken with that story, and have remembered it ever since. (Even though I suspected that you couldn’t carry enough fuel in a little backpack to get very far.)

Authentic Science Fiction Monthly #57, May 1955.

Of the actual SF magazines my uncle had, some were British editions of American originals like Astounding (the precursor of Analog) and some were original British publications such as If, New Worlds and Authentic. Throughout my childhood, Uncle Dave was my only source of SF. Needless to say, I still hadn’t encountered any other person who shared my enthusiasm for science fiction. Then when I was 13 going on 14, I found in the readers’ letters column of one of my uncle’s magazines a missive from a young man named Richard Paris, from Wellington. (The magazine was Authentic Science Fiction Monthly No. 57, dated 15th May 1955.) Richard declared, “I am a young New Zealander who likes good science fiction. I like Authentic. I do not like American SF…Every month the number of SF mags in the shops is tremendous…But – as far as I know – there are no clubs, organisations, or gatherings of any sort. Is NZ dead, or just hollow? I am only fourteen, bit if no one is willing to start one, then I will. I want a penfriend (or a dozen) about my age preferably, interested in SF, Astronomy and Space Travel.” I was, of course, inspired to reply to his plea for penfriends, and was accepted as one of the “dozen or so”. I had never had a penfriend before, let alone one interested in science fiction.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

A few months after we started communicating, Richard wrote to say that he had dropped all of his SF penfriends except me. He had decided that it was time to put away childish things and devote all of his time and attention to the quest for enlightenment. (We had found that we had each independently stumbled upon the ideas of the maverick Georgian guru Gurdjieff, who believed in unifying the core elements of all spiritual beliefs, and linking them to the search for knowledge of the physical universe.) We continued to exchange letters, mostly about spiritual matters, for the next year or so. Then unexpectedly I received a letter from someone else in Wellington – an adult named Mervyn Barrett, who introduced himself as a friend of Richard. At first I was put off by this. Who was this interloper? I was a bit miffed that he should take it upon himself to butt into my correspondence with Richard and write to me without being asked. I wondered briefly if he was a child molester, and decided probably not, since he declared himself to be a science fiction fan and the two compulsions somehow didn’t seem to go together. He explained that he was one of a number of science fiction enthusiasts in Wellington. Richard and two other youngsters, Bruce Burn and John Morgan, who were at Wellington Tech with Richard, had got their photo in the paper along with the news that they were forming an SF club. It met as ‘The Wellington Science Fiction Circle’ in the basement of Richard’s house. (Later when Richard gafiated, his father arranged for the meetings to continue.) Mervyn said that he knew of a similar group of fans in Melbourne that I might like to contact. They called themselves the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. He gave me the address.

I certainly would like to, and did contact them by mail. Since I was only 15 and still living in Alexandra (about 140 km from Melbourne), there was little hope of my paying a visit to the Club. But then it turned out that the Club came to me, in the form of Ian Crozier, Editor of the Club’s fanzine Etherline, who I think had relatives or friends in or near Alexandra, and took time out from visiting them to drop in and welcome me to the Melbourne Science Fiction Club.

In the course of our conversation he discovered that I was a budding artist, and asked if I would like to do some drawings for Etherline. My first was published on the cover of Etherline No. 85, sometime in 1957. (Many issues of Etherline were undated, which creates no end of fun for the would-be archivist who has to trawl through the contents in search of hints as to the nearest likely publication date.)

The next was in No. 87, which actually did have a date on the cover, 8th August 1957. That was my drawing of Einstein against an astronomical background, dubbed ‘The Visionary’, presumably by the Editor. I told Ian that I liked science fiction but not fantasy – a preference that still holds, with one notable exception. Ian then proceeded to tell me about that exception. He had read the first volume of The Lord of the Rings and said that it was about a war between good and evil. I said that I didn’t really like war stories (though I did understand the concept of the struggle between good and evil, as taught in all major religions, and personified by Gurdjieff as “the struggle of the magicians”, by which he meant wizards, and there certainly were titanic battles of wizards good and evil in The Lord of the Rings.) When I later read (at the still impressionable age of 17) The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I had that feeling I’d had when I first laid eyes on that old comic strip Buck Rogers book. “This is probably not real, but it should be.”

