Strange But True
"It was fate that had brought them to Swindon;
Only British Rail could get them out."
I'd not been to a Dr Who convention for a couple of years, the combination
of re-run videos and tedious, embarrassing panels just proving too much for
my tender sensibilities. More general SF cons, yes, few more entertaining and
enjoyable than the Eastercons, but I doubted that I was really ready to mix
once again with “Doctor Who fans”. Especially after the Fan Generator
in issue four. And yet, and yet ... I could not, in my heart of hearts, deny
that, in spirit at least, I had much in common with these poor souls I callously
deride as ‘nerds’, ‘prats’ and worse. I may pretend
to aspire to greater things, but the sorry truth of the matter is that, in all
honesty, I too am a Doctor Who fan.
There, I've taken the first step, I've admitted it. (The first cut won't hurt
at all.) But the next stage of the treatment was harder. Integration into the
'fan network', that underground system of contacts that infiltrates every corner
of our sorry society like an infestation, always just below the surface, never
quite hidden completely from view. If I could brave the strangeness (never any
charm) of this underworld then maybe I could come to terms with my affliction.
(The second only makes you wonder.) I placed a furtive advertisement in the
columns of one of the seedier magazines (never available over the counter, mail
order only, plain wrapper of course) and within weeks formed a Local Group.
An encounter group in which sufferers could confess and begin to come to terms
with the problem. Once I'd taken that step it was easy. Yes, this sub-life was
full of weirdness in all its many forms, but I could live with that. I was well
on the way to recovery; release would be easy with so many others to take the
piss out of. And now all I needed for full reintegration into normal society,
exorcism of the Whovian spirit, was convention to remind me of what it was that
I had been and wanted to escape. (The third will have you on your knees.) Besides,
I wanted a good piss-up.
And where better than Swindon. Where else would you so need to drown your sorrows
than that lino on the M4 corridor, where commercialism meets stark reality in
a crumpled grey mess? And as everybody I knew happened to be going to the Wiltshire
Hotel on the 25th of August, then why not? Honeycomb, I decided, would be where
I began my rehabilitation.
As my parents happened to be going down to Cornwall on holiday that particular
Friday, it seemed only appropriate, not to mention cheaper, to scrounge a lift.
Which is why lan (Levy, of course) and I got up at half past four (a-frigging-m)
for a convention which officially started at 9.30 the next day.
The closest to Swindon that the holiday party were venturing was Gloucester,
some thirty-five miles away. Due to exquisite timing we were deposited outside
Gloucester station an hour and a half before the next train south, and were
therefore given a stark choice between squatting on the platform in the wind
or exploring the town. We had, after all, never been to Gloucester before, so
the decision was practically already made. Besides, there might be a decent
record shop somewhere.
Some towns consist of nothing but shoe shops - mainly those near wherever it
is that Douglas Adams lives. Others are composed almost entirely of The Edinburgh
Woollen Mill (I think we all know which I have in mind here). And some, like
Gloucester, have record shops like most places have parking meters. Good record
shops, bad record shops, large multiple chains and small independent second-hand
flea-pits, Gloucester had them all. And of course, we just had to try them all,
in the vain hope of an incredible bargain. lan found the Grateful Dead CD he'd
been looking for, but all I got was terribly pissed off at finding an extremely
rare twelve inch for a third of the price I'd paid for it last week.
We keep moving, deeper into what we hoped would be the city centre, only to
find more record shops, a few suburban streets, and little sign of life.
"What a hole."
"A city with no heart."
"Like a polo."
"Yeah, the polo of cities - Gloucester."
Stopping off at a WH Smiths to get a copy of Alice in Wonderland in the vain
hope of understanding the lyrics to 'White Rabbit', we eventually find our way
back to the station. Controlled hysterics at a train spotter on the platform,
but what do the other passengers make of us?
Fifty minutes later and we're in Swindon, desperately wishing we weren't. The
station, we decide (we hope), cannot be taken as an accurate indicator of the
true character of the town. Stirling, for instance, is a veritable hell-hole,
but its station is the epitome of twenties' Metroland architecture. And besides,
Swindon has a reputation as a railway town. Things must improve.
It is only once we emerge blinking into the daylight and face the grey skyline
that I remember Swindon's one other claim to fame. It is, a recent feature by
the Guardian's architectural correspondent reminded us, an icon of post-modernism.
In realspeak this translates as acre upon acre of glass, framed only by subtle
luminous red and blue plastics. Twenty times a dozen storeys high, thrusting
into the soggy, cinereous sky like so many ... tall thrusting buildings. The
net result is distinctly depressing, and lan and I decide that if Swindon is
an icon of post-modernism, then we are most assuredly iconoclasts.
Dodging the traffic and wandering through one of the interminable shopping
centres (labelled "Bus Station" on my handy pocket map supplied by
the hotel), we eventually find a large brick-and-concrete hulk on a corner.
"I've got a nasty feeling about this."
"Can't be the Wiltshire - by all accounts it's a really plush hotel."
It is, of course, the Wiltshire. The aged chrome sign on the side confirms
as much. Never mind, it must be better inside.
And it is. Small, cosy, but undoubtedly plush. Hateful memories of past Panopticons
and their luxurious student accommodation (but does anyone remember the delights
of UMIST?) are immediately banished. We could spend a weekend here, no problem.
Well, we're here. It's quarter to twelve, and the committee aren't even due
to arrive til two. What to do? lan has the bright idea of dumping our weighty
bags at the hotel reception (we omit to mention that we're not actually paying
guests) and we adjourn to a convenient wall outside. Ever resourceful, lan produces
from some voluminous fold in his coat a bottle of Liebfraumilch; I knew he wouldn't
let me down. Sitting cross-legged upon what turns out to be the outer wall of
the Wiltshire Constabulary Headquarters (and we saw a very dubious character
being frog-marched past in an arm-lock by a burly Wiltshire Constable), we proceed
to demolish what lan had left of the elixir. Finally, after an age of threatening
swirls and menacing flourishes, the heavens open and at last we feel that the
weekend has begun. Few experiences can compare with the impact of cool water
on the brow and warm alcohol on the throat.
