|Dave Langford at Intervention, the 1997 British Easter SF Convention.|
It is probably a very, very silly idea to ask an Eastercon guest of honour to write a con report. After all, if I actually recall anything significant from Intervention, this could be interpreted as a hideous slur on a committee that showed itself determined not to let me spend more than nanoseconds burdened with an empty glass.
The classical unities of convention reports require extended and tedious discussion of travel, as I embarrassedly remember while sprawling in the only first-class railway carriage I've ever legitimately occupied. (Seems very like other carriages except for the little antimacassars; also an absence of people and a plethora of dust, as though the sun has come up on an all-night party of vampires.) Even more embarrassingly, there are a few cracks about the inherent tedium of 'How I Got There' reports in the draft of the speech I'm giving tomorrow. Slipping into Encyclopedia mode, I mumble 'See RECURSIVE FANTASY.'
Railtrack decides to provide some interesting copy by halting to allow a lingering 40-minute meditation on the majestic beauties of Birmingham International station, while up the line at New Street the Liverpool connection sneaks off without me. Bugger. In due course there follows a great deal of racing up and down those echoing New Street stairs in the wake of that terrible loneliness I always feel when an incomprehensible tannoy announcement blares forth, and exactly half the people on my platform leave at a panic-stricken run.... There is a sense of enormous relief on finally reaching Liverpool station, especially since my new train carries stickers assuring the world that it goes no farther than Runcorn.
Ah, the Adelphi Hotel. The traditional attempt to claim my badge, only to be informed that because I'm a guest it has been specially put aside in order to speed me through Registration, and now no one can find it. The traditional collapse in an unpalatial hotel room, and phone-call to assure Hazel that I'm safely here ... only to be informed by Reception that because I'm a guest and they haven't grabbed a credit card imprint, they're bloody well not letting me make outside calls. Reluctantly I go downstairs and retaliate with extreme prejudice by telling that mistress of tactful hotel liaison, Chris Bell. (Hazel: 'She has a terrifying hat!') There follows a blur of action as Chris leaps over the reception desk with a single bound: stunned receptionists arc in slow motion across the lobby, crash through windows, wedge themselves gorily into the revolving door, etc. Yes, this is an Adelphi convention all right.
The hotel's strong point, the vast central lounge which serves as focal point and general sprawling place, is a bit of a handicap to those wanting to chivvy fans into actual programme items. It's so much easier to sprawl and let the Eastercon slip dreamily by. With the resistless, driving will-power for which I'm so notorious, I do precisely this. Vignette: graphic artist Ron Tiner deciding that the Isabella-coloured surgical collar which prevents Diana Wynne Jones's neck from imploding looks a bit ... dull. In no time at all he has livened it up with a frieze of naked dancing nymphs.
Big paranoia day: my talk is at 6pm this evening, the latest I could negotiate. A later hour, when more people will have arrived, is ruled out by intricately complex reasons of con organization; the weekend, when everyone will have arrived, is ruled out since Intervention has four guests and has decided that attendees' minds may be blown only once a day by the wondrousness of a GoH performance.
At breakfast, Alison Scott looks balefully at her silently sleeping offspring. 'This is Not Representative. She's quiet only at conventions. Knows when she's on to a good thing.' Conversely, I explain, I am ever so quiet when at home.
A walk around the town discloses that on the streets of early-morning Liverpool, Big Issue sellers somewhat outnumber mere civilians. On return I find a grim checkpoint at the Adelphi lounge entrance: 'Can I see your badge?' asks a very small fan, and without breaking step I frankly confess 'Haven't got one!' rather than pause to argue. At Registration -- cunningly located beyond the badge checkpoint -- they explain that my badge is in a very safe place indeed, and that scores of people are diligently seeking it. This seems a good time to cower and whimper in the Fan Lounge ('BoSh's'), where chairbeing John Richards greets me with fresh reassurances: 'I'M SORRY, I'M SORRY! I KNOW ALL ABOUT YOUR BLOODY BADGE! I CAN'T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT! IT'S ALL FALLING APART!' Obviously he is putting a brave face on things.
But wait! In a corner of BoSh's I discover and proceed to rummage through a temptingly abandoned cache of staff badges. Am still wondering whether I can get away with being Tourist Information, Hotel Staff, Green Room Catamite or other interesting possibilities, when the hand of Anne-Marie Wright thrusts a new badge pin deep into my chest. God bless Intervention. A mere sixteen and a half hours after being alerted to the problem, they have resourcefully dubbed me Temporary Dave Langford. It is a common feeling.
