Well, they say it gets better after the first time.
I was exceedingly nervous when I set out to attend the Birmingham Convention at Easter; not only was it my first Con, but my fannish activity up to that point had been entirely at long range, by correspondence, and I knew no-one at all by sight....due partly to my rather isolated position up here, and partly to my disinclination to travelling. The latter was reinforced when I boarded the train in Glasgow and found it packed to overflowing with Easter travellers and at least half of Her Majesty's Armed Forces. Unable to find a seat, I was forced to stand for four hours until the train reached Carlisle, with a loquacious beery Irishman for company. Needless to say, this made the normally rather tiring journey to Birmingham even more wearisome, and so I was hardly in the pink of condition when I finally arrived, at about 8.50.
After checking in and cleaning off some of the nationalised grime, I took a deep breath....and a copy of some fanzine, for identification purposes....and wandered forth, very apprehensive. I located the fanzine room easily enough, but couldn't find any sign of the convention proper, so I rambled here and there, searching hopefully, looking in toilets and broom closets and deserted dining rooms, but no fans. It seemed too quite....no drunken howls or dirtysongs or anything of the sort, which I had been given to understand were the signs of fans en masse. Eventually I found someone who told me that the BSFA Convention was being held in the hotel, which God knows I was thankful enough to hear, and I was directed to the Convention Hall.
By this time it was about half past nine, and most of the Friday programme was over, so I made my entrance in the midst of the film show... and a hideous experience it was too: when I walked in the lights were on and everyone was sitting around waiting for the start of "Forbidden Planet", and fifty pairs of accusing eyes greeted my appearance... naked but for my sweaty fanzine with fifty minds all too obviously thinking "Who the Hell's this?"
Stunned, I fell back against the wall, clutching my throat. No I didn't, I shuffled nervously to the very back of the hall, and took a chair in the most inconspicuous spot I could find. I've never felt so alone in my life; not since starting at a new school.
Gazing shiftily around, I tried to identify I some of the people I had been corresponding with; I thought I recognised Mike Moorcock (I didn't, it was Peter Day) but I was in no condition to accost a pro if you know what I mean; I thought I spotted someone who could have been Chris Priest (Pete Weston) and then I spotted someone else who could have been Pete Weston (Bob Little) but I was too confused to follow it up....just as well too. While I was anxiously speculating, Dick Howett whom I instantly spotted, started off "Forbidden Planet" and I was stuck there in the dark until it had finished, half watching the film, and half wondering what the devil to do when the lights went up again. When they did go up, with superb indecision I hung around nervously while everyone split into pally groups and disappeared, tried to register, and finally, utterly fed-up, went off to get a drink.
Even in the hotel lounge, the fans were split up into-isolated little bunches, and I joined a rather harmless-looking gentle-man drinking tea in a corner. By some curious chance he turned out to be only the third Scot at the Con, Mr.David Marwick, from Edinburgh, and even more confused than I was, being almost completely innocent of all knowledge of fandom. So, I was able to recover some of my aplomb by displaying what inner knowledge of fandom I possessed after several months immersion. Throughout the Con, whenever I bumped into him, I found this man to be like unto a spring of fresh water in a jungle, making the sort of common sense comment which I was trying hard not to make myself: "I keep thinking, what does this have that should interest me", that was one, which should be framed and sent to every member of the convention committee, and which in the depth of my heart I believed utterly. Anyway, being rather knackered from my journey, I left Mr. Marwick's company (having seen him shock Brian Burgess by bluntly asking him why he was compiling his mammoth bibliography of British prozines.....because they're there.) and went to bed.
So, Friday was a bit of a dead loss.
Obviously, things couldn't go on like this, so the next day I determined to try to breach this fannish clique. Trouble was, I was afraid of introducing myself to someone, and possibly being crushed, as for example: "Hello there, I'm Ivor Latto!", the possible replies being "Yes?" or "So?" or "We should jump up and down maybe?" I eventually accosted Dick Howett, and gave him the glad news, and he was a good choice. Once I'd registered and received my little lapel ticket things were easier, and kindly people kept coming up and saying "So, you're Ivor Latto!" Rather thoughtfully they said it too, if not warily. Maxim: "A Con goes much more swimmingly when you know the people there." End of maxim.
After this experience, I would put no trust in the theory that a person's physical appearance can be guessed at from his writings; I recognised no-one whose photograph or caricature I had not seen. God alone knows what they thought I looked like, if that occurred to them; it must have been a provocative experience in both directions.
It didn't take a great deal of insight to realise that this Con was fraught with internecine strife, waging between Charles Platt (one of "Mike Moorcock's London hangers-on", to borrow a phrase) and the Birmingham group. I must say that I thought Charles was just about the most entertaining person there, but he acted as a sort of one man detonation squad upon the morale of the Birmingham fans, who looked decidedly nervous most of the time. By contrast, their persecutor acted with the careless abandon of one on the verge of gafiation. I just hung around, trying to avoid being spattered with blood.
