… or like it’s Fantasycon 2011, although there were times when I did wonder what century we were in. Not, I hasten to add, because of the convention itself, but because of the Royal Albion Hotel.
The journey down to Brighton proved a lot less painful than I’d expected. I disembarked from one train at St Pancras, headed down a series of escalators, and got on another. In fact, I caught the train before the one given on my itinerary. And that took me the rest of the way. Then it was short queue for a taxi to the hotel…
… and a long queue to check into the hotel, a queue that actually started outside the hotel on the pavement. It took me an hour before I reached the front. Apparently, the Royal Albion hadn’t opened check-in until three p.m., minutes before I’d arrived. And even after I’d been given my room, I was told it wasn’t ready and I’d have to wait thirty minutes. So I gave it an hour, and it still hadn’t been cleaned when I found it. Which was an adventure all itself. The Royal Albion is a maze, and the room I’d been given was on a secret passage. Sort of. You had to catch the lift to the second floor, turn two corners, enter a side-corridor, then into a stairwell and up a flight, which took you to a short passage with four rooms on it. (Later during the con, I took that stairwell down to the ground floor, hoping to find a shortcut to one of the bars. Instead, I found myself in a short corridor with a single door on it… which was a cupboard.) My room had a view over the beach, which was nice (see below), although when the plastic things holding the curtains to the curtain rail snapped, it made things a little difficult after dark. It was a surprisingly large room, though it was in need of refurbishment. And it’s been a long time since I’ve slept on a single bed, so I nearly fell out of it a couple of times.
But conventions are not about the places they’re held, and the peculiarities of the Royal Albion certainly didn’t ruin Fantasycon for me. I had an excellent time. I made only one programme item, Ian Whates interviewing GoH Gwyneth Jones. The room was embarrassingly near-empty, but it was like a sauna and that may have been partly to blame. Perhaps a heatwave during the first weekend of October is unusual, but a hotel with little or no air-conditioning must be just as unusual these days. There were times when it was uncomfortable sitting in the bar and seats by open windows were prized. Not that I spent most of the con in the bar…
I went for a wander on the beach on the Saturday morning after breakfast. I grew up in the Middle East so I’m used to beaches of white sand. Brighton’s beach is nothing like that. It also smells slightly unpleasant. Later that day, half of London apparently came to the South Coast and the entire sea-front was heaving. It was the same on Sunday. Again, I’d gone for a wander by the sea after breakfast, this time with Douglas Thompson. We had a good chat about writing and science fiction and space exploration and science as we tromped along the beach.
I also attended Neil Williamson’s reading (it wasn’t me who fell asleep during it), and a couple of book launches: Newcon Press and Eibonvale Press; and the launch of an entire new imprint, Jo Fletcher Books. There were lots of interesting conversations throughout the weekend, with a number of people. I remember one with Gavin Smith and Jaine Fenn in which I explained that sf needed more nuts and bolts and less magical technology. Gav and Jaine (together): well, thanks… A lot of the conversations revolved around writing. With Terry Grimwood and Sarah Newton; and Laura Lam and Harry Markov. At the Newcon Press launch, I chatted to Gwyneth Jones and her husband Peter. When the awards ceremony was taking place, I had an interesting conversation in the bar with Robert Rankin. There were plenty of others I spoke to, as well as others with whom I’d have liked to exchange more than a handful of words.
I was up until 4:30 a.m. on the Saturday – though I wasn’t dancing in the disco – and up at 6:30 for breakfast (which wasn’t actually served until 8 a.m.). How I managed to survive Sunday on only two hours of sleep is a mystery to me. That night I retired earlier at 1:30 a.m. The following morning at breakfast, the restaurant was full of burly men. They were nothing to do with Fantasycon.
