Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Return to the Forbidden City

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About ten days ago, I posted on here about my attendance at TestBash, a conference for software testers held in Brighton. As I said in the post, that was my first testing conference (and very enjoyable and informative I found it, too), but certainly not my first conference in Brighton by any stretch of the imagination.

Apart from visits on family holidays, my first conference in Brighton was the 1979 World Science Fiction Convention, held over the August Bank Holiday in the Metropole Hotel. I’ve written about science fiction conventions before in this blog; but World Conventions (Worldcons for short) are something a bit different. Until comparatively recently, it was rare for them to leave the United States; prior to 1979’s convention, Seacon, the previous time the Worldcon had been held in the UK was Loncon II in 1965. Interestingly, I recollect Loncon II being reported in the Daily Mirror as though it was a (moderately) serious scientific conference; granted, I was only eight years old at the time, but the reporting seemed reasonably straight, if a little “silly season”, but not mocking in the way that later media accounts of sf conventions have tended to be.

I couldn’t afford to stay in the main convention hotel, so I was located in a hotel on the other side of Regency Square. I had a bedroom at the top of the hotel at the back, and I recollect that the window frame was sufficiently rotten for rain to come in through the frame timbers on my first night. I recollect little of the convention that I’m prepared to write about here, beyond:

  • attending a programme item in the Bedford Hotel a bit further along the seafront and sharing a lift with author Larry Niven on the way out
  • seeing the world premiére of the trailer for The Empire Strikes Back (once Gary Kurtz and Irvin Kershner were able to attach the special anamorphic lens for the widescreen format to the hired-in film projector)
  • watching my then girlfriend portray Supreme Commander Servalan from the BBC series Blake’s 7 in the convention masquerade and ending up on television myself when a BBC camera crew managed to get me in shot during the masquerade photo-call
  • wondering what all the fuss was about with this much-hyped film Alien that we were seeing so much advance publicity material for, including that August’s must-have accessory, Nostromo crew baseball caps
  • wandering by accident into the Science Fiction Writers of America suite whilst looking for someone and (despite their fearsome reputation for security) not getting thrown out because I obviously had the air of someone thinking Nah, no-one here I want to talk to
  • listening to a lot of people discussing this new radio show The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and hearing people wonder who this Douglas Adams bloke was, because he’d nailed some of the more ridiculous tropes of science fiction (especially television science fiction) so well that he was obviously some sort of insider; but no-one had ever heard of him, so the speculation was that it was a pseudonym for someone much more famous (of course, as fans of written literature, hardly anyone had previously spotted Adams’ name in the credits for Doctor Who – as script editor – a few years previously).

I came away with some additions to the book collection and a determination to attend more conventions.

I returned to Brighton in 1984, when the European Science Fiction Convention returned to the Metropole. This time I stayed in the hotel, in what appeared to be a broom cupboard. The impression of it being a broom cupboard wasn’t because of the size – anything but. It was a huge room on the fifth floor, where the corridor turned through 90 degrees away from the front of the building. My room was on that corner, and although it had one wall facing the sea, there were no windows in it. Instead, the windows were on the side wall, and what made me think the room had been storage at some point was the fact that the windowsills were six feet off the floor! To look out of the window, I had to stand on a central heating pipe; and then I was only able to peer over the windowsill. Otherwise, the room was perfectly well appointed, with all mod cons and a huge en suite bathroom. Frankly, I remember even less about this convention. The one thing I do remember is going out to eat with a friend and finding what we would now call a pop-up French restaurant actually on Regency Square. The proprietor was a French chef who was running an hotel’s kitchen for them; the hotel only offered breakfast, but they were allowing him to open the dining room of an evening at his own expense. The food was excellent, but there were very few customers; so after the meal, we got to chatting with the owner, and offered to take him back to the Metropole for a nightcap. We’d talked about why we were in Brighton, but the reality of a convention in full flow rather amazed this chap. He immediately saw the opportunity and sketched out a menu on the back of an envelope, said that if we could get twenty people together he’d do that menu for a fixed sum, and when could we come? We put up notices and spread the word, and on the Sunday night twenty people turned up at this restaurant and filled it. The shock was so much that the chef’s pregnant wife went into labour and he had to make a quick exit…

The convention must have been something of a success, though, because the world convention returned to Brighton and the Metropole Hotel in 1987. But that’s when things began to get a bit weird…

There had been a fireworks display on the sea front opposite the hotel; this had caused some consternation because the organisers wanted to put music on to accompany the fireworks, but the city council vetoed that. So the pyrotechnic engineers cheated a little and slightly increased some of the firework charges. The resulting display was deafening, with car alarms going off in a half-mile radius and some of the louder explosions echoing off buildings in the town.

