1984 marks the tenth anniversary of my Oxford finals, of blowing up portions of Brasenose College during the summer ball, and of various too-hideous-to-relate consequences resulting from this vile naughtiness. "The lad shows spirit," said the Ministry of Defence and happily loosed me on the nuclear nasties of AWRE, little suspecting that 1984 would also see my rude exposé of, ahem, somewhere not at all like AWRE in The Leaky Establishment.... Ah, what a cornucopia of nostalgic recollection. How could I fail to spend the August bank holiday weekend at Oxcon 84? Besides, we didn't have enough money to make it up north for Silicon, chiz chiz chiz.
The damp, miasmal city was the same as ever. There were the same old bookshops (but Thornton's, whose upstairs layout resembles the library in The Name of the Rose, has had all its floors condemned: you have to decide what book you want, and the manager ropes himself to a couple of assistants before braving the dangerous North Stairs in search of it). The same coachloads of Japanese tourists with camera lenses longer than themselves, marching in highly trained squads from landmark to landmark, sixty shutters clicking simultaneously at the guide's crisp command. The same old Turf Tavern, famous for being hidden down obscure and unknown back alleys, and more bulgingly crowded than ever with tourists who'd read about its legendary obscurity in their guidebooks. And beyond all this, a particularly soggy bit of Oxford concerning which even the guidebooks are discreetly silent: St Catherine's College, venue of the con.
St Catz, Hazel tells me, regularly appears in books illustrating Great Low Points of Sixties Architecture. It's a sprawl of damp-stained concrete, tinted glass (full-length curtains are obligatory along a whole wall of each bedroom) and, inside, walls and floors of naked brick. The most striking bit is a towering conversation-piece suggesting a cross between a guillotine and an egg slicer, apparently a specimen of High Art. Space-fillers at ground level include weird little parallel grids of many five-foot walls alternating with five-foot hedges, with just enough room to walk on the pointless paths between. I only visited the place a few times in the old days, most significantly when by dead of night a team of BNC students nicked a gigantic water-buffalo (front end only), and – for what at the time seemed like excellent reasons – hung it on the gate of the Museum of the History of Science in Broad Street.
Of course a con doesn't need a tasteful venue of great architectural merit, merely some fans and a bar. Arriving on Friday afternoon, the first thing we discovered was that in a daring and unparalleled feat of negotiation, chairman Hugh Mascetti had arranged for the bar at St Catz to keep normal pub hours. "It's all David S. Power's fault," Hugh explained carefully. "Everything that goes wrong is his fault. The Committee agreed it by vote." (Oxford has certainly changed since my day. You used not to be able to cause widespread screaming, retching and fainting merely by intoning in a crowded bar the runes "David S. Power.") Awestruck audiences were later seen to gape and boggle as speakers like Brian (Guest of Honour) Aldiss and yours truly held forth in the con-hall with no throat lubricant but a mug of coffee.
An added joy was that the college, invited to provide snacks, had offered a choice of (a) sit-down meals to be booked and paid for several weeks in advance, the number of persons eating to be previously notified in writing and sworn to by the entire Committee in the presence of a Commissioner for Oaths, or (b) nothing. Several Oxcon members whom I later interviewed in the Radcliffe Infirmary following their college breakfast confirmed that (b) had been the right choice. But whenever one crept off for an emergency transfusion of pub grub, the enjoyment was poisoned by the knowledge that one was wasting the rare, coveted Oxcon opening hours....
Waiting with Hazel for the magic time 6:30pm and scribbling the notes for a talk (having been lured into giving a reading from my latest masterpiece, I found that as a special surprise the Committee had billed my bit as a lecture), we met Famous Monster of Fandom Ken Lake, who for the first time had lured his wife Jan to a con. She and Hazel developed a vein of conversation about the weirdness of fannish husbands which said menfolk found disconcerting, if not seditious. Wits jolted by the three-day crash initiation, Jan later admitted that fans were actually human and fun – though on mature reflection after Oxcon, this was amended to merely "fun".
Of course there was fun, though with a small con rattling round in a big college like a mere few pints inside Martin Hoare, the fun was sometimes in odd places. Several people opined that it might have been an idea to squeeze everything into the bar area and environs, and forget the classy lecture hall located in that part of St Catz known as the Distance. The most crowded spot during the long, dead, barless hours was often the computer room, where one could peer over people's shoulders watching them make wallies of themselves, while marvelling at the collection of several hundred £5-£15 game cassettes owned by people who "never buy hardbacks because they're too expensive." Other spectator sports included Jan Lake loosing a fearful tirade at her hubby for wearing his naff kaftan come Fancy Dress time; a determined fan group's efforts to survive the afternoon on endless pints of beer from lunchtime (left in the open outside the bar, these reserves made excellent fly-traps); famous TV star Mike "Resistance is useless!" Cule summarizing the entire plot of V in 90 seconds including voice impersonations and dramatic gestures; envious tooth-gnashing at the bottle of whisky I'd thoughtfully secreted in my bag; Ken Slater's impassioned book-room lecture on Why Interzone Is The Wrong Size; random contingents of filthy pros including Chris Priest, Lisa Tuttle and Bob Sheckley (who like Frank Herbert had shaved off his facial hair, and like Rob Holdstock didn't get front-page coverage of the event in Locus); and, so I am reliably led to believe, a programme.
In the lecture theatre, people were trying to raise laughs by talking about the most unpromising subjects: me on the everyday routine of civil service life ("so during the tea break he came sprinting past me with the important bit of Polaris wrapped in his lab-coat and it occurred to me that by merely sticking out my foot I could trip him and ..."), Niall Ross on black holes, Hugh Mascetti on guns and blasting the shit out of anything that moves, and Brian Aldiss on Brian Aldiss. Brian was also much in evidence at the auction, making crazed bids to keep certain editions of his books from the light of day – tearing them up to enormous public acclaim – making further and even more crazed bids when a sadistic Brian Ameringen started auctioning the bits....
"Look at this blurb," said the wounded GoH afterwards, flinging a dearly bought copy of The Eighty-Minute Hour at a passing Langford. "The buggers declared a finish to my career. 'You may have to wait until 2001 to read a better Aldiss. But don't count on it.' Bloody insulting. It's not as bad, though, as what they put on The Male Response: 'Every woman in the city was his!' And did you see that thing I tore from limb to limb, that pathetic emaciated object, All About Venus, all that was left of Farewell Fantastic Venus when those infant-butchers at Dell had finished with it...."
So it went: charades, pool, a particularly tortuous Astral Leauge initiation session with only a mop available as the ritual pole, long treks across uncharted Oxford to battle the thronging tourists for such scraps of food as might remain in far-off restaurants, a Business Meeting at which the black spot was handed on to a prospective Camcon in (guess where)....
It was all pretty much OK, but despite heroic feats of booze-smuggling the bar problem was a severe blow – not because fans want to spend the whole time getting pissed ("Speak for yourself!" cries the distant voice of Martin Hoare) but because those empty periods left Oxcon with no compelling focal point for the key activities of Sitting, Nattering, and Committing Character Assassination. When on Saturday afternoon it all got too much, I must confess the Langfords sneaked furtively off to have some rarefied fun in Oxford's innumerable bookshops until the evening came. This was not as extreme a gesture as that of Chris Suslowicz, who went away to Bisley for his Sunday treat and shot things.
As a con it may have been a bit so-and-so; as a weekend in wonderful Oxford with interludes of convention fun, it was jolly triffic. Besides, any event at which I sell out of copies of The Leaky Establishment (plug, plug) must be good. Except of course for the unlucky buyers.
Next year ... Camcon or Silicon. Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?