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NEWCASTLE/BIRMINGHAM '78 - (SILICON/NOVACON)

Two Reports

by Rob Hansen


First Published in Epsilon 6



SILICONREP (a title for nostalgia freaks)

It was fast approaching 9.00am on the Friday morning, the time Greg, Simone, Joseph Nicholas and myself were to set off for SILICON but as yet there was no sign of Joseph. I'd arrived from Wales on Thursday and after the usual browse through London's specialist SF shops I stayed the night at Lawrence Rd so as to be able to start early for Newcastle. I needn't have bothered because at 9.20am there was a phone call from Nicholas saying that he'd overslept and would be a little late. A little late!! Four hours later he turned up, just before the time we'd set for leaving without the little sod. We were not amused.

The trip up seemed interminable, even my usual sparkling wit at a low ebb, the only momentary relief being provided when we were strafed by an RAF training flight. We eventually arrived in Newcastle at 6.50pm which meant that what with waiting for Nicholas the whole thing had taken nine hours. Still, I reflected, the trip back would. be shorter.

The chorus of welcomes that greeted us as we entered the Grosvenor Hotel lifted my spirits no end and I was beaming like an idiot as I lugged my luggage to my room. On returning to the bar with a pile of copies of EPSILON under my arm I realised that I was not the only one pubbing my ish in time for the con as fanzines were thrust at me from every direction.

Peter Weston was there that night since he was in Newcastle on business, as large as life and as arrogant as ever. Arrogant? Yeah; for someone who must have been attending cons for the best part of a decade-and-a-half to buy a meal from outside the hotel and then attempt to eat it in the bar can only be the result of supreme con- tempt and arrogance. But then why should he care? It wasn't his con, that's not 'til next August.

The first event on Saturday morning was the Brains Truss, billed as "a freewheeling discussion of current SF, among other topics" which quickly degenerated into a catalogue of the faults of Issac Asimov's SF Magazine which resulted, curiously enough,in Rog Peyton selling out of all copies of the magazine in record time straight. In the afternoon, with most everyone watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Greg and myself were having a quiet drink in the bar when in walks a young lad.

'Hi, I'm Steev Higgins' says he.

'I'm Harry Bell', says Greg,'and this is Dave Langford.'

Dave Langford? At that point Harry strolled into the bar so, getting into the act, I introduced him as Greg Pickersgill.

In the evening were the charades, this time with the addition of a section of famous fans to be mimed. The mime indicating the sex as being male was the one you might expect; left hand on right bicep right fist thrust upwards. When Leroy Kettle had to mime Rob Holdstock this was exaggerated forcefully with Leroy leaping up and down but the classic mime had to be Rog Peyton's of Pete Weston. After his initial laughter at seeing the name on the card Rog thrust a black comb under his nose, gave a Nazi salute and began goose-stepping. It brought the house down. Probably the quickest the identity of any mime was discovered was my own of Joseph Nicholas. I gave the mime indicating a male and allowed my wrist to go limp. The response was immediate.

The first event of any consequence on Sunday was the Five-a- side football tournament. Not being a soccer fan I was not overly keen on this but Greg talked me into it and so I ended up in defence for London-Welsh, a team that consisted of Roy Kettle, Greg, Martin Easterbrook, Kev Smith and myself. The games were played on the town moor and after five minutes of frienzied activity we unfit fans were gasping and wheezing. Dave Wingrove nipped about in full soccer gear, at least we assume it was the full kit, the shirt coming down his thighs far enough to hide the shorts he may or may not have been wearing. The uncharitable suggestion was made that he was only wearing the shirt that way because it looked like a dress. Ian Williams, watching from the sidelines, was heard to scowl:

'God, I hate pretty boys!'

'That's not what I heard, sweetie,' said Roy, giving him a wink.

Deciding at least to get into the spirit of the thing I gave the ball a half-hearted kick and was rewarded by the sole of my shoe separating from the leather upper.

