BIRMINGHAM 1976 - NOVACON
by Graham Charnock
First published in Stop Breaking Down 4, edited by Greg Pickersgill, March 1977
I was talking to Tom Perry and he was really looking forward to the Novacon. 'American cons are far out,' he said. 'All they wanna do is sleep around, freak out, smoke dope and stuff like that. You English have an entirely different style. It should be interesting to experience. Besides, your policemen are wunnerful.'
Tom Perry is a Good American, not entirely because he voted for Jimmy Carter and has a campaign button to prove it (envy), but because he is possessed of that distinctly UnAmerican quality: the ability to converse interestingly and listen sympathetically. The antithesis of this is called boorishness. Boorishness may not be a uniquely American predilection, but they do seem to take rather an unreasonable delight in it.
Take Greg Benford, for instance. He managed to distract me from an absorbing and truly wonderful conversation with Dave Staves at Novacon by the simple expedient of coming up behind me and talking at the back of my head. I can't remember much of what he said except that there were lots of words like 'gollygosh' and 'yessireebob' and 'lemmetellya'. When I turned around and he realized I was actually someone he had previously talked at he seemed to lose interest and only spoke to me for another half-hour or so.
When he was through and I turned back to Dave Staves the sparkle seemed to have gone out of Dave's conversation. He was no longer using stimulating words like 'bitch', 'kill' and 'maim' but was slumped over his beer making grunting sounds. Swivelling in my bar-stool I caught the eye of affable Dave Griffiths and, switching the magnetic charisma of my personality into overdrive, sent out a silent summons from mind to mind directing him to come and rescue me, from bad-scene fandom. He must have seen my lip tremble, for he came. Dave Griffiths is an even more sympathetic listener than Tom Perry. I guess he'd make a Good American. We talked about how hard it was to maintain one's integrity in the face of commercial pressures, but how we were both managing to enjoy ourselves (more or less) despite it all. Trouble is, we didn't half sound like miserable fuckers. Dave is one of those fans of my own generation (i.e. several generations ago) whose awesome politeness has always deterred me from asking those intimate probing questions that the Charnox (especially Pat) are always renowned for in their conversation. He is largely an enigma to me after all these years. Every time I meet him a little more of the enigma is slowly clarified. For my own part I must admit that I probably appear a little dense and stupid (and probably am) when I have to ask him, as on this occasion, 'Who is that woman you're with?' But nobody had ever told me he'd married Moy Read. And somehow, as I've indicated, it's not the kind of question I normally feel encouraged to ask him. Ooops.
It was about eight-thirty on Friday night and the con was warming up nicely. At least they'd turned the central heating on this year. I wandered into the con hall to catch the dregs of Dave Kyle's introductions. Greg was just being introduced as a representative of Ratfandom. Greg looked suitably sickened, gritted his teeth (which managed to make him look manic and demented) and rose to his feet. I waited for the torrent and obscenity and derision that Kyle's introduction surely warranted. I waited for the Master to put the boot in. Nothing. Greg quickly sat down again. He must be in a good mood, I thought. Gerald Bishop started up the film projector and the sepia-tinted credits of Soylent Green started rolling. 'Christ,' groaned Rog Peyton, obviously more used to papier-maché rockets zooming across cardboard galaxies, 'They've got the wrong films.'
Unfortunately they had the right film. I squatted down beside Peter Roberts. 'That's Edward G Robinson,' I said. 'He died shortly after they completed the film. He had taste. And that's Charlton Heston.'
Peter turned to me. 'Gee Graham, you're just the kind of person everybody likes to sit next to in the cinema.'
I was flattered. I told him how the film ended and left.
