Billy the Squid
Nice Time Come Back Again
And there I was and...
Some Notes Towards an Incomplete Version Of Events
...one goes to conventions because of an interest in
science fiction, to listen to people talk informedly about it, to meet others
with similar interests and views of the world (very important, that last bit,
the views of the world bit, because it is something that persists even if one
is not presently an habitual
reader). It is good, too, that one can have a jolly social time with characters
who one doesn’t have to explain every damned allusion, reference or joke to.
One rapidly builds a kinship with such folk, that occasionally blossoms into
genuine friendship. There are, in principle, very good reasons to go to There are,
however, some negative aspects. Think of the crowd of geeks, nutters, misfits,
and halfwits that one has to associate with. Think of the dreadful misery of
loneliness in a crowd, made worse because in the back of your mind you’re
thinking, ‘These are my people; why can’t I relate to them?’ The
sometimes endless wartimelike boredom interspersed with all-too-brief moments
of hysterical pleasure or flashing intellectual light. The (presumably)
well-meaning efforts of the bigger-and-betterists who want to turn conventions
into theme-parks for scifi nuts, thus overriding and obliterating everything that
made them interesting to start with. The list of negatives is, alas, longer
(endlessly almost) than the reasons to be cheerful.I dunno. I
like, love even, the idea of conventions, but they’re so often dissatisfying.
So I find it hard to try to convince anyone who hasn’t been to one, or has
fallen out of the habit of going, to join up or resume. Am I just old and
farty, too cynical, too bitter, narrowminded, not seeing the joy of it afresh?
Only Geneva Melzack can say. Trouble is she’d probably be right.
Billy the Squid
I dunno. Here I am in the ass-end of someone else’s fanzine. I mean, I’m
always keen to be a back-door man, but this is ridiculous. Still and all, it
is hinted that my much-demanded presence should fulfil a function—that of resident
heavy (which shows how much good my perpetual diet is doing, I suppose)—though
it might surprise few who ever listen to a word I say to discover that I certainly
don’t intend doing much of a gangbusters act here or anywhere else. To be damned
uncouth about it, I don’t really give much of a fat fart for the general run
of fannish controversy or ideology going around at the moment, and I wouldn’t
be at all surprised if this column just went on and on being just as bland and
wishy-washy as the rest of this fanzine is bound to be accused of being by those
with more mouth than trousers. So get fucked, all you toads who demand I conform
to your image of me.
Well, even I put such morbid thoughts out of my head and contented myself with phoning Joseph Nicholas on the day before the last Silicon to remind him to be at our house to get his Silicon-bound lift by nine-thirty in the morning at the latest. ‘Sure thing boss,’ he kept saying, ‘I can be at Richmond Station by eight-thirty, at your place before nine. No problem.’ OK, OK, I said, I believe ya. I’m so trusting.
Come nine-thirty there’s me, Simone, and Robert Hansen—who at least had the sense to arrive the night before (Nicholas having had an unbreakable date with an insurance man or somesuch unlikely rendezvous)—and we’re waiting. ‘Where is the little poof?’ mumbles Hansen monotonously. Myself, I ignore him; I’m excited, off-to-a-con excited, have been since awakening at twenty-to-seven, and I don’t care. ‘Be here any minute,’ I reply, equally repetitively, jumping up and jumping back to Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, playing real loud. Simone, she’s happy, she does what women always do before con-going: fusses over her clothing. Then the ring. Though not the doorbell. Phone. Nicholas. Dread grips heart. ‘Hey kid, what’s your problem?’ ‘Got a problem, boss,’ he replies. Fallen down and broke his leg, I think, feeling sympathy coming on; but no, it’s worse than that, and sympathy vanishes. ‘Only just woke up, boss. Be with you in exactly an hour and a half; you will wait for me, won’t you?’ Grit teeth, say decent thing, settle down to wait. Hansen goes into shock, sits down and reads a comic the wrong way up—must be his unique artistic vision. Simone takes it all easy, goes back to playing in the wardrobe. I convince myself it could be worse—I could have fallen down and broke a leg—and settle down to pass the time making compilation tapes of R&B tunes for the Silicon PA system, which in the end turns out to have been entirely futile make-work as they are never used and anyway you bums wouldn’t have appreciated them anyway. Still, it helped at the time.
Minutes feel like hours, hours feel like days.
Eleven o’clock comes but not Nicholas. By now we’ve abandoned all distractions and are standing at the kitchen window looking out at the main road, and whenever a 65 bus from Richmond comes by we peer at it in hope of seeing the familiar chiffon scarf and delicate pre-Raphaelite features of Nicholas. The strain is tremendous; grown men and Robert Hansen faint, shriek, rend their clothing. At midday we decide if he hasn’t come by one we go without him, the little fucker. By twelve-thirty we are all out in the street, pacing up and down, ready to leap into the car and off without wasting a moment. Hansen strides menacingly up and back to the bus-stop. ‘Half-brick in his face when he gets here,’ he hisses Welshly. He could do it too; he got an O-level in bricking kids to death back in the old country. Time is getting tight and our hearts are hardening.
At ten minutes to one Nicholas minces into sight. He’s walking. ‘Shouldn’t you at least be running?’ I enquire acidly from my stance atop the gatepost. He begins long string of feeble apologies but there’s no time for that shit. Into the car fast as we can; we may be three hours or more late but provided we go like hell and cut out the intended two-hour pub break halfway we’ll still make it more or less to the planned arrival time. But the last straw inevitably falls. Nicholas, with Simone assisting, can’t get his bag into the boot. Admittedly it’s too full already, but this final, albeit momentary, delay breaks me. I leap out of the car, wrench my own bag from the boot, stuff his in, snarl, 'Lock it!’ at Simone, and fling myself back into the car with my bag jammed uncomfortably beneath my legs and think dark and deadly thoughts.
Everyone is now either pissed off or embarrassed. The first hundred and fifty miles are very quiet indeed. At Woodall service station we get out, have a pee and an ice-cream and actually speak to each other. Gradually things loosen up and as the miles roll by we’re soon, just like fans ought to be, talking about the convention. Old faves like 'What do you most want out of this con’ come out on cue. When Simone asks this of Nicholas, Hansen and I chorus ‘Helen Eling’, and he at least has the grace to blush. Slightly. Myself, all I want is enough drink to have a good time without falling down, good company, and no shit from cretins. And stap me if in the end I don’t get one and three-quarters out of three, which is not so bad.
Still and all, we got there in the end and felt quite jolly about it too, even though we took one wrong turning too many and the driver got a bit more irate than necessary. Even the shock-horror of Peter Weston’s face being the first we saw on pushing through the hotel doors did not the joy diminish. (Weston, incidentally, despite claiming he hadn’t even known the convention was on and was only accidentally at it for one night, seemed to be strutting about as though he was running the whole proceedings: practising for Worldcon, one assumes.) Greeeeat, it was, anyway. Register, room, drink, shower of excellent (mostly) new fanzines in succession. All seems just like real life, pleasant glow of happiness suffuses all. Everyone keeps saying Silicon is the one they really look forward to most. It is too.
But who are some of these people? Who’s the guy who looks like a young poof, I ask aging hippy Mike Dickinson. Giggling, he replies ‘John Collick’, then speeds away to tell the young man of this impromptu assessment. He is not, it turns out, amused, especially as the last thing his father said to him before he left home for this, his first convention, was ‘Don’t come back here if you catch any venereal diseases.’ You’ll be fucking lucky, I said to him later, but if you are just remember to pass the name around, OK kid? I sometimes work hard at being amusingly decadent. Or so my cover story goes anyway. Another peculiar character with hair like a dandelion puffball puzzles me, especially as he seems to know who I am. Then I notice the conspicuous lack of fingers and conclude it is none other than Dave Cobbledick, who has not quite realised that the current fashion for curly permed hair is generally best applied to women only. Cobbledick, a good old boy, is as usual totally into fandom for the duration of the con, even to the extent of being the first person to cause Harry Bell to apologise to the manager about vomit on the toilet floor. At eight on the Friday evening. Really enthusiastic, that kid.
