CARTILEDGE'S WORLD HOME

UK CONREPS HOME



COVENTRY 1977




WISH YOU WERE HERE

by D. West

First published in Stop Breaking Down 5, edited by Greg Pickersgill

The 28th Easter Science Fiction Convention took place at the De Vere Hotel, Coventry, over the weekend of the 8th - 11th April 1977. Gollancz's John Bush was Guest of Honour and other SF notables present were Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, Ken Bulmer, Harry Harrison, Robert Holdstock, Anne McCaffrey, Chris Priest, Bob Shaw, Andrew Stephenson, Ian Watson, Peter Weston and James White.

Those are the facts. The rest is lies, damned lies, and statistics of who fell over, passed out, made fools of themselves, scored scandalous sexual successes, hit people with large whips, or failed to hit less-loved acquaintances with beer glasses.


And so much for the only part of the first draft of this con report worth preserving - two paragraphs from about twelve closely-typed sides. Unfortunately, the whole thing was just another Bad Trip Report, a classic case of Charnock's Syndrome; fear and loathing, folly and paranoia. Same old Psyche Think-Piece. Took me ten pages of introspective self-analysis to even arrive at bloody Coventry. Two more pages were devoted to attempts to pull my nerve together: sitting in the station buffet for an hour or so drinking cans of McEwans and chewing on a British Rail egg sandwich. Come page twelve I'd made it to the De Vere, scuttled blindly through a lobby full of menacing hotel staff and total strangers and experienced a vast surge of relief when famous author Robert P. Holdstock lurched from a lift and greeted me with a leer. (Nothing personal, you understand. Famous author Holdstock greets everyone with a leer, his guiding principle in life being Walk Softly and Carry a Big Prick. And compared to the leer of such as Graham Charnock, Secret Master of the Art of suggesting a`jaded familiarity with depravities the like of which you never knew existed, the concupiscence of Holdstock is is almost innocent.)

Yeah, well. So much for the character stuff. But the sight of Holdstock looming and swaying above me did bring a certain degree of reassurance; there might, after all, be people at this convention whose presence would make me feel moderately cheerful. 'They're all in the bar, somewhere,' said Holdstock vaguely, and hiccupped away, still leering in the slightly glazed fashion of a Greyfriars sixth-former fresh from his first encounter with PLAYBOY. I went to the bar. You've got all the essential information now; the rest is probably a familiar enough story to anyone who has ever attended a convention. A week or so later Brian Parker telephoned and I was able to get some details on what it was I'd been doing that weekend.

Well, no. That's an exaggeration. Certain incidents did slip my mind 'til several days later, but mostly it was a case of losing track of the order in which events occurred. A con hotel is a closed world, a hermetic environment in which the time scale of an ordinary and ordered routine is overwhelmed by a chaotic cycle of drinking, eating, drinking, falling down, drinking, eating, drinking, and more falling down. The outside world ceases to have any real existence; it becomes a theory, a legend, a dim ancestral memory, something totally irrelevent to the practicalities of con-going existence. If there was a convention that lasted long enough you'd probably see the veneer of mundane life sloughing off completely: there'd~be a return to Man's basic primeval pattern of hunting and foraging, nomadic wanderings from floor to floor, inter-tribal warring. J.G.Ballard's HIGH-RISE tells the story of what happened at a con in the fifties (the names have been changed~to protect the guilty) and things haven't changed all that much. You can take it for granted that by the second day of any convention most of the attendees are at least part-way out of their skulls.

Some of them start like that. Even before I arrived I wasn't feeling too good. The reasons for that are somewhat complicated but not really important or interesting to anyone except myself. Originally, of course, I planned to go there and come away to write the definitive con report; something so brilliantly and ruthlessly-comprehensive, so over- whelming in its portrayal of Total Experience, that ever afterwards all those who attempted to write con-reports would be stricken down by envy, admiration, and despair.

Well, you got to think big. But after a dozen sheets my brain started coming together again and I decided that maybe the World was not yet Ready for my masterpiece. Not yet ready to read all the way through it, certainly. Something along the lines of a few pages of the usual guff might do better.

It was Pickersgill who'd first put the idea into my head. He rang up and demanded a convention report in his usual gracious manner ('Howsabout a con report eh, you big cunt?'). I refused. After some preliminary bickering we agreed to play dominoes for it; if he won I'd write the con report. If I won he'd pay me vast sums of money. I'd still write the con report, but I'd be able to give it to him with a pitying smile and listen to the grinding of his teeth. Editors are funny people.

