BristolCon 2012

Thoroughly enjoyed myself last Saturday at BristolCon, which is now its fourth year and therefore an established tradition of fandom. Bristol is an excitingly science fictional kind of place (see here if you don’t believe me) and full of surprises. Like, I hadn’t expected to be the opening and closing act.

Okay, that might overstate my role – but I was on the first panel of programme 1 and the last of programme 2. The opening number was a discussion on “Colonising the Solar System”, with Michael Dollin, Aliette de Bodard and Dev Agarwal and moderated by Guy Haley: could it happen? Would it be economic? Would we actually want to live in a Martian colony? And so on. That last question of course needed some clarification. Would I want to live in a small capsule buried beneath the Martian topsoil to escape the radiation? Not really. Would I want to live in a Robinson-style town-sized community inside a domed crater dome with full access to the natural wonders of Mars? Hell, yes!

For the closing act, I moderated a panel of Dolly Garland, Joanne Hall, Jonathan L Howard and Leigh Kennedy on “Nano or Nono – How to survive a writing challenge” – mostly discussing NanoWriMo, which three of the panellists had assayed but Leigh and I had not. We could all talk knowledgeably about the art and discipline of writing, though, and I think we  gave value for money. Favourite anecdote: Jonathan L Howard on how Dennis Wheatley once met a tax demand by retreating to the library (his personal one, of course) with nothing but a box of cigars, a crate of champagne and a typewriter, and banging out yet another occultic potboiler. At the words “library”, “champagne” and “cigars” alternative suggestions for how he might have met the tax demand did begin to come to mind, but I suppose the life of a wealthy gentleman writer must be a hard one.

As the very closing act, immediately after that panel I gave a reading from Phoenicia’s Worlds to an audience of five, three of whom I didn’t even know. Needless to say I was plugging my forthcoming publication at every available opportunity. And on that sort of subject it was good finally to meet Colin Tate of Clarion Publishing who will be re-publishing His Majesty’s Starship and Jeapes Japes next year. Cover designs! Oh my! (Pictures will follow when available …)

And in between all that, a very busy, involving and rewarding programme of Lots of Other Stuff, including Guest of Honour interviews with Gareth L. Powell and John Meaney. But the most enjoyable egobootistical moment was derailing a kaffeeklatsch with Philip Reeve and Moira Young. The sequence of events in the first five minutes went roughly:

  • Philip opens his mouth to speak.
  • Fan 1: Are you the Ben Jeapes who wrote His Majesty’s Starship?
  • Fan 2: Oh, I really loved that! Will you sing my copy? [Produces it]
  • Fan 3: I really liked The New World Order.
  • Me: [having signed copy and absorbed praise] … a-a-a-nd back to you, Philip …

Lunch was a baked potato with tuna and salad and homemade drizzle cake in the Arc Cafe beneath St Mary Redcliffe, which I mention only because it deserves the publicity and I’ve never had a meal in a church undercroft before. Bristol is truly full of surprises and I look forward to going back next year.

Everything I know about banks, I learned from Paddington

That was a good weekend, that was. Friday was a performance by the Osiligi Maasai Warrior Dance Troupe at Christ Church in Warminster: 90 minutes of hypnotic close harmony singing and chanting and dancing and jumping. They do it to raise money for their community back home and very good they are too. Like a low-budget Peter Gabriel concert but even better.

The Saturday was BristolCon, which I enjoyed more this year than last probably because the discussions seemed more book-themed than media-themed. Also I wasn’t spending the sessions beaming ineffective telepathic death signals at the prune from SFX who gave The New World Order such a braindead review. And I got to meet Philip Reeve.
And in the 45 minute train journey from Warminster to Bristol I read a brand new copy of Paddington Abroad, which I found in my parents’ spare room. Apparently it was a freebie giveaway by the Daily Telegraph. I even remembered bits of it from when I was 5 or 6, though my reading speed may have improved since then. It’s one of the first books I remember.
The gist of it – what we would nowadays call the story arc, I suppose – is unsurprisingly that Paddington and the Browns go abroad, on holiday to France. This was in the days when you drove your car onto a plane, which dates it a bit. I remembered bits of it, like Paddington going to see a fortune teller, who tells him to cross her palm with silver. He obligingly does so. She explains that he’s meant to stop halfway and let the coin go. She is then puzzled by his very long lifeline, which turns out to be a chunk of marmalade.
I also remembered the cheerfully Francophobic scene where the Browns tuck into a delicious dish of escargots, prepared by Paddington, before reacting like any smugly complacently ignorant middle class Brit would when learning what escargots are.
I had forgotten the pictures – the wonderful line drawings by Peggy Fortnum who manages to catch everything that is so earnest and loveable about our hero bear in just a few lines. There was one that made me laugh for a good five minutes. Paddington is invited to play the bass drum in a French marching band, but because the drum restricts his view he doesn’t realise when the band have turned round so he keeps on going. The picture stretches across the top of both pages. At top right is the band, just very small silhouetted stickmen, marching off the page in one direction. At top left is a very small silhouetted bear marching off the page in the other, still earnestly beating his drum.
I’ve very glad that the statue of Paddington at Paddington is based on the Fortnum version, rather than the TV puppet.But the real gem which has stuck with me all these years is the second chapter, where Paddington goes to the bank to take out some money for the trip. I remember my father explaining the jokes to me.