John Jarrold has also become temporary, or at any rate part-time, and gloats at length about how he'll be editing 24 sf/fantasy books a year for Simon & Schuster UK, while working in London only two days a week, and another day for S&S at home, leaving him able to spend the rest of his time at profitable freelance editing or heroic pub sessions, he's not quite sure which.
This leads inexorably to discussion of Intervention's specially imported real beer ('Oh God, the hotel didn't get anything like enough,' wails the committee). The three flavours are Theakston's Old Peculier, a bit heavy for merry quaffing sessions; Somebody's Mild, which I don't like; and a surreal cider of that curious cloudy yellow known to connoisseurs as 'Mrs Blenkinsop's Specimen'. (Simo has an alarming related thought while drinking this and noticing the brand name is Bulmer's -- just as word goes round about Ken Bulmer's stroke and hospitalization.) This last isn't too bad if you shut your eyes, but gets steadily lumpier towards the bottom of each cask....
It may be taken as read -- and indeed as an essential aspect of Eastercon heritage -- that the real beer runs out, to be replaced by hastily negotiated and progressively less real substitutes. England, my England.
Onward, to the Opening Ceremony. GoH Brian Aldiss may still be on a train and GoH Jon Bing in Norway, but John Richards (wearing a three-piece suit which he overtly hopes will irritate people) knows that the show must go on. 'We Are Grey!' he bellows to a suddenly baffled audience. It is his catchphrase of the hour, conceivably borrowed from John Major. The general effect is something like this:
'We are grey! We stand between science fiction and fantasy, between the mundane and the imaginative, between the light and the dark! We are grey! We lie between drunkenness and sobriety, between multiplication and division, between coherence and incoherence! We are grey! We occupy that elusive middle ground between going on far too long and going on even longer than that.... Because we are grey!'
And Octavia Butler and I are duly introduced, and I fail in my attempt to pick John's pocket as a live demonstration of the thievery he's currently warning people about ('We are grey! We position ourselves steadfastly between those who leave their room doors open, and those who fail to close them!' ... well, perhaps not in those exact words), and Intervention is well and truly opened. This leaves no further safety-barrier between me and my own talk. I begin to gibber, while Paul Barnett says helpful things like 'But you've done this lots of times before -- you can't possibly be nervous.' I favour him with a Look.
The actual talk is a resolute attempt to do something different. I sense -- perhaps wrongly -- that after past outbreaks of Langford, con audiences wearily expect me to conduct a brisk tour of recent and not-so-recent sf, wielding a merciless bladder on clichés and plot devices, and never ever omitting to have a go at L. Ron Hubbard. This time, therefore, it's fanzines, and specifically the 1970s fanzines (plus a few early-80s ones) that made me think it was worth hanging around in the fannish microcosm. Subject matter dictates form: you can't assume an audience has read all or any of this sometimes esoteric stuff. So between the linking material, my text is a mini-fanthology of brief extracts that I still think are funny, clever or memorable ... like the escalating 'Peter Nicholls definition of sf' devised by Leroy Kettle:
'Sci-fi can be succinctly defined as speculation, whether based on established scientific facts or on logical pseudo-facts consistent with the framework of the fiction in question, involving smelly green pimply aliens furiously raping or eating, or both, beautiful naked bare-breasted chicks, covering them in slime, red, oozing, living slime, dribbling from every horrific orifice, squeezing out between bulbous pulpy lips onto the sensuous velvety skin of the writhing sweating slave-girls, their bodies cut and bruised by knotted whips brandished by giant blond vast-biceped androids called Simon, and written in the Gothic mode.' (True Rat 7, 1976)
The great relief is that the audience laughs -- sometimes with disconcerting uproar at minor throwaways, sometimes rather more mutedly than hoped, but it all averages out and I end up finding myself not actually dead on stage. General collapse beckons, but the bar beckons harder. How I envy all those gifted sods who can wander blithely on-stage and improvise.
Meanwhile Paul Barnett, chronically overworked in past weeks, is secretly far more stressed than I by what he perceives as utterly shambolic preparations for the imminent Fantasy Encyclopedia launch party ... and keels over. He is already protesting volubly while being loaded on to a stretcher and removed to hospital, but I am unaware of this when a helpful messenger locates me in the pizza cellar and cries: 'You know Paul's had a stroke?' We have all just heard that Ken Bulmer has had a stroke; we remember John Brunner at Intersection. The world goes a bit funny.
This is why, to my shame -- with 'John Grant' busy talking his way out of hospital and John Clute far away in America -- my own backup role in providing some editorial presence at the FE launch is confined to sitting clammily in a dim cellar, staring at slowly congealing pizza while being soothed by Alice and Steve Lawson. Gulp.
