Of all the travels I've undertaken for fandom, my attendance at Smofcon in York, England, this year was probably the craziest. Given my lack of vacation time and the expense of traveling to the UK, I had not even bought a membership at the previous Smofcon, having no intention of going. However, in May this year I got email from Ben Yalow advising me of an airfare sale on United to England. Sure enough, they were showing a round-trip fare on nonstops from San Francisco to London Heathrow for $471!!! And the timing of the nonstops meant that I could leave after work on Wednesday and come back Monday early evening.
Neither the price nor the vacation days were any more than I would usually spend on an East Coast Smofcon. So, instead of thinking about the trip as "I'm going all the way to the UK and won't have any time to see anything," I decided the only way to approach the trip was "I'm going to Smofcon like I do every year - I'm just going to be on the plane a little longer than usual."
I dropped my suitcase at Rich's house on Tuesday night and got a lift to work on Wednesday morning. (As usual before a big trip, I didn't get much sleep and I was thankful that my ride gets into work a little later than I usually do!) Given the long security line I'd faced in San Jose on my Orycon trip, I decided to believe the recommendation to get to the airport three hours in advance of this international trip. Rich picked me up at 2 pm, as prearranged, and we drove in a heavy rainstorm to SFO. Of course, given that I was on time, the check-in line for Premiers was completely empty and the security line was only about 12 people.
Wednesday, December 5/Thursday, December 6
Given the ten-hour flight, I really wanted to get started on a yarmulke that I was making for a friend's son's bar mitzvah at the end of January. However, having heard stories of grannies getting knitting needles taking away, I wasn't sure if my crochet needle and embroidery scissors would make it on the flight. I decided to put them in the toiletries kit in my carry-on 22-inch wheelie, hoping they'd be looking for bigger things in the suitcase than they would in my shoulder bag. This strategy worked, and I spent the 2.5 hours before my flight doing the prep work on the yarmulke.
It was definitely a long flight. Although I'd been told I had an Economy Plus seat (with extra leg room), this turned out not to be true. And the luxury of personal movie screens on the back of every seat had a drawback in a different area: the metal control boxes required for the video feed took up nearly 1/3 of the underseat storage. Luckily, the woman sitting next to me didn't need any room underneath. I did get some work done on the yarmulke, and watched Shrek again. (Even free, I didn't feel like watching The Grinch.) I tried to close my eyes for a bit but the attempt at sleep didn't work.
I finally got off the airplane at 11:30 a.m. local time. After passing immigration, I found UK fan Pat McMurray waiting. At worldcon, Pat as an enticement to attend Smofcon had rashly offered to pick me up at the airport and drive to York. When I heard there was a fannish gathering in London on Thursday night, I debated about staying in London and taking an early train to York on Friday. However, I decided to take Pat up on his offer as Friday was my only real day to sightsee in York. I figured I would be in London again, although there were some people I was sorry to miss seeing. Pat and I came out of Heathrow to a much nicer day than I'd left in San Francisco. (On the way out of the car park, I saw my favorite sign on the trip: "Humped Zebra Crossing") The four-hour drive to York went fairly quickly, and was enlivened by the sight of trucks from various countries, including Spain, Poland, and the Czech Republic.
Some fans were already in the lobby when we arrived at the hotel. I was a little light-headed by now, but I staggered up to my room, a trip that involved getting off the elevator, walking down two steps, going down a hall, walking up two steps, walking around a corner to go down five steps, walking through a doorway and around a corner, going up 14 steps, and then going up another 14 steps, at the head of which was the door to my room. It was in the attic, with a skylight directly over my bed and slanted eaves on which I bumped my head several times over the course of the weekend. (I wasn't as bad off as Deb Geisler, whose room featured a bathroom that was only accessed by going up a small spiral metal staircase!) Much to my pleasure it was the first hotel I've ever stayed at in the UK that was cozy warm.
I was grateful to get into the shower and get out of my clothes, which by this time I'd been wearing for about 25 hours. But after hanging up a few things, I decided it was too dangerous to stay in the room with its nice inviting bed. I was determined to stay up until night-time local time. I went back down to the lobby and found a dinner party getting together to depart in about an hour. We spent the time trading airport and flight stories. (No one could believe I'd gotten the crochet needle and scissors on: someone had had a nailfile broken off a nail clipper and someone else had embroidery scissors taken away.)
