Minicon Diary

So there I was booked to be Fan Guest of Honour at Minicon 33 in Minneapolis over Easter weekend, 1998. The trouble is that despite the pose of spurious cool, I'm not exactly a seasoned international traveller. Previous US trips (Noreascon II, Boston, 1980; Orycon 11, Portland, 1989; Boskone 29, Springfield MA, 1992) have failed to leave me sufficiently blasé. At the slightest contact with trouble, the veil of unconvincing suavity is ripped away to reveal the all too convincing gibbering wreck beneath....

Monday 6 April

Phase one seemed straightforward. Catch train from Reading station, disembogue at Gatwick, check in with plenty of time to spare for TWA Flight 721 flying to St Louis at 11:55. (St Louis? Mine not to reason why. The connection was apparently cheaper that way.) As it turned out, Dorking Deepdene station will be infesting my nightmares for years to come ... since just beyond, with three stations still to go, the mighty Thames Trains express stopped and made vigorous idling noises, continuing in this exciting course of inaction for the next forty minutes. Then it reversed into Dorking again, while the conductor fended off lynch mobs with the practised diplomatic claim that he knew nothing about anything and neither did anyone else. Subjective aeons passed. We draw a veil over the eventual resumption of movement at 11:30, nicely calculated to raise my hopes ... the very, very slow subsequent progress, as though the batteries had run down and this train could no longer do hills ... Langfordian efforts to preserve tranquil calm through an unscheduled bloody halt at bloody Betchworth, may plagues of locusts and boils afflict the bloody awful place ... and of our eventual stately progression into Gatwick, merry as a funeral bell and ten minutes after flight time.

TWA were quite nice and invited me to try again on Tuesday, when there were no free seats on Flight 721 but someone or other was rather more than likely to cancel. So it came about, boys and girls, that six hours after leaving Reading I was home again.

Tuesday 7 April

Not being one to keep my woes to myself, I had duly whinged at full throttle in the general direction of Minicon liaison Geri Sullivan and travel agent Rick Foss. Various strings attached to TWA had been pulled, with what effect no one was sure. Tuesday's train – an earlier one, just in case – went smoothly; my suitcase was sucked into the Gatwick system with huge luminous STANDBY labels all over it; and the real suspense began in the boarding lounge as what seemed like several dozen similarly placed passengers all got the nod before me. One gloated at the top of his voice about being allotted a cancelled first-class seat. I started feeling very lonely in the almost empty lounge – but, not to prolong the suspense, a boarding pass was thrust into my profusely sweating hands some seconds before take-off.

There isn't much that's new to say about transatlantic flights. Notable differences from past experience:

(a) My choice of Very Fat Book this time was The Count of Monte Cristo ... which may have something to do with years of hearing about its influence on Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination / Tiger! Tiger!, and even shiftily mentioning the fact myself in print, without ever having read the book – the Dumas, I mean; I forget how many times I've reread the Bester. The approved John Clute phrase is "use of secondary sources", meaning "Of course I haven't read the bloody thing." Anyway, Monte Cristo is now recommended as a rattling good yarn. It even has a scientifictional bit: thanks to long training in the utter darkness of the Chateau d'If, the Count (just like Gully Foyle after his rewiring) can see in the dark.

(b) This was the first time I'd carried along a midget word processor, in the form of a Psion Series 5 – whose bijou keyboardette would probably be a disaster for a ten-fingered touch typist but works fine for me. It also offers opportunities for exciting international diplomacy when the all too detachable pointing-pen thingy falls out and vanishes under the large lady wedged in the seat next to you.... ("Excuse me, Ma'am, may I feel under your bottom?")

(c) It is, I assure you, a novel experience to fly in company with thirty or maybe forty members of the Selby Rugby Union club's goodwill mission to St Louis – all boasting this fact in proud t-shirt slogans and demonstrating the traditional rugboid qualities of loudly consuming more than fannish amounts of beer, laughing or applauding loudly and derisively at the in-flight movie, singing loud rugby songs, and being loudly impervious to plaintive TWA suggestions about sitting down, fastening seat belts, etc. Old Langford's Travelling Tips: wear a hearing aid, and turn it off.

Touchdown. Good things about St Louis airport included getting this far and managing to find a pint of reasonable beer first try – Samuel Adams, chosen for the name's beery resonances (Samuel Smith and Adnams are words of power in Britain), costing bloody hell $5.05, and later identified to me as "America's best-known overrated beer." Not-so-good things: a Gulp moment when the woman in the Immigration booth cancelled my US visa on the ground that its "Indefinite" status had somehow expired since 1980 (but she let me in anyway); the realization that all Minicon's string-pulling and karmic boosts had been directed at TWA Gatwick, leaving me with the last-ditch stratagem of clinging to the TWA St Louis desk and looking deafly pathetic until they found me a seat; and inability to find, anywhere in this vast modern airport, a telephone that would accept a credit card or the puny amount of loose change to hand.

But wait. As I collapsed gratefully into the last seat on TWA 124 (St Louis to Minneapolis), I noticed a handset right in front of me. Seconds later this had sucked money from my Visa card and connected me to legendary Toad Hall – and so I was met by Fabulous Geri Sullivan and the Amazing Nielsen Haydens, all waving early copies of Minicon's Langfordzine Wrath of the Fanglord. We collected my suitcase, whose little wheels had gone all peculiar in transit and emitted persistent squeaky noises; when Geri and Teresa complained that it was alive, I painted a touching word-picture of small furry animals inside that were expiring in their final agonies after being jumped upon by burly TWA baggage handlers, and – with a certain quiet majesty – Teresa fell over. Yes, I was definitely in the Fannish States of America again.