Back in the real world Chris Priest and the glamorous Pauline Jones had yet to arrive and rivet us with their colossal lethargy, so I let Brian Parker talk to me. I grunted and nodded in what I hoped were the right places, figuring he must be at least as drunk and tired as I was, so that he might not realise just how drunk and tired I was. I remember John Lowe sitting with us but not really with us, his gaze unfocussed most of the time or else locked somewhere secret. Perhaps he was drunk and tired too. I asked him if he wouldn't like to get married and he rounded on me: 'What the hell kind of a question is that?' I realised that it was the kind of question I should have asked Brian Parker and not John Lowe. John Lowe was not nearly drunk and tired enough. It turned out that John had nearly married but had suffered some deep and dark hurt. 'But all that was years ago,' he said, 'I've nearly got over it now.' Oops. John spent most of the rest of the con taking Pat's mind off the fact that I was elsewhere having a good time. They even managed to do a passable imitation of rock 'n' roll together. But that was on Saturday.
On Saturday morning D West was conspicuous by his absence. On Friday evening D West had done something very unusual. He had passed out. The full enormity of this is only comprehended if one has any knowledge of D West's background. For a start D West is of good solid hard-drinking Yorkshire stock. D West lives in Bingley where traditionally the Yorkshireman drinks until he can barely discern a double-six from a blank tile, then he wends his way home past the Damart factory (90p an hour and all the rubber slimming garments you can wear), kicks down his door, rapes the hamster, counts his winnings and, by this time almost magically sober once more, has a final fag and goes to bed. A few hours later he may be up again to double-check his winnings or build a laser out of cornflakes packets. In the morning, as regular as pigeon crap, the Yorkshireman in Bingley is recalled from this shallowest of slumbers by the sound of his lungs blowing reveille. His fingers grope for the cigarette-rolling machine. This is life as she is lived and loved in Bingley, Yorks. This scenario does not make allowance for D West flaking out, dead to the world and the vicious finger-jabs of Brian Parker, in a hotel armchair at two o'clock on a Saturday morning. Put it down to train-lag. Apparently D woke up at four to see a member of the hotel staff bearing down upon him, whereupon he figured he had better remove himself to the toilet for a safe period. Unfortunately the comforts of the toilet must have proved too seductive for he promptly lost conciousness again until Roy Kettle showed up in the morning to offer him the use of an un-made bed.
I overslept on Saturday morning, foregoing the delights of the traditional continental breakfast (how quaint to see how these customs linger even in today's most modern hotels) and foregoing the even more traditional lectures by Jack Cohen and Tom Shippey. Can you remember when con programmes were interesting and stimulating? No, I can't remember either.
After lunch in Debenham's self-service I lay on my bed in my hotel room wondering why I felt so tired. I tried to forget about my imminent thirtieth birthday. I went into the bathroom and peered at myself in the mirror. Don't worry kid, I told myself, you don't look a day over seventeen. And anyway it's how you feel that's important and not how you look. I felt awful. I should have gone back to bed but I decided to run my body down some more and went in search of young blood. Joseph Nicholas was no good. He had deserted the ranks of long-in-the-toothdom for the nubile delights of Graham Poole. I invited him up to my room but he demurred. 'Honest, I'd like to,' he said. 'But Graham Poole's offered me a drink if I manage to enrol 500 subscribers to Spi.'
'Ar goober wodgit,' said Poole in some damned dialect and strode off, Nicholas capering behind him. Wish I knew the punk's appeal.
Back in unreal life I checked out John Brunner's headlining speech before the blaze and glory of what we were led to believe was a BBC camera team. Brunner's demeanour was as condescending as I'd anticipated and so, nipping my irritation in the bud, I opted for fun elsewhere. Oh, but Brunner does irritate me. I can understand the views of recluses like Moorcock or Ballard who dislike the attentions of fans and are unable to handle the social unreality of conventions and who thus usually give both a wide berth. Brunner seems every bit as scornfully detached from the ranks from which he rose and yet he is always there, ready to be noticed by the press and the public, ready to receive adulation and screen out the enmity, ready to indulge himself and yet unable, it seems, to give very much in return. I certainly sense very little affection in the man. Bob Shaw, Chris Priest, and Ken Bulmer, to name but a handful of more worthy talents, seem to enjoy life more, perhaps because they don't take themselves so portentously.
