Black Easter? The Day After Judgement
TWP mailing 38 (August/September 1987) with introduction and coda from Banana Wings #14 (August 1999)
"Black Easter? The Day After Judgement" was written in August 1987 for an apa. The first few months’ recovery time had given me some perspective on my first attempt at running an Eastercon, but writing for an apa allowed me to exhibit the self-pity I would certainly have edited out of any article for a wider forum. Reactions to the article varied. From silence, through sympathy, to "get a life, it was only a convention".
Only a convention.
Eastercons have been running for over fifty years, more years for the people who run them than for the people who attend them. Beccon ’87 was one of the Eastercons. I’m one of the people who ran it. I’ve been going to Eastercons since 1980. Started running them with Beccon, which means from 1985. More or less stopped after Evolution in 1996. If you ever take up conrunning at all, ten years’ active involvement in running Eastercons is fairly normal; some people do much less, few do much more.
Many more people attend Eastercons than run them. Beccon’s committee was fourteen strong. About 700 people turned up at the con, of whom over a quarter contributed actively in some way. There may be as many as 3,000 people in the UK who consider going to Eastercons a fairly normal thing to do. Everyone who has ever attended an Eastercon has an opinion about them.
©Caroline Mullan 1999
We started to consider bidding to run an Eastercon for several reasons. Beccons had outgrown their own success: there were 300 people at Beccon ’85. If we had attempted to run another small Beccon, we would have had to hold down the numbers to what the hotel could hold and a single programme stream and a small bookroom satisfy. It did not seem possible to run another con of the same type without disappointing people, either by limiting membership or by changing the style of the convention. Neither option seemed satisfactory to us. Besides, on our normal two-year schedule the next Beccon was due in 1987, and a small convention in the South of England in July of a Worldcon year was obviously not sensible. And, as it became clear who was and was not involved in running the Worldcon, we wondered who would run an Eastercon in 1987 if we did not bid.
It seemed at the time that to bid the 1987 Eastercon would provide us with the opportunity to do something new, to do things we could not do in a small hotel with few people with a very small budget. We had, we thought, some new ideas to offer to an Eastercon, and some new enthusiasm, a change after several years of the Eastercon rotating round the same three cities and the same groups of people. And it would mean there would be an Eastercon in 1987.
So we started to look for a site, and to put ideas together. For a long time the only thing that mattered was site-selection, but that is another tale. Suffice it to say that one by one we narrowed down the possibilities to the Birmingham and Brighton Metropoles, and we did not want to go to the Brighton Metropole. We wanted to put our own stamp on the Eastercon, not to be associated in people’s minds with Channelcon, Seacon ’84 and Conspiracy.
Here we hesitated. The hotel was a Metropole. It was miles from a city centre. It had never hosted a science fiction convention of any kind (though it was due to host a Star Trek convention in May 1986). And, worst of all, Contravention were bidding the hotel in 1986. But the choice in the end, though not simple, was straightforward; we bid the Birmingham Metropole, or we did not bid at all. We decided to bid. We knew there would be problems with the hotel and its location. We knew we would have problems with estimating numbers in a Worldcon year. We made careful calculations, erring on the side of caution, and eventually drew up our budgets on the basis of 800 members, smaller than an Albacon, less then twice the size of a Novacon. We had a good idea that some – or even many – fans would not be able to afford two major conventions in one year. But we also knew that 300 people had enjoyed previous Beccons, and would be likely to come to a Beccon Eastercon. We thought that being in Birmingham neither Londoners nor Glaswegians would find travel expensive. And we thought that we would not suffer from the kind of ill-will which showed signs of making Yorcon the smallest Eastercon in years. People who had never come to Beccon would come to an Eastercon, and those few who hadn’t enjoyed earlier Beccons would find a different kind of convention that they would (we hoped) be able to enjoy. How naïve that sounds now. How wrong we were.
- In 1985 I went to Yorcon with the most gloomy expectations. The attitude of the committee worried me. Several of my friends were so offended – by the committee’s collective attitude in general, or, in a couple of cases, by the actions of a particular member of the committee – that they did not intend to go to the convention at all. I had liked the style of the convention’s publications, but not their content. In the end, I comforted myself with the thought that most people would change their minds in the end, and went. I did not want to let any of this deprive me of an Eastercon, and besides, we were going to launch the Beccon bid.
