By the pricking of my thumb…
The roving carnival of creativity that is the World Fantasy Convention rolled into Brighton and set up camp on a dark and stormy All Hallows Eve 2013.
The event was billed as being for fans and pros to get their geek on, do deals, drool over famous authors (icky I know, but that’s just how I roll, don’t judge me) and generally celebrate all things fantasy. So far, so good.
Like all conventions there were panels, a dealer’s room, an art show, readings, signings and awards – the usual format. Because the World Fantasy Convention is, in its own words, ‘essentially a literary convention’, comics being a purely telepathic medium of storytelling weren’t allowed, innit?
This from the WFC dealers’ room introduction on their website: ‘No comics, t-shirts or similar products will be allowed for sale (convention-related merchandise will be sold separately).’ Quaint and archaic, you might say, but their house, their rules. It therefore came as somewhat of a surprise to see copies of a couple of the guests of honours’ graphic novels for sale in the dealers’ room, along with other proscribed items. I don’t mind, I love comics, it was just a little confusing. But I’m bounding ahead of myself.
After a leisurely drive down from the Midlands, the first stop at the con hotel was the registration desk which was situated in the heart of the Hilton Metropole just a shortish flight of stairs or lift away from the main entrance lobby. I’m sure the late Arthur Machen, famous author and mystic being honoured by the convention, would have felt right at home here, the hotel was built in 1890 and retains much of the original character of a Victorian era hotel which I felt complimented the tenor of the event.
The volunteer staff working in registration were very much on top of their game. I’m a huge fan of friendly and efficient people, so a big sack of kudos goes to them, the unsung heroes of the event.
Some convention registrations are about as organised as a poo fight in a monkey house, but this was a smooth operation from what I could see. When we arrived mid-dayish Thursday, there weren’t any long queues or confusion behind the desk, just helpful volunteers oiling the wheels of the convention fun wagon. There was also a nice system of pick your own goodie bag books. After taking great delight in doing so, my other half and I waddled off back to our hotel, (the wonderfully quirky Oriental B&B) to dump a metric tonne of bookie loveliness in our room.
Not staying in the hotel had its drawbacks, not least nearly getting swept off to Oz sans ruby slippers on more than one occasion whilst coming and going, due to the refreshing sea breeze, but at least our hotel had wifi…unlike the Metropole. See my scowlface and despair!
I heard tell of a legendary access code that was available from the check-in desk which would grant 60 minutes free wifi. As I and several others of my acquaintance utterly failed to make the bloody thing work, I can only conclude that, like Sir Percival, we were not worthy of attaining this, most holy of modern day grails.
There was a rumour that some conventioneers resorted to using carrier dragons and smoke signals from bonfires they lit on the roof to contact those beyond the bounds of the Bright Town, but all I saw were messenger owls. Again, from a certain angle the lack of free, easily accessible wifi was sort of in keeping with the Arthur Machen/Victorian era vibe so maybe it was intentional.
The dealers’ room was as good as one would expect of a World Fantasy Convention with plenty of new paperbacks alongside limited editions and classics and classic editions of said classics. It was spacious and seemed relatively easy to navigate for people with access issues. However, this is just my observation as I don’t have any particular access issues when sober. I could have quite easily spent a reasonably sized fortune in the dealers’ room. An edition of ‘Neuromancer’ signed by William Gibson (@GreatDismal hisself) made me briefly contemplate living on jam sandwiches for the next year or so as it was a snip at £1200. Whenever I visited the room in the vain hope that decimal points might appear on some price tags it was always pleasantly busy, but never felt overcrowded.
The art show and print shop were in the Durham Gallery on the second floor accessed by stairs from the hall and the dealers’ room below and also by lift. The art show had plenty of wonderful and iconic artists and their work on display but the highlight of the show for me was an installation by Tessa Farmer called ‘The Terror (After Arthur Machen)’ who not only inspired this piece, but was also Farmer’s great-grandfather. Her creepy, miniature fairy skeletons and fantastical insects were magical and macabre and a delight to examine close up using the magnifying glasses provided.
The panels were…panellish. The layout of seats in large conference rooms always favours the swift and the tall. Six or seven rows back and all you could see were people’s heads or if you were lucky, light-bleached blobs sitting on a not-raised-enough-dais. So it goes.
