At the Vampire Ball

Discworld conventions are strange affairs, and the 2002 event collided with an even stranger venue – the Hanover International Hotel in Hinckley, where a past SF convention was fascinated by the weird tat offered for sale behind internal windows in hotel corridors. The stock had changed, alas, and despite a disturbing predominance of upmarket teddybears I was unable to trace the former star attractions we'd named the Dead Teddybear Piano, the Sperm Balloons, and the Cannibal Pig Clock.

Any lack of surrealism was made up for at the opening ceremony, where even Terry Pratchett recoiled slightly at the Being John Malkovich moment they'd arranged for him. The house lights went up to reveal an audience of 600 people in identical masks – full colour photos (with eyeholes) of the face of Terry Pratchett. After some seconds, the guest of honour rallied: "Why didn't I get one of those?"

Discworld conventions are organized with almost insane thoroughness. All hotel function space was suitably renamed: Harga's House of Ribs for the restaurant, Small Gods for kids, and the Koom Valley Lounge – named for a legendary dwarfs vs trolls battleground – which turned out to be where you played the DW board game Thud, a battle of dwarfs vs trolls. My own solo talk was given, more or less appropriately, in the Djinn Palace, and I needn't explain the small, tiled function rooms renamed as Lords and Ladies.

At a Pratchett signing where I played straight man (the one who doesn't get to sign anything), one enthusiastic lady almost swooned as Terry's pen whizzed over her book: "This is the best moment of my whole life!" Eventually, after hundreds of title pages had been defaced by the dread Pratchett scrawl, some splendid young fellow let me sign his battered copy of the Discworld quizbook. I gasped in gratitude: "This is the best moment of my whole life!"

"Room 101 is a signing queue," Terry groaned, wrist aching. In fact his next appearance was a Room 101 interview, featuring an utterly lifelike Nigella Lawson improvised from a Mr Potato Head kit. (Celebrity artist Paul Kidby did the artistic sellotaping.) Various awfulnesses of the Pratchett world-view were aired and abused, including Human Resources Managers and Nigerian spam – but little did Mr Discworld know that an unexpected Room 101 horror awaited him. The death of Terry Pratchett!

Martin Rowson's newspaper cartoon spot "The Abuses of Literacy" regularly shows literary figures coming to nasty ends. He did Terry in July 2002, depicting the result of overstrain on one of those heroic signing tours. Speech balloon from geeky, zit-laden fan: "He just slumped forward as his entire spinal column ratcheted out of his mouth all over me copy of The Plumbing of Discworld!" (Other fan: "Groovy!")

So Discworld luminaries Colette Reap and Alan Bellingham clubbed together with me to buy the original Rowson drawing for presentation to its aghast subject, allowing me to intone the words: "Terry Pratchett – This Is Your Death!"

A sadder note was struck with an informal tribute to the late great artist Josh Kirby, with me, Terry, convention chairman Paul Rood and Josh's long-time partner Jackie Rigden all struggling for the right words. But I've already written about Josh here.

Inevitably, some fans wore Discworld costume. A particularly terrifying Death tended to fall over, having miscalculated the importance of large enough eyeholes in an enterprise of this kind. I liked the Tooth Fairy, in nurse's uniform with tooth rather than Red Cross insignia and a very obtrusive pair of pliers. The Sandman, an Old Father Time figure, had a beltful of small sandbags rated from Doze to Coma (the Discworld Sandman, readers know, induces sleep without taking the sand out of the bag). These were just daily wear: the official Maskerade saw the really spectacular costumes.

Then came the Vampire Ball, beginning with a black-tie banquet presided over by the very sinister Stephen Briggs as the Count de Magpyr, cloak, fangs and all. "My lord, there is an empty seat at High Table. Will you choose your dinner ... companion?"

For those to whom Discworld is a religion, a certain cunning artificer presided over the rites of the Church of Om on Sunday morning. "Oh Great Om, Bless us miserable sinners gathered in your holy church like a hideous pustule upon the face of an angel ..." Yes, Discworld has indeed become a religion, but a remarkably, even suspiciously nice one.

David Langford admits to being a Discworld convention guest, mellowed by lavish hospitality. Hic.