Whilst thus seated we spot our first fan of the weekend, surreptitiously making
her way into the hotel. Much discussion follows as to whether she looks like
a nerd or a prat (all fans can be divided into these two groups), but we later
find she's one of those running the convention, and so decide on 'mug'.
I should have known it would be a mistake, but I had to tell lan about Mescal,
didn't i? Mescal (or Mezcal, take your pick) is distilled from the Agave cactus,
source, so the chemists tell me, of mescalin, vital ingredient of you-know-what.
Of course, lan's eyes light up.
"And it's legal?"
"Totally. It's not hallucinogenic or anything -" The gleam fades
"- except for the worm at the bottom."
The manic intensity returns. Like a fool I relate the concept behind the pickled
worm embalmed at the bottom of every bottle; once you've drunk the drink you
consume the worm, and wait for fireworks behind your eyes. Now, Ian decides,
we're talking. Discarding the empty Liebfraumilch outside the Wiltshire, we
venture inwards to the town centre.
The quest is a failure. To our surprise, and fair disappointment, Swindon town
centre has but one off-licence, a branch of the Victoria Wine Company staffed
by a grotesque woman, more at home at Dotheboys Hall than in everyday contact
with the general public, far less a thirsty student and his hippy friend. Not
only does she refuse to believe in the existence of our legendary brew, she
also manages to take an instant dislike to us, which is a shame as we are destined
to become better acquainted as the weekend progresses.
After forty minutes wandering round the maze of Escher-like constructs that
pass for Swindon's shopping malls (it would have been no surprise to meet a
party of giant ants out for their afternoon perambulation), we notice a sign
pointing us toward the Tourist Information Centre. We are, we argue, tourists,
and what we want, by hook or by crook, is information. We make for the centre.
ian shambles up to the woman behind the desk, his eyes aflame, limbs sprawling
behind him. Not surprisingly, she looks apprehensive, but she's faced worse.
"Like, do you know somewhere ... a ... place ... "
"Off-licence," I interject helpfully,
" ... yeah, off-licence ... where we could, like, er, get hold of some
Mescal?" "Mescal?" Her expression is vaguely amused. lan stares
at her intensely, eyes wide. He's serious: this is serious.
"M-E-S-C-A-L. Mescal. Sort of orange."
"With a worm in the bottom."
" ... oh wow, yeah, the worm ... very important the worm." "Mexican."
"Or Texan. Something like that." What did she do to deserve us?
The woman tries ringing round the suburban off-licences, but without success.
Augustus Barnett had four bottles, but that very afternoon some goon had bought
the lot - so if we were to see a man floating over the roof of the Wiltshire
tonight, we know what he's been drinking. Thanking the nice lady for her trouble,
and apologising for lan's by-now psychotic manner (over an hour without a drink
and he's getting dangerous), we take our leave.
Unfortunately just beneath the Tourist Information office we find a rather
quaint 'trendy' shop called (I think) Rhapsody. lan is captivated by the gruesome
collection of lurid sixties kipper ties (and ends up buying one to wear as a
head-band for the rest of the weekend) whilst I feign indifference as I weigh
up just how much of a prat I'd look in a waistcoat. Later, having seen Berriman,
I realise just how sensible my eventual decision was.
What I do end up getting, however, is an appalling green canvas jacket from
Oxfam which has just the required degree of seediness for a weekend of debauchery
and general loutishness. Such a shame I left my sleeveless t-shirt at home.
lan assures me it's most fetching, but I'm not entirely sure how far I'd trust
his sartorial judgement, dressed as he is in an-almost-but-not-wholly-out-of-place
M&S green blazer adorned with a communist Red Star and ying/yang symbol.
Peace be with you, brother.
It's a typical August day: the skies are grey, the atmosphere oppressive, and
the temperature is creeping into the eighties. Naturally, Wimpy are out of every
kind of drink, save for orange juice. Thank god for Liebfraumilch; not done
in the best circles, but then the best circles don't eat in Wimpy.
I would be grateful if any native of Swindon could tell me exactly how many
branches of Our Price there are. On our travels we see at least three, but as
they all appear identical we can't be entirely sure that it isn't the same one;
but we never retraced our tracks. Perhaps, like the Castrovalvan pharmacy, it
may be approached from many different routes. In fact, the more I think about
it, the more Swindon comes to resemble an Escherian nightmare, with repeating
loops, nested shopping malls, and certain aspects, in particular branches of
the TSB, totally independent, unconnected and inaccessible to the rest of the
city. Time, I think, to retreat to the hotel.
So, it's 2.30, the committee still haven't shown up, and Jackie, whose room
I'm meant to be sharing, isn't due to stagger out of her luxury coach from London
for another hour and a half. And the bar won't be open till five. Time for a
quick slob in the reception. We install ourselves in the comfy chairs by the
entrance and wait. Much innocent pleasure derived from identifying itinerant
fans and labelling them accordingly. And of course, the essential check of the
registration list: sighs of relief all round - no Blue Stripe, no Cybertoon.
As we will later find out, there's no need of either, but more of this later.
And then The Face At The Window.
It is, of course, Berriman, gurning with disarming ease in our direction.
