Monday, 30 October 2017

I don’t get out much, but when I do… I drink and I learn things


Reflections on an October trip to Bristol and Bristolcon2017

Counting back the fantasy related gatherings and events that I have attended, it only just used up the fingers of one hand.
  • The Grim Gathering in London in August 2014,
  • The Grim Gathering in Bristol in April 2015,
  • Bristolcon in September 2015
  • Bristolcon in October 2016
  • Bristolcon in October 2017

However, like successive books in a much loved fantasy series, these experiences seem to be getting progressively bigger and better. There is a vibrant and growing online community of fantasy fans who are seizing the opportunity to meet in person in convivial surroundings. Those who miss out one year enviously watch and comment on events unfolding through social media with one hand, while booking tickets for the next year’s event with the other.

There is nothing quite like meeting people in person for fleshing out the typed comments and avatar images of social media with actual faces, anecdotes and even accents.

The Bristolcon team did another excellent job of setting up a cosy but intriguing one day convention.  I have not yet been to Worldcon, but I have gathered that it can be a sprawl of size, variety and people in which individuals can get lost in a crowd of mingled conference goers and general public. Bristolcon with its relatively compact Hilton Doubletrees venue and adjacent generous hotel bar space, has instead a wonderfully intimate atmosphere.

Over the course of three days and two nights I got to attend panel discussions, a fringe event at Waterstones, try out local restaurants in full fantasy geek/nerd company, spend a lot of time with some wonderfully entertaining and generous people and even visit my local favourite author for tea!

So what are my key takeaways from Bristol (and by that I mean learning points, not the many pizzas – great though they were - that Kareem ordered from the long suffering local emporia)?

What have I learned from Bristolcon?


Reasons to be cheerful about science, Sci-Fi and Fantasy?

The panel about how the upcoming scientific and world challenges and advances may influence fantasy/science fiction got quite bleak quite quickly. The authors found lots of potential for post-apocalyptic realities on which future writers could draw (scratching their books out on cave walls beneath the shadow of a nuclear winter.)   GRMatthews' geography background dragged him into a perspective of pessimism with his glaciers always seeming to be half full. However, between them the panel identified the self-driving canoe as the not-yet-invented-but soon-to-become-essential item.  You heard it here first, invest in those startups now.

Info dumps may not be all bad.

The panel on info-dumps decided they had their place in fantasy provided they were kept sufficiently compact and perfectly formed. Though according to Peter Newman, authors may lavish their greatest subtle info-dumping technique on the first book in a series and then becoming more functional at a stage where the author feels secure in the loyalty of their readers. Perhaps this is in the same way that people doll themselves up to the nines for a first date, and yet relax into jeans and sweatpants a few dates down the line.

Bristolcon again welcomed many visitors from overseas, travelling distances great and small. Dyrk, Petros, Marielle, Julia, Andreas, Sadir and Rita may have experienced a certain bafflement at being thrown into the miniature portrait of cultural variety that is the United Kingdom.  Their experiences suggest that infodumps may not be just be a (hopefully well-judged) staple of fantasy – but an essential tool in the survival kit for real life tourists. A means to answer those essential questions; What is black pudding? How can you wash your hands without a mixer tap? Which side of the car should a passenger try and get into? and Why did 1.00 am happen twice on Sunday morning?  The panel's final advice from Juliet McKenna was that writers should travel widely and – as they do so – “notice what they notice” if they want to get know what a traveller in fantasy land might need to pick up on

Not all partners have the stamina for fantasy.

One trend in Bristolcon seemed to be that a number of partners who made it to the event last year, did not return for a second time. Andreas, Julia Kitvaria-Sarene’s husband is an honourable exception. He not only returned for a second year but heroically videoed some of the later bar shenanigans (past 5 in the morning) for the benefit of (future generations’ entertainment/personal blackmail purposes/the police investigation)*
*delete which ever does not apply.  

One of my favourite films is “Truly, Madly, Deeply” starring Juliet Stevenson as the desperately bereaved girlfriend who is benignly haunted by Alan Rickman as the ghost of her dead boyfriend. The companionable haunting enables her to come to terms with grief, to realise that the boyfriend has moved on and to do the same herself.  But a key scene occurs when Rickman starts bringing his fellow ghosts back to their house to have parties, watch films, and generally hang out, while a bemused Stevenson exclaims from the bath “What, there are dead people in my living room?”

In some ways that community of fantasy writers and readers reminds me of Rickman and his new-found friends – which is not say that we are all dead – just that there is a fellowship there that not all partners can understand, enjoy or come to terms with. But they also serve who only stay at home and wait, so those partners who let us all get away by ourselves deserve our thanks for their (slightly mystified) indulgence.

Other takeaways


  • That Julia gives the best presents, although even booksellers occasionally have to deal with assholes in their working life. It does sadden me that anybody with enough regard for books to go into a bookshop in the first place could be a git when they get there.
  • That Kareem’s anecdotes once heard can never be unheard and sharing the experience doesn’t lessen the pain, no matter how often Graham Austin-King tries it.
  • That Ed Macdonald has an alarmingly good theoretical grasp of how to fend off knife attacks and Anna Stephens knows how to make the assailant stab himself with his own knife. I have to say the technique worked perfectly when I used it a dream on Saturday morning.  Running away, however, always seems the safest option, particularly if you are with a friend who cannot run quite as fast as you.
  • That RB Watkinson won the prize (I think) for getting the most out of Bristolcon by virtue of having had the least total hours slept over the course of the weekend.
  • That Dominick Murray knows more about turtles than any man (or woman) should.
  • That hotel night-managers are wonderfully patient and understanding people.
  • That my efforts at self-promotion should probably have meant more than mentioning to a couple of people in the bar that Lady of the Helm was free on Amazon for the whole three days of Bristolcon related events.
  • That making your excellent and very reasonably priced editor (albeit an increasingly busy editor) cry with your writing (or weep as she verbally edited it for me) is not actually a bad thing. As Gandalf put it “I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”  Though at various points in the weekend we seemed to be seeing more @halfcutharp than @halfstrungharp.     
  • That I am very grateful to Mark Lawrence for his blog posts about Bristolcon past, for the competitions based on his writing and his sponsorship of SPFBO. This has done so much to bring together people who would otherwise never even have known each other existed, let alone been energised enough to descend on Bristol to meet in person. I know Kareem Mahfouz because I saw a picture of his chest hair shaved to spell out Prince of Fools at the same time that I had mown the grass in my garden to spell out the same title. I know Laura M Hughes because she entered a piece of entertaining flash fiction in a Thatthornguy competition that Agnes Mezsaros kindly invited me to judge.  I am sure many others have similar tales of chance Lawrencian connections.
  • That Celyn Lawrence has the best cheeky smile and surely the reddest hair in Bristol. (All the best fantasy heroines have red hair, or at least so says the author of Lady of the Helm.)  That Celyn means holly in welsh and is pronounced ke-lin not kay-lin and definitely not seline. 


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