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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (congressus ipsissimus)

Looking Backward From The Year 2012

As I write this, we are just over a week away from New Zealand's 33rd National Science Fiction Convention. I have been asked to be on some panels to discuss the highs and lows of the conventions that I have attended in the past.

Actually, I'm not at all sure that I can tell the difference between the good bits and the bad bits. I don't think I've ever been to a convention that I didn't enjoy in some way, shape or form. But some people's high spots are other people's bad memories, and some stories are definitely in dubious taste. Let's just see where the memories take me...

I first started going to conventions in England in the 1970s. The most immediate impression they made on me was that here were people whose books I'd been reading for years, and they were ordinary people, just like you and me. I was mildly disappointed to find that Brian Aldiss didn't have two heads – I'd always assumed that such a brilliant writer must have had more brains than the average, and surely he'd need somewhere to keep them, wouldn't he? But it was encouraging to learn that he liked his beer and that, despite the lack of a second head, he was always witty and insightful.

James Blish, waspish and scholarly, already in the grip of the illness that would kill him a couple of years after we first met, was unfailingly charming. He was a literary polymath, interested in everything and he too was never far from a pint of beer.

Harry Harrison, striding up and down the stage and yammering into a microphone:

"I want to talk about two things. Something that interests you – sex! And something that interests me – my new book!"

refreshed his speaking voice with sips of beer. I began to spot a trend.

John Brunner, urbane, sophisticated and opinionated would drive his audiences to screaming fury as he said outrageous things with a supercilious sneer. It was years before I realised that he was doing it deliberately. He took great delight in winding people up.

I met Ken Bulmer, the man of a thousand pseudonyms. Fortunately he left a few spare ones lying around for John Brosnan to use. Between them they wrote almost every bit of pulp fiction that was published in England in the 1970s. Someone once asked Bulmer why he chose to write under the silly and very unconvincing name of Tully Zetford.

"Because I was completely fed up with Roger Zelazny always being at the bottom of every alphabetical author list," he said. "I thought somebody else deserved a turn."

Ken Bulmer told us a funny story. He'd just got married and he and his new wife were spending their honeymoon at a friend's cottage somewhere deep in the English countryside. The cottage was charming and picturesque and their host was warm and welcoming. He showed them to their room. They dumped their suitcases onto the bed to start unpacking, and they immediately discovered that the bed squeaked very loudly. Ken had a brilliant idea which he whispered to his wife. She giggled and agreed.

And so they spent their wedding night taking it in turn to jump rhythmically up and down on the bed. Slow, slow. Quick! Quick! Slow...

When one got tired, the other took over. Hour after squeaky hour. At breakfast the next day, his host shook Bulmer's hand admiringly.

I met Anne McCaffrey in a lift. She was painted green from head to toe. James Blish had written a play which was being staged as a convention highlight. Anne was cast as a witch and she was anxious to do a good job. As the lift descended, she practised cackling. She was extremely good at it.

At various conventions, random members of The Deep Fix, Michael Moorcock's backing band, would play for us. Usually without Michael Moorcock, who'd largely given up coming to conventions. But sometimes he turned up and once he autographed a book for me. He scribbled his name on the title page and then he drew a cartoon of a rather dyspeptic looking chicken.

"What's that?" I asked.

"It's a moor cock!" he said, nearly laughing himself into a seizure.

But the highlight of every British convention in the 1970s was Bob Shaw's Serious Scientific Talk. About half an hour before Bob was due to speak, the bars would begin to empty and everybody would crowd into the room hoping for a good seat. Bob, completely stone faced, would read from a prepared speech in his soft, lilting Irish voice. The speeches were always full of utterly demented science, excruciating puns and running gags that just went on and on. And when you were sure the gags couldn't run any further, he'd force them to take one more step. And then another. And another.

It was very important to be sitting down for Bob's Serious Scientific Talks. Those people who were too late for a seat were in grave danger of falling over as they lost control of their motor functions from laughing too much. I have seen people literally sobbing with laughter at Bob's presentations, so weak with hysteria that it was a good five minutes after the talk ended before they were able to leave their seats in search of a reviving beer or three. And all through his presentation, Bob's face never once slipped. Indeed, he usually managed to look puzzled, even slightly annoyed that these people were taking his serious scientific ideas so lightly...

"I had a terrible hangover from all the room parties I attended last night," he said, opening one of his talks. "But one of the convention committee brought me a guaranteed cure from the chemist's shop next door to the hotel. It's a local anaesthetic..."

At one convention, my friend Howard decided that he would spend the entire four days both completely drunk and wide awake.

"Sleeping", he declared, "is not an option."

None of us could persuade him that these were mutually incompatible ambitions.

