And there I was...

by Greg Pickersgill

Posted to Memoryhole elist, 28 April 2003

And there I was and...

I kept seeing the guy with the back end of a goat sticking out of his arse. Once you noticed him he seemed to be everywhere. And it wasn't just me; other people saw him as well. After a while there was even some conversation about whether or not it really was the back end of a goat after all. There was a theory that the poor fellow had a startlingly serious case of piles and these leg-like structures about his nether regions were simply decorative haemorrhoid socks. We could have asked, of course, but who wants to approach a grown man who has foot-long rabbit ears strapped to his head?

It seems like a dream now, but it was of course a science fiction convention. The 2003 Eastercon, as a matter of fact.

During the convention Catherine and I were employees of employees, working Andy Richards's booktables. The Banana Twins work the tables for Andy at many conventions, thereby freeing up his time to spend the profits on family holidays to such exotic locations as the West Indies and Dartmoor. The only problem they have is that putting all the time in makes them miss out on programming, so this year they took on some help-us. I was glad to do this. Apart from anything else it gives some kind of structure to the whole convention experience; up early, breakfast, bookroom at 10.00 AM, then hours of standing around waiting for someone to buy something. It's so different from the normal just standing around waiting for something to happen that we all usually experience at conventions.

Actually it's fun. As most bookdealers know, you get more interesting conversation with more people in the bookroom than you do anywhere else in the convention. And, weirdly, a lot of it is about books and stuff, the very things that are supposed to have brought us together at the event. It's always intriguing to see who is talkative and who is not; some people talk readily and interestingly about what they are buying or looking for, others pointedly ignore overtures at conversation. It's also fascinating to see who comes into the bookroom, and for this reason Mark Plummer-who is usually bookroom boss as well-tries to put Andy's tables near the door. It's illuminating to see that so many of the hardcore 'fans' rarely if ever come to the bookroom.

This time around the Cold Tonnage squad (that's us) had a spare table which we used to display a load of fanzines either brought with us or donated at the convention. How strange to see that so few 'fanzine fans' were aware of this, and how they were conspicuous in not flocking there to check things out. And there were some quite unusual items on there too. Pity they all had to be thrown away at the end of the convention.

It's odd what people don't buy in the bookroom. The Science Fiction Foundation people had lots of very cheap magazines that were essentially ignored, but the star classic knockout item was pretty much right in front of me on the Cold Tonnage table. A copy of the first edition (1960) of In Search of Wonder, the first best book of SF criticism and still to my mind the most readable, entertaining, and inspiring. I've had copies (at least two-I'm that sort of person) of the second edition since the time it appeared, but I'd never had a first. I kept looking at it throughout the con, thinking, 'I want this book,' but determinedly not buying it because, well, someone else could get it and be as enthralled by it as I was.

And I kept looking at it; incredible as it seemed no one was buying the damned thing, and it was only £10 too, barely more than the price of a drink, or a current B-format paperback. And I kept checking and it was always there, unmoved, uninspected, apparently unwanted. Late in the con, Monday morning, just hours before final closing, I leafed through it again, and with a genuine shock I noticed for the first time the bookplate on the inside front cover. 'John Carnell,' it said. Bloody hell, this was Ted Carnell's personal copy! This thing was radiating great huge yobba-rays of scientifictional historicity in all directions-first edition, great book, damon knight, Ted Carnell, personal copy-and no one was picking it up! Incredible. Well, fuck them, I thought, as I put it into my to-be-paid-for box behind the tables; if they haven't bought it by now they don't deserve to. It's a treasure and I count myself lucky; but at the same time I wish someone else had bought it with the same joy of discovery I felt.

