My Trip To Britain — a Cryonic's View

by Ben Best

From August 23 to September 5th, 1995 I traveled in Scotland, Wales and England. The trip began with my attending the 1995 World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in Glasgow, Scotland on August 24 to August 28. After the convention I rented a car and drove through Britain in an attempt to get to know the people who are most significantly connected with cryonics in that country.

Glasgow was once a major shipbuilding centre. It is noted for having one of the highest heart attack and cancer rates in the world. Deep-frying is common for a variety of foods. Fruits & vegetables are rare in the grocery stores, but meat is plentiful. Sweets are also common, and more than a third of the population wears dentures before age 35. 83% of middle-aged men have been regular smokers. The coronary death rate is 800% higher than in Japan. Life expectancy is on a par with Cuba. Needless to say, Glasgow has a long way to go before becoming the life-extension capitol of the world.

The University of Glasgow is very old. I was pleased to discover that I could gain access to the student study centre and was even more pleased to locate a copy of THE BOG MAN by Don Brothwell. This book describes St. Bees Man, an English nobleman who had been wrapped with wax&honey-soaked shrouds and packed in clay over 700 years ago — with remarkable preservation. I have been looking for years (and am still looking) for the autopsy report on this gentleman.

Most WorldCons are held in North America, so I saw a WorldCon in Scotland as a unique opportunity to promote cryonics to European technophiles who might not otherwise have any direct exposure to the idea. I have found "room parties" at WorldCons (parties held in the hotel rooms of those attending) to be an excellent vehicle for talking to people about cryonics. Unfortunately, the party hotels filled before I received the hotel booking forms in February or March. Also, even the party hotels required that parties be held in meeting rooms rather than hotel rooms.

To have a very large room I booked into the Hilton, where I was told that there would be no problem with a room party if there was no complaint. On Thursday evening there was a complaint almost immediately — probably due to the loud voice of Erwin Strauss (Filthy Pierre — publisher of THE CONNECTION apa). And the only other guest who came (before we were shut-down by hotel security) was a Life Extension Foundation member in his late 60s who said he had no use for cryonics because he is not going to die. I attempted to have another party in a Hilton meeting room on Friday, without food or drink (the hotel reserved all rights on food&drink service). The only people who came to this (besides Keith Henson, Erwin Strauss, Keith Lynch and myself) were a Croatian couple (who were VERY interested).

On Saturday night I booked a meeting room in one of the party hotels. This was attended by a large number of people who ate a lot of food and took a lot of literature. Keith Henson and Keith Lynch were there much of the time, but there were far too many guests for me to talk to as many as I would have liked — especially since I was kept busy replenishing food and handling logistics. Taking my inspiration from Debbie Wowk, I used blue squares (representing ice cubes) for my room-stickers. I did have good conversations with a biologist from Germany and with a biologist from Russia.

I was kept so busy with logistics problems that I missed a large number of the Glasgow WorldCon panels & events. In particular, I missed the panel "SF Myths — Biology" at which cryonics was dismissed as pseudoscience. Since there were no cryonicists attending the session, the charges were not disputed.

Both Keith Henson and I were on the panels "Nanotechnology and the Politics of Plenty" and "To Last a Thousand Years". One of the co-panelists for the first was Jonathon vos Post, Mission Planning Engineer for Voyager's flyby of Uranus and a number of other NASA projects. Jonathon claims to have written the first Ph.D. thesis on Nanotechnology ('75-'77).

The Nanotechnology panel seemed to consist mainly of the audience raising objections to optimism, which were answered by the panelists. One member of the audience asked why it would be of value to be able to increase intelligence if the only jobs available were bus-driving and similar "menial" tasks.

Two of the panelists for the "To Last a Thousand Years" panel didn't show-up — leaving two cryonicists and a weak moderator. Keith Henson didn't hesitate to emphasize the presence of two cryonicists on this forward-looking panel. Keith talked about his plans to explore the galaxy, and I dealt with the elimination of the "Aging Disease" as well as with the capacity of future science to allow us to radically transform ourselves. The audience was fairly positive. When Keith asked who would want to be alive in 1,000 years, most people raised their hands. Both Keith and I handed-out cryonics literature (Alcor and CryoCare, respectively). At no time in the conference was there any inter-organizational rivalry between us.

