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COVENTRY '75

The Great Seacon Freakout

by Peter Nicholls




First Published in Wrinkled Shrew 4, edited by Pat Charnock



THURSDAY

All the omens were bad. I had a temperature; my nose was running; I had been abandoned in London by my nearest and dearest, who were (or was, but I don't like to admit the narrowness of my social life) away over Easter and not going to the convention. I spent ten hours at home on Thursday, the day I hoped to be in Coventry, finishing my moralising New Worlds talk, JERRY CORNELIUS MEETS THE DROWNED WORLD, which I knew Might complete the job of alienating some of my friends. Part of the speech was about Ballard's Crash, and it was with a feeling of nightmare inevitability that I discovered the 90 minute drive to Coventry took three hours through blinding snow, with the Motorway stained red every 15 miles or so, and its edges littered with a New Wave AutoDestruction Art Show. I felt wiped out and in shock before the con had even begun.

8 o'clock at night. A harrassed committee loitered just inside the front door with unnatural, fired smiles of friendliness making them look so ferocious that at once I saw five neofans turn back through the glass doors with low whimpers of fear and paranoia. Head low, I belted past into what I correctly intuited was`a bar, and there was Karel Thole with his wife, Lise, daughter, Adrienne, and son-in-law, Rudolfo. Much European kissing on both cheeks. Karel's face was prickly. I suppose mine was too. We went into the downstairs restaurant, and Karel bought me a meal cooked by a literalminded chef, who hearing that I wanted my steak rare, served it up in a soup of cold, raw blood.

First nights at cons tend not to be memorable. My sniffles got worse, and I couldn't get into the right mood for serious drinking. Eight desperate drinks later, and I had moved direct from sobriety to sleepiness with no intervening euphoria. I can remember nothing except my amusement at little Chris Priest trying to claw his way upwards in the sf hierarchy by the dubious expedient of squiring the beautiful and mysterious sister of a BNF.

Actually, I'm not a BNF. The wish is father to the thought. Fans, so I paranoically believe, treat me with suspicion and contempt. Thinking of me as a pretentious-pseudo-intellectual, it never even occurs to them that I've been waiting hungrily for five years to be asked to write in a fanzine. I hope those tears of gratitude didn't stain the front of your dress, Pat. I hope nothing else did, for that matter, but at a con, who'd notice?

FRIDAY

Breakfast was with Andrew Stephenson, whose nauseating bonhomie was clearly masking a chilling moral decay, symbolised by the new, seductive beard, and the heavy breathing which characterized his descent into corruption throughout the convention. Eat your heart out, Dorian Gray!

After breakfast I drifted aimlessly, it being Good Friday, into Coventry Cathedral. The best thing was the burned out cross in the bombed out shell of the old cathedral. Contrasting it with the stylish kitsch of the Sutherland tapestry behind the high altar of the new cathedral says something about where Christianity is at right now. I don't mind. It's all an honest symbol of the times. It moved me, quite a lot, so I hurried back next door to the De Vere before I felt tempted to recant my 30 year apostasy.

Breathing the tainted air with relief (it was the first of the traditional three denials which my namesakes are given around this time of the year), I promptly ran into the first signs of purposeful self publicising which designate your modern, identikit fan. Chris Priest was being interviewed in the lift (whatever turns you on, baby) by a beautiful Frenchwoman with a gamine smile and a lapin coat which was shedding all over Priest, who was standing far too close. The look of dismay on his face when she said "Le Monde Inverti (Ed's note -- it means 'homosexual world') is good, almost as good as Ian Watson's L'Enchassement" was comical to see.

Meanwhile Rob Holdstock was pawing pitifully at the arms of passing journalists, trying to explain to them the full horror of a world where so many people want to publish your great novel that it is a terrible strain on your natural shyness and humility. Taking pity on his lurching, shambling figure (reminiscent of Tony Perkins in Psycho) I took over the interview masterfully, and told the audience of Birmingham Commercial Radio how embarrassing it was, being in the position of administering an SF Foundation which through no fault of my own is rapidly coming to dominate the known universe. As ever, I made no mention of George Hay who, just because he founded the goddam thing, thinks he can talk to me without making an appointment three weeks ahead through one of my secretaries specially hired for the purpose of explaining that Mr Nicholls is at home in bed having great thought and toasted cheese sandwiches whenever George (or anyone else) rings up. Holdstock was pathetically grateful for my intervention, and brought me a double whisky. I thought it tasted rather odd.

It seemed no time at all before, in the absence of Tom Disch and the other ten important people who'd been asked first and refused, I was up on the stage giving the opening talk of the Convention. An opening talk should be brisk, witty and welcoming. Mine was long, serious and embarrassing -- to me even more than to the audience, I suspect. I had calculated that 22 pages would be a good, solid fifty minutes. I'd forgotten that the pages should be triple spaced. Mine were double spaced. The talk went on and on and on. I thought I said some good things, but they were the sort of things you'd rather read at leisure than be beaten over the head with at a con. A dreadful fan called Hans Loose who looks like a shrunken Lee Marvin immediately attacked me afterwards by saying, "An opening talk should be brisk, witty and welcoming. Yours was long, serious, embarrassing, dull, and offensive to fandom. All you English are the same except John Brunner." Drawing myself to my full height, I responded with a riposte worthy of my great predecessors in the art of the sophisticated putdown: Oscar Wilde, James Macneill Whistler and Dr Johnson. "Why don't you fuck off, you mindless Dutch cretin," I said wittily. He slunk away like the cur he is. This is a true story.