Actually, as you might imagine, everything goes into a blur from there on. Some sequences stand out, like Simone haranguing me at the bar around two o’clock Sunday morning about me being drunk. Somehow I convinced her I wasn’t and then proved I must have been after all by ordering a double Pernod and adding it to the six or seven vodka-and-oranges I had in a pint mug. That combination leaves an aftershock like nobody’s business, and when I had to get up and at it the next morning to play football I felt desperate. Everything smelt and tasted of fucking Pernod (especially after I’d drunk the inch or so I’d had left on ‘retiring’ as a bit of a straightener), and the first half of our game nearly killed me. Thank God the exercise took it out of my system and the rest of the game and the final—which our team won, of course, of course—was quite fun. For us if not for the poxy spectators who couldn’t perceive great play if it clogged them between the legs.
Further Silicon anecdotes seem unnecessary. Suffice it to say that this year’s finally convinced me that it is absolutely possible to organise a convention—or maybe weekend party is a better term—of SF-oriented people that has little or nothing to do with SF overtly and for it to be a great success. In fact, the less the impact of SF on the scene the better the whole thing goes. This may seem quite obvious once it’s said, but in sort of pure ideological terms it’s a massive departure from, say, Laurence Miller’s crazy ‘Let’s make this the biggest Novacon ever!’ bigger-and-betterism. Not that one would want to keep the thing small necessarily, but by maintaining it as an open secret one can assume that only those best suited to it will actually bother to get on board. And new people easily fit in, like Collick and Higgins this year, and Cobbledick the last, and they’re fucking vital too, otherwise we’re all doomed.
So the next time you get all in a tear about the Eastercon being full of people you don’t know, don’t worry. There’s still something left they not only don’t know about, but likely don’t want to know about either. And you never know, one day we might have Silicons A, B, and C; at Easter, Bank Holiday, and Novacon times. Stranger things happen at sea.
Nice Time Come Back Again
And so to Novacon. On the way I stare out at the world and wonder. Wonder if Death’s Tiny Hands will fasten more fiercely about me this weekend. Not that I’ve really got anything to worry about: just a few things like here and there, for example my whole left-side going downhill with tendonitis in my forearm and bursitis in the knee. The right side isn’t much brighter; the usual hiatus hernia thing which whenever I think of it brings the spasm of panic—Did I pack the Zantac, the miracle drug that keeps my stomach acidity in order, which in turn stops me throwing up in my sleep, no light prospect when you consider eight pints of beer fountaining all over. Even bring the haemorrhoid ointment, though there’s been no little visitors for nearly ten years but it was at a convention they started so you can't be too careful. And anyway as they say, there’s piles of us British in Haemorrhoid fandom. Then there’s my defective gall-bladder, twitching away, vaguely painful no matter how I wriggle in my seat. Wonder if they’ve got keyhole surgery at Withybush yet, or will I have to go to some deadly place like Swansea? And never mind the pain in my foot...
Mind you, this funny knobbly patch on the back of my right hand is back again—wonder if I’m turning into Victor Carroon? Maybe I’ll just have a simple brain embolism, I think resignedly. Which would be a shame, as life is so much fun these days.
I consider other things. Who’ll be there? Who will I talk to? Who’ll talk to me? It’s futile really, just a warming-up exercise, but I resolve to be more sensible wherever possible. Get back in touch with old friends, that was after all part of the purpose of starting Rastus Johnson. Some are probably beyond reach, for their own reasons as much as mine, stupid though both may be. There are a lot of people whose company I often miss—you never know, despite appearances to the contrary they might underneath feel the same way. Might as well be nice—It’s nice to be nice to nice people, runs a not-so-daft Pembrokeshire saying. All I have to lose is my pride. You never know, I think to myself, fantasising madly, I might even try to get that ramrod out of Rob Hansen’s arse. As he’s such a fucking star of Corflu and like that he must have some of his old character left somewhere. Or is he just the Paul Skelton of the Nineties, I wonder, staring out at a particularly hideous tract of suburban houses somewhere near Gloucester.
...and off the train and into Birmingham. Bloody Hell. More people than you’d see in Haverfordwest on cattle-market day, and all of them walking in the wrong directions, on the wrong side of the pavement, standing around talking and gawping, just generally being in our way. Swarms of people, chatter chatter push push. Fuck, I thought, if you were bloody evacuating Haverfordwest you wouldn’t see this many people at the railway station. Just another new and, for us fieldmice, surprisingly frightening aspect to navigating around Birmingham, at best an accidental and haphazard procedure. Living in a small town rapidly loses one the immunity to human masses that comes from citification; in Arfat, sometimes, seeing more than a dozen people the length of the High Street is a crowd. Of course, in Birmingham it’s worse; albeit the second city of England, the place is clearly too poor to put up useful streetsigns, so every intersection is a cue for orientation with map and vaguely remembered clues, hampered by the dense flocks of Brummies scurrying from Here to There, cawing like seagulls as they too ask each other whether they’re going the right way. But to the hotel, and on the way we pass someone. Bloody Hell, she didn’t half look like Helena Bowles; but shorter, with longer, different coloured hair, and younger, completely different really, but wasn’t that Helena Bowles, who just walked by and didn’t even say Hello? Catherine, redfaced with the unaccustomed walking and shoving through crowds, just says What?
Waiting at the hotel front desk is Paul Kincaid. First challenge to be more sensible. I am too old and tired to allow disagreements and arguments to trail on any longer and must regain contact with friends. Paul and Maureen (Speller/Porter/whichever) and I have dodged around each other for a couple of years after some considerable disagreements à propos Mexicon. This all seems a bit daft considering all we’ve done together and how well we generally got on, and especially so that the present deterioration in the cachet of that convention has, it seems, once again united our thinking in that regard. So, Hello Paul. Hello, he says, and thanks for the fanzine. We’re hardly falling into each other’s arms—Maureen for a start is ruffled over the imminent death of her car, parked outside with the hood up, but give or take a few drinks we’re back to where we were a few years ago. Fucking hell, it must be about that time.
Just a Few Quick Ones
Poof! At my left side appears John Brosnan, oh cheerfulness. God knows what he’s doing but whenever I see him about every year or so he contrives to look older but more healthy at the same time, even when leaning limply against a doorpost with a full glass of vodka reflexively clutched in an otherwise flaccid hand. It’s nice to see him again; I was pleased he had enjoyed the first issue of RJC. We chat briefly for a while about the enigma within a mystery that is Peter Roberts, and the unlikelihood of John ever getting anywhere with a possible suit against Jurassic Park for plagiarism of Carnosaur—apparently if he could afford to research and bring the case he’d be so rich already it wouldn’t be worth the bother—and I’m casting about for a topic that would actually bring us into extended conversation when Stan Nicholls interposes his body between we two. He makes a few Oh Excuse Me, Were you Talking sort of gestures but it’s quite obvious that he, Stan Nicholls, interviewer to the stars and so on, has a right to co-opt Famous Authors at will and the common herd had just better get back behind the fences where they belong. There’s no point arguing about this sort of thing. Later in the convention I buy Nicholls’s book of interviews, which is really rather good, alas.
I knew it was time to go to bed when I was talking to John Jarrold. No, not just because of that, though it was sort of a surprise to me in many ways. Jarrold and I used to be big mates in the old days (Before Publishing) but it had seemed to me (and, honestly, still does) that the closer he came to achieving his heart’s desire of getting into Serious Publishing the more casually he was treating his old friends (me, specifically) who no longer had any influence or part to play in his New Real Life. I react badly to this sort of thing and took to reflexive pre-emptive strikes and rejected pseudo-friendly (as I perceived it) advances as being merely cosmetic or habit. Anyway, be more sensible and all that, and we had already chatted a little here and there and were actually talking seriously albeit completely drunkenly. Catherine tells me later we were anyway; my memory of the last half-hour of the evening is completely gone except for saying repetitively, ‘Well, that doesn’t matter any more’, about our antipathies of the last few years. I remember that with crystal clarity, even the feel of the words in my mouth, the sort of hard metallic clatter of the over-precise enunciation, the strange confusion of wondering what I was saying, and what it meant, and could he hear me. I made an excuse and left, as did Jarrold the next morning, before we got up.