One day the wind'll change, but until then we'll have to put up with his 'natural'
features. The legendary scourge of fandom enters and proceeds to dispense insults
with gay abandon. This is fine, we can take this (they are, after all, mostly
true), but it rankles a bit that we can't think up an insult to compete with
his most offensive item of apparel, that incredible waistcoat. He confesses
that he was slightly wary of wearing it after the 'gentle jibe' in FHE 4, but
I didn't mean him, did I? Of course not lan, of course not.
For some unremembered reason, not that we're complaining, Berriman temporarily
buggers off, probably to check in at his B&B. It is thus that he is absent
when one of his many disreputable cronies appears, the Beast of Sellafield himself,
Jamie Woolley. (Please tell me I've got this right, Jamie. Don't let me down
by telling me that you didn't appear until Saturday. My confidence in my failing
memory is at an all time low, so for the purposes of reality Jamie Was There
On Friday.) Now, Jamie and I have been corresponding for the best part of two
years, but until this historic moment have never met. Incredibly, we recognise
each other instantly, both from our mutual friend Berriman's description. This
is worrying, for at the time I was sitting down, and as far as I'm aware I have
no real distinguishing characteristics other than my (not inconsiderable) height.
Okay, okay, settle down, stop sniggering. If you can think of an accurate physical
description of me in less than, say, ten words keep it to yourself, okay? I
Don't Want To Know.
Jamie is probably the closest to a normal friend that Berriman has got (he
may also be the closest to a friend that the Social Misfit has, but who am I
to judge?), and turns out to be as utterly likeable in the flash as he is in
the ink/on the wire, However, he hardly endears himself to me by confessing
that I'm not nearly as witty and erudite in real life as I am on the page, Gee
thanks Jamie, I love you too.
What the episode neatly fails to illustrate is the problems inherent in meeting
'pen pals' for the first time, a problem I was about to confront in my encounter
with Jackie. How should I recognise you? I asked her. Oh, sort of average, but
with Roseanne Barr's build, replies La Roe. Being a fairly ignorant sort, this
means nothing to me, 'though one of the gang thinks the aforementioned Barr
might be that 'large' comedienne on Channel 4. For a moment elephantine visions
scurry through our fevered imaginations and apprehension takes grip. And the
later Jackie is, the larger she grows in our minds, so that by four o'clock
we're expecting Mrs Giant Haystacks herself. It comes as something of a surprise,
not to mention relief, to find that the diminutive figure currently signing
herself in at reception is telling the clerk that she is Jackie Roe. Cuddly
she may be, but not, Jamie reckons, in the same league as Ms Barr.
For the first time this weekend I put the fear of god into some poor unsuspecting
soul by going up to this woman and announcing myself. She does a double take
and tries not to collapse in a nervous heap. I'm touched.
To be brutally honest, Jackie is not at all what I'd expected. Despite coming
across in her letters as a wonderful specimen of all that is good in humanity,
in the flesh she is, in fact, a hundred times nicer. A bit, ahem, exuberant
at times (she assures that this is just her in convention mode; I'm sure I'm
much the same), and GOD! that accent, but on the whole a thoroughly good egg.
But then, I have to pretend such things, 'cause it's her room I'm crashing in
After basic introductions (Jackie doesn't seem totally convinced that lan is
100% safe), we adjourn to her room, buried somewhere deep in the second floor.
To our surprise, joy, and general emotional fulfilment, it's a double, even
though she only booked a single, which means I actually get a bed! lan puts
in a claim for the bath and he's welcome to it. Regular readers of Five Hundred
Eyes will know the Great Man's penchant for cold porcelain at times of excess,
so it comes as little surprise given his plans for the next couple of days.
Something I'll come to discover about Jackie is that she is very easily spooked,
or, as she so poetically puts it, 'weirded out'. We can't have been in the room
for more than two minutes when the phone rings. Jackie jumps a mile.
"Who can it be?!? Who knows I'm here?!?" She's not, of course, paranoid.
We tactfully suggest that if she were to answer the phone, she might find out.
Good thinking. It turns out to be a couple of Jackie's stranger friends ringing
from reception, Simon Gardener and Richard somethingorother (look, my mind wasn't
in top gear that weekend, indeed it rarely slipped out of neutral), a ZZ9-er
who goes under the pseudonym of 'Count Zero'. I suspect that they know all about
Jackie's nervous streak and are merely toying with her, a suspicion confirmed
when they appear a couple of minutes later. I don't know what Jackie's done
to deserve all of us, but they seem quite amiable. God only knows what they
make of us. Only six hours in and lan's already looking like some refugee from
Woodstock via the Betty Ford Clinic.
Meeting up with Jamie and Berriman again, and with goodness-knows-how-long
till the bar opens, we once more disappear into the interior of darkest Swindon,
with the intention of liberating some alcohol/food/more alcohol. The icon has
returned to its natural state, precipitating with menace, and suddenly we lose
Jackie. Heaven knows, she's not difficult to miss in that outfit (an 'Eroticon
Six' t-shirt [rigged to read Erotic Sex] and a ridiculous panama that she found
on her way into town), but we manage it. Cue, I think, for some eccentric and
typically fannish behaviour, but the pained looks from the others persuade me
that perhaps this is not the time. I can wait.
Food is inevitably consumed at some point, without doubt at the ubiquitous
Wimpy. is there anywhere else? We're poor impoverished students/unemployed and
Pizzaland is right out. Besides, this is a convention and there are more important
things to spend money on. I think we all know what I'm talking about.
The rest of the evening is something of a blur. I can't imagine why. We asked
our friend Count Zero, being a native of this fair town, to recommend us a suitable
tavern for our custom ("on a Friday night?!?" was his incredulous
reply), and failing here, opt for the Victoria bar, adjacent to the hotel. The
bar-maid is obviously out to make friends, her opening gambit being "You
from that Dr Who convention? Me, I can't stand the programme. Crap, I always
thought." Diplomacy is alive and being slowly put to death in Swindon.