The dinner party consisted of Pat, me, Pittsburgh fans Jim and Laurie Mann, Boston fan Mark Olson, and San Diego fan James Briggs. Pat said he was taking us to "the second-best pizza place in England," which was about a 10-minute cold walk away. We were all a bit too tired to really take in the charm of the medieval streets around us. I did a cursory glance at the menu and found a pizza with spinach and olives. When it was delivered, I discovered that I should have looked at the ingredients list a little more closely: there in the middle of the pizza was a fried egg staring at me! Conversation at dinner was in fits and starts as we all struggled to stay awake. (Pat said it was a nice change of pace for the Americans to be the ones with the jet lag :-> ) It livened up a bit when James started asking about site selection rules, as he'll be administering the vote at ConJose.
Despite our exhaustion, several members of the party decided they couldn't be in England without hitting at least one pub for the superior beer there. I thought I'd sit with them awhile in my attempt to stay awake until late enough to go to sleep. However, when they opened the door, clouds of smoke came out. Living in California, I am totally unused to people smoking and had to pass. Mark felt the same, so we walked back to the hotel together. Luckily, it was fairly near the York Minster, a very large 14th century cathedral, and just across the street from one of the gates in the wall. So, despite the confusing streets we were able to find our way back without getting lost. Back at the hotel, I managed to prop up my eyes until 9 p.m. and then fell into bed.
Friday, December 7
Despite my exhaustion, I spent a restless night, and when I woke up at 4:15 a.m., I kept looking at my watch: 4:45, 5:10, 6:15. Just when I figured I'd be down to breakfast at about 7 and get an early start on sightseeing, the next thing I knew it was 9:15, with breakfast ending at 9:30! I set a new land-speed record pulling clothes on and running up and down the stairs to get to the restaurant, where I joined British fans Martin Easterbrook (who'd developed the program) and Margaret Austin, and then Joyce Scrivner. My strategy in England is to take advantage of the "full English breakfast" that comes with the room, skip lunch, and not feel guilty about pigging out at dinner.
I assumed that the people with whom I'd made tentative plans to sightsee with had already gone out, so I was pleased to see James Briggs in the lobby at loose ends. He agreed to accompany me to the Castle Museum, which I'd wanted to see, even though he hadn't planned to see it. Before we made it to the Castle, I stopped off at Clifford's Tower, an outbuilding that is part of the medieval keep, to pay my respects.
The Tower is the site of a horrific massacre of the entire Jewish community of York in 1190, led by a local nobleman who used the Crusades as an excuse but whose actual motive was to erase massive debts to the Jewish moneylenders. The entire Jewish community fled to take sanctuary in the Tower but as food ran out and a mob gathered, some of them killed themselves rather than facing forced conversion or death. Then the mob set the Tower on fire and the Jews all perished. There's a plaque outside marking the occurrence, including a verse from Isaiah (42:12) in Hebrew, and a ruling from medieval rabbinic authorities that no Jews should spend overnight within the city walls. (Ben Yalow made sure that the con hotel was outside the walls!)
I found out during the day that James hadn't planned to see the Castle Museum because he thought it was a museum of the castle, rather than what it actually was: a collection of over 10,000 items from everyday life going back to the 1600s. This collection is interestingly arranged in themes -- birth (including the "murder bottle," a baby bottle with a rubber feed that was impossible to clean and became infected, thus infecting and killing the baby!), weddings, kitchens, etc. -- and two re-created streets: one Victorian and one Edwardian. There was also an exhibit related to the part York played in the Civil War, including letters from a local soldier and period armor and weapons.
We spent hours looking at the stuff inside. I was especially fond of a complete printer's shop from the early 1800s. The signs for the various businesses on the re-created shops were also cool. There were also old-fashioned 10p arcade games. At one point, we were overtaken by a crowd of schoolkids dressed in period costume. As I said to James, even on dress-up day, I can't imagine an American schoolboy dressing in a purple velvet vest without getting beat up.
I had to be back to the hotel by the absurdly early hour of 3:22 p.m., but we made a quick zip through the shops to find Christmas crackers as a co-worker gift and candles for Chanukah. (The first ones I saw were blue, which would have been great, but they also had a scent called "Christmas pudding" which I didn't think was very appropriate so I got vanilla-scented white ones instead.) We tried but failed to find international postcard stamps, and were surprised to discover that the hotel didn't stock them either.