It was, of course, a science fiction convention, with a programme and everything. I'd have liked to have seen more of the programme, and I'm sure I would have done if I had been able to properly follow the grid in the pocket guide. Maybe I'm just getting past it, or there are too many programme streams, or Julian Headlong was trying for the non-linear in his design, or I was suddenly afflicted by Alien Geometries (I had just bought a book on H P Lovecraft; was it somehow infectious...?) or something, but I couldn't make any sense of it. And anyway parts of it were being rescheduled on the fly so as to take up the slack caused by the last-minute cancellation-for no good or acceptable reason-by one of the Guests of Honour. Who we won't mention here, thereby hopefully setting a trend by which she is never mentioned in the SF community again.

I would have very much liked to see Chris Evans's Guest of Honour spot. Indeed, it was very much the fact that he was a GOH that encouraged Catherine and I to make the effort to get to the convention in the first place, and it was a genuine pleasure to see him again, and even more to find that we inter-related easily and well; a rare example of the truth of the old fannish myth that people meet after years apart and carry on the same conversation without missing a beat. Maybe the secret is that we can make each other laugh.

I'd been to a small group discussion of Chris's novel Aztec Century (arguably his best, except maybe Insider, and both of them highly recommended books around here) earlier in the convention and was delighted by it. Directed by Garry Kilworth (who looks about ten years younger now than he did when I last saw him about fifteen years ago-what's going on here?) and with barely a dozen people there, it gave Chris an excellent opportunity to talk conversationally about the book specifically, and by allusion his general creative process. It was absorbing, enlightening, and truly entertaining in the best way-exactly the sort of thing I've spent years going to conventions hoping for and see so rarely. (The bookdealers panel item in the fanroom at Paragon was the only other in recent years that I feel succeeded as much.) The bad thing is that it would be difficult, almost impossible, to do the same thing as a main programme item; the actual physical proximity and close relationship of the 'panel' and 'audience' was one of the things that enabled it to work so well.

So I'd been keen to see his Big Item. But somehow it vanished. It was only later I realised that at the time I'd been doing a panel on 'Science Fiction Magazines of the 20th Century' and hadn't realised it clashed with Evans. No wonder there were so few people at that panel... Which was a strange mishmash of ideas really, ranging from coming up with a convincing proof (that became more convincing as time went on) that SF magazines were being ruined by the generally downbeat tone of the fiction, that Michael Moorcock had almost succeeded in his not-so-covert plan to destroy SF, and that, god help us, what SF magazines really needed was a good dose of old-fashioned Campbellism, reminding us of the innate superiority of the human race and the all-conquering power of the White Heat of Applied Technology. Yeah! I think we might have been going a bit far somehow, but even now in the cold light of day I see parts of that as very convincing, especially if you think of it in terms of why 'ordinary people' don't want to read SF. I mean, most people live lives of not so quiet desperation anyway, so why do they want to be reminded of the fact that it could all get very much worse in the blink of an eye?

And we won't even get on to Gerry Webb and the surreal exploration of his early SF magazine-reading days which began with two boys riding bicycles along a deserted road, travelled the universe with Dan Dare and ended with him groping around in a London fog, trying to find a bus by touch alone.

Anyway, I missed Evans. And everyone who was there said he was good. Oh.

It is of course always a joy to see one's old pals at conventions. I genuinely look forward to seeing Peter Weston and Rog Peyton, and we spent hours together talking books, fandom, and fans. Peter is doing a fannish autobiography for NESFA and on the basis of the chapters I've read-and the anecdotes I've heard-it's going to be fantastic. (Please keep the Cliff Teague suicide story in, Peter!) And I'm genuinely glad to see Roger getting himself back together after the fall of Andromeda, and working a big booktable at the convention. He took good money, I believe, and everyone I spoke to was most definite in the hope that he'd be back up there soon. It's a pleasure too to see the old stagers like Ken Slater looking so ruff and tuff; OK, he may not be staying up all night knocking back the bottles of rum like he used to, but in his mid-eighties he can do a full day's work in the bookroom and carry his own damned stock out at the end of the convention. Personally I'll be glad to live to his age, and certainly don't expect to be so fit, mentally and physically, as he is. Ken donated a load of fanzines recently found in his attic to our impromptu fanzine table, including some extraordinary old convention material from Way Back that immediately vanished into the gaping maw of Pat McMurray.

