By R. A. MacAvoy: I had thought to begin this trip report with the idea it was something lost in the mail. Lost for many, many years. That seemed clever at first, but I realized that my memories aren’t close to clear enough for me to get away with that. Not even with people who know how muddled my memories can be. So, instead, this is a trip report to a con that didn’t get written in 1987, but is being written now, in 2016. In a way, that makes it easier. I don’t really have to explain getting things muddled. I can simply be glad I remember anything.
In early 1987 I was between books, and as always in that situation, I felt desperate to do something fannish to keep my hand in until the next idea came my way. And I was reading that the World Con, which was going to be held in Brighton, was having the usual difficulties getting funds together, so I reasoned I could solve their problems and mine with one very long journey, from the West Coast of California to the South Coast of England and back. This was not really financially responsible, of course. My income was, at the time dedicated toward building onto our excuse for a house, whilst Ron’s income kept us living in it day to day. But still, I could take it off my taxes. Business expenses, or some such.
I went alone, because Ron could not get time off to travel with me. It seems, then and now, the software industry doesn’t allow for holidays except at the most peculiar times, such as when we went to the arctic circle in mid-winter. But that happened many years later. To Brighton World Con I went alone.
And going that way isn’t particularly fannish. At the time, it seemed to me that fans travelled in close packs, crept into hotel rooms unnoticed and slept on the floor, hoping not to be noticed. This might explain why SF conventions, even large ones, were not particularly desired events at hotels around the world. That, plus the fact that SF fans have an abysmally low bar bill compared with most any other sort of convention, and hotels do depend upon the bar bill when hosting conventions.
So. I arrived alone at Brighton and was put into a room at the Radisson Hotel, which was far above my pay-grade, but also far away from the convention center. I remember I thought about all the unused space in my room, and wondered if I ought to sneak some more fans of some sort into the hotel. But I literally didn’t know anybody, and also, I wasn’t confident I could pull it off.
I walked down the road between the Radisson and the convention center, and across the way was the water and the famed Brighton Pier. At the time it was a mess. There were signs warning of danger and unsafe surfaces. The Channel itself reminded me very much of Lake Eerie, where I grew up. As long as one can’t see the other side, any body of water seems to be an ocean.
The lines for registration were very long and registration is more than usually dreary when one shows up alone. When I finally got to registration there was a great deal of ka-tah over which sort of badge I should have. I was certainly no sort of guest, but I wasn’t to be considered a proper sort of fan, either, as I had, at the time, published six or seven books in the field. So I was shuffled around until I had some sort of badge with my name on it and something that described me as a writer, but as nothing special. And that is the perfect description of what I was and what I intended to be at the con. Nothing special. No panels. No responsibilities. Free.
What does a lonely fan do at a convention, when presented with the leaflet describing the coming programming? I know what I did. I looked immediately for the dealer’s room and the art show. And the masquerade, of course. Panels were the last thing on my mind.
The dealers’ rooms were huge, and the art show was glorious. I can say today I’ve never seen the like of the art show at Conspiracy ’87. I remember especially one man who created art out of skulls he found as roadkill. These were mostly skulls of raptors, including owls, although I believe I saw a few fox skulls as well. In the eye sockets of the cleaned skulls he inserted gems, beveled in silver or gold. Sometimes, he also placed jewels in the foreheads. They were stunning, and the price was astronomical. To me, at least, astronomical. I did set my eye on some of the plaster reproductions of such skulls, which were indistinguishable from the real thing, in my eye. There was one of an owl’s skull . . . I wondered if I had the chutzpah to wear a jeweled owl’s skull around my neck, once back at the ranch. But more about that later.
The first convention assemblage was a large open forum. A sort of welcome to the convention, I suppose, with numerous speakers from the Brighton Fan Community. They were all young men and all seemed to have the same message. It was an angry message. They said that Americans, (and they made no clear distinction between Yanks and Canadians, so I suppose we were all in that boat together,) had hijacked this British convention. They were extremely irate. I was flabbergasted, because the message I had received from my friends who worked at Locus and at The Other Change of Hobbit back in California, had been that we must rescue the convention, which was in danger of bankruptcy. Since then I’ve learned that every convention is in danger of bankruptcy. That is a convention’s normal state of existence. But as I’d come so very many miles with the idea I was helping, I have to say my feelings were hurt. The other repeated message told us from the podium of that one huge assembly was that Americans did not write proper SF, but instead stories of ‘Red Indians in Outer Space’. That, like the owl’s skull, will be important to this story later.
Luckily, I don’t remember a single name of the angry young men who spoke from the podium that day. I don’t think any of them were writers. Those names I would have remembered. I watched the audience carefully from my position standing near an exit door. (That is my preferred position at all convention events.) The people I could tell were American, mostly by their shoes, for at the time Americans wore a sort of brightly-colored trainer than was uncommon footwear to other people, seemed to shrink into their seats. And I watched for the rest of the convention as the Americans went about their business, getting into and out of lifts, and dodging people in hallways, muttering the word ‘sorry’ almost as a mantra. I have never seen a less confident lot of hijackers in my life.
