By David L. Russell
Les Robertson was a science fiction fan. He lived in Moe in the east of Victoria with his parents Charlie (Chas) and Kath Robertson.
Like his father, Les worked at a coal-fired power station. Most of Moe’s men did the same.
He was one of the problem-solving techs that fandom produces in abundance. At one convention the movie Short Circuit 2 was to be shown on a large cinema screen just prior to the finish of the con. But an essential cable was missing, so impatient fans were waiting en masse getting increasingly annoyed at the delay.
Les was asked for help and had the needed cable to link the two recalcitrant bits of technology. Les saves the day!! At the closing ceremony Shane Morrisey gratefully thanked Les.
You see, Les always lugged around a HUGE amount of kipple with him when he attended conventions — far more, frankly, than any other reasonable person would bother bringing. Seeing him with all of his paraphernalia I was always reminded of the over prepared beaver from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark “The beaver brought paper, portfolio, pens, And ink in unfailing supplies”(1).
As the person who had to, on occasion, help move all of these essentials around later in Les’s life, I often thought when he was repacking at one or two am that life would have been easier for both of us if we’d gone minimalistic rather than the fannish everything-and-the-kitchen-sink and a spare-kitchen-sink-and-essential-repair-materials-if-either-sink-should-spring-a-leak way of doing things.
One time, a ring that he owned went ‘missing’, causing much searching of packed bags and luggage; given the lateness of the hour I was heartily sick of relooking through possible hiding places, using a torch to make sure it hadn’t gotten underneath his hotel room bed and making plans to phone house keeping the next day in case they found it after we’d checked out and caught both our early morning trains home. All of this while wanting only sleep after a three-day convention.
I phoned him after arriving home. His mother Kath answered the phone, “Did the ring turn up?” Yes. It was stuck to some duct tape he’d used to seal up some luggage. Les always had duct tape and a sewing kit and superglue and a leatherman tool and…
We met through both of us belonging to The Melbourne Science Fiction Club back when it was located at Saint David’s Uniting Church Hall in 74 Melville Road, West Brunswick. I’m sure I attended a few meetings without paying much attention to Les. If you chucked a rock back then you’d hit a dozen slightly overweight, bearded, affable enough, male fans at any well-attended meeting.
In talking to James ‘Jocko’ Allen I’d learned that Les would happily get milk or perhaps fish and chips from a nearby shop in Melville Road if someone was too busy to get them for themselves but that getting the change from these purchases out of him was a little difficult.
Les would glom onto people and talk seemingly endlessly about his obsessive fondness for B-grade science fiction movies. The first time I was the victim of one of these enthusiastic proselytising speeches I learned more about The Puppeteer series of horror movies (also an interest) than I really wanted or needed to. And why were people edging away from me and suddenly remembering that they had to speak to someone else when I was telling them about the latest artist I’d encountered?
When he could still see, Les would ride quite long distances on his beloved motorbike at the drop of a hat if a fellow fan needed help setting up a video player or a television set. It was usual for him to help out at the conventions he attended. Somewhere on a VHS tape at the 1994 convention Constantinople (William Gibson was one of the guests of honour) held at the now demolished Southern Cross Hotel, there’s footage of me wandering up to Les, not noticing the video camera he was using on behalf of the committee and saying, “Hey Les how’s it going?” Only to be scolded by him for talking over the panel that he was recording for posterity.
Coming home from Melbourne after a convention where he wore his warlord costume — which prior to modern con’s no weapons policy had a heavy steel sword as part of it — Les was using the handle of his sword as a makeshift handle to steer a wheeled trolley that he had all of his con stuff in. Two teenaged Vietnamese boys, one of whom had a butterfly knife, decided to mug him and demanded his money. Les simply pulled the sword from its scabbard and told the two of them bluntly, “Fuck off.” I like to think that they turned away from a life of crime as a result of being confronted with a much larger weapon.
Les became a diabetic and annoyed fans with his cavalier attitude towards reducing the amount of sugar in his diet. On a visit to Moe I was taken to ‘see’ a movie with him. I told him the visual stuff that was happening. That annoying person who talks during the entire movie? That was me! Sorry. Prior to going into the theatre Les bought soft drink, a chocolate-covered ice-cream and was going to buy a packet of Fantale lollies before I put my foot down and said no to the lollies. He complained, saying, “It’s not really going to the movies if you don’t have Fantales.”
Later in life he’d buy full-sugar cans of soft drink and drink them all between the weekly grocery trips. Sweet things were one of the few pleasures he had left in his life.
An incompetent doctor had blinded Les during a laser session on his eyes to seal leaking blood vessels at the back of his eye. After that Les no longer trusted anyone in the medical field and did whatever he wanted to as far as his diet went, despite everyone telling him that there would be negative consequences.