Back in the bar, John Jarrold was squandering his millions (where does he get all that money?) buying everybody expensive drinks. Someone will have to tell him, one day, that we'd like him anyway, even if he never bought us a single one. I hope they don't tell him too soon. (Any wryness of tone in this factual report, I should explain right now, is an attempt to exorcize the mindless, maudlin sentimentality that came over me at Seacon, where everybody, even almost Pickersgill, seemed lovable, witty, kind and decent. I know this can't be true, and I refuse to behave as if it were true.)

(STOP PRESS: Grand National just run. I had £ 5.00 on L'Escargot, £ 2.00 each way on Money Market. Thank you, God. I'm sorry I've been running round denying You and bitching behind Your Back. What an end to an unbelievable week. I got so excited I rang up my old, close friend Pamela and asked her out to dinner. To my dismay she said yes. I get so nervous about my extremely infrequent contacts with my old, close friend Pamela that I stammer and say terribly things. Oh well.)

The rest of Friday afternoon consisted of dedicated drinking and signs of incipient lechery. One of the two French beauties said "You are, how do you say, trying to drag yourself a chicken?" Overwhelmed by this mastery of contemporary English slang, I forgot my lechery (temporarily) and went and bought some very bad books in the auction. It was pure coincidence I swear that Susie, the girl friend of Ace Guardian Columnist, Martin Walker, a beautiful blonde with a winsome smile, was sitting next to me. She's a beautiful blonde too. (Winsome, lose some, as they say.) Outside the auction room I discovered Chris Priest still being interviewed by the indomitable Marianne Leconte, until recently the redactrice en chef of Horizons du Fantastique. She explained to me that she had to start the interview over because her batteries needed charging. I bit my tongue. Chris was solemnly explaining about his loneliness and sensitivity. He didn't actually quite say that my sister didn't understand him. (She was upstairs watching the telly. Whenever things get too much for my sister she watches the telly. But she's very nice.)

Just after dinner, Malcolm Edwards, Rob Holdstock and the repellent Roy Kettle were running around in tiny circles trying to memorize celebrities. They were so nervous that it was obvious they could barely memorize one another. It was time for CELEBRITY INTRODUCTION, subtitled, with great accuracy as it turned out, SORRY, THEY'RE ALL IN THE BAR. I kept on inventing celebrities that they'd never heard of, just to make them nervous, Malcolm was white in what was visible of his face (I love that fringe, Malcolm). In the long run my bluff was called and I introduced celebrities myself. All the thanks I got was the Chairman calling me sf's answer to Rolf Harris. Little creep. Every time I invented a fictitious celebrity like Brian Lewis or Ken Campbell, somebody stood up in the audience and bowed. I felt like a godlike universe-manipulator in a Dick novel.

(EVEN LATER STOP PRESS. Dinner wasn't too bad, and Pamela pretended not to notice my Parkinsonian condition which led to much spilled wine. Afterwards at her flat we drank 1944 Armagnac whose source, along with that of the double strand of real pearls, I didn't enquire. We listened to Ray Charles and reminisced in a manner which would have struck any insensitive observer as philosophical. I told her civilly that I'd be happy to invite her out again if I happened to win a packet on any of the classics later in the year. She parried with the familiar enigmatic smile, and I returned home to continue this mammoth con report.)

Friday was the evening of the great elitist event of the Con, the famous John Brunner ("keep the room number to yourself") party. Actually it was quite good, provided that you ran down to the bar every hour or so to get some fresh air. It was during one such escape that I missed the infamous Simone Walsh/Greg Pickersgill fracas. The story I hear (no doubt all lies) is that John wouldn't let them in on account of they weren't BNFs or committee members. I would have given you two to one on that it would be little furry Pickersgill who'd produce the flick knife in such a case, but my informants reckon it was the lovely if languid Ms Walsh who let out great ululating cries of destruction and calls to the Furies for vengeance. It is said that, forgetting her youthful image, she shouted, "I've been a fan for 25 years, Brunner, and been invited to more Room Parties than you've had hot dinners." I'm sorry I missed it.

This was the party at which I had my first intimation that curious, alien, sweet-smelling substances were being proffered. Thinking that these were mentholated cigarettes, I could not understand why, after two of them, quite against my will, my face kept wreathing itself in smiles of fatuous trust, and why I kept on forgiving my enemies, ostentatiously, publicaly and repeatedly. Nor could I understand why everything had slowed down, or what strange force had given me the gift of tongues, so that I was under the impression that I was talking pyrotechnically to various lesser breeds from the mainland in fluent Swedish, Flemish, German and French.

One side effect was that my cold disappeared. The valiant little viruses, half-drowned in Whitbread Tankard, dissolved in scotch, dizzy from lack of sleep, and buffeted by all the little nouveau-riche sex hormones strutting their stuff up and down my blood stream, finally succumbed to these foreign herbs, and expired gracelessly. Poor little sods.