Kim Campbell, the York resident whose idea it was to hold Smofcon there, had arranged for an amateur archaeologist friend of hers to give the first program item -- a slide show of the history of York. The main program room turned out to be in an outbuilding of the hotel so I brought my coat and we headed across the courtyard. The presentation was very interesting, with stories going back to the Roman and Viking occupations. During the announcements from Kim, I mentioned a gourmet vegetarian restaurant that I'd read about on the web to nearby Bay Area fan Mary Kay Kare, and British fans Tim and Marcia Illingworth. They agreed that it sounded interesting and we made arrangements to meet in the lobby.
There was a bit of confusion getting seated but the food at the restaurant was interesting and really good. I treated myself to sticky toffee pudding with custard for dessert and was in heaven. We got back to the hotel in time for the end of the traditional panel featuring current, immediately past, and future worldcon chairs. Then it was time for the evening ice-breaker. This turned out to be an unusual program about management styles based on a four-way grid. After a brief explanation, they started providing examples of the behavior types using characters from Buffy, which I don't watch, so I went downstairs to shmooze. Deb Geisler disappeared from the conversation only to return with a gift for me: a terminally cute Russ Chanukah bear with golden paws and nose and a blue ribbon with stars of David (see below). As she'd bought him in New Hampshire, lives in Boston, and flew through Paris, this was a very well-traveled bear!
We went back upstairs to join the end of the program. The four types were Ruler, Analyst, Entertainer, and Relater. We weren't in time to fill out the form to figure out our own types, but Pat decreed me to be a Ruler (there were a lot of those, this being Smofcon) and gave me the appropriate colored star for my badge. A few minutes later, Ben volunteered to keep track of my choices on the form (as I couldn't write them down) and it turned out I was really an Entertainer. When they asked for a show of hands, there was only one Relater in the room: ConJose chair Tom Whitmore. (We found out later that there were a couple of others but they were in the bar :-> )
The program itself was to form con committees and come up with a bid for either a Roman or a Viking convention, with a presentation that would appeal to all four types. My group decided on a Roman bid and came up with some pretty good shtick. Priscilla Olson pointed out that in Roman numerals the membership number was likely to be longer than the attendee's name, so we would have slaves bearing banners with the number following behind each member. I said that 10 hours as a banner-bearer would get you a free logo toga. We decided the Fan Guest of Honor would be Dionysus and the Media Guest of Honor would be Asterix. Our presentation got several laughs and we ended up winning by one point. More shmoozing after the presentation meant I stayed up until after midnight.
Saturday, December 8
I was in plenty of time for breakfast this morning, and in time for a 10 a.m. panel on trying not to reinvent the wheel. This was followed by a panel of "true confessions" of things we wished we hadn't done at conventions, which veered between the amusing and the serious, from jobs we wished we hadn't taken to sightseeing in various cities that we hadn't done.
I had looked at the schedule and discovered that there wasn't much I really wanted to attend between noon and 3. I'd found out the previous evening that the National Railway Museum, the largest railway museum in the world, had just changed to free admission on the first of December, so I announced my plans to go there if anyone wanted to join me. Four of us met in the lobby: me, James, St Louis fan Erik Olson, and LA fan Blars Larson. The museum was quite a shlep away but in a different direction than I'd walked thus far so I didn't mind the walk.
The Museum itself was fairly interesting but after a while the trains all began to look alike. My favorite was one painted mustard yellow instead of the familiar British racing green, because the person who ordered the design was colour-blind and thought it was green! There was also a clever cutaway of an actual steam train with numbers on the various parts and explanatory keys. The "working railway" exhibit had a live link to the working York train signal box, and an interesting exhibit on how signaling engineering works. There was also a warehouse of stuff they hadn't put on display yet or was in storage, including an apparently authentic and aged sign for platform 9-3/4!
We ended at the exhibit of Royal coaches, from Victoria, to Edward VII, to the current monarch. (Victoria had better taste in furnishings :-> ) As we passed under one of the speakers, we picked it up saying that the train to our left had been a birthday present to Edward VII! As Erik said, "It's good to be the King!" By the walk back we were all pretty tired, having stood for hours at the Museum,.
