The 69th British Eastercon and National Science Fiction Convention
Follycon 2018 was held at the Majestic Hotel in the Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate. In some ways it was a convention of two halves: the convention catering, which left a lot to be desired (for reasons described later), and the convention itself, which was most enjoyable and very successful.
Harrogate was easy to get to being: not far off the A1, only twelve miles from Leeds Bradford Airport, and having a railway station less than a mile away (walkable if you were that way inclined). It is a nice town with a compact and interesting central area, a number of parks and large open spaces, and feels airy and cheerful. The four-star Majestic Hotel is well named; when it opened in 1900 it was designed to impress as one swept up the drive in one’s carriage. These days it still impresses as one walks up from the town centre, only a few minutes away, though nowadays most guests arrive by car or taxi and the entrance is now at the ‘back’ where it is much more convenient for the car park. The hotel had nowhere near enough rooms for the convention so many stayed in nearby hotels: the nearest was a Premier Inn which was almost in a corner of the Majestic’s garden; there was a Crowne Plaza just a couple of minutes walk further on; and most of the other hotels were within five to ten minutes walk. What with the proximity of the hotels and the nearness of the town centre, the convention had a nice, compact feel. There was a good supply of restaurants and pubs equally close and I heard only good reports of them; I certainly enjoyed the ones I went to (especially the gelato shop - both times).
Being an old and large hotel, the rooms were not the most modern and varied considerably in size (and maybe were normally priced accordingly) but those I saw were comfortable and had all the amenities required; in particular, the comfort of the beds was often commented on (a boon for those of us with niggly backs). The place had plenty of atmosphere though not necessarily the best layout for a convention with the result that there could be blockages at times, particularly in the main corridor and when programme items finished. The convention frequently asked people not to gather in the most awkward places and had even marked them out with tape, but there were a few folks who simply ignored the request and generally clogged the place up; most, though, were much more cooperative.
In order to facilitate the event, the hotel had a flexible approach to the use of their main rooms. The Ballroom saw no dancing but was instead home to catering and socialising for the weekend, the Dining Room was used throughout for the main programme, the Drawing and Reading Rooms were used for talks and panels, and the Billiards Room was used for socialising and more fannish items (but there was no billiards table). The main bar was generally (but not always) open for the convention members and a second bar (the convention bar) was opened in the South Lounge, which was also home to the specially-installed racks of real ale. The latter featured over thirty barrels of good beer (thanks to Martin Hoare once again), which ran out on the Sunday evening, and several barrels of real cider and perry. The North Lounge provided extra socialising space. The Dealers’ Room and Art Show were downstairs in Carriages though, as the hotel was built on a slope, this was at a lower ground level; the con organised buggies to run round the outside of the building to serve both ’ground’ floors for those with access difficulties. A few rooms on upper floors were used for smaller items, easily accessible by lift.
I mentioned problems with the convention catering so let us get that out of the way. Breakfast was moved from the Dining Room to the Ballroom for the duration of the convention as well as the days immediately preceding and following it. It was a pretty standard help-yourself breakfast and provided all one might expect; it was not outstanding but there was nothing one could complain about, i.e. it did the job perfectly adequately (and the coffee was in urns so there was no need to grab a passing waiter). However, lunch, dinner, and general convention light meals were problematic: there was frequent confusion between staff members as to where and when food would be available, what was available when, there were some serious delays with even light meals and snacks, and some main bar staff were unaware of the convention bar (and the real ale!). It transpired that the hotel staff member with whom all the arrangements had been made had not passed on all the details and agreements to the rest of the staff and furthermore was not there at the weekend; consequently many of our ‘demands’ and expectations came as a surprise to them. Alice Lawson, as hotel liaison, had many impromptu meetings with the management over the weekend and it was quite obvious that they were trying their best to sort things out every time another problem or misunderstanding arose. The provision of light meals improved markedly, pre-packed sandwiches became available during most of the day, and a sort of tuck shop appeared in the convention bar. Given the situation, I thought the hotel responded willingly and did the best they could to minimise the difficulties.