The bank is called Floyds. I learned there is a bank called Lloyds.
First he learns that his savings have accrued about 10p of interest, which he doesn’t find very interesting. I learned about interest.
He is shocked to find that the number on the note he is given is not the same as the number on the note that he handed in. In fact, the coins are different too – different dates and not highly polished like his were. I learned about the fungibility of money, though probably not the word “fungibility”.
The cashier also explains that his old notes has probably been burned by now. I learned … well, in short I got a pretty good idea of how banks work. For a 5 year old.
Paddington complains that his note had a promise to pay bear the sum of five pounds on demand. The cashier explains that the word was bearer.
Of course, this being Paddington it all ends in chaos, with him convinced that his savings have all gone up in smoke and the emergency services being called in. Quite prescient, really.
Eventually all is smoothed out and he is offered a nice new bank note to make up for it all. He prefers to keep the old one as he now has so little faith in the banks he would rather have a note that’s been tested.
With that off my chest here are the Osiligi Maasai warriors again, singing in a church somewhere (not ours). This was a more restrained performance, possibly because it is apparently a hymn they are singing.

We’ll probably think of a reason to celebrate the sixth anniversary too

What I love about (a) fandom and (b) the modern age is that you can casually bump into someone in Oxford that you last saw in Montreal 9 months ago without batting an eyelid, and then not have to waste time with catch-up chat because you’ve already read their blog anyway.

You can also have conversations like:

“Ben, have you met Geoff?” (That would be Geoff Ryman, founder member of the Mundane Movement, amongst his many other strengths.)
“Yes, I last saw him having breakfast at Résidences universitaires UQAM, 303 boulevard René-Lévesque Est, Montreal when we were both staying there in August, and I wondered if his choice of meal would trigger another mundane movement.”
Maybe I didn’t say that last bit. I said that we passed on the escalators in the convention centre.
The occasion being the fifth anniversary celebration of the Write Fantastic, a thoroughly deserved pat-on-the-back event in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Centre of St Hilda’s College. The centre has a distressingly sports centre-like vibe, all modern brutalist bare brickwork and large plate glass windows. Thankfully it lacks the smell of chlorine, sweat and fear and instead has a rather nice, cosy auditorium for thepanel sessions. The stage includes a small little statuette of du Pré + cello which I wanted to have on the panel sessions too, but was over-ruled.
Chaired by Juliet McKenna, “Politics and Genre – fantasy conservatism vs SF radicals” started (once Juliet had explained what it meant) with everyone rightly disagreeing with the perceived trope of “sf = cutting edge and incisive, fantasy = cosy”, citing counter-examples, and then getting into the realities of how politics, economics and other real-world factors would be in various imagined worlds. En route discussion touched on the infinity slappability of the ever-whinging Starbuck, having separate kitchens for the winter and summer in parts of Canada, and the different points at which The Phantom Menace really lost it for various viewers. (For me: the bit where Liam Neeson’s Konky Jonky or whatever he’s called carefully explains to Anakin and his mum that even though he is a very powerful Jedi Knight and can do just about anything he likes, he can only take Anakin with him and his mum will have to stay behind as a slave because that’s the only way the plot will work … and they both calmly accept this.)
“Reflections on a life in writing” was meant to be me effortlessly moderating by pointing Chaz Brenchley, Liz Williams, Geoff Ryman and Ian Watson at the audience, pressing the “go” button and letting them entertain us with anecdotes of their writing careers. It was a bit harder than that because, again, no one was quite sure what the session title meant, but the audience seemed to be entertained anyway. Earlier, Kari Spelling had shared the fact that a reviewer once said her characterisation wasn’t as good as Mercedes Lackey’s. Now I was on stage I could trump this with the Amazon review that said the characterisation of His Majesty’s Starship isn’t as good as Rama II‘s. The audience’s resident IP barrister offered to put me in touch with a few defamation experts that he knows.
So, good fun, the required level of silliness, seeing old faces, putting old names to new ones, and books to buy. And may I mention, cudos to the Cape of Good Hope pub on the corner of Cowley and Iffley Road for managing to serve the 50-odd guests who turned up without warning, mostly within the allocated 90 minute lunch break.