One of the panels I attended was "SF and the Death of God". This panel had been organized on the request of SF author Harry Harrison. Harry was one of the panelists and he was wanting to promote atheism. But the other panelists kept going-off onto other topics, much to Harry's irritation. One relevant theme, however, was the belief of many panelists that Science Fiction is atheist by default, insofar as it portrays so many varied aspects of life as having fanciful scientific causes rather than supernatural causes. During the discussion period I went to the front, took the microphone and suggested that if fiction authors wanted to take an aggressive anti-religious approach, they could write stories that would portray God&Jesus as buffoons. Such stories could explicitly expose and ridicule contradictory religious nonsense.

In preparation for this WorldCon I read the novel CHILLER by "Sterling Blake". I knew that "Sterling" would be at the convention and I wanted to discuss it with him. To roughly summarize, the novel is "historical fiction" based on an Alcor-like organization called Immortality Incorporated. The protagonists — Susan, Alex and Kathryn — are roughly patterned after Jerry Leaf, Mike Darwin and Brenda Peters, respectively. In reality, there was never a romance between Mike&Brenda (to my knowledge), and many other fictionalizations should not be taken as factual reporting on the real individuals I have named. A crazed religious fundamentalist named George is inspired by an anti-cryonics preacher who operates out of a church-like "Marble Cathedral". With indirect support from the preacher, George systematically murders Susan, then Alex and finally Kathryn — all of whom become cryopreserved and hidden from the authorities to prevent autopsy. The murder of Susan and the hiding of her frozen body results in a "Dora Kent crisis" type raid. At the end of the novel, after being frozen for many years, the protagonists are reanimated again, only to be confronted by an aged (but still murderous) George during their post-reanimation convalescence.

The novel takes many opportunities to explain the logic of the cryonics idea and to dispell many misconceptions. Once the plot gets rolling, I found the book very difficult to put down — all I wanted to do was find-out "what happens next". But the first 140 pages can be somewhat tedious — the plot is thin while background material is being established. I can easily see someone putting the book down. Only my determination to read this cryonics-related novel kept me going. I also dislike the stark conflict between cryonics and religion — this is a battle most responsible cryonicists are trying to avoid (including me — my anti-religious feelings notwithstanding). Toward the end of the book Susan is revealed to be religious and to have done her cryonics work with the blessings of her preacher — but I don't think this does much to soften the confrontations presented earlier. Also, the hiding of so many murder victims from the law to prevent autopsy would probably not be as successful in reality as the novel implies. I strongly objected to the scene in which Alex planted frozen cockroaches in the Marble Cathedral restaurant as revenge.

During the autograph session I spoke to "Sterling" about his novel. He said that planting cockroaches in the restaurant appealed to his sense of justice. He also said that the book had been fairly successful, but the publisher discontinued it. "Sterling" has bought the rights and is thinking of re-publishing the book under his own name. I encouraged him to re-write the beginning. Harry Harrison, who was also doing autographing, interrupted to teasingly chide me for being "naughty" during the "SF and the Death of God" panel.

I shared a room with Keith Lynch at first, and worked with him in promoting cryonics at WorldCon. I often tell people who are not signed-up cryonicists that they are not taken seriously by those who are signed-up. But it was hard to do this with Keith. He has indexed CryoNet and made the archives accessible, and he is also active in the Washington, DC Life Extension Society. He even wants to be trained as a Transport Technician. He said he would be signed-up by now if he weren't still trying to choose between Alcor and CryoCare.

