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Back to the future for Eastercon
On Sunday October 14, 1951, 44 people gathered at Pat’s Cafe, Dudley Hill Top, Bradford. The photographs of this event show a gathering of earnest-looking (mainly) men in their demob suits, arranged on wooden chairs. It could be a working men’s club committee, perhaps, or a union meeting.
But it was actually the first proper, organised meeting of science fiction fans in the north, and is now considered to be one of the early sparks that became the flames of a worldwide fan movement that today sees huge conventions held around the world... with the next one on the international calendar taking place back in Bradford.
Eastercon is an annual event that takes place (you guessed it) over the Easter weekend every year, somewhere in the UK. Last year it was at Heathrow, in 2014 it will be in Glasgow.
But from Good Friday, March 29, to Easter Monday, April 1, the centre of the science fiction universe will be the Cedar Court Hotel, Bradford, as in excess of 1,000 fans of SF, fantasy, horror and comics descend upon the city from all corners of the globe for this major gathering of writers, publishers, artists, film people and – most importantly – fans.
So what exactly happens at a science fiction convention? People run around dressed as Klingons from Star Trek, right?
Juliet McKenna is the chair of the Bradford Eastercon (officially called Eightsquared – it’s the 64th annual Eastercon and 64 is eight squared – geddit?) and she says that the most common question people ask about cons is: “Will there be people wearing Mr Spock ears? Or dressed as Star Wars stormtroopers, or Doctor Who, or any number of other characters from film and TV, up to and including (with that particular glint in the questioner’s eye) Princess Leia as a slavegirl?”
Juliet – herself a hugely successful author of many fantasy books, says: “No, we say, you’re missing the point. We’re there to discuss the on-going development and discussion of speculative fiction, in books and film, TV and in the ways that narrative is emerging as a force in other media.
“We’re considering the relationship of humanity with technology through Science Fiction and the complexity of human nature through portrayals of the supernatural and the fantastic and our interaction and reactions.”
If that sounds a bit po-faced, she does have her tongue somewhat in her cheek, and although not a huge “cosplayer” (the recognised term for those who do indeed like to turn up at conventions with Spock ears or Catwoman costumes) she does admit to dressing up as a “space admiral” for a costume ball at last year’s Eastercon.
So there will be a costume event in Bradford – the Mirror Mirror Ball, in which participants are invited to “come as your chosen alter ego from your favourite parallel universe, historical period or alternate reality of choice”.
I attended the Eastercon in Heathrow last year, and costumes were thin on the ground, though I did manage to snap with their permission (con-goers dislike having a camera shoved in their face without asking, as much as anyone else) a Klingon and a pirate having a quiet drink together.
One thing’s for sure, there were no Spock ears at the gathering in Bradford in 1951. Mr Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew didn’t make an appearance on our TV screens in Star Trek for another 15 years. As with Eastercon, the accent of that nascent Bradford con would have been on literature, though there would doubtless have been some excitement about the big cinema release of that year – the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, in which alien Michael Rennie and his gigant robot Gort came to show us the error of our warmongering ways.
Peter Weston is something of an SF fandom historian, he’s been involved in running conventions and producing fanzines since the 1960s, and it’s thanks to him we have this photographic record of the 1951 gathering, called Necon 1951 (short for North-East convention).
Peter says: “Fan activity began in Bradford in the 1950s with one man, Derek Pickles, who produced the first issue of his Phantasmagoria in November 1950. It was so well received that Derek (with help from his sister Mavis) decided to run Necon, the first post-war gathering of science fiction fans in the north of England.”
Peter says that Necon with its 44 attendees – 15 from Bradford and four from Leeds – was considered a great success. He says: “After Necon, Derek formed the Bradford Science Fiction Association. By the time of Loncon [another convention in London the following year] he reported they had 23 members. The club closed at the end of 1953 and Derek himself had to leave fandom in 1955 because of ill health.”
The guests of honour for the first Necon (held not for a whole weekend like Eastercon, but from noon until 10pm on a single Sunday, cost of attending two shillings and sixpence) were fans themselves – Joyce and Ken Slater, noted SF enthusiasts and booksellers.
For Eastercon in March, the guests of honour are big names in the SF literature world. American Walter Jon Williams is a bestseller with almost 30 novels to his name. Freda Warrington is a British fantasy author while Anne Sudworth is a renowned fantasy artist.
So notwithstanding the occasional Klingon or Imperial Stormtrooper, what actually goes on at these things? As Juliet McKenna suggested, it’s a place for likeminded people to gather together and discuss in-depth the minutiae of their favourite genre. There will be panels all across the Cedar Court hotel, many of them academic in nature, others more fun. Authors and industry types will participate in Q&A sessions, there will be book launches and signings by authors, there will be a dealers’ hall where books, comics, artwork and toys will be on sale.
For many people, though, the convention will take place largely in the hotel bar, where fiery conversations to match any of the formal panels will take place, and fans from across Britain and beyond will be able to catch up.
If it sounds niche and even a bit cliquey, it can sometimes seem that way to the virgin con-goer. But the Eightsquared committee are keen to interact with the Bradford community and welcome newcomers.
You attend a con by buying a membership for the weekend – this currently stands at £60 for the whole weekend, but only until tomorrow, when registration rises to £70 for the weekend. You can also turn up without registering and – if capacity has not been reached – pay £80. But day tickets are available at reduced prices, and the committee is offering an introductory price of £15 for anyone who just wants to check it out on the opening Friday, with the option to upgrade to full membership (minus your £15) if you decide you want to stay for the whole weekend.
Why “membership” instead of just an admission ticket? It’s all about involvement. Juliet McKenna again: “People aren’t buying a seat to passively attend a performance. They’re investing in the funding of a collective enterprise, run by volunteers for fellow enthusiasts.”
Many con-goers will also be staying in the city centre, at “official” overspill hotels Jury’s and the Midland, and local transport company Tetley’s is putting on free bus services for members up to the Cedar Court and back.
With more guests and events for Eastercon set to be announced thick and fast over the coming weeks, it’s all coming together as a major event for anyone with more than a passing interest in science fiction, fantasy and horror in all its media and forms. It’s perhaps a far cry from that gathering in Pat’s Cafe 62 years ago. But the basic principles – fans of one of the most enduring and popular entertainment genres in the world getting together to have a good time – remain the same.
You can find out more about Eastercon in Bradford, including how to become a member and obtain tickets, at www.eightsquaredcon.org, and there are regular updates on their blog at www.eightsquaredcon.wordpress.com.
Who knows, it might open up whole new worlds for you. And perhaps don’t forget your Spock ears... just in case.