Conquassation

To tamp 1991 securely into its grave I planned a stupendous summing-up of the British convention scene for my very occasional fanzine Sglodion ... but ran into two snags. The first was that I'd insanely committed myself to reviving, for at least a year, the unreliable newsletter Ansible; and so Sglodion's time and money went gurgling into this (to quote my all-time favourite [sic] explanation of the crop circle phenomenon) stationery vortex. Piled on that was the deeply philosophical problem of distinguishing between the 1991 cons I hadn't attended and the ones I'd completely forgotten. Apathy would have raged unopposed if not for the devious wiles of our editor Arnie Katz, who has no shame (even when as a last resort you lose all his 'Send Me An Article' letters, he smilingly recreates them from backup disks). What seems to remain of 1991 is ...

May: Mexicon IV, Harrogate

As D.West was to remark with appreciation, the fourth Mexicon took place in a cheery atmosphere of sleaze and grime. On first climbing the hill to the decaying Cairn Hotel (In Liquidation), I overtook GoH Howard Waldrop sneaking along with a large brown bag that trailed suspicious wisps of steam. 'A Chinese takeaway seemed sort of safer,' he enigmatically remarked. I had yet to meet the Cairn's determined simulation of authentic Mexican snacks, Yorkshire style.

There'd been a sparsely-attended Meet Waldrop party in London two days before, which gave me a pang of alarm. For years I'd been hearing about this Mexicon guest's weird dress sense, with fearful words like 'polyester' being bandied freely: in the event Howard looked reasonably normal to me, and about two minutes after the introductions said, 'I like your jacket.' On my next visit to the Gents I stared very nervously into the mirror, wondering. The evening ended with several tons of spare buffet food being loaded into ecologically sound paper bags for recycling at Mexicon: I made a rough drawing of one Scotch egg I secretly hoped not to encounter again.

Langford policy after booking into a con hotel room is to seek short cuts involving fire stairs. This doesn't always work ... sometimes you emerge into clouds of evil-smelling steam populated by Orwellian skivvies who make coarse remarks, and once in the Birmingham Grand the hidden corridors led me to a vertiginous little balcony high over the main hall, littered with dusty stage lights and second-hand condoms. The Cairn's backstairs route to the bar was effective enough (especially as the hotel lift was not only the traditional quarter-mile away but ran on a roughly hourly schedule): I got quite used to the steep, greasy stone steps, vomit-splashed paintwork last cleaned in 1936, and the place where someone had apparently hurled an entire chili con carne at the wall. By their fire stairs ye shall know them.

[1993 footnote. The hotel Duty Manager at Mexicon 5 in Scarborough this year reminisced of having visited the Cairn a few weeks previously. 'The chili stain was still there.']

Downstairs it was OK. The Mexicon atmosphere is always loaded with pleasing intangibles, like the second-hand satisfaction felt when there's a damn fine programme for me not to attend. (Mea culpa. Either I'm growing deafer or my attention span is dwindling with age, but sitting there listening seems harder each year. I used to go to Stentorian Tom Shippey's SF talks as the one thing I could be sure of following, and never really figured out why people were laughing at Bob Shaw being serious and scientific until I was able to swot it up in fanzines.) This infectious good cheer could lead one into deeply unnatural acts: the bar did a steady trade in real imported Mexican beer, Sol and Corona, to be authentically drunk from the bottle with a truly stupefyingly authentic segment of fresh lime shoved into the neck ... and suddenly perceptions would tilt to reveal that one was drinking a very expensive lager and lime. 'An exit application from the human race if ever there was one,' as bonhomous Sir Kingsley Amis wrote of this beverage.

The usual suspects were up to the usual things. Paul Williams twitched nervously through panel after panel, little knowing that with hysterical wit young Michael Ashley would soon be describing him as a Dickhead (how we all roared). D.West said perfectly friendly things in that sidelong Yorkshire mutter which transforms everything into the semblance of hideous sarcasm (Brian Stableford can do it too). Greg Pickersgill carried on being Greg Pickersgill and Avedon Carol deplored this noxious habit of his. Roz Kaveney and Chris Bell spent long hours in diplomatic negotiation over the great Midnight Rose Shared World Anthology Dispute (too complex and tedious to detail here or anywhere else, this involves a scrapped anthology, partially famous artist Fox, bitter lifetime feuds about whose fault it all was, and arcane legalistic documents bearing such dates as the Feast of St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins).

Meanwhile, I discovered the one absolutely fatal remark to make at a Mexicon. This goes: 'What a coincidence, you're producing the convention newsletter with the identical software I use for my fanzines.' Everything went black and I woke up chained to this keyboard.