Meanwhile, I had my second television appearance; this time, another BBC camera crew were filming in the convention’s art show and wanted some fans meeting friends they hadn’t seen for ages. So I was roped in to greet warmly some people who I’d spent the previous evening drinking with. This was unscripted, but I recollect that we had three takes before the director was satisfied. Of course, the broadcast footage looked incredibly staged.

And then there was the infamous (to those who knew about it) ‘hotel explorations’ of the late author Iain M. Banks, who took great delight in clandestinely going “behind the scenes” in the Metropole, just to see what was there. This later appeared as an episode in his novel Use of Weapons where his protagonist does likewise with a hotel – and more, engaging in climbing expeditions on the outside of the building, just for the fun of it…

But that was as nothing compared to the arguments going on behind the scenes in the hotel. There had been issues over some of the function rooms that had been booked and paid for; when the convention tried to use some of these rooms, they found that there were still painters and decorators in residence and some of the rooms were not ready – but the hotel did not seem to be interested in fulfilling their side of the contract. Then there were the attendees’ key cards. Most convention attendees received key cards marked with a green star. The reason for this was that it identified them as convention attendees as opposed to “proper” guests (convention room rates were usually lower than the hotel’s rack rates as part of the deal for filling the hotel and guaranteeing huge bar takings for three or four days; this was long before the Internet and getting the cheapest deal for your hotel room depending on who you book it through); and convention attendees were then not allowed to charge anything  to their room bills. And the hotel security staff were more than a little over-zealous over who they allowed to have access to which parts of the hotel, irrespective of whether they were residents or not. This came to a head at 11pm on the Saturday night, when the convention organisers pulled one particular American author out of bed – his day job was as a lawyer – to confront the hotel manager. Or the deputy manager, as it turned out, as the manager proper was not on site for that particular weekend. A major argument blew up.

The upshot of all this was two-fold. Firstly, the then owners of the hotel – a major hotel and catering chain – were soundly lambasted by convention attendees. At the gripe session – a regular feature of conventions, where attendees can attend and  deliver bouquets or brickbats after the main events of the weekend have finished – one particular friend stood up and declared that although he looked like an aging hippy (to be fair, I’ve known this guy for at least 35 years and he has always looked like an aging hippy), his Day Job was organising corporate conferences and training courses for the UK HQ of a major international computer company on the south coast of England (clue: all their executives wear blue suits, after which the company is nicknamed, their name consists of three letters, and they have no connection whatsoever with the computer HAL in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: a space odyssey, despite many people thinking that there was some sort of connection implied), and he said that after the treatment that both he personally and the convention had received at the hotel that weekend, he could assure everyone that the owners would never get any business from his company again. Anywhere in the world.

But something strange then happened. The deputy manager of the Metropole left the company shortly afterwards. A few years later, some convention organisers decided that Brighton was such a good venue that they should try organising another convention there. They enlisted the help of the official Brighton Conference bureau, whose remit was to bring conferences to Brighton. All was sweetness and light. The organisers chose their hotel and started negotiations. But then, about half-way through, the negotiations came to a sudden halt. The hotel terminated the discussion. No reason was given. The Conference Bureau made enquiries; they were given no explanation either. It wasn’t the personalities involved; science fiction conventions are usually organised by a group of people who come together for that sole purpose, so there was no connection between those organisers and the convention committee of the 1987 Worldcon. The deputy manager of the Metropole had never reappeared; and indeed, the hotel had changed hands twice since 1987. None of this made any difference. Other convention committees came to Brighton, but negotiations either came to nothing or never even started.

And so Brighton became known to the science fiction community as “The Forbidden City”.

Meanwhile, my life had moved on. In 1989, as a consequence of the privatisation of the UK water industry, the government took the decision to locate the regulator’s office, Ofwat, in Birmingham as it was equidistant from most of the water companies’ HQs. I took level transfer to Ofwat, and by a series of odd events found myself the organisation’s main trade union representative. I began rapidly making contacts and looking for support and advice, as I’d gone from being a floor representative within a union sub-Branch in one office of a department employing tens of thousands of staff to being the leader of trade unions in an entire Government Department; although that department only had a total of 250 staff at its height, my peers were suddenly people leading the unions in Departments such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) or the Inland Revenue, with memberships in five or even six figures. Things were complicated by the fact that the union I was then in, the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) was known in some quarters as “the Beirut of the British trade union movement”. The level of internal conflict in CPSA was notorious, and had a shady origin in tales of conspiracy, plots, secret armies, infiltrators of Left and Right, and the efforts of the security services to keep a lid on all this. Back in the days of Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in the 1960s, there were rumours that the Prime Minister was a Russian spy (sound familiar?), and one David Stirling – founder of the SAS – and a bunch of cronies from the Clermont Club and similar establishments in Pall Mall had set up a private army ready to seize power. He claimed that he had many supporters in the Civil Service, and the security services promptly recruited some minor union officers to keep an eye on disruptive elements of both Left and Right. In time, these people became entrenched in CPSA and were elevated to high office. Others arose to counter them, seeing them as anti-democratic. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

So it was that CPSA conferences were pretty turbulent affairs. Stirling had recruited his insiders initially to cause trouble at conferences; the Left organised to repay that compliment. Over time, their influence waned, especially as changes in the Civil Service meant that there began a series of union mergers to reflect changes in Departmental structures and to present a more coherent and united front to a government determined to downsize the Civil Service and to degrade the terms and conditions of employment. CPSA and its fellow unions held their conferences, it was said, in “a seaside town beginning with B”, usually circulating between Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton; by the end of the 1990s, a series of mergers had created the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which was of such a size that Brighton’s seafront conference centre was the only venue big enough for the annual delegate conference.

