NOVACON 13, Royal Angus Hotel, Birmingham, 1983
THE NERDS OF NOVEMBER
by Roy Kettle
(first published in Epsilon 15, edited by Rob Hansen)
Brosnan was feeling insecure. He'd just received advance copies of his latest sex 'n' plagiarism thriller, THE MIDAS DEEP, and was moaning about the cover. Apart from the fact that it was impossible to read his name because the blue background was the same as the blue 'Brosnan' and he'd had to draw round where the letters should have been with a biro, the book was described as "an underwater hell of seething catastrophe". What with John seething, the cover a catastrophe, and various mutterings about his publishers deserving an underwater hell it probably wasn't too bad a line, though it did seem to lack something - appeal, meaning, validity, a verb. What it had in its favour was a rich red colour that stood out, and things might have been OK if John had written under the pseudonym A.Nunderwaterhellofseethingcatastrophe. But even more interesting than the blunder on the cover was a line I'd just noticed in the book itself: "Then, just as he was rounding the corner of one of the. big cylindrical. tanks..." And only on the second page, too.
Amazingly, and despite all this John's literary insecurity soon passed. By the time we reached Coventry, on our way to Birmingham and NOVACON 13, he'd stopped saying: "But I can't draw round my name on all 350 copies!"5 and was worrying about his Persil voucher again. He was sure that the voucher which looked as much like a rail ticket as Roz Kaveney does a shrinking violet - wouldn't actually work. He knew that at the very least, he'd have to have some proof that he himself used Persil.
"Just show them your hair",I said helpfully. "Poot", replied Australia's greatest wit.
From New Street Station, which looks more like a failed Swedish prison every year, we followed the Brosnan route to the Royal Angus. This is similar to the Hansen route except you get to see the other half of Birmingham. Arriving at the-hotel from a direction. that probably doesn't exist, we were told that our overflow hotel was in fact virtually opposite the station. Numerous people laughed at our distress. I don't recall us being among them. Having to hump our bags back to New Street was bad enough, but then we found that our hotel was having a moat built around it and that the bar was stocked for a Salvation Army conference. On top of that I discovered that Hansen had grabbed the best bed in our twin room. I got my own back by sitting on his new Superman comics and farting.
We arrived back at the Royal Angus just in time to catch Gerry Webb's verbal equivalent of a pre-frontal lobotomy as he got out his tatty old Eagle Comics yet again and shifted his mouth into hyperdrive. Ironically Jack Cohen, one of the few people who can stun the brain cells faster than Gerry, was on next and I spent a good part of the evening phoning for ambulances. The embarassing thing, of course, was having to explain that for most fans brain-death is an improvement.
Later that evening I missed two things. The first was Ian Sorenson's 'rock opera' "Ego", which Rob Hansen described as the musical equivalent of a Gerry Webb lecture, but boring. He said that Sorenson had the musical ability of a rather over-cooked Brussel's sprout but was taller. Sometimes I find Hansen's analogies hard to grasp. I also missed out on the Brum group party because I was having fun with people.
Hotel breakfasts are entertaining occasions for me. So long as the food is anything like edible - which has been known - then I'm quite happy sitting around for an hour or so stuffing one form of cholesterol or another into whichever orifice my fork is nearest. Unfortunately I'm also usually still sleep and a completely atypical need to over-compensate for everything imaginable, makes me talk more nonsense than usual, more loudly, and with wilder and messier gestures. Paul Kincaid and Rob Hansen were trying desperately to concentrate on the task of finding the pink bits on their plates that allowed the hotel the option of labelling the fat as bacon and to catch the tomatoes that looked strangely like Brosnan's eyeballs only not so red. I kept interrupting them and prattled on and, on until I could hear Paul muttering, "Why did I sit hear, why, why?", as he scraped in vain at the durex-like skin of his sausage. And if a Durex is adequate protection against Rob Holdstock's mighty emissions then a mere hotel-knife won't have much effect. Meanwhile I burbled away, pausing only to let Rob Hansen say (if memory serves better than the hotel waitresses): "Fwaw, look at that!", every time a woman or a fairly pretty boy walked in, and for Brosnan to mumble something about needing pain-killers and how publishers were a pain. Then a rather fat and undesirable Scottish litigant walked in, sat next to us, and began being himself. He succeeded in doing what even I couldn't and everyone left hurriedly.
By then I'd remembered the direct route from our hotel to the Royal Angus and we were soon fighting our way to the world's smallest bar, which will serve eight normal people, or three Brum group members, or one Piers Anthony fan with his life support system. Brosnan looked round desperate for someone who would buy him a drink - "just until my royalty cheque comes in, honest, sport" - and as usual it was me who fed his pitiful habit. "A small Scotch; no, make that a large Scotch; no, make that twc large Scotches and a lager", he said, fearful that he wouldn't find another sucker for the next two minutes. At the first hint of someone buying drink it was as if they were serving Magnet Ales. Rob Holdstock rushed up and poured a full pint onto the floor in his desperation to have his glass filled for free. Harry Bell appeared so quickly that there was a small implosion of air where he'd been sitting - unless it was Rob Hansen practising redolence again. And there was John Jarrold standing next to me, tongue akimbo, when only five minutes before he'd been scraping dog turds off his Hush Puppies in West Wickham. Of the regular greed-buckets only the Chief Druid of Bingley failed to appear. Still it's the only way I can get people to talk to me so I don't mind really. And anyway, I keep count.