What with this and that the idea dropped into the limbo of some-other-time-maybe-real-soon. This is wreckage. Being intended for SBD the title is lifted from the Pink Floyd album of the same name. It seemed a good idea at the time, though the significance (or relevance) may no longer be obvious. Perhaps I should have used something more explicit, like BRAIN DAMAGE. Bossman Brian Parker (yes Master no Master pull my string Master) has already provided the background material to explain that allusion to concussion acquired in the course of duty. His A BIT OF THE OTHER ONE breaks with normal Parker fanzine practice in being so well produced you can even make out what the words say. If not what they mean. Is 'abyssian' reproduction the sort of print job you get in Ethiopia? Still, it all enriches the language.

It was a funny con for me. Looked at objectively I should have enjoyed myself. Instead I kept stopping to ask myself why I wasn't enjoying myself. Months later I'm still pondering.

But why bother? Stick the stuff I've written into a box and save it for the day when - like Leroy Kettle - I grow old and mumbly enough to want to write memoirs containing the Truth, the whole Truth, and a few lies to make it more entertaining. The Point Of It All can wait. Anecdotes are easier. A list of encounters and conversations with the occasional Big Think for a touch of class - spreads the misery around instead of keeping it concentrated on myself. After all, in the classic phrase of Simone Walsh: people read con reports to see if their names have been dropped, and if so, in what.

Well, I did encounter David Wingrove, rising star of BSFA fandom. Wingrove in the flesh tends to confirm the impression given by his fanzine KIPPLE. A week or two before the con I'd sent him a LoC in which - amongst other remarks of a more or less derogoratory nature - I sarcastically asked why the piece of fiction that had managed to drag in the names of Sartre, Wittgenstein and Nabokov in the first half~page hadn't gone on to mention Camus, Spengler, Marcuse and Kierkegaard.

'But I haven't actually read Camus, Spengler, etc etc,' said Wingrove, apparently determined to show what a oonscientious chap he was.

Feeling it would be uncouth to get nasty so early in our acquaintanceship I turned to Maxim Jakubowski and complimented him on his column. After all, in KIPPLE it looked good. Jakubowski, the very model of cosmopolitan suavity, recieved my halfhearted tribute with the modest ease of one who knows his own worth.

Somewhat later Wingrove was observed in the main bar, singing songs about Yellow Wimpeys (this is inexplicable and unlikely, but true) in the company of various acolytes of Bob (FOKT) Shaw. Rob Jackson looked on sourly. 'These intellectuals always revert,' he muttered. Bob (FOKT) Shaw is not the same as Bob (Famous Author) Shaw. Bob (FOKT) Shaw is a cheerful looking extrovert who goes around doing such cheerfully extrovert things as cracking a large whip, telling jokes about Glasgow Pakistanis (apparently inherently funny), shouting 'Get FOKT!' (also apparently inherently funny) and attemptingto recruit the unwary for a proposed 1978 Scottish convention. FOKT stands for Friends of Kilgore Trout. What Kilgore Trout might think of his friends can only be surmised.

Various BSFA luminaries were encountered briefly. Somewhat surprisingly David V. Lewis turned out not to wear braces, a celluloid collar, a pinstripe suit and a watch and chain. Lewis is - or was - editor of the BSFA Yearbook. At his request I'd sent him an article on fanzines. 'Never again,' said Lewis, probably referring to the editorship rather than articles like mine. Publications overlord and production chief Chris Fowler was also reported to be less than enthusiastic about the whole deal. The BSFA Yearbook finally appeared at the end of June. So I'm told. I don't really think it's worth paying £ 4 to join the BSFA just so I can read my own work again. Besides,they may be planning to send me a copy for Christmas.

The ways in which fans in the flesh differ from the images they project on paper never cease to be a source of interest, even when you've met most of the little sods before. Who'd have thought - for instance - that medical genius Rob Jackson would have shown so much doubt and uncertainty when faced by a mere slime-mould from Altair-4? Yet in the battle of wits that followed the encounter the slime-mould won all the way. And how can one reconcile the appearance of Paul Kincaid with the erudite letters he writes to MAYA? He should look like David Wingrnve. Instead he looks like a slimline Howard Rosenblum. (Come to that, how can one be persuaded to believe that the editor of SONF could possibly look quite so supernaturally short on the sort of nerve fibre that operates a dinosaur's back end?). What is there to prepare one for the sight of Famous Author Chris Priest making play with a foot-long ebony cigarette holder? What about Chris Fowler and his imitation of a hobbit suffering from anorexia nervosa? Or Harry (words fail me) Harrison?