Let us not dwell on the hardware Mike Ford had borrowed to create the awesome Cactus Times. Eager volunteers discovered that breathing, allowing your heart to beat or mentioning the BSFA were all sufficient to send it down in flames. This did not help the tranquillity of chief editor Abigail Frost, who at fifteen-second intervals would light another ciggy from the last one and issue great ululating cries of, 'Will you please fucking go away, I need absolute quiet to compose my hard-hitting apology about the real beer running out again....' Newsletter highlights included a complete short story by really famous author Neil Gaiman (Pitman's Model, after H.P.Lovecraft: 'Bt b Gd, Elliott, t ws a phtgraph from lfe!'), a Eurovision Song Contest scoop and a great number of lies.

But Brian Stableford truly did improvise a talk on homoeopathy, extending the principle of vast dilutions which are supposed to increase drugs' potency to amazing levels. This was largely pinched from a breakfast conversation in which I'd reasoned that it was entirely logical for there to be (as just featured in the Observer colour supplement) a homoeopathic cure for claustrophobia: merely dilute the small room which causes the symptoms, until it becomes a much larger one. Brian gave us homoeopathic morality, about which the less said the better, and likewise homoeopathic education: 'It's well known that the people with the loudest and most potent opinions in pubs are the ones with the most infinitesimal, diluted traces of actual information or education.' We all rushed to do field research in the bar and found famous sot Gamma apparently trying to snort the imported beer. (Next lesson: Homoeopathic Fansmanship, or how to retain vast fame and influence by doing absolutely bugger all.)

It is also true that I made an attempt on the Smallest Programme Item record upon finding the BSFA discussion panel entirely empty, even of panellists. Inspired by memories of a US fanzine piece on 'microprogramming', I delivered a stirring address to vacant seats for almost thirty seconds. 'As I gaze on the rows and rows of shiny, earnest little faces in the audience, my faith is restored and I know that the BSFA will endure for a thousand years....' Leaving in abrupt haste, I looked long and suspiciously at my bottle of that Mexican beer.

Memo: produce an Abigail Frost Phrasebook to assist future newsletter teams. Mild-mannered Vincent Clarke needn't have looked so shaken if he'd known in advance that 'Fuck off and DIE!!!' means only, 'Excuse me, I am trying to concentrate on typing this.'

July: Twentycon, Birmingham

This is the Birmingham SF Group's twentieth anniversary party, ingeniously held in competition with the BSFG's own Novacon later in the year and thus (owing to the fabled proverb 'One trip to Birmingham is as much as anyone in the world can stand in any twelve months') hugely unattended by fandom at large; also, for some reason, by the Birmingham SF Group. I remember asking Storm Constantine about the slight double-entendre in a book of hers set in a world of radical cosmetic surgery: as a quick health check someone prods this skinny kid, whereupon 'He could feel the bones through her spare buttocks.' I remember Storm's hearty laughter as a few seconds later I picked myself from the bottom of some stairs while her enormous Gothic minders dusted their hands. I remember Martin Tudor contemplating with anguish the gigantic mounds of cheap snacks and barrels of real beer laid in by the hotel in anticipation of the promised hundreds, and insufficiently depleted by the actual dozens. Finally I remember saying merrily to the haggard committee, 'Planning to do the coming-of-age Twentyonecon next year?' Their red, feral eyes are the last thing I can recall before losing consciousness again. Memo: must practise tact.

July: Mabinogicon, Bangor

This, held on the remote north coast of Wales, had traditional guest of honour problems. Anne McCaffrey had let down the committee, or the idle committee had failed to send her the necessary weekly reminders that she was GoH ... something of the sort. In the manner of Greek tragedy, messenger after messenger scurried into the bar with the latest from the battle: 'We phoned Anne and got someone who wouldn't let us talk to her!' 'We phoned again. Her secretary says she gave up on Mabinogicon when we sent her a progress report in Welsh!' (All the more baffling since they'd never in fact done a progress report in Welsh.) 'We've spoken to Anne! She says she'd love to come but some incredibly important proofs have just arrived and she absolutely has to correct them by Monday!' A passing semiologist translated this as: 'Fuck off and die.'

The show went on. In place of a GoH speech there was a guest interview, fortuitously found printed in an old issue of Vector. The original interviewer David V.Barrett repeated his savagely probing questions, and the answers were delivered by a cunning simulation of Anne McCaffrey, being con chairman Ivan Towlson in a rather fetching borrowed dress. He had neglected to shave off his beard. I noted a few slight deviations from the script.

Barrett: 'Anne, do you ever think -- '

False Anne McCaffrey: 'Good heavens, no!'

August: Wincon, Winchester

The Winchester venue was extremely hot and tilted at an angle of 45°, which made getting to and fro a bit difficulty. One tended to sprawl on grassy banks with rapidly warming beer, and watch the dragonflies. Occasionally the bar opened, but (this being a campus) soon thought better of it.