I arrived on the Wednesday evening and was surprised by how many others had also done so, leading to a pleasant gathering in the main bar. This left Thursday free for a wander round town.
The con kicked off at 10 am on Friday morning and I was out in the fresh air as Colin Fine lead us on a long but pleasant walk through the Valley Gardens to the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) gardens at Harlow Carr, where we were taken on a tour by an RHS guide. From the mid-1950s to the mid-70s these had been run by Geoffrey Smith, one of my gardening heroes, so I particularly enjoyed the tour though unfortunately spring had yet to really arrive and the colours and blooms were a little sparse.
The programme boasted nearly two hundred items including talks, panels, readings, interviews, kaffeeklatsches, silly games, music, special events, book launches, publishers’ parties, tea parties, dances, and outdoor activities (croquet on the hotel lawns, anyone?). Personally I bookmarked nearly 50 items as being of particular interest though needless to say I did not get to nearly that many! I was impressed by just how much there was to go to and the variety of items to choose from; serious or silly, there was plenty to do! Looking through the programme again afterwards, there was so much more I would have liked to attend - if only I had a spell for being in several places at once. And if that was not enough, there was also the Dealers’ Room and the Art Show, both of which were well worth visiting (which I did - several times, to the increasing emptiness of my wallet); the former had a good variety of quality goods on offer and the latter had artwork of a high standard. Although most of the art was destined for sale in the auction, some could be purchased directly through the Art Show Sales.
The Opening Ceremony was straight after lunch and we were introduced to the committee and the Guests of Honour: Kim Stanley Robinson (author), Nnedi Okorafor (author), Kieron Gillen (graphic novelist and games enthusiast), and Christina Lake (author and fan), who were much in evidence over the weekend. Stan Robinson gave several talks and covered the life and times of John Muir (including his influence on California and the creation of Yosemite National Park), Galileo and the Scientific Method, generally recalled his previous visits to our shores, and answered many questions from the audience. Nnedi Okorafor was interviewed by Tade Thompson and she was relaxed and forthcoming, covering her intended career as a professional tennis player, curtailed by illness, and how she turned to writing. She also gave a couple of readings and a kaffeeklatsch though her writer’s schedule meant that sometimes she had to retire to her room and meet a few deadlines (lookout for her name on output from the world of Marvel Comics, especially Black Panther stories). One cannot get to everything so I never got to attend any of the items with Kieron Gillen or Christina Lake.
There was a strong science stream and I particularly enjoyed ‘Magnifying the Distant Universe’ in which Dr. Rachel Livermore (University of Melbourne) explained how they use gravitational lenses to see even further, and Steve Wilkins’ talk on the James Webb Space Telescope. In the Hay Lecture ‘Vulcans Are From Vulcan, Humans Are From Earth: Understanding Climate Science And Why Some People Reject It’, Dr. Kevin Cowtan (University of York) explained how we all come with cognitive filters and these will always stop us being truly objective; no matter how clear the science is, if somebody does not want to hear it then they will always find a way to reject it. He even got people to vote on a few things via their mobile phones and, yes, the results were predictable. Whilst these were all serious subjects, they were given with a light touch and without getting bogged down in tedious detail.
Dr. Sabine Clarke (University of York) gave the BSFA Lecture ‘Science Versus Witchdoctors In Post-War Kenya: Separating Myth From Reality’. I found this a little disappointing as she did not stick to the title: she said very little about witchdoctors who, from my own studies, can be more effective than the term implies (they are often skilled herbalists with a good psychological understanding of their patients). Instead, she mostly talked about the British Government’s use of DDT to eliminate mosquitoes in Kenya and an ‘educational’ film the government produced on the subject in 1946. At first DDT seemed to be an extremely useful chemical; it was very effective and there is no doubt that Kenya had a very serious problem. DDT succeeded in its task and does no immediate harm to humans but, as we were to discover to our cost, it is very harmful in the long term and has since been banned in many parts of the world. The arrogance of the British authorities was interesting to watch; you could see Kevin Cowtan’s cognitive filters at work. From her general answers and my own family connections with the country, I am not sure that Dr. Clarke really knew all that much about Kenya or those times; she came across to me as surprisingly blinkered. Furthermore, she had arrived at the con just before giving her presentation, without allowance for the time to set-up or prepare, and, being an Apple user, had no idea how to use a ‘normal’ laptop - having to call for help several times did her no favours.