We're joined by a friend of Jackie's from ZZ9, one Dave 'Mad Dog' Vl'Hurg,
a gentleman of not inconsiderable size. I can't for the life of me see how he
got his nickname, although apparently it has something to do with a girl and
a party. Don't they all. But he seems nice enough. And then I find out a Horrible
Truth about Jackie. She likes the London Boys. So much so that she actually
pays to play them on the jukebox. And then Berriman concurs (and I thought the
guy had some vestiges of musical taste). In desperation I am reduced to turning
to lan for reassurance. Some hope.
Time is wearing on, and by this stage lan has finally abandoned all pretence
at belonging to the same planet as the rest of us. He's sprawled back in his
chair, staring with Byronesque eyes at the ceiling. He draws my attention to
the pattern thereupon; I have to agree that yes, it is fascinating, and yes,
if you stare at it for too long it does do strange things to your mind. "Far
out man," croons lan. He spends much of the evening in this semi-catatonic
state, intermittently leaning forward, gazing with sudden wild possession at
some poor victim, and delivering a devastating insult. He then sags back into
his seat. as if drained by the effort. Momentarily he disappears ("To dump
my guts," he confides to the room in general) and Jackie leans over anxiously:
"Ian ... is he always ... ?"
"This weird? Invariably. Mind you, he's not really drunk yet."
"It's not that he's not a nice chap, in fact he's really ... interesting
... but he's just so ... strange."
At which point Count Zero pipes in with his catchphrase of the weekend. It
goes like this. First of all you sing (in as eerie a tone as you can manage)
the opening bars of the Twilight Zone theme tune, thus :
-- dee doo dee doo, dee doo dee doo --
and then swiftly follow up with (in awesome American B-movie trailer-type voice)
: "STRANGE ... BUT TRUE!"
The origin of this, he tells us, is a colleague at work (Count Zero is a porter
in a local hospital) who would rival Baron Munchausen for the title of The Incredible
Bullshitting Man, and that, at the conclusion of some extravagantly tall story,
a disbelieving workmate would come up behind him and utter the immortal words,
as given above. It seemed funny after five pints.
As far as I recall, we later adjourn to the hotel bar (or were we chucked out
of the Vic?) and it is there that I undergo two rather unsettling experiences.
The first, however, doesn't really affect me until the next morning when the
full truth hits me. It was about 11.30pm, and Berriman is doing a surprisingly
good impression of a goldfish. "I've just seen Matthew," he finally
utters. I turn in the direction of his gaze, but all I can see is the back of
some freak with a Bros haircut. Blond. Which is hardly Matthew Butcher, the
trendsetter of North Lincolnshire and renowned name-dropper. It's only the next
morning when I finally encounter the cropped creature that realisation hits
- it is indeed Matthew (as mentioned in DWM) Butcher, and he is indeed sporting
a blond Bros/Erasure haircut, knee-length denim shorts and the sort of scarlet
waistcoat that went out in 1972. Evidently mine is exactly the kind of reaction
he was after, and he grins broadly. He's also got a coveted gold badge, which
means that he's with a guest, that guest being artist Alister Pearson. His exact
relationship with Alister is a topic of much discussion amongst the low-lifes
over the rest of the weekend. Enough said.
And the second experience: Danny Cohen, organising-type bod of the con, floats
over, a freak at his elbow. "Jackie," he says smoothly, "I'd
like you to meet ***. " And with that he melts back into the general hubbub
at the bar, mission accomplished, leaving us with a one hundred percent prize
gook to attend to. The freak sits down with his drink, and we try very hard
to ignore him without actually ignoring him because that would be rude and we're
British, dammit. He's in his early twenties, fairly tall, with a beaky nose
and dark, tangled hair. And if that description touches a chord, you wouldn't
be alone. The same has obviously occurred to him, and thus he's come dressed
as Tom Baker, floppy hat, long scarf and all. Yup, we've been landed with the
Convention Nutter. Thanks a bundle, Danny, do the same for you some time.
The weirdo has little in the way of conversation, thank god, and seems reasonably
content to just sit there and generally be strange. I assume that it was at
some point during his stay with us that Sylvester McCoy noticed us, for his
opening words to Jackie at the DWM signing session in October were "You
were in the bar at Honeycomb with all those strange looking people, in the corner".
Did he mean us? I mean, lan apart, we're hardly strange, are we? Mind you, it's
a worrying state of affairs when I'm the most normal person at the table, a
situation I usually only encounter when out with Paddy and Steve.
We get an early night, finally crashing back at the room around half midnight.
Jackie and I take a bed each and lan assumes position in the bathroom. Five
minutes after lights out and I start wondering if he hasn't got the right idea.
If I were to say that Jackie snores, I would hardly be recounting the experience
accurately. Were I to say that Jackie makes a sound like fifty-seven elephants
coming off heroin in an enclosed, resonant, tin bath, I might be approaching
the true nature of the situation, but the horrible truth of the matter, the
sordid reality, is that Jackie SNORES with a capital Fucking-Hell-Have-You-Ever-Heard-Anything-Like-It?
lan hadn't, and he was in the next room.
I considered sleeping upside down, so that my head was six feet from hers,
but that hardly seemed adequate. In the end I used failsafe method two (method
one involving battering the offender violently until they stop, which works
beautifully, as Richard will attest). Method two is much gentle: simply lean
over and whisper sweet nothings in your sleeping beauty's ear. Auto-suggestion
is a wonderful thing, and within moments they roll over and are silent; it's
always worked in the past, Nikki and Paddy both being supremely obliging (take
that how you will you filthy minded perverts). But Jackie just rolls onto her
side, pauses for twenty seconds, and then starts up all over again. But in her
defence, at least it's regular snoring. And so it didn't take more than a couple
of hours to slip into the rhythm and catch a few well-needed snores of my own.
