Servants of the Walk

Friday 7 August
The first morning walk of the con – a concept carried over from last year, therefore now in its second year, so it must be a tradition. We assembled by the fountain next to the Palais …

… which every now and then excitingly starts to steam. It seems to be a design feature and not a faulty valve.

Then a nice stroll around Vieux-Montreal. I got chatting to one Colin Harvey, mostly because his badge identified him as coming from Keynsham, which I always confuse with Eynsham and so thought he was relatively local to me. A serendipitous error. With my usual memory for names I had completely forgotten he’s the editor of Future Bristol, review by me appearing in a forthcoming Vector – though I’m glad to say it’s favourable. He’s also an Angry Robot author and invited me to the launch tonight.

Chatting to Farah Mendlesohn, she said that she once shook hands with Michael Foot, and he once shook hands with H.G. Wells. It’s something like the Apostolic Succession. (And I’ve probably shaken hands with Farah.)

First must-see event of the day was the Golden Duck Awards, which were obviously not invented by someone familiar with cricket. They’re a bundle of different awards for younger readers under one title. The Eleanor Cameron Award for Middle Grades went to Lighter Than Air by Henry Melton and the Hal Clement Award was tie with a title I forget and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. After the awards were given this turned (unexpectedly, but hey) into a panel discussion with all the authors present on writing for teens. This in turn got a little side-tracked with the specific discussion of how much sex you can get away with, but again, hey. And I got to tell Cory about how I once got a speed ticket on his behalf.

The Angry Robot awards in the evening were fun – a not too crowded hotel suite, for a blessed change, and a variety of wine. On the 28th floor of the Delta Hotel, a woman was observed freaking out because CBC News had just announced to the nation that the 28th floor was the party floor. Fortunately Angry Robot was on the 22nd. Anyway, I thought that if all the various bid parties stationed runners in the lobby to catch the hordes as they came in, they could make a killing.

Didn’t get to see the carnage, though, because at 9pm I was on “Just A Minute” back in the Palais, with Tom Galloway, Steve Green and Dave Clements, Nicholas Parsonsed by Paul Cornell. Maybe I’d had a bit too much wine, maybe my reactions are slow: for whatever reason I floundered a little even on subjects like Narnia and Gerry Anderson, before rallying disgracefully on Servants of the Wankh. My fourth place was made a bit more respectable with the help of my competitors. (Beep. “He needs the points.” Beep. “I agree.”)

Said subject had also been a title in the previous night’s charades, which I didn’t get to. Hint for anyone doing this in the future: you can get a similar effect with Obi-wan Kenobi.

Celts, Connie and Critiques

Thursday 6 August
Got off to a flying start with “The werewolves of Brigadoon” – a panel discussion on the cultural appropriation of all things Celtic by Hollywood and/or bad fantasy, and the atrocities committed against same. George R.R. Martin represented all things evil and American, Kari Spelling ranted about the myth of a Celtic matriarchal pagan goddess worshipping sexually liberated paradise, and the whole was moderated by the lovely and extremely Irish Peadar Ó Guilín (not Peadar O. Guilin, as his publisher’s page would have it … If you haven’t read Peadar’s The Inferior, go forth and rectify this gaping flaw in your life now).

Quote of the day from George R.R.: “The Celts got their butts kicked for the entire length of the Eurasian landmass and wrote sad songs about it.”

I had lunch with Peadar afterwards. He left his receipt on the table. I pointed out he could keep it and claim expenses. He pointed out Irish writers don’t pay tax. Bastards.

A panel in the afternoon on “When is genocide justified?” (“is mass slaughter of innocents only bad when bad people do it?”) had Connie Willis pointing out, in her understated Willisian drawl, that you can write about it without being in favour if it, and the Twit of the Con in the audience saying that genocide was all very well as a punitive measure but would the panel like to comment on using economic boycott as a means of expressing displeasure.

The Opening Ceremony included a speech by Dr Marc Garneau – scientist, Canadian shuttle astronaut and now MP for Montreal. An astronaut MP! I have a lot of time for Dr Evan Harris but I’m afraid this wins.

