The guest of honour came on stage in a black t-shirt with the white-lettered slogan: "Tolkien's Dead." Beneath, in smaller print: "J.K. Rowling said no." Below and smaller again: "Philip Pullman couldn't make it." The minuscule bottom line of this optician's chart read, "Hi! I'm Terry Pratchett."
Yes, another Discworld convention has come and gone. Mr P. opened the ceremonies by announcing that he wasn't dead. Certain reports of his recent hospital visit for an angioplasty (the best way to a man's heart is through his groin) had been GREATLY EXAGGERATED. I watched him carefully during a weekend of tireless performance, closely monitoring his bowel movements for reasons which will emerge, and confirm that he continued at all times not to be dead. Although the head of the Assassins' Guild was brutally and multiply assassinated ...
These biennial conventions have loosened up over the years. Back in 2000, everybody seemed to attend every programme item, except for aged, case-hardened SF fans – me and the SF Foundation administrator – who were amazed to find ourselves sole patrons of the hotel bar through one long afternoon. Now there's more of a social buzz, and the bar is rarely empty, so I don't feel so guiltily conspicuous.
Doubtless to Terry's relief, the programme doesn't focus solely on him ... though I seized the opportunity to quote the US bookstore website that declared, "Terry Pratchett is one of America's most entertaining writers." The other guests (seemingly everyone involved in the mighty Discworld empire) witter about their own hobby-horses. Recommending different authors is actively encouraged. I plugged Susanna Clarke's debut fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and read from James Branch Cabell's The Music from Behind the Moon (1926), which weirdly anticipates the Pratchettian common-sense solution to fairytale dilemmas. Stephen Briggs pushed several favourites, from Anthony Buckeridge of Jennings fame to some guy called Douglas Adams.
(There was also a Vogon poetry competition, from whose winning entry we reluctantly learned that the "hotel has a certain cachet / As the recognised meeting place for fans of Terry Pratchet.")
But the mindboggling enthusiasm of Discworld fandom remains very different from the laid-back SF conventions I'm used to. This year's event went completely ape, or completely orangutan, thanks to the committee's ice-breaking idea of dividing the membership into Ankh-Morpork city guilds who competed for status points – small tokens dispensed by organisers and guests. "Ten points to Gryffindor!" That sort of thing.
Most guests found themselves appointed as guild leaders. "CMOT" Briggs was disgusted to be landed with the Merchants despite (as he remarked, many times) being cool and wearing black, a natural Assassin. Diane Duane, in her ladylike way, took charge of those ladies of negotiable affection the Seamstresses ... and so on. I hope no special type-casting was in force when I was named leader of the Plumbers and Dunnikin-divers.
Forewarned of this, I'd invested £1.99 on guild insignia in the shape of a large rubber plunger, for a one-off gag at the opening ceremony. Little did I know what madness would follow. Seamstresses offered hugs for tokens, Assassins found that selling insurance paid better than wholesale inhumation, Alchemists subjected other guilds to drug tests, Thieves enthusiastically nicked personal property but always left a receipt, and Fools developed sad ploys like: "If you give me one token, I'll tell you a bad joke. If you give me two, I won't." The Merchants, under the disaffected Mr Briggs, spent their time plotting furiously against the Assassins and eventually ranked last.
I expected the Plumbers and Dunnikin-divers to fade quietly away, since hardly anyone chose this uncool option. My approach to the daily, compulsory guild meetings was to round up the usual cesspits ... that is, to march the tiny membership to the bar and buy them drinks. But mass enthusiasm infected even this loyal though malodorous few! I'd rejected the idea of bringing some peanut butter to, ahem, personalise the official plunger. My trained fanatics substituted runny chocolate dip, daubed themselves horrifically, and stalked the hotel corridors with cries of "Gissa token and we'll go away!" I don't know what the opposition thought, but by God they frightened me. In the end, although the seething hordes of Assassins and Seamstresses contended for top honours, the Plumbers with their single-figure membership placed fourth. Amazing.
Support came from Terry Pratchett himself, whose sense of fundamental justice compelled him to slip me a token every time he went through the motions. "When it was a biggie," he later explained, "I gave him two." Terry became fascinated by escalating free-market economics in the guilds' savage competition for tokens. "Margaret Thatcher's nirvana," he called it, and demanded a replay at the next Discworld event – where, he proposed, every single convention member should be given an equal number of tokens and Nature allowed to take its course.
A Terryfying vision of the future, indeed. Will the results of this bold socioeconomic experiment be reflected in the city finances of Ankh-Morpork? Wait for 2006, and we shall see. Meanwhile, reverting to real money, the convention's charity auction raised well over £10,000. Lucky Orangutan Foundation.
David Langford awaits our cartoonist's interpretation of this column with extreme nervousness.