Wednesday 8 April

Come, Muse, let's sing of toads ... but actually Toad Hall, the ultra-fannish abode of Geri, Jeff Schalles, a thousand toads and ten thousand Pez dispensers, does rather outstrip the feeble descriptive power of mere words. Every surface is littered with enough toys and silliness to keep the most jaded fan (me) happy for hours. Living-room highlights visible from where I most often sat slumped included much antique wooden furniture (most spectacularly, an ancient music-box that plays 18" perforated metal discs, the one in situ being Der Hugenotten [1898], which I painstakingly translated as The Huge Otter), stained-glass windows, a realistic wall-hung punk unicorn head conceived by Terry Garey and arted by Giovanna Fregni, sundry arcane optical devices, a monstrous deep-sea fish model suspended from the ceiling, a Fabergé-style egg containing a china frog reading The Wall Street Journal, a USS Enterprise telephone, a chair that delivers alarmingly intimate electrical massage, racks on racks of Pez memorabilia, and innumerable further frogs, toads, books, knick-knacks and playthings.

But, contrary to popular report and the insidious distortions of urban myth, there are only ten mimeographs in the Toad Hall basement. The other two are out in the garage.

Info-dump digression for those rare fans as ignorant about Pez as I was: the things are unremarkable little lozenge-shaped sweets, generally citrus- or peppermint-flavoured, whose makers have cunningly injected interest into the packaging by (a) the concept of spring-loaded Pez dispensers which spit the things into waiting hands; (b) adding droll plastic heads to these dispensers, so that your Pez is now realistically regurgitated into the world by Mickey Mouse, Batman, a variety of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc – Toad Hall's favourite is of course Kermit the Frog; (c) introducing variants and rarities into the mix – "This Wonder Woman has the raised star on her forehead," said Geri breathlessly, "and is worth ten or fifteen dollars!"; (d) adding the further joy of Pez Body Parts, whereby your Darth Vader dispenser can be realistically sheathed in the awesome garb of Miss Piggy; (e) making some specialist varieties available only overseas – Geri was gloating unrestrainedly over a set of imported Asterix dispensers bought for her by Karen Cooper at the recent PezCon, and I narrowly avoided too intimate an acquaintance with her copies of the all-important handbooks Collecting PEZ, PEZ Collectibles and More PEZ for Collectors. Then there was the electric revolving Pez-o-Matic, the high-velocity Pez pistol, the home-made Minneapolis in '73 zeppelin-headed dispensers, the even more fannish set of Pez cartoons by Bill Rotsler ... and I have barely scratched the surface.

Me: "Gosh, what a collection. The work of a lifetime." Geri: "No, I've only been collecting them two years. Well, maybe three."

Upstairs, with characteristic attention to detail, Toad Hall's spare room offered a jolt from my childhood with a bottle of "Wakey Uppy Medicine" ("To be administered to Minicon 33 Fan GoH Dave Langford as his behaviour warrants"). This supposedly foul and paralysing potion had been the ultimate deterrent for naughty children at Mrs Saunders's day school in old South Wales where Martin Hoare and I had first learnt to read in the 1950s. Minicon is not afraid to confront guests with the horrors of their past, aided by bean-spillers like Martin – or like Chris Priest, who revealed a few Langford embarrassments from the 70s in his programme book piece. You can flee as far as Minneapolis, but there is no escape. As they said to Attila the fortieth time he fell off his horse, "You can Hun but you can't ride."


After an intense business lunch with Patrick and Teresa ("Are you still thinking of writing a book for Tor some day?" "Yes." "Good. this is now an official Tor lunch."), it was time for total immersion in US culture at the Mall of America, allegedly the world's second largest shopping mall. Teresa helpfully footnoted its vastness with a commentary on mall design psychology and its aim of achieving a light trance state in which shoppers become decoupled from the outside world and the realities of money. Meanwhile, a built-in amusement park decouples the kids from their stomachs: one ride, perhaps based on garbled memories of "The Pit and the Pendulum", used a massive simulated axe-blade as counterweight to a midget auditorium that was swung upside-down into the air and put through a whole aviational lexicon of pitch, roll, yaw and puke.

The scale of the place emerged not so much through immense set-pieces – "Golf Mountain", far from inducing vertigo at the awesome north face of the sixth hole, proved to be a rather small and ordinary miniature golf course – as in relentless specialization. The shop devoted entirely to chili, for example, whose impact was only reinforced by the other shop devoted entirely to chili. (Here I learned more than I wished to know about the dreaded habañero pepper that scores 300,000 "scovilles" on an "objective" scale of hotness which rates the formerly dreaded but now merely wimpy jalapeño at only 5,000 or so.) Other emporia stocked only fridge magnets ... Minnesota theme goodies ... expensive and entirely useless yuppie toys ... anatomical parts (including rubber brains and simulated organs in jars that slowly grow as they absorb vile fluids) ... antique fishing lures ... Lego on a gigantic scale (Legoland was currently displaying detailed Lego globes of the entire Earth and Moon, slightly less than full size) ... things that you can have your name put on ... and green slime.

Actually, out of justice to the magnificently tacky Nickelodeon toy shop – which I was told has its own TV channel – green slime is not the whole story. There are rival amorphous products like Smud in a variety of vaguely food-like colourings, designer chewing-gum kits, and Gak, a paramagnetic gunge which when attracted by a magnet does repulsive things. Teresa gave Nickelodeon high marks for style and regretted that the shop didn't stock their very special (presumably Slime-encrusted and Gak-compatible) computer keyboard. Their baroque boomboxes alone will haunt my dreams.

Incidentally, throughout our long mall walk I managed not to buy anything – thus demonstrating myself to be made of sterner stuff than P&T, who came away with a bottle of chili sauce whose label showed a twisted, agonized face to go with the brand name PAIN IS GOOD. This may tell you something about editors.

