Jonathan Cowie attends the first few days of the 1998 UK national SF convention
Such has been the standard of many 1990s Eastercons (the UK national annual thrash) that I originally had not intended on going and had arranged one or two things that weekend. However as a past regular I recieved a promotional mailing a few months earlier. That and the opportunity to meet regular correspondents and past acquaintances prompted me to register for the first half of the event back at the beginning of February. Not having received anything six weeks later and with just a fortnight to go I duly wrote of citing dates, cheque details and when it had been cashed. In return I was sent the full information and a charming letter of apology and sound advice to sort out accommodation at this late stage promptly: a useful warning but such has been the standard of many 1990s Eastercons I have come to rely on Eastercon committees as little as possible and had already made independent arrangements. Indeed as one fan commented to me it is not what Eastercon committees do that counts (unlike with smaller conventions) but the fact that the Eastercon is the one time in the year when one can catch up with so many of one's old friends.
Arriving in Manchester Thursday afternoon, the best part of an hour late due to flooding at Rugby, there were already a few in the Britannia (the secondary hotel) bar. Nothing much else was happening, especially as there was no (as sometimes happens) light programming. Nonetheless the evening began to accelerate. A few of us went out for a meal. We chose the nearby Thai Orchid. It is located on the outskirts of Manchester's excellent China Town next to which the convention's hotels were sited and which provided an ample selection of all sorts of East Asian cuisine. Returning to the bar we found that others had arrived and the usual combination of chat, networking and remenissing under the auspices of Bachus began. Somewhere along the way there was a timeslip for the next minute it was 2.30 in the morning...
The next day saw a goodly number milling about the main convention (the Piccadilly) hotel, which provided an excellent opportunity to give out my Romanian SF visit report and to see who else would be attending. This time I was glad that there was (still) no programming as with so many concentrated in the lounge areas my stock of reports soon got lighter. The programming in fact properly started at 5.00pm, a full day after I and many others had arrived! However this enabled those newly arriving to tell tales of delayed trains and circuitous routes due to considerable flooding from heavy rain -- a one in 150 year event the meteorologists say!
In addition to much of the programming starting later than with some other Eastercons, it also ended earlier on the Monday, with all but one stream finishing at 3.00pm (indeed that day three of the streams never took place!). I dwell on this point purely because such was the slack in the convention timetable that it may well have been possible to have dispensed with a couple of th programme streams completely so reducing competition betwen them and run a tighter convention more focussed on one site. (Just a thought.)
That the Eastercon was split between two hotels was a worthy experiment even though it had been tried (without much success) before in the 1980s in Leeds at one of the Yorcons. It has to be said that in the UK there are few hotels that have good facilities for an Eastercon unless one starts using conference centres which have their own problems for a convention. The Brighton Metropole is one, but relationships (as many know) with the management have been soured due to complete lack of flexibility on their part (SF cons are not business conferences, but the Metropole's behaviour in the 1980s was so bad that I got my previous employer (a respectable national medical organization) to ditch the Metropole chain as a venue for our training meetings for a year).
The only other appropriate venues include Glasgow's Central and Jersey's de France, both of which pose excessive travel costs for those at opposite ends of the country. The Birmingham Metropole would be ideal except that it is a train's ride away from restaurants in Birmingham and Coventry. London Hotels are too expensive. The Adelphi in Liverpool is, from its SF con track record alone, is the most prone to thieving in the UK (that con committees still keep returning there is a testimony to their IQ), while the smaller British cities have smaller hotels and facilities into which to squeeze. In short Eastercons do have a problem and shopping around is difficult. Consequently one can hardly blame this year's Eastercon committee for trying two hotels a mere road width's apart; indeed their courage should be recognised.
The experiment nearly worked but for two problems. First the Piccadilly's functions were mainly accessible just by lift, which meant that there was always a queue getting in and out, or alternatively one used the dingy, back-room fire stairs. Secondly, for the Thursday and Friday at least there was the torrential down pour that caused flooding in much of middle England. In fact supplementing the first problem was that in both hotels the convention's facilities were not confined just to one or two floors but distributed more vertically. The net result was that the Eastercon was for much of the first couple of days largely divided into two.
This was actually quite good, though a combination of the split site, spreading the programme out between 8 streams and two workshop streams during Saturday and Sunday (while leaving Thursday and Monday under-programmed) meant that attendance per item was low. Assuming (unrealisitically) that the 800 attending were equally divided betwen the 10 streams then one would expect some 80 to be at an 'average' item. However taking into account the attractions of the various bars and coffee lounges, two art rooms, three bookrooms, convention support activities and those of Manchester itself, meant that many items had less than 80 other than the GoH speeches (during which much other programming shut down).