"No – it's all quite logical," he said. "Since I won't need a hotel room to sleep in, I'll have heaps of money left to spend on beer."

By the third day of the convention, he was more than a little the worse for wear, noticeably fraying around the edges. We went to a room party where he saw a slim young man sitting alone by a window. He staggered over and introduced himself. "Hello, I'm Howard," he said. "And you look just like Donny Osmond!"

Then he opened the window and vomited copiously out into the street.

The young man seemed most impressed by this conversational gambit and he and Howard were soon fast friends. He spent the rest of the convention with us and we discovered that he was the son of a writer called Edmund Cooper. Cooper is largely forgotten these days. He died in 1982 and his books are all out of print, but at the time of which we speak, he enjoyed a modest reputation. I was very fond of Cooper's books, and I had long been hoping to meet him at some convention or other, but I never did. He was quite reclusive. He didn't like the gross immaturity of the fan community very much, and so he never came to conventions.

However Howard's unique social skills opened up a private channel of communication with Edmund Cooper for us, and as a direct result of the wonderful time his son had at the convention with us, Cooper agreed to come and give a talk to the Nottingham Science Fiction group that Howard and I both ran. He proved to be a fantastic speaker – he was loud, opinionated and argumentative and we all had lots of fun. It was one of our most successful meetings ever.

My favourite of Cooper's novels is Kronk, which was also published under the title Son Of Kronk. It turned out to be Cooper's favourite novel as well. He autographed a copy for me. In it he wrote:

For Alan, who actually bought it!
In this one I worked out all my pet hates.

Sometimes low moments can lead on to good things.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a book I have long avoided reading, mainly on the basis of the terribly twee title. That turns out to have been a huge mistake. It has 1,088 five star reviews on Amazon and it deserves every single one of them.

The GL And PPPS is an epistolary novel set in the late 1940s. England is slowly recovering from the devastation of the second world war. Juliet is a Londoner who has had some success writing a humorous newspaper column. She is now at a bit of a loose end and wants to write a book. She is casting around for a subject. By chance, she begins a correspondence with a group of people on the island of Guernsey. During the war, these people founded the eponymous society. They used books and the companionship to be found in literary discussions to help them get through the hard times they were suffering under the German occupation of their island. Juliet determines to tell their story and eventually she travels to Guernsey to meet these people face to face.

We learn about their dramatic and tragic lives under the German occupation through the filter of Juliet's letters. She writes in a breezily amusing style but nevertheless she is extremely moved by the islanders' stories, albeit in a very British, stiff-upper-lip manner, for many of those stories have a sad ending.

The authors of The GL And PPPS are both American. Nevertheless they have captured the essence of English humour, irony and understatement absolutely perfectly. By turns shocking, sad and hilarious, this utterly charming and deeply moving book is quite, quite brilliant.

Having enjoyed Stephen Leather's Dennis Wheatley-esque horror novels (see last month's column) I thought I'd give his more mainstream thrillers a try. Again he came up trumps. He's written a series of novels about an undercover cop called Dan Shepherd – there are eight books so far, with the promise of more to come. They are probably best read in order since they tell an on-going story and later books definitely contain spoilers for the earlier works.

Essentially Shepherd's job is simple. He infiltrates the bad guy's organisation, gathers the evidence and reports back to his bosses. By the time the police swoop down, he is generally long gone; though sometimes this last detail backfires on him a bit...

The bad guys are the usual mixture of terrorists, drug smugglers and similar nasty men. The novels are certainly formulaic; how could they not be with that basic structure? But Dan Shepherd is not your typical one dimensional action man. He has a family and a conscience and he is very well aware of the moral ambiguity of some of the things that he has to do. These books are not shallow action-fests, they are thoughtful novels which clearly show how hard it is to tell the good guys from the bad. There isn't any real black and white in Dan Shepherd's universe. There's just a lot of grey.

Stephen Leather writes damn good books.

Joe Lansdale is a curious writer. He's a self-confessed aficionado of pulp. He's written steampunk and horror, zombie westerns, science fiction, thrillers, and a Tarzan novel. His books are generally populated by grotesques and he has an unholy fascination with nasty things. He's also often very funny indeed. And once in a while, when the mood takes him, he commits literature.

Edge Of Dark Water is a deliberate homage to Mark Twain by way of Stephen King. Like many of Lansdale's novels, it's set in East Texas. These are the depression years. May Lynn dreams of escaping her drunk and abusive father by travelling to Hollywood to become a star. But her dreams are cut cruelly short. She is murdered, strapped to a Singer sewing machine and sunk in the Sabine river. Her friends Sue Ellen, Terry and Jinx are naturally heartbroken.