I begged some of these herbs from sundry loveable fellows, thinking how nice it would be to mentholate my own cigarettes. Some of the menthol looked like dried parsley, and some looked like a section of Oxo Cube. It was very good menthol, and from that moment on I never looked back. (This was the first of many muscular difficulties that set in. Now I can barely walk.) Also, for some reason, from that moment on everything seemed to be in very bright colours with constantly changing Outlines.

Retrospectively, I believe I can still, almost, distinguish fact from fiction. It is fact that late on Friday night, still wreathed in smiles, I found myself offering that elegant Scotch fan, writer and (possibly pseudo) scientist, Duncan Lunan, a drink. He demurred for maybe 0.25 of a second before saying, "well, perhaps just a wee double malt whisky Glenfiddich will do if they haven't got any Glen Oranje." Everybody else was drinking halfs of bitter. Sadder and wiser by a margin of £ 0.90, I reflected how foolish I was to have temporarily forgotten all that I had so painfully, and over so many years, learned about Scotsmen -- a category from which six of my eight great grand-parents had escaped to dig up gold and found breweries in Australia. Duncan never offered me a return drink. Whenever I approached him, smiling rapaciously, he dashed off with the explanation that his fiancee wasn't very well. I expect she was up in the bedroom, dying of thirst.

I had my most amazing single conversation on Friday night. "There are many Australians here," said a voluptuous French lady. "Oh yes?" I parried dubiously. "There is one," she said seriously, with a little moue of what may have been pleasure, "of very great beauty and sensitivity." "No there's not!" I riposted, "unless you mean me." "Non," she replied earnestly, leaning forward in the most delightful way, " 'e is younger, vair intelligent, with un petit drooping moustache and ze soft eyes," "You can't mean rotten old Bros?" I cried out in astonishment, tearing my gaze (it was painful) from her insouciante dimple. "Yes, yes, that's the one!" she crooned, pleased at having, she thought, successfully bridged a communication gap. A great gulf of yawning horror opened out before me, (Shut up Merv, I'm not talking about Pauline Dungate) at this point, and I went out to take a brisk two-mi1e walk around Coventry in an attempt to re-establish my rapport with the real universe up there. One by one, I noticed, the stars were going out, so I ran back to the De Vere, and bed, as fast as my leg would carry me. (Something rather odd had happened to the other one, but that's another story.)

SATURDAY

A new day, and miraculously, no hangover. Clean shirt, a quick bath and breakfast, and then I ran into Merv Barrett who, undeterred by his failure the night before, was threading up the projector with King Kong. I hoped he would do better than with last night's blue movie (at another of the room parties I missed) which, according to instant legend, had been inserted upside down and back to front in the projector. I'm told that it jammed after 20 seconds, prior to which the assembled amazed populace was witness to the not-very-aphrodisiac spectacle of somebody's gnarled and drooping penis straightening up, and sucking up a supernaturally appearing jet of milky fluid, for all the world like a very efficient vacuum cleaner. What a symbol of reverse entropy! what a pity the film jammed! Of course it may not have been Merv responsible for this debacle, but if it wasn't, it should have been. It fits his image of someone on the verge of incredible sophistication, always tripping just before he descends to the foot of the Grand Staircase: on the verge of being Joan Crawford (the resemblance is undeniable) but ending up as Jerry Lewis. Mind you, to connoisseurs of noses, Merv's is much more fetching in its fine and noble lines than the much overpraised, brutal blob that Kettle thrusts before him.

I shuffled down the stairs, carefully not touching the banister, and cringing from all human contact. What must have looked like the standard fannish paranoia, most familiar of all sf syndromes, was rooted in the knowledge that I had a static charge of half a million volts inside me. So did everyone else. It was the nylon carpets and airconditioning. My first contact with an attractive woman at the con had resulted in a crackling blue spark when our hands touched. "Cor, I'm all right here," I thought, having read about that first electric contact many times before in my favourite Woman's Magazine. I wasn't disenchanted until the same thing happened when I shook hands with Bob Shaw, whose undoubted attractions have never been before, and I remained convinced, were not now, the kind to turn me on. Bob helpfully explained that we were all electrified. It gave the con just the right sf atmosphere. It was like an old George O. Smith story. Inside every pretty girl, I realized (subconsciously I've always known it) a Leyden jar was lurking. It would take a braver man than I to attempt seduction in these circumstances. I was convinced that by now the upstairs bedrooms were littered with coupled and incinerated corpses, literally burnt to a crisp by a moment of unwise passion. I remembered that Sheila Holdstock had been missing from breakfast, and shed a bitter tear.

Down in the lounge my random musings on the work of Philip K. Dick, on whom I was supposed to speak later on, were interrupted by Peter M. Roberts, holding forth to a hypnotised audience, wittily and with great panache, about the production of fanzines. It was the best and most articulate performance any Committee member gave during the weekend, and was warmly applauded. Was there a conspiracy not to launch Roberts' oratorical career on the larger and more public stage? Had Holdstook and Edwards plotted in their inarticulate way, mumbling inaudibly at one another, to exclude the clearest speaker on the Committee? Obviously foul play somewhere, I mean, when Holdstock was running the auction, the highest bid was tuppence-hapenny. They had to bring in old Rog Peyton, a move of desperation I thought. Would you buy a used book from that man?

I moved up to the bar, to find Chris Priest still being interviewed by the chic French lady. She was on to her sixth tape, and Chris was boasting that he had not been troubled with bedwetting since he was fourteen.(This anecdote is a lie -- Editor threatened with libel suit.) When it appears, it will be one of the all time great interviews.