'I can't play' I beamed, 'or I'll be shoeless the rest of the con.' 'Yer playing'? growled Greg, menacingly, 'so borrow some.' Easier said than done since I have size ten feet and though people will often lend you money, clothes, sugar, wives, they seem oddly reluctant to part with their footwear. Eventually I talked John Harvey into loaning me his trainers for the match where we wouldn't be facing his side. Averting my nose I donned them and took to the field. Amazingly my side won the competition though I suspect this was not so much that we were the most skillful as that we were the least inept.

Immediately afterwards, on the moor, Andy Firth brought out some rather large home made rockets which he intended to launch. After watching the first burn away to nothing on the launch pad Simone and I decided that this was silly, dangerous, and probably illegal so we decided to walk back to the hotel. I turned as we walked and saw the second rocket rise all of two inches before it too burnt itself out. We were then joined by Dave and Hazel Langford who were a little worried since a man working at a high-security government establishment and having a previous explosives conviction has to be careful. Dave explained to us that if, as he suspected, the fuel was a sugar and weedkiller mix then he knew why none would get off the ground that day. He was right and we watched as the third rocket followed the pattern set by the others.

In the afternoon was the quiz, complete with tape and film, the first time I've seen one of these damn things done right, and so onto evening and the disco. The music was relayed over the hotel's cassette system but at first no one was dancing to it. The early cassettes had been compiled by Greg so Simone complained to him that they weren't good to dance to.

'But blacks dance really well to this', he said in a hurt voice.

'You may not have noticed but none of us are black, Gregory,' said Simone.

Now though I may not be the greatest dancer you ever did see I enjoy dancing immensely (primal rhythms and all that?) and have been dancing the same way for years so imagine my surprise when John Collick says:

'C'mon Hansen, stop doing John Travolta impressions.'

Travolta? But I hadn't seen any of his films and was about to say so when Eve Harvey rebuked the young whippersnapper.

'He was doing Travolta before Travolta.'

There are worse reputations to acquire. Actually I overdid it a bit and as a result I could hardly move when I woke up next morning. Monday, of course, was time to go and so we bid farewell to those we wouldn't see until the next time and set off home. From the above conrep it might appear that not much of note happened but to say so would not do justice to a con that was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The friendly staff and the character of the hotel contributed much to the mellow and convivial atmosphere of the con.

And yet, though this was the end of the con for most people for others it was the beginning of a bizarre journey that seemed to be almost an extension of the con.

It began well enough with our car following the Harveys' at a steady pace until about twelve miles outside Newcastle when the car began to fill with fumes. Simone pulled over and a quick check revealed oil trickling steadily from the underside of the engine. Simone decided to phone the AA for assistance and so drove the car along the hard shoulder at a sedate lOmph to take us to the nearest phone. Before we could reach it, however, a police car overhauled us (hardly a difficult feat).

He advised us to phone the the AA (aren't our policemen wonderful!) but Simone turned on the charm and he phoned them for us via his car radio. While waiting for the AA to arrive we saw a car stop behind us. It was the Harveys. John examined the car but on realising there was little they could do they continued their journey. At length an AA van turned up and shortly afterwards we were in the clutches of AA Relay. Relay is a service that ferries you and your car to your destination if you break down but until this journey none of us had realised that Relay meant just what it said. The first Relay truck carried us forty miles or so and deposited us at the first Relay station we'd ever been in. It was a fenced compound enclosing various Portacabin structures containing toilets and a waiting room. The station was in the middle of a field and though the actual name of the place escapes me I christened it Stalag-L4, which seemed rather apt. We were the only people in the station at this point and we were feeling rather hungry. It was six in the evening and though I'd only half a bar of caramel chocolate and a round of cheese sandwiches all day I'd probably eaten more than the others. Though ectomorphic to the extent of looking under-nourished Joseph Nicholas, the man with the name most people would change from rather than to, had some slimming biscuits in his case and a slice of cheese. He was...ah... persuaded to share them and we waited in orderly fashion as Joseph dished them out.

While we ate two other carloads arrived. The waiting room was looking full. After about two hours the car was loaded onto another truck and we were taken down the Ml until we reached the Woodall service station. Here we were dumped in the car park and told that another truck would be along to pick us up in about thirty minutes.

