At its simplest, TAFF can be explained in as much text as it takes to fill one side of a sheet of paper; optimistically, the TAFF ballot does just that, starting with "The - Trans-Atlantic - Fan - Fund - was - created - in - 1953 - for - the - purpose - of - providing - funds - to - bring - fans - who - are - well - known - and - popular - in - both - sides - fandoms - across - that - ocean," squeezing who may vote, how to vote, how the votes are counted, where the money comes from, what the winner does Over There, and all the rest, winding up with the traditional annual plea to make checks payable to the administrator. Since fandom sees this document every year -- and since, if Brian [Earl Brown] just wanted the basic info, he doubtless had a ballot to hand and could have just copied it -- we won't recite it all here.
Beyond this point, explanations get more complicated. For instance, you could easily fill four pages with statements of what TAFF is and isn't. Like, it's not quite a merit award, though it recognizes merit somewhat; it's not quite an ambassadorship, or a commission to See All and Report Back, or a free-for-all elective Fan Guest of Honor-ship ... though in some ways it's all of those things. When the sending country decides to stamp, address and mail a particular fan, the reasons are many and subtle: ultimately, the votes are counted, the winner is announced, and the reasons are guessed at afterwards.
As if that weren't enough indeterminacy, TAFF is also decided by the host country's votes, for reasons that are similar and yet different. Basically, they boil down to curiosity: there's someone who's extending himself or herself toward them in some way; they've heard stories, perhaps they've seen what that fan is like in print. And they want to find out what he or she is like in person. Also, to be quite honest about it, the normal human tendency to speculate about how candidates Ferdi, Bozo, or Lulu would react to a particular group -- that impulse that leads us to introduce one of our friends to another friend whose interests they seem to share, or to wonder what would happen if the local church youth group invited Gore Vidal to speak at a meeting -- is also present, for whatever motives you care to imagine. Doubtless it varies with the candidates.
Maybe TAFF is best described (and try to think of this as though it were science fiction) as a sort of treaty, kind of, between two working anarchies, to send quasi-official-mostly-visitors-without-portfolio back and forth to each other at regular intervals, more or less, further details subject to individual opinion. (If this seems inadequate, try defining any other major fannish institution, then test your definition on a largish roomful of fans. See how many agree with your precise wording and interpretation. We dare you.)
End digital, begin analogue explanation. In its Basic Cosmic Essence, TAFF is really about communications, and the enhancement -- by injecting specific fans into new fannish social situations -- of the whole fannish gestalt both here and there. New model alert: think of fandom as a network or networks, multiply connected in some places, sparely connected in others. The British-to-North-America axis is an opportunity point where encouraging the formation of even a few new connections, nexus to nexus, vastly increases the total multigenerational linkages. Like, sharing the experience, you know? Or maybe like Leibnitz's pinballs. And whether or not a TAFF winner actually produces a conventional report, fifty pages or so of trip narrative, is almost secondary. The real question is, does the trip result in more fanac? Does the fannish universe get bigger and more interesting somehow? If:yes:good. Narrative trip reports are one way of spreading the word; slide shows at conventions (vide Rusty Hevelin after his DUFF trip) are another. Simple interpersonal bridge-building -- the ideal being that a TAFF winner, on returning home, should keep up all those new contacts, pass on comments and observations, not to mention gossip and news -- shouldn't be underestimated; its potential influence is vast.
North American and British fandoms are two different cultures (the obvious being not necessarily untrue, as the saying runs, and useful to remember once in a while). But even knowing this in advance won't tell you where the differences are. That's where the suggestion comes in that the mechanics of TAFF be thought of as a treaty, a body of understanding that exists between two different opinion-forming communities. Both fandoms are capable of being surprisingly prickly over issues they see as important but which the other may never even have thought of.
Negotiations and compromise have to come into play, since trying to force fans to do anything is like trying to push a length of string; as in everything else fannish we have to trust each others' intentions or give up trying on the spot. It's not an impossible task -- a tribute to the soundness of TAFF is that in thirty-one years, and in spite of a few dust-ups, its basic ideals and forms have remained largely unchanged, and still work pretty well. Fandom's been the better for it.