It seems like a reversal of natural order when you discover that David Bridges is really quite sensible and doesn't giggle all the time; that Greg Pickersgill doesn't go around snarling and tearing off arms and legs (not until nightfall anyway) and that Ian Williams is so big a passing dwarf would have to stretch to pat him on the head. Only Leroy Kettle lives up to expectations: the whiskers quiver, the nose twitches, the beady eye glitters; a jerky scuttering to and fro and a constant squeaking of jests and quips inform you that here indeed is the veritable editor of TRUE RAT.

Then there are all those people who are glimpsed but never properly met, heard of but never seen. They told me Kieth Walker himself, founder of Misere Fandom (the fanzine game which is won by the player who spots most deliberate mistakes and doesn't do anything about them) was around someplace. In the Fan Room I seized Ray Kettle by the arm and intoned 'You are Keith Walker, Man of Mystery, and I claim the £ 5 prize. 'No, no,' screamed Kettle. 'Let go, let go. I'll give you anything if I don't have to be Keith Walker! Please - no - don't do it!' He began gibbering; great drops of sweat broke out on his marble brow, Even his nose grew limp with terror. Thrusting his wallet in my pocket I let him go. It was a knockdown price, but even for a sadist there are limits.

Of course while you are observing people from afar, chances are that someone else is doing the same to ygg. Dave Lewis apparently cast his eye over me at the last Novacon, later informing Kevin Zasthope that 'Don West hangs about like the aftermath of a wet dream.' More confusion. Just as I've got used to one picture of Lewis along comes this new insight to create fresh doubt and uncertainty. Who'd have thought that I'd ever be acknowldged even in these broadminded days - as figuring in Lewis' wet dreams? Amazing.

Still, not much more amazing than being described as a 'Huge Name Fan' (mere BNFs take note) and 'Member of the Establishment' in Kevin Easthope's LOGO 4. Such rapid promotion - all the way to the top from total obscurity in little more than a year of activity - had me luxuriating in dreams of fannish glory for all of several seconds. Then I was pulled back to earth by the sad reflection that anyone who bungles his invective quite so frequently and thoroughly as Easthope must be regarded as an unreliable judge. Despite trying too hard he doesn't seem to have got the hang of managing his insults so that they do more damage to the targets than to himself. The Easthope method consists of chopping off both your own legs then waiting for your enemy to faint at the sight of blood. Thus, Huge Name Fan West is first castigated for his destructive criticism - 'It doesn't make any sense at all to be completely destructive when you're trying to improve things' - and then scarcely a dozen lines later comes the declaration: 'I've come through on the other side and I think I*m better for the experience.' A more heedful writer would have taken care not to contradict himself until the bottom of the page at least.

Anyway LOGO 4 is an improvement on its predecessor if only on the grounds that a poor spirit is better than none...or using only half your loaf is better than making a complete cake... or... or something. Easthope confuses me. He seems to have perfected a method of transferring words to paper without actually reading them first. For instance, he's got an article by Tom Perry all about 'Editorsmanship', one aspect of 'Fansmanship' or 'the Art of convincing other fans that you are a much bigger fan than they are.' Easthope put this thing onto stencil, so you might think he`d picked up some notion of what it was all about. Indeed, the basic principles of this noble science (scoring points in verbal games) are known to every fan of average low cunning. But one is forced to the conclusion that Easthope's cunning is not so much low as subterranean - every time he tries to put the boot in he loses a few more of his own front teeth - and his understanding is so defective he doesn*t even recognise what his own contributors are talking about.

Still, I enjoyed LOGO. Not the least part of the enjoyment came from looking forward to the next issue. And Easthope himself has much to look forward to. We've never met, but I expect our paths will cross some time or other.

They almost crossed at this last con. I didn't meet the man himself, but I met his water pistol. There I was, sitting quietly in the bar, contemplating the blankness of my mind, when a jet of water hit me in the face. From behind one of those stupid pillars that cluttered up the floor (and got in the way of my head at least once) Simone Walsh grinned at me. Simone Walsh's hobby is pouring, throwing, or otherwise debouching quantites of liquid - beer, whiskey, water, Old Charnox Southern Catspiss over anyone with whom she has had some small difference of opinion. Sometimes you get the glass as well, or maybe a non-returnable bottle.