This gave us time to have a proper meal, well...except for Greg that is who went off to throw up, the effects of car sickness.

After sitting in the car for some time it became apparent that the truck would be somewhat longer than we'd been told. At this stage in the proceedings everybody's resistance was so low that the most inane witticisms I came out with were being greeted by almost manic laughter. It was about here that I realised that though Joe may be a buddy there's something about him that makes me take the piss. Why this should be so I don't know but I was making a deliberate effort to curb the urge on most of the homeward journey. I was not successful. Fandom's answer to Shirley Temple was...(Damn! There I go again!)

After about two hours another truck turned up to take us on the next stage of the journey. It was now half-past-midnight. Unlike the previous trucks the passenger section of the cab in this one was partitioned off from the driver's section. As we pulled away Greg was already slumbering and I noticed that there was a heater in front of me. I turned it on. When I judged the cab warm enough I turned it off and fell asleep. The cold woke me. I fumbled for the heater, turned it on, allowed the cab to warm again, turned it off and fell back to sleep. The cold woke me. The procedure was repeated again and, in fact, quite a few times. It took me quite a while to realise just what was going on. While the cold was waking me it appeared that the heat was waking Mr.Pickersgill who would then open the cab window until the cab cooled enough for him and fall into slumber once more.

The next Relay station we were deposited in was on an industrial estate near Northampton but this station, however, was somewhat more substantial than the first we'd visited being a newly built red-brick construction. Inside were chocolate vending and hot drinks machines which were gratefully utilised. There were two or three other carloads of people in the place, either asleep in chairs or pacing up and down muttering angrily about the time their journey was taking. I recall listening in amazement as one guy rang the AA and fumed at them over the phone promising that they hadn't '...heard the last of this!' I suspect it was the con that did it, three nights of staying up 'til the early hours, but we fans were quite enjoying the whole experience.

It was also here that I had an embarassing experience.

Y'see there was this guy on the phone, complaining to the AA, and he had his back to me so I was miming him and generally taking the pies, much to the amusement of young Gregory. It was at this point, of course, that I glanced up and saw that the guy was watching my reflection in the window.

Alas, all good things must come to an end and so must incredibly long journeys. We arrived in Lawrence Rd at lOam a full eighteen hours after we set out! London to Newcastle is about 280 miles meaning that the mean speed of our journey was l5mph. What with the time we lost going to the con a full day vanished without trace.

After a few days of hospitally at the PickersWalsh homestead it was time to go, so I went.


I HAVE NO TRUNKS AND I MUST SWIM (...or: the Novacon report.)

It's not something I can put my finger on but although I enjoyed NOVACON I didn't enjoy it as much as I normally enjoy a con. Was it the fault of the hotel; the fact that it was only a two-night con instead of the usual three; or the natural result of increasing disenchantment, a certain jadedness creeping in? Hard to say but, still, there were moments...

One of the first things to be noticed, and remarked upon, was the proximity of the swimming pool to the bar. Like, it was on the pool-side to all intents and purposes and, as anticipated, quite a few noteworthy things occured in conjunction with that pool. However, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I travelled up to Brum with Dai Price, both of us travelling on a single fare, courtesy of Persil soap powder. Having done the Brum run so many times the journey held no special interest other than the discovery, under the auspices of the aforementioned Mr. Price that Orkney fudge is a rather excellent confection and should be recommended to anyone.

The Holiday Inn was rather unimaginatively sited on Holliday Lane, the disparate spellings providing a few crumbs for thought. The con proper not having started Dai and I visited the Peyton emporium in Summer Row to groan over rows of imported Perry Rhodan and admire the esoteria complementing more traditional stock. Lurid posters promised thrills and sense-of-wonder fulfulment in yesterday's cinematic 'sci-fi' extravaganzas, while a window display promised the more immediate excitement of book-signing sessions from Anne McCaffrey and Christopher Priest... An unusual tardiness had kept the paperback eiition of Moorcock's Gloriana, a very tasty tale, from the book-shelves of Cardiff and Newport so along with with a sword and sorcery epic bearing a Frazetta cover it returned with me to my hotel.