The happy anticlimax involves a late drink with the returned Paul (still plaintively protesting about officious medics) and others of the usual suspects. Diana has furtively visited Boots and acquired a bandage or something to cover up her erotic Classical Frieze. We scoff at her.
A good day on which to recover from Friday. I soon stop logging occurrences of Saturday's most popular query, which rings a variety of scatological changes on the theme 'Why the hell was your talk scheduled before I even arrived?' Martin Hoare passes on the latest Chinese whispers -- 'So Paul's had a heart attack then?' -- but I feel a bit stronger now.
My notebook records some favourite Evolution party slogans in the food area: 'Do not take glasses into the gene pool!' and 'Enjoy yourselves -- or we'll clone Simo!' The next note is an overheard from Brian Aldiss Himself at a nearby table: 'I was reading The Sun, my favourite newspaper ...' Unfortunately, this is where my written record appears to stop. I envisage Langford's Unfinished Con Report, which like The Mystery of Edwin Drood will achieve a lasting reputation fuelled by critical controversy about what happened in the end ... but see a mysterious Dickensian vision of three spectral Attitude editors shaking their heads firmly.
The Fantasy Encyclopedia panel starts soberly enough with Paul's serious overview of how the mighty project took shape, but inevitably silliness creeps in. Abetted by Chris Bell, Diana graphically re-enacts her horror at reading some early drafts and making countless marginal notes like 'BOLLOCKS!' and 'Oh God, Clute, you can't say that,' and 'What does MENIPPEAN mean anyway?' Picture the hurt face of J. Clute peeping into these pages, expecting structuralist critical comments and many a grave consideration of JUNGIAN PSYCHOLOGY, only to find all these learned cross-references to BOLLOCKS!
I am well armed with droll anecdotes about hideous lapses in erudition and cross-referencing, having researched all this for the special Eastercon Ansible 116 1/2 . Soon we are plumbing such depths as my traditional spoof Clute entry ('We are complicit, all of us, in the haecceity engendered by Pratchett's chiaroscuro of disjected topoi ...' ), and also belatedly trying to indicate through the general aura of fun and farce that this is a Damn Good Serious Book which everyone ought to buy. A deplorable anecdote about our publishers Little, Brown begins to well up within me, but is lost since it's time to close the panel down. Which is jolly good luck, as Tim Holman of L,B proves to be in the audience and listening attentively. (Chorus: 'Ha ha ha, Hee hee hee, Little Brown book, don't I love thee!')
Subsequently I begin to wish that I'd told the wicked story after all, owing to the discovery that mighty LB/Orbit publicist Michelle Hodgson has now sneaked away for Easter holiday fun, leaving her authors (Mike Rohan and the 'Jonathan Wylie' duo, as well as our Encyclopedia crowd) to organize their own signing session.
Saturday, I'm fairly certain, is also the day of my solitary attempt to charge a modest meal to my room as sternly instructed by Chairman Richards, only to be pityingly informed by the waiter that because I am an unsecured guest of honour I have been given a special key-card which doesn't allow anything to be charged. Time for another word with Chris Bell, leading to terrible screams from Reception, severed limbs littering the lobby floor, and other traditional evidences of diplomacy. 
Psychic examination of my notebook's blank pages suggests a further lapse into the continuum of just lounging around and having gossipy fun. Dollops of this may be assumed between practically any two paragraphs of the present report. One such long natter is with Elizabeth Kerner, a newish Tor author who proves to be an incipient Ernest Bramah fan and patiently endures my entire repertoire of misremembered Kai Lung quotations. Such random encounters are fraught with peril, as shown when Martin Hoare (Man of Tact) later goes into a long routine of 'Cor, that Elizabeth Whatsit, you're well in there, chatting her up like anything, nudge nudge, I saw you ... Did you get any?' and similar gentlemanly badinage. Oh dear.
Exploring the Adelphi's surprisingly cheap cellar bar exposes one to local entrepreneurs flogging things like battered soap and cosmetics which have inexplicably fallen off the back of a shelf at Boots. A recurring phenomenon is the dingy fellow who sells a soiled copy of The Big Issue and then snatches it back again: 'it's my last one, see?'
The evening outing involves tastefully crutched Jo Fletcher leading a vast party of Gollancz hangers-on and camp followers to Zorba the Greek's, for a confrontation with nameless meze that is possibly inimical to human digestion as we know it. This party's merry excess looks likely to go down in Gollancz legend as The Last Big Thrash On Expenses Before Pratchett Moved To Corgi, Bugger Him.