I had known since I was very young that that I would be useless in the material world and that the only thing I was fit for was to be an academic. I was intensely motivated to learn and teach, and besides I needed the security of a government job. I topped my class in every grade in primary and high school and had an obsession with maths and science, especially Astronomy. I had a small talent for art as well, and wanted to study that too, but I looked forward to it more as a hobby or diversion, certainly not a practical way to earn a living. At the end of Third Form (Year 9) before my 14th birthday, my scientific education came to a grinding halt. My country High School did not have a Science course in Fourth Form, only Agricultural Science. I begged to be allowed to study science by correspondence, but was refused. I was offered a teaching scholarship but my parents wouldn’t give permission for me to take it. (If I failed, they might have to pay back the money.)

I turned 16 at the end of Fifth Form in 1957 (my birthday is on the Summer Solstice, just before Christmas) and was sent to Melbourne to study Art at Melbourne Tech (a seedy old institute even in those days, it now goes under the grandiose title of The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). I was sent to live with my aunt (my father’s sister) and her family at Oak Park (where I never spotted a single oak). On the plateau opposite was the end of one of Essendon Airport’s runways. That might have been a problem for some. But I was pleased to be within the sight and sound of aircraft. I had dreamed about them since I was a child addicted to ‘Biggles’ books, but had rarely seen or heard them in the countryside (except for crop-dusters, of course).

I couldn’t wait for my first opportunity to visit the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. According to Etherline No. 94, (dated 23rd January 1958): “On January 14th, Margaret Duce of Alexandria visited the Club with a Friend.” I think the friend was probably my aunt or my cousin, (a girl a little older than me), as I would not have been allowed to go by myself on my first visit without having someone along to check out the Club to see if it was okay. I believe I went by myself on subsequent visits.

The Club members were all male, all older than I was, and some considerably older. They greeted us kindly, and made me feel welcome. Those that I remember from my early visits were Bob McCubbin, Tony Santos, Don Latimer, Keith McLelland, Dick Jenssen, and of course Merv Binns – although they could not have all been present that first evening, since the chronicler was disappointed with the sparse attendance on the night. The venue was an upstairs room, I think in the Saint James Building in Little Collins Street, Melbourne.

Following closely after my first visit to the Club was my first science fiction convention – Melcon, at the Richmond Town Hall, 5th April 1958 (probably the Easter weekend). The Con Report refers to it as ‘The Sixth Convention’ by which they must have meant the 6th Australian Natcon, since the first four were held in Sydney and the fifth was Melbourne’s first – Olympicon, in December 1956, the year of the Melbourne Olympic Games. I was very impressed, especially with the talk by Barry Clarke of the Astronomical Society of Victoria, on the canals of Mars. Since Astronomy was my major scientific interest, when I was 14 I had joined the Astronomical Society as a junior member (non-attending, of course, until I came to live in Melbourne). On the second day there was a barbecue organized by Jack Bristowe, then chairman of the Mountain Science Fiction Group, near the home of Les Ward at Upwey, but I wasn’t able to go. Melcon was also the first convention for John Foyster, who was only a few months older than I. Later John and his friend Chris Bennie befriended me (I suppose we were a sort of junior fans’ subgroup) and in subsequent years I was invited to small fannish gatherings at Chris Bennie’s home, not far from where I then lived in Ivanhoe with my mother and stepfather. John and Chris were guests at my 21st birthday party in 1962. As everyone knows, John was a prolific publisher of fanzines from a very early age. He used to send them to me and I learned a lot about the esoteric mysteries of fandom, including its jargon, from them. I was intrigued by the lively (and occasionally vitriolic) exchanges that could take place between the highly opinionated publishers of some of these journals. Sadly the Club zine Etherline ceased publication not long after its 100th issue. I felt privileged to have had my drawings on a few of its covers.

MSCF co-founders, including Merv Binns (back row, left). Photo supplied by Dick Jenssen (back row, right).