I had been smoking more mentholated cigarettes, and was smiling a lot. This frightened people, and they all moved away. I can't see why. I think my teeth are rather attractive, with their gleaming cheerful yellow.

Harry Harrison was in the bar, smoking two cigars, and trying not to look sad that Brian Aldiss wasn't there. Harry was a tower of strength throughout the convention. Warm, amicable, and indestructible, and amazingly he seemed slightly sober part of the time. Joan Harrison was being nice, too, and didn't say anything really awful this time. Sometimes she says things that make me cringe at her tastelessness, such as "What a sly, horrible, immature person you are, Nicholls." Sometimes she behaves responsibly and buys me drinks. We agreed not to talk about the evening at Aldiss's when I dropped her on her head during an apache routine, and she was saved only by her wig. (That is another true story.) When you dance with Joan, who is only three feet high, she rubs her cheek against your navel, which is a curiously enriching experience. If I hadn't sworn not to make male chauvinist pig remarks, and if I didn't know that Pat Charnock would excise said remarks with pinking shears and a ferocious snarl, I'd also point out that Joan had one of the nicest pairs of (Cut -- Ed.) at the con.

Harry's GOH speech on Saturday afternoon contained some very good Jewish Irish gestures. That's all I can say with certainty. The front row, who could almost hear him, laughed a lot. At the best of times, Harry's conversation consists of a series of animal imitations interspersed with your actual articulate words, cunningly strung together so as to tease you into thinking you're almost understanding him. Having to fight against the tatty old microphone almost defeated him, but he ploughed on gallantly to the end, a performance of real style and courage in the circumstances. The microphones were the only major disastar of the convention.

The GOH speech was directly followed by a rush to the bar, leaving a miserably small but loyal audience to listen to the next item, the Books of the Year panel, the second sercon item with which I was involved. Chris Priest, the chairman, started off merrily by saying nasty things about 8O Minute Hour, thus setting a mood of jovial critical rigour. Somehow it didn't really work, trying to talk about five books in an hour. There's no time for depth. It all seems bumbling and amateurish. David Pringle was good. Tom Shippey was pontifical but wrong. (Tom is great on gargantuan, synthesizing theories, but not always so sharp on your actual, individual books.) Jim Goddard was utterly freaked out by shyness, and totally inaudible. He was shaking like a leaf. I'm glad he's lost weight. If it had been the old Jim Goddard, Man Mountain, it would have been like Earthquake with SENSURROUND up on that stage. I was maudlin, belligerent and inarticulate about Phil Dick. It was a rotten panel. I talked to all my friends afterwards, and they all loyally agreed it was a rotten panel, volunteering the additional information that I'd done fuck-all to make it any better. I have these really loathsome friends. My enemies seem almost civilised by contrast, but of course there are more of them.

Back in the bar, yet more people had arrived. Jim and Judy Blish were there, together with -- an unexpected and pleasant surprise -- Jim's daughter Beth. She looks very like Jim, and yet is remarkably pretty, a paradox that must be pleasing to her Dad. Jim White was there, too. Jim is one of the nicest people in the world, but he keeps on intimidating me with his height, so I climbed onto a chair, looked him fiercely straight in the eye, and managed for the first time to have a conversation with him on roughly equal terms. Ken and Pamela Bulmer were floating around too. Ken has managed to grow his hair to attractive hippy length just in time to be unfashionable again. The convention, which for a few days had been almost devoid of pros, now seemed full of them. To prove the point, the next panel was on problems of research, featuring Brunner, Blish, Priest, Shaw and White. Good solid stuff from the American and the English, but the Irish well ahead on points for wit. I enjoyed Jim White's story about the way he researched oil tankers for The Watch Below by demanding answers from the proprietor of his local petrol station. Apparently it worked. So much for the public library and the British Museum.

Some of us decided to try the posh Three Spires Restaurant for dinner that night. The room was vast, with a little man in the middle playing a piano with an air of wishing he was somewhere else. We wished he was too. Mistakenly supposing that sf fans were convivial, the maitre d'hotel ignored the echoing and empty acres, and jammed us in a tiny corner right next to the only other occupied table, where Harry Harrison was telling terrible unlikely anecdotes in a subdued shout. I was with Marianne Leconte, Henri-Luc Planchat (a young French writer) and Beth Blish. My companions immediately aroused my democratic instincts by persecuting the unfortunate waiter whose job it was to flambe everything from soup to dessert right next to the table. Marianne pointed out reasonably that one visits a restaurant to get away from the kitchen, but still, the waiter had his job to do, and did it well. The steak au poivre was smashing. I finally interrupted a five minute discussion of the curious ideas of chic now current in the midlands by roaring in my best stentorian tones: "It's provincial to go on and on and on about restaurants being provincial", a second order piece of snobbery which closed the subject.

After dinner Bob Shaw said to me "I take a dim view of this convention". I looked at him blankly and wandered off. I only realised five minutes later that he was wearing dark glasses because his old eye trouble had flared up.