After May Lynn's funeral, Sue Ellen discovers a cache of money that May Lynn's no-good, bank robbing brother had secreted before he died. The friends decide to exhume May Lynn's body, cremate her and take her ashes to Hollywood. The money will be their means of escape from the poverty of their lives.

But other people have other ideas and Sue Ellen, Terry, Jinx and Sue Ellen's mother find themselves on the run from assorted relatives and miscellaneous bad guys, all of whom have murderous intent. They steal a raft and sail off down the Sabine river.

Along the way they face many life-threatening disasters, some natural and some human – though it's hard to tell which of these categories the character called Skunk belongs in. Skunk has been hired by Sue Ellen's uncle to put an end to them all and chop their hands off. Sue Ellen's uncle bears grudges.

The novel confronts issues of life and death face to face. Mortality and morality are inextricably intertwined. Like Mark Twain before him, Lansdale uses the journey along the river as an allegory of the journey through life. Eventually, broken and scarred both physically and emotionally, they arrive at journey's end, the small town of Gladewater. Their immediate problems are over. They have learned a lot about each other on the journey. Every one of them has seen the dark places in each other's soul. Their friendship may not survive that knowledge.

That's a lot of baggage for one book to carry. In less skilful hands this novel could easily have been turgid and overblown. But this is Joe Lansdale. The novel is full of gorgeously gruesome scenes; it is replete with his characteristic menagerie of grotesqueries and full of much very dark humour. It's probably the best thing he has ever written.

The Western genre has largely fallen out of fashion. Television and the cinema have forsaken it and novelists largely ignore it. But every so often someone remembers this neglected genre, revisits it and does something stunning with it. Larry McMurtry did it with Lonesome Dove and now Michael McGarrity has done the same thing with Hard Country.

The novel is set in Texas and New Mexico between the years 1875 and 1918. Two terrible wars, the American War between the States and the horror of World War One, are the bookends that hold the story upright.

The novel begins with the death of John Kerney's wife in childbirth. The baby survives. John names him Patrick. He takes the child to his brother's ranch, where he finds that both his brother and nephew have died violent deaths. Circumstances force John to leave Patrick in the care of his dead brother's widow.

John Kerney struggles to make a living as he drifts through the sometimes tranquil and sometimes very violent events that shaped the birth of the territory of New Mexico. Eventually he is reunited with Patrick, but Patrick fights settling in and turns his rage and bitterness on those closest to him alienating his father and, later, his wife and children.

But the real hero of the book is the western territory itself. It is dangerous, beautiful and unforgiving. Fortunes can be made and lives can be lost. Don't let yourself get emotionally involved with any of the characters; they might not be there on the next page. The times were hard and harsh and so were the people. I stayed up until 3.00am in order to finish reading this book. Yes – it really is that good.

By the early 1980s I was living in New Zealand and I helped with the organisation of some conventions here. The first one with which I was closely involved had Harlan Ellison as the guest of honour. I was a little worried about this for Harlan had the reputation of being difficult to get on with. Almost everyone who met him had some sort of Harlan Ellison horror story to tell.

Anyway, the great day arrived and we met Harlan at the airport and brought him to the hotel where he would be staying. Almost his first words to us were:

"I'm the guest of honour – make sure to use me!"

And he meant every word of it. He was very conscious that a guest of honour can make or break a convention. He was enormously flattered to have been asked to come to the bottom of the world and he was determined that this convention was going to be a success. He insisted on being involved in absolutely everything that was going on. He made himself very visible and very approachable. I found him to be pleasant, polite and charming. I have no Harlan Ellison horror stories to tell.

But I do have a Harlan Ellison story.

The con committee took him out to dinner. We had a wonderful time. The food was beautifully cooked and impeccably served, the conversation flowed, a good time was had by all. As we left the restaurant and started wandering back to the hotel Harlan said, "That was a truly superb meal. I hope you left a good tip."

"No," I said. "We didn't leave a tip at all. We don't tip in New Zealand."

"Oh my God!" Harlan was horrified. "You didn't leave a tip!"

He raced back into the restaurant and started handing out fistfuls of money to any staff member who wandered into view. "Fantastic meal, thank you. Thank you so much."

I have no idea how much money he gave in tips, but it definitely wasn't a small amount. I won't hear a bad word said about Harlan. He was a joy and a delight.

Actually I think all convention guests are good guests. I don't think we've ever had a disappointing guest though some have certainly had their idiosyncrasies.

One charming and delightful guest insisted on being supplied with prostitutes and marijuana. Once the committee had arranged that to his satisfaction, the rest of the convention went fantastically well.