At the first Club meeting rooms I had visited, people sat at small tables, playing chess, which I thought was wonderful as I had taught myself chess from a book but had never had the opportunity to play. They let me play, and it was a really great experience for me. After St James the MSFC shifted venues, and for a while there was no regular meeting place. Then Merv obtained from his employers McGills Newsagency at a very reasonable rate, the use of a large upstairs area warehouse, located behind the shop in Somerset Place – a grandiose name for a back alley. It was a name that was to become familiar to fans for years to come. It was not a venue for the faint-hearted. Access was through a narrow doorway, up a steep narrow flight of disintegrating wooden steps, or by a creaking, halting ascent in Melbourne’s oldest elevator – the notorious hydraulic lift, the last remnant of a system that had once served the entire city’s freight elevators. It was an open-framed wooden structure that offered no reassurance whatsoever to the intimidated passenger. Having survived the lift or the stairs, and occasionally the apparition of a demented early arrival dropping from the ceiling of the lift to scare the wits out of the next passenger, the fan emerged into the clubrooms – more spacious than previous venues, with room for an actual library, and secure tenancy – for about a decade, as it turned out. A real estate agent would have called it a “renovator’s delight”, and although there was not a lot of actual renovating done, Merv and a few others set about making it more habitable. Tony Santos donated some furniture, including a large dining-room table, which was promptly appropriated for table tennis. No more chess! I was really disappointed, though I suppose it was not altogether a bad thing that a bunch of geeks were getting some exercise.

I braved the perils of the lift (there was a sort of nostalgia at riding in a genuine antique) and enjoyed attending the meetings whenever I could (despite the table tennis). The library was my only source of SF reading material until Keith McLelland started lending me books and magazine from his extensive collection. It was my first acquaintance with the American SF and fantasy magazines. I was particularly fond of ‘Astounding’ and its successor ‘Analog’, as I had a preference for science fiction that was (at least in part) actually science based. Keith earned his living as a technical artist for the Government Aircraft Factory, and in his spare time had produced highly detailed and decorative drawings for the Club’s zine Etherline and for Race Mathews’ Bacchanalia and others. He also painted, mostly watercolours, often of castles or other exotic locations, and created small sculptures. Our friendship ultimately almost led to marriage (even though he was an ‘older man’; I must have been in search of a ‘father figure’) but it didn’t work out. We remained friends, though, until he died in 1990. Keith was a conscientious chronicler of Club events and outings, and took numerous photographs, mostly before my time. They were all dissipated when he died with no close relatives to care.

In 1960 when I was 18, I finally met my Kiwi penfriend Mervyn Barrett (sadly never did meet his young friend Richard Paris, my first NZ penfriend). He was in Melbourne for a few days en route to somewhere else. Later he came back to Melbourne and lived here for a number of years. He became very much a part of the local science fiction scene. His friend from New Zealand Bruce Burn produced a fanzine, for which I did a couple of cover illustrations, drawn straight onto stencil. That was a whole new challenge for me, and one I hadn’t learned at art school. Though at art school I did learn how to do linocuts and print from them. I took the opportunity to do my first Tolkien inspired works, and made a linocut of Bilbo Baggins in Mirkwood surrounded by spiders, and one of the dragon Smaug on his mountain-top.

After Melcon in 1958, there wasn’t another convention in Melbourne until 1966, and Club membership dropped off, but a lot of interest in fandom was kept alive by the fanzine publishers. The ‘Three Johns (John Foyster, John Bangsund and John Baxter) and Leigh Edmonds were the best known but there were others. Meanwhile the Club was kept going (at times almost single-handedly) by Merv Binns. Along with Mervyn Barrett and Cedric Rowley, Merv started showing movies at the McGills warehouse clubroom, which lured a number of people back to the Club and attracted a whole bunch of new ones.

I spent my years at Melbourne Tech pining for Melbourne University, which was just up the road. I craved knowledge and intellectual challenge, and art school was not the place for either. Although I liked doing artwork, and would have appreciated some instruction in the technicalities of it, there was very little of that – no lessons on Anatomy or Perspective, just criticism of our stumbling attempts. I specialized in Illustration, hoping to be able to illustrate science fiction or fantasy books. My teacher was Harold Freedman, later appointed Victoria’s State Artist. He designed the grand murals at Spencer Street Station (now sadly gone), Eastern Hill Fire Station and Flemington Race Course. (If you’re going to have a mentor, it might as well be the best.)