After breakfast we sit there, having a drink and gawping around. Sitting there is itself strange. It would have been unheard of a few years ago; I’d have been up and around walking about, making contact with people as they came and went. Now there doesn’t seem so much point, and I just don’t have the inclination. Part of this is because so few of them do it to me. It’s hardly encouraging to be ignored by people you’ve known for years. Also it’s true that we all seem to have so little in common these days—the times when we worked on mutually interesting plans, for conventions, fanzines, parties, even just little personal conspiracies, are gone. Even the people I thought I knew, who I’ve shared secrets and aspirations with, seem like strangers, and the strangers seem like people just off the street; without their badges they could be anybody. There used to be a sort of Kirlian aura to fans; has it guttered out or has my sight deteriorated?
I have another pint and wonder. Where is Chris Priest? Where’s Arnold Akien, Barry Bayley, Gamma, Alan Dorey? And that’s not even counting the Dear Departed such as Bridges, Bell, Jackson, Williams, Roberts and Fortey. Even Lilian Edwards isn’t here. Or Ron Gemmell, or Bob Shaw. Or Andrew Stephenson. Actually Andrew is, but we don’t make useful contact. I ask him if he wants to continue getting RJC and he says No. OK, I say and leave it at that, but I’m actually disappointed; he was the sort of person, at one time interested in both SF and fandom, that I wanted to involve. He offers to send back his copy, but doesn’t care to elaborate his disinterest. Obviously there are a lot of decent people at the convention but I worry vaguely about a sort of Critical Mass. If there aren’t enough of the people who all know each other and who have something in common then the event just doesn’t take off; it becomes desultory and uninvolving for those who are there, and by the erosion of boredom another one or two drop off every year, and the little island dwindles. I look around some more, and it’s true what they say: there don’t look like many new young fans here. Who am I kidding; there aren’t any. How I’d recognise a new young fan, though, is a problem. I’m not convinced that NYFs are necessarily going to be attracted to ‘our’ fandom anyway.
Fucking hell, I consider, we may be the Last Fans after all. Funny middle-aged people whose ideas come from and go to paper. Their ideas come from and go to machines. Their background and myths and traditions will come from an entirely different source—from bloody William Gibson novels, like as not, instead of old copies of Hyphen or mocking references to Van Vogt novels (which they probably won’t have read). Why should they take our history and background on anyway—not that I mean we should stop or impede them—I mean they won’t want it. They’ll be proud of their new creation and will give it its own history. As David Redd said, those into E-Mail and Bulletin Boards and so on must find our bits of paper terribly quaint and old-fashioned now, set against the pure technological biosphere of the now truly Neofan.
The traditional fans like me and Don West and Vince Clarke have all the common background, no matter what we might disagree about the details. We know and care about old bits of paper that don’t even enter into the newcomers’ world-view; they’re not even consciously discarded because they’re not considered in the first place.
I used to think those who foretold the death of fandom, or at least its replacement with something new and different, were mere fools more interested in flaunting their knowledge of technology and fashion than truly prescient. But looking around now, seeing less young blood than in the veins of Brian Burgess, I have the realisation they’re right. Where are the new sixteen-year old fans, where’s the 1993 me, where are the new fanzines? There’s something going on all right, but it’s not around here. It should have been obvious, of course; the Bad Kids of British fanzine fandom, god help us, are fucking idiots like Nigel Richardson and Michael Ashley, probably well into their thirties now, still belching, farting, and angsting as if they were perpetual teenagers during the Seventies. Talk about not recognising the wall before we ran into it!
But really, so what? It’s not complacent to sit back and enjoy ourselves. Balloonists don’t abandon their baskets at the roar of a jet flashing past. They do, as we should, what we want to for fun and pleasure and our own satisfaction. Fanzines might become, as Dan Steffan indicates, obsolete handmade things—though they can be improved by judicious use, within the tradition, of modern technology and skills. There’s nothing we can do about that. And I don’t think that other than simply carrying on, providing a living example to anyone who might want to know and might indeed join in, there is anything we ought to do. Strident proselytising and barking up our own virtues will more alienate than attract. Better to sit in a corner, quietly beavering away, looking perhaps interesting, having our own good times.
So, D M, how are you doing? We chat along quite happily, to my surprise and delight. It turns out he’s picked up a mislaid copy of RJC2 and has been reading it with some interest. Man can’t be bad. The stories of the random book-buying turn out, sadly, to be false, especially as in recent times he’s been either on the dole or on subsistence-payment retraining as a computer operator or somesuch. It appears that he got so sick of his old job—some dreadful clerical task of an all-too-familiar kind—that he got himself fired. Ended up on the dole for a while trying to find something else. Something else, as so often in the shambles of the Nineties, turned out to be spending weeks wandering the streets of Port Talbot pretty much penniless. Not that it worried him too much, really, as long as he could make ends meet somehow. We rapidly discover great fellow-feelings; wasters and idlers both, what we really wanted was to be just left alone to potter about with our little activities and not have to waste our lives doing other people’s makework jobs, just carry on harmlessly, out of the way, keeping ourselves to ourselves. If I win on the Premium Bonds, I told D M, I’ll set you up for life. And I’ll take it too, he said, and indeed I believe we both meant it. A kindly, interesting man.
Novacon is but a small event, considerably less than 300 people—but too many of them slip by. Dave Wood cruises past, just a brief hello, and I don’t see him again all day. Where do they go to? Wood, apparently, to the back of the bookroom where he’s running a table for Les Escott, and where I don’t see him until I fall down that end by almost accident and there he is, chatty in the preoccupied manner of all table-minders, mindful of his stock and the chance of a sale to other browsers. I’ve worked tables at conventions a lot, and enjoy it; it gives a shape and purpose to the event that sometimes just being an attendee lacks, especially for those who’ve done a fair bit of convention organising and feel slightly ill at ease on the crowd side of the bar. Its drawback is you can’t wholly relax, get into conversation, mess around; you just sell people things, in the nicest possible way. We buy a few books, pass a few words, leave him to it. I don’t encounter Wood again that weekend; maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I like Dave Wood; he has breadth of knowledge and good perceptions, and great charm. I wouldn’t mind growing up to be Dave Wood; he’s even got a good record collection. Actually we do meet again, right at the end, while he’s carting out stock; he sells me another book.
No More Sense than Ever
I keep seeing Malcolm Edwards. This is incredible, so unbelievable in fact I keep thinking it’s really David Mellor, which would be still astounding, but less like a slip back into an alternate world in which Malcolm Edwards remained a fan. Hours pass and he’s still there; he’s obviously not just helicoptered in to promote some money-making dynamo of a new author. In fact Malcolm seems to be inordinately pally with everyone (I mean here the writers and so on, like Holdstock and Evans etc.) and I keep wondering, bloody hell, maybe I should get on the case, be more sensible, and at least say Hello. But I excuse myself the responsibility because he’s always animatedly taking with Them and I don’t want to be a sort of proley Stan Nicholls and break in on their conversation. Anyway, fucking hell, it’s hard to think of what to say to someone after eight or nine years, given the fact that his life has changed so much. So of course Malcolm Edwards has to do it; late Saturday night while I’m talking to Peter Weston at the bar I see Malcolm in the middle distance sort of draw himself together and walk over and say Hi, how are you. I’m surprised and pleased (the heat’s off me now, no guilt), but Weston gets the hump and surprisingly huffily goes on like Oh thank you for not speaking to me Malcolm, oh just ignore me I’m not worth speaking to at all, and so on, which amazes me. I blame the drink. Edwards mollifies him—‘Peter, it’s the first time I’ve spoken to Greg in nearly ten years!’—but he stomps off and we begin to talk for the first time since 198godknowswhen. Divorce, music, books, the perversity of life. It’s all touched on here and there and it seems normal, just like the old days—except for my suspicion that this is just an act, an indulgence of sentiment, a piece of live-action nostalgia. Though whether one or both of us are on stage I don’t know. I wonder whether to hold back, just to say enough to keep the narrative flowing, but decide it’s not worth it; life is too short for anything but to commit totally. I get his address, after the convention send him some fanzines. Strangely enough I feel there’s less of a gap between Malcolm and myself than there is between me and John Jarrold. I have suspicion of both of them (never mind what they may feel about me), but somehow Malcolm’s intention to regain contacts from his past seemed more true than John’s habitual base-touching. Not for the first time I think it’s probably me that’s wrong.
