PSIFA 30-year Event 0.2

A few years off its one-third century, one of Britain's more active college SF societies marked its big 30th with a couple of events. This is a review of the 2nd of these birthday gatherings.

Hatfield Polytechnic PSIFA - now the Hertfordshire University SF Society - held a second event to mark its 30th anniversary in 2009. This event, though small, was remarkably successful with a dozen or more old members of the society, stretching back to the society's founding year 1978, together with some of the current generation attending. Both reunion events were more of a film fest cum party for current members (although a few old members came to the first gathering), but the second was more of a reunion for former students.

PSIFA history
The day was a chance to reflect on times past, old friends and acquaintances as well as the achievements of one of Britain's few, longstanding, student science fiction societies: indeed within the college, and after 30 years, it is one of just two Hatfield student societies with such longevity. In addition to regular, weekly term-time meetings of talks (both of SF and science), films and quizzes, PSIFA has over the years run writers workshops, sent off field trips to (London) West End films as well as to SF conventions across the country, run a gaming wing, had two campus radio shows (beginning with Radio Free Entropy and featuring episodes (provided with Kenny Everett's blessing) of Captain Kremon, and - of course - organised the legendary Shoestringcon SF conventions (a number of these had over a couple of hundred attending). All of which have been documented over the years in PSFIA's clubzine Hypo Space (named after the original polytechnic student newspaper Hypo, 'the hype of the polytechnic'). This meant that during its most active years (and these periods have come, gone and returned again) PSIFA in term times has run activities on more than one day a week and had three-figure memberships. That PSIFA's activities have waxed and waned is exemplified by its wargames dimension. In PSIFA's second year (1979/80) a wargames event was held once a week in addition to the society's principal weekly gathering. Then in the mid-1980s the wargamers split off and formed a separate society. After a few years this collapsed. Then in the late 1990s the war gamers split off again before once more merging back with PSIFA in the mid-2000s. It seems that every now and then a generation or two of students is doomed to make the same mistakes as their forbears. In this way PSIFA is no different to the reset of humanity, and like humanity still has the potential for a bright future...

PSIFA name
At this point it is worthwhile tackling the question that often arises as to why PSIFA (the Polytechnic ScIence Fiction Association) is still called PSIFA when the polytechnic has now become a university. Some say that the reason is that PSIFA is such a cool name, unlike USIFA. Others point out that a university is (among other things) also a polytechnic. The Greek root for 'poly' means many and 'tekne' means arts and so a polytechnic is a place where many disciplines are studied. Conversely university has a Latin root 'versari' meaning to be engaged in (as in to be well versed in) and 'uni' for all of one. In short by definition a university (where students become 'versed in all') is also a polytechnic (where 'many disciplines' are studied), but of course the reverse is not true; not all polytechnics are universities. It is also worth noting that one PSIFA member was a local pupil at the former Hatfield technical college where he took his A-levels. The tech college then became the polytechnic and he enrolled. So PSIFA not only has its beginnings going back to it pre-university, polytechnic days but also further connections to pre-polytechnic times! PSIFA is therefore inextricably entwined with the present Hertfordshire University's historical heritage.

30th anniversary reunion 0.2
The second 30th anniversary day of the year had at its core a film fest and though there were quite a few good films, both old and new, it was catching up and chat that seemed to dominate the proceedings: informality ruled. The current generation organisers - who included Simon Baldwin, Liz Hopkins and Simon Hoaran - facilitated matters with an ample supply of nibbles and soft drinks. Simon Baldwin also produced an anniversary edition of Hypo Space with articles from both old and current members. Among the notables attending was Jaine, now known as the author Jaine Fenn, who has two books of a trilogy out from Gollancz with Principles of Angels and Consorts of Heaven. There were also a clutch of PSIFAns from its inaugural years, including Sue (née Harrison) Hobson, Anthony Heathcote, John Watkinson and Phil Willis. Dave Lermit who, though not a Hatfield/Herts student, has in his own words 'been fortunate to be involved in the evolution and expansion of the Universe along with thousands of stellar individuals collectively known as PSIFAns,' was also present and advising those from former generations to leave the present-day PSIFA alone to get on with it. Guy Robinson, who was PSIFA President in the 1980s, reminisced about the later of the Hatfield Shoestringcon SF conventions and asked whether it was true that the Shoestringocons preceded the Unicons? This led to a potted history being recounted as to how Hatfield PSIFA had a good relationship with the Keele University SF Society who started the Unicons and who closely monitored Shoestringcon 1 to learn from mistakes and nick good ideas. Meanwhile Martin Stewart who still lives in the St Albans area told us of how the former Staffen group had evolved into Polaris SF but had sadly ceased: however he still saw Mic Rogers. This brings us on to those who could not attend...