Such wit as I am reputed to possess deserted me when I encountered Greg and Simone eating in the restaurant and bemoaning the cost, along with Malcolm Edwards and Chris Atkinson fresh from America, and such comments as I made were treated with just contempt. What is guite possibly the best piece of fanwriting by Greg that I have ever read was contained in the copy of SEAMONSTERS that Simone pushed across the table at me between mouthfuls, while the disapproving look the waitress gave me when I hammered the protruding staples flat with a soup spoon confirmed my belief that hotels don't truly have my health and safety at heart.

There are more pleasant ways of being woken than by the sound of Ian Williams snorting, coughing, gobbing, and generally sounding as if the greater part of his intestinal tract is about to stage a successful escape attempt (like being woken up by the kids of the Asian family next door thundering around in hobnail boots; and they've get the nerve to complain that I'm lowering property values). However, once awake I eat with Ian (yes, I know it's more hygenic to use a fork) and try to organise a trip to a shop called Nostalgia. A panel in the fanroom that is little more than praching to the converted intervenes and it is lunchtime before I can get the expedition under way. Lunch, as it happens, is one of the five pizzas I consume in the two days of the con.

A swim in the hotel pool that afternoon necessitates me borrowing John Harvey's trunks which, to my surprise, I find tight. Months of excercise have added whole fractions of an inch to my biceps and I bound from the changing room, my stomach pulled in, ready to impress my public who, it turns out, are all in the fanroom. I stay in the pool a long time awaiting the admiring horde until, my skin beginning to wrinkle alarmingly, I trudge despondantly out. In the process of returning the trunks to Big John I am waylaid by someone I have never seen before who asks if he can borrow them. I refer him to John, who agrees, and we never see the trunks again.

Few things can quite equal the embarrassment of shouting the length of a crowded bar for your change only to be coldly informed that the drinks you purchased came to exactly a pound, but I manage to whether this and anticipate the disco with pleasure. The looks of incredulity, the slack-jaws, the cries of disbelief and the gnashing of teeth attendant on the start of the disco reflect my own feelings. I am at a loss in understanding the logic behind the decision to set up the disco equipment on the side of the swimming pool because, as I commented at the time, I may have a high opinion of myself but I wouldn't even attempt to dance on water. Still, the wartime spirit engendered during the blitz comes to the fore as in all times of adversity and dancing commences on the soaking tiles that surround the pool. The only people to fall into the pool are a couple of Trekkies but all realise the deliberate nature of the falls and snort derision at such exhibitionism.

The usual round of room parties follows and the comfortingly familiar spectacle of a paralytic Greg Pickersgill bouncing off the corridor walls in a vain attempt at forward motion gives me a warm feeling. I retire at length and am amazed to discover that Ian has laid out a bed of chair cushions for freeloafing Dave Cockfield but my faith in my judgement returns when I notice that Ian has kindly donated Dave one of the pillows off my bed while keeping both his own. Collapse of Dave Cockfield when this is pointed out.

Hotel pettiness left a sour note as usual, this con's aggravations being all the soft drinks machines having out of order notices on them which leads suspicious li'l ol' me to try one and find it working. When you consider the price of soft drinks in the bar the reason becomes apparent. Also annoying is one of the hotel staff at the self-service breakfast telling another to make sure we don't come around a second time.

Which to all intents and purposes would be the end if not for the Nova Award. The two main conteneers, as anticipated, were Alan Dorey and Kev Smith. On learning that I have voted for Dorey, Simone says: 'But Smith is the better writer!' I have to agree Kev Smith is the better writer of the two but the Nova Award is about 'zines not writers and although I have enjoyed DOT hugely I have enjoyed GROSS ENCOUNTERS more. If the Nova Award was for best writer then Dave Langford ought to be awarded it in perpetuity even though TWLL DDU has only recently, with issue 14, returned to the level we've come to expect. -- Rob Hansen