Wednesday evening offered a first chance to justify my existence as a Minicon GoH by joining in the pre-con "registration party" at a local fannish household (Don Bailey and Margo Bratton). A startlingly huge number of badges awaited, made to seem huger by the Clarke publicity tie-in of beginning the sequence at 3001. ("But I always have 1973!" wailed Geri later. My snappy guest number was 4691.) Thanks to the joys of commercial lamination, these thousands of badges came in random order. Therefore a solemn knot of fans in a hot room first performed a rough sort by chucking badges into paper bags bearing legends like 4201-4500, while I marvelled that so very many people at Minicon had names like "Deathmaster 5". Next came the intense joy of crouching on the floor getting agonizing pains in the joints while shuffling these batches into order. PAIN IS GOOD. I like to think the 4201-4500 sequence was particularly well sorted, and apologize to fandom for the great blobs of Langfordian sweat that came free with each of these badges.

Doug Wickstrom put on his badge and I immediately claimed to have recognized him all along. Joyce Scrivner, enveloping me in a vast hug, left off her badge but I detected her identity anyway.

Things got complicated again as Teresa drove off through the Minneapolis street grid to Steve Brust's celebrated Brokedown Palace, where communication was impaired not so much by the thick haze of smoke as by the fact that the clutter in the great man's workroom – including a vast frame on which his two parrots disported themselves – made it a bit difficult to get within earshot.

Recollected fragments: that according to Steve this was a bad neighbourhood and Teresa should on no account park where, in fact, she had parked; that Teresa then found she'd left her bag and all-important electronic organizer at the badge orgy; that somehow the least competent person (me) ended up navigating her back there, armed only with stark ignorance and a half-sheet of scribbled directions; and the discovery that, Teresa's short-term memory having let her down again, we had to trace our way back by interpreting the directions in reverse, a ploy which got us most of the way and then mysteriously stopped working in about the region of the bad neighbourhood. Teresa's search-spiral steadily expanded and threatened to pass the city limits; everything went black until I came around to find Steve Brust standing next to a large, terrifyingly professional-looking case of gambling chips and asking me: "Do you play poker?" "No," I said with caution. "Good!"

The party adjourned to an uptown restaurant whose cuisine was subtly adumbrated by the name "It's Greek To Me". Here I learned that when they bring the flaming cheese to the table, it is of the essence that everyone should shout "Opa!", meaning "The Cheese Is On Fire!" Must submit this important phrase to Hazel's Language Lessons....

Thursday 9 April

It was The Day ... we were off to Minicon itself at last, but by roundabout routes owing to Geri's schedule of last-minute errands (delivering work; depositing Willow the famous linoleum-eating dog at a boarding kennel for the weekend) and tourist excitements. The latter began with a visit to the utterly historic eatery Mickey's Dining Car, est. 1939, open 24 hours daily, and offering a wondrous pre-war ambience of grease, uncompromisingly fast food – you get 30 minutes to gobble it before they tow your car away – olde-worlde mechanical jukebox selectors at every table, and more grease. With appropriate reverence I consumed their topically named "Mickey's Sputnick" burger with a side order of hash browns whose fragrance of purest grease lingered with me almost as long as a tattoo.

Subsequent excitements included the Geri Tour of superior properties in the posh areas up at the top of St Paul (with pauses to covet all those with wrap-around porches), and the awed discovery that a "Cretin-Vandalia" sign did indeed refer to Cretin Avenue, location of Cretin High school. To laugh at this nomenclature would be a very Offensive British Cretin thing to do. I laughed inordinately. Next, a glimpse of the Mississippi, and of Minnehaha Falls Park with its no doubt historically authentic statue of local hero Hiawatha and his consort. Geri related the colourful legend, probably set to verse by Longfellow, of how the falls run dry in hot weather but were nevertheless reactivated by the hydrant-opening skills of the entire local fire department to provide a brave spectacle when President Johnson visited at the wrong time of year.

And so to Minicon, pausing only to pick up expensive chocolate truffles (Geri's Pavlovian reward to the con's executive committee) and lesser goods suitable for microwaving: Peeps and Ivory soap. Peeps are horrid little marshmallow chicks in a variety of toxic-seeming colours, the bright blue ones being especially alarming. I don't know exactly what Peeps do when microwaved, but Ivory bars apparently grow legs and expand like some spectacularly gruesome special effect from Alien, conquering the world in Lovecraftian shoggoth form and at last leaving your microwave smelling indelibly of soap. Let me admit right here that anyone who did in fact bring a microwave oven to Minicon successfully concealed it from Geri for the duration. Curiosity still has me by the short and curlies....

And then it was Minicon and I don't remember any more, except for a moment during dinner when Patrick Nielsen Hayden advanced on our restaurant table to administer committee egoboo: "Geri, I just want you to know this is THE WORST POCKET PROGRAMME I HAVE EVER SEEN!"

Friday 10 April

I try to be quick at getting the hang of hotel geography. Here was Minicon 33 in its traditional venue the Radisson South, hotel of two towers: the huge great South Tower with 20-odd floors, and the modest North or Plaza Tower whose top (8th) floor housed such fannish oddments as Geri, Martin Hoare, the Minneapolis in '73 suite, and me. Far below, the ground floor offered vital spots like the breakfast and lunch room ("Kaffe Stuge"), the coffee and sandwich bar ("Plaza Java") and – eerily empty by British standards – the real bar or "Captain's Quarters". The second floor contained the main function rooms. What was notably missing from the programme-book maps was the Fontainebleu Room where I happened to be giving my first talk. Closer investigation disclosed that this was in the Sofitel, an overflow hotel not thought worth mapping, whose position relative to the Radisson remained shrouded in mystery.

It seemed a good time to ignore this problem and send some traditional postcards to England (one – "Wish you were here" – carefully addressed to Martin Hoare). A gentle reminder of the scale of Minicon came when I asked about the nearest mailbox and was directed to the con's official US Post Office substation next to the mighty registration desk complex, which not only accepted my humble cards but franked them with a special Minicon 33 postmark.

Joyce Scrivner, a familiar face since the 1979 Brighton worldcon, decided to take me to lunch and present me with a bottle of single-malt whisky since she knew my dark secret: today was my birthday. With an air of cunning I suggested we eat in the Sofitel, and thus learned how to get there and to puzzle over the authenticity of the restaurant's doggedly French ambience. If their wall sign ATTENTION – CHIEN BIZARRE wasn't a warning against surrealist poodles, could it be the speciality of the house? We searched the menu in vain.

