Three writers tell how SF conventions began and remember some of the interesting and silly things which have happened at them.

by Ron Holmes, Terry Jeeves and Ian Williams

First published in NESFIG Newsletter 9, edited by Alan Isaacson


It is my belief that there is a natural law (call it Holmes law if you like) which states that the success of an SF convention is directly proportional to the square of the usual distance between the fans who attend it. This is as basic as the first law of robotics. SF fandom was born when the isolated addicts first saw the names and addresses of their fellow fen in the pulp magazines, wrote to them and gained sheer delight from the correspondence. Correspondence led, in many cases, to a keen desire to meet the correspondents in the flesh and the SF Convention was born. Much of its success has always depended on the sense of occasion, the rarity of the event and the amount of trouble, traveling, saving or planning which each individual had to put in to attain the starry goal of meeting his brethren.

In Britain the main midwife at the bith of fandom was the Science Fiction Service, a book and magazine service run by Ted Carnell and Les Johnson, which freely used its business correspondence to customers as a means of promoting fandom. Les Johnson allowed his business premises in Liverpool to be the clubroom of the local fan club and Ted Carnell, who lived in London, was constantly in touch with William Temple, Arthur Clarke and many others. Eventually the mass of correspondence and fanzines which were circulating made a convention inevitable

The first Convention was held at the Theosophical Hall at Leeds in January 1937 and was sponsored by the Leeds Chapter of the Science Fiction League which had been formed by the prozine "Wonder Stories". Many of the members were also members of the British Interplanetary Society and included most of the so called First wave of British Fandom - Doug Nayer, Harry Hanson, Les Johnson, Eric Frank Russell, Arthur Clarke, Ted Carnell and Walter Gillings. Micheal Rosenblum was also present, being the librarian of the Leeds Chapter at the time. The S.F.L. almost immediately died, and from its ashes arose the Science Fiction Association, a completely British, country-wide association, (not the same institution as the present day B.S.F.A.).

London saw the next convention on April 10th 1938 at a druids hall which had a fine set-piece of a stone altar and lights which could simulate the dawn. The main feature was a lecture by Prof. A. M. Low. However, my most vivid memory was arriving at Euston with Dave McIlwain {Charles Eric Maine) where we were to meet Sam Youd (John Christopher) for the first time, where the crowd was so dense that Dave had to wave over his head the symbol of recognition - a copy of "Weird Tales" with a nude Blundage cover,

Both these events savoured more of an Annual General Heeting than the conventions we know today, but the nation was sliding down the slippery slope to World War 2; the S.F.A. went into suspended animation in September 1939 and the older fans were almost immediately in the forces. Conventions were planned but never happend and it looked as though British fandom was dead.

By mid 1942 those fans who were too young to go into the forces, or for some other reason were in no immediate danger of disappearing from the scene, began to reform. The British fantasy society was formed and Conventions were again planned. Inspired by the U.S.A Conventions and the booklets which the Americans sent over about them (Chicago 1940, Denver 1941 etc,) the present type of onvention was planned.

Although planned for Birmingham, the Midvention of 1943 took place in Leicester on April 23-26. The Director, R.R. Johnson, hired the hall of a girls school and issued a booklet in advance and a report afterwards in the American style. The programme included an auction, records, a debate, shopping for books and a sword fight which was cancelled. The visitors were B.H. Edwards, Art Williams, Bert Lewis, Terry Overton, Art Gardner, Don Houston, Peter Knott, Art Busby, Tom Hughes and myself - not a bad attendance for the war years, The swordfight was intended to portray a scene from "Swords of Mars" and, as I am tall and blonde, I imagined I would be a passable John Carter. However, when I found my opponent was over a foot shorter and we were to use naked sabres, I refused to perform on stage although we had some very interesting bouts in private and were well matched.

The Norcon took place in Manchester from December 31st 1945 to January 2nd 1944. The turnout was: Ron Lane (Director) Ron Bradbury, R.R. Johnson, Michael Rosenblum, George Ellis, "Gus" Ellis (courtesy of the U.S. Army), Rita (my bride to be), and myself. No hall was necessary; it all happened at Ron Lane's house. The activities consisted of deciding that there should be a Convention Booklet and writing and producing it on the spot. A day was spent at the zoo and we all descended on the home of Harry Turner, the artist, for an hour or two. There was an auction too, I auctioneered for both these conventions and had a lot of fun. Although Rita and I had booked single rooms at the hotel I was not a little surprised to find myself visited in bed the first night by Michael, Gus and Roy - not that it did them any good.