I stared at her coldly, and made the water evaporate by thinking about what I'd put in my next piece of fan-writing. She seemed slightly disappointed that I didn*t get up and assault her. These women are all the same.

Easthope himself was out of sight. Together with 'Dave Bridges, Dave Griffin, Paul Thompson, Geoff Rippington and possible Merf Adamson' he had declined to fire on grounds that 'we're brave lads and true etc, but West is bigger than most of us.' (What, even all together? I grow almost fond of the lad, he does me so proud. Not only am I a Huge Name Fan, but King Kong as well - six fans at one bite.) Or, as Simone described it later: 'Easthope was sitting there pissing himself with fright.' Every boy his own water pistol. Male supremacy rules.

That was Saturday. Or possibly Sunday. Also on Saturday (or Sunday) I met Andrew Tidmarsh, writer of intensely intellectual articles for VECTOR and TITAN. The same defence mechanism that blots out memories of the articles has blotted out memories of our conversation. If there was any. I seem to recall falling off my chair at one point. Perhaps I was surprised by something he said. Or surprised by being able to understand it.

Meanwhile up in the con hall everyone was having fun. Or perhaps not. I didn't attend enough of the programme to pronounce on its merits as a whole. This is less due to lack of enthusiasm for the con than to a dislike of being lectured at. If I want heavy text I'll read it myself, some time when I'm sitting comfortably and ready to begin. If I want chat I'll stop in the bar.

There are occasions when convention programming seems to be based on the fact that if it moves and mentions SF the audience will applaud it. And so they do, so they do.

Most thrilling item was the convention bidding. Would Skycon carry it off, or would they be overwhelmed by the late entry of Bradford? The matter was settled when, despite the encouragement of all those friends who were hoping I'd get up and make a fool of myself, I found that my mind had gone blank. I decided to hold over the bid. BRADFORD IS HEAVAN THE YEAR AFTER SEVANTY SEVAN now becomes BRADFORD IS GRATE ~`THE YEAR AFTER SEVENTY EIGHT. Send only 50p NOW! Just as well I didn't go on with it, really; there was quite enough trouble later on about the frivolities of the Best Award. (Next year I'm going around collecting for the Nobel Prize. Anyone who afterwards wishes to complain that they thought the collection was for a Swedish version of TAFF, or a testimonial inkpot for the famous fannish illustrator Harry Nobel, should hand in the eyewitness accounts, lists of names etc before twelve noon on Monday.)

Of course one troublesome element of Eastercons is that at least half the attendees can hardly be called fans at all. They are enthusiasts, avid readers or collectors of Science Fiction, who attend for the overt science fictional content. Obviously it's hard to draw an exact dividing line (and probably not very desirable to try) but it seems clear that the active and essential part of fandom is quite a small minority, perhaps less than a fifth of the whole. Many more people may have passed-through, but the hardcore of visitors to the Fan Room was never more than a couple of dozen - a subgroup not much larger than the coterie of Dungeons and Dragons players.

Even the fanzine fans might be further subdivided: there's that good old strain rooted firmly in the gutter (where they and I belong) and there's the strange mutant variety developed by the British Science Fiction Androids Ltd. If that organisation ever decided to Take Over (in best SF style) by cleansing the fair name of fandom of all impurities it would only need the assassination of three or four dozen people to give them the upper hand. Of cpurse they'd have to repeat the process every few years - fannishness is like Original Sin and prone to breaking out whatever you do - but for a short time at least the British fan scene could be transformed into a beautifully even desert of dullness: a land fit for heroes who want no questions asked that don*t have safe, sober, and serious answers.

Why is it that - initially at least - so many SF enthusiasts seem earnest, humourless, narrowminded, complacent, and even slightly stupid? Almost it seems as if these people are driven to seek SF out of a dim perception that it contains elements wholly lacking in their own characters: imagination, vision, invention, and a capacity for interest and excitement, {Not that I've ever had all of that from SF, but I do` keep hoping and running the occasional spot-check.) No wonder, really, that fandom seems so alien and inaccessible. To the outsider, fandom's values are inverted: a fan no longer needs SF. He's started to grow his own.

Outside, the mindless hordes mill endlessly, clutching their paperbacks and craning to catch sight of some famous pro. Inside, are the boys who really know about time warps and such, and have made it to another dimension entirely. Yet it's curious to see how the hard core of fandom manages to impose its values even upon those who scarcely understand or sympathise. The caste system of fandom is a thing to marvel: a maze of ratings and fine distinctions complex beyond belief. Thing is, by some mysterious and esoteric process this 'inner circle' hypnotises everyone else into taking it at its own valuation. The Elite is the Elite simply by taking their own Greatness for granted. The rest just tag along like sheep.