After the convention I rented a car and drove south. I checked-out Hadrian's Wall and was impressed that the cement the Romans used has held the wall together for 2,000 years. I had thought that I might go to St. Bees on my way through the Lake District, but I decided that my time was too limited and that I probably wouldn't learn much about "St. Bees man" by making such an excursion. I drove through Wales and stopped at Hay-on-Wye on my way to Oxford. Hay-on-Wye ("the town of books") is noted for being a world focus for secondhand and antiquarian books. The town has bookstores specializing in comics, photography, poetry, art, history, etc. However, no secondhand bookstore in Hay-on-Wye can compare (in quantity or quality) to a secondhand bookstore I once visited in Portland, Oregon. I have little interest in antiquarian books and most of the science-oriented books were too out-of-date for me.

I took a walking tour of Oxford given by Trinity College students, which gave me the opportunity to ask our tour guide about Oxford student life. I saw the original "Ivory Towers of Academia" (All Soul's College) and the park where Lewis Carroll dreamed-up ALICE IN WONDERLAND. John Locke had been expelled from Oxford for sedition and William Penn was expelled for defending Quakers. When Percy Shelley was an Oxford student he made a name for himself by his fascination with science. He electrified his door knob and thereby shocked his dormitory supervisor. He dramatically exploded a prominent campus tree. He also dissolved a rug with some acid, which may have seemed somewhat magical at the time. But after all these pranks, he was only expelled when he wrote a pamphlet entitled THE NECESSITY OF ATHEISM. Percy's scientific career was crushed and he was reduced to scribbling poetry. His wife did, however, write the novel FRANKENSTEIN, or THE MODERN PROMETHEUS. The Bodleian library is world-renowned for its vast collections — and probably has a copy of the "St. Bees Man" autopsy, but it was closed for the week.

I drove to "Leighton Buzzard", a quaintly-named city north of London where the offices of "Life Plus Ltd." is located. This company distributes many nutritional supplements in Britain, including Life Extension Mix and a number of other Life Extension Foundation products. Paul Michaels started the company in his home by repackaging Vitamin C powder. Now it is a full-fledged business that prints an attractive brochure and keeps Paul fully employed. Paul says he enjoys opening the mail in the morning and seeing cheques fall out. But he thinks he is working in a tough market, since the British are far more resistant to the idea of vitamins and nutritional supplements than Americans are. As his business grows, Paul is becoming more interested in financing some Ukrainians to do research on whether multiple antioxidants are better than single ones. Like many people with small businesses, Paul is afraid that E-mail & the Internet would make his computers vulnerable to viruses & intruders.

Paul runs his company with a couple of employees, most notably with Steve Gallant. Steve wrote articles for LONGEVITY REPORT when he was a biochemistry student, and was hired by Paul upon graduation. Now Steve does mostly accounting and other chores involved in running Life Plus, but I was impressed by his knowledge of biogerontology. He still has a keen interest in the scientific issues of anti-aging medicine. Steve is, however, a quiet person in social situations and since I was never alone with him I didn't get much of a chance to get to know him very well. Paul said that Steve is planning to make arrangements with the Cryonics Institute in the near future.

Steve, Paul, Paul's wife and I had dinner together. Paul, his wife Maureen and his 15-year-old son have all made cryonics arrangements with the Cryonics Institute. Paul and his co-operating funeral director, Barry Albin-Dyer, had been getting a great deal of media exposure at the time of my visit. Paul gave me a copy of the previous day's DAILY MAIL, which had a full-page story of Paul and his family's cryonics arrangements. Paul is outgoing, enthusiastic and proud of his excellent sense of humor (he is the type of person who makes an effort to remember a fund of jokes). I have met few cryonicists who are demonstrably so in love with life. He credits Ayn Rand with helping him see the issues of life more clearly — and putting him on the path that brought him to where he is today.

Paul & Maureen are also outstanding hosts who allowed me to stay at their home. They were so attentive to my every need that I went into a state of guilt that made me seem like an ingrate. I somewhat forcefully told them not to be so attentive — afterwards apologizing for my statement. They told me that I needn't apologizing for expressing my feelings — and continued their hospitality.