It’s the Drink Thinking
Later I wonder about consensus fandom—or rather the lack of it. Once upon a time everyone interested in SF would have read much the same books—people at a convention certainly would have done—and would immediately have had that in common if nothing else. Now that the SF world has broadened out so enormously and become irretrievably identified with George Lucas rather than Alfred Bester, and where it’s unlikely that a Storm Constantine fan would have so much as heard of Damon Knight, much less read In Search of Wonder, we don’t have that commonalty, even at little cons like Novacon. And the fans—even the ‘fannish’ fans—are just as disparate. It’s like we’ve become used to the Balkanisation of the SF world and have by association taken on its characteristics. I’m as much to blame—Rastus Johnson is aimed at the sort of people I want to get involved with it—but I’m not at all certain it’s right. This is just vague guilt, really. There are lots of fans—just like lots of SF—that I don’t care for or about at all. But am I just responding to the wider cues, accepting that because we no longer have the basics in common we have nothing else either? Did we ever, even when you could get all the fans in Britain into a Kettering boarding-house and still have room for a charabanc of day-trippers from Macclesfield? A wash of Golden-Ageism, I feel, but I have the nagging feeling that just out of reach there is something that has been misplaced, if not yet irretrievably lost.
We have another drink, and I watch over the top of Martin Tudor’s head the flocking and gathering of the Suits, another Novacon Monday ritual sight. In the corridor outside the erstwhile convention hall they’re gathering for a Conference (Serious Business), doing their tribal dances. They all look the same, though their tailors could probably tell one shade of the grey of their costumes from another. Their little faces scrubbed pink and gleaming, their hair perfectly dressed, not a strand out of place, they’re a robot army of Cecil Parkinsons. It fascinates me to watch them twirl around each other: do they realise how they dance, gripping upper arms for serious asides, comic-opera knee-bends to shows their clubbish jocularity, the endless jingling of coins in trouser pockets, all endlessly repeated as they circle round and round themselves, endlessly reassuring each other that Business is Business and yes, We Understand? They make me sick. En masse they run our lives, and they make me sick, and I watch them with genuine horror. What do they know, I wonder, about anything? What do they value, and what do they merely prize? It’s a rude reminder of the reality of the world after all those fans with their fuzzy outlines and odd ideas. But what’s the difference really. There are certainly quislings in both camps: Suits who rush home to crank up Last Exit on the CD player and honk down a line of speed; fans who are sociopathic lunatics, racists, exploiters. We’re all guilty.
Happy days; we eventually leave, and are glad to be home.
As an event the 23rd Novacon was not seriously flawed, although looking back on the programme it seems almost absurdly thin, with a predominance of light entertainment items with only—good grief—five items out of a listed twenty-four (counting Opening and Closing events) that weren’t films, games, or other planned amusements. This is really disproportionate, and a surprising failure for what is, historically at least, Britain’s second convention. Even this wouldn’t be so bad if they were carried out well; unfortunately there’s also been a horrible manifestation of the idea that just because someone wants to do a programme item it means they can. Performing, MCing, call it what you will, is not easy and few can do it even part-way successfully, and fewer of them were on scene at this year’s Novacon than usual. Entertainment items, more so than ‘sercon’ ones even, need a touch of flash, confidence and at least a veneer of professionalism to carry off successfully. At the very least, presenters must speak loudly and clearly into microphones and not give the impression they’re just making it up as they go along. Improvisation is fine, when it works, but scrabbling for words, mumbling, shuffling papers when the routine should have been rehearsed and slick, is not good enough any more. No, no one’s perfect, but I saw too much that was messy, jumbled, off-key, slack, with no sense that there was an overriding consciousness pushing the event along. Maybe this is what happens eventually to an established, group-run convention—no, I can’t believe that, that’s letting it all off too lightly. ‘It wasn’t my responsibility’ again. Doing the Novacon after 22 years of experience should be easy, just a matter of slotting in timely and consequential ideas into an established framework. It's hardly as if none of these people knows what a convention is like, for gods sake.
And yes, I did see a lot of the programme. I was even on some of it, a team quiz that was about as slickly handled as a hedgehog. And I’m not whining just because my side—including founts of all knowledge that is in skiffy as Julian Headlong, Justin Ackroyd, and Roger Robinson—were humiliatingly beaten in the final. I don’t know what was more irritating: the question master’s endless shuffling of papers and mumbling, or the propensity of questions to tend towards the Who Won the 1984 Hugo award for... side. Good grief, that isn’t knowledge; that’s statistics. I’m pretty much at a loss as to who animated Troy Tempest’s left testicle in a 1966 episode of some silly fucking puppet-show too. It’s at times like that, praying for a good old fashioned SF question like Which PKD book did Eric Sweetscent meet Gino Molinari in, or who was the editor of the only issue of Vanguard SF, that you realise that all you know is not so much wrong as no longer required on voyage.
I guess on that basis Julian Headlong is going to carve out a big career for himself at media-based conventions. This year he did an item entitled ‘Spock’s Liver’, which somehow foolishly I thought was going to be a follow-up to his genuinely entertaining and informative biophysics talks on what, for example, really happens to your body when you knock back a litre of vodka in half an hour. But no. This really was about Spock’s liver. I sat there for a good half hour until I realised this wasn’t just a jokey preamble to the real meat, but a genuine piece to audience as if Vulcan biology really existed and, given the hints supplied, how it worked. I don’t know whether I was more shocked that he was doing it at all or that he actually had absorbed enough of that ST rubbish to make head or tail of it in the first place. This is the man who later, in the bar, complained that Seaquest DSV is implausible, and not very good television. Wouldn’t be, I suppose, if old episodes of Star Trek are your basic parameters. Some people will do anything for a permanent booking with free room and board at ST cons. Though I hear, Julian, that the fringe benefits are no longer what they were.
I was very interested in the panel on ‘Why the Lack of Ethnic Minorities in SF?’ which is a real interesting point whether you look on it as ‘in SF’ or in fandom proper.
It might have had a lot more light than heat if the two proponents—Chris Baker (one of a very small number of blacks in British fandom) and Graham Joyce—had organised the discussion a bit beyond the late-night drinking session they said was its genesis. There was some indecision as to whether it was SF or fandom that was the focus—though it is, as Baker several times pointed out, very much a hen and egg situation.
It could be simply true that as there are few Ethnic (for want of a better word) protagonists in SF there’s little to draw blacks and Asians in anyway. There is a reasonable parallel for this in the lack until recently of women in major roles in SF, and the comparatively small numbers of genuine women SF fans. But from my own experience that isn’t entirely the whole story; I’ve met a lot of blacks and Asians who were really media fans, who were strongly interested in most film or TV or comic manifestations of SF. They were very, very rarely interested in SF books, even those directly related to the media material they enjoyed, and frequently not even curious about the various media or SF fandoms. So anyway, I asked the panel, is it the case that though there have been few, verging on almost no, ethnics in SF fandom proper there might be more in media-oriented fandoms. No response. Not much response either to something I noticed among a lot of West Indian people I’ve known, which is that their basic cultural life itself is in the widest sense a form of fandom which provides so many of the things fans look for in SF fandom that they don’t have the need—or time—to get involved. Which is obviously a wholesale generalisation, but is at least worth considering before we start panicking about what we fans are doing wrong that isn’t attracting blacks and Asians to conventions.
But I do think Chris Baker’s complaint that there’s no Coon on the Moon (and that’s from a Howlin’ Wolf song, not some racist ‘joke’) is important. The target audience for SF is still young, white and male, something that’s wobbled occasionally but remained unchanged for the best part of a century. There is a difference in kind in the lack of ethnics in SF, because it is at root part of the racialism commonplace especially in the USA until very recently—and no, I’m not claiming for a minute it has gone anywhere but underground. At least, as far as we now know, stories are not routinely sub-edited to make all the sympathetic characters white Protestants and all the rest whatever was the displeasure of the day. But it’s just as notable to me that there’s a lack of Welsh, French, Lithuanians or Luxemburgers; which is to say that it’s quite outlandish that a form that strives to delineate the manifold wonders of the Universe still persists in doing it in terms of High School Boy, USA, circa 1954 at that.
But I was left at the end wondering whether there was a problem anyway, as far as fandom is concerned. Fandom is not a social service; it’s not our duty or responsibility to reach out and pull in people of whatever background. It is our responsibility to be open and welcoming to anyone who cares to enter, though, and as far as I can see that works as well as can be humanly expected. There’s no barrier except a person’s own inclination to join in or not. You’re either on the bus or not, and I can tell you that as long as I’m around there’ll be no restriction as to where you can sit.
