While I rate a number of fantasy novels very highly, the genre is only about my fourth or fifth choice of reading material. So in the normal course of events a con devoted to fantasy doesn’t interest me much. Except, of course, that I’ll know quite a few people who’ll be there, and it’s one of the few opportunities I’ll get to see them IRL. Plus, this being a World Fantasy Con, there’ll also be several people present I wouldn’t normally get to meet face-to-face. Having said that, there may have been citizens/residents of 35 countries present at WFC, but it often felt like the “w” and the “r” were superfluous in the first word of the con’s name.
Anyway, fantasy or not, I bought my membership months ago, booked my hotel room, was ripped off by our railways – £93 for an open return! – and at the appointed time left home for Brighton. And this is how it went…
Thursday 31 October: catch tram to railway station with overnight bag and box full of copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to sell on the small press table in the WFC dealers’ room. I prefer to travel light, especially if the journey is going to take hours, but my books are never going to sell if I always leave them at home. End up sharing a table on the train to London with a woman and her three grandchildren (all under the age of twelve). To read on the train, I grabbed Michel Houellebecq’s Lanzarote. Should have known better: I read his Platform while returning home from a con and by the time I reached home the combination of British railways and Houellebecq’s misanthropy had me fuming. To make matters worse, Lanzarote includes several very graphic sex scenes, so have to hold the paperback in such a way only I can see the page. Fortunately, the colour photographs in the book depict the landscape of the titular island… It’s a relief to finish the book and start on Karen Joy Fowler’s The Sweetheart Season, which is much more appropriate train reading material…
The trip to Brighton is pretty painless. Change trains in St Pancras, get a seat on the one heading for the south coast, listen to music on the iPod, stare out of the window, read my book. There are some spectacularly ugly buildings in London. On arrival in Brighton, jump into a taxi and get driven to my hotel, the Best Western Brighton Hotel. Which claims to be one of the best hotel in the city. In the 1980s, perhaps. It is a bit rubbish. And in the tiny lift cabin, there is sign that reads “NO SMOKING ON THIS FLOOR”. Not sure how that works. After dumping my stuff, I head up the seafront to the con hotel, the Brighton Metropole, a 400-metre walk. This is only my second visit to Brighton, and my first experience of the Metropole. I register at the convention, and pick out my giveaway books from the table full of same. God’s War I already own so I ignore that. There’s a bande dessinée which looks interesting. PS Publishing have sealed their free books inside grey plastic envelopes, so it’s pot luck. Of course, I end up with Gwyneth Jones’s Grazing the Long Acre. Which I already have. (I give it away later.) I also grab David Tallerman’s Giant Thief… only to realise later he made me buy a copy of it at the SFX Weekender in 2012. The rest of the books look like epic fantasy, so I give them a miss.
Then it’s down to the bar in search of friendly faces, which I duly find. I pretty much spend the entire evening in there. I meet up with Liam Proven, who is kipping on my floor, and we go back to my hotel to dump his stuff (which includes lots of bottled ale). Later, a large party of us go for a meal at a seafront restaurant which features an opera singer. It’s nouvelle cuisine, which means it’s presented nicely but there isn’t much of it. The opera singing isn’t up to much either. But at least the company and conversation make up for both. Then it’s back to the hotel to continue drinking and chatting. I crash out at 12:30. When I look for my bag of giveaways, I can’t find it. Oh well. At one point, I am introduced to KW Jeter. After telling him how much I enjoyed his sf novels, I add that I’m not keen on “the schlocky horror books, like Mantis.” “Ah, Mantis,” he replies, ” my favourite novel.” Oops.
Friday 1 November: get up early so I can make it down for breakfast. No buffet. You chose one of three types of breakfast from a menu, they bring it you from the kitchen. I thought hotels stopped doing that twenty years ago. Not the best breakfast I’ve ever had. In fact, I don’t even bother breakfasting in the hotel for the rest of the weekend. I grab my box of Apollo Quartet books and head for the Metropole. It is pissing it down and I get wet. Make my way straight to the dealers’ room. It is pleasingly large. As well as the usual faces, there are several dealers from abroad, such as Australia’s Ticonderoga (hi, Russell) and Fablecroft. After setting out my books on Roy Gray’s Interzone/small press table, I bimble about the room but only purchase Lavie Tidhar’s Martian Sands and a copy of Keith Roberts’ Anita (which is priced much less than usual). The rest of the day is spent bouncing between bar and dealers’ room. I have a bottle of water with me, so I stick to drinking that. I don’t manage to get lunch. Apparently, there’s a second bar serving cheap food, but I never manage to find it. The Metropole is like a rabbit warren. The function space is enormous and quite a walk – up two separate flights of stairs – from the front of the hotel and the bar.
