I was going to write about anime—specifically, as seen through the eyes of a LonCon3 panelist. That was the plan. I was even making mental notes as I packed my bag to come home. And yet. . . Somewhere along the way I got sidetracked.
I won’t trouble you with a lengthy whine about the hardships of travel. Suffice it to say, the trip to London was not easy. They say that fandom is aging, but I wonder if maybe, “It’s not the years. It’s the mileage.”
Our first challenge was finding the con. We knew that the ExCel Exhibition Center was nearby. We had been told so, repeatedly. But somehow, stepping out of our hotel room, we found that hard to believe. Dockland is the extreme east side of London. It is still being expanded into. There’s a pronounced shortage of tall buildings and a preponderance of empty lots. We couldn’t actually see the Excel (or much of anything else) from our hotel.
The only significant road led back towards the light rail platform where we had disembarked and thence off into nothingness. In the other direction, the road skirted a boarded up, overgrown construction area. A brief exploration deposited us in a small park containing one of the weirdest sculptures in the world. (A gift from China, in honor of the Beijing Olympics, commemorating their invention of polo. Astonishingly hideous.)
We thought of asking, but the hotel desk clerk had barricaded himself in the office after a lively discussion about room rates. We’d been en route—through four airports and two train stations—for 25 hours (all of them grueling) and it was still only the middle of the afternoon, local time. We decided to take a little nap before tackling more learning experiences.
When we tried again, the surly desk clerk had been replaced with a friendly bartender, who assured us we couldn’t miss it, and directed us past the overgrown construction site and across a parking lot where the locals occasionally practiced their wheelies and donuts. Sure enough, there it was, with a hotel (significantly more expensive than ours) right next to it. Visible through the great glass front were a couple of men surrounded by tall stacks of boxes. They also had a small table, heaped with papers.
They looked up a little suspiciously when we peeked in. “We’re closed,” one told us.
“Is this WorldCon?” I responded. I was genuinely uncertain. It didn’t LOOK like WorldCon. It looked like a delivery company. But it was only Tuesday, and we were in the right place, at the east end of the ExCel. (I knew it was the right place because earlier in the day, we had gotten off the light rail two stops short of our hotel at the official stop for the ExCel, only to discover we were at the WEST end of the Excel. You know, the end where all the shops and restaurants were located.)
But apparently my question was reassuring. People looking for WorldCon were okay. (Were they expecting the police? The mafia? Rent collectors?) Dave introduced himself, shook hands, admitted we were in the right place, and reiterated that they were closed for the day. So, he opined, we should come along with him to the pub where all the people who had just knocked off work would be hanging out. When we mentioned we needed food, he assured us that the pub had a full grill, and would be cheaper than the restaurants.
Dave had a very British idea of what was cheap. Translated back into American money, a burger cost about $20.00. We sighed and drowned our anxiety in some red wine and a half pint of cider. Dave was right, by the way. The pub was cheaper than the restaurants. Our only sit-down dinner, at a pleasant mid-range Indian place called the Bollywood Brasserie, was $75.00 for two (with no dessert). That’s a tad more than we would have paid in Cincinnati. We ate at the pub more than once.
It wasn’t just restaurants. Everything in London, from chocolate bars to laundry soap, is expensive. Friends who went touring before the con assured me that it wasn’t just London. Prices were high everywhere. I’m told that Londoners pay 55% of their income just on housing. If they take the tube to work, (which makes more sense than trying to drive, let alone park, in London) they pay about $8.00 a day on tube fare—if it’s a short commute. I don’t know how they manage. It took some of the glamour out of London for me.
We should have registered on Wednesday. Really, we should have. (By the time we got back from playing tourist, we mistakenly supposed registration would be closed.) When we strolled into the con late Thursday morning, we found a line. And what a line! It was the 1980 Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back premiere all over again. The line circled all the way around the enormous central hall, up the staircase and down the main corridor of the second floor.
There was no separate check-in for program participants. There was no separate check-in for the preregistered. There was no division of registration into A through F, G through L, and so on, enabling several people to check in simultaneously. There was just the one seemingly endless line. We stood in that line for two hours.
Apparently program participants whose panels were imminent were allowed to cut ahead in line. At intervals, staff wandered by carrying signs announcing which start times had been upgraded to urgent. There’s no way around it—registration could have been handled better. But the Brits did not seem to mind. In England, they are used to standing in line. I suspect they actually like it. (Due to a reassuring sense of familiarity?) Everywhere we went—panels, food stalls, museums, even parties—there was a line.
