Convention Review

Odyssey2010 - UK National Convention & Euroconference

Peter Tyers reports on the
61st British National Science Fiction Convention Heathrow, London
2nd – 5th April, 2010.


In his review of Odyssey 2010, Roberto Quaglia asked the pertinent question of what we personally want of a convention? In his case, it is to meet people, with the programme of little interest. I am happy for Roberto that he had a good time meeting many people - and from what I could see he was clearly enjoying himself.

For myself, I also like meeting people; catching up with old friends, getting to know newer friends a little better, and hopefully getting to know some new folk. Yet I also like a good and interesting programme; it does not have to fill my day but I do like to sit down and listen to talks and panels, to hear what others have to say whether it be an informative item or an exchange of considered opinions. There is one other thing I also like to see at a convention - good organisation. Sadly I found Odyssey to be lacking in all three areas.

This was my first Eastercon for fifteen years so I was really looking forward to it and, having just attended the excellent World Horror Con, I was in both convention mode and mood. I arrived at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow, early on the Friday evening and welcomed the old and somewhat nostalgic feeling that comes with arriving at an Eastercon, immediately looking out for folks I knew. I presented myself at Registration … and that is where it all started to go wrong.

The convention had offered three ways of signing up (registering): entirely by post, entirely online, or (as I did) entering my details online then opting to pay by post. Unfortunately, this last method had not been tested and had failed, which must have caused Registration a few problems when we all arrived! Fortunately I had printed off what I thought was my registration confirmation and so handed it to the Good Folks on the desk; it transpired, though, that the registration number on my printout was not the registration number the web site had to told me make sure I had noted, this was just some other (and apparently meaningless) number that the system had generated. The Good Folks allowed me to join on the spot and, of course, at the pre-con rate. Then it continued to go wrong.

The Registration system was not just entirely on-line, it also depended on a good wireless link. The hotel is (I am told) notorious for its poor wireless link; add well over a thousand fans, far, far too many of whom were online with their laptops and netbooks when they should be enjoying themselves, and any stuffing the hotel’s link had left in it was well and truly knocked out. In the end, registration was achieved via someone’s iPhone! (So score one to Steve Jobs, none to the committee!)

At this moment a large group passed me so I joined them as they headed out to dinner at the pub round the back. This gave me a welcome chance for a chat with Ian Watson, who I had not seen for many years (apart from the previous weekend at the World Horror Con). The food was reasonable (but no more than that) and the evening very pleasant, and I particularly enjoyed catching up with another old friend, Jonathan Cowie (an editor of this very Concatenation).

'Good', I thought to myself, 'this is shaping up nicely' … but I was wrong. Having volunteered to help in the Green Room, I reported in - only to find that they were not expecting me as my volunteering had been on the now-lost online Registration Form. Furthermore, they could have done with knowing I was coming but were now fully staffed.

This only the second convention I have attended at the Radisson Edwardian; I was not too impressed with the hotel the first time and even less so now: it is simply not a good hotel for such an event. To start with, there is the double staircase to take you to the higher floors, where most of the action is. This is a nightmare when it is busy; there were signs posted which attempted to enforce a one-way flow (up-stairs and down-stairs) but it was frequently ignored – most noticeably by the committee and their officials. After a while, any quaintness it had to offer had worn away completely. Then there was the con bar (the one with something approaching sensible prices); an essential part of any con, it just was not big enough or well enough staffed to serve the fans at busy times. On several occasions I simply gave up, went elsewhere, and got a coffee – yes – forced to resort to coffee because I could not get near the beer! Thank goodness coffee is one of my essential food groups! When I could get to the bar, I had to remind them each time that the glass should be full, not merely heading to somewhere vaguely approaching the top - the Weights and Measures Folks would have had a field day prosecuting the hotel!

The layout of the con bar area, adjacent to the main con hall, was somewhat strange. In the daylight it was an interesting idea with bridges crossing a series of very small waterfalls, but at night these bridges were difficult to see properly and had needed to be marked with hazard tape(!). Furthermore, the coffee bar situated between the bridges and the con hall featured high, glass topped tables; again fine in the daylight but all but invisible at night, and especially dangerous when there was a mass exodus from the con hall. Surely this is not the first time the hotel has held an event (he asks, knowing the answer)? Surely, therefore, they know these dangers and would have long ago done something to remove such hazards? Perhaps they are waiting for a nasty accident and a prosecution?

Next comes the sizes of the programme rooms. Whilst the con hall was large enough for almost anything, most of the other rooms proved far too small. I lost count of the number of items I tried to get to, only to find that the room was stuffed to overflowing and trying to get in reminded me of a snowflake’s chance in hell. And, having failed to get into the item of my choice, getting into anything else proved more impossible as, by now, that room too was stuffed beyond the capabilities of its non-Tardis-like walls. Getting quickly from room to room was not easy either, they were scattered all over the place. Mind you, all that walking was keeping me surprisingly fit for what should have been a sedentary weekend. The result of this was, of course, that I saw surprisingly little of the programme and that was very disappointing, especially as it had quite a number of interesting looking items. I am not sure, however, if we really needed bondage items on the programme; I do not mind what people get up to in private and in their own time, but in convention time? And, sad though it might be, we do have to take some account of the public impression that we make.