Come the morning and Jackie is up first, despicably bright and keen (once she'd
put her face on). She buggers off for her paid-for breakfast, whilst lan and
I, too taken with the stress of trying to bluff our way into the dining room
without a room key at this time of day, attempt to pull our shattered nerves
together and compare notes about the night's acoustic performance.
I also enjoy my first Wiltshire Hotel shower. Most baths have a handle on the
side to aid levering oneself up at the end of a soak, some have two. Our bath
has three, the additional one being about four feet up the wall, at an angle
of 45' to the vertical. The reason for this becomes clear when I switch on the
shower, positioned at one end of the tub. One turn of the dial and I'm strawberry
jam plastered against the opposite wall. That shower is one meean mother. Appreciating
this, and treating it with the respect : obviously deserves, I grab hold of
the handle and try again. This time it works, and I have one of the most invigorating
showers of my life. Just one problem: the rate of input, as determined by the
efficiency of the shower system, exceeds the output capacity of the shower,
as determined by the valiant-but-ultimately futile plug-hole. The net result
of this exercise in hydrodynamics is that a shower in a Wiltshire Hotel bathroom
is limited to a little over three and a half minutes, that being the time it
takes for the water to reach the lip of the bath. A shame really, because I
like nice long showers, but I suppose any longer and the bruises wouldn't have
healed before the convention was over.
Bottom of page eight, and the convention hasn't even started yet. If this isn't
to rival Levy's Fear and Loathing' in the epic stakes, I'd better get a move
So ... Nine-thirty am, and finally the convention is officially underway. Funny,
I'm a day into mine. Stephen O'Brien, notorious anonymous FHE cover artist (DWM
quote: "nifty") is due to arrive sometime, and I'm meant to be meeting
him in the lobby. I grab a glass of left-open-overnight Liebfraumilch (Chateau
Sarsons) and lie in wait.
It's not hard to spot him. Again, we've never met, but after what must amount
to weeks on the phone, I feel like I know him like a brother. I have a vague
idea what he looks like, and when a thin, arty-looking trendsetter ambles up
to the reception desk, I'm sure I've got my man. I do my standard approach,
as practised on Jackie the previous afternoon, and get a strangled-earwig look
for my pains. It is, it turns out, Stephen, but he can't believe it's me. As
he confesses later, he thought I was taking the piss. I mean, David never said
anything about being tall, and as for the voice ... Evidently he had some image
of me as a genteely-spoken pygmy; so sorry to disappoint. Eventually I manage
to persuade him that I am in fact who I claim to be, and he introduces his companion
as Not Neil Humphries. He is, in fact, Owen, one of Stephen's many hangers-on
who is Neil for the day until the esteemed non-person deigns to make an appearance.
Dare I say that he's a great improvement on the real Neil Humphries. No, I don't.
To the main hall for the opening whatevers. The highlight of this is to discover
my duties as a steward. Backtracking slightly, I should explain. So late was
I in registering for the con (a matter of days), they'd only accept me if I
agreed to be a steward. On the plus side, this meant I got a dandy little red
badge which could be used to impress the Dwasies and the Fanboys (as I believe
the impression is), but it also meant that I got all the stinker jobs. By way
of consolation, both the lans and Berriman's strangest friend, Alan Toombs,
had also been conned into gophering by similar means. Jackie had even volunteered
for it. Strange, but true.
Much raucous laughter follows as Berriman and Levy discover that yours truly
has drawn the ultimate short straw, supervising the video room showing Plan
9 From Outer Space while Sylvester McCoy's on in the main hall. Gee Whizz, This
Is My Lucky Day. lan, of course, has got himself a plum siting, sitting in on
the Doomwatch hour. We agree a mutual assistance pact; what are friends for,
At which point the narrative falters a tad as the convention takes over. Reality
and memory blur into a kind of amorphous fiction that dissolves at the slightest
touch. When did anything actually happen? The events are there in my head, but
the chronology has taken a hike. The perennial con rep problem, which I shall
attempt to resolve by ignoring it entirely. Instead I should like to pause for
an interlude and hurl in a few points of reference to reassure the reader that
the convention I attended (my convention) was the same one experienced by everyone
else at the Wiltshire that weekend.
Julian the Cyberman, for instance. For the benefit of those who have never
chanced to see this incredible being, let me explain. Imagine, if you will,
an old sixties-style Cyberman, the kind seen in, say, Tomb of the Cybermen.
Okay, got that? Right. Now, instead of square jug-handles either side of the
head, replace with a rather fetching heart shape. Are you getting the picture?
Now change the overall colour from silver to shocking pink. Still with us? And
to complete the effect, forget the emotionless logic and flat delivery, displaced
to oblivion by the personality and voice of Julian 'Joan Collins Fan Club' Clary.
The Cyber-Mincing Machine had to be the hit of the convention, with a bitchy
retort for every occasion.
Mind you, the Dalek gave him a run for his money. Every bit the image of a
real BBC Datek, this particular Kaled had one or two decidedly un-Dalek-like
behaviour traits. Like advancing upon any woman within range, sucker raised
at an appropriate angle (I'd never before realised that they were exactly the
right size and shape ... ) and screaming "IMPREGNATE! IMPREGNATE!"
Jackie, of course, was just asking for it, not only being just the right height
to be within reach, but also by wearing that t-shirt. And she wondered why the
Dalek wished to have "Erotic Sex with human female"?
Even more entertaining, for the onlookers, was the replica K9, embarrassingly
better than the BBC version. Radio-controlled, he would glide up silently behind
his (female) victim, stop about eighteen inches from her legs, and from his
nose, erect his sensor, slipping the long probe up her skirt, wagging his tail
all the time. Very amusing as long as you weren't his intended - I can imagine
it might come as something of a shock to be goosed by a robot dog.