From the moment I knew that I was going to have to study art instead of science, I dreaded the prospect of having to try to make a living from it. I was just not quite adept enough at it. I finished my Art diploma course at Melbourne Tech in 1961, and my worst fears were realized. I found it very difficult to get work. Although I got a few small assignments from publishers, the only job I could get was as a designer for a plastic sign factory (typography turned out to be my best subject at art school, though also the most boring one.) I was never paid more than minimum wage. I had only two other jobs, and lost them both through ill health. When I looked for freelance work, the local publishers told me that all of their illustration work was done interstate. The only assignments I could get were doing finished diagrams (based on authors’ scribbles) for maths books. The subject matter suited me, but it was a constant reminder that I had not been given the opportunity at school to continue my formal studies in maths and science. (And creating meticulous black on white diagrams for hours at a time exacerbated my migraines).

A sample of Kelvin’s photo retouching skills in the days before digital photography (from Helena’s collection).

In 1965, I married Kelvin Roberts (an even older man than Keith, and even more of a father figure), a commercial artist who specialized in photographic retouching. I did not go back to the Club for a while, then Kelvin accompanied me there when I told him they were showing movies. (Kelvin loved the movies almost as much as Merv does.) Some that we saw were quite memorable. For example, I had never seen ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T’ before, though Dick Jenssen, Lee Harding and Mervyn Barrett were really besotted with it, so I finally saw what all the fuss was about. And we both loved ‘Forbidden Planet’. Kelvin had always been a big fan of adventure stories such as those of Hammond Innes and Alastair MacLean. He hadn’t read a lot of science fiction, but he appreciated its imaginative and innovative qualities, especially in movie form, and read a lot of the books I had.

In 1966 there was a convention at the clubrooms, the first since 1958. I wished that I had a camera to record it, but sadly did not have one then or for many years after that. (Most of what was said about impoverished artists was true, especially in those days.) I had always wanted a camera, both as an artistic tool and as a documentary one. I bought one for Kelvin, but it was just a simple one and most of the time we couldn’t afford film or processing anyhow. A couple of my paintings (one inspired by Tolkien’s The Hobbit and a fantasy one with a medieval look about it) were sold at that convention and I have no pictures of those either. I wouldn’t even have any photos of my 21st birthday party if Mervyn Barrett hadn’t brought his camera. He has shared copies of those with me, along with his photos of my wedding to Kelvin, and numerous Melbourne MSFC and other fannish gatherings. Michael O’Brien from Tasmania also took photos of a number of Melbourne events, including the 1968 convention held at the MSFC and the 1970 one at the Capri Theatre in Murrumbeena.

I continued to attend every Melbourne convention I could, and in 1973 at the age of 31 I got my first camera (with money earned for my cartoon style illustrations for a book by Ian Sykes, an independent petroleum peddler, satirizing the scheming of the multinational moguls). I had wanted a camera all my life, and knew exactly what I wanted – a single-lens reflex that was not too heavy for me to hold. I compared the specifications of each brand before buying one, and settled on the Olympus OM-1, which served me well for the next 30 years. At about the same time I bought mine, Kelvin got a very good secondhand single lens reflex camera with automatic exposure and that suited him fine. It turned out that he enjoyed taking photos as much as I did, and was very good at it. He converted one room of our rented house in Albert Park into a darkroom (fortuitously it had an exhaust fan), then decided that he didn’t like developing and printing black and white photos all that much, though he liked seeing the results, so I finished up doing all of the developing and printing. Later I did colour as well, but we could never afford a machine to process the negatives or the prints, and doing it by hand is a very laborious process. (Each print has to be processed individually.) Breathing in the chemicals isn’t all that good for you either, even with an exhaust fan. Thus equipped, along with Kelvin I became a visual chronicler of conventions, attending all the Melbourne ones we could afford to. Kelvin enjoyed the conventions as well, and took quite a few photos. 1973 was also the year I changed my name, from Margaret to Helena. (It seemed like a good idea at the time). Merv has since pointed out that if I hadn’t, we would now both have the same initials. (I’m not sure if that would have been an advantage or not.)

