The Novacon Records

To write the one true convention report you must evoke the stark reality of it all -- hypnotically regress yourself to that pre-civilized state of mind, and call the Convention Spirit from the vasty deep. I concentrate on the trigger-words: Novacon 11 ... Royal Angus Hotel ... Angst ... Paracetamol.... Shimmering and numinous, the vision of Novacon takes form. I have only to re-enter this vision, relive the convention --

-- and once again I find myself too plastered to write a report. There still seem to be a few bugs in this method. Besides, what new things can you say about a Novacon? Secretly I am hurt that Edwards lumbered me with this arid topic instead of letting me list the eight favourite records I'd take with me to a desert island. Nay, stare not so: we deaf fans have record collections too. We merely fail to play them very often. Or at all.

Here's the box, covered in those filthy cobwebs that look so much less realistic than the exquisite draperies of web in horror films. Here are the records, and I know right away which ones would follow me to the remotest corners of the South Seas: all eleven of the damned things, plus five flexible free-gift discs which don't really count. Each time I've moved house I hoped to lose them in transit, but no: they pursue me with the inexorability of the Ruum in that skiffy story, mocking my inability to hear them or -- since Hazel dropped the turntable -- to play them. Actually I can't even remember what they are ... let's have a look.

Ah. Alone among what Martin Hoare would call the floppy discs, The PRACTICAL ELECTRONICS Record of Electronic Sounds and Effects ("You are now about to hear a Pure Tone at One Thou-sand Cycles") represents a one-time interest. In those long-gone days I built my own turntable out of endless little bits, not suspecting what fate the future held for it. I think I even had vast audio-visual plans based on teaching myself to recognize musical notes on the oscilloscope screen. Now, old and tired, I leave all this media stuff to John Collick. Or try to: it seems unfair that the second appearance of our "Sex Pirates of the Blood Asteroid" slide show, at Novacon, should have caused even more worry than the first. Were we really expected to perform to the bleary, jaded, and above all nonexistent audience of 10am on Sunday? "Yes. Well, maybe 10:30. Well, suppose we schedule it for 10:30 and you start late ..." Were there enough carousels for all the slides? "Yes." "No." "Maybe ..." Would J. Collick go into meltdown as his fevered brain envisaged slides springing apart to jam the projector, a maddened yet nonexistent crowd attacking him in a frenzy of boredom, the script catching fire, the hotel collapsing? At least the hotel failed to collapse, being cunningly held up by that off-centre pillar in the con hall -- whose alarming asymmetry always suggests the N.I.C.E. and their sinister Objective Room. Possibly this hotel too is designed to strip away the decent values beloved by C.S.Lewis: quite likely, really, when you consider the end results.

At last the not very describable "Sex Pirates" performance was over; I'd barely had time to murmur "Never again" when Naveed Khan confronted me and said, "Good stuff, bwana." (He has been addressing me thus ever since I accidentally did it to him. This is very demoralizing and all Alan Dorey's fault.)

"Never again," I said feebly.

"In two weeks' time at Cymrucon," he told me firmly.

The strangled sound emanating from my throat bore a surprising resemblance to Effect No. 2, Square Wave At Four Hundred Cycles.

Next from the box are a couple of floppy Reader's Digest Free Audition Discs, parental discards. I wonder what's on them? If there were any Sinatra stuff it would conveniently lead me to GoH Bob Shaw's bet with Rog Peyton. Handing over six Sinatra biographies, Bob wagered that the whole batch couldn't be auctioned for more than a quid. "Done," cried Rog, only to find the books were in Japanese. Rallying his forces with many a quip ("Bram Stokes has sold his shop ... to the Inland Revenue"), he made an all-out assault on the bemused audience and -- as anyone might have expected -- ended up with more than ten pounds for six utterly unreadable books.

Hurling the Reader's Digest Free Audition Copies aside, I suddenly remember the Omni Book of the Future Free Audition Copies. Andie Burland was handing these out dispiritedly, explaining between times that her girlfriend Jane had been kept from Novacon by an urgent need to take the budgie to the vet. All the long Novacon lounge was littered with BotF samples discarded by bored fans (Greg Pickersgill): I took tighter hold of my own copy when I found the almost smiling face of Langford inside, listed as a contributing editor. "Why did they keep it as a surprise till now?" I wondered. "Nobody ever told me I was a contributing editor."