As so often, I fall back on spies for reports of alleged events. The feared BBC camera crew -- infesting the Adelphi for a tasteful documentary on how harassed hotel staff cope with vast influxes of costumed geeks who believe in UFOs, etc -- proves surprisingly inoffensive, and even receives some co-operation. At the site selection ballot, the vote is taken twice 'because the camera crew missed it first time round....' As Bob Day later reports, fannish hands shoot up in reasonable imitation of mass spontaneity at a Chinese Communist Party congress, and certain souls not entirely in tune with New Labour thinking shout: 'Card Vote!'
The lack of a newsletter to record the victory of Reconvene as the 1999 Eastercon goads certain superfluously technological Plokta editors into generating Ceci N'est Pas Un Newsletter, which also reveals Monday's copious programme changes. It's too late to promote the autograph sessions, not listed in the official ReadMe programme schedule. The sole authorized news outlet is the 'Chinese Wall' noticeboard, secreted in an obscure corner and (as the Ploktoids cruelly put it) promoted only via the Chinese Wall. Intense embarrassment shrouds the knowledge that our hero committee have decided to have no newsletter since they feel -- or claim they feel -- unable to equal the pinnacles of the Langford/Barnett The Adelphi Coracle three years previously. Oh, come on, chaps: ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Another thing I've missed is the alleged sight of those few receptionists who have survived Chris Bell being inveigled into a filking session near the lobby lifts. With enthusiastic Schadenfreude, my informant insists that the receptionists sing a whole lot better than filkdom's finest....
One fleeting Sunday-afternoon memory: a signing session at which Octavia Butler has an eager and constantly replenished queue stretching the full length of the Adelphi lounge, while Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison -- whose queues intermittently stretch for the full length of this page -- are consoled by passing fans pointing out their relative lack of scarcity value.
Sunday evening, for me and Paul and regular guest star Mike Cule, is Thog Night: a Live Thog's Masterclass in the BoSh's lounge. This time I've thrown myself madly into the spirit of the thing, with elaborate rituals of preparation. All Thog's extant specimens of sf and fantasy at its worst are classified under convenient headings like 'The Purple Prose of Cairo' or 'See Nipples and Die', with day-glow posters for each. Each category's quote slips are carefully printed out on different-coloured paper, almost as though there is an actual good reason for this. There are paper plates, lovingly purchased by me, to hold each pile of slips. (These plates replace the original, too-complex props envisaged. Steve Green, Overlord of BoSh's: 'Er, I don't know that I could find you any cardboard boxes....') There is Thog's Rigged Deck of Cards, and the Dice of Thog, and heaps of little chocolate Easter eggs to reward victims who manage to read out one of these 'differently good' paragraphs without actual disgrace.
One thing we know about Live Thog is that it's difficult to keep within the confines of a puny 50-minute or one-hour programme segment. The Intervention choice is a strictly curtailed slot in the main hall, or all the time we like in BoSh's. Part of the reason for the cramped schedule is that several potential hours of programming are sacrificed to the 'courtesy' of closing down alternative streams during all four GoH talks. They order these things differently in America: at Boskone 29 no one seemed perturbed that GoH Jane Yolen had nine items involving 26 speakers running against her main talk (while as a lesser GoH at the same event, I scored only five and 19).
Less theorizing and more Thog! BoSh's would be roomy enough but for all these huge round tables devouring the floor space. Will this be a disaster? Dutch courage is evidently needed first, and I demand great carafes of red wine to accompany my tandoori trout in the restaurant down the road. Here it is gently broken to me that this is a Muslim enterprise....
'It must be hell at the back,' I find myself thinking as Live Thog begins to gain momentum. As planned, the heavily scripted opening (with Paul being unsubtly landed with his own unfortunate line, 'Then she would feel her breasts and discover that she lacked a penis ...') gives way to a measure of anarchy. Mike and Paul and I and various audience volunteers relentlessly break down sanity with our barrage of awful, awful quotations. The rear of BoSh's is a standing-room-only crush. To speed the pace we eventually dismiss the last audience participants in a shower of mini Easter eggs, and the Three Thoggeers set out to exhaust every single pile of quotation slips.
