HOW IT ALL BEGAN

 

by William F. Temple


I see by the programme that the Convention began semi-officially on May 10th and officially on May 12. But to me it seemed to have been beginning for a long time before. The first ominous sign was when Treasurer Charlie Duncombe started demanding money with menaces every week at the White Horse. The peace was broken. Pleasant and amusing discussions about the imminent end of civilisation were darkened by interruptions from this fellow to the effect that we'd better pay up while money was still worth something and while we were still here to pay it.

He made our life miserable. He made us feel guilty about spending even a penny on beer. We became secret drinkers, hiding round corners and furtively gulping the stuff before he discovered us.

He'd attack us from all angles. He'd bully, importune, wheedle and cajole. He'd hector us on the evils of drink, remind us of our duty to science fiction, then drop his voice to a bellow and plead with us to walk home and give him the fare instead. His resourcefulness was unbounded. You'd find him opening the door for you, calling you 'sir' and covertly displaying an expected palm; or standing outside the toilet suggesting that the admission was a penny and he was an attendant; or calling you 'sir' again and helping you on with someone else's overcoat; and when you got outside, there he was on the pavement again, selling flags.

He also got into the big time, cornering all the packets of crisps in the pub, and selling them to the hungry at twice the price. And he tried to sell Lew, the landlord, the idea that if the beer was diluted they could split fifty-fifty. This didn't come to anything only because water can't be diluted.

Then the Convention Committee kept going into huddles around one's favourite table to work out the agenda. They made heavier going of it than their rival committee in UNO. They not only disagreed about where to put asterisks but also how to spell asterisks. It was bedlam and chaos. The only thing they were methodical about was spilling beer on every magazine the owners had left on the table -- they never missed.

People like Vince Clarke and Fred Brown went around wearing lost looks and lapel buttons labelled 'COMMITTEE' or 'SECRETARY', and long before Convention Week the White Horse was full of overseas visitors and the sounds of strange accents (including mine -- Forrest Ackerman accused me of speaking English with an English accent). So the Convention not so much began as grew up around us.

As part of it, Ted Carnell and myself took Forry and Lee Jacobs (the original 'American in Paris') to see Things To Come. Forry had already seen this film 26 times. Every time he goes to see it now, the characters wave 'Hello' at him from the screen. As we entered this time, Ralph Richardson, as 'The Boss' was saying: "Now, this man hasn't taken me by surprise. I knew he was coming -- yes, I knew he was coming." I'll bet he did.

There was a hitch in the organisation on the way to the cinema. The route there was a rather complicated one on the Underground, and this was to be Forry's and Lee's initiation into the mysteries of London's subway network. Ted and I, born Londoners, told them not to be afraid: there was nothing to it when you knew your way around, as we did. Therefore, our aplomb was slightly dented when we found ourselves getting out at Mansion House instead of Victoria -- we'd come a few miles in the diametrically opposite direction. All Ted's fault, of course. He can't tell the difference between Westbound, Eastbound and Eggbound.

When Forry and I were casually passing the 20th-Century-Fox film studio at Wembley, I mentioned casually that they'd just completed six short films there of Algernon Blackwood's weird short stories. Forry suggested we call in to see if they'd let us have some stills to show at the Convention. We called in. I said: "This is Mr. Forrest J Ackerman from Hollywood----"

At the magic word 'Hollywood', the red carpet was instantly unrolled at our feet, and we followed it to the producer's office. He parked us in the best chairs, scratched our backs, gave us cigarettes, and had slaves carry us to the projection theatre, where one of the Blackwood films was run through especially for us. We acted up, casually mentioned our friend Zanuck, talked in millions, and promised to see what could be done when Mr. Ackerman returned to Hollywood. Everyone shook hands all round and took everyone else's telephone numbers, and we were ushered out with little black boys holding umbrellas over our heads. And Mr. Ackerman returned with dignity to his temporary home to resume his not so dignified struggle with Olde Englishe plumbing.

The following week I read in the papers that all 20th-Century-Fox film studios in Britain were to be closed down and their personnel fired. Gosh, we didn't think the repercussions would be as drastic as that!

Such episodes as the Ackermans' at the Folies Bergere trying to catch the nudes moving even one muscle (which, by British law, would instantly stamp them as rude nudes), or the Ackermans trudging over Plumstead Common in ten layers of clothes, blue-nosed and shivering in our balmy English summer, looking for the Carnell igloo, are really outside the province of this article.