Actually the most perversely amusing part of that panel came when some fellow started going on and on about middle-class people like You Lot and how it’s all our fault, and where’s the outreach programme and so on, even unto how it didn’t matter anyway because no one with an ounce of cool was going to want to associate with a lot of Anorak-wearing Trainspotters with Sad Lives like the sort of people who go to SF conventions anyway. There was a brief but angry exchange between this fellow and myself, mostly over his typical street-cred asshole viewpoint that anyone who can actually read is automatically middle class because they’ve obviously been to a university. Or somesuch.
For the sake of our few US readers I’ll elucidate a few things. ‘Anorak’ means any kind of casual clothing worn by someone other than the speaker which does neither make a fashion statement nor betoken membership of some street-credible group. ‘Trainspotters’ are people enthusiastic about something the observer knows nothing about and has less interest in. ‘A Sad Life’ is one led by someone whose interests do not include going out to clubs eight nights a week.
I hardly need add that this proponent of really stultifying conformity was dressed in head-to-foot Gothic black, and turned out to be Storm Constantine’s PR consultant and general image maker, who had among other things advised her to change her name from something like Olive Crabtree in favour of one with more appeal to the youth market. Funnily enough this Goth manifestation turned out to be just his duty uniform, and smart casuals were affected for leaving the hotel après convention.
You hear a lot of crap talked at conventions and I’ve put out my fair share, but this fucking idiot really took the biscuit. I guess it really rubs me up the wrong way because of the blatant tyranny of the thinking; Be Like Us, or you’re not really human. How like Mr Major and his friends. Or any other racist, come to that.
And there I was and...
... I kept seeing the guy with the back end of a goat sticking out of his arse. Once you noticed him he seemed to be everywhere. And it wasn’t just me; other people saw him as well. After a while there was even some conversation about whether or not it really was the back end of a goat after all. There was a theory that the poor fellow had a startlingly serious case of piles and these leg-like structures about his nether regions were simply decorative haemorrhoid socks. We could have asked, of course, but who wants to approach a grown man who has foot-long rabbit ears strapped to his head?
It seems like a dream now, but it was of course a science fiction convention. The 2003 Eastercon, as a matter of fact.
During the convention Catherine and I were employees of employees, working Andy Richards’s booktables. The Banana Twins work the tables for Andy at many conventions, thereby freeing up his time to spend the profits on family holidays to such exotic locations as the West Indies and Dartmoor. The only problem they have is that putting all the time in makes them miss out on programming, so this year they took on some help—us. I was glad to do this. Apart from anything else it gives some kind of structure to the whole convention experience; up early, breakfast, bookroom at 10.00 AM, then hours of standing around waiting for someone to buy something. It’s so different from the normal just standing around waiting for something to happen that we all usually experience at conventions.
Actually it’s fun. As most bookdealers know, you get more interesting conversation with more people in the bookroom than you do anywhere else in the convention. And, weirdly, a lot of it is about books and stuff, the very things that are supposed to have brought us together at the event. It’s always intriguing to see who is talkative and who is not; some people talk readily and interestingly about what they are buying or looking for, others pointedly ignore overtures at conversation. It’s also fascinating to see who comes into the bookroom, and for this reason Mark Plummer—who is usually bookroom boss as well—tries to put Andy’s tables near the door. It’s illuminating to see that so many of the hardcore ‘fans’ rarely if ever come to the bookroom.
This time around the Cold Tonnage squad (that’s us) had a spare table which we used to display a load of fanzines either brought with us or donated at the convention. How strange to see that so few ‘fanzine fans’ were aware of this, and how they were conspicuous in not flocking there to check things out. And there were some quite unusual items on there too. Pity they all had to be thrown away at the end of the convention.
It’s odd what people don’t buy in the bookroom. The Science Fiction Foundation people had lots of very cheap magazines that were essentially ignored, but the star classic knockout item was pretty much right in front of me on the Cold Tonnage table. A copy of the first edition (1960) of In Search of Wonder, the first best book of SF criticism and still to my mind the most readable, entertaining, and inspiring. I’ve had copies (at least two—I’m that sort of person) of the second edition since the time it appeared, but I’d never had a first. I kept looking at it throughout the con, thinking, ‘I want this book,’ but determinedly not buying it because, well, someone else could get it and be as enthralled by it as I was.
And I kept looking at it; incredible as it seemed no one was buying the damned thing, and it was only £10 too, barely more than the price of a drink, or a current B-format paperback. And I kept checking and it was always there, unmoved, uninspected, apparently unwanted. Late in the con, Monday morning, just hours before final closing, I leafed through it again, and with a genuine shock I noticed for the first time the bookplate on the inside front cover. 'John Carnell,’ it said. Bloody hell, this was Ted Carnell’s personal copy! This thing was radiating great huge yobba-rays of scientifictional historicity in all directions—first edition, great book, damon knight, Ted Carnell, personal copy—and no one was picking it up! Incredible. Well, fuck them, I thought, as I put it into my to-be-paid-for box behind the tables; if they haven’t bought it by now they don’t deserve to. It’s a treasure and I count myself lucky; but at the same time I wish someone else had bought it with the same joy of discovery I felt.
It was, of course, a science fiction convention, with a programme and everything. I’d have liked to have seen more of the programme, and I’m sure I would have done if I had been able to properly follow the grid in the pocket guide. Maybe I’m just getting past it, or there are too many programme streams, or Julian Headlong was trying for the non-linear in his design, or I was suddenly afflicted by Alien Geometries (I had just bought a book on H P Lovecraft; was it somehow infectious...?) or something, but I couldn’t make any sense of it. And anyway parts of it were being rescheduled on the fly so as to take up the slack caused by the last-minute cancellation—for no good or acceptable reason—by one of the Guests of Honour. Who we won’t mention here, thereby hopefully setting a trend by which she is never mentioned in the SF community again.
I would have very much liked to see Chris Evans’s Guest of Honour spot. Indeed, it was very much the fact that he was a GOH that encouraged Catherine and I to make the effort to get to the convention in the first place, and it was a genuine pleasure to see him again, and even more to find that we inter-related easily and well; a rare example of the truth of the old fannish myth that people meet after years apart and carry on the same conversation without missing a beat. Maybe the secret is that we can make each other laugh.
I’d been to a small group discussion of Chris’s novel Aztec Century (arguably his best, except maybe Insider, and both of them highly recommended books around here) earlier in the convention and was delighted by it. Directed by Garry Kilworth (who looks about ten years younger now than he did when I last saw him about fifteen years ago—what’s going on here?) and with barely a dozen people there, it gave Chris an excellent opportunity to talk conversationally about the book specifically, and by allusion his general creative process. It was absorbing, enlightening, and truly entertaining in the best way—exactly the sort of thing I’ve spent years going to conventions hoping for and see so rarely. (The bookdealers panel item in the fanroom at Paragon was the only other in recent years that I feel succeeded as much.) The bad thing is that it would be difficult, almost impossible, to do the same thing as a main programme item; the actual physical proximity and close relationship of the ‘panel’ and ‘audience’ was one of the things that enabled it to work so well.
So I’d been keen to see his Big Item. But somehow it vanished. It was only later I realised that at the time I’d been doing a panel on ‘Science Fiction Magazines of the 20th Century’ and hadn’t realised it clashed with Evans. No wonder there were so few people at that panel... Which was a strange mishmash of ideas really, ranging from coming up with a convincing proof (that became more convincing as time went on) that SF magazines were being ruined by the generally downbeat tone of the fiction, that Michael Moorcock had almost succeeded in his not-so-covert plan to destroy SF, and that, god help us, what SF magazines really needed was a good dose of old-fashioned Campbellism, reminding us of the innate superiority of the human race and the all-conquering power of the White Heat of Applied Technology. Yeah! I think we might have been going a bit far somehow, but even now in the cold light of day I see parts of that as very convincing, especially if you think of it in terms of why 'ordinary people’ don’t want to read SF. I mean, most people live lives of not so quiet desperation anyway, so why do they want to be reminded of the fact that it could all get very much worse in the blink of an eye?
