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Some thoughts about Fantasycon

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I’ve seen a few reviews of this year’s Fantasycon, which took place in Chester a couple of weekends ago, and how good it was, and… well, not everyone was quite so impressed. I’m the first to admit Fantasycons are much better than they used to be. I attended one, or it may have been two, when it was at the Britannia Hotel in Nottingham, and it was awful. But starting with the one in York in 2014, there has been a definite improvement. However…

The Queen Hotel was a good venue. The rooms were comfortable, the breakfast pretty good, and there was plenty of space, both function and social. But it was also expensive – not that I can really complain, given I’ve stayed in hotels in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Reykjavík this year. But the hotel didn’t put on enough staff in the bar; or indeed enough beer, as it ran out on the Saturday night. The location was good for the railway station, although it was a ten-minute trek into the town centre. Having said that, finding somewhere to eat in the evening that wasn’t fully booked was only marginally easier than it had been in Reykjavík… I will say this for Chester, however: wherever I went the staff were friendly and helpful, more so than in any other UK city I’ve visited.

So, a good venue – and I’ve not even mentioned the Victoriana, the portraits or the statues. The convention itself, however… The programme was not very appealing; with four streams, which is too many for a con of that size. While individual panel items might have come up with something new, the topics covered were the same ones UK cons have been doing for years. I don’t generally attend programme items – I’m there for the social, more than anything else – but no item in Fantasycon’s programme persuaded me it might be worth sitting through. But then it’s not just Fantasycon. UK conventions as a whole seem to have got into a bit of a rut. (I’m told Nine Worlds is different, but I’ve never been to it.) Having four or five people sitting behind a table just seems boring these days. I like IceCon’s more relaxed approach, where the panellists are in armchairs or on sofas. I think UK cons should adopt it. I also think there should be more talks/presentations given by individuals, and programme items that are just interviews/conversations between two people.

But then Fantasycon has always felt like a showcase weekend for UK small presses, with its back-to-back book launches and dedicated stream of book readings. The entire Sunday afternoon is taken up with a banquet, in which members of the British Fantasy Society hand out awards. Not always to each other. Although one year the best novel and best short story awards were won by the partner of the BFS chairman, and acting awards administrator, and the chairman’s own publishing company won best small press… With four programming streams, this year felt more than ever like it was designed for writers to showcase themselves. But since pretty much everyone else attending was also a writer…

That’s what UK fandom seems to be turning into these days: writers marketing themselves to other writers. Actual fans seem to be a dying breed.

Speaking of readings, I’m not a fan. I’m a person who prefers to look at the words on a page, not hear them. Reading and listening use different parts of the brain – I suspect the former part of my brain is more developed than the latter. Book launches, on the other hand, I no longer attend having done so for years and ended up with bookshelves of books I’m unlikely to read… Well, perhaps that’s not strictly true. But you do feel obligated to buy something at a book launch, whether you really want it or not. Ironically, I bought a book at Fantasycon before the book launch, because I hadn’t known it was being launched at the con…

Which neatly leads into the organisation of Fantasycon. The two organisers have been praised by many. But. There were no programmes available until midday on the Saturday. When I registered on Friday afternoon, all I received was my membership badge. No programme. No goody bag. And the programme, when it did finally turn up, included a story by the convention chairman. Since when was that acceptable? And the programme doesn’t include a list of attendees, so I had no idea who was present. It contains only a partial list of those appearing on panels. It’s also riddled with typos, and even manages to spell the name of one of the Guests of Honour incorrectly. The top half of the second page is an introduction from the con’s “Coodinator”, while the bottom half, ironically, is an advert for a proofreading service…

(However, the volunteers, the Red Cloaks, were omnipresent and helpful.)

I attend conventions chiefly to hang out with friends, I admit it. Fantasycon is friendly, yes, if you know people. And on the Saturday night in the bar, it’s as friendly as any place full of people in various stages of drunkenness who are all gathered in one place for the same reason – and even have handy ID badges hanging around their necks… It is, if you like, a social crucible. A good place to meet people and make new friends. Because you all have something in common. But that’s true of conventions in general, it’s not unique to Fantasycon. And while Fantasycon has much improved in that regard, it’s still no better and no worse than other cons.

It’s starting to sound like I didn’t have a good weekend, when in fact I did enjoy myself. On the Friday night, David Tallerman and myself ended up eating in Koconut Grove, a southern Indian restaurant. Unfortunately, we arrived just after a party of around two-dozen, so it took over an hour for our food to arrive. Walking back to the hotel, we bumped into two people I’d not expected to see: Cristina Macía and Ian Watson. I’d seen both of them back in June, as Ian was GoH at Swecon, but they don’t typically attend Fantasycon. On the Saturday, I went hunting for a supermarket to buy a sandwich for lunch, but found only a street that the 1980s forgot (Brook Street, for the record). Not only did it have shops that sold vinyl, but also two private shops! I ended up having a pint in the Old Harkers Arms at the side of the canal, and it was awful. Worse than Wetherspoons.

After a trek round Chester city centre on the Saturday night – the programme didn’t include maps, not even a map of the hotel, which would have been really useful; with smartphones, who really needs a town map these days? – myself and David finished up in an Italian place on Foregate Street. It was quite good. Cheaper than a lot of the places we passed. However, on both Friday and Saturday night we’d set out relatively early to eat, around six o’clock. Those trying later had difficulty finding somewhere that wasn’t fully booked.

As with any UK convention these days, any shortcomings are thrown into stark relief by the shitness of British public transport, especially the railway. The train journey from Chester to Manchester wasn’t too bad – the train had originated in Chester and was less than half full. But at Manchester Oxford Road, I had to transfer to an East Midland train that was both ancient rolling stock and over-full. I managed to get a seat, but many didn’t. I’d left early, around noon, as I saw no good reason to hang around for the banquet and the awards, which I haven’t done for any Fantasycon I’ve been to. I was home by about 4 pm.

This year’s Fantasycon was a definite improvement on the last one I attended, in Scarborough, but I didn’t think it was, well, an especially good con. I liked the Queen Hotel, and I liked Chester. But the programme was not much different to one you might have found at a UK convention ten years ago. My overriding memory of Fantasycon 2018 is sitting in the bar talking to various people – many of whom I’d known before the weekend, one or two I had not – or trekking around Chester…

There are worse things you could do on a weekend.

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