Because Nobel-winning Paul Krugman talking to Hugo-winning Charles Stross was postponed I unexpectedly found myself at a session by Scott Edelman aimed at new writers on “How to respond to a critique of your writing”. Well, it’s always fun to sit in on these and feel superior: the presenters generally produce the train crashes for people to admire and laugh at, and this was no different. Scott’s take was how to avoid being less like Alice Hoffman (who went insane on Twitter following a poor review) and more like Brad Meltzer. Brad took the juicy extracts from his poor reviews, put them in the mouths of the kids he coaches and the folks at his grandmother’s nursing home, and recorded the whole. And it’s very funny.


Wednesday 5 August
Vieux-Montreal is where it’s at. Cobbled, winding streets that could almost be European – admittedly with a slight bias towards gift shops selling amusingly captioned t-shirts and maple syrup. The best and longest of these is Rue Saint-Paul, which winds because the shops on its south side used to back directly onto the St Lawrence River. The backs are still marked with the names of the shops of old, for the benefit of the boatmen, though now there is 100m of reclaimed land between them and the nearest water, which makes a fantastic promenade when the sun is bright and the wind is off the river – as it was today.

Thirty five dollars gets you an amphibious tour of the backstreets of the old quarter, followed by a plunge into the river and a chug along the waterfront.

Interesting fact of the day, unless the guide was winding us up (as when he told a tourist that the tyres hanging alongside all the quays were taken from amphibious buses attacked by great white sharks): local law says that no building in Montreal may be taller than the top of the cross on top of Mont-Royal. The tallest skyscraper downtown is 15cm shorter.

Opposite all this loveliness, the other side of the water – the quite astonishingly ugly Habitat 67, built for an Exposition back when the point of expositions was to date the event firmly with a style that could never be replicated in any other year. Logan’s Runshould have been filmed here.

Wandering around on my own afterwards, I wondered if the Centre des Sciences de Montreal named its café deliberately, or if it finds it a bit of a hard sell and wonders why.

Never mind yesterday’s basilica and sorry apology for an Anglican cathedral – Vieux-Montreal has the churches worth looking at. The chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours is worthy of note for several reasons: its ministry to many different groups (plague victims, sailors, women); its age (the basement contains the foundations of the original stone chapel dating from the 1650s); and the story of its founder, Marguerite Bourgeoys. She came over in 1653 to start the first school but decided what the old place really needed was a church, which she pushed through despite opposition from the priests. Which raises the question of what the priests were doing there in the first place, but perhaps they thought keeping the uppity women in their places was far more important in the eyes of Heaven than, you know, preaching the good word and helping the poor and all that.

Two things I enjoyed about our guide. One was his Franco-American accent, pronouncing ‘epidemic’ with the same emphases you would put on ‘academy’ and ‘hypothesis’ as ‘hypo-thézus’. The other was his candour. When asked if the chapel converted many natives: “No, no, no, no, no. They killed them all off. Different strategy.”

You can also go up the tower of the chapel for some excellent views of the waterfront.

Over to the other end of the old quarter you get the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal, and for the first time I can say that the interior of a church took my breath away. It is astonishingly beautiful – and I say astonishing because it isn’t a slavish copy of European originals but done in a wood-intensive style I’ve not seen before anywhere else.

Despite that, I have to say that by now I was getting a little churched and Catholiced out so I didn’t linger. If you’ve noticed a certain Marian emphasis to the whole place – well, apparently the original settlement was dedicated to Mary and was originally named Ville-Marie. That would explain it. I still wonder what Mary makes of it. As a good Protestant I’m sure she hands over the bundles of prayers she receives every day to the appropriate authority, and feels rather embarrassed about it.

“Sorry, they’re still at it, praying to me rather than you. I mean, if they work for a company, do they direct requests to their CEO or their CEO’s mother?”

“I know, hurts, doesn’t it? But their hearts are in the right place so they’ll still be welcome up here.”

“Still, I can’t wait to see their faces when they learn Luther was right …”

Oh, and speaking of ugly (as I was) I tracked down the Palais des Congrès, where the whole point of the visit starts tomorrow.