And back to the time-line. The dealers' room is packed, packed, that is, with
dealers of Bat-merchandise, David Banks plc books and glossy zines. The real
zines, that is, the traditional photocopied brigade, are reduced to Star Begotten
and the Committee stall manned by the Toombs / Woolley / Berriman triumvirate,
with an occasional presence by Jackie Marshall, whose own Queen Bat was curiously
being sold by Star Begotten. Gratuitously ignoring the three-headed beastie
(and Toombs and Berriman), I stun Nick Cooper into total apathy by announcing
my existence to him as he slumps behind a mound of unsold 'Arcade' novels. It's
nice to feel wanted. I also manage to make myself turn a very interesting shade
of pink by mentioning, in an unfortunately loud voice, that Star Begotten knocks,
quote, "crap like Private Who" into a cocked hat. I then go on to
proclaim the shortcomings of said zine, including its vacuous contents (can
you say that? I just have) and glossy pretentiousness. Pointed coughing by Nick,
and a smirking Berriman cause me to turn round and see the Private Who stall
directly behind me. They don't look too amused. "Er, ha ha, just joking
guys ... " I buy a copy of their latest spin-off, Proteus, to uphold relations.
Why did I bother? Looks very pretty, but... Now if I were a cynic I might suspect
that Proteus 1 was just, ever so slightly, inspired by issue one of FHE. Longleat
report, guide to locations, Season 7 special feature ... sounds familiar? Right
down to the same Bryant and Sherwin quotations and Quatermass parallels. Just
as well I'm not a cynic.
Later on, as the convention progresses, I discover that Nick isn't quite the
bastard that he appears in print. Just as paranoid, of course, but underneath
it all, a basically decent bloke. If only I could get him and Berriman on speaking
How do you fill those idle moments when there's no panel running, the video
room's showing Delta and the Bannermen, and the bar's closed? Answer: lift parties.
How many people can you get in a lift? Safely, about two less than we have on
occasion. And those lifts have a life of their own, stopping at floors at random
("Bloody Kangs") and even between floors. Maybe the Wiltshire buys
from the Sirius Cybernetic Corporation. Mind you, finding "Pex Lives"
scrawled on the wall of the lift can be a little unnerving.
My first stewarding duty of the weekend involves standing at the door of the
main hall while the stars pick themselves up and the gophers rearrange the furniture
for the drama competition. This could actually be quite fun, if only there was
some point to it. A few cheap thrills from flashing my badge at poor innocent
fans and telling them to naff off, but I was never meant to be a fascist and
my tender side stages a takeover, resulting in far more plebs pestering the
'stars' than I suspect were intended. Ample delay is caused by Colin Baker giving
a video interview at the back of the hall, while his brat causes havoc with
the stewards, self included. Is there a technical name for what I wanted to
do - stellafiliacide or something?
Fortunately Stephen comes to my rescue. Owen, it appears, has buggered off
to do something more useful, like go home, and so Neil Humphries' identity is
going spare for a couple of hours until the Real Thing appears. Seizing the
opportunity for my release, I grab the yellow badge with gratitude and stip
into the mundane anonymity of an 'ordinary member'. It's hardly worse than what
Dan Quayle tried to get away with.
In my new-found identity I escape for food, to buoy me up for the long haul
ahead. We've already stocked up on the necessary side of the evening (despite
the sour looks of Mrs Squeers) and so I'm ready for anything. Anything apart
from the disco.
Oh yeah, get down and boogie. A few teething problems. Like 80% of the convention
were male. Not that this stopped them. Matthew 'Mincing Machine' Butcher shook
his funky stuff like a real pro, and a disturbing number of the male attendees
proved the old adage about DWAS members. I've got nothing against those of a
less than straight disposition, but I do object to being chatted up by someone
at around 58' to the horizontal. I suppose I should be flattered, but I think
he was desperate.
Deciding that it wasn't quite our scene (although Simon had a good strut),
we moved downstairs and continued where we'd left off. If I was feeling really
vindictive I could reveal, in a publication liable to be read by his mother,
exactly what it was that young master Berriman got up to after that fifth pint
of Bulmer's Old English. But I won't, because, basically, I'm a nice guy.
While the others disappear to watch Thunderbirds or some other such video, I
try to snatch a half-dozen winks. I fail in this, partly because the horror
film running on the hotel video channel is so awe-inspiringly bad that I feel
compelled to watch it, and partly because Simon is practising his juggling at
the foot of the bed, and failing on a fairly regular basis. I might as well
have had the bruises from the shower after all.
The gang crash back in at some unearthly hour and whilst Jackie attempts to
get a little beauty sleep (not that she needs it, he added in a desperate attempt
to keep her writing) and lan vanishes to watch some obscure story that he's
got at home anyway, Jamie and I, for some as-yet-unfathomed reason, decide to
rewrite the Monty Python lumberjack song for Dr Who. We get as far as "I'm
a gumblejack and I'm okay" before stalling, but with a little lubrication
progress to the dizzy depths of "I drink all night and sleep all day".
After due consideration, it appears that Messrs Cleese, Idle, Gilliam, Jones,
Palin and Chapman have little fear.
Berriman then decides that he wouldn't mind a bit of shut-eye himself, and
so Jamie and I bugger off, clutching a bottle of red something-or-other, a camera
(empty, but we didn't know at the time), and a water pistol. The latter is in
order to ambush Levy in the video room, hopefully waking him up. Or even better,
to take a picture of him asleep, for publication in some underground fanzine
to destroy his reputation forever. The plan is foiled by (a) lan being fully
awake, and (b) Jamie and I finding that the sofa on the landing of the eighth
floor is by far the comfiest part of the hotel and settling down for the night.