I remember Lavie Tidhar ranting on the Saturday morning because he couldn’t get a coffee in the hotel, so we followed directions to a café, The Mock Turtle, and bought drinks there for £1 each. Lavie went back later that morning, and they charged him £1.50. On the Sunday morning, I was incensed because they’d removed all the seating from the lounge in preparation for the banquet. They’d also locked the bar. So there was nowhere sit in the public areas until eleven o’clock. This wasn’t helped by people trying to check out before 10 a.m., as they had been told to on checking-in, only to learn that for the con they didn’t have to check out until 4 p.m.
I ate well in the evenings, but not so well during the days. I took some sandwiches with me in a plastic container with a freezer block. But it was so warm the freezer block thawed during the first day, and the sandwiches were too ripe to eat on the Sunday. On the Friday night, a gang us were led to Mushi Mushi by Dominic Harman, where I had a free meal. They gave me the wrong dish, and so told me it was free; but they took so long to bring the right one that we’d all finished. Saturday night, I ate in the hotel. The food was better than I’d expected. And on Sunday, another group of us – Neil Williamson, Michael Staton, Sam Moffat, Paul Skevington and myself – had an okay Thai meal. We were actually looking for a Lebanese restaurant, but failed to find the one we’d been directed to.
I understand there was a bit of fuss during the British Fantasy Awards ceremony. I didn’t attend at last year’s Fantasycon, and I wasn’t bothering at this one. I spent the ceremony in the bar, as mentioned above. I will say that if people have issues with the results, they need to fix the system, not attack those who won.
I bought remarkably few books – only three, in fact – but I was also given several free ones. The low number is because I’d carted half a dozen books by Gwyneth Jones to the con for her to sign, and I didn’t fancy hauling a suitcase over-filled with books back home.
These are the three I bought: Roy Gray’s chapbook from Pendragon Press, The Joy of Technology; Bloody War by Terry Grimwood from Eibonvale Press; and Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith from Newcon Press.
And these were the freebies. Gavin Smith gave me a copy of War in Heaven, his second novel, only just published. The Immersion Book of SF was given to me by editor/publisher Carmelo Rafala. That’s an ARC from theExaggeratedPress of Douglas Thompson’s Apoidea. It also features my first ever blurb on a book-cover, taken from my Interzone review of Douglas’ Sylvow. Fame at last. Finally, Full Fathom Forty was free to all members of the British Fantasy Society. There were, as usual, some free books in the convention pack goody bag, but I didn’t keep them as they weren’t the sort of fiction I read. But thanks to the above for the freebies – they were books I wanted.
The journey back home was not as painless as the trip there. Five of us caught a taxi to the railway station. We lost one person, who decided she’d sooner spend an hour or two wandering around the town than in Gatwick’s departure lounge. Then the train tickets for two of us proved to be valid only on a specific train… which wasn’t the one myself and Lavie Tidhar were catching. Which had twelve carriages. I don’t recall ever seeing such a long train in the UK before. The ones I normally catch have half a dozen carriages at most, and often only two. I changed trains at East Croydon, and arrived at St Pancras ninety minutes before my train. After getting a bite to eat, I decided to catch an earlier train. Thanks to the amazing fuck-up the Tories made of the railways when they privatised it, such decisions can often prove very expensive. As the train pulled away from the station, the purser pointed out that certain tickets were invalid. I was fairly sure mine was okay, but I had bought it online. Fortunately, it was. But long gone are the days when you can buy a ticket at a reasonable price, and jump on any train to travel to somewhere else in the country. So exactly how has privatising the railways improved things? It’s more expensive, less reliable, less convenient and – not so long ago – less safer. The British railway system is an embarrassment, and we can thank the Tories for that.
So, in all, a good weekend. I met lots of friends, made new ones, had many interesting conversations, bought or was given a handful of interesting books, spoke to my favourite sf author, Gwyneth Jones, and generally had an excellent time. I didn’t see much of Brighton – given the weather, it was packed throughout the weekend – but never mind.
Next year’s Fantasycon is in Corby, and I plan to attend.