- I had a wonderful time at Yorcon.
- The fan room programme was excellent; the art show was good, and it was my choice not to watch the several films that I would have liked to have seen. I missed Timothy Archer, having seen it at Mexicon, and because I was involved in a conversation at the time. I went to some excellent room parties and talked to some extremely interesting people.
- And that was all. Overall, Yorcon was a very poor convention: there was almost nothing on the main programme that I wished to see, and what I did see was poorly organised and poorly presented and mostly boring. Whenever I asked people whether something they had seen on the main programme was any good they told the same tale (with the notable exception of Timothy Archer).
- I was fortunate. There was one area of the convention that ran supremely well, and it was a part that I was interested in. Many of my friends were less fortunate: the con was much better than they expected, but they were bored. There was ill-will towards the committee; but, though perhaps I remember too kindly, I do not think there was malice, and I don’t think that anyone failed to credit the con with the things it had done well.
- End of Digression
At Yorcon we discovered the existence of a competing bid, organised in Leeds to be held in Harrogate. We were surprised – we had heard no whisper of another 1987 bid. Apparently the surprise was mutual: they hadn’t heard of us! Yorcon went well for Beccon. We had flyers, receipt books, tables; the Harrogate bid was evident only in the very pretty rainbow-badges worn by some Leeds fans. We collected dozens of pre-supporting memberships, and a good deal of comment along the lines that a Beccon Eastercon was a wonderful idea.
The only shadow was the result of the 1986 bidding session; not that Albacon had won the bid, but the reaction displayed by certain people to its winning. A reaction that was not wholly new – I had seen the same feelings displayed when Glasgow won the bid over London for 1983 – but with a new (to me) element that foreshadowed the scenes at Beccon over the Follycon/Norwescon and Contrivance bids. At the time this didn’t bother me in relation to Beccon. I had no idea that in certain people’s minds we were already firmly aligned on the wrong side of a fence I did not realise existed.
Nor did I discover this over the next year. I discussed what I wanted to do at Beccon with several people who disagreed with my ideas, but, I think, at least understood and respected my thoughts about the convention. Some, at the time, said that they would certainly be there, and would help if they could. We heard almost nothing from or about the Harrogate bid, which eventually, almost at the last minute, collapsed. One major unexpected drawback was the declaration of Conception, to be held in Leeds in February 1987, to celebrate 50 years of fandom and conventions. After discussion, we scrapped our half-formed plans to celebrate 50 years of British fandom. Conception had a better ‘right’ to the celebration, we thought, and we didn’t want to duplicate what they would do. We worried (rightly) about another 1987 convention ‘competing’ for fans’ time and money, but there was nothing we could do about it. (Incidentally, as individuals, most of us later went to Conception, and enjoyed it.)
We went to Albacon, knowing that the Harrogate bid would not be presented, confident that we had planned a good, varied convention, but worried that without a competing bid we would not get the chance to explain our ideas to people. We were right to be worried: there were almost no questions at the bidding session, and those few there were concentrated on the hoary old problems (such as the one about two keys for rooms occupied by two people) which no con committee I know of has ever had any control over, try we never so hard. Of course, many people didn’t bother attending the bidding session, knowing that Beccon was fore-ordained. But we took over a hundred memberships at Albacon, and several key people agreed to take part in programme items or to help with the con in various ways, so we went home happy.
We planned a good Eastercon, a varied and multi-stream convention that would explore all aspects of science fiction and fandom. We would not have a main stream for large audiences and an alternative for lesser ones, but several streams, equal in esteem, planned so that people could choose between contrasting types of item, with audience size no object. The serious discussion of sf, science and fandom would be interspersed with the silly and not-so-silly games for which Beccon is well-known. Standard Eastercon items (the fancy dress, the bidding sessions) would mix with Beccon favourites (the fireworks, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, a play), and with some things that were (as far as we knew) completely new (Keith Roberts reading his favourite poetry, the Ghost of Honour). There would be workshops to involve small groups of people in highly-focused activity, and there would be major items which would bring a substantial proportion of the convention into one item. There would be a film programme that would use the 35mm facilities of the cinema to show films that cannot normally be shown at conventions. Above all, we planned a convention that people could get involved with.