The next day I went to Cambridge where I had the opportunity to see where so many of Britain's most famous scientists (Newton, Darwin, Kelvin, Maxwell, Rutherford, etc.) studied and worked. Science was not taken seriously at Oxford until 1900, but it was prominent at Cambridge at least from the time Sir Isaac Newton took a chair in mathematics in 1668. During my walking-tour of Cambridge University I heard two stories that raised cryonics-issues in my mind. In 1756, the poet Thomas Gray installed a bar on his third-story dormitory window so he could tie sheets to it and escape in case of fire. An "inordinate" concern with survival is often a source of amusement for others, so some of the students blew smoke under his door and started yelling "fire". When the poet escaped out his window he landed in a large tub of ice-water.

The other story concerned an earlier period in the history of Cambridge, when Britain was struck by The Plague. People abandoned the city and the university in great numbers. The chief administrator became so burdened with his inability to responsibly run the university under such conditions (it is said) that he committed suicide. Whether or not this was the real reason, I do believe that many people live their lives in traps of their own construction — and can't imagine any form of escape other than death.

That evening I was given a sumptuous dinner by Maureen. They were aware of my efforts to practice Caloric Restriction with Adequate Nutrition (CRAN), but I had also told them that I was on vacation from CRAN. There were so many different kinds of good food that I could hardly avoid over-eating. Paul is vegetarian, but Maureen included some low fat chicken meat for herself and for me. Maureen seemed concerned that by devoting myself so much to life-extension & cryonics that I am "already dead". I pointed-out that I am fascinated by cryonics & life-extension — and that my interests had led to meeting such nice folks as her & Paul. She didn't seem impressed.

Paul had given a radio interview on cryonics that day and had invited me to participate. But I had preferred to go to Cambridge. Barry Albin and British cryobiologist David Pegg (who works at Cambridge) were included in the conference call. Pegg gave what has been called the "Strawberry Argument", referring to the mushy quality of a re-warmed strawberry that has experienced freezing damage. It was an Irish radio station so religion was a central issue. A man had called-in and said that he couldn't understand why Paul would want to be reanimated in a world that has no God.

Paul is an extremely enthusiastic booster of the Cryonics Institute, and can seem equally emphatic in dismissing the other cryonics organizations. His dislike of Garret Smyth of Alcor UK is quite strong. During dinner I encouraged him to be more open to the idea that there may be many routes to reanimation through cryonics. I think there are some people who disparage other cryonics organizations as a way of assuring themselves that they have made the right choice. I kept suspecting this was true of Paul, but can't say that it is a certainty. He has little interest in technical issues of cryonics and expressed a lack of empathy with the computer-techie nerds that he associates with Alcor. I think he realized that I took his remark personally, but if he thought I was just another computer-techie nerd it wasn't obvious from his gracious behavior.

The next day I drove to London to visit the 200-year old British funeral firm F.A.Albin & Sons. Barry Albin-Dyer, the proprietor (and 5th-generation funeral director), is working for the Cryonics Institute (CI) to do publicity for cryonics. He was also on standby at the time for a CI member in a hospice in Essen, Germany. for European local cryonics response. A London CI member would pay the usual CI fees plus an additional US$3,000 for Barry's services, whereas the person in Germany pays a US$7,000 surcharge for services which include the use of Barry's private plane.

Although Barry is a Roman Catholic, he says he wants to offer cryonics as an option to allow his clientele the greatest freedom of choice. He feels that the cryonics publicity has been good for his business. He obviously enjoys talking about cryonics to the media, and being on radio&TV talk shows. He does not want to be associated with "freezing heads", but it would not concern him so much if the head was removed after it got to the United States.

As Secretary of CryoCare, I was interested in what services Barry could provide for CryoCare members traveling in Europe or for potential European CryoCare members (there are currently none). Barry said he would be willing to work with CryoCare as well as CI because this increases freedom of choice for his clients. CryoCare is not interested in using Barry for publicity, as CI has done. Mike Darwin had told me that freezing to dry ice temperature is essential for European cases because the American Consulate is only open 9-5 on weekdays and is notorious for delays. Mike is unwilling to keep patients at water-ice temperature for more than 24 hours.