The one downside was absent friends. There were a good few names mentioned who had expressed a possible interest in coming to the reunion but who in the end did not show. (Some advice for future organisers (in another ten years time) would be to send out a follow-up e-mail indicating early response and the years of PSIFA's history likely to be represented, and to ask for this message to be virally promulgated.) Anthony Heathcote brought along some early Hypo Spaces together with some early photographs of PSIFA's first generation events: everyone in them looked so shockingly young to former PSIFAns! (While the Old Age PSIFANs looked undeniably old to the present generation.) The photographs reminded us of old friends and acquaintances and there was sadness for those who might have attended had they still been with us: unfortunately some old members have dropped off the radar having not been well, and we sadly lost Chris Cooper last year. We might all note the words of ecologist Charles Gibson on human longevity: 'everything over 40 years is a bonus'. By this count all of the early generations of PSIFAns are in bonus time, which added poignancy to those present being able to gather.

In addition to the reminiscing and films, co-founder member, Jonathan Cowie reprised part of his 1981 PSIFA talk on extraterrestrial intelligence getting the audience to do the Drake equation (which was then ably calculated by current PSIFAn maths student Liz Hopkins) and a quick run through of his recent Sci Fi London biology presentation.

Numbers attending grew in the afternoon, as did the buzz of conversation, and so the gathering spilt out onto the small neighbouring courtyard. And then there was the birthday cake: chocolate was the organisers' excellent choice. Then there were also a couple of group walk-abouts the campus noting the changes that had taken place over the years. Meanwhile a small camera crew from the university's alumni office documented the event itself.

Campus changes after 30 years
Notably, especially for the oldsters were the changes. The lecture halls used for the event had inevitably upgraded audio-visuals including a nifty camera overhead-projector -style TV screen together with separate PowerPoint screens. Also the seats had upholstering: indication some comment as to the sturdiness of current students' posteriors. But there were other changes.

Before even walking about the campus it was easy to see that there were many new buildings both in the teaching part of the campus and also next to the original halls of residence - Butler, Chapman and Fern - with the creation of both new halls and a village of student houses. Also there is more security with a fence along Bishop's Rise, and a manned entrance checkpoint as well as a roving campus security team. It appears that there have been successive generations of 'hilltop' hooligans some of whom have been violent to students. Perhaps the biggest change (shock) for the old timers was what was being done to the Elephant House (home of the Shoestringcons) and the Font, and as it happened the last day of both was the very day before this 2nd PSIFA 30th anniversary reunion. The top floor of the Elephant House was about to become offices (horror) and the Font bar was to be closed (shock)!!!! Some of the first generation PSIFAns managed to wrangle their way in and see what was being done. The loss of the Elephant house was particularly sad for past Shoestringcon organisers (though already the bottom half of the Elehouse had been turned into an oversized shop), though it transpired that the Elehouse had in recent years acquired a decent blackout (the previous lack of which meant that the early PSIFA conventions had to have their own innovative, suspended blackout due to the ceiling window lights). Meanwhile the Font had been expanded into the former refectory and upgraded to look like some sort of high-tech Bladerunner nightclub. (Hope they had retained the real ale.) Anyway, returning PSIFAns were able to see both these literally being cleared out prior to the big change and a move to a new student union building (behind the Elephant House). Let's hope it is set up to be able to handle conventions.

The next 30 years
And so, with the event over, PSIFAns continue their respective odysseys into the future with their own 'very slow time machines' (here apologies to Shoestringcon 2's Guest of Honour Ian Watson). Will PSIFA in years to come generate any other SF authors? Will some PSIFAns continue to make the transition into mainstream fandom? The future may have its uncertainties but the next generations of students are bound to have fun finding out and they do so with the surety of a sound, student SFnal heritage behind them.



Further information. Two of Concatenation's core team are Old Age PSIFAns (OAPs) and Concatenation is pleased to host a small PSIFA resource page for the benefit of future generations of PSIFAns and purposes of continuity.
          Elsewhere on this site we have an earlier short article on PSIFA's 30th anniversary and at the bottom of that page you will find a link to the 10th anniversary (pre-word processing) edition of Hypo Space, and a direct link to this is here.

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