Woody Allen's Sleeper contained many great lines. The heroine protested at one point "But I have a Ph.D. in oral sex". A general mood of relaxation and bonhomie, induced by the good food, the good film, and even the silly and unimaginative Fancy Dress Parade, came over me and gave me a perverse desire for sobriety, so from 11 to 2.30 I chatted quietly, first at the bar, then at a small but pleasant room party, to, various old and new friends.

In the small hours of the morning, feeling cheerful, sober and lowkey, I emerged onto the main stairway of the hotel to find utter chaos reigning. All the drunks had congregated on the sixth floor landing for a stair party. There was Tom Shippey, looking considerably less donnish than usual, who clutched my arm and fixed me with an Ancient Mariner gaze, and intoned hypnotically: "First I had whisky and then I had peach brandy and then I had vodka and then I had plum brandy and then I had malt whisky and then...." before his eyes glazed over and he forgot what he was saying. And there was the terrible Leroy Kettle. Let me set the scene. Just before, as I was walking along the corridor to the landing (the fireproof doors cutting off all the noise from the as yet unimagined stair party) I had been speaking thus with my companion, X.

X: "I'm not sure it's a very good idea to be seen in your company. There may be unpleasantness if Y finds out."

ME: "Well, we're only talking, and anyway there doesn't seem to be anyone around, and everyone's very relaxed and informal at conventions, and everybody's too busy with their own affairs to take any notice of other people, and anyway, I'm famous for the shyness and propriety of my behaviour."

This argument was premature, to say the least. Just then we debouched the landing, where the aforementioned fifty drunks were congregated, and no sooner had old Shippey finished his recitation than my dear friends began shouting, leaning close to X and breathing whisky fumes straight into her face, "There's old Nicholls! He's evil! Everybody knows about Nicholls. You stay away from him love! He's evil! Did you get any, Nicholls? You watch him, love!" All X's fears realised within ten seconds, in one drunken diatribe. Thank you, Leroy. I'll do the same for you one day.

The drunks continued to move randomly backwards and forwards in an alcoholic travesty of Brownian motion. Peter Weston, soberer than most and looking smooth, was charming young ladies. Every time I looked, it I was a different lady. Weston's leer was fixed, glittering and obscene -- really dirty. His polo neck was immaculately white as ever. Rog Peyton's technique was more primitive. It consisted of bull-like snorts and bear hugs, but it seemed to be working 0.K. Gerry Webb's right eye was swivelling in independent circles. Brian Lewis was wearing the knowing cockney smile of an eel vendor. Sheila Holdstock's eyes (a trifle unfocussed) were glinting prettily and dangerously. My companion had gone off to bed (alone) by now, and I was tempted to have a friendly word with young Sheila, but I didn't dare, not after Leroy Kettle's scoop Novacon exposures in True Rat. Thanks again, Leroy. You're a real buddy. He proved it just then by coming up and kissing me passionately. Chrissy Atkinson came up and kissed me too. I valued Chrissy's kiss more, taking it as an emblem of friendship from a nice girl who, I once thought, looked upon me with fannish scorn and contempt. Leroy's kiss, of course, was just old-fashioned lust.

Overwhelmed by all this action on the sixth floor landing, I began to walk spiralling down the stairs. With every successive landing, it was like entering a yet more inward circle of Dante's Hell. The circle of the drunkards was followed by a circle of limbo, where aimless neofans trudged in passive circles, seeking a way out to the great unreachable room party in the sky, which no one could locate. The next circle was the circle of the sleepers. Picking my way through them, I spiralled down through the circle of the failed gamblers, commiserating with one another about the difficulty of filling inside straights. Further down was the circle of the lost. They sat, unreachable in their desolation,, crooning to themselves "I need a woman". The pain and anguish of it all was too much to bear. (I hope you cheered up later, Merv.) I feared to descend to the lowest of all the circles, half expecting to meet the horned one himself, haunches sunk in ice, endlessly chewing on the body of some longdamned fan, perhaps George Hay. In practice, showing that dramatic metaphors don't always work out, the only people at the bottom were Peter Roberts and Karel Thole, apparently sober, talking intelligently about Art in apparent ignorance of the fact that it was 4 a.m. and life and hell.

I stamped back up the stairs again towards the comparative paradise (well, purgatory perhaps) of a lonely bed, performing a well-executed end-run around the outstretched arms of Simone Walsh on the sixth floor. Simone's reflexes, normally admirable, couldn't cope with the wings on my ankies, flapping in total panic at what Pickersgill might say, or worse, do, if he found me talking to her. My bedroom was on the seventh and top floor, where the committee had exiled me along with all the other undesirables. I didn't mind, I slept the sleep of the just.

SUNDAY

My nervous system was thriving, masochistically, on the various abuses I'd lavished on it over the previous few days as I bounced down to breakfast in good time, and on into the cinema, to see the first fifteen minutes of that amazing film generally known as Night of the Leapers-- beware imitations under other titles. I was just able to suffer a rush of Antipodean nostalgia at the sight of millions of lovely little bunnies turning grasslands into desert, before I went off to the B.S.F.A. Annual General Meeting, where a similar process was to be discussed. Perhaps the image is unfair. Hemmings and Bursey don't really have the brains of rabbits.