Barry and I chatted for half-an-hour. Barry sees no need for dry ice shipment of cryonics patients and, in any case, says he is well-connected enough politically to expedite air shipment of a body to the USA any day of the week in less than 24 hours. He told me he is the official funeral director for the American Consulate, and that he would be having dinner with the American Ambassador on Sunday. Barry said he would be willing to use BioPreservation's blood washout solution (rather than the modified Ringer's solution he uses for CI), but he had no interest in being trained by Mike Darwin in BioPreservation procedures. He asked me how many patients Mike Darwin had frozen — and then asserted that he could do better blood washouts because he does them every day.

I was given a tour through the facility by one of Barry's embalmers. He showed me a casket specifically designed for shipment of cryonics patients. I saw a fellow sitting at a computer terminal where was designing tombstones, and I had a sense of horror&remorse when he showed me one he was working-on for a man that had died at age 32. I met a carpenter who was building coffins. I also saw a room of finished coffins — many with elaborate padding and ornate designs. There were also coffin-covers that could be placed around the coffins having elaborate designs so as to protect them from immediate decay by the earth. There is a very large garage that can accommodate many vehicles. Barry has a very professional operation — he goes to great lengths to cater to every need, wish and whim of his clientele. But I saw no evidence of the large amounts of money Barry claimed to have spent on outfitting his business with cryonics facilities.

I drove to Cornwall, stopping along the way to visit Stonehenge. John de Rivaz has lived in Cornwall since his semi-retirement (a young "retirement") from being an electrical engineer. Cornwall seems to be the Florida of Britain, a place where people come to retire. John has a large library of science fiction books. He obviously lives a somewhat comfortable & leisurely life.

John owns a piece of land which is separated from the sea in the typical Cornwall fashion by stark glacial cliffs. He has done some chicken-farming, but mostly he rents his pastures to his neighbors. Both John and his mate, Chrissie Loveday, are Cryonics Institute members. Chrissie has found it easy to get Cornwall radio stations to interview her on the subject of cryonics. Unlike John, who never leaves Cornwall, she will travel in pursuit of media profiles.

John is the proprietor of "Longevity Books" and he has been publishing LONGEVITY REPORT (a magazine with a distribution about as large as CCN, mostly in the UK) since the late 1980s. Also, for the past 6 years he has had a monthly article in the British funeral director magazine (FUNERAL SERVICES JOURNAL). The editor originally wanted to include something on cryonics to create some controversy, but instead has created an institution. It is difficult to underestimate the effect upon the funeral profession of seeing an article on cryonics in their professional magazine every month for over 6 years. They would naturally begin to think of cryonics as one of the services they could offer — and it would no longer seem bizzare or unusual. Most of John's articles are items drawn from material in CRYONICS, THE IMMORTALIST, and CANADIAN CRYONICS NEWS. John, like Barry Albin and Paul Michaels, seemed emphatic that "freezing heads" is too unacceptably offensive in the minds of the British for the idea to be of any use in cryonics publicity.

John & Chrissie were also very hospitable people. I was given a guest room and on the following day they spent the entire day showing me Cornwall, a place of gargantuan beauty. As we gazed-out over the stark cliffs rising up from the deep blue sea, Chrissie pointed-out the spot where John had first discussed cryonics with her. I was reminded of Brian Wowk's description of the heart-throbbing moment he raised the subject of cryonics with his wife Debbie, prior to their marriage. Proposing marriage might be easier by comparison.

I had had some thought of meeting Brian-Giles, founder of the British Cryonics Society, but John told me not to bother. Blair-Giles was evidently a very eccentric character from the beginning and he is currently undergoing mental deterioration in a hospice — with little prospect of ever being frozen. John has an ironic view of hospices, saying that we are thrust into the world and grow-up forced to associate with people who we don't like and who don't like us. We spend our lives finding people we like & who like us — and then end-up in a hospice with people we don't like & who don't like us. I tried to assure him that by the time he was put into a hospice he would be too senile to notice.

