Photo by his son, Mick, from 1983
Last Saturday word arrived that D. West had died of cancer on Friday. I hadn't known about the cancer, so the news was completely unexpected. It was only a few month ago, probably in May, that I received a letter from him talking about the struggles he was having with the piece we'd asked him to write for Chunga, but there was no hint of ill health. A little over a month ago I received a cryptic message from his partner, Hazel Ashworth, saying that he was "out of action at present and unable fulfill any Chunga functions anytime soon." I had no idea what that was about, but in retrospect I now realize this must have been after he'd received the cancer diagnosis.
I only met Don West once, on my TAFF trip in 2003. I'd certainly heard of him before that and had seen his artwork and cartoons in fanzines, and thanks to Victor Gonzalez, who practically worshiped the man, I had read some of his fan-writing, including the brilliant conreport "Performance," which delivers the metaphor of participation in fandom as performance at epic length. Victor introduced me to the man himself in 2003, when he joined my in Keighley, outside of Leeds, and took me to a pub to meet Don and Hazel. I spent a couple of days in the area talking to Don and Hazel and a couple of the other members of the old Leeds Group, which had mostly disintegrated by that point. I was intimidated by Don, largely because of his KTF reputation, but for the most part I found him very congenial. Still, he wasted no time telling me how much and why he hated Chunga's layout and how he couldn't understand the praise it garnered. He offered to write us a piece, but only if we dropped our standard layout for those pages. (I believe the pitch was that it would be about an old bus route he used to ride, perhaps to fannish destinations, and the title would be "Route 666".) I turned him down with a smile, and that seemed to be okay by him. He offered us a pair of covers instead, and I accepted.
Illo for my TAFF report published in Chunga 5, August 2003
It almost felt like a rite of passage of sorts, or a trial by fire. He threw some punches, I shrugged them off, and then he proceeded to give us some of his incredible artwork. I can't claim to have known the man well enough to fully understand his character, and I've certainly seen that trial by fire approach turn into an antagonistic relationship with other people. But to me it seemed like he was basically taking the piss and then judging me by how I reacted. It probably helped that I thought his criticisms of our layout were really funny, in the over the top, exaggerated way that a lot of British invective has (cf Monty Python), and I halfway suspected he was halfway pulling my leg. If he had really thought Chunga was such an awful-looking piece of shit, he wouldn't have given us any of his work at all, or at least that's how I interpreted it. I also felt that there was something of the Tall Poppy Syndrome going on. Chunga was currently all the rage in some sectors of fanzine fandom, and he wanted to bring us down a notch. Considering how easy it was for me to think we really were the hottest shit ever, it was probably a good thing for someone of stature to fire a couple of shots across my bow.
He never stopped criticizing our layout or letting us know if we had fucked something up in his eyes, but he pretty much always had a reasoned argument for his perspective. We printed those first two covers of his on dark-toned paper, and he let us have it with both barrels. The dark colors destroyed the contrast with the black ink of the artwork, he said. Looking at the printed covers (two masterworks of pointillism), I had to agree with him, and since then we've only used pastel or astrobright colors for our coverstock.
This early work is from a set of illustrations of Tolkien self-published in 1971
I didn't always agree with his stances, however, and not just when it came to Chunga's layout. When he refused the Rotsler Award in 2011, he blasted Rotsler for dashing off a lot of thoughtless, substandard work rather than putting his all into everything he did. This was similar to his take on fanzines as a whole. He felt fanzines were an art form and that if you didn't put your best work into it you were traducing the art form. He had no time for people who just do fanzines for fun or for the social and communal aspect of it. He was very painstaking in his own contributions to the field, and he seemed to have no respect for anyone who was less painstaking than himself. This is too harsh an approach, in my view, and I think he was completely wrong about Rotsler in particular. Rotsler represents a kind of open, fecund, spontaneous approach that I think was simply alien or antithetical to Don's mindset.
He told me a fair amount about his life in our conversations in Keighley and Skipton. I remember he said that his parents moved to Yorkshire when he was a baby, and since he hadn't been born there the locals considered him an outsider. The perfect fannish origin story, I thought: we're all outsiders of some stripe or another. He also told me that he came to science fiction fandom relatively late in life, and I'm guessing he meant convention and fanzine fandom, because from what I'm reading on Facebook (there's a public group called 'Don West Memorial - artist & fanzine cartoonist') he discovered the British Science Fiction Association sometime in the '60s. It appears he got into fanzine fandom around 1975, when he would have been 30 and where he immediately connected with Ratfandom and began writing his infamous KTF (Kill the Fuckers) fanzine reviews for Roy Kettle's True Rat. I actually only know those KTF reviews by reputation. For the most part the only things I've read by him are in the giant collection Deliverance (he gave me Mal Ashworth's old copy on my visit) and what I was able to read of the other giant collection, Fanzines in Theory and Practice, one afternoon sitting in Hazel's living room on my visit. By the time I got into fanzines in the late-'90s he wasn't really writing anymore, but he was still drawing and cartooning, just as brilliantly as ever.
Cover for Attitude 12 from 1997
Because I was the one of the Chunga triumvirate who had met him, I was the one who communicated with him to solicit contributions. As with so much else, he was too old-fashioned to do email, so our correspondence was letters sent by post. He gave me little tidbits of his life with Hazel (they got together after Hazel's husband, Mal, died -- the three of them were long time friends) and the action movies he was watching, but he didn't get much into his personal life. I vaguely knew he had at least one child from his own past marriage, but I had no idea until this week that he had four children and six grandchildren, or indeed that his children were known to the fans who first met him in the '70s, and vice versa. A year or two ago I was looking at a book about Romantic painting that was focused on Casper David Friedrich and immediately wondered if Don been influenced by the Romantics. So I wrote to ask, and he seemed charmed by the question. He wrote an enormous letter about his artistic influences and the knotty question of influence in general. It was completely fascinating, and I asked if we could print it as an article in Chunga. He counter-proposed that he would write something fresh about art -- he wasn't quite sure what -- but only if we agreed that 1) we wouldn't run any of our linos (which he had always detested) on those pages, and 2) we would only illustrate it with his own artwork (he also detested unrelated artwork or cartoons being used in an article). At least he wasn't asking us to drop our layout entirely this time! We readily agreed, and that was what he wrote to me to say he was struggling with back in May. He said that writing had become difficult for him, and art was always easier. Would we like any more covers? He had done three pairs of back and front covers for us by then, all of them amongst the best covers we've published.
Now we will never get any more covers, or anything else. It's difficult to express the sense of loss I feel at his death. It isn't that we were personally close, although we were colleagues and friends of a sort. I always hoped to get the chance to see him again sometime, and I certainly do mourn the loss of that possibility. But above all it is the loss of his creativity and peculiar genius that leaves me feeling unexpectedly forlorn. He was one of the true giants of the fanzine field, to my mind. There are other fan artists that I admire as much as him, but there are none I admire more. When you add the quality and nature of what I've read of his fan-writing, well, he was simply unique and irreplaceable. He was a tall poppy in his own right, and I'm sure he was perfectly aware of the irony of his discomfort with other tall poppies. His own fanzine was called DAISNAID, after all. I always thought it was a Welsh word or something like that, but in fact it stood for Do As I Say Not As I Do. As his son Graham said on Facebook last week, "He was an angry young man, an angry middle-aged man, and a grumpy old man, but always with a twinkle in his eye."
Cover for Lagoon 7, which would have been in the mid-'90s sometime