"Nothing would surprise me about this thing," said Andie wearily.

But I was prancing towards the bar shouting "Fame! Power! Money!" I bought people drinks for several seconds, and the Glasgow Bob Shaw made up a badge from a cut-out Langford photo, and Hazel insisted on wearing it. Andie, slightly miffed by this desecration, would not be mollified until provided with a companion badge showing contrib. ed. Bernard Dixon. It takes all sorts. (I am reliably informed that there is no picture of David Bowie in the BotF, Dixon being but a second choice.)

Still two Private Eye floppies left. Teach Yourself Heath is the sort of educational disc you do not need to cope with "University Challenge", where the long-undefeated Surrey Limpwrists crashed to ruin before (a) some dark-horse team of neofans, and (b) hard questions like "Who wrote The Shadow of the Torturer?" or "What does the R in Gordon R. Dickson stand for?" To me, Rupert Bear will never seem the same again. Roz Kaveney and I sat sneering at the back of the hall, swigging whiskey and intoxicated not so much by that as by our ability to answer all the questions long before the struggling participants. Except when they were too quick on the button. "In which book did --" Bzzzzzt! "The precognitive Joseph Nicholas will now answer my uncompleted question ..." "Er um well ..."

Unable to bear very much of this reality, I presently slipped away -- forgetful of the whiskey bottle. Some time later, an infinitely pathetic figure might have been seen crawling about the con hall wailing, "It was there, I know it was there ..." Kindly hands restored the bottle to me just before an embarrassed Stan Eling could page it over the hotel tannoy and bring down the wrath of corkage upon us all.

Hullo Sailor: ah, another Private Eye freebie, and sure enough I did go out one night to the Gaylord Indian restaurant, there to find to my mild alarm that Roz knew the plots of all the obscure detective stories I drivelled on about. "You two are on the same wavelength," said a helpful David Pringle; but I was worrying about the fact that in addition to the incredible amount of trivia in my own mental archives, Roz also seems to have read everything else, including millions of morally sound and socially triffic works whose mere mention causes me a dull pain in the temples. Must scan that copy of General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey (not available on record) and gain some kind of moral advantage. Real soon now. If I can understand it. Sometimes I wake up in the morning firmly convinced I'm still essentially a fifteen-year-old and that all these hard subjects are Strictly For Grown-Ups, the title of a Paddy Roberts EP which once boosted my ego by the clarity of the singing: I could actually hear all the words. This was not true of Bob Shaw's Novacon speech. Normally I can follow him by sitting right at the front if not slightly more so, leaning forward with ears ludicrously cupped, and screwing up my eyes (which for some reason seems to help), but this year time and chance and the Novacon PA system combined to defeat me.

The Roberts title suggests a vague and spurious naughtiness which may or may not have been present at the great Pickersgill Halloween Party, where (according to this notebook) somebody called Pringle was being fingered by somebody called Atkinson even as somebody called Edwards was fingering Chris Donaldson, now the spouse of famous Novacon chairman Paul Oldroyd, who failed to comment. Is "fingering", in this notebook's context, an euphemism? Answers on a plain envelope, please, to me c/o Tappen. The Pickersgill bash was also noted for ruthless bouncing of cretins as the night wore on -- or so I am informed by several reliable cretins -- which brings me neatly to the private party that again disposed of my occasional dreams of fame and power. Through its open door I caught a glimpse of Andrew Stephenson; I waved; he waved; our two hearts beat as one; but as I moved forward there arose an obstacle called Marsha Jones who firmly closed the door in my face. Relegated to mere cretindom, I slunk away.