We have a long and illuminating discussion about whatever it is that one discusses
at four in the morning after a large bottle of wine before the appearance of
the Convention Dickhead. Most conventions have at least one nerd, some even
stretching to a nutter or two, but never before have I encountered such an utter
and total DICKHEAD.
His name, and I show no fear in naming him - consider it a public service -
is Stuart McLaren. He's about 18, wears, of course, a striped-shirt, and is,
in no uncertain terms, a prat.
"Morning boys," he greets us. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah, fine." We have no reason to be suspicious - yet.
"If you have any problems, just let me know. I'm a steward, you see."
He flashes his red badge to make the point. We flash ours back to return the
compliment, but he continues unabated.
"Is that a bottle of wine you have there?"
"Yes ... "
"I hope you're not planning to get drunk ... " Nothing could be further
from our minds.
" ... because if you do, I may have to throw you out. I am, you see, a
Jamie and I are unable to construct a suitable, coherent, reply. Instead we
just boggle at each other, trying to bottle up the hysterics. And then he sees
the water pistol.
"A water pistol? Can I see?"
My mistake, I'm sorry. Once he's got it, and examined it thoroughly, he shoots
at the lift doors and misses. "It's loaded!" He then proceeds to pose
in various 007-type positions and urges me to take a picture of him. And then:
"Of course, I'll have to confiscate this. I am, after all, a steward."
And blow me if he doesn't trot off down the stairs.
Jamie and I look at each other in astonishment. We're also wondering how we're
going to get the water pistol back - it's not ours anyway, we only borrowed
it from Jackie (although what she was doing with it, don't ask). Besides, we
need it to ambush lan when he comes out of the video room. In the meantime we
sit back and admire the sun rising over Swindon.
Twenty minutes later and Stuart the Steward is back. We manage to wrest the
gun from him without too much unpleasantness, and discover a pattern to his
movements. He starts at the bottom of the hotel and works his way up, checking
each floor for drunks and other undesirables. No one asked him to do this, but
I suppose it must make him feel wanted. Once he reaches the eighth floor he
then checks the video room (801) by barging in and annunciating in clear strident
tones "Is everything okay in here?" He is then subjected to abuse
and flying bottles as the sleeping denizens of the video room object verbally
and physically to the interruption of their slumber. He then comes out and greets
the two slumped on the sofa on the landing, namely us.
"Okay lads? Any problems, see me, okay? I'm a steward." And he flashes
the badge to prove it. I think, by this stage, any doubts have been exorcised.
He is a Grade One Dickhead.
I later learn that he stood duty outside the dining room on Sunday morning,
turning away the hotel guests because "the stars are eating in here".
Incredibly some fans actually took notice of him, although I'm happy to report
that Jackie and co. totally ignored him. By the end of the weekend his place
in fan legend is assured, and two hundred people will be checking the registration
lists of all future conventions for the name Stuart McLaren. I also find it
sadistically amusing to note that somehow he managed to get Jamie's address.
Any contact yet, Jamie?
The highlight of Sunday morning has to be the auction. True to form I have
precisely no money, but that doesn't stop me from bidding like a man possessed.
DWM editor John Freeman is the auctioneer, and he soon gets to know exactly
which idiot is likely to bid for the Kate O'Mara postcard or the complete set
of Dapol moulds. My excuse is that it's all for charity, so why shouldn't I
push the bidding up as high as possible. Besides, it's a birrovalaff, innit?
Highly irresponsible, I know, but great fun, and I only got caught a couple
of times. emerging with a bunch of simply ghastly pre-1980 fanzines and yet
another copy of The Making of Dr Who. Admittedly, my heart skipped a beat when
it looked horribly possible that I might become the proud owner of a complete
8mm film projector and collection of silent films (including Star Trek - The
Slow Motion Picture), but the rich fool to my left rescued me with style by
a mere pound.
Jackie is now convinced that I am utterly insane and enlists help in strapping
me to my seat so that I can't bid any further. She then goes on to bid herself
for some of the most goddamn-awful trash i've ever seen. She's not a completist,
honest, but she's the only person I know who can sit back at the auction of
a meteorite from the Ultimate Adventure stage play and say "got one already".
I do actually manage to catch a bit of the Sylvester McCoy panel, the only
guest of the weekend I see on stage. It sounds quite interesting, as such panels
go, but I've never been much of a groupie (not that I'm implying anything Jackie)
and so lan and I disappear early for a bit of dutch courage before the Plan
9 operation. Jackie Marshall, apparently, isn't pleased. She was on duty in
the video room and was supposed to have been relieved by Berriman who, naturally,
failed to show. I can feel smug - at least / am doing my duty.
Some duty. The video churns out its dubious contents to an empty room, and
the film is so dire it's not even funny. In desperation I turn the tv over to
EastEnders for some light relief, but blow me, if half an hour in some fool
doesn't turn up and actually demand to see the remaining portion of the turkey
on offer. Iwould've thought all the DWAS and his wife would want to see Sly
on stage - just goes to show, etc, etc. As soon as possible I beat a hasty retreat
and seek refuge in the ubiquitous. Which I would need, in preparation for the
To be fair, there was one funny sketch, Alister Pearson and whatsisname's Paradise
Towers routine that had premiered at Zygcon a few weeks earlier. Very funny,
what I heard of it, but for most of the duration I was 'backstage' (as much
as one can be without a stage, curtain or wings), doing my own sceneshifting
routine with Count Zero. I'd been rumbled, y'see, Humphries had claimed his
name as his own, and I was back to the stigma of the red badge. Never mind,
my chance for stardom and I made the most of it, positioning microphones with
a flourish and stylishly adjusting chairs and tables. And this way I missed
the worst of the 'comedy'.
