UNICON 3, Keele University 1982
UNICON IN RETROSPECT
by Linda Pickersgill
(first published in Epsilon 13, edited by Rob Hansen)
I must admit to being a bit wary of attending a university convention. When I was first catching up on my history of British fandom I heard time and time again about the '76 Eastercon that was held at the university of Manchester, about how awful it was and what a disaster. My memories of the only university con I had attended in the US were no better. The '78 Aggiecon was held at the Texas A&M as the same weekend as an ROTC gathering and I was constantly clashing with some uniformed junior jive authority who told me not to walk on the grass or put my feet on the furniture. So who needed more of the same campus hassle? But then I'd heard some pretty wild tales about the previous Unicon that involved oat-cakes and beds moving down hallways. Add to that the fact that Roy Kettle was to be Fan GoH with Rob Holdstock, the guest author, and I figured that the chances of having silly fun outweighed the fact that it was a campus con.
There was something oddly comforting in the discovery that Keele campus could have been any one of a hundred American campuses. There was the same scattering of buildings connected by roads and walkways, the usual dorm cubicles furnished with basic bed, chair and desk and the same student union bar and pool-room furnished with heavy, beer-stained wooden tables and stools. If nothing else I knew I'd feel at home at Keele. The oddness of it all hit when room-mate Helen and I bought our first drink at the temporary bar set up in the Administration building/con hall. What do we do next? I was used to standing around hotel lounges and lobbies with a drink in my hand, not some large echoing university building. The sensible decision was to sit down and wait for someone interesting to come along. Before long the familiar faces started to turn up and to sit down with us. That is, they sat down on Helen's side of the chairs. On my side of the seating section I found a strange sight. There was a fella sitting next to me with longish hair, dressed in jeans and a faded and sleeveless denim vest. He was barefoot and had a hunting knife strapped to his belt as welt as a sprig of heather in his hair and a manic look in his eyes. Someone later told me that he was supposed to be dressed as a post-holocaust hippie, which made me real glad that I support the CND. I don't remember how the conversation began but I found out that this was his second convention and in my knowing-fan-meets-neo way I told his he ought to find it interesting. "Yes. Well, let's get the first question out of the way'', he tells me. The first question? There were many first questions I'd encountered at cons: where are you from? are you married? want a back rub? how about a hit of window pane? Which would his first question be? "What science fiction writers do you like?" Oh that first question. Well, I like Philip K. Dick and J.G.Ballard "OH. Oh, wow, yeah..." and John Sladek "Wow, yeah, wow..." , and Michael Moorcock "OH WOW WOW YEAH WOW....". I felt this exchange was getting nowhere and besides he looked as if he might burst with his next series of "wow"s. I left the conversation at that and made a polite exit towards the bar. Chris Evans had seen the whole episode "Looks like you've made a friend there, Linda", he said, with an evil giggle. "Oh, wow", I answered.
Friday night We had a run-from-the-cretins. It was late. The main con hall was closed. The student union bar had closed. There was no place left to go for fun but the dorm rooms. The burning question was: who had drink? "I've got a bottle of vodka in my room", Helen offered, little realizing the effect her words would have on all within hearing distance. The cry spread like wild fire. "Helen's got a bottle of vodka in her toom," "Vodka? Where?" "Helen's room." "Who's Helen? Point her out!" A small band of us began the trek back to Helen's room followed by a mass of unfamiliar yet thirsty-looking faces. There was a small wooded bit of campus to pass through on the way and as would happen to any red-blooded girl raised on B-grade horror flicks my mind started to recreate the depraved, maniac campus co-ed killer scenes. I mentioned this out loud and in true gallant form Malcolm Edwards offered to protect me. With an arm around my shoulder he began to protect me deeper into the woods and off the beaten track. Fortunately Rob Holdstock literally swooped along and protected me back towards the group. As we reached the quad in front of the dorms I looked back to see the thirsty mob still following us. "Vod-ka!", I thought I hard them chant en masse. "Who are those people?". I wondered out loud, "Cretins", someone replied. "Eeeeeeeeeeekkk!", I squealed. I was still spooked by the maniac-in-the-woods scene and the thought of a hoard of mutant vodka-starved cretins emerging from the wood behind us was too much to handle. Someone must have picked up on my frame of mind because the next thing I know the cry goes up: "Run! Run from the cretins!" Still squealing I ran, not knowing where I was running to. In an attempt to protect me yet again Malcolm shoved me towards an alley. Considering that my co-ordination and balance were not at their peak it was no surprise that I fell slap-dab flat on my knees. In a milli-second flash of childhood regression the memory of falling off bikes and skate-boards came rushing up to the present. I began to wonder if I was running from the right cretins. I didn't notice the damage until I was back in the room with Helen, the gang, and the vodka. "You do realize that you've torn your overalls?" Helen asked me. I looked down at my knees and, sure enough, each one sported a ragged hole with an ominous rusty stain around it. Bloody Hell! My first convention scars! Like a trooper I decided to continue partying while the alcohol kept the pain at bay. I was about to suggest that we look for other poarties when Holdstock leapt to his feet and, with pointed finger, counted the number of people in the room. "One too many for an orgy", he announced, and slipped out the door. What a gentleman. After the orgy we pulled ourselves together and continued the search for fun.