We were ambitious. We knew we couldn’t please any of the people all of the time, but we wanted to please most people with something, and we thought we were sufficiently varied to do that. We wanted to do things that previous Beccons were too small to do (the fancy dress and the play), and things that the Worldcon could not or would not do because it would be too big (the workshops). I don’t think we realised then that there would be some people we couldn’t please at all, no matter what we did.
There were other reasons for some of the things we did. We ran a 24-hour film programme partly so members of the convention would be legally entitled to be on the premises even though not resident in the hotel – a necessary consideration when there is no cheap accommodation nearby. We initially rejected the idea of a banquet altogether, but when we thought of Christmas Dinner we found advantages in terms of providing variety in the hotel, and a lead-in to the awards ceremony. We also thought that hotels serve Christmas dinners fifty times a year, it’s a relatively cheap meal (the 1981 Eastercon Banquet also cost £8 a head; a banquet with any other menu would have been £12 or more), and that the Metropole was unlikely to muck it up as badly as some banquets have been in the past.
A couple of weeks after Albacon some of the Beccon committee went to UFP, the Star Trek convention that was the first con to be held in the Metropole Hotel. With 400 people, mostly tucked away in one of the three video programmes or the cinema, the hotel seemed very empty, and although the quality of the hot food was good, it was expensive and poorly served, there was little choice, and the sandwiches were expensive and very boring. There were problems with security, and with hotel staff treating convention members as second-class citizens. The hotel was full of businessmen, who spent the days in the NEC, and most of the women in the hotel bar were whores. We came away with pages of notes on how to do things better, and what we needed to discuss with the hotel.
We were quite sure that we could do better. Many of the problems were at least partly the fault of the UFP committee, and most of the rest were the result of the shared occupation of the hotel. We were confident of our ability to get what we wanted from the hotel, the only residents of the hotel over Easter weekend would be members of Beccon, we were going to be larger than UFP. There wasn’t a lot we could do about the size of the rooms and the location of the hotel, but we thought our plans for the usage of rooms was better than the Trek con’s and that greater numbers would take care of the rest.
Things went fairly smoothly for the next few months. Despite a friendly hotel manager, we had the usual problems with the hotel not answering letters, and not wanting to discuss matters months in advance, but what we did get out of him was eventually satisfactory. (Digression for those not into conrunning: hotels normally make all the arrangements for a business convention only a few weeks in advance. Con committees needing discussions and decisions over a longer time-scale tend to confuse them. This is quite normal for all science fiction conventions except Glasgow ones.) Membership was going well, and the programme was coming together, except for films, which got tied up in Harris Films’ collapse and subsequent chaos in the film hire business.
Then things started going a little awry. A couple of people backed out of previously firm commitments for personal reasons. More told us that they were not sure they would be at Beccon – and if they were there, commitments to Worldcon or elsewhere meant that they could not, or would not, do anything for us. Some people decided that going to Conception meant they could not afford Beccon. The friendly hotel manager left, and his replacement gave us a great deal of hassle and worry.
Meanwhile, around fandom, still amidst the general enthusiasm among the fans I knew best, I was noticing occasional indirect signs of hostility. One person told me that he wasn’t going to be at Beccon because we were going to be utterly frivolous; another that he wasn’t going to be there because we were unremittingly serious. I was asked about the rumour that we were banning smoking at Beccon. I was told that we were ‘elitist’ because we had the impudence to hold an Eastercon away from a city centre, and arranging a banquet proved it. In a conversation overheard at the One Tun, it appeared that upstart, anti-fannish Beccon was taking over ‘our’ Eastercon.
I didn’t want to make too much of these in themselves trivial incidents. Rumours do spread, regardless of one’s real intentions, and should be disregarded. But the tones of voice I heard were not friendly, and I started to lose sleep. Why should anyone think we would want to ban smoking? Have signs up limiting smoking to half of each hall, yes, we intended to do that, and we did it, but ban it altogether? How could we have done so, even if we had wished to? Why should anyone think that we would choose to run an Eastercon in an isolated hotel? If there had been a city-centre hotel available that suited our needs we would have tried for it, but there wasn’t. Why should anyone think that because we had run small conventions in a light-hearted style we would run an Eastercon in precisely the same style? Much of the point of bidding an Eastercon was to do things we felt unable to do before. And upstart? Anti-fannish? Why on Earth...