Now this record, Ravel's Bolero, still rouses a feeling of real guilt. I borrowed it, you see, back at college -- inflamed by these descriptions of its compulsive and maddening beat, descriptions possibly written by Robert A. Heinlein. The actual sonic experience was something else again, muffled and fuzzy and not all that dissimilar to Practical Electronics Effect No. 4: Unfiltered White Noise. Perhaps it isn't a very good recording; perhaps, like the electricians of the Royal Angus, I never managed to build a very good amplifier. (Some people say that with a claimed 5-watt output, even I shouldn't have had to press my ear against the speaker to hear anything at all. Can this be true?) At Novacon I naturally avoided the compulsive, maddening beat of the disco -- which in any case tends to silt up inside the famous hearing aid, filling it with waste noise which needs to be cleaned out after even a short exposure. Must give that record back sometime: if only I could remember who lent it to me....

Here are some LPs, that great technical innovation foretold in 1939 by James Joyce. (This feeble attempt at cultural credence results from the fact that like everyone else I've looked at the first and last pages of Finnegans Wake -- if only to check that Joyce lifted at least one narrative cliché from Dhalgren -- and sure enough, the last sentence but three reads "Lps." This proves it.) Marty is inevitably a compilation of Marty Feldman sketches, leading subtly enough into Lisa Tuttle's firm refusal to repeat her Big-Mouthed Frog impersonation -- the talk of this year's Milford conference. Oh, those rolling eyes, that almost dislocated jaw! It is as well that Lisa remembered the vows of marriage before reiterating such blandishments.

In similar vein we have a couple of Monty Python records, one of which I was awarded for the unlikely achievement of second-best performance in a sponsored Silly Walk from St John's to Magdalen College (first prize being voted to the six-foot-nine policeman who had paced this dubious procession along the High). I was the one on the left whose academic dress was supplemented with sunglasses and a smallish stuffed crocodile. Alas, despite the genuine John Cleese signature on that particular record, the whole thing now leaves a faintly rancid taste in the mouth: pleasant sums may possibly have reached the charity in question, but this and similar events proved to have been organized by a tedious student called Nick Field-Johnson for the very tedious purpose of advancing his political career. Once he'd achieved notoriety and a position on the legendary Oxford Union Library Committee, all such Pythonesque activity ceased. I do not draw any fannish parallels.

Meanwhile, prime sillywalker D. West failed to do anything memorable this year. "You know nothing about anything," he told up-and-coming fan Phil Palmer, who happily added these words to his collection of such dicta as "You're quite sensible really" (D. Langford, or so Phil insists at the most embarrassing moments).

But it was time for incorruptible Langford, Bell and Nicholas to lock themselves away in heady isolation -- cf. this record of Hubert Gregg as Jerome K. Jerome reading Three Men in a Boat, another one I've never played. It was time to count ballots for the Nova Award. Behind the closed doors, Joseph unbelievingly read out the foolish choices of each voter while I totted up points on a cleverly provided calculator and Harry did his famous Harry Bell impersonation. The victories of a certain fanzine and its lady-fanwriter-in-residence will no doubt be chronicled at great length elsewhere, but just for the record I'll mention that Pete Lyon snaffled the fanartist category. Next year, Joe and Harry are replaced on the Nova committee by dynamic new talent Chris Atkinson and dynamic old talent Greg Pickersgill: the secret room will no doubt echo to cries of "Have some fudge before you start counting," and "Bloody hell, this cretin's voted wrong...."

At this point the record collection gets a mite surreal. Who will believe that I have here the second and third sides (only -- possibly the first side covered two sides?) of the Trinity Choir in Processional to Calgary? This is the real thing, I tell you, "His Master's Voice" 78 rpm with that dyspeptic dog wondering how to get the fudge out of the gramophone horn, and sleeve ads for The Greatest Advance Ever Made In The Science Of Musical Reproduction, endorsed by Sir Edward Elgar, OM -- something to do with the improved handle on the side of the pictured player, it would seem. This might reflect the gorgeous ceremony of religion (cf. Bob Shaw's home-made stained glass windows in the art show -- no joke, I had to carry one back home for forgetful buyer Garry Kilworth), but somehow I imagine a certain grim and Calgaroid austerity, as when John Brunner proposed with a straight face that one possible venue for his 1984 British Eurocon might be an out-of-season holiday camp. Big Butlin Is Watching You.