I wasn't feeling too good myself. I found the auction, a little later, as depressing in its own way as Brunner's speech. I'm an SF purist. I've never developed a taste for fantasy, sword and sorcery, superhero fiction, horror, or Gothic. It was disturbing to see material of just this nature dominate the auction at what, in my parochial way, I continue to regard as a science fiction convention. It was disturbing too to see the avidity with which this junk was snapped up by an audience indiscriminating enough to huffaw one minute at the atrocious blurb of a One-Eye novel and yet clutch yearningly the next at a job-lot of Robert E Howard paperbacks. At times like that I start asking myself in a still small voice of panic what my relationship to this business is. I dunno. I wandered off trying to figure it all out. In the lounge Judy Watson and Another Woman were trying to sit on each other's laps with an exuberance which seemed mild and almost pleasurable beside some of my own worst excesses. Ian Watson stood by with his jaw thrust pugnaciously, his eyes limpidly agleam. I was still mentally scratching my head (my lower lip adroop) about where all this sword and sorcery was taking us when Ian's jaw thrust pugnaciously in my direction. 'Don't take that attitude with me, Charnock,' he snarled. 'Eh?' I said wittily. 'I know just what you're thinking,' Ian said. 'You're thinking what on earth the Watsons are up to this time.'
One day Watson and I are going to have to take the cure together.
Pat had bought a new dress for the banquet. She looked radiant and broke. Peter Weston was miffed that the remaining seat on the table his party was sharing with Tom and Alix Perry had been taken by Eric Bentcliffe. 'Why does he do it,?' Pete muttered, bemused as only Pete can be. 'We're life-long enemies.'
Pat and I had only entered our names on the seating-plan at the last minute. David Griffin hadn't bothered to put his name down at all so someone had pencilled him in at our table. There were enough objectionable people in evidence in the banquet that night for us to feel relieved that we didn't have to eat with any of them. David seemed to feel the same way. 'I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather share a table with,' he said, looking around and adding slightly too sotto voce for my taste, 'of those that are here.'
The best words to describe David Griffin are 'charming' and 'nice'. He appears incorrupt but, by virtue of his tender years and unlike Andrew Stephenson, possibly not incorruptible. There seems to be a slight potential for decadence in him, although he gives the impression of being one who will go about it in his own sweet way in his own sweet time (the Simone Walsh in me tempts me to say 'awfully sweet way'). In an attempt to loosen his tongue we offered to share some wine. 'No,' he said, 'I never drink anything alcoholic.' Now as Greg has said, there seems something unnatural about a fan who doesn't drink. It is hard to rationalise such hideous knowledge but one tries. 'Against your principles, eh,' I tried. 'No,' he said. 'I just hate the taste.' He gave the word 'hate' just the right spirited edge, so you knew he wasn't joking. I refrained from pointing out that that's where most principles seem to start and end and began to revise my initial opinions about this boy's incorruptibility.
It was David's first convention, his first banquet, and furthermore (he told us) the first time he had ever eaten out. I dropped my roll on the floor and while rescuing it considered this awesome fact. This boy had apparently reached the age of being a fan without experiencing anything other than home- or own-cooking. Not for him the whole cultural milieu of Wimpey bars, Chinese and Indian restaurants, Pizza Huts or, God help us, presumably railway station buffets. Here was someone who had obviously learnt not to eat peas with his knife from reading books. A strong seam of reserve in the lad mitigated against any really embarrassing questions on our part such as 'How?', 'Why?', 'When?' and 'You don't say?', so we didn't learn very much more about him, except that before discovering the heady ennui of science fiction he had been reduced to getting his kicks by learning Swedish, to the extent where he was now competent to produce a Swedish-language fanzine with a circulation in excess of 50 copies. Anyone who can manage that with no more apparent motive than 'it was something to do' has enough application and bizarre dedication to do some very weird things in fandom. He might even get married one day.