I was very keen to see ‘Sir Terry Pratchett — In Conversation’ on Friday afternoon. One of the regrets I have is that I never saw/heard David Gemmell in the flesh, so I thought I’d brave the crowds to go see Sir Terry but I wasn’t prepared for how emotional it would be. As my own father had dementia and passed away two years ago, I found it very difficult to sit there and see someone who had entertained me and many millions with his wonderful stories afflicted by such a cruel condition. His assistant, Rob Wilkins, gave a most entertaining reading from the latest Discworld novel ‘Raising Steam’ and it was very interesting to hear about Narrativia, Sir Terry’s production company, and how it will ensure his legacy and vision continues to thrive in all media in the future.
After seeing Sir Terry, I rushed over to the Broads With Swords Panel. I did not like it but I’ve written a lengthy blog post about it here http://kdavies.net/a-broad-with-a-sword-strikes-back/ explaining why I was disappointed and so for the sake of brevity and sanity, I’ll just reiterate my bafflement that in 2013 martial women are even regarded as a thing. It is quite beyond me and I’d love to know why someone thought it was a good idea. Again, maybe whomever came up with the title was trying to rock that Edwardian pre-women’s suffrage vibe. ‘Women with swords? Egad, Carruthers! I say, whatever next?’ Well, you never know.
As I dashed from panel to panel to bar, I took time out to have a few words with some of the red-coated volunteers. I know some of them and know that they all worked their socks off to keep the programme rolling as well as performing tonnes of other unglamorous but vital duties, not least of which was directing people around the hotel who, like me, can get lost in a toilet. They worked long, tiring hours with not an awful lot of breaks but as far as I saw, (yeah, so I spy on people. so?) maintained a polite and professional ‘tude throughout.
During The Next Big Thing Panel on Saturday, Kate Eltham suggested that the publishers pretty much decide what the next big thing will be when they threw their marketing behind it. As far as trends were at the moment, the Young Adult market was still pretty popular and likely to remain so for a while. Tom Doherty from TOR books voiced concerns that, although good for back catalogues, he felt that ebooks were bad for discovery and that according to Gallup, 55% of book buys were impulse buys, something that he suggested was lost with ebooks. The thrust of the panel shifted from the next big trend to the next big market. What came across was that genre readers are always going to be there, faithful stalwarts all, but what publishers were working on was developing not trends but new readers as well as developing new markets. The last word on the panel with regards to what was ‘The Next Big Thing’ was China. So as they say in Rome, ‘zhu ni haoyun!’ That’s Good luck in Mandarin.
The only Machen panel I saw was The Last Golden Age? Despite the question in the title, it was a jolly, light-hearted affair. As with the Broads With Swords Panel, this one was also single sex. Like many a gathering of gentlemen before them (alas, sans port and cigars), they took to discussing Machen and his contemporaries with great gusto and enthusiasm. I learned the names of several must-reads of Machen and also similar must reads of several of his contemporaries. I also found out that a lot of them were the sons of clergymen. Make of that what you will.
This being a World Fantasy Convention, the members were a varied lot hailing from all corners of the globe; America, Canada, Japan and even Scotland. This made for some very interesting and entertaining conversation in the bar, which became like a very expensive and vaguely blurry second home. The bar staff were better than most, although I felt at times I might need a Vuvuzela in order to be noticed. It cost £6:50 for a small glass of average wine, which I suppose is due to the London ‘I saw you coming’ premium. Soft drinks came in at around half that. Tea and coffee was also expensive. Definitely a bring your own flask kinda gig. Despite this slap in the bank account, I spent a lot of time in the bar because, that’s really where the fun was.
Conventions are quite often great places to meet people with similar nerdy interests and also to catch up with friends who you don’t see often enough. As a fair few of my friends are also inveterate scribblers, projects were mooted, plans were made and sorrows were drowned. Mostly, there was a lot of silly banter and stimulating conversation, coupled with the nagging regret that there isn’t enough time to see everything you want to see or speak to everyone you want to speak to, even though, after four days, you don’t have the voicicles left to talk to anyone anyway.
If you’re a professional or wannabe professional with a penchant for networking, then it’s quite probably a useful event to attend at least once. If you’re a fan then I’d suggest you’d probably get more bang for your buck by supporting/attending a smaller event that catered more for fans. The next WFC will be in 2014 Nov 6-9 Washington DC check out website for future events: www.worldfantasy2014.org/