TWO WORLDCONS, WORLDS APART[reprinted from *Asimov's Science Fiction*, July 2005]
In a few months the World Science Fiction Convention will return to the British Isles; and, Lord willing, so will I, 48 years after my first visit to that green and pleasant land.
I think I know what I can expect from the 2005 Worldcon that is to be held soon in Glasgow -- an experience much like the one I had at the first Glasgow Worldcon ten years before, only rather more so. My recollections of Glasgow in 1995 include a pleasant stay on the nineteenth floor of the lofty Hilton Hotel, a bit of whisky in my breakfast oatmeal and haggis for lunch, a daily jaunt across town to the shimmering, glassy convention center, and having, amid the great throngs of convention-goers, old friends and new, a whirlwind series of encounters not only with British fans and writers but with delegates from former Soviet-bloc countries like Latvia and Poland and the Czech Republic and Ukraine, and visitors from Russia itself, all of them still rarities in the early post-Communist years. At the end of the day there was dinner in one of Glasgow's superb restaurants, and a party at one of the hotels, and perhaps a drop or two of the single malt before bedtime. This time, I suppose, everything will be bigger, shinier, throngier, whirlwindier. I do hope to stay at the Hilton again and to find that the single-malt product is still available, and I will gladly sit down to dine on haggis when the opportunity is presented.
One thing is sure, though: whatever the 2005 Glasgow convention will be like, it won't be remotely similar to the first British Worldcon of all, the one that was held in London in September of 1957. That convention now seems to have taken place in some alternate universe. Those of you whose Worldcon experience is confined to the last ten or fifteen such events would be flabbergasted by the differences between a modern con and that primordial one.
We can start with the attendance figures. I have attended all five of the previous British Worldcons, and I must be one of just ten or twenty people who can make that claim, because there were merely 268 people present at that first one in 1957. (268 attendees, yes: not a typographical error. There will be individual panels at the upcoming Glasgow affair, or autographing lines for the more popular pros, that will have more people than that in attendance.) Attrition of one kind or another must have claimed most of those 268 along the way, and those of us who remember the quaint event out in Leinster Gardens are growing very sparse by now.
*Quaint* is the right word for it. The venue was the Kings Court Hotel, a very modest affair of Victorian or Edwardian vintage a mile west of Marble Arch. It was my first trip overseas, and London's architecture, primarily of 19th-century origin, looked downright medieval to someone like me who had grown up in the high- rise glamor of 20th-century New York. The Kings Court in particular seemed like something out of the middle ages to me. Everyone who attended the convention stayed in that tiny squalid hostelry except for those who commuted from their London homes. All the convention events, such as they were, took place there too, in one small ballroom. (Certain other convention events, the unscheduled kind, took place in the nearby lounge, where beverages of all kinds flowed freely and uninhibited British fans put on displays of public affection that the staid, puritanical American attendees beheld in bemused astonishment.)
The cost of a room at the Kings Court was one pound a night, including breakfast. Let me repeat that, too: *one pound a night,* which then was the equivalent of $1.40. You must make allowances, of course, for the carnage that half a century of inflation has wreaked on good old sterling: in those days a reasonable salary for a shopgirl or a young clerk was six or seven hundred pounds a year, a local ride on the Underground was sixpence -- 2.5p in modern British money -- and newspapers cost a penny except for posh ones like the *Times*, which might have been tuppence then. Even so, a pound a night for a hotel room was on the low side for the era, so low that when my wife and I hopped over to Paris for a few days during our trip, we simply kept our London room rather than go to the bother of putting our things in storage during our absence.
Of course, the Kings Court was somewhat less than lavish. That pound-a-night fee didn't include heat in one's room, for example. If you wanted that, you fed one-shilling pieces (think 10p. coins) into a meter on the wall. The Americans at the con, perhaps a third of the total attendance, were utterly unfamiliar with that kind of arrangement, but we quickly learned to keep a stockpile of shillings on hand to get us through the night. Another little hotel amenity to which we Americans were accustomed was a private bath and toilet in each room; but no, no, austerity was still the watchword in an England not yet fully recovered from the hardships of the war, and the Kings Court provided just one or two such chambers on each floor, giving us a nice little lesson in old-world privation.
Then there was the matter of breakfast: toast, cornflakes, sausages, eggs. No problem there, except that the toast was prepared the night before and set out on each table in little metal racks, along with bowls of corn flakes. The layout of the hotel was such that the most convenient route from our rooms to the meeting-hall in the evening was through the dining room, but the first time we tried it we were met with anguished cries from the hotel staff: "Please don't walk through here! You'll get dust in the cornflakes!" That became a watchword for the attendees all weekend.
As for the attendees, those brave 268 of the Worldcon Pleistocene who tiptoed past the cornflakes, they included a good many whose names are still familiar today. Among the writers present were Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Arthur C. Clarke, James White, H. Ken Bulmer, E.C. Tubb, John Wyndham, Michael Moorcock, Eric Frank Russell, William F. Temple, H. Beam Piper, and Sam Youd ("John Christopher"). John Brunner -- whose death at the 1995 Glasgow convention cast such a tragic pall over that con -- was there too, a slender lad of 23. The formidable John W. Campbell, greatest of s-f magazine editors, was the Loncon guest of honor. His British counterpart, E.J. ("Ted") Carnell of *New Worlds,* was the convention chairman. Everyone who was anyone in British fandom was on hand, of course, and a good many American fans, too, most of them passengers aboard a chartered flight organized by David A. Kyle of New York.
You would think that the program would have been a busy one, with that many of the era's best-known professionals there. You would be wrong. The day of the round-the-clock multi-track convention program was still far in the future. The one and only event of Loncon's first day, Friday, September 6, was a brief opening ceremony in the evening, followed by a party. Saturday morning nothing was scheduled except a concert of recorded jazz. In the afternoon came the official convention luncheon, featuring brief speeches by many of the con's celebrities -- an event made notorious when the famous American fan Forrest J Ackerman, who had arrived wearing a string necktie of a type commonly worn in the Western United States but unknown in England, was turned away at the door. "The ceremony is to begin with a toast to Her Majesty," Forrie was told. "Gentlemen must wear neckties." His protests that he *was* wearing a necktie were unavailing. (I suppose it's still possible to imagine a ceremony at a modern British convention that includes a toast to the Queen, but one for which neckties of any sort are mandatory is unthinkable today.)
.... Robert Silverberg (c) 2005 - (used with permission)