What Easthope and those others who complain of 'cliqueishness' fail to realise is that the 'Elitism' of fandom is not something imposed from above: it's entirely dependent on the voluntary servitude of those who consider themselves less worthy. The Establishment is really wide openi the barriers to admission exist only in the eye of the beholder. Al1 that is necessary to be accepted as a fan is to be active in fannish pursuits.

However, acceptance is not the same thing as immunity from criticism. Fannish ratings go by measures of talent and personality: if you are judged deficient in either or both you are likely to get some knocks. Even from friends. The old 'Star System' of fandom, with BNFs at the top, fans in the middle, and neos way down under, has undergone a considerable levelling in recent years. Just who are todays BNFs? There's a whole array of talented fans, and who is to be singled out above the rest? Promote one and you'll have to promote six more; in no time at all you'll have an army composed entirely of officers. And there's too much democracy about, these days; too much freedom of speech; You can't have a BNF (in the old sense, at least) who isn't treated with deferential respect. But now there's no fan at all who isn't liable to get the piss taken out of him pretty frequently. O tempora, o moreso, as Walt Uillis might say.

And so it goes. All those nonfans at conventions are just` there to fill in the crowd scenes, to provide a background of animated noise, to create a party atmosphere, to feed the megalomania of fannish fans with the unconscious tribute they provide by their very existence. After all they do cooperate. The fans dominate the show, while the protofans - creatures with no more than the potential of real life, like embryos which may miscarry or be aborted before coming to term - go their ways only dimly conscious of the very existence of these Secret Masters.

Wierd carry on, when you think about it. Not that all this fanciful stuff passed through my brain while I was laid around getting sozzled at Easter. I just felt depressed something along the lines of 'Many are called but few are chosen, and look what a bunch of arseholes most of those are.' As Mike Glicksohn so delicately puts it: there are some convention attendees you wouldn't cross the room to puke over.

Fuck me, I was paying money to get bored?

Well, no. I was paying money to get drunk. When even that began to seem tedious, I took out all my small change and amused myself by I throwing it on the floor. John Piggott and Rob Hansen crawled rapidly around, snarling at each other as they grovelled for pennies. I felt like a character in a piece of New Wave fan-fiction: oppressed by the meaninglessness of it all.

Some time later - or maybe sooner - I went and half- heartedly offered to tear Merf Adamson's head off unless he joined the Astral Leauge. Presumably he did, since I saw him walking about in a state of completeness later on. Ian Watson (must read one of his books sometime) called me a psychopath. I was inclined to agree, but felt I too listless and apathetic to break his arm.

Oh what a downer it was. And I wasn't cheered up on Saturday night, when I happened to close my eyes for a moment and slept through most of the Buriington's performance. Back in the bar afterwards Graham Charnock was feeling depressed himself, apparently thrown into gloom by consideration of real and imaginary deficiencies in the musical line. Since I myself play guitar in the style of John Cage - long, long silences while I figure out how to rearrange my fingers such an excess of self-criticism seemed unreasonable. In a burst of generosity I attempted to reinflate his ego by the assurance that I'd always wanted to be a pop-star. Like what he was. Charnock's expression suggested he couldn't decide whether to be sick or to hit me in the face with a broken bottle.

Ah well, the day wore on and the night wore out, and I might have found what it was all about - except that I'd ceased to care. So naturally following the dictates of my subconscious what happens but I go and sign up for a couple more cons? Perhaps this SF has worked a little Scientific Spirit of Enquiry into my blood - I'll try the experiment again just to check the results. But I almost gave up for good when I found I'd forgotten how to spell my own address. (Bingely? Bingly? Bloody hell, it must be Bingley? Surely?) Many a promising young brain cell gone for ever, obviously.

On Monday morning I remembered that I ought to do some winning friends and influencing people, and I bought Peter Weston a lemon juice. Some time real soon now I shall send him another story and see if I got his price right. Perhaps I should have paid for the crisps as well.

After that I went home. And as for all the bits I`ve missed out - oh the amazing things I could tell you! - you'll have to read someone else's account.

But you should see me at the next con. Having a wonderful time.


-- D. West



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

Email: graycharnox@blueyonder.co.uk