It's amazing what a campus con does to the mentality of a science fiction fan. It's as if the atmosphere that says "student" combined with an event that says "can" is bound to equal extreme silliness. I call it the moron factor. What else would explain such incidents as Kettle throwing a neo into a fit of tears by telling him that there was no such thing as a Robert Heinlein. Or Helen getting lost trying to find our room while standing mere inches from the room door? And what about the giggling mystery voice claiming to be Heinlein, knocking at my window and asking me to come out and play? The moron factor struck us all but none so moronic as the paper airplane flingers during Roy's Fan GoH speech. Even most morons must understand that it isn't ever and easy thing to stand on the platform of a huge university auditorium and speak to a crowd as motley as that at Unicon. So OK, one or two airplanes would have been funny and lightened the mood but like the fella who doesn't know how to time a joke, the airplane throwers didn't know when to quit and kept it up during the entire speech. It was a good speech, too, full of the standard Kettle wit and insight and Roy did a good job despite the pesty paper wads.
Holdstock received a bit of a surprise at his speech as well, though this one was a bit better planned and timed. Kettle had instigated a mock "This Is Your Life" o be thrown on Rob after his speech. Again, it was a very good speech and moved me from laughter to tears. As soon as he finished a few of us ducked behind a screen set up at the back of the room. Kettle held Rob on the stage and announced that this was his life. I was the first out from behind the screen. With my hair tied up in bunches I was the daughter Ron never knew he had. "Yes, Rob, that kiss with a girl behind the barn all those years ago left you with more than a cold-sore. And here she is, your daughter...Herpes Holdstock!" Rob (alternately called Ray, Ron, Rastus, etc... by m.c. Kettle) was also visited by his bank manager, his sex-therapist, his social worker and last, but not least an RSPCA representative holding up a stuffed black cat that was supposed to be the starving Finnegan he'd left at home. And I never thought I'd see the day when Rob Holdstock would be so speechless.
Many of the silly moments seemed to centre around the student union bar. It was there that I saw a very silly Malcolm try to take on master domino fiend D. West and lose many bits of money. It was also there that a collection was taken up and presented to Simon Polley who could have all the pretty coins if he'd work over Steve Green a bit. Lord knows Simon tried. He and Steve wrestled and tumbled and lurched about waving pieces of bar-furniture at each other. It was just like a scene from "Destor Al Monsters". It was also that we played a silly game that as far as I know is called "Names of..." It's the kind of game you groan about if someone brings it up at a party but enjoy once you get into it. Basically, you sit in a circle and set up a rhythm by slapping your thighs, clapping your hands, then snapping your fingers twice. The lead person chooses a category (names of flowers, for instance) and each person in turn must name something in that category on the snaps. You get the idea, I'm sure. Late at night the categories got a bit weird, such as names of incurable diseases or names of bodily fluids. Nothing too intellectual. This was a campus con after all. Inevitably the category "names of underwear" came up. Slap, clap, snap, snap, snap clap, "knickers" says Chris Atkinson clap, clap, "brassieres" says Helen, "split crotch panties" says Malcolm, "fishnet tights" says Holdstock, "hernia belt" says Andrew Stephenson, "suspenders" says Jan Huxley, "wimple" says Peter Roberts. It's my turn next but I falter. "Wimple?". Everybody is staring at Peter quizzically. "Wimple?". I wondered if he ever pictured women in their wimples but Peter merely shrugged and rolled another cigarette. I suppose it takes all kinds.
But of course what are cons without the parties, or dorm room parties as the case may be. I can remember wandering in and out of numerous cubicles and dorm kitchen where parties seemed to be in constant progress. The most memorable one took place in Phil Palmer's room on Sunday night. I hadn't seen much of Phil that weekend, although I suspect he was the spectre in blue pyjamas who passed me in the hall during early morning treks to the loo (unisex dorms hold many such surprises). Nonetheless, he made himself well heard that night with a good selection of music played loud on his ghetto blaster. People massed into his room and some tried to dance, though it wasn't until later when things thinned out that Jimmy Robertson zipped up his leather jacket and showed us what dance really meant. Eventually Phil called it quits and the diehards amongst us had to continue the party in the hall where the second most amazing sight was Simon Polley. Now admittedly Simon was getting stranger and stranger as the weekend wore on. He started off serenading me with his vast Frankie Laine repertoire and gradually gave in to what can only be described as the call of a rutting walrus in heat. By Sunday night he was deranged and appeared at appeared at the hall party with his face covered with some sort of design done in blue-green ink giving him the appearance of a psychedelic Maori. Apparently there was some method to his madness because as Malcolm and I sat back in a slightly inebriated stupor and watched he swooped in on a woman who was talking with Rob Holdstock and began biting and tugging at bits of her clothing between walrus yells. Rob, who was trying to have a serious conversation with Amania about the SDP, CND, and the merits of cricket, found this a bit distracting but Amania never broke her train of thought. After much heated discussion on Rob's part, walrus moans on Polley's part, and uncontrollable giggles on mine and Malcolm's part, Amania stood up and announced that Simon looked drunk and obviously needed someone to tuck him into bed. She took him by the hand and led him away, leaving only the sound of Rob's jaw thudding as it fell to the floor.
It was a good con. Despite the fact thayt I've mentioned very few of the con activities themselves I did attend some of the programme items and found them much the same in character as the parties and other silliness. The drinker's gourmet contest was a good laugh and the committee'sproduction of "Blunderbirds Are Go" was priceless, even if I have never seen "Thunderbirds" and didn't get all the jokes. I feel that I've really missed out pm some good fun by missing the first two Keele UniCons and feel a bit sad there will never be any more quite like them.