The layout went something like this: big atrium reception area with (critic) Roz Kaveney on a sofa, behind which was dealer’s room, aside from which was the sort of dark and classy saloon bar with enormous prices where (new weird author) China Mieville is to be found, and at a vast intricate distance from which was the furthest tiny panel room, where the media panels were kept to prevent contamination, down the maze behind the cupboard with the leopard. In the middle of the lobby was a double helix of stairwells, with statues of panthers on their mezzanine (I’m not making this up), which led up, past a never glimpsed second floor, to the third floor, which consisted of an enormous open expanse of water feature and vaulted ceiling, with scattered chairs, a desultory cheap bar and expensive cheap food outlet, and corners and railings for swift takings aside and cabal encounters. On one side of this was the main programme room, with enormous searchlights in the face of the panel and a temperature dial from a shower, which went from frosty to baking and nothing in between. On the other side of this was more broken up programming rooms, and down one side a corridor led to the real ale bar (selling Old Hooky!), aptly past an alley with piles of old fanzines.
So that’s the ideal board game, really, with a place for everything that might happen. The game’s initial conditions included a nice amount of literary scandal (why isn’t Brasyl on the Clarke Award shortlist?), emotional connection and personal collision. And amongst that heady mix, one is assigned panels, so one’s opinions are demanded as one is called upon to entertain. I honestly think all humanity would benefit from having a convention to go to. It’s organised games, but with high seriousness and consequences always waiting in the wings. I was on four panels. ‘The Hovercraft of Disbelief’ was about suspending one’s disbelief, and had all the other panelists humbly declaring they didn’t know why they were on this panel, and then me yelling that I had a great deal to say, and doing five minutes at Just A Minute velocity, because I always think that diving in and thwacking the ball everywhere is preferable and more fun. I got a little hysterical, I think. ‘The Doctor: Saviour or Trickster God’ was cool, with the panel covering a lot of mythological ground and only mentioning religion in the closing seconds (phew, I got away with it). ‘Comics As Collaboration’ was perhaps the most serious panel I did, with (artist) Matt Brooker and (artist and writer) Bryan Talbot getting to talk a lot about the process and the craft: very satisfying. It was especially useful that Matt and I had worked together, so we could talk about the same pages. (Then Matt and I plonked ourselves down in the back row for Mitch Benn’s terrific stand up and musical comedy set, which was attended by a stadium full of people that had all been in different places before. Mitch obviously regarded it as a homecoming gig. ‘Try doing a joke about Orson Scott Card at Jongleurs on a Friday night!’ and his enthusiasm enthused the crowd in return.) Finally, I had my most fun alongside Calapine, in a (very) late night panel about Martha Jones, which descended several times into several different sinks of inaptness and then finally stayed in the gutter where it set up a small business talking about arses. My agent put his hand up to ask a question, which turned out to be ‘would you like another pint?’
In terms of other panels, amongst many, I saw Neil Gaiman surrounded by beautiful women (who were accomplished authors and critics in their own right, ding, I still pass fit for purpose on LiveJournal, just about) on ‘The Use of Mythology in Fantasy’, which was fun, with the audience chucking in some great stuff. ‘Not the Clarke Awards’, where former judges rate this year’s choices, was actually more restrained than one might have expected, though Sleight Minor showed some signs repressed fury. The panel chose Stephen Baxter’s The H-Bomb Girl as their favourite this year. If that wins the actual award, I can at least say there’s a Clarke Award winner with my name on the cover… because, you see, there’s a quote from me on the… yeah, you got there.
I think the two funniest panel titles were probably ‘Coping With Rejection’ (imagine saying you were a participant on that: ‘oh, I only did the one panel, “Coping With Rejection”’) and ‘Why Is Blake’s 7 Still Popular?’ (Italics my own.)
Apart from the panels, there are the meals. On the Friday night, (programme organiser) Liz Batty led Third Row Fandom in a long march out of the hotel, through Middlesex and across the Cotswolds to an Indian restaurant. Not all of us made it. Even now, a week later, there are still reports of stragglers collapsing in the hotel lobby, asking what time the filk panel is. Perhaps the long march was to find somewhere where pulling your blazer over your head and giving your verdict on the Clarke shortlist as the Emperor from Star Wars is acceptable. On the Saturday, me and Neil Gaiman and his charming daughter Holly went out for dinner at a (much nearer, see, there was one!) gastropub. It’s the first time I’ve talked to Neil at length, and what a lovely, down to earth chap he turns out to be. And Doctor Who geek, mind you. Obviously, the two of us were riveting on the topic of the qualities of ‘The Mind Robber’. It wasn’t Holly’s fault she fell asleep, it had been a long day. And on the Sunday, the very funny and wise (editor) Patrick Nielsen Hayden and I had lunch and talked mostly about the new world of free at the point of delivery everything, joined by China, who was everywhere that weekend, doing everything, with witty doctor in training partner usually alongside.
I spent loads of the weekend with my Agent, who has friends from all across the convention, chosen, in a very non badda bing way, it seems, on the content of their character rather than on the basis of business advantage. We danced a bit at the disco, with SFX editor Dave Bradley, who dances like me when he’s had a few. But then, who doesn’t? My Agent being around made the convention, rather, because between him and Third Row and Calapine’s fangirls and Ian McDonald and his wife and Stephen Jones’ gang I always had a group to crash back down into the middle of. We formed a swathe in the back row of the BSFA Awards (all done in twenty minutes, there’s a good awards ceremony for you), and my Agent managed to text Ken MacLeod about his Short Fiction award and get a reply while the event was still going on. Ken was in Aussie for SwanCon, where I was meant to be until my wife’s work made going there for any reasonable length of time impossible. I still regret not going, but I hope to make up for that, perhaps as early as next year. It’s the small conversations, slumped close with someone in groups of chairs, or forming a little angle of opinion in a stairwell, or cluttering up a lobby late at night, or marching together towards or away from something that make an event like this. Liz and Nic and Graham and Simon and Roz and Calapine and many others and I, just for five minutes, just the intimacy of an enormous culture that’s here to celebrate itself. I’ve talked before of the packed nature of experience at a convention, bigger on the inside than the outside, so much in so little time, which can come as a shock to a writer, used to isolation. So much so in my case that I dropped out of my Monday panel (‘Sex and the Singularity’, and I’d only have sat there saying ‘bollocks’ every five minutes) and drove home instead in a kind of exhausted trance.
The best thing of all was the moment when the Hugo Award nominees were announced, and suddenly, because we’re living in the future, everyone knew at once and was shaking my hand.
So there we are. Such condensed experience, with my people. My favourite thing. I await Denver with a nervousness about the awards ceremony that I can hardly describe, but at least I know there’ll be a big convention around it, and, win or lose, I’ll be kept on my feet by and take comfort in my peers. I hope I’ll see some of you on Saturday, in Darwen, but until I do, Cheerio.