I went back into the con-hall where an out-of-uniform Action Man working on too many Duracell batteries was telling an audiencence containing an increasingly high percentage of males that men write the best feminist sci-fi. Eventually one of the few women left in the audience shouted: "What about John Norman, then?" As Tom Shippey hadn't heard of John Norman a lot of sting was taken out of what would otherwise have been a pretty effective put down, but the rest of the audience lapped it up and rattled their chains. Mrs Joseph Nicholas was visibly upset by Shippey's suggestion that John Wyndham could write better than feminist authoresses like Shirley Conran and Jackie Collins and was heard to mutter that baldness is caused by the hair roots coming loose from the brain as it shrinks. I hadn't known that.
In the bookroom I made a few purchases from Andromeda using cheques that should be coming back home just about now. I bought a copy of Malcolm Edwards' and Maxim Jabberwocky's Book of Mike Ashley's SF Lists, as favourably reviewed in the Sunday Times. I was disappointed that the lists Malcolm had previously shown me were not in: Great Space Fucks, Bergey Covers I Have Abused, and My Favourite Scenes From 'The Gas'. But then when you're a Daddy you have to set an example so the book's full of lists of Thirteen Triffic Post-Natal Exercises For Spacemen, and Nappies I Would Rather Not Have Changed. I also bought, on the recommendation of Chris Evans and Pog Peyton (who's honest enough to recommend anything on which your eye alights for more than a microsecond), THE LAND OF LAUGHS by.Johnathan Carroll. When I mentioned it to Malcolm he groaned. "Not the bloody Land of Sodding Laughs", he said. "If I meet one more person who talks to me about The Land Of Laughs I'm gonna puke!" Immediately Chris Evans mentioned it and Malcolm threw up over Brian Ameringen's head but it was over a week before he noticed. However, Malcolm cheered up when I mentioned that I'd bought a copy of his book and he even went so far as to buy a copy of SIMLER (so-called because of the many other books and films it closely resembles). He even asked its two famous authors to sign it; just the first of many such requests that weekend. I could get to like this fame business if only money came with it, but Brosnan's still drinking away my royalties. Those particular copies of SLIMER (as favourably reviewed in The Times-and Time Out) were specially endorsed by Brosnan, following a small fracas with the woman to whom he had dedicated the masterpiece. Her name was deleted and the more endearing dedication "Bitch!" was scrawled inside. I must remember to tell her next time I see her.
After a few more drinks, a mingle or two, and a cheapo hotel pie - the gastronomic equivalent of the invasion of Grenada - I sought the solace of another programme item, one on which Rob Holdstock, Chris Evans, and the guestess of honour Lisa Tuttle put off all aspiring writers in the audience for ever with tales of economic and creative distress so terrible to hear that it was clear all three must be artists. Rob pointed out that in order to write he had to spend more on Burgandy than he could earn as a writer. Chris couldn't work for the "bloody Priests at it all the time downstairs" (thought to be a reference to the busy writers in the flat below) and Lisa couldn't work for that "bloody Chris Evans sitting upstairs listening". Having: myself written several of the sentences in SLIMER I think that I can safely say that I know about art and what causes me greatest difficulty is that they don't put enough Snopake in a bottle to correct more than a page.
Foolishly, I'd agreed to appear on an emaciated version of The Krypton Factor. I couldn't hear a lot of the questions because Langford's hearing aid was making a noise like a Sherman tank on one side and I didn't get a chance to answer most of the others because John Jarrold, the man with the world's most trivial brain, began answering furiously when he realised the prize was a bottle of whisky. I regretted helping them both with the early questions and I particularly regretted acting as a focus for the psychic energy from the late D.West so that, in the astral pole section of the game, they could get their legs round the pole without sticking it three feet up their bums. Still, it was fun and I got a free pint out of it. That's what life's all about really, isn't it?
That evening the hotel served pizza. Now, at previous conventions I've enjoyed the Angus' quickie meals; they're a practical idea, they're cheap, and they taste as good as most convenience foods. But this year they weren't generally finger lickin' good. The pizza was like the top of a tub of margarine liberally spread with the vomit of an extremely ill beagle. The chips were soggy and hung in my stomach like an analogy I'm keeping for SON OF SLIMER. Then again, I have eaten worse things at conventions. Christ, I've had conversations with worse things at conventions.
Occasionally someone on a convention committee comes up with an idea so appalling that it will actually end up happening because everyone assumes it to be a joke until that awful moment when the programme book arrives. Then the committee members look at each other in horror and no-one will confess to being the culprit. John Wilkes shrugs his manly shoulders. Jan Huxley glances away, pale with shock. Chris Huge whistles nervously. Yes it happened this year, and it was the barndance...