Fortunately not all was lost as I did succeed in getting into a few items. The GoH interview with Iain M. Banks was most enjoyable and well attended. Then later, by coincidence, there was the first outing for Matt Smith as the new Doctor Who that was broadcast on the Saturday and this was shown in the con hall; it was well received and there was a roar of approval when the baddie got its just desserts. The ceilidh on Friday night was a good idea; I do not dance myself but I enjoyed the music (especially the guest set by 'Playing Rapunzel'). There was nostalgia in the Old Time Radio presentations, and fun they were too. Complications of the time needed for setting up meant that I missed the Masquerade and Cabaret, electing instead to have dinner with the always entertaining John and Yvonne Meaney along with Martin Easterbrook and Margaret Austin (due to be the 2012 British national convention’s fan GoHs).

A particular favourite of mine was the 'Grammar Police' panel. I always enjoy a good discussion on the rights and wrongs of using the English language and this did not disappoint. Colin Fine had so much to add that he was co-opted onto the panel, but then, he should have been on it in the first place. Another perennial favourite was the late-night Bad Sex in SF readings; for once I arrived in time to get a seat in yet another room that was soon bulging at the seams - and with laughter.

Missing so many programme items should not have been all bad, after all it meant more time for hanging out with friends. Except that that this too was more difficult than usual. Due to the problems of wandering around for ages trying to find the correct room, and the need to get in there really early (such as sitting through the entire previous item), I found it unusually difficult to find people. I saw many old friends in passing, always on my or their way to something, but rarely actually found them when we could just sit down over a beer (or even a coffee) - not that there was a surplus of space for sitting round either. Indeed, there was a distinct shortage - I heard some people complain that they had gone back to their rooms for long periods just to sit down - no wonder I could not find them! At the time I thought maybe it was just me that felt “lost”, but after the event I heard the same complaint from quite a number of others.

Two places that were better than average for bumping into people were the dealers’ room and the art show. The former was well-filled, with a good selection of things to buy, especially books! The latter had some excellent work and was well worth the several visits I made to it. If only I had more walls for hanging art (and the money to pay for it). A shame that it closed so early.

One of my most enduring memories is that of the lighting in the con hall. For reasons known only to themselves, the Tech crew had decided to have absolutely no houselights during programme items, which made getting in and out during an item extremely difficult, if not hazardous. Indeed, I would have thought that this was contrary to the requirements under the Health and Safety legislation; think about it, even cinemas always have a small amount of house lighting for the sake of safety. Furthermore, I am told that Health and Safety have been known to turn up at this hotel at weekends just to check on such things … and think of the embarrassment if they had done so and decided to close the event…

To compound the problem, whenever house lighting was required during an item, they would achieve it by bathing the audience in searing light from flood lights especially rigged at the front; not only was this blinding but it can also be a migraine trigger. I raised both these issues with the Operations team; they promised to have a word with Tech but, if they did so, it fell on deaf ears (deafened, er blinded, by their own lights?).

Towards the end of the interview with Iain Banks, house lighting was needed so that the roving microphone could see where it was going and so some intelligent person simply switched on the normal house lights. At this point, the Techies again seared the eyeballs of the audience whilst one of them charged down the side of the hall, arms flailing and seemingly jerking as he leapt from one foot to the other foot in a rather weird way, looking in silhouette like one of the evil elves in the Rupert stories of my childhood, in order to kill the normal house lights as soon as humanly (or elfishly?) possible. From his lofty position on the stage, the GOH enquired of them what they were doing! A little later that morning I was talking to Iain and he recounted the story from his perspective; as near as I can remember it, his comment was: "what the f*** were they doing???”

The only other time I have seen this weird and rather dangerous approach to lighting was at 'Redemption' in 2005. I have since been told that it was substantially the same team! Let us hope they are never, ever allowed to do Tech again.

Oh, and it does not finish there with the Techies. At the end of the Closing Ceremony, the Con Chair requested that the audience leave swiftly as they had to clear the hall and hand it back to the hotel Real Soon Now. She went on to add that if a few people would like to stop there for a moment and help move all the chairs into stacks against the wall, that would be most welcome - a reasonable and not at all unusual request. However, even as the audience was moving towards the doors, Tech were there lifting cables and tripping people up in the semi-dark, moving chairs from under them, and stacking chairs in everyone’s way. Let me repeat my request – let us hope that that crew are never, ever allowed to do it again.

So there you have it. All in all, from a purely personal perspective, I regarded the con as lacking in the three things I expect: spending lots of time meeting up with friends, enjoying a goodly number of programme items, and seeing good organisation at work. It will come by now as no surprise to you that I was not impressed; my first Eastercon for fifteen years and I was asking myself why I bothered. More to the point, will I ever bother again? And the previous weekend’s World Horror Con had been so much fun…

Lest you should think that the whole thing was a disaster, I must point out that many people were very clearly enjoying themselves and having an excellent weekend. But we all know that you can have a great weekend at a con with your mates despite the con itself. I know, I have done so many times … but just not this time.

My final comment concerns the aura of smugness that surrounded some of the committee. Had they been at the same event that I had? Had they heard any of the complaints that I was hearing even at the time? Any committee member that does not keep their eyes and ears sharply on the minute-to-minute details of how the con is running is failing in their duty to their members. I am not saying that all should be perfect, that problems never arise, but I thought they had their heads in the sand (or maybe a time vortex and believed they were somewhere and somewhen else).

Pete Tyers

Peter Tyers is a regular contributor of convention and book reviews to this site. Having been to numerous Eastercons in the 1970s and 1980s, he also was a committee member for the 1987 British National Convention and so – should you think his views unduly harsh – does know a little about such events. His other SF convention contributions have been as official photographer for the principal British SF conventions of the 1980s and early 1990s.

As mentioned, there is elsewhere on this site a report of Odyssey 2010 by Roberto Quaglia and there is also a report of this convention in our seasonal newscast for the summer 2010.

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[Originally posted: 11.9.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]