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Greg Pickersgill on Concourse:
SOME NOTES TOWARDS AN
INCOMPLETE VERSION OF EVENTS

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 20th century shopping centre 'development', a collection of buildings that grew increasingly ugly and misshaped 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 21st century HP 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 its just like being back in the Golden Age of fandom like it used to be and its 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 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 conventions 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 HG 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' 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 squirrelled 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 its 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 memberships 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 standout 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 be 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 11.00pm 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 sidelined. 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, 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 look 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.

Greg Pickersgill
www.gostak.demon.co.uk


Peter Weston Adds ...

Greg got a couple of things wrong. It wasn't a portable, travelling gavel, I just picked up Gerry's metal pen. And John Jarrold later confessed that it wasn't his magnetic personality which drew the crowd, but he had been billed to do a programme item in one of the halls, and the committee chucked him out halfway through and told him to take his audience up to the bar. Which makes it a bit more comforting, doesn't it? John also told me something about the committee wanting to postpone the Awards ceremony he was doing so they could fit in the Fancy Dress. Or maybe they wanted to move that to the bar as well? [Apparently they wanted to schedule it as an interval in the children's masquerade. – Ed.] Either way, John told them in no uncertain terms that he wasn't having any of it.

Eileen and I arrived late on Thursday afternoon, and booked into the Imperial, which we thought might be a useful port in a storm, so to speak, although it wasn't anywhere as good as I'd expected, and the bedrooms were very hot and cramped. Then we strolled a half-mile or so down a road from the hotel to the Winter Gardens, getting more and more depressed on the way. Derelict churches, grubby fish&chip shops, tatty b&bs, and transvestite shoe shops. (Rich Coad queried what I meant. Put it this way, while all the shoes were very high-heeled, glittery and strappy, they all seemed to be in Size 12. Now, there may be some Big Women in Blackpool, but somehow I suspect the shop was aiming at another market.)

We couldn't get into the Winter Gardens because the banquet was on, so we walked down to the seafront, past the ugly, flashing arcades and the boarded-up entrance to the ballroom, by which time I was near to total despair. Just when I was on the point of giving up, we saw Harry Harrison looking miserably through the windows of that Italian cafe across the road, so we went and joined him, and Colin Harris spotted us and also came in (even more depressed at the state of Blackpool than I was). We decided we didn't want to eat just yet, came out and started looking for a decent pub – not easy, in Blackpool – met some others (that Chris chap from Worcester), and I navigated us to the Cedar Tavern, across the square from the Winter Gardens' main entrance. Then Greg rang on his mobile, homed in on us with Catherine, and we had quite a merry time, lubricated with several pints of Thwaites Best Bitter (which had the usual effect the next morning). Panic set in briefly when we went back to the Italian cafe at 9.30, only to be told they were closed, despite the notice on the door proclaiming 'late opening', and we shuttled from one hostile establishment to another before being welcomed by a waitress at the Deep-Pan Pizza Company, whom we tipped very heavily when leaving!

It would have been nice to have been able to have done some research for the Jet Morgan panel, but I only found out about it on Wednesday afternoon, and it has been nearly fifty years since I heard the serial, so my memory held-up pretty well, really. The Sunday panel with Gerry Webb was less successful (the one about Dan Dare and the Eagle), partly because Gerry went home early (couldn't stand it any longer, he said), and thank God for Ed Buckley, who we brought up onto the panel to remind us exactly which brand of toothpaste it was that sponsored Dan Dare on Radio Luxembourg. (Do you remember? Answer at bottom of page).

Like Greg, I was intrigued by Chris Priest's GoH item, in which he told me some bad things about Charles Platt that even I hadn't known before, for instance that (unlike me) he had met quite a few well-known fans in person before going to that first con in 1964, and he already had a low opinion of fandom before the con even started. Why did the audience laugh at the Platt gags? A few of us – very few – because we know of what Chris spoke, but the majority, I feel, because they are vaguely aware that "Charles Platt" is a cue-phrase, like "farts" or something on a TV game-show, which evokes a guffaw whenever mentioned. Bob Shaw long ago trained his audience to such a pitch that whenever he mentioned "Von Donegan" his audience would start tittering, irrespective of context. The fannish Theory of Sheep does still work, Gregory, just modified a little with the passing of the years!

The item I most enjoyed doing was the Fan-History panel with Greg and Mark, which went surprisingly well considering we had nothing in particular to talk about, and in view of the lateness of the hour (10.00pm on Friday night). It was probably a measure of the general desperation in the air that we held an audience of fifty or more, right to the end. I would have liked to have talked a bit about science fiction as well, but they didn't give Julian and I a chance to do our usual double-act. Next year!