Fred H. and Chris it's fair to say, had turned up to take their medicine. I was disappointed at the general attitude of the meeting, which was 'Let bygones be bygones, and let's act constructively. I had hoped for a Sunday morning bloodletting, appropriate for the Easter period. I bayed for revenge, but not even Malcolm Edwards would support me. However, the meeting was efficiently conducted by John Brunner, who is superb at this sort of thing. He dealt firmly with the hysteria of George Hay (I can't say too much yet, but I've been negotiating with the Institute of Contemporary Arts whose only desire is to give the B.S.F.A. three galleries, two free secretaries, and exclusive use of the printing,) and Ted Tubb, leonine and insane, who shouted hoarse words to the effect of "Fuck the members and fuck the legalities and let's do something". (He never said what.)

The B.S.F.A. Council was invited to meet again in John Brunner's room after lunch, and several quite sensible decisions were made, but not the most sensible of all, which would be to let the B.S.F.A. go into suspended animation until such time as there is evidence that at least five known competents really want and are able to resuscitate it. I heard that John Brunner and Ted Tubb had a fight after I left. It must have been an even match. I'm sorry I missed it. I didn't get to see any blood all weekend, not even Graham Poole's harakiri. It's a well known fact about conventions, of course, that everybody misses the real action. The room party you hear about afterwards is always twice as scandalous as the room party you attend. (Though I did get to attend the famous Shaw room party at Tynecon where Brian Aldiss, using Judy Blish as a trampoline, destroyed the Shaws' nuptial bed after a splendid final descent from a height of five feet.)

By now, tiredness was setting in, and five pints of beer hadn't staved it off. I had missed the boring Manchester bid, where everybody sullenly agreed that it was 0.K. to have a convention next year in a teenage Borstal rather than a nice comfy hotel. I missed Philip Strick being landed by helicopter for his traditional whistlestop speech. Instead I went off to my bedroom, where I hoped for a quiet kip. On entering, I discovered unbelievable but true Marianne Leconte still interviewing Christopher Priest. She was onto the seventeenth tape, perspiring and fatigued, but Chris looked as fresh as when he'd started, two days ago. He was describing the plot of his new book, La Mer Invertee (The Lesbian Horse). It sounded really wet, the New Wave reaching new depths. Chris's notoriously erratic creative sensibility has burnt its boats and he is all at sea. Anyway, in disgust, I got into the bath, in the forlorn hope that Marianne would offer to scrub my back. Instead, they both slunk off to continue the interview downstairs across my sister's sleeping body. It's a bit much, finally to lure a girl into your bedroom, only to find Chris there as well. When I get Kettle, I'll get Priest too, in a holocaust of destruction that will go down in fannish history. (We need more going down in fannish history. I do, anyway.)

Back in the bar I found Colin and Josephine Saxton. I'd known they'd be there, because I'd telephoned Josephine the day before, and she'd told me the story of falling out of her car and fracturing her skull. I'd envisaged a gruelling scene in which Colin, during a natural fit of pique at Josephine for putting too much tarragon in the Coq au Vin, had pushed her out at fifty miles an hour, but it turned out that the car was stationary at the time. It may be that attending all those keep fit classes has left her musclebound, and she can't co-ordinate properly. She really is incredibly strong. Ask Brian Cormack why he left Novacon whitefaced and shaking. It would certainly take more than a broken head to prevent Josephine from attending a convention on the day of the famous dance. They don't call her the Isadora Duncan of the Potteries for nothing. Josephine's behaviour when concussed is not notably different from her behaviour on other occasions. This is a tribute to wholemeal bread, Gurdjieff and natural vitality, not to mention the tonic effects of alcohol.

By this stage of the convention I was in thoroughly good spirits. Like most convention-goers, I'm certifiably paranoid in addition to being manic-depressive. But this weekend the stratagems of others had obviously taken the fairly harmless form of "Let's be nice to Nicholls". At first, this behaviour had worried and upset me, and I was envisaging conspiracies of the "Let's give him a last cigarette before we put the blindfold on" variety. The feeling was never stronger than when Pickersgill (whom I secretly like, one of the great unrequited likes of fandom) congratulated me, sourly it's true, on my opening speech. The feeling of impending doom had gotten much stronger the previous day when Leroy Kettle (a sinister figure in my eyes, and with good reason) had told me that I was a Secret Master of Fandom, and that numerous persons would buy me free drinks in an effort to unmask my identity. I ascertained that no quick changes in telephone booths nor incantations of Shazam were necessary, and that the batmobile could remain safely parked at the weekend price of £ O.12 (as opposed to £ 5.00 at Birmingham, incidentally -- no wonder Lady Godiva kept her horse stabled in Coventry). Anyway, I was terribly pleased at being a Secret Master. It had always been a primal fantasy of mine. I was even prepared to accept my particular category, AUTHORITY, even though it was clearly the nastiest of the six. (I rather fancied VERSATILITY or INTELLIGENCE, but a crypto-fascist title is better than none.) The contest turned out a complete shambles. None of the other Secret Masters were unmasked, not even Harry Harrison as DYNAMISM, which was surely a natural, even for the most moronic of neofans. I was rather taken aback when Jim Blish managed to unmask me before I had even got my jackboots on. He got AUTHORITY first go. It made me wonder a bit, quite apart from robbing me of all those anticipated free drinks. Anyway, this was an obscure kind of egoboo, and quite a bit of egoboo had been coming my way, the kiss from Chrissy Atkinson,Vic Hallett opining that my view of New Worlds was literate and correct, and Susie Morgan being sweet to me because she thought I was only 26 (missing the mark by ten not uneventful years). By Sunday afternoon my paranoia was dissipating. None of the New Worlds types accused me (as they had been doing for six months previously) of working in collusion with SF Monthly and Christopher Priest to destroy critical standards and celebrate the virtues of the second rate. None of the SF Monthly types had accused me of promoting pseudoeintellectualism, and whiteanting the warmth and cameraderie of trufandom.