And we won’t even get on to Gerry Webb and the surreal exploration of his early SF magazine-reading days which began with two boys riding bicycles along a deserted road, travelled the universe with Dan Dare and ended with him groping around in a London fog, trying to find a bus by touch alone.
Anyway, I missed Evans. And everyone who was there said he was good. Oh.
It is of course always a joy to see one’s old pals at conventions. I genuinely look forward to seeing Peter Weston and Rog Peyton, and we spent hours together talking books, fandom, and fans. Peter is doing a fannish autobiography for NESFA and on the basis of the chapters I’ve read—and the anecdotes I’ve heard—it’s going to be fantastic. (Please keep the Cliff Teague suicide story in, Peter!) And I’m genuinely glad to see Roger getting himself back together after the fall of Andromeda, and working a big booktable at the convention. He took good money, I believe, and everyone I spoke to was most definite in the hope that he’d be back up there soon. It’s a pleasure too to see the old stagers like Ken Slater looking so ruff and tuff; OK, he may not be staying up all night knocking back the bottles of rum like he used to, but in his mid-eighties he can do a full day’s work in the bookroom and carry his own damned stock out at the end of the convention. Personally I’ll be glad to live to his age, and certainly don’t expect to be so fit, mentally and physically, as he is. Ken donated a load of fanzines recently found in his attic to our impromptu fanzine table, including some extraordinary old convention material from Way Back that immediately vanished into the gaping maw of Pat McMurray.
Ron Bennett and David Redd also showed up for a day, separately but together, having arranged to meet there on the Saturday. Ron is in dodgy health, I know, but looks amazingly well and fit, in fact healthier and more dapperly dressed than virtually anyone else at the convention. It was a pleasure to see him and I wish he’d had a bit more time there. It was good to see David too; even though he lives barely a mile from us in Haverfordwest he works away from home and has so many domestic responsibilities that even when he is in Haverfordwest we barely see him from one year to another. But he’s a great guy, with a lot more going on in there about SF and writing than many people realise (one of the great unused programme participants), with an over-thirty-year writing career. And it’s certainly time he had a bundle of his best short fiction published in book form.
There were others; I was rooting around on Andy’s table when I heard someone say, ‘Hello Greg.’ I looked up and there was Michael Eavis. What the hell is the organiser of the Glastonbury festival doing here, I thought wildly, and how in the name of god does he know me! Aeons of incomprehension passed before I realised it was in fact Graham Charnock. Someone I haven’t seen for over fifteen years. You know that business referred to above about fans being able to take up where they left off decades earlier? Well, it doesn’t always happen, and sometimes it’s peculiarly uncomfortable. I have no idea why Charnock and I ceased to know each other way back when, or even whether it was a choice or ‘fault’ thing. I’m not even sure now whether we were actually friends or just fannish acquaintances, even though we spent a lot of fun time together socially. So this was, well, oddly awkward. We chatted a bit, and to be honest I couldn’t make my mind up whether he was trying to be funny, deliberately provocative or just drunk. Probably the latter as he several times referred to having drunk half a bottle of vodka before coming into the hotel. That’s stage fright for you, and I understand that; I always wonder what is the real reason many British fans—including myself—become alcoholics the moment we enter a convention hotel when we go for months without a drink on the outside. Anyway, I was a bit baffled. Later that evening, when both of us were pretty well over the edge, we almost had an argument about something. I have no idea what it was. I blame the drink; it’s a sword that’s all edges and no handles.
But Graham did provide a highlight moment of the convention. At his Astral Leauge comeback tour spot (really, I’m not making this up...) he got Chris Evans out of the audience to do an unrehearsed reading of Pat Charnock’s piece ‘Descent of Women from the Trees’ which originally appeared in the Astral Leauge Yearbook 1977 (I’m really not making this up!). It was wonderful—grappling with a deliberately misspelled text photocopied from the original fanzine, Evans did a terrific dramatic reading with gestures in all directions that was funny and peculiarly touching at the same time. We old stahlhelms love to wallow in sentiment—as Chris said later ‘there were moments during Graham’s Astral Leauge slot when I felt that that ridiculous and disreputable sense of fun had been recovered for a few instants. I must admit I miss it, but you can’t plan for these things or indeed appreciate them properly except in some fuzzy afterglow, when they’ve already passed.’ And he was, as so often, quite right.
And then there was that bloody woman in the way. We were at Andy’s table and Catherine said, Look, there’s David Redd! Where, I said, staring shortsightedly around as usual. There, look, right in front of you! Where, I was thinking, I can’t see anything. Look, right there, wearing the Welsh flag shirt, Catherine said again, as if pointing out the obvious to a child. I still can’t see anything; this bloody woman is standing right in front of me, in the way, blocking my view. As I tried to peer around the person she spoke to me. And I realised that my view was obscured by not just some run-of-the-mill fans but Jeanne Gomoll and Scott Custis. Unbelievable, even more incredible than seeing Rich Coad and Stacy Scott the night before. Surprised reunion, assurance to meet later, never saw them again for the entire duration of the convention. What is it sometimes—is it just me?
Off to one end of the excellent (if you discount the occasionally varying-upwards bar-prices) rambling hotel (just big enough to lose people—where did all those individuals I saw for a fleeting instant actually go to... was Jeanne Gomoll really there...?) was the Lakeside, scene of the infamous fanroom of Paragon 2001. Even though it was being used for programming (no fanroom at this con, if nothing else the committee had learned that lesson...) I felt reluctant to go into it. It just had a bad feeling for me. I didn’t want to return to the site of past failures.
But of course you have to go and look at even the most grisly accident, so one evening when I was feeling alienated already and thus had nothing to lose I wandered pointedly casually in there, hoping no one else would be about. (I’d tried earlier in the day, to tell the truth, and met Simon Bradshaw there, waiting alone for the start of a programme item—we chatted briefly and I made my excuses and left; it wasn’t right.) The place was empty, but all the chairs and staging and PA and everything was in place. No bloody tables full of fanzines, though, thankfully. I walked every inch of the room, rewriting everything I knew about being there, but I still felt a vague feeling of loss, that sense of something not having worked. I was standing there drinking a glass of water from the watercooler when the door to the toilets opposite me opened and a fan who I had not seen—and frankly did not want to see—for many years came out. He looked at me, I looked at him, he reflexively said, ‘Hi,’ I said nothing, and he walked away, both of us slightly embarrassed and possibly slightly angry about being alone in this room together. And suddenly it was all over: the Lakeside was now just another bit of a hotel, nothing important to me had ever happened there, it was just a place where people did things and individuals you didn’t want to know went to the toilets. Great.
So later I went to the ‘Lost Classics of SF’ panel there and it was good. Well, the potential content was good, though it was hampered by no microphones in a room where sound easily vanished into the cavernous roof-dome. And not helped either by slack moderation which failed to keep things moving and allowed lapses and longeurs and failures of momentum into which more material could have been fitted. But, predictably, Rog Peyton, Julian Headlong and Pete Weston—excellent and experienced panellists and talkers on books—excavated a number of titles, many of which I’ll actively seek out. Maybe not anything by Dean McLaughlin, Peter, but I do have a copy of Don Bensen’s book ...And Having Writ, and bloody hell, it doesn’t half remind me of Hard Landing. That’s spooky to the point of plagiarism. And Rog’s praise of Jerry Yulsman’s Eleander Morning was more than enough to get me to re-read this excellent book. I must email all three and get copies of their notes, as many books were not discussed through lack of time.
Of course many more things happened. I skate over the long discussions in the bar about how peculiarly sexless so many fan women become the more overtly ‘sexy’ their clothing becomes. Of course it’s just ‘dressing up’ and to a very large extent there’s no intention of sexuality in their costuming (and I use that word specifically), but it is unsettling how successful they are in this. Suddenly perfectly ordinary non-fan women, hotel staff or barmaids or whatever, seem to personify a level of true eroticism that seem entirely absent within the fan community. And yes, I know, I and we have no room to talk.
Oh, there was lots of other stuff; properly meeting Dave Lally for the first time was big fun. We’ve been acquainted for years but this is the first time we’ve actually talked together properly, and it was amazing how many things we had in common, even leaving aside vexillology. He’s someone I’ll look forward to seeing again, if we can motivate ourselves to another convention.
