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B.B. 300

A light hearted account of the impact of the B.B. on one club member - and possibly vice versa.

On a freezing cold day in January 1947, an intriguing looking collection of folded paper dropped through the letterbox of my lodgings in London.  On opening it, I found that it was a thing calling itself the Belfry Bulletin, Volume I Number 1 - edited by one Dan Hasell (Whom I had heard of but not then met) and published by the Bristol Exploration Club (which I had just joined). This was my first contact with the B.B. (and vice versa) but not - entirely due to my own stupidity - my last.

During the following months, I got into the habit of awaiting its delivery with some interest - for I was marooned in London and (believe it or not!) dead keen to lay my hands on anything connected with caving.  Mostly, the B.B. arrived as expected and hoped for, although sometimes the odd month would go by without one.  Still, it had eight issues behind it by the time its first birthday came round and it looked as though, with any luck, it might go on.

Much the same happened the next year.  It came nearly every month with only the months of February and April disregarded by the management - presumably because Feb, was too short a month to count and April took them by surprise by coming so soon after March.  Then - just as the thing was becoming a familiar part of the scenery in my lodgings - the B.E.C. played one of those typical tricks designed to help its members keep on their toes by suddenly changing the shape of the thing and thus making it impossible to keep the copies in a neat pile on the bedroom chest of drawers.  As if to compensate for this, it now came out regularly every month - as indeed it was to do without a break for the next 35 issues.

For a club member exiled far from Mendip (and in those days; what with a six day working week; no private cars or bikes worth speaking about and no money to risk the overcrowded public transport, London was a very long way from Mendip.)  This regular appearance of the B.B. was a greatly appreciated event.  Each issue was carefully read as being the next best thing to actually being able to be on Mendip.  From its pages I learned of new caves and of new (to me) cavers.  Some of these I never managed to meet but felt that if I had, I would have known them through the B.B.  Of course, members were still coming back to Mendip from the war.  For instance, in B.B. number 13 I read:-

'We are delighted to welcome back into circulation again D. Bessell; R.A. Crocker and R.J. Bagshaw, all recently demobbed.'

Who, I wondered, were D. Bessell; R.A. Crocker and R.J. Bagshaw?  I never did meet the first two to my knowledge, but the last one does seem vaguely familiar.

Other statements echo down through the years like the hardy perennials they are.  For example; 'Cleaning up the Belfry is done by the same old regulars.  It is time the other perishers did their share.' 1970? 1962?  No, that one was printed in 1948.  Similarly, one read that 'The B.B. is, as always, in urgent need of material.'  It could have any year but was, in fact, 1952.

Even so, it was largely the B.B. that made me want to move from London to where the action was - and when at last I managed to do this, the B.B. was 37 issues old.  Now my news could be obtained at first hand - which was just as well because the B.B. was about to experience the first of the two major crises in its history to date (not counting, of course, the continual crisis caused by its present editor.)

Early 1951, the B.E.C. went through a rather drastic shake up in its management and the B.B., which had passed into the editorship of Harry Stanbury some way along the line, got caught up in the re-shuffle following Harry's resignation from the committee.  Don Coase and Johnny Shorthose stepped valiantly but reluctantly into the breach and somehow kept the B.B. going for London against fearsome odds.  One of the more intriguing results of this was the mystery of B.B. number 48, which should have been that for June 1951.  As far as I know, not a single copy of this issue exists, and it is generally assumed never to have existed; yet the following B.B. (Desperately entitled No 49/50 for July/August 1951) apologises for the late appearance of number 48.  Anyone owning a copy of 48 could, presumably make his or her fortune - or at least the price of a pint or two.

Don and Shorty struggled gamely on, but in February 1952 disaster finally struck.  Shorty had to move to Scotland from whence, in those days, even the B.E.C. would have found it difficult to run the B.B. while Don was about to become married and, presumably, had other things to think about. Ken Dobbs (otherwise known as Caxton) who had been printing the B.B. in Bristol, himself edited the next three editions as a temporary measure and, when it seemed that the B.B. was going to founder through the lack of someone to edit it, Harry Stanbury came forward again and offered to do it.  The committee accepted this offer, and the crisis was over.  Once more, the B.B. came out regularly.  In fact, it never missed a single month for - you've guessed it! - 35 issues.  There seemed to be some law of nature which prevented any longer run.

Going back to when I lived in London, I wrote an article for the B.B. but the editor - very sensibly - lost it (working no doubt on the basis that once he started publishing stuff by me, there would be no knowing where it might end.)  However, in 1952 or so, a number of us younger members (yes, I know it sounds odd, but this was 1952 after all!) decided that we would try to liven up the B.B. a bit and to our surprise, some of our stuff actually got accepted.