All too soon the meal was over and definitely too soon it was time for Dave Kyle's address. He told us we really hadn't come to the banquet to eat so it didn't matter if the food was crap. I'm sure the waiters drifting around really appreciated this point. He went on to say that we had in fact come to honour the committee and to honour him. This seemed to me to be a rather high-handed and over-serious view of things, but I refrained from heckling. What would David Griffin have thought? Kyle went on to say that the presentation of a tankard with a gnome on it would remind him in the future that he had once been presented with a tankard with a gnome on it. Then he sat down and we breathed again. After witnessing Kyle speak for three minutes I began to understand why, ever since his hour-long Guest of Honour speech earlier that day, people like Chris Priest and Rob Holdstock had been going around exhibiting all the signs of bozoid brain-rot and glazing of the credibility centres.
Still there was the disco to look forward to.
I loaded up my camera and went in search of compromising shots, even going so far as to stretch out on the floor risking Rog Peyton's stomping boots so that I could shoot up the skirt of Helen Eling as she yo-yoed across the floor. In the morning I discovered I hadn't loaded the camera properly and all had been in vain. A shame. It would have been nice to have had photographic corroboration of some of the less credible moments; Malcolm Edwards and Andy Ellesmore clutched in each other's fevered embrace as they smooched around the floor; Elaine Miller dancing with Brian Parker (Brian: 'You're not putting much into it.' Elaine: 'If I were to let myself go I'd beat myself to death.'). Yes, the disco was okay. It was one of those occasions which once more brought Greg to his feet with an impassioned cry of 'I wish I could do that!' The object of his envy and adulation in this case was Rog Peyton in full steam. What impressed me about Rog was not so much the technique and expertise of his dancing but the look of total bland boredom he wore while he was about it. That man has real style.
The first fan to turn up at our party after the disco was a pigeon. He sat on the windowsill all through the night, quietly crapping and thoroughly enjoying the wit and repartee on the other side of the glass. Occasionally when he was in danger of falling asleep someone would open the window, and poke him awake or offer him crisps and peanuts. He had a really good time.
Things were quite jolly on the other side of the glass. Roy Kettle and Peter Roberts were vying for the comfy chair. Roy won. Dave Langford kept cupping his ear at me and thus forcing me to say things into it. I've noticed that when Dave is talking to his regular pals and cronies he doesn't do this nearly so often. I suspect they bore him and he keeps his mind elsewhere. I shall only feel really comfortable with Dave when I know him well enough to talk to him without him listening to me.
After a couple of hours Simone told me: 'Greg's very drunk, you know.' 'How can you tell?' 'He keeps going into his butch machismo pose,' she said. I looked across at Greg and it was true. He was talking quite affably to someone quite innocuous, and yet his teeth were clenched in a gritty glittering sneer, his hands were clenched at his sides, every overweight inch of him seemed to be straining to dominate. Later I saw him talking to Rob about Eve Harvey. She was sitting down on the floor beside them and every so often they would glance down at her and snigger, while their hands gestured as if they were fishermen measuring the length of their catch. I don't think Eve knows too much about fishing because when Greg finally squatted down beside her and mumbled 'Six inches, sweetheart,' she seemed rather impressed. Hardly worth catching, I'd have thought.
After a while Greg tired of fishing stories and Rob and I followed his strutting figure down to the lounge, sure something was in the wind. It was quiet but there were a few lost souls still about, Harry Bell was by the bar talking to Dave Rowe. Greg went up and tapped Dave on the shoulder. Suddenly people started leaving the lounge, most of them looking in the air and whistling. Harry started to sidle away from a conversation between Greg and Dave that was becoming increasingly animated. Rob and I sat down to watch. I was merely curious as to what was going to happen but Rob began acting like a character from one of his own hack sagas of Viking violence. 'There's gonna be blood,' he chortled. His face twisted into a vicious grin; I could detect drool gathering in the corner of his mouth. His hands pumped against the seat. Then: 'Hit him! Hit him!' Rob shouted at the top of his voice. 'You'll regret it forever if you don't!' His voice dropped to a low crooning note: 'Oh, hit him. Hit him...' Of course Greg didn't hit him. All that happened was that Rob and I got told off later by Simone for encouraging him.