At one point in the dealer’s room, while chatting to a dealer who has a signed first edition of Dune for sale… for $7000… I’m approached by someone who wants me to sign something. It turns out to be a copy of the anthology Where Are We Going? I also later spot copies of Catastrophia and The Monster Book for Girls. There’s also another first edition of Dune for sale, but it’s unsigned. And only £3000. One dealer, Simon from Hyraxia Books, has quite a few rare genre first editions – the aforementioned unsigned Dune, plus a signed first of Neuromancer for £1200, a first of A Wizard of Earthsea for £750…
I spend the evening on a real ale pub crawl with Liam P, Charlie Stross, Feorag, Jain Fenn, Jetse de Vries and another couple of whose names I never catch. (And yet everyone wears badges at these conventions. But at least twice I go to speak to people thinking they are someone else.) I don’t remember the name of the first pub we visit, but it is quite a trek from the hotel. It is also large, busy, noisy and very warm… and I’m beginning to regret agreeing to come along. But then we find a table shortly after getting served, things quieten down and it gets much better. Our next pub is the Prince George, which serves vegan food and was chosen so we could eat there. I’m not vegan, but I’ll eat it – and it’s likely to have more dairy-free dishes for me to choose from than a non-vegan place. The beer is very nice – we’re drinking halves so we can try a number – and my falafel burger is good. We are supposed to move onto another pub, but Charlie needs to get back to the hotel, and I’ve had enough – as have two others. so we grab a taxi back to the Metropole. The other four apparently try one more pub and then return to the con. I stay in the bar until 3:30 am. Walking back to my hotel with Liam, we witness an altercation between a taxi driver and a young couple. The young man is dressed like a pirate.
Saturday 2 November: have a bit of a lie-in, don’t bother with breakfast, and head for the Metropole. Another day bouncing between the bar and the dealers’ room. And drinking water. I manage to get lunch this time – I order the soup of the day in the bar, after verifying it is dairy-free. It’s vegetable soup but I’ve no idea which vegetable. I buy a couple more books than the previous day: One Small Step, a women-only anthology published by Fablecroft Publishing, The God Stalker Chronicles by PC Hodgell, an epic fantasy about which I have heard many good things by people who are aware of my tastes, Aliette de Bodard’s On A Red Station, Drifting, and a Women’s Press paperback of Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them. I suspect I might have that last book but I forgot my wants list so I’m not sure. It turns out later I do have it. Though I see plenty of books I want to buy, especially ones where the con is my best chance of getting them at a reasonable price (and without postage & packing on top), I don’t want to cart loads of books as well as my unsold copies of my own books back home.
Before the con, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont arranged a meet-up at a Brighton pub on the Saturday afternoon, but since I don’t have a smartphone I don’t know when or where. Happily, Alex Bardy does know and comes to ask me if I’m going. I say yes. In the hotel lobby, I spot Niall Harrison, Nic Clarke and David Hebblethwaite and ask them if they’re going. They say yes. The pub is located around the back of the hotel, a five-minute walk away. I spend the next few hours at “Pubcon”, and it’s probably the highlight of the weekend (you can actually hear yourself think in the pub, which is more than can be said of the hotel bar).
After a couple of hours in the pub, it’s back to the hotel for a party thrown by my agent for his clients and industry professionals. This is in a room at the top of the hotel with great picture windows. Everyone remarks on its likeness to an evil villain’s lair, but it’s dark out so you can’t see much. As I leave, an editor from Orbit sees me and says, “Ian Sales! I know you! You liked Ancillary Justice.” What price fame, eh? Then it’s along a very blowy seafront for the launch party for Lavie’s The Violent Century. This is in the tiny basement room of a pub. It is small, busy, hot and loud. I chat to a few people, have a bad pint of some real ale, can’t have any of the free food because dairy, and then head back to the Metropole. I’m hungry so I get a meal in the hotel restaurant. But it’s nouvelle cuisine again – two halves of a new potato and a pair of broccoli florets are not sufficient vegetables. Then there’s a Del Rey launch party in one of the bars, and a Jo Fletcher Books party in one of the function rooms. I spend the rest of the evening in one or the other. (The JFB one is bigger, but when Mitch Benn gets up on stage to sing it’s too close to filk for me so I make a run for it.) At one point, there is also “Corridorcon”, which is myself, Liam and David Tallerman chatting in one of the corridors, saying hello to people we know as they pass by. One of these is Jukka Halme, who stays to chat. We are talking about the recent Swecon, Fantastika, when I ask him if he knows Miikka, one of the Finns I met there. He laughs – I gather it’s a common name in Finland. Fortunately, I remember Miikka’s surname.