After lunch it took only about a quarter of an hour to penetrate the arcana of Sofitel geography – the key insight being that the YOU ARE HERE on the lobby's helpful function room map refers to a position one floor below HERE. Downstairs, one merely had to wander to the far end of an unsigned corridor to find the Fontainebleu Room labelled as such on its door, in letters almost an inch high. There was not, as rumour later had it, a notice reading BEWARE OF THE LEOPARD. How many fans would solve this spatial koan in time for my scheduled speech at 4pm? Disturbingly, according to the Pocket Programme which showed seven panels conflicting with my little spot, mine was the only item in the Sofitel all day and the only one scheduled for the Fontainebleu through the whole of Minicon. (Actually, several late-breaking readings were subsequently put there.)

Meanwhile, further exploration of the Radisson revealed that the heart of Minicon wasn't the bar (as it would be at a low British event) but the bottom two levels of the big South Tower, with many "cabana" suites – including the con suite itself – surrounding the hotel pool and its adjacent floorspace. I inferred that "cabana" is an ancient Spanish term, probably first coined in Don Quixote, meaning "room with balcony/porch fronting on hotel pool area". The cabanas held a wide variety of bizarre and variously private parties. The con suite was strong on food (early one morning there I had my first close encounter with a blueberry bagel) and also provided free utility beer. Here the cultural gap between Minnesota and British fandoms could be measured with some precision, as the time difference between 10:30am, when Britfans first clamour for alcohol at the hotel bar, and Minicon's perception of an appropriate time to unseal the beer keg, at 7pm.

Tiptoeing back to the distant Fontainebleu Room a few minutes before H-Hour, I found that my audience consisted wholly of Bruce Pelz, strategically placed in the back row for easy escape. After whimpering and hiding in the toilet for a bit, I returned to find a throng numbered in the high single figures, and was encouraged to begin the rerun of my 1997 UK Eastercon talk ("Twenty Years of Uproar", as reprinted in Idea and Matrix), about fond memories of fanzines in the good old days of my own early career. More people arrived at intervals, muttering dark things about signage. Hardly anyone walked out again. Several laughed at my carefully hoarded joke. Bruce Pelz permitted himself a thin smile. Relief, success, joy, and Anchor Steam Beer in the Sofitel bar afterwards with Martin Hoare, Dave Clark and Doug Wickstrom ... I felt I had negotiated the First Hoop and was now a potential Minicon survivor.

Next came the opening ceremony, at which toastmaster John M.Ford successfully concealed the fact that (as he later confessed) the hot lights made it impossible to see his audience. At his command though invisibly to him, GoH Gardner Dozois and Fan GoH Langford stood up to be admired, after which I was ordered on-stage to announce a few highlights from the just-released Hugo nominations. "Keep it short," Geri advised, leading to a précis of the fan categories as "Modesty forbids," of Professional Editor as "Gardner something and a few other chaps," etc. I managed not to swoon at the absence of Babylon 5 episodes under Dramatic Presentation, and very nearly controlled my puking at the presence of Starship Troopers. The Hugos were overshadowed by the following set-piece item, in which Phil Proctor and David Ossman of Firesign Theatre fame announced the Mark Time award for audio drama and had clearly been told to confine themselves to a tight time-slot lasting approximately forever. Kindly hands eventually led me away for drinks and the Official Langford Birthday Dinner Party, organized by Geri and featuring an appropriate selection of evil cronies whose names I will not drag through the mire here.

10 April was also our toastmaster's birthday, a fact later acknowledged in the con suite when Mike and I were required to cut an enormous sticky cake while Steve Brust – now armed for battle or for poker in his extraordinary leather hat – led the masses in appropriate song. "Happy Birth-day – UGH! / Happy Birth-day – UGH! / Doom, destruction and despair, / People dying everywhere, / but Happy Birth-day – UGH!" Minneapolis, the home of fannish music.... (Later, with the remark "Aren't you glad we didn't sing it all?", Geri sent the entire text of "The Barbarian Birthday Dirge" which has enough dubious references to sheep to make a Welsh fan feel slightly uncomfortable. But there is sound advice in the couplet "This one thing you must learn: / First you pillage, then you burn ...")

I blame the beer for the impulse that caused me to adorn that cake with a fearfully symmetric pattern of electric-blue Peeps. Unfortunately, photographs were taken.

Saturday 11 April

Saturday was my day of heavy programme commitments, beginning with a 9am "Meet the Guests" breakfast party at which Gardner Dozois's role was to scintillate and set the table in a roar, mine was to look at least vaguely awake and sentient, and liaison person Geri ("I don't do mornings.") accepted the burden of staying in bed. Luckily Gardner really is hideously entertaining even at 9am. By introducing stomach-heaving subjects like children's revolting rhymes and scatological alternative versions of songs and hymns, he not only boosted the circulation between breakfast table and toilets but prodded me into remembering things about Raymond Briggs's joyously filthy Fungus the Bogeyman, W.H.Auden's favourite rude variants of carols ("While shepherds watched their flocks by night, / All shitting on the ground, / An angel of the Lord came down / And handed paper round") and much other odd stuff I'd forgotten I knew. Clever sods, these Asimov's editors.

It was a busy day for Gardner too, since his "GoH Interview" followed at 11am and was interestingly complicated by the fact that no interviewer turned up. GD, resignedly: "So, Mr Dozois, where do you get your crazy ideas?" By the time I'd screwed my courage to the sticking-place for the Live Thog's Masterclass in the same room at noon – a presentation based on truly terrible lines from published sf – Gardner had been reduced to reading great wads of stuff from his emergency packet of truly terrible lines from the Asimov's slushpile. This was a frightening act to follow, but I survived the Thog event somehow, and this time caused Bruce Pelz to giggle out loud. For the record, I think the session's biggest double-take and laugh was provoked by the Linguistics Special from Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle's The Incandescent Ones ...