It was a relief to sit down at a 3 p.m. panel on how to combine panelists to make the ideal item. Priscilla was moderating the panel and explained a lot about how she builds a program. I would have liked to hear a bit more from British panelists Colin Harris and Bridget Bradshaw, but it was still sparked some interesting discussion. Ian Sorensen had some fascinating stories to tell. After the panel, Laurie and I met up to go to the famous York Minster for evensong. She sings in a choir and I love choral music, plus I'd yet to see the Minster. We'd seen that it was scheduled for 5 so we figured that getting there at a little after 4 would give us time to look around a bit.
Unfortunately, the weekday service is at 5 but the Saturday service is at 4, so we were late. We stood in front of wrought-iron doors leading to the choir section and peeked in for a while, trying to hear. After about 10 minutes, a clueless tourist tried to open the gates and was told by the blue-caped guard that you could only enter for the service. When I asked how we could get in to the service, she led us around to a side room immediately next to the more elaborate seating near the choir. The view was much better and the acoustics and choir were stunning, although how the choir thought it could compete with the periodic bursts of the cathedral-size organ I'll never know.
We barely had time to look around a bit (although this was Laurie's second trip) before meeting our party for dinner: they'd actually found a non-smoking room in a pub! Laurie, I, Jim, James, Pat, Erik, Minneapolis fan Joyce Scrivner, Colorado fan Michael Pins, and British fan "Johnjo" Jones headed off to the Golden Fleece. The room was smoke-free as advertised and they had a vegetarian fake Yorkshire pudding (potatoes and leeks in a light cheese sauce) so I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the party then went off on a planned pub crawl, but Laurie and Michael begged off. I enticed them to go to the famous Betty's Tea Room for dessert. The eclair I got was scrumptious and we chatted a bit about convention databases before going back to the hotel in time for the Fannish Inquisition of future worldcons.
Most of the presentations were fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, there were a couple of hoax bids that were a 'funny once' joke, and one of them, Blars' "I5 in '05" is barely funny enough for a flyer. (It's supposedly for a worldcon traveling in caravans up and down the I5 freeway, with the business meeting to be held in his hot tub.) He might actually file officially, which would be a pain for the site selection administrator and for the UK in '05 bid, which would have to consult him on voting fees and so on. A British hoax bid was slightly funnier but full of British in-jokes that the Americans barely got. (This was more than fair given the amount of worldcon gossip that was elliptically referenced on panels, even though I'd asked Martin to warn the American moderators about this tendency.) Next year's Smofcon proposal by Scott and Jane Dennis was for San Diego (where it's warm, yay!)
Conversation after the inquisition ranged from favorite Heinlein juveniles to the Harry Potter movie to the war in Afghanistan. On the urging of Martin Easterbrook, who felt responsible for the program and reminded me that I had a 10 a.m. panel the next morning, I finally headed over to the main building with Colin Harris, where we got into an involved conversation about web design. We were still at it at 2:30 a.m., when Martin came back through the lobby and was amazed to see me still awake.
Sunday, December 9
I was moderating a 10 a.m. panel on difficult program participants with Jim and Priscilla on the panel. I think the audience (and Priscilla) were disappointed that I kept the panel focused on solutions to problems before, during, and after the convention rather than allowing the venting to go too far. Given some of the problems in damage control due to a few disgruntled participants at the Philadelphia worldcon, this topic had been of much interest on the Smofs list. It prompted some pointed questions from audience members, including MilPhil's chair Todd Dashoff. I think the panel went pretty well and we got some participation from British fan Sue Mason in the audience.
This was shopping day so I popped out alone to wander the winding streets and find some gifts. I wasn't the only one with this idea: many people come from as far away as London to go Xmas shopping in York so the small streets were jammed. I ended up finding a cute resin figurine of a Viking holding a shield that said York on it for Rich, but was really bemused by another offering at that store: figurines of cute teddy bears doing really rude things: one had underwear pulled over his head, another was shagging a sheep, still another was holding a bloody chainsaw. Unfortunately, the woman said she couldn't keep them in stock and there were none to be had. I'd hoped also to see more of the Minster but they were having a special children's charity program so I still didn't get to look around. I only saw the famous Rose Window at a 15-degree angle or so. I stopped at their store for a souvenir and ended up getting a clear keychain with the Rose Window on it to hang in my window at work.