Johns Jarrold and Brosnan leaned back against the strangely uncrowded bar in the main hall while I bought them drinks. On the dance floor, where Rog Peyton's demented rocking was now only a memory, fourteen desperate idiots (most of them committee members, 'nuff said) pranced around looking like they must know what they looked like. Grab your partner, dozey doe, they muttered to each other, eyes glazed with embarrassment. Chris Evans and Faith Brooker walked in and we smiled smiled knowingly at each other, an island of common sense in a sea of bounding stupidity, until Faith, giving in to some primal female urge, grabbed a passing partner and began to dozey doe. Chris muttered, "She's not with me, boss" and we clubbed together to buy him a half of lager. He shook his head. "She was normal only a few minutes ago." We all shook our heads in sympathy. John Jarrold reckoned it was actually the pizza and they were just trying to get their bowels moving again.
Later there were two parties. One was triffic, well-attended, and had some nice jug-dancing. This was given by the tequila-sodden MEXICON committee, all totally incapable of remembering whether you sucked the salt before you licked the lemon but pretty damn certain that if you dropped a lemon you threw it over your shoulder to avoid bad luck. The other party was given by John Brunner and was attended by John Brunner. That is except when he was in the MEXICON party asking people who had more sense if they would like to go to his room. Even Peter Weston stayed at the MEXICON party. What with Eileen having spent the day with her head in a bucket of henna and Peter espousing Socialism to the extent that he wanted everyone richer than him to share their wealth with the Westons, it's surprising that the party wasn't invaded by American forces. Joseph Nicholas was there representing Radical Transvestites Against Style, Dave Bridges supporting Hippies Against Reality, and Phil Palmer requesting help against Ted White. When we left, in convoy through the streets of Birmingham at three o'clock in the morning, the party was still going strong. Rob. Holdstock was so overcome with tequila and what he likes to call vibes that when this immense black guy, with more muscles in one bogey than I've got under my skin, walked past, Rob shouted out: "Look, he's got natural rhythm. Hey, can you do that darky jive-talk, man?", until several fannish hands clamped over his mouth before one big black fist could have him chewing his food half-way down his lower intestine. Drink and dance do strange things to some people. I was reminded forcibly of this half an hour later when Hansen returned and announced his presence with a particularly loud raspberry... but that's another con report.
After missing breakfast I wasn't in much of a mood for anything other than consoling myself with several lagers but I went to hear Lisa Tuttle's Guest of Honour speech anyway. As I might have expected it was so spot-on that I rushed out to the bookroom afterwards and bought the only two of her paperback SF and fantasy novels that I didn't already possess. Jesus, I was so impressed I even tried to buy a George Martin bock that I already had. After Lisa there was a guy called Terrence Dicks who I was going to listen to until someone told me it was his name not his habit, so instead I invested my money wisely in the brewing industry. Later I was still sober enough to enjoy a panel which rightly slagged off Kingsley Amis for being a wally. Malcolm Edwards, who since the panel has made Chris Atkinson take the furry dice out of their car window, did a good PR job on the famous Gollancz author, although strangely I didn't rush out and buy any of his books. Then, when the audience was asked to name other categories of wally, Andrew Stephenson had the audacity, for someone with a CB radio, to offer suggestions. I also particularly liked Rog Peyton's hilarious anecdote about Larry Niven, but I won't spoil it for you by repeating it here.
I then began making a serious effort to achieve extreme inebriation. Despite this I remember Andrew Stephenson sending back a bottle of wine during dinner and suggesting in all seriousness that it was so bad it would do for the staff; Steve Higgins making Rob Hansen look like a ballroom dancer with elephantiasis; Brosnan convincing Rochelle Dorey that he had been a gynaecologist back in Australia; Chris Evans, Rob Holdstock, Faith Brooker, and others who should have known better listing their all-time favourite bogies; Malcolm going around very smugly telling everyone that he'd got over 500,000 on the pinball machine, but not mentioning that it had taken him as many 10p pieces to achieve; Linda, Lilian Edwards, and Simon Ounsley definitely not looking like two octopusses scratching each others backs, oh no; me talking to Greg for a longer time than seems at all probable; and Rob Hansen lying in bed when I arrived back at about seven o'clock, naked torso shining like a glazed maggot, shouting in his sleep: "Treat it gently...it's never had company before."
The next day we all sat around, the tough men sipping orange juices and Faith drinking gin and lager alternately. We talked about life and art and Faith told us how she'd met Martin Hoare when he was playing Moby Dick in the local rep. So I told them the funniest story I knew about an artist which concerned this guy, whose name I couldn't recall at that stage of the weekend who'd written a line in his latest book about someone going around the corner of a cylindrical building. Everyone laughed. Suddenly, a blue-covered bock hurtled through the air and bounced off my head.
"The cylinder was lying on its side!" shouted Brosnan.
"Oh.", I said.
Then I woke up. It had all been a dream.