Another hiatus in the preparation was when Arthur Clarke and I were detailed to find and fit appropriate gramophone record music to the silent film Metropolis, which had been procured and was to be shown. We had to go by our memories of the film, which were in fair shape, as we'd once had to provide a similar soundtrack to it before the war. The trouble was that we could remember the film but not our original music programme. However, we fixed up a programme of modernistic and/or mechanistic music, took our heap of records along on the day, and found that at the last moment the film had been switched to The Lost World, about prehistoric monsters. Our music was a bit out of period, but we were stuck with it. And so the allosaurus sparred with the triceratops, Professor Challenger fulminated, and the young lovers made eyes at each other -- all to the impartial and deafening clangour of Mossolov's Steel Foundry.

Incidentally, Conan Doyle had kept it from us in the novel that Maple White (that cagey old defunct explorer) had a young and lovely daughter; also that Professor Summerlee's first love had not been science but the Church. When the young and lovely daughter is trapped, apparently for life, with reporter Malone (her sweetheart) on the plateau, they look at each other in horror. She gasps: "But we'll be here -- always!" The resourceful Malone replies: "It's all right. Professor Summerlee will marry us -- he used to be a minister."

As Arthur seemed to think Steel Foundry needn't ever be changed for another record during the film, there was little for me to do at the turntable. He suggested I went and sat in a corner and manage the volume control. I went. It was a dark corner. Ego hadn't mentioned that the platform ended suddenly there and the chair was perched on the end of it. I sat down, and promptly went over backwards, and hit the floor in a shower of ashtrays, wires, abuse, and broken bones -- all mine. It put Steel Foundry in the shade. On the screen a couple of monsters were having a fight at the time, and I was congratulated afterwards for my very sound sound effects.

That was after the Convention had really begun, of course---when all the plans and agenda had been abandoned, forgotten or ignored, and everyone was running the Convention in their own way. Some of them had odd ideas. Lew, the White Horse landlord, spent a busman's holiday in the bar. Committee-man Jim Rattigan spent most of the first day in the washroom, having drunk a bottle of port in mistake for coca-cola. He was a strange and pitiful sight. Every time I paid a visit he seemed to groan louder and become more convulsed, with delicate colour effects. Sometimes he'd have his head in the sink, sometimes under the sink, sometimes under his arm, sometimes down a drain; and sometimes he was so contorted that he didn't seem to have a head at all. Chacun a son gout.

Wally Gillings opened the proceedings -- and damn nigh finished them -- with a funeral oration over the dead body of science-fiction, bewailing that it, or he, or anyone had ever been born. It was a tragic and powerful performance. He didn't have to play Hamlet with a false beard, like Alec Guinness, or with dyed hair, like Olivier. Wally IS Hamlet. The times are always out of joint for him. There's always something rotten in the state of-- almost anything. How all occasions do inform against him! I feel the same way, but gosh -- if I could only act like that! Well, he killed some of us off and the rest committed suicide, and he tripped away happily and the Convention continued.

Messrs. Tubb and Duncombe, Auctioneers, got carried away by their own fervour and finished up by selling everything in sight, including the furniture and Audrey Lovett, who was sold as a slave girl to Ego Clarke.

Before that, Ego had been playing continually through the loudspeakers records of Yma Sumac, the Incan screetch-owl. When the record was forcibly taken from him, so that other people might hear each other, he grabbed the mike to register a public protest. Hearing his own voice emanating from the loudspeakers, Ego forgot Yma and became self-enchanted. The mike had to be torn away from him. It was given to John Keir Cross, who said he was sick of the sight of microphones, and spoke without it. On the other hand, Ted Carnell loved the mike and clung to it so intimately that several scenes had to be re-shot.

Serious notes were struck by Forry's hot-news bulletin; by his wife Wendayne's lecture on dianetics; by Frank Arnold's erudite survey of the whole development of international science-fiction, rounding off the reports by the overseas visitors; and by Bill Temple's having to drink water in the middle of his speech when his tonsils gave out.

Another serious note was struck this morning when I had a letter from Lee Jacobs asking when next year's Convention would be. Is this Thing going to begin all over again? If Charlie Duncombe calls me 'sir' at the White Horse next week, I'll ... I'll emigrate. Perhaps I'll come back as an overseas visitor. It mightn't seem so bad if you can skip the beginning.


(data entered by Judy Bemis)

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