My own impressions were reinforced by other people. Why do some people hate Beccon so much, someone asked me? I didn’t know. They weren’t telling me. They still haven’t. I think that if we had been planning to run a Mexicon, some people would have been antagonistic because it was Beccon that organised it. Whatever the causes, the effects were clear. A self-fulfilling prophecy was in force in some circles: No one (read: none of my friends!) is going to Beccon, so Beccon isn’t going to be worth going to, so I won’t go to Beccon.
And Beccon found that it couldn’t put panels together because people weren’t going to Beccon. And some of the people who were going refused to appear on the programme, and a couple of people backed out of things they had said they would do. So some of the spaces in the programme for panels and talks about science fiction and fandom were replaced by the silly games that other people were willing to organise and play. Around about Christmas it should have been clear that this was happening, and we probably should have redesigned the convention – particularly the use of rooms – to restore the balance. With hindsight, it is clear that we could have done a great deal to salvage the situation, to persuade people to attend, to sell the idea that we had of the con to people who would have been interested and interesting. But by that stage we lacked the energy, we lacked the imagination and we lacked the enthusiasm to do very much about it. And when, eventually, the whole thing was shaken out, we found we lacked a whole thread of the convention, and by that time it really was too late.
But we still had a very strong programme. We had a whole thread based on Keith Roberts, including the play based on one of his stories. We had Jane Gaskell and Ian Watson, John Halas and George Stone, Dave Hardy and the Ghost of Honour. We had workshops, games, auctions, a good film programme and all the usual extras. We looked at the curves of Eastercon membership over time in Conrunner (a conrunners’ fanzine produced by Ian Sorensen), and we were running a little ahead of them, and we still reckoned we would get 800 or more members. And we were into the run-up period, when we were confirming what we’d got and hustling for what we hadn’t, producing the programme book and still having problems with the hotel.
On top of all of this, many of us were coping with private stress; Brian and I and a couple of others were dealing with increased pressure at work. I wasn’t able to receive telephone calls at the office, or use the telephone for more than the shortest outgoing call. Someone else was moving house, and others had different pressures. Most of us, I believe, were at the limits of our tolerance. Something would have given way if we’d had to carry on for much longer.
In the final weeks it became clear that Conrunner’s curves did not apply, that we had taken our memberships early in the year, and were not going to follow the usual Eastercon pattern of picking up a quarter of the final membership in the last six weeks before the con.
Other things had come right. The unfriendly banqueting manager had been replaced, and we had a reasonable contract with the hotel. The Ops structure was in place, and the programme as printed was virtually intact. On the Sunday before the convention we had a satisfactory final meeting with the banqueting manager. We were all set to go.
How was the convention? You tell me: I spent much of the time finding out that a hotel does not consider itself bound by a contract, and dealing with the consequences. But that is a tale for another article, maybe for Conrunnner. I know we had some successes. I know we had some failures. And I know that a lot of people disagree about which was which, which is fair enough. The general impression I got is that people who got involved in the con by and large had a fairly good time, but the people who sat in the bar with their (largely absent) friends didn’t. I am sorry for and about the latter group, but I refuse to accept responsibility for them. They made their own convention, it wasn’t the one I had a hand in.
How do I feel about the con? I have very mixed feelings. I think we achieved a good part of what we set out to do, but that our failure to respond to changing circumstances negated much of what we did achieve. I would run the same con again, but in a different way, and it would feel different to the participants. On the whole, I can forgive myself and the committee for our mistakes. Not the glorious Easter I had hoped for, but not Black Easter either.
And the day after judgement, when the verdict is known and the consequences faced?
I was amazed to be told after last Beccon, ‘It was great, everyone thought so,’ and by just as many, ‘It was awful, everyone thought so.’ Mike Moir, Albacon Report, Matrix #71
One of the wise sayings among conrunners is that you learn when people don’t enjoy themselves, but not when they do. I think that’s wrong. People who enjoyed Beccon have told me so, to my face and in print. Many more have told us which bits they thought we did right and what we did wrong. Several other people who I am fairly sure did not enjoy themselves have avoided the subject in my presence – on the whole, I think (I am not sure) I prefer them to do so. Several have been very uncomplimentary in print, and of course, they are perfectly entitled to be.
