FantasyCon Day 3

I always see the Fcon disco as the pinnacle of the event, so what follows is perhaps an appendix, an encore if you will. A day that I’ve sometimes eschewed entirely, or otherwise had a cursory one hour stay before departing after the first panel. This time, (massive) thanks once again to the good people at New Writing South, I was able to take in the whole thing.
After breakfasting with Carole Johnstone and Priya Sharma (the most naturally friendly person I have ever met, anywhere), I went into the Con centre to find an overriding atmosphere of hungover happiness. I met up with Ben Jones, Ross Warren and Lisa Childs to attend a panel on the writer’s life with the latter pair. There was some sound advice on being realistic about your expectations, how to manage the transition from hobbyist to professional, and some amusing and innovative examples of self-promotion from Simon Clark and Heide Goody. However, much of my attention was taken by the loveliest baby since my own in the seat in front, grinning and gurgling at us over mummy’s shoulder.
That was the end of the panelling, so it was straight from there to the signing, where I got Sarah Pinborough and Paul Kane to etch their names onto my treasured tomes, and all that remained after that was the awards. Here is the link to all the winners: but the highlights were emotional acceptances from Adele Wearing was when the tables were turned on presenter Juliet McKenna and she was given the Karl Edward Wagner Award for lifetime achievement, for her body of work and contribution to the genre, which includes organising conventions, her role in the Write Fantastic group, and fighting the good fight over unfair taxation for the self-published.
And thus it ended; in my (admittedly limited) experience the best FantasyCon ever. If you rewind back to my first ever post on this blog, you’ll see that I criticise the event, and its divide between fantasy and horror content, writers and fans. That was not an issue here; the programme was harmoniously balanced in terms of content, and the timing of that content, so that whatever your taste there would always be something for you.

I spent the rest of Sunday night looking through Facebook at Con-related posts from friends old and new, which was great, apart from finding the one and only picture of me from the convention … in which I am suffering a very prominent wardrobe malfunction at the front of the shot!
I’m sure next year’s FantasyCon in Scarborough will be brilliant as well. In the words of Derek Zoolander, I guess I have a lot of things to ponder regarding the distance (Paris would be closer for me!), but if I need motivation to make the journey, all I need to do is remember this weekend.


FantasyCon Day 2

More crowded breakfast room on the Saturday, and lots of people to nod, wave or wish good morning to, but I had to eat in a hurry after struggling to get up for the 10am fight scene panel. Said panel was hosted by new chum James Barclay, with lots of good insight from Juliet McKenna and Jo Thomas. Good tips, very interesting, but I think it would have benefitted from the live demo which illuminated a similar panel back in BristolCon 2010. I would have put my hand up to request this, but for the fear that do so would be to volunteer to be the victim.
After grabbing John Connolly for a signature on my current read, it was into the reading room for Ray Cluley, to find that he had Joe Hill in tow as his warm-up man! Hill’s forthcoming novel Fireman sounds brilliant so far, and the reading contained a superb mix of high concept, clever humour, and a decidedly liberal political take that issues a sharp riposte to the Sad Puppies and their ilk.
After a stint catching up with Christopher Teague in the dealers’ room, and a short break for lunch, it was back to the reading room for Joanne Hall, who read an entertaining passage from Spark and Carousel. Then it was on to the panel on marketing, which was about to get underway when the fire alarm went off. I remember this also happened during George R.R. Martin’s talk at EasterCon 2012, but he ignored it and no one moved a muscle, and he just spoke over it until it stopped. No one present could command that level of authority, so we all traipsed out in typically British good humour, and what a sight we made! Hundreds of speculative fiction authors congregated in close quarters outside the doors like a polite and better-looking Dawn of the Dead; an image captured by Neil John Buchanan in what must be the selfie of the Con.
The panel resumed after a short interlude and was well worth the wait, and this gets my vote for best panel of the entire Con. It had individuals coming from different perspectives but finding a unified voice and an encouraging message, with a great mix of useful info and humorous anecdotes. The general agreement is that you can promote yourself effectively, even on a minimal budget, if you’re smart with your online presence. This probably includes not changing your name to a Monty Python character, but I was already coming round to that way of thinking anyway.
After a panel on the state of British horror, I retreated to prepare myself for an evening of CurryCon and a night at the disco. CurryCon saw 30 or so of us taking over Beeston’s best (only?) curry house for the night, and we stretched their waiting staff to breaking point. I ended up on a table of six with Steve Byrne, Stuart Young, John Travis, Terry Grimwood, and next to me, one of my favourite authors Simon Clark. We shared our love of Day of the Triffids, and our naan breads and rice, before we were thankfully the first table to get the bill and could get back to the Con, while others faced an interminable wait for service. I was still too late for V.H. Leslie’s book launch, but consoled myself at the Fcon disco. It hadn’t got busy yet, and I started to worry that it wouldn’t, but by the time I’d changed from my sensuously tactile long sleeved shirt into my Atticus t-shirt that glows in the dark, and heard an excellent short story at Kit Power’s reading, the party was really kicking in. Cue strutting, spinning, jumping and shaking, and working up an epic sweat to an eclectic music mix with a cool and talented crowd. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Boom!