The B.B. in those days consisted of six pages of quarto as a general rule but in December 1952 we got a 12 page B.B. complete with decorative black and white cover by Tony Johnson.  On a rather different note, B.B. number 71 had the distinction of being the only B.B. to have one side of one page printed upside-down.  Part of a letter which I had written to the editor was, of course, on this upside-down page.

In December 1953, we had a 16 page B.B. with coloured cover and the B.B. seemed to be going from strength to strength.  This tradition of larger issues for Christmas became a regular thing and, when the larger edition for December 1955 was immediately followed by another large edition in January 1956 to mark the 100th issue of the B.B., everything seemed set for the dreaded 35 issue barrier to be broken at last.  Somewhat naturally, this was the cue for another crisis.

For various reasons, the quality of print in the B.B had been getting worse, and it had often been quite difficult to read some of the copies.  As a result, some of the people who wrote regularly for it, wrote less often and said that if the club wanted a readable magazine, then it ought to spend some money on better equipment and fork out for a printed cover like the Wessex Journal had.  Others said that there was little point in doing all this because people did not write for it as they once had.  As a result of all this, no B.B. at all was published between May and September 1956, the longest gap in the B.B.’s appearance there has ever been.  There were even some people who said that the B.B. had outlived its usefulness now that nearly all members could get to Mendip easily if they wished, and that the B.B. should be wound up.  Before anything so drastic actually happened, an A.G.M. came along, and several of us went to it determined to see that the B.B. continued.

Of course, I see now where we made our mistake.  It was, one thing to go to the A.G.M. to make sure that several, other people worked hard to improve the B. B.  It was quite another thing when the four of us - Bob Price, 'Spike' Rees, Dave England and myself, found that we had been saddled with it and given the resounding title of  'B.B. Editorial Board'.

It took us until March to produce our first B.B. - with a printed cover and much heartbreak with the duplicator.  The club in those days had an old Ellam's model which we were convinced that some enterprising member had stolen from the Science Museum. It used to take us a whole evening to print six pages with a circulation of about 120.  One of us would turn the handle while the other three sorted out sheets which the machine had condescended to print from sheets it had blithely ignored.  We then counted the ones with print on and fed all the rest back into the machine for another go.  We often needed six or seven goes per page before we got the number printed that we wanted.

Somehow, using this system, we managed to print a 20 page issue that Christmas with a rather fine linocut cover by Daphne Stenner, and staggered on into 1958.  With 32 issues behind us, and every chance of breaking the notorious 35 issue barrier, disaster struck yet again November 1959. After a long and frustrating evening, we finally surveyed the scene of utter chaos; pushed our through the piles of scrap paper which lay everywhere and retired to the nearest pub.  The duplicator had had it.

With Christmas coming along, we reviewed the situation over a number of pints.  As the blood content of our alcohol streams steadily dropped, our schemes got progressively bolder.  We decided that we would somehow manage one last issue on the old machine and then go in for a complete face-lift again.  This would involve the use of a new typewriter; an electric Gestetner machine which we would hopefully borrow time on from B.A.C.; a new cover, different size of paper and centre stapling.  That, we agreed, as we slid slowly under the table would make up for the loss of the November issue.

Surprisingly enough, it actually worked.  The new cover design was easily settled.  We asked members what they would like and they said “A cover like the Wessex Journal”. We thought personally that a cover saying WESSEX CAVE CLUB would look a bit odd wrapped round a B.B., but gradually we got round to understanding what our members meant and so we came by a copy of the Wessex Journal by devious means and studied its cover carefully. Since it was a two colour motif on a white background, we decided that ours must be a THREE colour motif on a white background.  This ambit¬ious scheme was a trifle marred by the fact that the three colours either overlapped or failed to meet each other and that the bat had a face like a pig. Its resemblance to various members of the editorial board was freely commented on by members of the B.E.C.

I got permission to use the firm's duplicator in the lunch hour, and it was only at this stage that the snag in the whole arrangement became apparent.  While I had been getting this permission, the rest of the Editorial Board had been doing a bit of crafty time and motion study.  They put it this way. "Look", they said, "You typed the stencils and then we used to help print, collate and staple it.  Now, all you've got to do is to take it in to work on a Thursday once a month after you've typed it on the Wednesday evening.  On the Thursday, you'll have a couple of hours to spare between leaving work and coming down to club, and that'll give you plenty of time to do the folding, collating and stapling.  Our job will be coming down to club and reading it."

Arguments were in vain. I tried to appeal to their better nature but they said they hadn't got one.  And so it happened.  Of course, the B.B. in those days was only six or eight pages and it could really be started on a Wednesday evening and brought down to club the following day. In fact, on one occasion, I went to a lecture at the university one Wednesday and brought out a B.B. in which the lecture was described at club the next day.  Once this routine had got itself established, it went on - and on and on.