Ron Bennett and David Redd also showed up for a day, separately but together, having arranged to meet there on the Saturday. Ron is in dodgy health, I know, but looks amazingly well and fit, in fact healthier and more dapperly dressed than virtually anyone else at the convention. It was a pleasure to see him and I wish he'd had a bit more time there. It was good to see David too; even though he lives barely a mile from us in Haverfordwest he works away from home and has so many domestic responsibilities that even when he is in Haverfordwest we barely see him from one year to another. But he's a great guy, with a lot more going on in there about SF and writing than many people realise (one of the great unused programme participants), with an over-thirty-year writing career. And it's certainly time he had a bundle of his best short fiction published in book form.

There were others; I was rooting around on Andy's table when I heard someone say, 'Hello Greg.' I looked up and there was Michael Eavis. What the hell is the organiser of the Glastonbury festival doing here, I thought wildly, and how in the name of god does he know me! Aeons of incomprehension passed before I realised it was in fact Graham Charnock. Someone I haven't seen for over fifteen years. You know that business referred to above about fans being able to take up where they left off decades earlier? Well, it doesn't always happen, and sometimes it's peculiarly uncomfortable. I have no idea why Charnock and I ceased to know each other way back when, or even whether it was a choice or 'fault' thing. I'm not even sure now whether we were actually friends or just fannish acquaintances, even though we spent a lot of fun time together socially. So this was, well, oddly awkward. We chatted a bit, and to be honest I couldn't make my mind up whether he was trying to be funny, deliberately provocative or just drunk. Probably the latter as he several times referred to having drunk half a bottle of vodka before coming into the hotel. That's stage fright for you, and I understand that; I always wonder what is the real reason many British fans-including myself-become alcoholics the moment we enter a convention hotel when we go for months without a drink on the outside. Anyway, I was a bit baffled. Later that evening, when both of us were pretty well over the edge, we almost had an argument about something. I have no idea what it was. I blame the drink; it's a sword that's all edges and no handles.

But Graham did provide a highlight moment of the convention. At his Astral Leauge comeback tour spot (really, I'm not making this up...) he got Chris Evans out of the audience to do an unrehearsed reading of Pat Charnock's piece 'Descent of Women from the Trees' which originally appeared in the Astral Leauge Yearbook 1977 (I'm really not making this up!). It was wonderful-grappling with a deliberately misspelled text photocopied from the original fanzine, Evans did a terrific dramatic reading with gestures in all directions that was funny and peculiarly touching at the same time. We old stahlhelms love to wallow in sentiment-as Chris said later 'there were moments during Graham's Astral Leauge slot when I felt that that ridiculous and disreputable sense of fun had been recovered for a few instants. I must admit I miss it, but you can't plan for these things or indeed appreciate them properly except in some fuzzy afterglow, when they've already passed.' And he was, as so often, quite right.

And then there was that bloody woman in the way. We were at Andy's table and Catherine said, Look, there's David Redd! Where, I said, staring shortsightedly around as usual. There, look, right in front of you! Where, I was thinking, I can't see anything. Look, right there, wearing the Welsh flag shirt, Catherine said again, as if pointing out the obvious to a child. I still can't see anything; this bloody woman is standing right in front of me, in the way, blocking my view. As I tried to peer around the person she spoke to me. And I realised that my view was obscured by not just some run-of-the-mill fans but Jeanne Gomoll and Scott Custis. Unbelievable, even more incredible than seeing Rich Coad and Stacy Scott the night before. Surprised reunion, assurance to meet later, never saw them again for the entire duration of the convention. What is it sometimes-is it just me?