"'Hello, stranger on the road,' a voice said in a language not known to me, Turkish presumably."

After Thog and a hasty beer of recovery, 2pm was already looming, the time of my – and Gardner's – scheduled autograph session. I carefully researched this in the Minicon Pocket Guide, first failing to find it anywhere in the quick-reference grid, then locating Autographings a little after Science & Technology in the alphabetical subject list (the book had been creatively collated) and Dave Langford in between Dave Bogen and Dave Romm in the alphabetical list of participants ... indexed by first name because, to translate the euphemism actually employed, "our database is crap". (Just to make it more fun, the miscollation caused this list to begin quite plausibly with Eleanor Arnason; forenames in A to D were transposed to a later page.) After long struggle with the maps, I put the question to a committee person: "Is it in fact possible to deduce the location of the autographing area from information in this guide?" The frank answer was "No." For the guidance of future generations, what you do is walk hopefully around the second floor until you spot someone (Gardner) who has been guided by better-informed hands to the tables which are so conspicuously not signed "Autographing Area".

A digression. Yes, it seemed a bit odd that such a highly organized-seeming convention, of such size and established tradition, should schedule the two main GoH slots for successive hours in the same room, with no one to introduce us; and likewise should provide no directions to mysterious places like the Fontainebleu Room (eventually fingered in the nifty con newsletter, The Bozo Bus Tribune, on Saturday afternoon) and autograph zone. But all this, I came to realize, lay at the edge of the Great Minicon Controversy – wherein the convention was seen to have become too vast a party, in which both sf and fandom were swallowed up in dense heaving masses of undifferentiated fun while organizers became too over-extended to cope with all the details and suffered regular burn-out from confronting the intractable immensity of it all. Minicons are bigger (3,350 at Minicon 33) than any but the most recent British worldcons, between which British fandom gets about a decade of recovery time as opposed to Minneapolis's single year. Hence the hotly debated "High Resolution" scheme for a smaller, tighter-focused Minicon 34 in 1999....

(I worriedly began to toy with a vision of brainstorming at a policy meeting: "Hey, I know how to make the fans stay away in droves. There's this guy we could ask as guest, called Langford....")

Meanwhile, M33's variegated generosity to this particular crabby guest also needs to be recorded. An emergency bottle of wine in my room; an enormous stash of bottled beer and a refrigerator to keep it in; a special amplifier fitted to the room phone so the deaf twit GoH could call Hazel in England at Minicon's expense; wads of bills as "walking around money" for beer and meals, several times replenished by Geri on the basis that "even if you haven't spent it all, you should have by now...." As a bonus treat, Martin Hoare – that man again – had been commissioned to write down his long-researched thoughts on Roundsmanship, the art of not buying drinks when it's your turn, and Geri had printed this up on dollar-sized cards in an exquisite limited edition of three copies for the author, the publisher, and me. (Martin lives in vain hope that each of the two British fans whose habits are most closely described in this opuscule will recognize only the other.)

I blame the hotel for the room's presentation bundle of "Minnesota Birch Logs", straight pretzels complete with salt-grains but noxiously coated with white chocolate except for a bit at one end. Cally Soukup insisted that these things were nice, so I was able to cover myself with glory by donating them to the Green Room during her shift there.

We now return you to the scheduled autograph session, which I estimate was not visited by 3,340 fans. I sat between Gardner and the very nice Lois McMaster Bujold, the latter still boggling at her discovery that the Mobile Robotics / Machine Perception Lab had named an experimental robot after her. Shameful egoboo came from the fact that as I'm rarely at US cons to sign books and there was a heap of my stuff on sale just round the corner, I did slightly more business than Lois. Since her autograph is conscientiously large and legible, it was my duty to pass on the wisdom of Greg Bear, who during a signing at Orycon 11 had stood critically behind me for a while and then confided: "I've been timing your signature, young Langford, and it takes you five whole seconds to autograph a book. This shows that you have clearly never had a bestseller...." Here, perhaps, is the secret of ever-popular Tanith Lee's autograph, which over the years has contracted to a single inscrutable pothook from some lost shorthand alphabet.

After an hour and a half the signing was brought to a close by the traditional Dozois cry of, "That's enough humiliation for one day!"

Meanwhile in the main hall, the Minicon 34 committee were lined up on-stage in a long dogged row, fielding questions about their shrinkage plans which – considering the ease with which "tightening up Minicon" can be interpreted as "elitistly picking on special interest groups X, Y and Z" – were incredibly polite by British standards. A haze of Minnesota Nice filled the air. Whenever confronted with anything unanswerable, ringmaster Teresa Nielsen Hayden would break open and read a Chinese fortune cookie, with eerily appropriate results.

One useful rendezvous spot for pros and others was Minicon's Green Room, boasting endless supplies of coffee and cake plus its very own copy of Flight by Vanna Bonta, from which various people – many of them Mike Ford – would give random readings almost as impressive as (if less cogent than) Teresa's fortunes.

"He was having a grand time behind Section A controls of Z Zone when, without warning, his face turned umbrageous and he barked, 'But there is no chance of error!' [...] A laugh heaved forward from Juristac's massive body and broke up the catarrh deposits in his throat. 'But of course!' Juristac intermixed in his laugh-cough."

Never sit in the front row when this guy is speaking. But a sudden chill settled on the Green Room when the whisper went around that fellow-guest Phil Proctor was a bosom friend of Ms Bonta's, with a dangerous fondness for defending her work against all comers. We found ourselves – to quote the great book – emitting frequent dispersals of fear.

And so it went. Vignette from the lavish Tor party: Gardner D. was holding court amid a circle of lesbian and feminist writers. During a brief silence, one Dozois remark rang unforgettably out: "When you've had a fat old man, you won't wanna go back!"