Here my famed ability to attend and appreciate the programme at second hand was assisted by an entire Midnight Rosary of shared-world editors (motto: 'Not At All An Imitation Of Wild Cards, Honest') who came stumbling out of the climactic Author Panel with symptoms of advanced brain death. As Roz Kaveney partially expressed herself, 'Oh God, John Brunner and Bruce Sterling are contending hotly for the title of World's Greatest Jerk ... with, I regret to say, some competition from Gwyneth Jones.'

Warming to her theme, she went on: 'They were supposedly talking about plot, and first Gwyneth would go all fey and say something like, "I don't plot, I just steal old fairy stories and put in some gravitrons," And then Bruce would come back very, very slowly, with: "The .. concept .. of .. plot .. is .. no .. longer .. tenable .. since .. reality .. is .. in .. fact .. a .. series .. of .. unrelated .. intersections...." And then John Brunner would cap them both with some massively cosmopolitan anecdote like, "Personally I was very proud to meet this fan in Prague who said to me, 'Others, Mr Brunner, have Told us about the art of Plot, but you ... you have Shown us!'" And so we all walked out and headed for the bar.'

The bar was shut.

September: a Wellington Pub Meeting, London

'I want to berate you,' said famous actor Mike Cule, heedless that I might mock his latest major TV project (an ad for Nuclear Electric). 'I wish to taunt you with your failed futurology.'

'If it's The Third Millennium,' I explained with practised haste, 'Stableford wrote that bit.'

'In your convention talk about that very book,' sneered Mike, 'you accused General Sir John Hackett of wishful thinking for suggesting the entire Soviet Union would fall apart in internal rebellion after the first nuclear strike. Didn't even need that, did it? I taunt you, Langford. I berate you.'

Bloody hell, that was five years ago. I offered the suggestion that a nuclear attack in recent, crucial times would have been about the one thing that could have reunified the USSR, but Mike was too busy taunting and berating me to take this in ... and on my other side awesomely famous fan John Richards had embarked on a harangue of his own. This went something like:

'I've had enough of fanzines. All fanzines are self-indulgent rubbish. They don't contain enough about sf and they have far too many first-person pronouns. They give masturbation a bad name. I'm going to publish a serious diatribe about all this, as a fanzine.'

Although he later mumbled something shifty about er taking an extreme position to er you know provoke discussion, I was enchanted and began to imagine a fanzine that would conform to the new ideology. Luckily, scientific training provided an obvious model:

A specimen of 'science fiction' was procured for examination from the Analog laboratories. The selected sample proved on preliminary examination to weigh 0.22 kg plus or minus 1g and to contain 192pp plus or minus 0.5 page. A molecular spectrographic analysis was conducted and the chemical constituents determined to be 67.5% inert padding, 32.2% faecal matter associated with domesticated ruminants (male) and 0.43% experimental error. See Table I.i.a. The repeatability of the procedure was checked using 49 additional specimens of this product, and....

September: Harlech, North Wales

This is where we truly Get Away From It All; Harlech beach, out of season, is reliably lonely. If so much as one tiny figure is visible in the five miles or so of wind-blasted sand, Hazel will hiss: 'It's a crowd.' This time it wasn't just a crowd, and I cringed in alarm. After the stormy night it looked like an alien invasion. My sense of wonder glowed fitfully and then blew a fuse.

Mere reason might instruct us that this sinister, gelatinous dome, with whirly things like brain lobes visible through purplish flesh, had to be a mere jellyfish. But it was two feet across and bulged six inches high. Long-established sf instincts made it clear that the thing was just waiting to dissolve my flesh (Damon Knight), soak symbiotically into my pores (Hal Clement) or swarm up my back, override my nervous system and turn me into a shambling libertarian neo-conservative (Robert Heinlein). Paranoia grew as we covered three miles of foreshore and passed a further 63 of these monsters, many even bigger. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence....

'They were merely Rhizostoma pulmo, the largest British jellyfish, which can officially be 60cm or more in diameter,' said Hazel, looking up from a reference work some time later. 'It was perfectly natural.'

The Observer's Book of Pulsating Blobs may never lie, but it doesn't feel natural when after lifelong ignorance of this sodding great creature you meet 64 in one afternoon, hundreds of kilograms of wobbly biomass. Plus a number of patches higher in the sand where the sun had shrivelled further specimens (which out of purism I didn't count). And a dogfish. I could have coped with just the dogfish.

After a while I thought of the moral: could this be how some ordinary sane visitor from the outside world feels on discovering a seemingly normal British hotel to contain not one hideous and unlikely sight, not two, but an entire pullulating SF convention?

July 1992