An hour. Sweat flows freely in all directions. An hour and a half. Grown men pull their own heads off rather than contemplate our treasured passages from John Norman. Can it really have gone on for two hours? Every plate of quote-slips is empty, and Mike swings into my scripted finale with selected passages of True Romance and Feminine Hygiene which require all his thespian abilities. Boy, can he thesp. We score 102% on the audience Lasciviometer with his impassioned rendition of a Lionel Fanthorpe heroine who spends nearly 400 words cleaning her teeth. One by one. The incisors, the canines, the bicuspids.... Just when you think it's all over and not even Fanthorpe can further delay the return to the plot:
'She had taken barely a dozen paces when she was assailed by a horrible thought that she had not cleaned the top left inside molars. She stood in an agony of uncertainty for five minutes, then went back to the bathroom area of her living quarters, recharged the brush, and carefully cleaned again the top left molars on their inside surfaces. She looked at her reflection in the mirror; it foamed back at her like a rabid dog.' ('John E. Muller', Dark Continuum, 1964)
Afterwards, limp and hoarse and surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of slips of paper as though in the wake of a small ticker-tape parade, we feel remarkably pleased.
Getting to bed, however late, is complicated by the Norwegian party which seems to have been raging all weekend, so close to my own room that overspill and detritus are heaped up against the door. Tonight's deposit consists of a collapsed, vaguely bellicose Graham Joyce -- the Fantasy Encyclopedist within me makes automatic cross-references to LIMINAL BEING and GUARDIAN OF THE THRESHOLD -- who, Sphinx-like, repeatedly confutes me with his RIDDLE: 'How the fuck can you go to bed now, Langford?' After fortifying myself a few times with Norwegian rotgut, I finally climb over Graham and escape from fun. That he continues to slump against my door is indicated by random banging, varied with muffled oaths. It would be childish to fill a toothglass with water and pour it under the door, I reprove myself. Well, it would be childish to do it more than three times. Outside, damp silence eventually falls.
Owing to a points failure at Memory Junction, Monday seems to have been diverted to entirely the wrong destination. The subsequent pathologist's report implies a fair amount of Langfordian fun.
What can I reconstruct? At the closing ceremony, John 'We Are Even Greyer Than We Were' Richards gracefully acknowledges a shortage of guests to put on display, since -- in eerie echo of Friday -- Brian Aldiss is on a train and Jon Bing is back in Norway. An unexpected surprise for me is Paul Kincaid's fiendish presentation of the 1986 BSFA Short Story Award, the absence of whose physical trophy has been a regular target of Langford mockery ever since. Now I can no longer mock and must console myself with an exquisite art-form constructed from yellow plastic. Sic transit.
Other memories are elusive. Most especially, I have no memory whatever of Chris Bell asking me for the 5,271,009th wheedling time if I'd do the 1999 Eastercon newsletter, and my crazed lips (momentarily possessed by the mind control of Alien Greys) saying something not a million miles from 'Oh, all right.' This alleged conversation is now officially expunged from the histories. Believe me.
All the usual Adelphi stories emerge from the woodwork. Fire extinguishers have crashed excitingly through doors, burglars of the dealers' room prove utterly undeterred by gophers sleeping therein, and Gary Stratmann is in maximal gibber mode. Most hideous and appalling of all -- on the Mel Brooks principle that 'Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.' -- the text of my GoH speech has vanished and all its last-minute scribbles are lost to posterity. Should I be flattered by the notion of larcenous yet literate chambermaids ... felonious but fannish Liverpudlians? Or, of course, I may simply have lost the bloody thing.
In strict accordance with tradition, the long train journey home passes in a sense of bleary remoteness, as though seen through thick and grimy glass. This post-conventionness is an eerie mental state in which small things become obsessive. I remember coming back from a Glasgow Eastercon on one of those dreadful Nightrider tickets, rumbling through the small hours in a peculiar electric half-light and failing to read an sf anthology containing that man Aldiss's 'Where The Lines Converge' ... which at that disoriented time seemed the most hauntingly resonant title ever.
Something similar happens on the way back from Intervention, as I study Banana Wings and Mark Plummer's article titled (irrelevantly, and for no reason except Noel Collyer's expressed desire that the tightness of his socks should not be bandied in the fanzine) 'Tool Man and the Socks of Constriction'. For an hour or two this seems the funniest title there has ever been or will ever be. What do conventions do to the brain?
Obviously Intervention must have been pretty good....
 John Clute remarked, critically, that he would have preferred 'chiaroscuros'.
 Chris Bell wrote to Attitude as follows: 'That's the one with the terrifying hat. I intend to get Dave Langford later. None of the Adelphi staff were mangled, spindled, mutilated or even befurtled much. It was my child who got caught in the revolving door, not the manager, who was trying to rescue the brat at the time. It wasn't me who demolished the manager's desk using one of our powered wheelchairs to do it. I deny everything. You rat Langford. ("Langford you dog!" being already taken.) I don't know why I love you like I do... And I shall set my hat on you. ("Fang -- gum him!")'
|First published in Attitude 11, ed. Mike Abbot, John Dallman
and Pam Wells, 1997. |
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