Ansible logo Ansible 219 Supplement

Convention Notes
Julian Headlong at the Fforde Ffestival

On the 17th of September I went to a Jasper Fforde convention.

It was held in Swindon, and was heavily promoted by the Toast Marketing Board, Goliath Corporation, and the Swindon Tourist Authority (OK, that last one doesn't exist, it was actually the Swindon Council's Commercial Office). It was called the Fforde Ffestival (they just missed out on calling it the Fforde Ffiesta) and was held at the Goddard Arms Hotel in Swindon.

It was awful.

I left after half a day and didn't go back for the Audience Participation Version Of Richard III (as done better at Paragon II – and I avoided it there too), the karaoke fiction reading was bad enough. The Mayor of Swindon was there, and looked totally at sea. There was a dealer's room, of sorts, it only had Jasper's books tho', and a copy of Nigel Slater's 'Toast'. Oh, they also sold toast. In cellophane packets. And Dodos. The 'con' was run by folk who had never been to a convention, so they invented it from scratch. No name tags, just the event tickets on a ribbon round your neck.

No separate dealer's room – all the events were in the same space, and there were seats for about half the attendees. They had croquet on the lawn, with a beer tent and BBQ van (as seen in most dual-carriageway lay-bys), most salubrious. Margaret [Austin], Martin [Easterbrook] and I went and had Italian at one of our favourite ristorantes. What the con attendees had is anyone's guess. Martin and Margaret didn't show up for the rest of the 'con'. I made one last effort and went on the open-topped bus tour of Swindon with Chris Donaldson. This was the highlight of the con, and shows just how dire the rest of it was. After this 'event' I said to Chris 'Bored now', and we got Paul Oldroyd to come and rescue us.

Apparently people came from the USA just to attend this 'event'. I was ashamed for my country. All those people who looked sort of like fans, but who had never been to proper convention – they thought this travesty was what we meant when we spoke of cons.

They were conned.

Dave Hipple on NewCon3
(Northampton, 1-2 Oct)

NewCon 3 had a general theme of 'Time' and was hosted in the Northampton Guildhall, a grand building that conceivably could have swamped the small size of the con (I couldn't swear that there were more than about 40 people there at any one time) but in fact it simply accommodated it generously. Early on, we were introduced to the concept of the 'Jester of Time' as MC, an amiably bonkers individual in costume (and for much of Sunday on stilts) who spent the weekend popping up all over the place to keep things to the ragged remnants of their notional schedule, and also presented his own 'Bed of Nails' and magic show. Splendid chap.

Morning events in the vast Main Hall began with the welcoming ceremony, which set the tone for a nicely informal weekend by starting rather late, and which featured Ian Watson channelling HG Wells in order to introduce Guests of Honour Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Liz Williams and the artist Chris Baker, aka Fangorn (each of whom was the focus for a Main Hall event over the two days). In mature and educational fashion, matters then turned to the display of sword fighting with audience participation. At that stage I retired to the first panel (on 'The Best Time Related Book Of All') in the much more cosy Council Chamber. In the afternoon, panels there began with a discussion to identify 'The Birth of Science Fiction' (a cheery discussion, even if the final compromise was altogether predictable), before the moderately unusual 'The Author as Torturer' (kind of a meditation on what it is or isn't ethical to do to your characters in the service of a story). Fangorn's talk and slideshow in the main hall rounded off the day's genre events enjoyably, leaving a two-hour break before the ceilidh. A mass outing for curry seemed to put that event at unanticipated risk, due to the Royal Bengal restaurant apparently having an idiosyncratic policy of not in fact serving food to customers. The preferred behaviour seems to involve giving the impression of taking orders, before, over a long period of time, sporadically offering unusual options such as a sudden move to another table for no very obvious reason. Still, bit by bit the party gradually made its way back to the Guildhall where there was definitely beer, including specially-imported barrels of Old Speckled Hen. And I could swear that I heard music and stomping from the hall, so everything seemed to be working out there as well.

Incidentally, the programme for the weekend listed further events in the Gaming Room. The Room certainly existed, but although I passed it frequently en route from one of the main con rooms to the other I never actually saw anyone in it. Who knows?

In healthy contrast to the almost entirely successful (and in context admirable) regimentation of Worldcon, Sunday began with another amiable demonstration of NewCon's looseness: a few of us happily agreed to delay the discussion on sf and fantasy gaming until such time as enough people to resemble an actual panel might be present. Come that time proceedings were again unassumingly informal yet productive, more a round table discussion than anything else. This duly gave way to 'The Process of Writing and Publishing', where again serious content insinuated itself amongst the inevitable and entertaining horror stories. At the same time, the Main Hall hosted what I gather was an impressive video presentation concerning Virgin's plans for commercial space flight. In the afternoon the convention again thumbed its nose at piffling constraints such as plans and schedules, spontaneously cancelling 'Just an SF-ing Minute' on the (highly justifiable) basis that it seemed more fun to see Ian Watson subjected to the bed of nails. After that, as far as I could tell, the day drifted into a concerted and ultimately successful attempt to finish off the real ale while discussing movies with Fangorn. That said, I gained the impression that others made it to the puppetry display and the Space Opera panel.

The project to destroy the beer paused (or at least slowed fractionally) for the closing ceremony, which, given the modest size of the gathering in the first place, was an admirably warm affair. It remained only to see off the last of the Speckled Hen and repair to a local Chinese for... well... more drinking. Actually there also remained the matter of finally getting a train home, but in my case that was all ably administered by the friend who accompanied me. Result, all round, then. Very much looking forward to the next one, and congratulations are due to all of those involved in pulling together and keeping on track a weekend so breezily flexible yet constantly engaging.

Marion Pitman also remembers NewCon3

Ian Watson channelled HG Wells, as he so often does; Mr. Wells complained at the end of the weekend that Mr. Watson had been putting alcohol into the body while Mr. Wells was not in control of it.

The panel on The Author as Torturer gave one a worrying insight into several of the guests' minds.

I'm not sure if the best bit was Ian Watson on the bed of nails (enjoying it far too much), Steve Cockayne's ancestral puppet show, or the jester coping with the back answers of the boy he picked out of the audience....

I have often wondered, do you get mercury out of Hg wells?