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Since we just practised typing "trust" and "trip report", this seems like the time to throw in a quick plea. There's something of a tendency for TAFF winners to gafiate immediately upon their return home -- recent notable cases of this being Peter Roberts and Kevin Smith; Terry Hughes, it's good to see you back again -- and while our case of TAFFluenza was milder, they have our deepest sympathies. We had a wonderful time in Britain, and it was unbelievably exhausting, besides being a heavy burden on our mundane resources and commitments. Checking around reveals that this is the normal aftermath of a fan-fund trip. So be kind to your local TAFF-wreck; a lot of fannish current has been run through one small individual fuse box. Besides, they'll probably recover someday and degafiate, having of course spent the vast majority of the elapsed time meditating upon their transatlantic experience, the better to write them up for your leisurely delectation.
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Having got all that out of the way, the temptation to go on for a while about what TAFF isn't seems irresistible. So:
TAFF is not a charity for poor fans, as if more than a few of us were anything but. There's no means test for candidates (the half of the N'American administration that used to work in university Financial Aid turns pale at the thought of having to apply one), and loud public debates about whether Bonzo or Lulu could "really" afford to go if they'd make some unspecified sacrifices (mortgage, car payments, education, health care, job?) are distasteful; also, bound to be somewhat underinformed. TAFF is an honor, and if in a TAFF winner's own opinion he or she can afford to pay some of the trip expenses while accepting the honor of being the TAFF visitor ... that's real spiff. If not, that's still real spiff. Their decision either way, and no second-guessing them.
TAFF isn't, or shouldn't be, a forum for settling other scores. There have been times when people who've been asked to stand for TAFF have put off doing so because someone they can't abide is already in the race. Not an ideal situation, but it's better than an acrimonious race; candidates stand for TAFF, not against each other. For an ideal race, try Dave Langford and Jim Barker in 1980. Not only did they nominate each other, the two co-edited a special oneshot that was sold to raise money for the fund. Bravo all 'round, bring on the dancing girls throwing flowers.
TAFF shouldn't be yet another forum for endless constitutionalist points; that's what the Worldcon Business Meeting is for. As is sensible, the fund has rules and precedents, but a study of its overall history reveals that these have been interpreted both consistently and with consistent flexibility. Further study reveals two more things. First, even with the most inventive interpretation the rules and guidelines are so simple and basic -- they barely cover How To Do It -- that there's not much profit in pursuing their fine points past functionality and common sense. Secondly, any given administrator is utterly vulnerable to current fannish consensus -- while, again, you can't force a fan into anything, enough pressure can make them pretty miserable -- so it's a real piece of overkill to address some disagreement over administrative practice as though you were setting out to impeach the President. An amiable letter, though, will get you an amiable response.
Ultimately, TAFF comes out of that old ideal of a participating fannish community. Structurally it can accommodate participation by hundreds more people than usually vote these days, but there's a potential pitfall there. TAFF is simple in theory, and subtle and complex in practice. Any amount of participation is fine so long as those participants are genuinely interested in some kind of transatlantic fannish community: TAFF belongs to everyone who cares about what TAFF is about. But an impersonal Transatlantic Fan Fund -- TAFF at a distance, TAFF as an abstract institution -- is self-contradictory, and won't fly. (Actually it's nice how it works out. Being interested in TAFF -- the whole structure, not just a given race -- automatically makes you part of the TAFF constituency. Not giving beans for the institution means you can quite happily ignore it. All very tidy, usually. Anarchist theoreticians, take note.)
Will TAFF survive? Oh, probably. Fandom as a community based on good-natured cooperation and trust isn't dead yet, despite the inexpensive frisson of Oh Alarm Oh Panic Ring All The Bells Turn On The Siren Get Out The Jello Oh What A Big Deal This Is which we all get from observing, from time to time, that the sky is falling. That may be fun for a while, but it won't get you love and egoboo. Those you get only by pressing them on to others first, along with a modicum of understanding that goes with them: a better game altogether.