I got back in time for a 3 p.m. panel on information technology. I knew a little bit about a controversial proposal that Martin was planning to make regarding using SQL for connecting the various technology bits necessary for a convention, so I was prepared for the shock of the audience. The panel could have gone for another hour but was immediately followed by the "gripe session." It was mostly positive with a few of the same proposals we make nearly every year (panels need to be longer, we need to stop concentrating on worldcon, we should have fewer "talking head" panels and more interesting workshops instead). Everyone was pleased with the site and thanked Kim for convincing us to go there!
Those seriously interested in the information technology discussion went back to the other program building where a lively discussion about databases ensued (assuming you don't find that a contradiction in terms :-> ) I had advertised a Chanukah candlelighting to take place at 6 pm in the room, and had enough tea candles for three of us. Given that Joni Dashoff had said she'd brought her menorah, I thought this would mean that four of us would light, but she'd forgotten candles so it was back down to three. Kim joked after we chanted the prayers and sang a traditional song afterward that this had been the filk part of the program.
She led a bunch of us to a local Chinese restaurant that was external to the city walls, in a direction we hadn't walked before. The group consisted of Jim, Laurie, me, Deb, Kim, Ben, and Washington fan Marc Gordon. Laurie won a sandalwood fan and I was much surprised to find sizzling vegetables in cream and wine sauce on the menu, the first time I'd ever seen dairy products in a Chinese restaurant. We caught up on worldcon and bid gossip and had a nice relaxing meal.
Back at the hotel, the crew from another pub crawl was happily ensconced in the bar. I sat for a while and talked with Pat, Tim, James, and Giulia de Cesare and Steve Davies before deciding that an early-morning start meant that I should go to bed. I'd been told that there wouldn't be a desk crew early in the morning so I checked out on the way to my room. There on my bill was a dinner for 70 pounds and a bottle of wine for another 7! Needless to say, I hadn't charged these and the night manager took them off. (We'd been a bit surprised at the cavalier way that people had been able to charge things to their rooms, sometimes not being asked for their signature, and thanks to this policy someone somewhere got away with a very nice free meal!)
Monday, December 10
Pat was a bit nervous about traffic so for my 2 p.m. flight, he recommended that we leave at about 6:30 a.m. I got up at 5 to finish packing and met him in the lobby. We went out into the cold and dark and got on the motorway, planning to stop after a bit for petrol and then later for a full breakfast. We stopped for petrol, all right, but about an hour into the trip, traffic stopped dead. Pat found a news radio station and we discovered that there was a major injury accident a few miles ahead of us. It ended up taking us 80 minutes to go 10 miles. When we finally passed the accident scene, we saw that they'd had to cut someone out of one of the cars.
I was too tired to be nervous about my flight and figured that worst-case, United would just stick me on another flight. After we got clear of the backup, we stopped for a quick coffee and danish. We made it to the airport about 6 hours after we'd left, only 90 minutes before my flight!
I said goodbye and thanks to Pat after I checked in. Luckily, I got through security (with my crochet needle and scissors again, much to my surprise) in time to make a quick pass through the duty-free area. I picked up a box of chocolate and a Christmas pudding for my office potluck on Thursday, plus a smoked salmon sandwich at Harrod's for lunch. (Not your typical airline fast food!) I got to the gate a few minutes before they announced boarding for Premiers, and sat down again for another 10 hours.
Unfortunately, the same movies were showing on the way back as had shown on the way out. I sporadically watched Pay It Forward (long enough to be surprised at the completely contrived and unbelievable ending) but mostly crocheted. I tried to get up and stretch every once in a while but my legs and tush were still numb after a day of mostly sitting in confined places. I was very relieved when we landed at 5 p.m. local time. I quickly got through customs and agriculture (despite lying about having no food on me). Rich put up with my babbling on the way home and I was happy to hear that the Dolphins were on Monday Night Football, which would give me something mindless to do to keep me awake until local nighttime. A call from Stephen to get gossip from Smofcon kept me up until 10, when I fell into bed exhausted.
The city of York was fascinating and it was nice to see some British fans I hadn't seen since worldcon in Scotland in '95. Crazy as it was, I'm really glad I took the trip, even if it was only for a weekend!