Sunday 12 April

Breakfast routine was disrupted when, owing to some strange pagan festival revolving around ice sculptures of rabbits (known in the trade as "graven images"), the breakfast room opened very late and then refused to serve mere breakfast. Over sandwiches elsewhere with Dermot, he told me how he'd wandered into a hall full of Wiccans or something, all conducting arcane rituals with crystals, and I reminisced about the dealers' room visit in which I'd just bought a souvenir for Hazel, an octahedral chunk of fluorite in her favourite blue. Being under the impression that that this was a lump of mineral, I was overwhelmed by gush from the lady behind the sales table, who congratulated me on my fine choice of healing stone and gave a short lecture on how to charge it with orgone energy, align it with leys and very probably wield it to conjure Easter Bunnies from the vasty deep. I thought it wise to make my escape before she sold me a set of occult instruction and maintenance manuals.

It is well known that I don't do music, but I was seduced by glowing newsletter reports of Friday's performance of the practically legendary 1977 fannish musical Midwestside Story – based of course on West Side Story, which in turn was based a little bit on Romeo and Juliet, so I felt I was in with a chance of understanding the repeat performance on Sunday. Instead of Montagues and Capulets or rival street gangs, Midwestside Story has fanzine and conrunning fans who meet at the Worldcon (Bozocon, Minneapolis in '73), and, from forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life....

Even I must have been bitten by the Spirit of Minnesota Nice, since the energy and enthusiasm of the players made the whole thing seem pretty damn wonderful even to a tone-deaf twit. Picky exception noted: there was a framing device consisting of long, long, taped voice-overs – to me, incomprehensible – which "explained" all this weird fannish stuff, as though slanlike sf readers were incapable of picking it up from context or from the glosses in the programme book. But after much on-stage silliness, including the distribution of Tony (Romeo) the Confan's first awful fanzine Idea to the front rows, the charge of enthusiasm built and built until the entire audience was on its feet clapping and demanding impossible numbers of curtain calls. Me included. This is uncharacteristic. There must be something in the air.

CLOSING CEREMONY SPEECH WHICH IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT GOT TRUNCATED TO ABOUT THE FIRST SENTENCE: "Thanks very much, everyone. The best part of Minicon 33 hospitality was the trusting way that they stored the Minneapolis in '73 beer in my room, and encouraged me to sample it freely. I've been asked to announce that Minneapolis in '73 apologizes profusely for the shortage of beer at tonight's party...."

Normal reactions to music had returned by the small hours, when I found myself cringing from the filk circle in the Minneapolis in '73 suite (my musical spy Krissy Benders assured me that people who knew about tunes and keys were quite often cringing too), a circle which had arranged itself with insidious cruelty to block the way to the bathtub of beer. In the next room, various fans were disporting themselves in a jacuzzi but failing to be the centre of interest, this spot being reserved for the spectacular electrical storm that raged over Minnesota and lit up the whole sky in jagged mile-wide lightning bursts. Watching this from a hot tub full of naked fans would doubtless have added to the experience, but, being Britishly uptight, I kept a cautious distance from the party suite's tub of simmering flesh.... Was this decadence as she is practised in Minnesota? Martin Hoare sneered at my naivete. He'd been exploring the bondage party. Eventually the pyrotechnics blew away, and I went to bed by moonlight.

Monday 13 April

While Minicon workers took the convention down, it was soothing to sprawl for hours in the bar, all programme responsibilities over. Dermot gloated over his portable technology: a pocket Windows 95 computer which played video clips of recent explosions he'd been implicated in, and a super camera that not only held 90 minutes of digital video or 10,000 stills but also zoomed in to read the small print on bottles behind the bar 40 feet away. All this was eclipsed when a fan came in waving a brochure from DiaboliCo, who make giant Tesla-coil installations that generate 18-foot "lightning bolts", and other fun things which I nervously sensed were being added to Dermot's Xmas list.

Meanwhile, Joyce Scrivner fretted in the bar for approximately eight hours because Martin Hoare (about to become her house guest) was supposed to be meeting her there but, it turned out, had been lured off for a little 12-pint session in a city pub called Sherlock's Home. Various fans, on his return: "But isn't the food there awful?" Martin: "Oh, do they do food?"

Minnesota Niceness came into perspective here and at the con suite's final "Dead Donut Party". That great Minicon shrinkage debate had raged very mildly all weekend, with hotheads fomenting reasonableness in all directions; the most visible evidence of strife was a feebly satirical poster suggesting that costume fans were being picked on and "excluded". (Actually the whole masquerade event was being transferred bodily to a new convention, or possibly two new conventions.) M34's savage riposte was a pre-prepared rubber stamp for annotating subversive notices by adding, in red: "... is not a sufficiently healing message." One earnest fan explained at length how she had helped preserve Niceness by dissuading someone from printing up his dreadfully over-hurtful and divisive t-shirt slogan: Oh my God, they've excluded Kenny! The M34 controversy reached its peak of violence when a tired and over-emotional con worker was moved to (if you have tears to shed, prepare to shed them now) scrape the frosting off a cake bearing the inflammatory message that Minicon was hosted by Minn-Stf, the Minneapolis SF Society. "They're not hosting it, they're trying to destroy it!" etc. Effusive apologies followed.

Had I been abducted to some paradise planet where 3,350-person cons can happen without serious incident? In a guilty way it was almost a relief to hear that one loon had unfunnily threatened people with a real sword and been marched off by the police.

Tuesday to Friday: Toad Hall

Tuesday morning, and Minicon really was all over. The next convention was steadily moving in – something to do with the oil business, bringing people in suits, significantly posher vehicles in the hotel car park and a vast model of a gasoline pump in the once fannish Plaza Tower. Would it be wise to move among these newcomers asking, "Say, are you with the global warming convention?" Sitting at a handy table in the deserted bar, I tried to update my Psion notes and found myself falling prey to the Tristram Shandy syndrome. Life moves faster than writing; Tristram Shandy, having taken several books of his "autobiography" just to get himself born, despaired of ever recording his adulthood; likewise, my Tuesday-morning trip notes were still stuck in the remote epoch of last Wednesday. It was time for decisive action. I ordered a Bloody Mary. Another item crossed off the roster of great US con experiences that I'd planned to relive.