FantasyCon Day 1

After all the anticipation, and travelling up the day before, it didn’t look good on the first morning. I went to breakfast already feeling down after waking up troubled with earache, to see the restaurant full of people I recognise and admire, but who don’t know me at all. Inferiority complex abounds, shyness takes over; Jay speaks to no one. I wallowed in my solitude and misery, and pined for the cavalry.
The first pick-me-up came on registration though, and the bag full of swag I got my hands on: three guys named Joe (Abercrombie, Hill and Lansdale, four Jo’s if you count Harris), two Toms (Lloyd and Fletcher, no sign of Pollock), two Pauls (Kane and McAuley), and more besides.
Best of all was when the friends started rolling in, starting with the svelte form of Mark West. I should take a leaf out of his book: after running the London Marathon six months ago, and smugly reminiscing on it rather than running more, my own weight is close to an all-time high.
Ben Jones arrived just in time for his own reading, and fared quite well, but really came into his own on the Weird Western panel, a subject he is very knowledgeable and passionate about. In between, Emma Audsley overcame first Con nerves to moderate a fascinating panel on the writing of Fear in front of a packed room, and lots of people missed a treat as Joe Hill and others shared laughs and insight aplenty at an excellent End of the World panel in a half-empty room.
Later into the night, and it was about attending readings and actually meeting people, some for the first time in two years, some for the first time ever. Ray Cluley signed my copy of Water for Drowning, which if it wins the fiercely competitive Best Novella award, might be unique in having two BFS award winners between its covers (bonus story Shark! Shark! a winner in 2013). Ross Warren came and went with a fiver of my money (absolute bargain for Bacon & West’s Lost Film novellas), I finally got to meet Lisa Childs and Carole Johnstone, (five and a half years after we were supposed to meet up at WHC 2010!), and had the joy of discussing Nik Kershaw’s underrated songwriting genius with Priya Sharma. I also got to right last week’s wrongs, collecting a souvenir poster from V.H. Leslie for her forthcoming book launch of Skein and Bone, and meeting James Barclay to warn him of the danger of a beating at the fight panel, and I myself avoided a beating as Graeme Reynolds forgave me for the most overdue rewrite ever.
All the readings were very good: V.H. Leslie, Carrie Buchanan, and Simon Bestwick, but perhaps best of all was from Marion Pitman, the hilarious story delivered with real flair and gusto.
Tomorrow looks like an even busier day, including CurryCon and the disco, as well as all the book stuff. I can’t wait!


FantasyCon 15 – The Prep

I suppose I am in an enviable position for this Con, in that the wonderful people at New Writing South have given me a grant to attend the event, covering Con ticket, hotel and train fare. But with privilege comes responsibility: I can’t merely enjoy Fcon, I have to be able to show that my attendance benefits my writing career. But how to do that? By attending all the panels and taking detailed notes? I’ve done that already. Or by schmoozing and sucking up to as many influential people as I can? Not really my style, that.

I think it’s a question of balance, and trying to find it. I’ve marked a fair few panels, readings and launches on the programme; I’ll learn what I can and pick up tips at the first of these – and that doesn’t have to be a solitary process anyway – and be at my most sociable at the other. And at least I have a good starting basis of friendships, mostly established online but renewed at previous Cons, and there are some people who I’ve come to value as really good friends, that I’ll be meeting in person for the very first time: therein lies the true beauty of these events, and social media (when used wisely).

