Thank goodness I agreed to run a mini, last-minute press promotion for Helicon. Having had my bag ripped by the Heathrow security on the way to Jersey for the 1993 Eurocon, Helicon, I was decidely apprehensive when I was once more stopped at Jersey airport. However this time my explanation, that I was attending the European SF convention, was accepted with an: 'Oh that. We read about that in the Jersey Evening Post.' I left with bag and body intact, protected by PR and the whim of a local hack. Clearly these airport security people are trained to spot members of the SF&DA... but then how did Gamma get through with enough to stock ICI for a year?
Jersey as a venue does have its obvious, and less-obvious, travel hassles. On the other hand, once there the island has much to offer, what with its castles, island biogeography and all, so it soon became clear that quite a few fans had decided to take advantage of the convention rate discount being extended to a week either side of Easter.
The hotel was as welcoming as it had been four years ago, which meant that the committee would have to work damn hard at cocking things up for the convention to be anything other than good. Though give them their due, they tried. On receiving my convention book I saw that I was down for extra programme items for which I had replied to the committee's letter of invitation with a firm negative. (Though I work for the Institute of Biology, I am in fact an environmental scientist and there are some biological subjects that I am not properly equipped to talk to.)
The Committee were quick to apologise with the explanation that the programme timetable was printed at the same time as the last letters of 'extra item' invitations were being sent out!!! (!?. Yes my reaction too..Shades of Confiction.)
However the convention's programme sub-committee had got it half right in that a goodly proportion of the programme items were properly agreed with prospective programme participants (>9 months) in advance. These items were, in the main, well prepared, though the audiovisual equipment was not always at the right place at the right time (such are the perils of running over five parallel programme streams). 'What's new in science' was one such panel, with scientist fans letting us in on the action with news that had yet to reach Horizon viewers or, indeed in some instances, ahead of the interdisciplinary journals (such as Science and Nature). Bridget Wilkinson's 'Alien Game' was as perplexing as ever, and the Jersey Wildlife Preservation presentation, combined with the convention's JWP fund-raising efforts, provided a feel-good factor. Congratulations are in order to all those involved in planning and putting these items on (or indeed the mega item on '21st Century Planetary Challenges' -- well, perhaps the least said about this last the better).
After the first couple of days, with phone chasing journalists and radio interviews all done, Concatenations given out (best reception to the zine yet -- best glass re-filler too,) it was possible for me to take stock and see what was really happening. (Pause: Here I must really thank the committee for letting me get on with the press op and for allowing words put into their mouths.)
What was really going down at Helicon was a very internationally flavoured event. With fewer Brits than expected, and far less Yanks than at a UK Worldcon, there was more of an equal balance of national numbers.
Especially pleasing were the Romanians. (Bias declared: I am the Millenium III, Tulcea, Romania twining officer for the Phoenicians, Dartford, UK, SF group.)
Despite the fare for the France-Jersey ferry costing as much as one of their month's salary, some 50 Romanians turned up in a coach complete with a week's supply of food! All power to their elbow then when it was announced that Romania -- a country, like Japan, where both SF and science are respectable -- had won the bid for next year's Eurocon (May 1994). Timisoara, for that is where the '94 Eurocon is being held, lies just this side of the Transylvanian Alps, and who knows, with a bit of encouragement the Romanians might lay on a pre-convention fan tour of the countryside that inspired Bram Stoker. (If they do then, due to the highly advantageous exchange rate, the extra day-to-day costs will be negligible.)
Meanwhile, Helicon had such an international atmosphere, yet was just small enough to be convivial, that for the first time at a convention I actually felt a spirit of what can only he described as 'fellowship'. Of course that is not to say there were downers.
Of the downers, the only really massive one came with the Guest of Honour's speech... Actually it was the Guest of Honour's speech! It is probably no big secret that Majorie's death hit John Brunner quite hard, but few were aware of how, through the 1980s, the drugs John had been prescribed to lower his blood presure had both altered his character and hindered his creative abilities. With his output reduced, John told us, the last thing he needed was for his books to be cut off from one of his major markets. Yet this was exactly what had happened. Apparently while some of his old and many of his new books are available in the USA, he has hardly had anything out in the UK! Obviously these two factors have severely damaged his income, and (worse for us) prevented his UK readership from getting his latest works. One can only hope that UK publishers wake up to their responsibilities (and I use that word speaking as a science publisher). Meanwhile fans and conrunners might like to do what they can to nudge matters in the right direction.
However, this island of gloom aside, spirits were high. The bookroom had a continual throughput of fans, and despite the lack of programmed late night film repeats (shame, shame) the convention area was active through to the small hours. Both the Millenium and Gollancz book launches were well attended, and the banquet (again as per the last Jersey convention) was above average.
To sum up, Helicon was a great convention. OK, so it was a week or so too short. Numbers, at around the 1,000 mark, were not as high as one would expect, but then everyone else's loss was our gain: we had more of an intimate gathering. The programme by and large worked, and the organisational cracks (there are always some) rarely showed through. It would be easy to say that the committee could have done better, but then one has to ask how much can one expect of a band of volunteers. What can be said is that they coped well, and that that combined with the other fair-wind factors (Jersey, the hotel, and the internationality of the fans themselves) they staged what turned out to be a memorable convention... Thanks for the excellent dry run. More please, and soon!