I did not have to cut ahead in line. My first panel was not until 4:30. Or rather, what I had thought would be my first panel, and what turned out to be the first panel I actually reached. It turned out I had been assigned at the last minute to a Thursday Tolkien panel at 10:30 AM, without anyone bothering to alert me to the fact. I missed that one. Just as well. I love Tolkien as much as the next fan, but I’m no expert. I trust the con got someone from the Tolkien Society—present in full force with a booth in the Fan Village—to cover. Still, an email would have been nice.
But, released from line at last and unaware of any failed obligations, I was free to explore the Fan Village. I had never seen anything like it. Most cons have some equivalent of a Con Suite, a place where fans can post announcements and hook up with each other. A place where they can catch their breath and check their schedules. Humble but supportive. Not so the Fan Village! This was Con Central, the heart of LonCon3.
It was a Great Hall, large enough to host a small convention by itself, ringed round the perimeter, and striped across the center by booths. A few were just manned information tables sheltered by black drapes (such as the site selection committee’s voting precinct), but most were white pavilion style tents, the kind you see sheltering the food at a company picnic. And many of them did shelter food. The Tolkien Society was offering Middle Earth fare: meat pies, apple pie, and three kinds of mead. (But no mushrooms!)
Every WorldCon bid for the next six years had a booth to promote its claim and house its bid party. Most of these were one tent affairs—including the Kansas City tent, which had inexplicably costumed its hosts in thirties style, and which was serving hearty meals of barbecue, baked beans and cole slaw. (The line was long, and by Saturday, the barbecue was gone and the victory party was serving chicken instead.)
A few had double tents, like Washington D.C., although why DC chose the extra space was not obvious. They had good beer and light snacks, but were completely overshadowed by the exotic drinks and kimono clad staff at the Japanese booth next door. (Man, that plum wine was good! It came in bottles decorated with anime characters.) The largest booth by far—at least four tents—held a LARP gathering. Tent walls had been lowered to provide only glimpses of costumed participants. Apparently serious gaming was under way.
The Heinlein Society held court next to a pleasant little ‘chill-out’ pavilion where the weary could just sit down for a while. A commercial bar and grill dominated one corner, for the benefit of those who were dissatisfied with the various party foods. It was doing good business, too. Another large corner was devoted to the library, where couches were provided for browsing the racks of books—free for the taking. Game board tables (many supporting games that were probably familiar to the Brits, but a complete mystery to me) dotted the space. Toward the center of the hall, unencumbered by a tent, stood the TARDIS, surrounded by fans waiting to be photographed next to it. Counterpointing it was the Sword Throne (also attended by a line).
ExCel Exhibition Center is not a hotel. It does not contain any private rooms suitable for partying. It has several associated hotels, but they weren’t really appropriate party venues either. We visited a friend in the large, expensive hotel right next the ExCel. It was new and had edgy décor. It included breakfast with a reservation. The security was tight. But the room was not a great deal bigger than those at the humble Travelodge. You could not have held a party there.
So the Fan Village was THE party. All the room parties that would normally be scattered through a WorldCon were centrally located and open to all. All things considered, I would say it worked well. There were no neighbors to complain about the noise and no traipsing through corridors, trying to remember room numbers. No following your friends around from party to party, always missing them—if they were on the premises at all, they were not far away. And yet the space was large enough, and the booths provided just enough separation, so that there was a sense of many different parties.
There are always a few private parties at WorldCon, but they are just that: private. At LonCon3 they were not merely private, but invisible. No hurt feelings, or wannabe’s hanging at the door. You needed directions just to find them. I attended the SFWA reception myself. I was warned in advance to bring my invitation with me. I did not need to show my invitation at the door. I needed to show my invitation to the escort who led me through an underground garage to the only elevator that accessed the section of the building where the party was held. (It was a fine party. Good wine, good food, lots of pros, and a balcony over the Thames.)
Next to the Fan Village was the Dealers’ Room, or rather the Dealers’ Hall. It was also huge, but—unlike the Village—huge within my fannish expectations, housing dozens of booksellers, and vendors of T-shirts, toys (mechanical and stuffed) and jewelry. That’s above and beyond the Art Show, which occupied two entire walls. (I was curious to note that After Auction sales were prohibited. Apparently the hangings were primarily by attending artists, rather than mail-ins.)
Nor was everything on display for sale. There were scientific displays, outlining current thinking on advanced topics. There were detailed dioramas of alien cityscapes. One costumer posed set pieces of ladies in elaborate gowns or robot fighters, in dramatic situations. In the center of the room was a three-tiered circular rack honoring Hugo’s past. Every single Hugo (or at least a replica, since the winners probably preferred to hang on to the originals) was mounted there.
I have spent so long describing the con itself that I will have to leave the people and the programming for another blog. That give you time to let me know if there’s something you would particularly like to hear about!