Some Minicon jigsaw fragments still remain, since with famous Langford efficiency I don't quite remember where they fit. Fabulous fan artist Ken Fletcher giving me a copy of his Spontoon cartoon scenario for islands, seaplanes and funny animals, looking to my untutored eye exactly like every other funny animal fanzine ... much silly and inconsequential party chatter with Ann Layman Chancellor, not knowing that she had only three months to live ... ... DavE Romm presenting me with a fridge magnet labelled MINNESOTA DAVE as compensation for missing Minicon's "Legion of Super-Davids" photo call for a group picture of everyone called Dave or David ("It won't matter if you're a minute late," Geri had mispredicted, "and I need a beer first.") ... and many kindly fans like Jeanne Mealey and John Stanley cheering me up by permitting me to autograph Langfordiana at unexpected moments. Allowing for the strong likelihood of my being slightly off-sober at "my" party, Jeanne took the precaution of sending photographic evidence of the act.

The next few days involved a certain amount of slumping at Toad Hall, interrupted by occasional hideous screams as Geri struggled with a belated tax return. I improved my cultural self-esteem by reading neglected classics like Bunnicula and Dr Seuss (now it can be told: for shameful decades I had cravenly worn the mask and pretended to know what oobleck was); my bemused examination of a Zippy the Pinhead cartoon attached to the mighty fridge caused Jeff to vanish with a knowing smile and return with several no doubt priceless Zippy comics for Langfordian perusal.

There was a soothing dinner outing to Denny Lien's and Terry Garey's, involving super Chinese nosh, lots of red wine, and a lengthy tour of innumerable rooms – from extensive cellars to vertiginous attic – mostly crammed with enough books to boggle me. Denny flatteringly asked that I sign a copy of Wrath of the Fanglord ... for Mog Decarnin, not for him, because "librarians don't let people write things in books...."

I came away laden with pots of Terry's home-made preserves – one of which was to prove life-saving in the Great Chicago Breakfast Dearth a few days thence – and, from Denny, a copy of Thirteen Poems by "Grace Lord Stoke" (ed. J.C. Rez, Bootless Publications, 1998). This strange chapbook's introduction explained almost convincingly that Stoke was an obscure poet of the Lovecraft era, whose masterwork The Saga of Red Ethel the Unruly had been praised by HPL himself as depicting ...

"a viraginous maiden, whose every inch of integument is bedizened with variegated cicatrizations bearing the form of Gorgons and gryphons, and whose Cyclopean thews betoken a strength matched only by the profusion of her ichorous expectorations."

At some stage Geri took me downtown to marvel at Minneapolis buildings more than three storeys high, futuristically linked by glass-walled "skyways" that let you wander through office buildings and above traffic-laden streets, until – this being the realistic and not the Frank R. Paul future – the skyway mysteriously lapses into a snarl of convoluted dead ends about a block short of where you wanted to go. Somewhere beyond the reach of skyways, unattainable like a mirage, was the attraction which for reasons best known to herself Geri kept dangling temptingly before me, the place with the naked dancing girls. I settled for a glug of beer at the onomatopoeically named Gluek's, a bar whose back-room decor is resplendent with moose and water-buffalo. As Geri pointed out, there was something strange and un-British about the sausages served at this place. They seemed to be made entirely of meat.

That night saw a reception at Dreamhaven bookshop in honour of the Minnesota Book Awards' fantasy and sf nominees. These included Peg Kerr, Mike Ford – who later won, for his NESFA Press book – and the normally ubiquitous Steve Brust, who for once didn't show up. The audience consisted almost entirely of a party passing through on the way to a drinks outing: Neil Gaiman, Neil's assistant Lorraine Garland, Geri and me. We gathered up Mike Ford and fled in search of beer and snacks at the famously overpriced William's pub nearby. All the ensuing small talk was terrifyingly high-level and off the record, which sounds more interesting than an admission that it was just enjoyably desultory pub chatter. You had to be there.

Further milestones in life.... Emma Bull's War for the Oaks (of which I bought my very own copy at Dreamhaven) mentions Byerly's as "the most lavish supermarket in Minneapolis", a memory which gained the ring of authenticity when Geri took me there and I boggled at exhibits like the big tanks of trout and lobsters, all clearly trying to look small and hoping that passing customers would pick a different one. The attached off-licence – no, Langford, the attached liquor store – supplied a strange and wondrous cranberry-flavoured cider which for a time seemed just the thing to live on for the rest of one's life.

In fact, re-reading Emma's novel on the homeward flight produced a curious effect of double vision. The actuality of Minnehaha Falls, and my failure to find strange glittery remnants from the old glassworks there (Teresa Nielsen Hayden found several; all that falling over puts her closer to the ground) was sort of overlaid by the pitched battle between elven cohorts of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts that takes place there in the book – which had also taught me to recognize Lake Calhoun at the heart of Minneapolis, and the city's strange air-inflated sports dome that glows like a vast phosphorescent mushroom. And Blaisdell Avenue, home of Geri and Jeff, was an oft-used thoroughfare in that very narrative; nearby was fabled Hennepin Avenue, more recently immortalized in Peter Gelman's Flying Saucers over Hennepin.... Sense of wonder!

Not mentioned in War for the Oaks was the "Ax-Man" surplus shop, full of imaginatively labelled electromechanical junk. "How can you possibly live without a dozen of these obsolete bakelite grommet swivels?" Alas, I couldn't see a way to smuggle a medium-sized missile casing ("Ideal lawn ornament") in the hand baggage, while Geri's solvency was saved in the nick of time when a lifesize Robbie the Robot candyfloss machine proved to be not for sale. As a tasteful souvenir for Hazel, I laid out several cents on a large plastic INFECTIOUS WASTE sack covered with biohazard symbols, and dutifully put my used socks in it.