I scored a couple of sociability own goals last week, though: a combination of poor planning and childcare availability caused me to miss James Barclay’s talk at Winchester University, and V.H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone book launch in Portsmouth. So  having missed them in my own back yard, I now have to go halfway up the country to catch up with them.

And the other socialibility dilemma is the Con Bar, seen by many as the true heart of the Con experience. I may have enjoyed a session or three in my twenties, but I’m a very reluctant drinker now. However, I don’t want to look like a killjoy, and I may need something to overcome my shyness.

Whatever it is, I may need to find it within myself: I woke up yesterday with an ear infection, and the doctor has given me ear drops and antibiotics, along with a stern telling off for washing my hair by dunking it in the bath, and an even sterner one for using cotton buds (don’t do it kids). So on the one hand I have the drinking question taken out of my control, on the other, if you are speaking to me and I seem to be ignoring you, move from my left side to my right and I might be able to hear you.

At least my other ailment seems to be easing. I suffered a major stubbed toe last week which gave me a nasty cut, ugly bruising and almost removed the nail. I’ve had to cancel a couple of runs, and thought I had no hope of making the FCon disco. As someone who hasn’t set foot on a dancefloor all year, that’s a big deal for me.

So as much as I have a plan it’s this: learn from the panels, go to my friends’ readings, buy their books, dance like I mean it, and make every moment count.


Non-League Day 2015

This year, Non-League Day coincided with the 3rd qualifying round of the FA Cup, and it was always my intention to check out a local tie as a dry run for a future odyssey of watching a match in every round. I hadn’t expected something quite this local so far into the competition though; I thought I’d have to venture beyond Hampshire on the train, but I ended up being able to take a direct bus from just outside my house. This is because little Wessex Leaguers Blackfield & Langley had progressed in the competition, but would be massive underdogs against Conference South side Maidenhead United.
As I didn’t have to travel until the afternoon, I put the morning to good use by running. I take part in Southampton Parkrun whenever possible; the 5K distance is well within my capabilities, but the five miles I have to run to get there from Totton, and another five miles back, make it into a half marathon every time.


Another local runner, Alice Burch, is currently attempting a world record for marathons run on consecutive days, doing the 26+ miles 60 times in a row to raise money for animal welfare charity SPANA. As each marathon is a hundred and something lonely laps of Southampton Athletics Track she has asked for volunteer runners to join her whenever possible, and as said track is only a short distance from the Common where the Parkrun takes place, I thought I’d do another mile or two there.

Unfortunately though, I got my timings all wrong: I was too late for the Parkrun, and too early for Alice and her team, and I couldn’t really wait for them without jeopardising getting to Blackfield on time. So I returned somewhat disappointed, but at least the run there and back had been worthwhile in itself: it was the first time I’ve gone over ten miles since the London Marathon, after which I’ve spent too long lazing around and basking in my accomplishment.

Marathon 2015 007Marathon 2015 013

After a refreshing bath, and changing from the Chester FC shirt I’d run in to the two I would wear to the match (old long-sleeved away shirt underneath, current short-sleeved shirt on top), I prepared some provisions. I wanted to live down to the stereotype of having a flask of hot tea in a carrier bag. But the flask had a disgusting build-up of brownish-green slime at the bottom and had to be binned, so I took a small bottle of orange squash instead.
And so to the journey, a relatively short one: Blackfield is close to my home in Totton, insomuch as it’s close to anywhere. But Totton itself is seen as a remote backwater by the people of Southampton, and Blackfield is a little known outpost even to us. Those who claim to know the place will wink knowingly and play the tune from Deliverance on an imaginary banjo – and there has actually been a movie filmed in the area, low-budget horror Forest of the Damned, featuring genre legend Tom Savini and a scene-stealing cameo from author Shaun Hutson, but unlikely ever to win any awards.