And then there we were, at the end of the convention, sitting watching what has been variously described as an Albanian bread queue or an asylum seekers’ waiting line: a shuffling ribbon of fans checking out of the hotel. All of them looking, frankly, rough. Tired, hungover some of them, laden with odd assortments of baggage including supermarket carrier-bags bulging with paper. All of them still trying to be ‘fans’, trying to be animated, talking, witty, but on the cusp of being returned to mundania. Where their clothes, their speech patterns, even their exaggerated gestures—all the things that they adopt to bond, to be together—would all change and become ‘normal’ again; it’s like watching a butterfly return to its chrysalis.
Some Notes Towards an Incomplete Version of Events
An foreword, added
to this Wegenheim piece, by Claire and Mark :
For once it wasn’t the fans that made the place look like a refugee camp.
As we approached the Winter Gardens we were honestly appalled by its surroundings. It’s like Baxter’s description of Hadrian’s Wall in Coalescent, I said to Catherine: a relic of empire, still imposing and impressive, surrounded by an accretion of horrible shacks and shanties built up by people who have sunk into a fading and futile existence, destined not for the stars but the gutter.
The Winter Gardens, a fabulous Victorian People’s Palace, stood there like a great old ship mired in a cesspool of crummy little late twentieth century shopping centre ‘development’, a collection of buildings that grew increasingly ugly and misshapen the more one compared them to the glowing joy of the Winter Gardens itself.
And this ramshackle assortment of relative sheds was inhabited by herds of creatures that one would hesitate to call Morlocks—even without knowledge of Baxter’s Nebogipfel. These people were, frankly, rough. Ill-dressed, sullen-faced, slumped tiredly in corners clutching cans of lager or shuffling aimlessly from noplace to nowhere, this was the underclass on holiday. They may have been there to have fun—manifested frequently by shouting matches and bottle-throwing fights in the early hours—but the only expressions we saw were resentment, outright anger, or blank exhaustion. It was not inspiring. And it made the fans—usually apparent by their ill-chosen, unkempt clothing, poor posture, and detached expressions—look like, well, ordinary people by comparison.
But inside the Winter Gardens was wonderful—OK, the building had a lot to do with it, a quirky wonder or genuine architectural marvel everywhere you turned, a true pleasure palace mothership that I soon realised I would love to live in and never want to leave, my perfect space-station life—but it was great to see people, real people, real fans again, and get a friendly greeting.
Into registration, and close behind us Peter and Eileen Weston, then Claire Brialey bounces cheerily up, lots of chitter and some chatter, more characters come on-scene, we gather up free stuff including for once things we want (a free new Paul McAuley hardback; wow, that’s a change from a crummy Forbidden Planet catalogue, oh, there’s one of those as well is there...) and before we know it things are going well and we’re in the bookroom and starting to settle into our convention role as Cold Tonnage ratings third class, employees of employees, working for the Bananas who work for Andy Richards, and all of us, I believe, enjoying it a great deal.
Except sometimes Catherine, who worries about not being able to discuss books she’s never heard of by writers who are totally unknown to her with the customers. Oh, get over it, I advise her; just tell them, ‘It’s not really my part of the field,’ and they think you know what you’re talking about. SF is too big to know everything any more. You ought to read more reviews, I say; you can bluff your way so much more convincingly! The Cold Tonnage stand is cleverly situated near the entrance to the bookroom—itself a wonderful horseshoe-shaped room with huge amounts of natural light that is itself a pleasure to be in, so everyone who enters passes us, and some stop.
Like John Jarrold, who I sort of expect to give his usual brief but intense greeting and then vanish for the duration of the convention, but this time he suggests a drink. The Bananas are happy two-handed at the table, so Catherine and I go to a bar (a fabulous place like the inside of a galleon) with John where we discuss his new career path as a book doctor—a sort of twenty-first century H P Lovecraft, I find myself thinking—and the elements of good pop music, and Airfix kits. I am surprised, strangely, to discover that John is an Airfix collector. Why am I surprised; he's such a 1950s guy, it should have been obvious. Anyway, for a while it’s just like being back in the Golden Age of fandom like it used to be and it’s kind of Big Fun; but three or four pints later he has to be somewhere and of course we never see him again at all hardly.
Unless you count a strange manifestation in the large bar later that night, when Peter Weston and I are boggled to see JJ apparently at the epicentre of some one hundred fans, sitting around him as if he is imparting, calmly and almost reverently, the secret of the universe. Peter is amazed. I wonder whether I should mention the Fannish Theory of Sheep, by which fans automatically collect around the most charismatic Maximum Leader available, but decide not to as Peter Weston his own self is the author of that theory and possibly considers himself its primary exponent. I suppress thoughts of how are the mighty fallen, being only too well aware that the trick no longer works for me either, something confirmed many times before the convention ends.
Chris Priest shows up, walks up, offers a hand and says hello, bright and friendly. I’m instantly charmed, of course, but then I like Chris anyway, despite the fact that we hardly actually meet at conventions, and haven’t really been in the same conversations since, oh, some time in the 1980s, good grief. But he is someone I like and respect; he’s a favourite writer, both for his fannish and serious work, and someone whose commentary on SF in print or at conventions has been valuable to me, sometimes giving me genuine mind-changing moments. And his website is excellent too. But, apart from a brief moment later when we cross paths in the bar and he introduces me to Philip Pullman—who is affable and apparently friendly in the instant of our meeting (and to whom I can think of nothing whatever to say, having read not one word of his work)—we do not meet again until he leaves, again with a cheerful handshake and goodbye and a vague agreement with my observation that we don’t talk any more.
Priest’s Guest of Honour piece is odd; actually it was well-constructed, with a couple of really nice embedded running gags about H G Wells and Charles Platt (and what strange bedfellows they be) and switching purposes midway from a history of his fannish involvement to a more serious discussion of The Separation, neatly reflecting the background hum of dual or divided personalities evident in many of his books. But overall it was unexpectedly bland, lacking the Big Ideas about SF, writing, the Priest View of the World, that I had been expecting and hoping for. It was, however, well received by an attentive audience that got all the gags—even to my great surprise those about Charles Platt, whose every mention seemed to evoke gales of laughter. A mystery, really—do so many people know exactly why Charles Platt is funny?—and an even bigger one: why do not so many people know why Charles Platt is a Bad Thing, and how he did so much harm to the British SF community, both fan and pro? A mystery indeed; but the very mention of his name brings laughter rather than admiration, so perhaps the world still spins upright on its axis.
Surprisingly, there were no questions at all at the end of Chris’s piece—save one inexplicable query from some woman who asked whether the belly-dancing would be on next. A secret joke? Not shared by those of us who exchanged ‘Did she really say that?’ looks of astonishment. I’d have liked to ask two questions—one rather bland, about why if Chris clearly has affection for the SF community he is so persistent about having his professional work set aside from it, and another about his reactions to David Brin’s contentious NYRSF piece about The Separation. I wish I had now, but not only did the questions seem slightly out of sync with the preceding address but the first seemed too hackneyed (though the answer may not have been to me) and the second something I couldn’t follow up on properly at the time, having only read the Brin piece once and rapidly, but enough to know that his assertions on lost-Empire wish-fulfilment were at least arguable, and that he also failed to include properly the main theme of the novel. But Chris was articulate, funny, and engaging, delivering a good Guest of Honour piece to audience, and I was glad to give him applause.
I later met Philip Pullman again. I’d been given a box of bookplates to sign for the Worldcon souvenir book. This seemed an easy task until Colin Harris made it clear they wanted a proper signature, not my usual flamboyant big 'G'. This was a bit worrying as I usually sign my name properly only on credit card slips, cheques and legal documents, and normally don’t worry too much about legibility in any case. And looking at Chris Priest’s practised imprimatur, virtually identical on every one of 200 sheets, I realised I’d better at least try and be a grown-up for a minute.
By the time I’d done about 30 I was flagging and panicking—it wasn’t so much the pain in a hand totally unused to handwriting as the fact that I kept stopping halfway through, totally unable to remember how to spell my surname. And when I relaxed and let it flow it turned into an abstract squiggle. It was genuinely hellish and somewhat embarrassing, seeing my vague scrawl appear on every sheet right next to Chris’s firm and clear signature.
