Named for the Festival of Britain, the 1951 International Science-Fiction Festival Convention, or FESTIVENTION as it's better known, was held in London primarily at the Royal Hotel, Russell Square (located a hundred yards or so from Russell Square Underground station) over the weekend of Thursday 10th May to Sunday 13th May. It was not a residential convention, attendees leaving at the end of each day for their homes and lodgings.
The Royal Hotel would also be the venue for the 1952 and 1970 UK national conventions. It has since been demolished and on the site now stands the Royal National Hotel, currently (2011) the venue for the monthly comic mart and national collectors market place.
Though there had been small UK national science fiction conventions held in rooms above pubs in 1948 and 1949, none was held in 1950. The 1951 event was not just a national convention however. No, it was planned from the start as an international SF convention, the first true one in the world - Worldcons still being mainly North American affairs at this point - and a proto-Eurocon The first most fans would have heard of the convention was during the editorial in Ken Slater's OPERATION FANTAST #2 (June 1950):
...good news for European fandom is word from Ted Carnell (editor of fan-produced professional magazine NEW WORLDS) that a European convention will be organized in London for 1951, to coincide with the Festival of Britain. Probable dates will be around Whitsun, but more definite information will come later. Guest of honour will be American author L. SPRAGUE de CAMP; and many of those lonely souls, the continental fans, will be attending.By the following issue, dated September 1950, things had developed further. Here's Ken Slater again in his editorial for the issue:
After several disconcerting letters, which informed me that the vision of a 1951 Convention was getting dimmer and dimmer, I was pleased to receive a letter from Ted Carnell, just before going to print, which contained the following 'information': —In May 1951, Truman was in the White House, Clement Attlee was in 10 Downing Street, and the Korean War was still being fought. While the FESTIVENTION was being held in London the world chess championship was being contested in Moscow. On Friday 11th May champion Mikhail Botvinnik retained his crown by drawing the 24th game.
The Convention Committee were:
Total attendance at the convention was around the 200 mark. Some people only attended the Thursday and/or Friday sessions at the White Horse while some only attended the Saturday and Sunday sessions at the Royal Hotel, the list of known attendees below having been gleaned from accounts of both, from photos, and also from deciphering signatures on an extensively autographed copy of the programme book:
The following report has been edited together from those written by Walt Willis and Bill Temple with additional material primarily from those by Ted Carnell and Vince Clarke (in Vince's case edited together from his two short reports), in an effort to give as complete a picture of the convention as possible. After the prologue, my own notes and bridging pieces are in italics.
Source notes and acknowledgements can be found here.
Most of the photos presented here come from the collection of Vince Clarke, though this doesn't mean a particular picture was taken by him. Where recorded, the collection photos are from is noted in parentheses thus: (ejc) Ted Carnell, (lf), Les Flood, (avc) Vince Clarke. As always, a tip of the hat to Peter Weston for identifying many of the people in these photos and for supplying some of them in the first place.
Here are links to pages devoted to the individual days and also to
'sidebar' material connected with the convention.
I see by the programme that the Convention began semi-officially on May 10th and officially on May 12th, But to me it seemed to have been beginning for a long time before. The first ominous sign was when Treasurer Charles 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 expectant 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 were diluted they could split fifty-fifty. This dldn`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 ʎɹɐʇǝɹɔǝS and ǝǝʇʇIɯɯOɔ and long before Convention Week the White Horse was full of overseas visitors and the sound of strange accents (including mine -- Forry 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 alarmed there was nothing to it when you know 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 tha 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. Ferry 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. 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 to 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.
On the 8th of May the entire fan population of Ireland migrated to England for the First International Convention. One fifth of it flew over, but the other four-- James White, Bob Shaw, my wife and myself -- all of whom suffer rather badly from hand-to-mouth disease, went steerage on the boat. When we had found our berths and got over our relief to find that this part of the ship wasn't called 'steerage' because of the cattle kept there, we all gathered on the poop deck, keeping an eye open for poops and making puns absentmindedly as the lights of Belfast faded in the distance. Bob said the Captain must have found out he was a science fiction fan, because he had given him a wide berth. James said his theory was all bunk. There was a short silence while I vainly tried to work in a rather clever one about berth and confinement and mal de mere. It's a terrible thing to work with people so uncultured as not to understand puns in French. We behave like this all the time at home, you know. Stray visitors have been known to go quietly outside and shoot themselves after half an hour of it.
By this time we were almost sure we were not going to be sick, even with the puns, though we all had plans worked out to deal with the problem if it came up. I favoured spinning around rapidly on my heel, using the principal of the gyroscope, while Bob planned to compensate for the movement of the ship by holding two spirit levels in his teeth and balancing himself so as to keep the bubbles centred. However I was shortly able to announce that according to my reckoning we had already passed the point at which we should have been sick, and though my reckoning must have been dead at the time, we all agreed it was probably accurate enough. We decided we must be a viable mutation designed for sea and space travel, or that sea sickness was a mere affectation. And so to bunk. We slept well, too, although there was a gale blowing. The engine kept knocking, but no one let it in.
I think I was the only fan who flew to the Convention. As Confucius says, “Better be airsick for two hours than seasick for twenty-four.” Also I think I was the only one to get a room in the Royal Hotel - a purely fortuitous circumstance, by the way. However, for the first half-hour after the Viking lifted I was okay, but the steward served a light lunch, and having injudiciously partaken thereof, I very shortly began to fear that Short Bros. would be short one checker. I asked for a paper bag, and when the plane touched down I was able to give the lunch back to the steward. Coming back, I took two Kwell tablets and the old tum did no flip-flaps at all, at all.