Another guest claimed that he was using the trip as a tax write off. He was researching a novel, part of which would be set in New Zealand. He asked us lots of questions and took copious notes so that he would have something to show the tax department when it came time to fill in his return. I'm sure he got a huge tax refund from his notes. What a shame he didn't use any of them in the book that he wrote. The New Zealand sequences in it were thoroughly unconvincing.

Alan Dean Foster also wrote a novel set in New Zealand. It's called Maori and it's about the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886. It's a brilliant novel which I recommend unreservedly. Foster had spent his honeymoon in New Zealand and he fell in love with the country. The novel was a direct result of what he learned during the time he spent here, and there's no doubt that he did his homework well.

He was absolutely thrilled to be asked back many years later as a guest of honour at a convention. And he enjoyed himself just as much the second time around. It goes without saying that he proved to be a perfectly wonderful guest.

Joe Haldeman has been a guest of honour at three New Zealand conventions. At two of those conventions I was the corresponding fan guest of honour, so between the both of us we had the convention sewn up.

Joe and his wife Gay have a huge number of friends in New Zealand and it was very noticeable that at the last convention where he was a guest many people who had not been to a New Zealand convention for years and years made a special point of coming just to see Joe and Gay again.

In 1995 Roger Zelazny and Vonda McIntyre were joint guests of honour. And true to form, they were wonderful guests. Accompanying Roger was Jane Lindskold, then just starting out on her writing career. She won the heart of everyone she met. We always claimed that she was our special, secret guest of honour. She has since had a successful career as a science fiction and fantasy novelist, and we are all enormously proud of her.

Jane and I have kept in touch, and over the last year we have written a book together. So from a purely personal point of view, I have to say that the Norman ConQuest of 1995 was the best ever New Zealand convention.

Conventions have high points and they have low points and sometimes those points coincide. The masquerade at one British convention is a perfect example. The high point was a woman who was dressed as the viewpoint character from Robert Silverberg's novella Nightwings. She was stark naked, apart from her wings, and she was the most beautiful person I have ever seen in my life. The whole room reverberated to the distinctive sound of jaws dropping thunk! to the floor. She got huge ovation, and she won every prize in sight.

And then came the low point. Brian Burgess came on stage. Brian was an English fan who had been coming to conventions for years. He always had a secret supply of pork pies and milk which he sold at outrageous prices to desperate, starving fans in the small hours of the morning. Many a fannish life has been saved with pork pies and milk at 4.00am. Everybody knew Brian. He was an institution.

Brian was a large and wobbly man and he too came on stage (almost) stark naked. He was wearing only shattered underpants and a ray gun. He stomped furiously around the stage, waving his ray gun and shouting incomprehensible threats in lower Middle-Martian, jowls and belly undulating in unison. Only sheer willpower kept the remains of his underpants in place. The judges awarded him a special prize for Skimpiest Costume Ever.

Of course the fans are the life and soul of any convention. And just as conventions succeed or fail with the guest of honour so too they succeed or fail with the behaviour of the fans...

Once there was a room party, and in the small hours of the morning it dawned on someone that all the married men in New Zealand fandom were together in the same room. It was quite clear what had to happen next. A new world record needed to be set.

"Let's see if we can get all the married men in fandom peeing simultaneously into one toilet bowl."

This required much logistical organisation. The toilets in hotel rooms are not noted for their wide open spaces, and just getting that number of men into the room was fraught with difficulty. But somehow we managed. Our next problem soon became clear. How could we aim accurately when we were so crowded? Even under the best of circumstances, men are notoriously inaccurate, and these circumstances were not of the best.

An English actress once remarked on Michael Parkinson's television chat show that she was constantly amazed at how men ever managed to get women pregnant. After all, she pointed out, toilet bowls are quite large comparatively speaking. And if a man can't hit a hole that big with the light on and both hands free...

So there we all were, jammed together around the toilet bowl, barely able to move.

"Perhaps we should have had our willies fitted with gun-sights before we started this," I suggested. There was much nodding of heads. Why hadn't we thought of that first? Oh well – in for a penny, in for a dollar.

"On the count of three..."

We all nodded agreement.


There was the sound of much unzipping and then a new world record was set. It remains unbeaten to this day. Surely that's something to be proud of?

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society Dial Press
Stephen Leather Hard Landing Hodder and Stoughton
Stephen Leather Soft Target Hodder and Stoughton
Stephen Leather Cold Kill Hodder and Stoughton
Stephen Leather Hot Blood Hodder and Stoughton
Stephen Leather Dead Men Hodder and Stoughton
Stephen Leather Live Fire Hodder and Stoughton
Stephen Leather Rough Justice Hodder and Stoughton
Stephen Leather Fair Game Hodder and Stoughton
Joe R. Lansdale Edge Of Dark Water Mulholland Books
Michael McGarrity Hard Country Dutton
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