Seeing this sort of thing in the flesh is of course vastly different from reading about it in fanzines, where the absurdities outweigh the petulance... usually. Another thing: I had often wondered, before attending the Con, why people showed such contempt for "serious" sf fans; it had seemed to me a particularly harmless mania....until had to endure EXHAUSTIVE conversations with bright-eyed fanatics upon the sexual tendencies of HG Wells, or whatever....the sort of fate Bulldog Drummond used to rescue maidens from.
The Saturday programme didn't exactly set the lights a-sparkling in my bonny blue eyes: a crud-auction, a talk by Geoff Doherty (which I didn't hear, thanks to the endless conversation being conducted by someone with a penetrating voice I a couple of yards away), followed by more films. However, I found sufficient interest in meeting and talking to people to pass Saturday afternoon easily enough. It was the great Saturday Night Fancy Dress Parade that I really dreaded: I was sure it would be excruciatingly embarrassing, which it wasn't really....well not excruciatingly.....thanks probably to the dandelion wine (or some such beverage which was being freely distributed by some benefactor.
It was at this point, I think, that I realised that, to really have enjoyed the Con I should have followed the advice of the quote-card and started drinking on Friday evening; and continued through until Monday. That might have allayed the feeling of rather desperate forced gaiety which constantly hovered in the back of my mind, the feeling that I would enjoy this if it bloody well killed me. Throughout the Con I was torn between flinging myself heart and soul in to the social whirl, and a reluctance to inflict my company where it might not be wanted. Take, for example, those social highlights of conventions, the room- parties: I had been heartened during that horrible Friday evening, and colourless Saturday by assurances that the Con would really liven up after the Fancy Dress affair, with riotous fannish room-parties. Great! And my resolve was stiffened by Simone Walsh telling me that I would have to search out what life there was it wouldn't come to me....which seemed very sensible. So, about 11 o'clock on Saturday night, after the Fancy Dress thing had ground to a halt, someone mentions that there is a room-party raging in room twenty-something, and I am boozed-up enough to set out determinedly to Live It Up. Entrance into room twenty-something is like a scene from the Goon Show: rattling of the catch, suspicious stares, passwords, but finally I'm inside this den of vice, grinning sheepishly. Despite a determined effort by the occupants to guard their liquor, I slowly begin to enjoy the party, and am just getting into the swing of it all, when a flunkey comes to the door and has us all flung out for creating too much noise, "To room thirty-something someone cries, and all eager, I gallop off in pursuit of someone who seems to know where he's going. Unfortunately....he didn't and the second party did not materialise. After a few embarassing minutes, I cut my losses and retire philosophically to bed.
When Sunday dawned, I had resigned myself to wait out the day patiently, and was looking forward to getting back home. The Annual General Meeting of the BSFA confirmed this mood, if anything. After about two hours of chatter, the main thing to emerge was that VECTOR should be more professionally pro-duced... a pious sentiment indeed. I took advantage of the break in the programme to retire to the bar and stock up on anaesthetic for the long hours ahead. I returned to the Convention Hall stoically resolved to endure the rest of the programme.
But thank God for Harry Harrison! And Brian Aldiss, Ted Tubb, Michael Moorcock! The three or four hours during which they held the floor were sheer enjoyment. As far as I was concerned, the Con started here, and I shudder to think what it would have been like without them. The Birmingham group owe these gentlemen a heartfelt vote of thanks for their efforts. The professionals were followed by Archie Mercer, who did what he could with the presentation of a non-existent Doc Weir Award, to an absent recipient. Perhaps it was due to the modest amount of alcohol I had consumed, or maybe it was the lingering glow produced by H.Harrison & Co., but the remainder of the evening went along quite joyfully, even the shambles of an auction, because I picked up a Brian Lewis painting I wanted. And so the evening, and the convention, proceeded drunkenly... and not unpleasantly,to its close.
I'm not sure what conclusions I can draw from this, my first convention; the fact that I found it so grim on the whole, can be partly put down to the high expectations I had of it, and the fact that this was the first time I had met any of the people there. But I think I have a legitimate complaint against the programme which was offered to us; I for one didn't make that journey in order to spend so much time watching films I wouldn't have gone out of my way to see at home, nor to sit through auctions of stuff I did not want, nor to listen to political harangues over the site of the next WorldCon, which does not affect me. And the above items made up at least two-thirds of the official programme. For me, the programme only came to life on Sunday afternoon, which was too late by far to dispel the two grim preceding days. And they were grim, believe me! For the newcomer, or the non-fan, an interesting programme is absolutely vital... and an sf programme at that. For fans, the attraction of a Con is mainly that of meeting old friends and talking with them and getting happily stoned together. For the nervous newcomer this obviously does not apply; he has to depend upon a varied programme to hold his interest. I know that it's all been said before, but apparently not loudly enough to reach the ears of the 65 Convention committee.
That said, and despite the overall disillusionment which I felt after it was all over, I'm glad I went, if only to have heard Harry Harrison's speech, and to have met some of the people I've been writing to for the past few months, most of whom pleasantly confirmed my hopes, and to have met some few whom I did not know at all before... Tony and Simone Walsh in particular. I trust that the next convention I attend will be an improvement, having now broken the ice. See you in London?
-- Ivor Latto