My mood of contented hubris should have warned me, especially as the angel of destruction was (yet again) Leroy Kettle, who not only invited me onto the quiz panel with all the smiling sang-froid of the sophisticated tiger idly looking forward to hors d'oeuvres, but had set the questions himself. The less said about the quiz the better. All weekend I had been (in my view) carrying the academic banner of the SF Foundation with temperance and responsibility, and now all my good work was gone for nothing. I came fourth out of four. I thought Winston Sanders was the hero of 1984. I thought FROOMB stood for "fornication rules only on Mondays Baby". I reckoned that the film version of The Island of Dr. Moreau was The Island of Loose Bowels. It was a disaster, made worse by my carefully enunciated and often-repeated assurance to the audience that I could do much better if I weren't drunk. In the event, the quiz (of course) turned out to be rigged. Peter Weston won, by virtue of there being three rounds of questions on fandom, despite the howls of anger from the audience, who for some perverse reason wanted questions on science fiction. If the questions had all been on science fiction, that knowledgeable new Gannetfan, Kevin Williams, would have won in a canter.

The quiz had been preceded by the outstanding talk of the convention, Bob Shaw on "Time Travellers Among Us". I had been privileged to watch Bob's act in its early and formative days, when he and I, along with Brian Aldiss and Mark Adlard, had done a week of music hall turns around Tyneside and Wearside under the auspices of the Arts Council. In those days Bob was promising, and under the abrasive influence of the sf version of Northern Clubland began to polish the act to a fine lustre. (Incidentally, Mark Adlard was not at Seacon, because Sheila Adlard had cleverly arranged to have a baby that weekend -- typical of the low cunning and long range planning of wives who don't enjoy conventions.)

Bob Shaw is now the funnist stand up comic in this or any other business. Dave Allen looks like a fumbling amateur alongside him. The essence of Bob's humour is that it creeps up on you. His remarks are delivered with the expressionless and sombre calm of a funeral director. He never smiles. His voice is ever soft, gentle and low. The first ten minutes of his talks are always heard in complete silence by an uneasy audience which hasn't yet realized what's happening. From then on the laughter is built up with consummate timing. The climax to this particular talk was the question period, where Bob's answers were so quick that it was almost impossible not to believe the questions were planted, though they hadn't been.

Question: "Does drinking assist time travel?"

Answer: "Yes. If you drink a bottle of scotch, the next thing you know it's the following morning."

Question: "How do you contact the chrono-police if you're in trouble?" Answer: "You walk into a telephone box and dial TIM".

Nice one, Bob. It won't look all that funny to the people that weren't there. The lines have to be delivered in Bob's soft and mournful Irish voice, with never a flicker of expression.

The feeling of the convention, by now, was very good indeed. The initial doubts being expressed were nearly all gone. ("It's too well organized" was one perverse complaint. I also liked Ian Williams' drunken "I hate this Con." "Why?" I asked. "Because I'm not organizing it," he responded miserably.) Seacon will be remembered as one of the great transitional conventions. Old fandom was visibly dying. The mood was less ghetto-like. The Knights of St. Fantony were, thank Ghod, barely mentioned. Brian Burgess's pies played only a negligible role. In the place of all this was (i) a much larger number of European fans, from Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Germany, France and Italy (ii) a sense that the old fannish hierarchies were breaking down -- a number of pleasant neofans, seemed less lonely and furtive than in previous years -- some were very much at the centre of things (iii) the pros seemed more relaxed and less liable to congregate in a mutually defensive cluster around the bar (iv) the publishing houses and literary agencies were more strongly represented, by such people as nice (but nervous) June Hall from Faber, the capable and attractive Jackie Baker from Orbit, amiable Doug Hill from Pan, femmes fatale Maggie Noach from A.P.Watt, elegant Georgina Dennison from Gollancz, and suave Robert Louit from Calmann-Levy. I like to see business deals at conventions. It makes sf seem less cut off from the world. (v) the hotel was genuinely comfortable, with consistently if friendly service, and (vi) finally, from out of the woodwork like Reginald Bretnor's gnurrs, attractive women had materialized in large numbers. Much as one has always loved Ina Shorrock and Jill Adams, it's a relief to see their ranks being so amply and happily swelled. At my first con, the proportion was roughly ten men to every woman. Now it's only three or four to one. The atmosphere of Seacon was relaxed almost, to be middleclass about it, civilized. Just like the Via Veneto. We even had our very own papparazzo, the irritating little Frenchman, Philippe Hupp, snapping compromising pictures for Galaxie.