Off to one end of the excellent (if you discount the occasionally varying-upwards bar-prices) rambling hotel (just big enough to lose people-where did all those individuals I saw for a fleeting instant actually go to... was Jeanne Gomoll really there...?) was the Lakeside, scene of the infamous fanroom of Paragon 2001. Even though it was being used for programming (no fanroom at this con, if nothing else the committee had learned that lesson...) I felt reluctant to go into it. It just had a bad feeling for me. I didn't want to return to the site of past failures.

But of course you have to go and look at even the most grisly accident, so one evening when I was feeling alienated already and thus had nothing to lose I wandered pointedly casually in there, hoping no one else would be about. (I'd tried earlier in the day, to tell the truth, and met Simon Bradshaw there, waiting alone for the start of a programme item-we chatted briefly and I made my excuses and left; it wasn't right.) The place was empty, but all the chairs and staging and PA and everything was in place. No bloody tables full of fanzines, though, thankfully. I walked every inch of the room, rewriting everything I knew about being there, but I still felt a vague feeling of loss, that sense of something not having worked. I was standing there drinking a glass of water from the watercooler when the door to the toilets opposite me opened and a fan who I had not seen-and frankly did not want to see-for many years came out. He looked at me, I looked at him, he reflexively said, 'Hi,' I said nothing, and he walked away, both of us slightly embarrassed and possibly slightly angry about being alone in this room together. And suddenly it was all over: the Lakeside was now just another bit of a hotel, nothing important to me had ever happened there, it was just a place where people did things and individuals you didn't want to know went to the toilets. Great.

So later I went to the 'Lost Classics of SF' panel there and it was good. Well, the potential content was good, though it was hampered by no microphones in a room where sound easily vanished into the cavernous roof-dome. And not helped either by slack moderation which failed to keep things moving and allowed lapses and longeurs and failures of momentum into which more material could have been fitted. But, predictably, Rog Peyton, Julian Headlong and Pete Weston-excellent and experienced panellists and talkers on books-excavated a number of titles, many of which I'll actively seek out. Maybe not anything by Dean McLaughlin, Peter, but I do have a copy of Don Bensen's book ...And Having Writ, and bloody hell, it doesn't half remind me of Hard Landing. That's spooky to the point of plagiarism. And Rog's praise of Jerry Yulsman's Eleander Morning was more than enough to get me to re-read this excellent book. I must email all three and get copies of their notes, as many books were not discussed through lack of time.

Of course many more things happened. I skate over the long discussions in the bar about how peculiarly sexless so many fan women become the more overtly 'sexy' their clothing becomes. Of course it's just 'dressing up' and to a very large extent there's no intention of sexuality in their costuming (and I use that word specifically), but it is unsettling how successful they are in this. Suddenly perfectly ordinary non-fan women, hotel staff or barmaids or whatever, seem to personify a level of true eroticism that seem entirely absent within the fan community. And yes, I know, I and we have no room to talk.

Oh, there was lots of other stuff; properly meeting Dave Lally for the first time was big fun. We've been acquainted for years but this is the first time we've actually talked together properly, and it was amazing how many things we had in common, even leaving aside vexillology. He's someone I'll look forward to seeing again, if we can motivate ourselves to another convention.

And then there we were, at the end of the convention, sitting watching what has been variously described as an Albanian bread queue or an asylum seekers' waiting line: a shuffling ribbon of fans checking out of the hotel. All of them looking, frankly, rough. Tired, hungover some of them, laden with odd assortments of baggage including supermarket carrier-bags bulging with paper. All of them still trying to be 'fans', trying to be animated, talking, witty, but on the cusp of being returned to mundania. Where their clothes, their speech patterns, even their exaggerated gestures-all the things that they adopt to bond, to be together-would all change and become 'normal' again; it's like watching a butterfly return to its chrysalis.

--- Greg Pickersgill

Letters of comment on this or any other conrep on this site are welcomed, and will be considered for publication.