First Thursday

If I were feeling joky, I could claim that Peter F. Hamilton saved my life. What happened in London on 7 July wasn't funny at all, but let's tell the story anyway.

Occasionally I write official SF reviews for an on-line bookshop whose freelance contract has terrifying secrecy clauses, and which I must therefore conceal under the impenetrable codename "Huge South American River Dot Com". They asked me to cover Mr Hamilton's latest novel Judas Unchained, which at 949 pages might seem daunting ... and it's only the second half, so I had to prepare by gulping down the 882 pages of part one, Pandora's Star.

So there I was making notes on enzyme-bonded concrete roads (one secret of writing very long books is never to call a road a mere road but to explain every single time that it's an enzyme-bonded concrete road) and little in-jokes (a rich celebrity in AD 2380 gets all excited about acquiring a signed first edition by Stephen Baxter), and ...

To cut a long story short, as Peter Hamilton so hates to do, I would have been reading Pandora's Star on the London train – except that the hardback is so huge, I couldn't face carrying it around all day. So I decided to finish my daily Hamilton ration before travelling on 7 July. Then came the news of bombs in tube stations that I always pass through, and I didn't visit London at all. Thank you, Peter – and not just for including a hotel called Langford Towers. (Which, surprisingly, does not get nuked from orbit.)

It was the first Thursday of the month, the traditional day of the "London Circle" SF pub meeting. These informal gatherings have happened since 1946, when people like Arthur C. Clarke propped up the bar in the White Horse (long since demolished). Clarke himself used this pub, slightly disguised, as the setting for various tall stories collected in his Tales from the White Hart. The final "Hart" yarn mentions a move to the "Sphere"; indeed the real-life meetings moved in 1953 to the Globe in Hatton Garden, which after twenty glorious years was itself demolished in the 1970s.

A very young Langford appeared at one of the last Globe meetings, and so – making a rare overseas trip – did Isaac Asimov. Since then the first-Thursday location has moved several more times for various reasons, surviving such calamities as a plug in a large-circulation SF magazine of the 1970s. This generated a flood of newcomers, fondly remembered by fan historians as "The Bastard Offspring of Science Fiction Monthly". Not wanting to be remembered for unleashing The Bastard Offspring of SFX, I'll skip the current meeting details – they're easy enough to find on line.

I've been neglecting these gatherings in recent years, feeling slightly burned out after the ten-year stint (1991-2001) in which I handed out my tatty SF newsletter Ansible on every first Thursday. Even when many thousands of miles away at the 1999 Australian Worldcon, I persuaded a minion to spread my foul propaganda in London. But, like Peter F. Hamilton, I digress.

On 7 July 2005, it felt like 9/11 in miniature. Frantic on-line checking of SF people likely to be endangered: there were near misses and shaken nerves, but no actual losses among our own folk. Meanwhile, with London in chaos and everyone told to stay put, it seemed that there could be no First Thursday meeting. A silly little thing compared to the horrors of the day, but I resented the idea of life-hating lunatics breaking an SF community tradition that had lasted since 1946.

In fact the forces of evil didn't prevail. The usual London Circle pub had understandably decided not to open on 7 July. Nevertheless, following one disappointment when an alternate pub also closed, and some quick work with mobile phones and LiveJournal, the meeting went ahead in The Printer's Devil.

(Which had very nearly become the official London Circle venue in 1974, when regulars were seeking a replacement for the Globe. London University students vetoed it because the beer was deemed too expensive, by a penny a pint.)

So, a note for the Guinness Book of Records: July's first-Thursday SF meeting must have been the smallest ever, with a turnout of just six determined fans.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here ...

Well, something like that. I almost wish I'd gone.

David Langford once read the whole of Battlefield Earth and refuses to be daunted by Peter F. Hamilton.

Later: we were wrong about there being "no actual losses among our own folk". I had to run this death notice in the August issue of Ansible: "Giles Hart, a British sf enthusiast, died in the London bus bombing on 7 July; he was 55. A particular fan of Alice in Wonderland and H.G. Wells, he chaired the Wells Society and was scheduled to speak that evening on 'The Lesser-Known Works of Lewis Carroll.' (New York Times, 17 July)"