Although the numbers were low, that event just managed to be a Convention because it published a booklet. The get-together at Michael's mother's cottage near Pendle Hill, Lancs, the following Easter could only be included if the term Convention is reduced to mean "fans visiting from other towns". Michael was there of course, and the two Rons from Manchester, and Rita and I cycled over from a Liverpool. Two days were spent chatting and climbing up Pendle Hill and that was that.

There were no more Conventions in the 1940's. Fandom was held together for the rest of the war through the good offices of individual fans who put effort into the B.F.S. on a postal basis, but it was not to die.


My first Convention was way back in 1948 at the White Horse Tavern. Groups met in the St Pancras rotunda - Identification by displaying a pro-mag - and then made mini tours of London before meeting in a smallish upstairs room at the pub. Some 8O odd (very odd) people were present, and as far as I can recall only one woman, who later became Daphne Buckmaster. We all drooled over some original Tales of Wonder covers before settling down to an afternoon of serious and constructive speeches. These competed with the strident ringing of the alarm bell in a local jeweller's, a din which continued all afternoon ignored by public and police alike,

For the first few years, Cons were small affairs, but by the time I could afford an overnight stay things were warming up. In 1950 and 1951 we took over the Royal Hotel. One highlight of this was a black cat which strolled to and fro over the glass-roofed con hall and entertained everyone during a muffled tape recording from Arthur Clarke. One of these cons boasted two programmes running simultaneously shades of today's hour long gaps between searing hot panel disoussions! Treasurer Charlie, who only de-hibernated into fandom once a year to do the job, seemed to spend all his weekends playing chess on a pocket board. Then he would vanish for another year.

1955 saw the Bonnington Hotel, and the famous 'roofcon' when fans, chivvied from room to room by an unsympathetio staff, finally emerged onto the rooftops and ambled around dropping old paint pots and other debris down every availble chimney. That was the year I shared a room with Eric Jones; having turned in around 2 am I was awakened by a weird slithering sound. Investigation revealed it to be a paralytic Eric Jones, returned to base by Eric Bentcliffe and propped up outside the room door, whereupon he slid slowly down onto the floor.

In 1954 the 'bloody provincials' (so named by H.J. Campbell) wrested the convention from London and brought it to Manchester. Irate Londoners planned "Project Armageddon" to sabotage the Supermancon, but it wasn't needed - the programme went haywire as sircon items got balled up. Things became fannish to such an extent that it proved the most successful convention to date. Zap gun fandom roamed the corridors, engaging in water pistol battles throughout the night. On the platform, Ted Tubb and I were scheduled for the 'Trial of Bert Campbell', We threw the scripts away in the first minute and ad-libbed the rest with hilarious results.

Then came the glorious Kettering years. A sympathetic hotel staff, meandering corridors, an isolated con hall, and regular though abortive police raids. Also a local chip shop from which supplies were string-hauled up to bedrooms. In those days, fen could have their own display tables free, and these ringed the con hall floging fanzines, books, mags, art, etc. On the programme were such delicacies as the famed Liverpool tape operas, 'First and Last Fen', and 'March of Slime'. One of these produced the immortal 'Blog', a product which so fired attendeos that it appeared neatly lettered on the foot of every cafe menu in town in such guises as 'Curried Blog', 'Blog and Chips' and so on.

In 1957 Eric Bentcliffe and I flew to Antwerp for a week's hectic fanning with Jan Jansen, returning for the Worldcon in a scrubby hotel with a hall ten yards wide and half a mile long. Telescopes and hearing aids were on hire to those at the back, and a harrassad staff implored fans to avoid walking through the dining room after midnight as it scattered dust on the cornflakes laid out for breakfast. Most memorable item for me was a private little chat with John W. Campbell when he came across me guarding the Hieronymus machine. It is a canard that we got stuck on it together.

Then came the final Kettering, and from its ashes emeged the BSFA, which in turn saddled me with Chairmanship of the next year's Brumcon. Gloucester saw Kingsley Amis attending. Then came Harrogate and a pair of Peterboroughs, at one of which the locals were staggered to see a fancy dress parade, including a bandaged mummy, strolling up the high street. Minor cons also flourished in places like Bradford, Medway and Manchester, and the date of the main convention fluctuated between Easter and Whit. Then as now, despite changes the most important of conventions remains unchanged - meeting old friends, making new ones. Even if this was the only achievement of the annual meeting, which it isn't, it would still be great fun and well worth while.