It is another late night. I’m mostly drinking the beer Liam has brought. He’s carrying it around in his rucksack, and for refills we go to the toilet to pour it into our glasses. At one point, I’m doing this for Simon Clark when I realise I’m getting odd looks from a man washing his hands. I recognise him as the bar manager. Oops.
Sunday 3 November: My last day at the con. I could have extended my hotel booking and stayed on until the following day, but I decide not to. I check out of my room, and head for the Metropole. The dealers’ room is closing at noon, so I have to get my stuff out. I am on my way out of the room when I get chatting to Brian Ameringen, and in the middle of the conversation spot he has a copy of Brian Aldiss’s Cracken at Critical, which is a book I want. My last book purchase of the weekend. Myself and Liam go for food at a café a few streets away that has been recommended. I have the all day breakfast – it’s basic but more than edible. I get a few blank looks when I ask about dairy-free. This prompts a conversation back in the hotel how gluten intolerance is widely- known, but lactose intolerance isn’t – despite 75% of the world’s population being lactose-intolerant to some degree, and coeliacs less than 1% of the population (by comparison left-handed people account for around 7%). I suspect this is because during the 1980s there was a fad in the US for gluten-free food as a dietary choice – even though it is no better or no worse for you than foods that contain gluten.
I’d originally planned to catch the 13:35 to London but with one thing another end up catching the 14:45. I run into Adrian Tchaikovsky in the Metropole lobby, and he’s about to leave too. But neither he nor Annie are ready and my taxi has just arrived. I see them again at the railway station, and point out to them the train to Bedford, which goes through St Pancras, is much more convenient for their change to King’s Cross. Their tickets read Victoria Station – it seems all train ticket websites assume you have to travel to Brighton from London Victoria (and vice versa)… unless you’re travelling north on East Midland Trains, who use St Pancras as their terminus. The train arrives, but Adrian and Annie are waiting for friends. I go grab seats, and sit there receiving dirty looks from those boarding because I have my bags on empty seats. But Adrian and Annie don’t make the train. Oh well. At St Pancras, I have plenty of time to catch a train home. Though they are cheaper, I’ve been caught out before buying tickets that are only valid on one train. Now I always buy open returns. It is worth the expense. As is becoming more frequent, the reservation system aboard the train has crashed. I don’t have a reserved seat but neither can I see which seats are not reserved. Turns out the one I chose is reserved. And I only learn this when there are no other seats left. So I end up standing until Market Harborough. I’m not the only one. And there are suitcases in the aisle too, making it difficult to get from one end of the coach to the other. At one point, a bloke turns up and finds his reserved seat occupied. He asks the bloke in it to move, but the bloke refuses. He claims the train staff said over the PA that since the reservation system is not working then all reservations are void. This is not true. Myself, I’d have poured my water all over the bloke in the seat. The guy whose seat it is has to go find somewhere else to sit. Dear British people, our railway net work is shit enough without you acting like knobs on the trains. If you are in a reserved seat, then vacate it for the person who has the reservation, even if the display above the seat is not working. Refusing to do so only makes you a total prick. When I reach Sheffield station, there’s a massive queue for the taxis. I eventually get home at 8:15 pm. The cat is glad to see me.
I thought WFC was a bit of a rubbish con but an excellent weekend. I wasn’t at all interested in the programme and missed it completely. I didn’t eat enough but drank too much. I’d liked to have bought more books. And sold more of my own books. I didn’t get to meet everyone I’d hoped to meet, but as well as hanging around with friends – Colum Paget introducing me to Hal Duncan: “Do you know Hal, Ian?” Me: “Yes, we’ve known each other for years.” Hal: “No, decades.” – I also met some people I only know online and some that were new to me. I couldn’t possibly name-check everyone I spoke to. I do remember lots of really interesting conversations. And lots of people asked me about Apollo Quartet 3, so I got to bore many people on the topic of the Mercury 13.
I had fun.