Back at the party Andy Ellesmore, Chuck Partington and Dave Griffiths were picking on a guy who thought wogs ought to be deported. After a little while the guy went outside and started telling Irene Bell what a prick John Piggott was (don't ask me why). Irene started ducking and weaving like Charlie Chaplin in the ring with a heavyweight bruiser; her hands kept clutching and reaching out for imaginary bottles to break on an imaginary bar and thrust into his face. Finally the guy fled with Irene screaming after him, something on the lines of 'You're not fit to wash John Piggott's shoelaces!' I wouldn't like to meet Irene Bell in a dark alley, and I understand they have no other kind in Newcastle. Next morning all that remained of the party was a considerable amount of booze and a little pile of raisins on the floor under Roy Kettle's chair.
It was Sunday. I lay awake trying to figure out the subtle changes being rung on the Church bells across the road. I got up wondering how I could possibly feel so good this early in the morning. Then the bells started chiming midday. In the con hall Brunner was chairing a panel on the future of SF, which appeared to be in the hands of Andrew Stephenson, Chris Priest and Rob Holdstock. Nothing these able bodies said seemed to cut through Brunner's air of chilling superiority and icy arrogance, although at times he would wince whenever Rob or Andrew made blanket statements that began 'Of course we writers...' In the bar Greg was looking worried, 'You're not gonna like this, Graham,' he said. 'What's that, Greg?' I asked. 'Guess who forgot to withdraw Stop Breaking Down from the Nova Award.' 'Oh,' I said. 'Yeah,' he said, 'there's no way I can get out of this with good grace. If I win I'm gonna be in the shit with my buddies...' 'And if you don't win then there's no justice, right?' 'Right!' Of course there was no justice.
Of course the other major award, presented for the first time at the 1976 Novacon, was the BEST Award. Few people seemed to grasp the full significance of the BEST Award, especially when they were asked to contribute a few pence towards it. 'It's simply for the BEST,' said Malcolm, jingling the coins in a pint-mug. Once this point was clarified most people saw the wisdom of the BEST Award and gave generously. A total of £ 2.66½ was collected by popular subscription and awarded to D West by a unanimous vote of the BEST Award Committee. The BEST Award was later redistributed to worthy causes by D. John Brunner got fivepence.
Around about this time the convention ended. After a slap-up meal during which Christine Edwards amazed even hardened gluttons by consuming a piece of cheesecake and a plate of profiteroles, assorted friends of the Astral Leugue returned to Greg and Simone's room to finish off the Charnox booze. D West amused us all by removing his dentures several times and then declared we must all be raised to the rank of Leauge Master by performing a simple feat of physical agility and endurance involving a broomstick. Unfortunately nobody had a broomstick so D prowled around the room shaking bits of furniture in the hope that something resembling a broomstick would fall out. When he started dismantling the lamp-standard Simone ordered him out and told him not to return without a broomstick or something like it. Within minutes he was back triumphantly clutching a common or garden cane. Out in the corridor we queued to perform. It goes thus: The hands are extended palm upwards. The broomstick (or cane) is then grasped in this position. Throughout the performance the hands must not move from this configuration. The broomstick is then lowered and one steps over it with both feet. It is then brought up over the head until it is once more held in front of the body. The right leg is then passed around the right arm and over the top of the broom. The broom is then taken up over the head once more and if all has gone well you should be back where you started from. If this sounds impossible that's because it very nearly is, unless you're into yoga or are double-jointed. Rob Holdstock is neither. At one point it was obvious that either his spine or the cane had to break. Unfortunately it was the cane. Almost before we could appreciate the impact of the tragedy D had disappeared and returned with yet another cane. We marvelled at his resourcefulness and Rob resumed his attempts to defy gravity. While he was struggling Peter Roberts arrived rolling a cigarette and looking bemused. 'I've just come through the lounge,' he said. 'You know that big rubber plant down there... it's all over the floor. The manager's down there trying to scoop it up. He looks very confused.' Then he saw Rob bent double around the cane and staggered back. 'You...' he gasped. Then there was a familiar snapping sound and Rob straightened up triumphantly grasping two pieces of cane.
'I did it,' he beamed. 'I'm a Master!'
-- Graham Charnock