I arose very early on Sunday morning to make the long drive to the Alcor UK facility, which is located 40 miles south of London in Westham (where Alan Sinclair lives) near Eastbourne. I had been in E-mail communication with Mike Price and Garret Smyth for many months — unsuccessfully attempting to get them to come to the Glasgow WorldCon to promote cryonics in the UK. Garret had been better about answering my E-mail messages, but both were informed that I would be attending the September Alcor UK meeting. I had been expecting a more substantial meeting than what I saw. Only Alan, Mike Price and Garret Smyth were there, in addition to a woman I took to be Alan's wife. The once silver-haired Alan had just dyed his hair and he was beginning to take an interest in life extension supplements, although he was skeptical that they were of any value. Both Mike & Alan bought copies of Dr. Donaldson's A GUIDE TO ANTI-AGING DRUGS, which I had brought. The chain-smoking by Alan and his mate was unpleasant.

Garret Smyth has a degree in Neuroscience, but he says that he mostly crammed for his exams and promptly forgot what he learned thereafter. He seemed positively feisty on the issue of neuropreservation, vociferous in defense of "freezing heads". This is clearly a hot topic in Britain. He was equally vociferous in his hostility to Barry Albin, but he gave no real substantive basis for this hostility apart from the presumption that since Barry is not a cryonicist he would not treat his patients with due care.

After an hour of chit-chat I raised the subject of Mike Darwin giving a UK training course in exchange for BioPreservation access to the Alcor UK facility. Alan said that dry ice temperature for shipment from the UK is essential because of strikes at the airport (9 strikes per year, 2-4 days each — or, at least, that was the case 5 years ago when he had last looked into the matter). Alan seemed to think that Mike should be able to use the facility for 2 years following training, but Mike Price wanted training and facility use to be separate contracts. Garret wanted CryoCare members to pay for facility maintenance. They discussed the matter for over an hour without coming to an agreement. Moreover, any agreement would have to be approved by not only these three, but also by another fellow named Andrew — and Alcor USA as well. Garret said he would E-mail a proposal to Mike Darwin once an agreement was formulated.

Even if they ever do come to an agreement, I cannot imagine CryoCare signing-up European members on the basis of 2-year renewable agreements subject to approval by so many parties. This is a shame, because Alcor UK has a fine facility which is being used for little more than a monthly discussion group. They had been eager in assisting Trygve Bauge to ship his grandfather from Norway to Trans Time, despite Trygve being an ACS member. All the Alcor UK people are eager for Mike Darwin to give another training session to follow-up on the one Mike gave them 5 years ago. Alan would even pay Mike's airfare and lodge him at the Sinclair home.

They had private matters to discuss so I was asked to leave. I had phoned Mike Price from Canada asking if I could stay with him when I got to London, but he seemed to have no memory of the matter — and vaguely told me that it would be inappropriate. I had hoped to get to know Mike, but he didn't show any interest in spending additional time with me. Garret said that another "bloke" was already staying in his apartment. I felt like someone who had walked-in off the street to observe a strange meeting. I don't mean to feel that they owe me anything, but I generally accord more interest & hospitality to cryonicists. My feelings are puzzlement & disappointment rather than animosity. I drove to Hastings for some historical tourism.

That evening I phoned Mike Price to get the phone number of an embalmer name Frank Hames who had trained with Mike Darwin. After hanging-up I started thinking that perhaps I had taken the wrong approach in trying to talk to him. I phoned him back and asked if it would be possible to meet him in a cafe, but he said (in a fuzzy sort-of way) that it wouldn't work-out. I phoned Frank Hames who was bitter about having gone to so much trouble & expense to train with Mike Darwin without even once using his cryonics skills in the subsequent five years. He wanted nothing more to do with cryonics.

I spent my final day in Britain visiting London bookstores and tourist attractions. The highest honour a Britain can receive is to be buried in Westminster Abbey, but it is hard for me to look at the slab with Charles Darwin's name on it without a profound sense of irony. The bookstores I visited in Oxford, Cambridge and London are outstanding — and could easily reduce me to a pauper. Foyles, Waterstone's, Hatchards and Dillons are beyond belief. And Toronto has a bookshop called "The World's Biggest Bookstore" (size, maybe, selection of serious books — NO WAY!).