Eventually, he had to undergo dialysis every Monday, Wednesday and Friday which meant he was unable to attend The Melbourne Science Fiction Club’s weekly meetings on Friday night. Les, towards the last two years of his life, was taking so many pills prescribed for him by doctors that he had to be extended a line of credit by his pharmacist — so expensive had his medical bills become. This meant he was unable to maintain his memberships in any of the clubs he’d been in or attend anything like the number of fannish events he dearly would have liked to.
I read Dave Langford’s fanzine Ansible to him whenever there was a new one out. Thog’s Masterclass was his favourite section. I also read Les the more interesting articles from Ethel the Aardvark. Murray MacLachlan’s work was especially appreciated. He was uninterested in book reviews, since print was dead to him. So, Christmas and birthday gifts to Les were usually DVDs.
I believe it was in 2017 at Christmas time that, exhausted by the illnesses that beset him, he announced that he wasn’t going in for any more dialysis. This causes a build-up of toxins in the blood and results in death. It cast a pall over the ‘tis the season to be jolly’ for those few friends who still kept in touch with Les. Every phone call potentially became the call that announced his death. I was relieved when he phoned early in 2018 to tell me he’d decided to live.
On his only visit to Dennington where I live, he was still capable of walking and by chance we met up with a niece and nephew of mine, Kate and Michael Andrews. They’d never met someone who was blind before, and Kate asked curiously, “What’s it like being blind?” Les was unable to come up with a quick answer, so I told them, “Shut your eyes.” Which obediently they did. “Now keep them shut,” their eyes remained closed. In a louder voice, “Forever!” Their eyes snapped open. I’m sure they will remember meeting my blind friend for a long time.
Les struck up friendships with those patients he underwent dialysis with, but the funerals he had to attend when their bodies no longer responded to the blood cleansing must have been an ongoing reminder of his mortality.
Further illness and the failure of The National Disability Insurance Scheme to address problems Les had with getting around in his parent’s residence meant that he fell often and was on a first name basis with the local ambulance drivers who had to come and pick him up. His father Chas had died and Les’s mother Kath wasn’t strong enough to lift him back into his wheelchair unaided.
One of the most frustrating two hours I have ever spent in my life was on a train with Les going to Canberra to attend the first Conflux convention. He always liked to have a phone with him in case of emergencies and had just bought a new one. Since we had an abundance of spare time on the combined train/bus journey he thought he’d work out how to use the phone without using the thick manual that came with every new phone back then. Frustratingly, this was the one thing he didn’t pack. Sob! But it was okay. He had his trusty seeing-eye human with him!! Press button. Tell Les how this had changed the screen. Press ‘nother button. Les is unhappy with the result. Repeat. Endlessly. Are you sure you didn’t bring the manual? The glass windows on that carriage didn’t open, which is why Les still had a telephone at the conclusion of the journey.
It’s absurd to claim that you have the slightest inkling of the task given to King Sisyphus in the underworld after only two hours of frustration with a recalcitrant mobile phone and a blind man, isn’t it?
The speed that I normally walk at from one bit of a convention to another is something I hadn’t given any thought to until Les lost his sight and I began helping him get around at cons. He’d have his hand on my left shoulder and would walk behind me to reduce the likelihood of walking into something — at fairly slow pace. Oh, the freedom to walk quickly without having to warn Les about steps or tram tracks or signposts; it’s something most people have never had to consider. We are all most fortunate to have our sight.
Les, during the phone calls we had on Tuesday night, told me he considered James ‘Jocko’ Allen to be his best friend. The two of them had spent a lot of time together during Jocko’s bachelor days; so my contact with Les later on in his life couldn’t get me the top spot.
Les Robertson was kind, annoyingly a bit more intelligent than me and more stubborn than any other person I’ve ever known, even when that stubbornness was to his own detriment. He was generous with his time and the effort that he put into helping others. I will miss him, his sense of somewhat twisted dark humour, his love for truly bad movies and the long conversations we regularly had. I hope I’ve given a rounded impression of my friend and his interactions with me and fandom through writing about his good qualities and his flaws.
Twenty people attended Les Robertson’s funeral at the Chapel of LaTrobe Valley Funeral Services at 6 Ollerton Avenue in Moe. Six of those twenty were science fiction fans. I was one of them, but I was ten minutes late for the 2pm start. I will always be grateful to Les’s mother Kath for delaying the start of her son’s funeral service so that I could attend all of it. James was on time.
Fandom is poorer for Les Robertson’s demise.
David L. Russell.
- The Hunting of the Snark, an agony in eight fits; with nine illustrations by Henry Holliday. p.750
From The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll with all 276 original drawings. Chancellor Press 1982.