Another problem was that the programme book did not always tell you who was on items or their qualifications for participating. Nor were any of the films in the film programme reviewed in the timetable booklet! Conrunners please note. Even if it makes the programme booklet an extra sheet or two thicker it really is worth drawing people into items and not including mini film reviews is itself quite unforgivable. I recognised some excellent films in the film programme (ex: Scanners, 12 Monkeys, Dr Strangelove) and a number I did not (ex Tetsuo, Night of the Lepus) but with so much else on and a lack of a descriptor I was too hard pressed to invest the time to find out about these without the benefit of a review as a guide: as did apparently others for whenever I popped into the film programme it was never exactly full.
Also the film programme did not contain any recent amateur releases that had only spent a brief time on the cinema cicuit. (For instance Space Truckers (which was even praised in the annual cinema review article in the convention's own souvenier magazine) or Contact, or Men in Black, Spawn, or The Lost World etc... you get the idea.) Nor did it have current cinema releases (which can be available to conventions at discount or even free as a promotional gesture cf. Festival of Fantastic Films). Indeed the average age of the films shown was between one and a half and two decades old!!!! Come on committee. You guys must get with it...
My own official programme item was as part of a panel on environmental change and the next century. Now the committee had told me that there was no way they could provide an overhead projector, so I prepared 40 handouts of a dozen key indicator graphs (World population, food supply and such). This we whizzed through in seven minutes, which then provided a framework on which to hang the panel discussion. It all seemed to go well and there was a lively question and answer session.
My unofficial programme participation included a brief stint at the beginning of the When the aliens land panel due to other panelists arriving late. Though I declined the invitation to formally join the panel (as a life scientist I can only really talk about alien ecology and evolutionary pressures and not alien politics or psychology (there are enough bullshitters around talking outside of their area of expertise without my joining in)) however I did happen to have my 'alien plant' picked up the previous weekend from a nature reserve (with full permission of the warden). (Biologists' note: Ruscus ruscus for its parallel evolution of 'leaves'). Showing this together with a couple of minutes talk on environmental determinism (shape, form and function) went down surprisingly well, and coincidently ended when the other panelists arrived. My second unofficial stint was on The View From Abroad panel to which the Green Room staff roped me in due to my fanac with Eastern Europe. The Swede, Sam Lundwall (of World SF) led the discussion pointing out how US-centric SF was. He noted that World SF divided the World into three. Western US, Eastern US and the rest of the World! This about says it all.
The convention's Guests were Ian McDonald (interesting choice), Connie Willis (a surprise for someone this early in their writing career) and the Fan GoH Martin Tudor (who is to be praised for publishing his TAFF report in the convention's souvenir booklet). Unfortunately I did not get to any of their presentations.
However the real feature about the programme was its science dimension. This was interesting and very well organised. With well-presented items on the Turing Test, Cosmology, Tall Technical Tales, Space Tourism, and SF predicting technology, the science strand to the programme was somewhat slanted towards the physical sciences. However the organisers (astronomers) were playing to their strengths and there is nothing wrong with that. Jack Cohen, Julian Headlong and I gave our usual life science input, and there was an intersting item billed (which I unfortunately missed) entitled the 'Science of Colour, the History of Art'.
There were far too many personal encounters to fully cite here. However of particular interest, I met a few of the folk involved in a forthcoming Eastercon bid for Glasgow. The attempt may well be to run an old style Albacon Eastercon of the early 1980s i.e. provide a showcase for various aspects of SF and a to make the Eastercon once more the UK gathering of SF clans. Also encountered (following our panel) was Sam Lundwall who filled me in on much of the history of the World SF's early international SF activities (hopefully we will do something together in the future). Jurgan Marzi whom I'd previously met at the 1997 Irish Eurocon and who is involved with the 1999 Eurocon in Dortmund. John Jarold (SF publisher with Simon & Schuster) with whom it was concluded that we should do a panel sometime (as I assist Cambridge University Press and the Institute of Biology commission science texts) with a science writer and an SF author. And fellow life scientist Jack Cohen, who answered a few questions about cloning for a governemental consultation response he had been helping me with that month.
As I said at the beginning I only attended the first half of the convention (other committments down south beckoned). Nonetheless it seemed to go well with obvious cracks being largely well papered over. The committee were brave to run a split site and should not be condemed for this experiment. However their organisation could have been better, and I sincerely hope that I was the only one whose registration they cocked up. Furthermore their programme timetabling flew in the face of much that we have learnt over the years so there is little excuse for that. Nor was the programme booklet properly informative, or even the programme-participant packs necessary (as self-evident from many not being picked up (how were we participants meant to know to ask for them) and, when this did happen, they were not missed by us). But these not totally insignificant gripes aside, the event was by and large successfull. Many of the programme items themselves were well run by the participants, the science programme was brilliant and largely well-attended, the art show and book room were both up to standard, and Manchester is a great city to visit for an Eastercon. Though certainly not the best Eastercon I have attended, it was not the worst, and possibly one of the better efforts in recent years with the committee rarely getting in the way of our enjoying ourselves. For that alone they should be thanked and rest easy.
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