From Shaw's talk to four in the morning, the convention built steadily to a drunken and happy climax. Skipping the banquet, a group of us (including Dr. Rob Jackson who paled visibly, and reasonably, when he saw the prices on the menu) went up again to the Three Spires Restaurant, where we ate excellently, while being regaled with jolly stories of torture and destruction by Ace Journalist Martin Walker. I really like Martin. He has more integrity than almost anyone I know. He never slackens his valiant efforts to be totally offensive to absolutely everyone. He is a man of true dedication. To begin with he's good looking, in a poncy way, a fact he offensively hammers home by wearing priceless ivory pendants around his tanned neck. He addresses everyone as "sweetie". He boasts. He name drops. He bullies waiters. He humiliates people. He is unprincipled. Martin is really incredibly vile. I really do like him for this. He is ubiquitous, too. I tried to play with his girlfriend's foot under the table, and only when he fluttered his eyelashes at me did I realize that the foot in question was his. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Four bottles of £ 1.12 Oddbins Cote de Beaune later (priced at £ 2.70 on the menu) we trooped off to the end of the banquet in time to watch Peter Weston's brilliantly accurate and witty imitation of Dave Kyle as toastmaster. (Only Dave does a better imitation.) Harry Harrison told jokes, Malcolm Edwards beamed nervously. Christine Edwards and Sheila Holdstock refused to return my covert winks, they may have thought it a convulsive Parkinsonism. Great feelings of love and bonhomie for everyone were sweeping over me again. I reached out to cuddle Pamela Bulmer, but Ken swept her away. (I can't remember if it was Ken Slater or Ken Bulmer).

I leaped upstairs to change into my $100 Neiman Marcus blue silk shirt with the flowing silk cravat. (I had ripped it off -- the ambiguity is accurate -- in dramatic circumstances some six years ago.) I felt debonair, lucky, happy; So it seemed did everyone else except for Graham Charnock who had to construct a band stand out of old biscuit tins entirely by himself while everybody else was having fun. He got his own back by playing wrong chords during some of the earlier Burlingtons numbers, eventually settling into a solid and accurate beat.

I haven't enjoyed a dance so much in years. Funny things kept happening. Everybody was being themselves but more so. Pat Charnock was wearing the stockings of a Parisian whore, circa 1910. Something terrible happened to little Malcolm in the Mens Room. Christine Edwards in his absence (she must have been a little pissed) asked Christine Atkinson if she knew where Malcolm and Christine Atkinson had got to. Josephine Saxton danced so fiercely that she terrified Roy Kettle out of his wits, especially when she picked him up, and threw him, with a careless and lordly gesture, sixteen feet across the room into the small (or should I say large) of Rog Peyton's back. A cluster of baby fans especially liked her interesting contortion where, if you leaned over (a platoon of them were all leaning over) you could see her knickers. Chris Priest was red faced and Neanderthal, uttering low grunts of "Stay! Tuss! Quo! Stay! Tuss! Quo!" whatever that meant. I refused (out of simple terror) to dance with Josephine, and she snarled and clawed like a wild cat. I danced with singleminded (or dualminded) determination with the two most attractive women at the convention, both at once. Sheer greed, Nicholls. The music thumped on. Martin Walker was biting Maggie Noach's neck. She seemed to like it. Old Chuck Berry numbers, Paul Anka, Everley Brothers. I felt 20 again. I found myself singing very loudly and hoarsely, my beautiful blue silk shirt was somehow open to the navel (eat your heart out, Martin Walker). Rob Holdstock kept falling over. I drank a gallon of beer and sweated it all straight out again. Oh, it was a disgusting exhibition. I had such fun. MORE! MORE! we shouted, and more, more we got, ending with a magnificently incompetent Be Bop A Lula in which nobody seemed to have any idea of the chord sequence, but it didn't matter. Thank you, Graham Charnock. It was an evening of true glory. Afterwards, I was overwhelmed with a desire to kiss Christine Edwards, who fended me off nicely with the unanswerable, "Don't you think Chuck Partington is very attractive?" Actually, I found an answer, my brain working with lightning speed. "No," I said. Then I wanted to kiss Sadie Shaw, but Bob is off his diet again and up to 16 stone, and yet again my courage failed me. But my euphoria didn't, and in a moment of madness I agreed to go up to an intimate little room party with Chris Priest, my sister, Andy from Compendium Books, Marianne (too spaced out to continue the Priest interview any longer), Ken Campbell and Shirley. More mentholated cigarettes were handed round, Ken Campbell told me how the embarrassing poem I'd read out at Tynecon last year had made him cry. (It made me cry,too, baby). Then he launched into a speech which began, with haunting familiarity, "l love you sons of bitches...." Before my very eyes, Campbell's ferret-trousering image was replaced with the true, glowing nobility of an Eliot Rosewater. He explained at length why we all let science fiction down by being blasé about it, by never talking about how MIND-BLOWING it all was. We tearfully agreed. Just then a seven foot Swede fell in the door, stared at us for half an hour, went into the toilet to be sick, and went out again, all without saying a word. Our minds were all blown. My sister began to giggle uncontrollably. Chris Priest told us all to go home, and after a decent interval of an hour or so, to prove we wouldn't submit to bullying, we did.

The evening explodes into shafts of light after that. I remember the room party, where all the people seemed to have halos round their heads like Fra Angelico's portraits of angels. I remember, back in my bedroom, being washed by unreasonable happiness, and having a long, long, vivid hallucination, the first I've ever had. I was held by, and drowning, in bright colour. A great climax to the evening and the con.

The next day it was all over.

--Peter Nicholls




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