According to more experienced fans, Sci-Con '70 should have put me off convention going completely; but I had a simply great time. I suppose one of the reasons was that I wasn't staying at the hotel itself, having a flat in earls Court at the time, and therefore the appalling service didn't bother me. Also I'd never been to a hotel before and didn't realise that bars were supposed to be kept open after pub licensing hours for residents. I didn't notice that most of the programme wasn't too successful because I attended little of it, missing in the process the great Scientology debate and the infamous poetry reading. I wasn't completely new to things as I'd been attending the globe for about three months and gotten used to the odd behavior of science fiction fans. I was still very much a newcomer and to find that some of the big names (to me anyway) such as Peter R. Weston were quite human came as a great shock. I was even asked to write a piece for Speculation, but that's another long and irrelevant story. I remember, in all my innocence, attempting to ask Michael Moorcock, who reminded me of a stoned Tommy Cooper, about Jerry Cornelius. Possibly the most vivid memory I have is of attending the all-night film show when very drunk and attempting to converse, in French, with a Belgian far who'd made the mistake of sitting next to me. It was a scrappy, seedy, uncomfortable convention but I loved it.

There's a standing cliche that your first convention is always the best. This is rubbbish, and is put about by people who prefer to look at the world through rose coloured spectacles. A good convention is a good convention whether it's your first or fifteenth. And by any standards Eastercon 22 was a bloody good one. Whether or not you enjoy yourself really depends on your frame of mind. I was just getting established in fandom, having produced the highly praised fist issue of Maya, and had about 8O issues of the 2nd in my rucksack ready to distribute. So I was very happy about going and felt very optimistic walking along a country lane to the hotel in the centre of Worcester at 5.50 on a fine Easter's morning. It lived up to my expectations. The hotel was excellent and the staff efficient. This is probably the deciding factor in what makes or breaks a convention. The siting was good too. The cathedral stood directly opposite providing a good view from the lounge window, and the river flowed gently about five minutes away down winding streets. Then there was the programme which turned out go be well-balanced and stimulating. My outstanding memories of the convention are again trivial ones. There were funny incidents concerning lifts, there were two short fat people who gravitated together to the great amusement of certain sections of the fannish community, and the book of Rcclesiastes. Although I hate to mention his name again, it was mainly Pete Weston's fault that the event was a success. It also introduced Gannetfandom; to conventions for the first time - a great mistake...

The attractive city of Chester was the venue for the 1972 Easter convention. This convention has several strikes against it. Apart from professional writers and the convention committee there seemed to be hardly anyone else actually living in the hotel. It was so small that most fans were shoved in overspill hotels often some distance away. The only bar that stayed open all night was ridiculously tiny and ludicrously expensive. Another thing was that one of the bars in the aptly named Blossoms Hotel turned out to be the local gay bar, something that proved embarrassing though occasionally funny such as the incident when one of its inhabitants, misunderstanding something I'd said to another fan, started calling me Tiger. The lack of a large enough room or bar prevented people from getting together properly. The programme was all right, though it lacked a certain excitement, and the films were something of.a disappointment.

OMPACon at Bristol was a great improvement, again, I suspect, due to the quality of the hotel plus the fact that it was large enough to house all the attending members. I'll always have a soft spot for this convention because of all the hustling Rob Jackson and I did in getting support for our bid for the 1974 convention. It was also the first time I'd been invited to appear on the programme. I was very nervous but once I started talking really enjoyed myself. It wasn't a total success partly because all the panellists agreed with each other and found it difficult to adopt extreme points of view. I met a number of new and interesting people, unlike the previous year when I'd tended to stick to the people I knew. Other than the fact that the films went on too late at night, it was a difficult convention to fault. Most of the credit for this convention goes to Fred Hemmings.

And that brings me to Tyneeon '74. The trend for master conven- tions recently seems to be one good, one bad. I feel pretty certain that the trend is going to stop there, but then the only judges of that are you.

The '74 Tynecon held at the Royal Station hotel over the Easter weekend was a great success. With about 560 registered and 400 plus attending the con holds the record for the amount of beer drunk at any con, we cannot say much about it as we were not really into fandom at the time, we were at the gosh wow look there's an author stage then and sorely needed the guiding hand of Gannetfandom to put us on the right road to fandom.

1975 saw the con being held in Coventry, we won't say much about that as the next newsletter will have a report of that.

This Easter the con is in Manchester at the Owens Park students hall of residence. We hope it will be the success it seems to be leading up to. You will get to know about it sometime.

Letters of comment on this or any other conrep on this site are welcomed, and will be considered for publication.