There were various rememberings of those no longer with us, such as the panel recounting their tales of Brian Aldiss: author, raconteur, and guest at many conventions. John Clute’s description of him at ICFA (the International Conference for the Fantastic in Arts) was most touching. Gerry Webb gave an Arthur C. Clarke Centenary Talk, covering his career and his life in fandom.
‘Law and the Multiverse’, with barrister Simon Bradshaw on the panel, sparked an interesting debate on legal systems, how laws work, and how and why they might need changing in the future.
‘Twenty-First Century Employment’ discussed the impact of AI and robots on employment and talked about the ‘gig’ economy (i.e. having many jobs over one’s working lifetime as each job may only have a limited time before it is no longer required). I felt they missed out on discussing whether the fulltime employment model could still work, what jobs would survive and why, and what alternatives there might be. Factories may be much more efficient and produce cheaper goods, but they will still need customers - so where will ‘unemployed’ people get their money from to buy the goods? ‘Worldbuilding is Hard’ gave moderator Pat McMurray the task of controlling his panel, especially the very enthusiastic young lady who talked right through Charlie Stross’ very interesting point - ‘can you let Charles finish his sentence, please?’ ought not to have been necessary. On the other hand, there were those on some panels who seemed to have almost nothing to say.
Jackie Burns was one of the artists talking about her art. It was a small audience, mostly of fellow artists, but for once PowerPoint really earned its keep as she showed the steps in creating one of her works.
There was also lighter stuff. Chris O’Shea ran a well-attended pub quiz and Peter Wareham and Gwen Funnel ran ‘The Follympic Games’ to find out which team was truly fit for fandom. One of my favourites was ‘Professor Yaffle's Emporium’ in which the Professor’s assistants had to examine a variety of objects and explain their uses; Liz Zitzow got most of my points for inventiveness. All very silly, all a lot of fun.
Newcon Press, in the form of Ian Whates, held a party to launch a number of new books, complete with a few author readings and several authors on hand to sign one’s freshly purchased copies. There were also launchings from Angry Robot, Luna Press, and Electric Athenæum.
Jon Boden (famous as the front man for the folk band Bellowhead) gave an enjoyable concert and later joined the filk circle - it was nice to see a professional joining in with the ‘ordinary’ folk (or filk in this case). Another professional to be found in the filk circle, which had good numbers most nights, was Keith Donnelley, who gave two entertaining concerts in the main programme (an afternoon one for ‘kids’ and an evening one for ‘grown-ups’, though in fandom it can be hard to tell the difference); he was later heard extolling ‘I’ve found me tribe!’.
Whilst most members just got on with enjoying themselves, there were unfortunately those who thought a little less about others than they ought to and I would like to suggest a few ‘rules’ which, if followed, would increase enjoyment for the audience:-
Also a couple of ‘rules’ for using corridors:-
Carrying liquids is always problematic and they are normally forbidden in the Dealers’ Room and the Art Show - a spilled pint or a coffee can do a lot of damage! I noticed an increased use of commuter mugs and these are a lot safer; indeed, the convention requested that any liquids being carried through the Dealers’ Room be in sealed containers, which I though was both a reasonable request and good advice.
And so we all too soon arrived at the Closing Ceremony, the committee thanked the guests, and the audience thanked the committee. Then for many it was a matter of braving the rain to reach a nearby restaurant before returning to the Dead Dog Party and one last bout of socialising. There were still a lot of folk about the next morning and a number of them ended up in Bettys Café Tea Rooms at some point or other - a Harrogate tradition.
All told I thought it to be a very successful convention with a lot to offer. It was in a good hotel, which was in a good location, and I hope somebody holds another one there before too long. I most definitely enjoyed it! Well done all!
See also Arthur's take on Follycon 2018.
Details of the forthcoming Eastercon and this year's other natcons can be found on SF² Concatenation's convention diary page.