Merv Binns in costume at Aussiecon, 1975 (photo by Helena). FANAC

The most interesting and exciting convention by far, of course, was Aussiecon 1975 – Melbourne’s and Australia’s first Worldcon. It opened with a dramatic audio-visual display – a photo montage with music, the kind of thing that present-day conventioneers probably take for granted, but it was very innovative way back then. I was surprised and pleased to see some of my Tolkien paintings featured amongst the avalanche of images on screen. Because my habit of photographing everything that moved (or didn’t) at conventions had been noticed, the Aussiecon Committee also asked me to be their official photographer. They even gave me a dozen or so rolls of film to do it with. Unfortunately they didn’t also provide me with a front-row seat to do it from. I was told to stand up at the back with the other photographers (of which there were quite a few, amateur and professional, most with longer lenses than mine). Consequently most of my Aussiecon One photos look as if they were taken through the wrong end of a telescope. These days I mostly manage to get in early and bag a front row seat, but back then I was not wise in the ways of the world and I (and my photos) suffered accordingly. Also the Aussiecon coffers didn’t stretch to subsidising the cost of developing and printing the photos. I managed to develop the negatives myself, but was not able to do a lot of prints.

Aussiecon also brought the opportunity to meet people from overseas and make new friends – among them an American, Jan Howard Finder, an enthusiastic Aussiephile who introduced himself as ‘The Wombat’. We also met Mr Sci-Fi himself, Forrest J Ackerman, who liked my Tolkien paintings which were on display at the very comprehensive Art Show. He gave me a bat brooch from the Dracula Society. (Awesome.) The only three Science Fiction inspired paintings that Kelvin ever did were on display also, and two of them won prizes. They were very professional, airbrushed and finely detailed. We asked Ben Bova if he would be interested in Kelvin’s artwork, but he said that they only used artists not too far removed from Analog’s headquarters in New York. Over the years since, including two more Melbourne Worldcons and a memorable trip to my only overseas convention, the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton, England. That trip was thanks to Kelvin having one client who would telephone him at all hours of the day or night to produce artwork for catalogues. Kelvin finished up charging them double for the inconvenience, even though he did not mind the odd hours all that much. He worked on ‘Ditmar time’, his hours of sleeping and waking getting later and later as if he were born on Mars with a 25-hour day, and kept himself awake with coffee and cigarettes. He gave up smoking in 1981, but in 1988 it caught up with him anyhow. He died of cancer in 1991.

After Kelvin died, Merv started inviting me to attend conventions with him, which helped me to remain in touch with the science fiction community. We were not yet a couple, although we had been friends for over 40 years. Merv had invited Kelvin and me to his and his father Ern’s birthday and New Year’s Eve Parties over the years, so Kelvin was quite well acquainted with him. Kelvin was always very intuitive, and when he knew that he had only a little while to live, he was concerned about me being left on my own and suggested that Merv might be a good companion for me. I said that was unlikely since we were just friends, but eventually his prediction came true. Merv and I married in 1988.

I have done my best to photograph every convention I’ve attended, but cost has always been a constraint – until the arrival of the digital age. It almost passed me by. I knew that a digital camera would solve the problem of having films developed and printed, but the initial cost was a major hurdle. Five years ago, Eric Lindsay gave us his old digital camera, and that opened up a whole new world of documentary excess. I could now take (almost) as many photos as I wanted, and proceeded to do so. For higher quality photos I continued to use my trusty old Olympus film camera, but couldn’t always get them all developed and printed. Besides, after 30 years of use, the poor old camera was beginning to wear out. Then Dick Jenssen gave me his new digital camera (it’s a long story) and bought an even newer one. Photographic nirvana had finally arrived. Thanks to Ditmar, I can now take quantities of photos of reasonable quality. Dick had also given us his old computer and monitor and taught me how to use the software to enhance and adapt photos. I can now edit photos and share them around without having to get them printed out first. This is really gratifying. I believe that if a convention is worth attending, it’s worth photographing – and the same goes for any other special event. It’s good to have something to remember it by, and it’s even better to be able to share it with others.

Of course, the other advantage of having the computer and knowing (up to a certain point) how to use it, had been that for the past ten years or so, Merv and I have been able to produce personal fanzines or newsletters containing book and movie reviews and accounts of our own life’s events in general, and Merv’s memories of the early days in particular. That is still in progress, and of course photographs are a big part of it. There have been big gaps in the production of these publications over the past few years, due to technical as well as health and financial problems, but we are still doing our best to get it all done while we can.

I am 67 now. Merv is 75. And we consider it a blessing (and something of a minor miracle) that so many of our old friends are still around, and still in touch. And we are grateful for it.


Written by Helena Binns in 2009 to commemorate her being granted life membership of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club (MSFC). Kindly supplied by Bruce Gillespie.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn. All rights are hereby returned to respective owners.