Many years later, the firm declared the Gestetner was to be scrapped and I was told that I could put in a bid for it.  I suggested £1 and to my surprise it was accepted.  It worked for the B.B. until the end of 1971, when it was given to Dave Irwin who uses it still for publications.  It was a very good pound's worth!

In 1961, my greatest disappointment connected with the B.B. occurred.  The Wessex Journal had passed into the editorship of Chris Hawkes at the time, and I suggested to him that it would be a grand gesture if we got together just once in the year and published a joint Christmas edition.  To my delight, he agreed and we soon became quite enthusiastic about the project.  Difficulties were easily overcome.  For instance, the joint number would bear BOTH serial numbers.  At the time, both journals were of the same format, so there was no difficulty there.  I designed a cover, a copy of which I still have as a sad reminder of what might have been.  It showed a Wessex Gryphon and a B.E.C. bat shaking hands.  I mentioned the project to the B.E.C. committee, who thought it a very good idea, as did the club A.G.M. in the October of that year. Chris said that he had encountered no difficulty in his talks with the management of the Wessex Cave Club except that they thought it should be extended to include the other main Mendip club of that time - The Shepton Mallet Caving Club.

Nothing daunted, I added a Shepton pile of rocks to the design for the cover, so that the gryphon and bat had something to stand on, and surrounded the whole thing with the Shepton rope design - but alas!  The S.M.C.C. said that such a publication would not be in line with their publishing policy, which was only to publish serious work carried out by members of their own club.  The W.C.C. then said that if the S.M.C.C. could not see their way to joining in, they too would have to back out - and the grand Christmas number was dead.

Apart from this, there were of course, special numbers of the B.B.  In May 1960, a Silver Jubilee edition to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the B.E.C. was produced.  Christmas that year surprised us all by having no less than 36 pages, which was later surpassed by two 40 page Christmas editions and finally, in December 1965 by a 48 page number.

Time went on.  With the publication of number 176 for October 1962, the 35 issue barrier finally fell.  In July 1961, the record for the greatest number of issues for a single editor went by unnoticed by all, including myself.  In July 1965, I had somehow managed to make my century and in January 1966 equalled the output of all the other editors combined.  Only one thing enlivened matters during this long time. In March 1963, a column started in the B.B. written by one 'Stalagmite'.  His forthright comments over the next twelve months attracted much attention and there was great speculation as to who he could be.  In fact, he became quite a legend and his identity one of the best kept secrets of the B.B.

In spite of the record 48 pages for Christmas 1966 again it was becoming painfully obvious that the B.B. could do with new blood, and during 1967 I offered to resign.  At once, no less than two volunteers sprang forward - Alan Thomas and Dave Irwin.  Dave won the toss and so, with a modest 22 page issue for December 1967, I signed off and settled down to the prospect of becoming a reader of the B.B. again.

And that was the way I intended it to stay.  Apart from an annual allegedly humorous article at Christmastime, I decided that I would never again write for the B.B. but merely let it come to me as it had done years before.

When my B.B's started to arrive, with no effort at all on my part, I was certainly not disappointed. I was amazed.  Great big thick B.B.'s of a size I had never dreamed of started to arrive.  A new, modern cover; new size and new enthusiasm had woken the B.B. up yet again.

Dave edited the B.B. for two years, but the value he gave to the club was far greater than the short time would suggest.  In terms of quantity, he gave members no less than 458 pages of quarto, and his 60 page Christmas number for 1969 set a record which, in these days of rising paper prices, may never be broken.  This edition alone contained more pages than the whole of the year's issue of the B.B. for 1951.

It was not only in size that the great improvement to the B.B was felt at this time.  Dave had attracted a variety of writers whose joint efforts brought the B.B to the notice of many people outside the club to the extent that a subscription scheme for non-members was instituted and became successful.

At the end of 1969, Dave felt that the club's Caving Publications had greater need of his services, and Mike Luckwell volunteered to take over the editorship of the B.B, starting in January 1970.  The story of Mike's tragic death in North Wales is still fresh in our memories.  I was given the stencils which he had prepared towards his first edition and I am convinced that we lost a fine editor as well as a very pleasant personality and keen mind in that mountaineering accident.  The fact that, for example, his editorial was going out under a Latin title gives some idea of the style he would have brought to the B.B. had he lived.

The rest is recent history. As a temporary measure for the next two years, the B.B. was kept on at a more modest 12 pages of quarto per month, and then we went metric which required yet another change of size, cover and now publish at 24 pages of A5 per month printed by the offset litho process. The size of the B.B. is now dictated by the cost of materials.

What the future will bring is anybody's guess, but the B.B. has shown a remarkable ability to survive in the past and no doubt will continue to do so for a very long time to come.

 “Alfie”

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Notice: -  The B.B. Editor is now on the Telephone – the number is CHEW MAGNA 2915.

Members Change of Address.

Nigel Hallet, 144, Stockwood Road, Bristol 4.