Conference Week was the main event in the union’s annual timetable. Over the preceding months, elections to the National Executive Committee had been held, and the results of those elections were usually published shortly before Conference. Meanwhile, Branches had been consulting members on motions for Conference; these had been submitted and the union’s Standing Orders Committee had considered the motions, brought together those which were on similar themes and had similar objectives in a process known as “compositing”, decided which motions were suitable for debate – there were a set of fairly bureaucratic rules determining the criteria under which motions could be ruled suitable or not suitable for Conference – and assembled a timetable for Conference which placed the most important motions first in each session’s business. If debate caused motions to run out of time, they were guillotined, though half of the final morning of Conference was set aside for guillotined motions to be heard, though it was down to the same Standing Orders Committee to decide which guillotined motions made it to the schedule.

Meanwhile, the normal pattern was for the union’s Sections and Groups – roughly corresponding to employing Departments – to hold their Conferences over the few days before main Conference. These Group Conferences would decide union policy in areas that solely concerned members’ terms and conditions in those Departments. After two or three days there, main Conference would start, with sessions lasting from 9am to 5:30pm, and with a tight timetable and a formal process to determine who should speak. And so it was that I ended up on the podium at least once each Conference, and on odd occasions three or four times.


One of my appearances at the Conference podium at Brighton (photo: Jon Gambit)

Conference was notable for a few things. One such was Popular Front, or “The Popular Front for the Liberation of the CPSA”, a scurrilous newsheet that circulated on the fringes of Conference and took satirical potshots at personalities on all sides of the union.  It drew its iconography from some of the formal politics of the Middle East (especially Gadaffi’s Libya), inspired by that “Beirut of the trade union movement” tag already mentioned. It is a bit of a surprise that it never got into more trouble with more people than it did. Regularly denounced from the top table, perhaps the best perspective on it would be a misquote of Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being in Popular Front is not being in Popular Front.”

On another occasion, PCS conference made national news, though not through anything that happened in Conference itself. In November 1998 (Conference was very late that year because of merger timetables), the Royal Albion Hotel, at one end of the seafront, caught fire one breakfast-time. Apparently, the ventilation ducts from the kitchen hadn’t had their grease traps cleaned out for a number of years; so a minor frying pan fire rapidly escalated to a major conflagration.


The Royal Albion on fire, 1998 (Photo: BBC)

The hotel was being used by the MoD delegation, who had to evaculate in the clothes they stood up in. The union immediately made emergency payments available to affected delegates, though quizzical eyebrows were raised at the number of posh suits being claimed for by otherwise sartorially-challenged delegates; and there were red faces over the number of official MoD laptop computers being claimed for that should not have been being used for such non-official duties as union work. I was staying at the time in a small hotel in Hove, a good mile or more along the seafront; the column of smoke was visible as soon as I left the hotel and the location of the Albion meant that traffic was severely affected.

Our regular haunt for our Group Conference in later years was the Queens Hotel, not quite next door to the Albion, A slightly eccentric venue, the site was once occupied by an inn called ‘The Dolphin’ which was demolished in 1846. Next door was the famous Vapour Baths run by one Sheik Mahomet, who had been Shampooing Surgeon to King George IV. The baths were converted into the Markwell Hotel in 1869 and eventually were absorbed into the Queens Hotel.

And now I’ve been to my first TestBash. My last post talked about the content; I’ll just add that for me, it was even a new experience because of the venue, as the Clarendon Centre is located in an end of Brighton that I’ve never explored before. Of course, places look much different in winter (and be sure that March is still potentially winter in terms of the British weather! I’ve never seen snow in Brighton before until this year’s TestBash), so to close, and especially for TestBash attendees who might not have seen much of Brighton in the sunshine, here’s a portfolio of photographs I’ve taken in Brighton since 2003, showing some of the places I’ve named in this post (and a few others that I haven’t mentioned but which delegates might know).



Written by robertday154

April 2, 2018 at 12:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. […] And these are things that I’ve done plenty of in my time – see my recent post, Return to the Forbidden City. So perhaps people might gain something from my non-testing […]

  2. […] Return to the Forbidden City , which was more inspired by TestBash rather than being about TestBash. […]

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