I was sitting at the end of the Cold Tonnage table, and while I was struggling Mark Plummer installed Philip Pullman next to me to sign a couple of dozen hardbacks for Andy (no doubt to be squirreled away in one of his underground fastnesses awaiting an upturn in the market). Horrified that after what seemed like hours of agony I had got through barely half the sheets I turned to Pullman, signing away with calm aplomb, and said, ‘It’s so nice to see a professional at work.’ He turned and looked at me, and it was not in sympathy. Oh, I thought, it’s one of those embarrassing moments, isn’t it, and shut up.
Later I discovered that he was not best pleased with the way he had been treated by the convention committee, and perhaps was not in the mood for jocularity from the proles. A shame; he seemed like a nice man.
There were two things I’d been having anxiety fits about before the convention. One was the poor level of anticipation; the committee just didn’t seem able to provoke any sense of Something Happening, anything that made one feel there was an Event about to take place that One Should Not Miss. This taking it for granted approach just doesn’t work any more, if it ever did. And it’s especially dangerous in a distributed-convention situation like this one was, in which you have a hell of a lot of convincing to do just to get people to join, never mind actually show up.
Distributed conventions—where there is no individual site containing both the events and the majority of accommodations—fare badly in the UK. Historically they have been bad conventions with worse reporting. It doesn’t take much, in this day and age of a convention every couple of months, to make people decide to give one a miss. And that shows in the membership list—a lot of habitual convention-goers did not register, and even a lot of those who did stayed away on the day. Then I’d seen a draft programme on the web and was not impressed: there just didn’t seem enough items that sounded right, the kind that one either makes an effort to go to or regrets being otherwise engaged during. OK, there was Chris Priest’s GOH piece; there was the George Hay lecture, featuring Francis Spufford of Backroom Boys fame (which was excellent, and Spufford a spiffing fellow, exactly as one would have hoped), but that was it. The ‘fan’ oriented stuff in particular sounded like tokenism at best, as indeed did much of everything else.
But it wasn’t anywhere near that bad on the day. I still run the old Mexicon one-third principle in my head; I am happy if about 33 percent of the programme has the Must See factor, and the bits I did see were good. One surprise stand-out was a panel on the 1950s radio serial Journey Into Space, with Peter Weston, Gerry Webb, and Peter Redfarn. Redfarn was a dead loss, despite being instigator of the panel, but Weston and Webb carried it magnificently, Peter in particular wonderfully evoking the spirit of radio drama by improvising bits of the story from memory with sound effects rendered by an empty glass and his tiny little metal chairman’s gavel (taken everywhere, just in case); it was wonderful. Then Gerry Webb—a genuine spacecraft entrepreneur—carried the whole thing into a different dimension, as usual, with spellbinding anecdotes about his associates with the Russian space-scientists, and determinedly introducing the concept that throwing a spacecraft off the planet should be as routine as driving a truck down the M1, if a little more labour-intensive. And made the right points to back up his assertions, as indeed did Peter Weston who in support read out from a piece he’d done for the Programme Book, a startlingly vivid description of the purposeful but unglamorous way that the Russians actually do these things. In retrospect it was a perfect item, wedding comedy, history, science and science fiction together in a way that cumulatively makes you see the world just a little differently afterwards. Bloody great stuff.
I wasn’t expecting to be on any programme items, but just before the convention I had already been co-opted by Weston and Plummer for a Fannish Feuds item, one which had struck me as just about the least savoury piece on the menu when I read the draft programme on the convention website. Together we rapidly decided that whatever we were going to do it wasn’t going to be about Fannish Feuds.
And then Marcus Streets sidled—and I mean that literally—up and mumbled something to me about me being on an unspecified number of other items, if I would be so kind. It’s kind of shocking to find that this sort of thing still happens—that programmes aren’t totally wired together longer before the event—when we have decades of experience in how to, and how not to, do it, but there you go. I try to be helpful and say yes, OK, whatever you want provided I won’t make a complete fool of myself.
Fortunately perhaps the only other thing is something about the Future of Fandom, which co-panellist Claire Brialey and myself rather hoped was being held so late at night that no one will show up, because pretty much the last thing we care about really is the future of fandom, having both decided long since that it is going its own evolutionary way and no amount of hot air from either of us will divert it from its course. To our genuine horror an audience actually arrived, much of it settled down in the third row, and fixed us with steely and sceptical gaze. It also looked quite young, even to Claire, who is but a child almost herself. Thus was born Third Row Fandom, into whose serious little faces we will look and see the future. They were back again, for the Fannish Feuds panel, which we cleverly transmuted into something entirely other—a history of the Fannish, no less—and made them laugh occasionally. And during which I realised for the first time that the issue of New Worlds that Chris Priest had referred to in his speech as the one in which he shared a contents list with Aldiss and Ballard and realised he was really getting somewhere, was in fact the first issue of NW I had seen, and where I found a small ad for the BSFA, and where all of my life thereafter had begun.
The convention petered out rather than stopped when the bar closed at 11.00 PM on the Monday night. For the first time I felt there was a problem with a distributed convention. There were flurries of panicky conversation about which hotel are you in does it have a bar will it accept non-residents. It wasn’t only because no one actually approached us that we felt that it was time for time; older and more tired if not more wise, we figured the path of least resistance was back to our hotel and an earlyish night, then pack and trudge to the station, then hours and hours on the train back to West Wales, a longer journey in fact than it would take for some European fans to get home to Germany or Sweden.
On the way back to our hotel someone I didn’t know asked me what we’d done with Third Row Fandom, distinct for their lack of regard to what they clearly saw as past-it characters deserving of sidelining. We absorbed them, I said, but he didn’t get it. I should have made it clear: my point was that we were them and still are sometimes, and they will probably become us.
Our hotel room was inexplicably hot, despite the heating being turned off, so we slept lightly. And found that the seagulls made cooing sounds, like large marine doves, in the night. Greeting the dawn, Catherine said romantically; they can see the light of the sun peeping over the horizon from up there. Maybe indeed; it was a peculiar lightly moaning sound, quite otherworldly at five in the morning when it woke me up every day. I looked out and there they were, coasting, almost floating just above rooftop height, flying slowly like small white clouds illuminated by the streetlights. Their calls were quite different from the normal raucous seagull shouting match, and entirely unlike the squealing quack of our local Cleddau terns. These were soft birds, having their own quiet time, but with an obvious sense of purpose. They do see things, I believe now. Blackpool was a depressing place, mostly, but not without its wonders.
We bought a lot of books, observed Catherine as I lifted the spare bag, now surprisingly full. Yeah, how did that happen; there didn’t seem to be so much good stuff on Andy’s table this time. But what we got was good, I said, though I wonder about some of your stuff. I mean who the hell is Ian MacLeod anyway, I said, or Steph Swainston?
They write fiction, Catherine responded, science fiction. Remember that? Yeah well, I said, I got those two Lovecraft fanzine collections and the Clark Ashton Smith letters... Shopping lists next, Catherine said scornfully. Did you actually buy any science fiction, she pointedly continued. Well, I dunno, I bought a collection of Gary Westfahl essays, and a copy of Baxter’s Deep Future in hardback, and some recent Foundations...
But did you buy any fiction? Well, I got a copy of Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night... And when was that written? Oh, um, about 1939. And I got a copy of that newish Baxter Revolutions in the Earth, I’ve no idea what it’s about but it’s by The Man, right? But did you buy any fiction, any science fiction, she persisted, annoyingly. Well, no, but I got a lot of books... About science fiction, she ended it for me, turning away and looking out of the window.
And what’s wrong with that, I thought. More people should do it. Maybe it’s what conventions are for.
* * *
A postscript: There’s one other thing I want to make clear here about the last Eastercon, as it looks increasingly unlikely that I will write and distribute the full version of ‘Some Notes...’, which would have been about twice as long as this first run. I want to make it clear that I had a thoroughly good time, and despite finding a number of things that the concom could be criticised fairly and severely for, I do praise them a great deal for providing an event that interested, entertained, amused, and stimulated me.
Which is a damned sight more than I can say for a lot of conventions I’ve been to over the years. And in some ways I’d be inclined to suggest that some people—those who have been most vocal in criticising this Eastercon—practise a little getting back to first principles and working out what conventions are actually for, and seeing whether or not their expectations and desires are congruent with those ideas.