One of the biggest mistakes we made was not to say, loudly and often, what it was that we tried to do and why. We knew why we did things, but found it difficult to say so clearly: high ideals ring false on paper, and people are cynical. I find it hard to accept blame for things that we had no control over while all our successes are ascribed to our luck and not to our judgement. People assumed – and are still assuming – that they know what we were doing, even though we didn’t tell them, and I don’t think there are any telepaths in fandom.
I think we made a mistake in assuming that fandom is full of goodwill. There is quite a lot of it around as it happens, and most of us have been beneficiaries of it at some time or another, but you can’t assume it’s there all the time, or for everyone, and you can’t hope for people to give you credit for trying.
Maybe if I was a telepath I would have known these fairly obvious points years ago, and saved myself a lot of grief, but I’m not, and I didn’t. But now I know.
And I haven’t yet forgiven fandom for shattering my illusions again. I could not – still cannot – understand the hostility directed towards us by people who did not know us as individuals, who hardly acknowledged our existence as a group prior to the bid; unreasonable hostility towards a group of people who were putting in a lot of effort and a lot of time, and who were taking risks, to put on an Eastercon.
Of course, disillusionment is not a new feeling. At my first few conventions I was innocently sure that all fans were my potential friends, that I only had to meet them to be accepted, and of course, after a while I learned that this was not so, that some fans would never be my friends. But I still did not think that any fan would ever be my enemy. I thought I had become cynical, that fandom could not disappoint me again. But now I’ve found that I had merely become more cynically naïve.
Now, when I am feeling paranoid, I know that there are people who consider my existence, my thoughts and feelings to be hostile, unfannish, unacceptable; that Beccon is the enemy of fandom as these people know it, and that I am tarred with the Beccon-brush. Sometimes in the Wellington in the past few months I’ve avoided people because I was afraid they’d look at me, and say Beccon, and turn away. It would be easy, sometimes, to say that we were wrong, that it was all a disaster, to repent and be received back into the fannish fold. But I had a large part in Beccon, the con was shaped by my ideas, and I will not repudiate it. And there is no church of fandom to cry me heretic.
When I am not feeling paranoid, I know that this is paranoia.
I hope it is paranoia.
Sometimes I wonder.
© Caroline Mullan 1987
So yes, Beccon was a convention, like other conventions. But it was also a dream, and in particular it was my dream. I had a love affair with fandom, and Beccon was its consummation. I put more effort into Beccon, cared more about it, than almost anything else I have ever done, before or since. And suffered for it, as the lover does when the love-affair is one-sided. And wrote about it, justifying myself after the event, as one does. And find myself embarrassed, now, to see how foolish I was when I was young.
I survived my broken heart and my paranoia, and helped run several more Eastercons, though I never fell in love again. Eastercons still happen, so far. So why does it matter how I felt then? Why tell you now in Banana Wings the story of my calf-love?
For readers who are conrunners, because I am not the only foolish conrunner, nor was Beccon the only Eastercon. Much of the grief – all? – that I thought was unique to Beccon is normal for Eastercons. Eastercons are always loved by some and reviled by others; always well-organised in some areas, poorly in others; always successful for some of their participants and not for others; would always benefit from more time and more commitment than is actually available. And on most Eastercon committees there are one or two people who identify more closely with the convention, and feel its failures more keenly, than the others. This is the conrunners’ condition, and there is no help for it (just like life, really). But maybe it will help to know that this is true for all conventions, not just your convention. You are not alone.
But for the rest of you: you who would never dream of running a convention and you who will write to Banana Wings to tell my 1987-self to grow up and get a life; you who will whinge when you don’t like the Eastercon hotel and complain when you can’t get a second key to your hotel room... I doubt you’ll care about a conrunner’s broken heart or how hard it is to run an Eastercon. And you’re right, it really isn’t a big deal; it’s just another convention. And see, I don’t care any more, and I don’t run Eastercons any more either. But, would you care if there were no more Eastercons, I wonder? Because there aren’t many people who want to run Eastercons in the first place. And when you’ve punished enough of us for wanting to, there won’t be any more.
© Caroline Mullan 1999