A final personal triumph was that I finally managed to open a US bank account to handle those royalty cheques, or checks, for sums like $3.84 that aren't worth converting to sterling. This nearly foundered on bureaucratic insistence that everyone must have a US social security number, British NI numbers being deemed not good enough ... but under relentless pressure from Geri, her bank came up with a special-case checking account for smelly foreigners like me. Then, serendipity: thanks to a new-customer offer which she spotted and invoked, Geri was rewarded with $10 in her account for introducing me, and I with $10 in mine for being introduced. Until further notice, Norwest Bank is declared to be utterly splendid.

All too soon it was airport time again. Looks as though I'll have to come back to Minneapolis....

Friday to Monday: Chicago

Things to remember about short hops on cheapo Vanguard flights: you're charged extra if you ask for a decent drink ($3 for a gin and tonic wasn't so bad, but it took forever to arrive), the window of opportunity for visiting the toilet is nonexistent since the aisle is choked with stewardesses taking drinks orders in the fleeting period of unfastened seatbelts, and Vanguard do not so much touch down as plummet the last fifty feet to the runway, impacting Chicago with a satisfying bang.

The contrast with the tranquil niceness of Minneapolis was fairly boggling. Brother Jon picked me up at Midway airport with nine-month-old Jimmy in tow, and we inched our way to the Langford apartment through dense clots of rush-hour traffic while being offered unparalleled views of Chicago's grottiest neighbourhoods. "Mayor Daley had this freeway built to cut off the poor districts from the rich white ones," Jon explained. I'd already worried a bit about the presence of that sinister name on the Midway welcome sign, but it was merely the more infamous Daley's son. Being stuck with the Royal Family and all our ghastly peers, we Brits know about hereditary rule but hadn't realized it survived in America.

After greeting my ever so attractive sister-in-law Helen (architect and breadwinner), inspecting their swish top-floor apartment, and consuming a huge slab of barbecued salmon which shamed the expensive little pink tissue-samples in supermarkets back home, it seemed a good time to try an evening out on the town.

Chicago was all neon, glitz, bustle, innumerable signs in Spanish. Jon knowingly led me to a Mexican restaurant where they didn't mind us spurning food in favour of sitting and drinking authentically sour margaritas from goblets bigger than goldfish bowls. This gave way to a succession of low bars where the celebrated artist and Mekon tended not only to be recognized by bar staff but given drinks on the house (and likewise his brother). Special bonus points in this area to the Silver Cloud Bar & Grill, an airy place with the stamped tin ceiling which I'd often read about as indicating some kind of US bar authenticity, either of atmosphere or of sleaze. Also of note: The Boulevard Café quite near Jon's place, whose barman proved to be a drunken ex-Mekons drummer who started but did not finish a number of interesting sentences (Jon: "This is the bar of the short attention span.") and who seemed seriously determined to bolt the doors and keep us swilling freebies all night.

Yes, Chicago was the city where I renewed my acquaintance with an old friend who had deserted me all through the pristine joys of Minneapolis: the hangover.

Another landmark pointed out by Jon demonstrated yet again the ability of rock stars to live on the cheap. For obscure reasons of goodwill he gets free studio space on the upper floor of "Shirts Our Business", a t-shirt sweatshop whose workers – all Mexican women – come to the upstairs lunchroom at noon and are moved to give handfuls of food to this obviously starving artist. The words "Jammy sod!" rose unbidden to my lips.

Besides the music, Jon is selling lots of artwork and has just branched out into small tombstones. It gives him that authentic Damien Hirst glow of thinking up concepts and letting humble artisans do the actual work, as his sketches of doom-laden subjects like the Death of Country Music are drilled into polished granite slabs by other hands. When informed that these priceless artforms weigh 135 pounds apiece, I decided not to take one home for Hazel.

Other joys of multi-ethnic Chicago included a Patel Brothers grocery exactly like countless small Asian shops back home, except that the Reading variety doesn't offer Gandhi Salsa. After one quiet Indian-restaurant lunch with Helen and small Jimmy, Jon and I furtively agreed that our dissolute reputations would suffer if it became known that we had just disported ourselves in a alcohol-free vegetarian eatery that encourages small children....

As Voltaire quipped after reading a certain TAFF report, the secret of being a bore is to tell everything. Let's leave some aspects of this trip shrouded in tantalizing mystery: specifically, the merry Family Visit to Greek-American in-laws, of which I merely record that we survived.

Monday, Tuesday: Chicago - St Louis - Gatwick - Reading

By this period, the Langford notes are getting wavery and sparse. Following detailed consumer testing of Vanguard and TWA domestic flights, I can now report that TWA charge $4 for a much mingier G&T than Vanguard's $3 offering, but are able to touch down without simulating a dinosaur-killer meteor impact. You win some, you lose some.

At St Louis, everything worked – apart from a slight misunderstanding when I ordered a margarita and was served with two, the simplest solution being to display proper British sang-froid and drink them both. Could it possibly last, this uncanny experience of being in the hands of an air transport system that was working correctly again? Of course not: instead of a 6:50pm takeoff for Gatwick, I sat in the plane being treated to interminable and incomprehensible cockpit messages from someone who was very, very bad at improvising soothing remarks and appeared to be saying "Uh ..." a great deal as he failed to explain that the plane was being reloaded with all-important ... fuel? gin? wings? small lemon-scented tissues? It remains a garbled mystery. Two hours after takeoff time, when the inordinate number of babies in seats close to mine had more or less cried themselves out, we took off.

After a free G&T which the no doubt guilt-ridden stewardess spontaneously decided should be a double with an extra cup of ice, I forgave TWA everything and settled back to my recently acquired Daniel Pinkwater omnibus. Easy, that's me.

And so home, where Hazel and a longish period of post-travel convalescence were waiting. Thanks again to everyone. Thank you for having me.