I must repeat here that the angry young men of Brighton did not represent anything of Britain, or of England, but themselves. Because the cost of meals at the convention hall was so steep, I began to make a practice of darting out of the building to get my meals at near-by shops, where the locals were so warm and friendly, and so careful to guide a visitor into not buying more food than she could likely afford, that any idea I might have had of extending the distinct feeling of unwelcome beyond the doors of the convention center died aborning. I also visited a florist and bought daisies, first to have someone to talk to and later to have silly things to give away.
As it turned out, it was not only the Americans who felt rejected by the welcoming speeches. There were Dutch, Swedish, Australian and Italian fans at the convention also. We met at the bars and in lobby corners and had a fine convention of our own. And it was there that I met my own Jugoslav translators, who had come with the specific idea of meeting me. (I never knew I had Jugoslav translators.) It was flattering and embarrassing to meet them, especially after I stood them up at a meeting we had scheduled the first day, which flew out of my head completely with the overwhelm of the con. So I spent the next few days chasing them down hallways, constantly apologizing, and trying to explain that yes, I was that naturally disorganized and that I did appreciate them. I really did. Finally we all made up. In years to come, when there was no longer a Jugoslavia, I used to wonder what had become of the two of them. They were sparkling with enthusiasm and energy. I know I gave them daisies.
Doris Lessing signs at 1987 Worldcon. Photo by Frank Olynyk.
During the convention I missed the opportunity to meet two people I would have liked to meet. The first was Doris Lessing. I stood within three meters of her and said to myself go on. Step forward. She can only look through you and give a blank smile. She can’t hurt you. But I couldn’t. I was so very intimidated at the idea of being in the same room with Doris Lessing that I couldn’t move. In the end, it doesn’t matter. I have often been in the same room with her work.
The other person I didn’t meet was Dave Langford, who was one of the fan GOHs. If I could have known the future I would have sought him out and said Langford, one day in the future we will be friends, and so I’d like to shake your hand now. But of course, I didn’t know and I didn’t shake his hand. These days, I post or comment to him almost daily, and I suppose time travel is completely unnecessary to the process.
The second morning of the convention I had a most peculiar experience. Even for convention fandom, it was most peculiar. I was under the awning of the convention center, waiting for the doors to open. (I am incurably early for everything. That is, when I haven’t forgotten to show up at all.) I put my backpack and convention bag down and sat with my back against one of the awning posts, waiting for the doors to open. A minute or so later another fan appeared. A young man. Very young. He stood there and looked down at me. His eyes narrowed and he asked me where I had gotten that badge.
I thought he was inquiring about registration, but as I opened my mouth I saw he already had a badge. “Where did you get THAT badge?” he repeated, heatedly. “It’s not yours. Everyone is going to know it’s not yours.”
I had no idea how to answer him. Should I show him my passport? My driver’s license? But then, why should I show this boy anything? I pointed to the name. R.A. MacAvoy. “That’s me,” I said. I looked at his badge, but I have no memory of what his name was.
With complete assurance, and with fists balled at his side, he told me “I know R.A. MacAvoy, and you’re not him!”
There were so many layers of misunderstanding in this I didn’t know how to address it. It did know to slide up the steel post I’d been leaning against, so I’d be on my feet. I told him my name was Roberta A. MacAvoy. I hate to say that to people, because the name ‘Roberta’ has always fit me as well as roller skates fit a pig. But it was the clearest explanation I could give.
His voice rose to a shout. “It’s Robert A. MacAvoy. What is he? Your father? Or did you make up this fraud from scratch?”
It occurred to me that the boy had conflated me with Robert A. Heinlein somehow. Perhaps he was young enough not to know the difference. But his mental processes had ceased to matter at this moment, as he was approaching me square-shouldered and full of belligerence. My mind raced. I was I a foreign country and I did not know what my rights of self-defense were. I was imagining ending up in jail for hurting this idiot. I was also imagining my refusing to defend myself and ending up in hospital.
At that moment the big glass doors burst open and two men in convention center security uniforms came to stand between us – between me and the angry boy. One security man quietly asked me what was going on. I replied to him that I had no idea what was going on, but that I was profoundly glad to see him. The other security man tried to touch the young fan and was repeatedly brushed away. A few seconds later I was in the convention hall. It was almost time to open, after all, and I was very grateful. The security man even carried my backpack and swag bag into the hall with him. I might well have forgotten them and left them in the street.
To this day I have no idea why my identity was questioned by the young fan so strenuously. It’s a mystery. Thank ghod it didn’t become a bloody mystery.
That’s about what I remember from Conspiracy ’87. The panels were like panels everywhere. The running up and down the streets of Brighton was not my usual convention experience, as it took place outdoors. The masquerade was astonishing. I bought the replica owl’s skull, with silver and garnets. Between earthquakes and moving house, somehow I no longer have it.
But, if you remember, I began this by saying I had gone to Brighton between story ideas. I came home with a good one. At least I think it’s good.
I wrote a novel about red Indians in outer space. Because the First Nation people are no more red than any other group of humans, I had my protagonist genetically altered to be really red. And I added in descendants of the people of the subcontinent of India, just to complicate things. It is the only real Space Opera I have ever written. So I got my money’s worth out of the anger of the young men of Brighton. In fact, the advance of that book paid for the roof of our house.