Peter Weston

(*** It was Euthymol. Horrible pink powder in a flat tin, tasted like disinfectant. We hated the stuff but kept on buying it for the Dan Dare picture-cards, with accompanying album for only 1/6d.)


From Jeff VanderMeer's UK Report

Blackpool, or "a rotted birthday cake" as Jeff Ford called it – I thought of it more as "one degree to the right of Clockwork Orange" – was an experience. Half decayed Coney Island, half Victorian buildings, and half totally bizarre. The convention center not only hosted the convention – David Cassidy and Engelbert Humperdinck both had concerts there, within a week of each other.

We met a lot of wonderful people in Blackpool – John Jerrold, Cheryl Morgan, Richard Morgan, Darren Nash, Sandy Auden, The Scottish Contingent (you know who you are), etc. – and spent a lot of time in the bar, talking (where I developed a real taste for English cider, since it tended to only get me a little drunk, with no hangover), but the convention itself was probably the worst run I've ever seen. The author readings, for example, weren't in the program book, the program book didn't include a good map, and ... well, luckily it didn't matter, since the panels all included interesting people who had interesting things to say and the lack of organization meant I got to sit around for an hour with other readers who had no audience, like Liz Williams, Jeff Ford, Jay Caselberg, Ian R. MacLeod, and a certain Gwyneth Jones, who told a great story about frogs that I've stolen for a piece of fiction.

To give you a good idea of Blackpool, though, you need imagine Ann, me, Jeff Ford's wife Lynn, and their sons trying to find a place to eat. No, can't go there – right next to a lap dance establishment. Oh – that place looks good. No – there are half-nekked women writhing around in there. How about that place? It's right next to a toy store ... er, that's not a toy store. Welllll ... maybe not, after all ... And how about that beach? Hip-deep in donkey crap from the 20 or so donkeys giving rides along the surf.

Highlights, besides meeting great people, would have to include a fire at our hotel, The Imperial, at four in the morning, that rousted everyone out of their beds, including some elderly folk who came out dressed in actual nightcaps with little poofy balls on the ends of them and nightshirts with slippers – like something out of a Dickens' novel.

Not to mention a cider-induced pose in which I reclined over four people on a sofa, one of them Jay Caselberg ("I think VanderMeer's buttock punctured my left testicle"), another Liz Williams (I like to think that my head poised gently on her thigh was like a crystal ball to that magician, but if she divined my future, she wasn't sharing the information), and two others I'll have to identify once I see the photograph. (Jay and Liz, by the way, were wonderful – showing up for almost all of the Jeff 'n' Jeff events, very supportive. Mark Roberts was a positive iron man, too, helping with the Ambergris multi-media presentation, which went very well, and much else besides.) Not to mention, a ferris wheel ride with Tamar Yellin, Bob Tasker, Des Lewis, and Eric Schaller. We told Eric to learn to move without swiveling his ass, as it was making the compartment shake too much, but, alas, Eric never learned how to look in different directions without swiveling. Which, I guess, made the ride all that more exciting from a danger perspective.

But that's enough about Blackpool – the rest of Blackpool, rotting, crepuscular, desperate, menacing, mean, indifferent, etc., will be making a cameo in a future Ambergris novel, and thus – shhhh – best not to talk too much about it or the effect will dissipate before it reaches the page.

And, for all of that, it was a great convention because of all the wonderful people we met and hung out with, and the great generosity of my publisher, Pan Mac. I wouldn't give up a minute of the experience, perversely enough.


Other Voices

Concourse site with newletter LieJournal

Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City 104

Chris Priest: 'I thought more of it than most people, but then I would. No particular events to note, or none I can think of off-hand. Lots of good people there; mood generally good; architecture demented; streets of Blackpool proletarian binge-drinker hell; hotel excellent; programme items so-so.'

Charlie Stross: '... the program wasn't quite as bad as 2Kon in 2000, but getting there, the real ale bar never materialized, and the Blackpool night-life was unbelievable; I was seriously afraid of venturing out of the venue unaccompanied after dark! Add the hotel cock-ups and it, well, Blackpool goes on my list (along with Hinckley) of "con venues to avoid on principle". (And Hinckley is there because Feorag is vegan, and the thought of trying to find a vegan meal in Hinckley on a bank holiday without a car beggars the imagination.)'

Liz Williams: 'BLEEAAARGGGHHH! I fear that such was my reaction. If I have my way – and since I confess to having done nothing about it, I probably won't – none of that con committee will ever be allowed near a convention again. I have also taken a blood oath never again to set foot in Blackpool. I and my companion left a day early because we could stand it no more. On the train back, a young woman collapsed, probably with relief at no longer having to be in Blackpool.'