What I didn't miss, what I couldn't fail to miss, was a nasty experience in
the Gents. Now usually I'm all for this, some of my best nasty experiences have
been in gents toilets, but nothing could quite prepare me for the shock of exiting
a cubicle to find a girl in a black leather jacket and mini-skirt adjusting
her fishnet stockings, leg up on the sink. About to mutter an apology for being
in the wrong place at the wrong time (but surely those are urinals over there),
I suddenly notice how hairy the legs are beneath the stockings. And the beard
... Turns out to be a certain SFX specialist, doubling as 'Ape', the Doctor's
new sexy companion, preparing for the Fancy Dress. A rational explanation but
it freaked me out in a way I thought only Jackie could exhibit.
Sunday evening continues in much the same vein as before, with maximum social
interaction and minimal brain-mouth interface. The scratch videos are quite
fun, despite the overbearing heat of the video room, and a Patrick Troughton
tribute reduces Jackie to a 'blubbering heap', but I wish that I'd entered some
of my videos. We then adjourn to Wimpy (finally restocked with drinks) via the
autobank, where Toombs amazes us with his wealth. Having seen the accounts for
his incredible loss-making fanzine, I'm surprised he can afford the suit.
The event of the evening, we are promised, is to be the Cocktail Competition.
Various noxious brews are concocted by an assortment of untrustworthy reprobates,
and the poor fools to test them are a motley mix of committee and guests, more
specifically the Two Lushes, John Freeman and Nick Courtney. John is doing his
best to stay on the same plane as the rest of us, but is finding it a bit of
a struggle and takes refuge in flirting with anyone wearing anything with so
much as a passing resemblance to a skirt. Nick, meanwhile, has abandoned any
attempt at sobriety and is letting the past two days' excesses have their effect.
A cry goes up in the lobby - "Nick's escaped - anyone seen old Five Rounds
Rapid?" The old ham is discovered outside doing a passable lan Berriman
impression, ie. pulling obscene faces through the glass at passing guests. He's
shepherded inside, sat down and tanked up. Both 'celebrity' tasters insist on
second, third and further opinions to ensure that their decision is absolutely
equitable, despite their taste buds giving up on them shortly after their livers.
The convention then adjourns to the bar, for the final event of the weekend,
the quiz, but not before we've been given a spot of instruction from a Linguaphone
tape purporting to teach us how to speak fluent 'Pertwee-ese'. It's quite a
difficult art to master, involving a lisp (easy), an adjustment to the initial
sound on some words (eg. 'yes' becomes 'nyeth' ... ), and other sundry cosmetic
touches including the Nose Scratch and the Neck Rub. This lesson over, we're
then expected to answer all questions in the quiz in fluent Pertwee, which is
easier said than done. Jackie, lan, Mad Dog and myself form ourselves into the
'Strange But True' team and get thoroughly trounced by the Star Begotten mob,
which was only to be expected as none of us know the first thing about tv SFsave
for what we've read in SB. Jackie also starts to behave very oddly, due to a
Nasty Experience, which she will now relate:
"I was quite happily trading insults with someone and getting sozzled
when across the room I saw Freddy Krueger rattling his claws - FREAK OUT! When
I tell everyone else to 'look over there!' Freddy has gone. Nobody else will
admit to seeing him. I started running around the hotel like a headless chicken
but couldn't find any trace of Freddy. In an effort (I'm assured) to calm me
down, David tells me not to worry, just never go to sleep again! After ten minutes
I'm getting really worried and go and find Danny Cohen. 'Yes, Freddy's here.
He's in the bog.' Freak out over." (Cleaning his nails?) Poor Jackie, she
really is, um, excitable.
. . .
And that's where it ended, at some ridiculous hour early Monday morning. Ian
and I say our tearful goodbyes and promise to do it all again next Easter in
Liverpool. It seems such an anti-climax, but worse is to come, as the Post Convention
Tuesday syndrome takes full hold.
Which, I suppose, proves that I must have enjoyed it. To be quite honest I'd
been quietly dreading the prospect of immersing myself in fandom for three days,
but it all turned out all right. Perhaps it's not fandom per se that I should
be apprehensive of, just that small segment that's obsessed with the programme.
Over the entire weekend I caught perhaps ten minutes of 'proper' panels, celebrity
interviews and the like. The rest of the time was spent meeting old friends,
making new ones, and putting faces to names. Some I might never wish to meet
again, but most were at the very least entertaining. If only I didn't have to
keep apologising for lan.
What I could apologise for is the total incoherence of the above. Three excuses:
one - it's n o'clock in the morning and I'm undergoing severe sleep deprivation;
two - it all happened nearly four months ago, and my memory ain't what it used
to be; and three - Berriman and Levy (and more besides) will no doubt be regaling
you with the definitive versions at a later date, the latter account hopefully
appearing in some future issue of FHE. Or so he promises. Sadly some things
remain untold, either for personal protection (wild horses wouldn't drag from
me my reaction to a certain shop window in the town centre - ask Stephen), a
wish to protect the innocent (so don't worry Jamie, the saga of the single toilet
roll will remain untold ... for now) or to uphold general public decency (which
lets out most of the stories recounted by Jackie and Count Zero, both, worryingly,
working for the NHS: I don't think I'll ever be able to eat a peanut again).
My account, the previous (my god) fourteen pages, most probably won't make
the slightest bit of sense to anyone who wasn't there, but I suspect that most
of you who are reading this were, or know the people concerned, or something
like that. And so if it all seems a bit cliquey, I make no apologies - the mere
fact that you're reading this implies that I consider you part of my clique.
You'll have to meet the rest of them sometime.
Five Hundred Eyes index