Ah! Moon of my Delight, I very probably overheard the swiftly-consoled Rob Holdstock saying to someone, though not to Katie Davies, who this year favoured us with a Servalan outfit displaying an interesting yet somehow anaphrodisiac cleavage at lower rear. Rob, meanwhile, pretended great outrage at having been quoted in Ansible yet again on the subject of his all-encompassing love life. I can't think why this happens to him. With some fervour he explained why you should paste a white dot on the dashboard of your car. It seems that you then take some unsuspecting lady on a country drive, and she asks why you have this bloody silly white dot on the dashboard of your car, and you come back with a spiel about how it stands for cleanliness and purity, and after many more highly formalized moves in what we shall call Holdstock's Gambit Declined you are in a position to ask, "Are you a virgin?"

Rob didn't say what happened after that.

Oh, sorry: Ah! Moon of my Delight (Tudor Davies, whoever he may be) is another inexplicable 78, and on the flip side we have On Wings of Song from the same chap. Manifestly this should have won a Hugo.

Next comes a bit of slapstick, for my third and last 78 is nothing less than the celebrated Goon Disc My September Love, whereon "Miss Freda Thing" -- a thinly disguised Jackie Lichtenberg -- attempts high notes only to be pitilessly interrupted by the famous Eccles, a thickly disguised Chris Priest. (Chris's anarchic prowess was also well shown by his crashing of a Novacon games machine -- whose screen threw up endless rows of incomprehensible text, like an automated Barry Malzberg.)

Merely recalling the scratchy screeching of this disc is enough to bring on a nosebleed, latest in the new succession of Langford leakages which began literally over breakfast on Novacon Monday. That particular attack was dealt with by ever-sympathetic Arnold Akien, who seized my nose in the crushing grip known only to third-stage initiates of John Collick's obscure Oriental discipline Clint Eastwu. The ensuing scenes are better not discussed, like this Benny Hill single (bloody hell, Benny Hill!) which my parents once acquired by the simple process of presenting a record token and then advising their bewildered son what to spend it on.

Novacon finished on the usual note of gentle euphoria, enlivened by that lad Collick's vivid account of the lost video epic Bollardes, occasionally based on 2001. "You see this primitive D. West emerging from the sewers, and in the road there's this Significant black bollard ... and he touches it and strokes it and fondles it in ecstasy, and then he starts to evolve.... And the vasectomy scene, that was good, he's chained to a lamp-post and this woman comes at him with a sickle. I wanted just a tasteful trickle of blood on the ground, but everyone thought that was too tame and instead this great mound of stuff comes splattering to the ground, meat and bits of plastic and disgusting things all covered in tomato sauce, heaps and heaps of it. And he does the Astral Pole to the tune of Also Sprach Zarathustra.... In the ending he's an aged aged man in the hotel room just like 2001, eating chips, and we got him to take his teeth out for the last scene where he's lying there and the mysterious Black Bollard appears at the foot of the bed, and painfully he reaches out his withered hand to it and gasps, 'Fuck off ...'"

Perhaps inspired by this, by Jean Colique's forthcoming video project of a fannish Christmas Carol, and by the shooting at Novacon of Clinto (A Japanese Noh Play, featuring many stylized gestures such as the pushing of cigarettes into Joseph's mouth and the grinding of a Collick boot on his instep), several other fans muttered of audiovisual projects. Could this be the end of fanzines as we know them? Could this be how we crowd stuff like Superman II off the ballot for the BSFA Award (Dramatic Presentation category)? One shudders at the thought.

One shudders, too, at the end of each Novacon, remembering the horrors that must inevitably follow it on the calendar. Yes, the last of my desert-island collection to go back in the box is indeed Marty Feldman singing Christmas is a Joyous Time of Year. Up the creaky steps once more, to thrust this unmusical assortment away for another five years, or ten.... The advantage of a nice stable record collection like mine is that whenever the time comes to go through it again, you can be certain of getting the mixture as before. Just like Novacon, really.