Thankfully the bus ride presented no evidence of generations of inbreeding nor widespread cannibalism, but that was the only positive thing to say about it. My fellow passengers were a contrasting juxtaposition of demographics: white-haired old ladies in front of me and lads in hoodies at the back, pretty fly for white guys as they played loud, expletive-laden rap music and commented: “Mate, that’s sick!” The old ladies never once turned around or even tutted. Perhaps they also thought it sick, but more likely they just couldn’t hear it.
There was nothing worth seeing through the window to report on: the area is officially considered to be in the New Forest I think, but this part is no place for ponies and picnics. Most of the journey was spent in a strange void between civilisation and nature, but with the benefits of neither. No matter, as I had a book with me; The Master and Margerita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, recommended reading on my university course, but I found the chaotic prose almost indecipherable, and looked up just in time to be briefly distracted by a couple of flashes of red, but it turned out to be just a Ladbrokes and a KFC, given pride of place by a village that’s apparently very proud to have them.
I got off at what I hoped was the right stop, and was relieved to see this impressive sign confirming the event in question:

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

I followed the arrow, but before I saw the stadium I couldn’t help noticing the vast towers and chimneys of the oil refinery which loomed over the area and flavoured the air:

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

But lo, there was indeed a magnificent theatre of football at the end of the road:

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Somewhat unorthodox in that one corner of the ground was given over to a skate ramp:

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

I bought the obligatory match programme and a strip of raffle tickets, and bagged one of the seats in the little stand. The skate ramp, along with a bench in the public park at the other end of the ground, gave a potential free viewing spot to anyone who wanted it, but few did, and none of them for longer than ten minutes or so.
The match itself started with some excitement; a first minute corner for Maidenhead requiring a brilliant save by the Blackfield keeper from what would have been an own goal. It set a pattern for pressure from the visitors; dominating possession but without making it count. Their full-back and winger rampaged down the right, often reaching the by-line but rarely producing end product, another corner led to a clear chance being poked wide, and the Blackfield centre-back headed a teasing cross away from right under his own bar. The home team only offered the merest hint of a threat on the break, striker Rico Wilson declining a first time shot and then regretting it as the angle became prohibitively narrow; the Maidenhead keeper first making the save, then seeing the rebound go into the side netting, and the first half remained goalless.
Meanwhile, the skies had turned grey, either from cloud cover or smog from the refinery, and a cruel biting wind had whipped up across the bare, exposed stadium. I became grateful that I’d opted for a second Chester shirt beneath my jacket, but wished that I’d gone for the hot thermos after all, rotten residue or not. That said, the tea bar in the green Portakabin looked like the best thing in the stadium.
I wasn’t having the most joyful time, but almost had a huge boost during the interval. Straining my ears to hear the scratchy and muffled tannoy announce the raffle winners, I thought I’d scooped second prize, but when I went to claim it, I was told that he’d said Yellow 85, not the Yellow 25 that I was holding.
Back to my seat then, and the second half began with Blackfield’s keeper again making a great save from a corner, but soon afterwards his side had a great chance to take the lead. A defensive clearance was blocked, they broke down the left, and the low cross left Rico Wilson with an open goal. But in his eagerness, he slid in too early and got there before the ball, which bounced to safety off his backside when it was easier to score.
There was no way that wasn’t going to be costly, and Blackfield were punished a few minutes later. It was a good move by Maidenhead, creating a chance on the edge of the box which was drilled against the post. But ironically for the Blackfield keeper, who had spared a teammate the ignominy of an own goal, it came back off him and over the line. Cruel for him, but not undeserved for Maidenhead, nor particularly out of keeping with the quality of play.
And that was pretty much it. Blackfield brought on a second striker, then threw their centre-back forward as a target man, but never threatened again. I got to hoping Maidenhead would score again, so I could leave and get the earlier bus, and they did indeed get the ball in the net again. But I was denied even that small mercy, as the goal was ruled offside, and I felt compelled to stay to the bitter end. Shortly after the final whistle was blown on Maidenhead’s 1-0 win, I got within sight of the bus stop just as my intended ride pulled away from there and towards civilisation.
Thus, I eventually returned home later than planned, to an angry wife and a cold fish pie. Behold the bleakness! But that’s what you want as a non-league fan; you wear days like this as a badge of honour. I can’t wait for the next one.


Jay’s Least Remembered – Until Now

Last week, I rekindled a love affair that had lain dormant for the best part of two decades; that with my joint favourite band circa 1992, Ugly Kid Joe.

America's Least Wanted

I had two cassettes that I wore away to nothing that year: one being UKJ’s America’s Least Wanted, and the other being the less fun but more feted Nevermind by Nirvana. Picture me aged 17 if you will, cocky but clueless, typically clad in a London Monarchs shirt, brightly coloured baggy shorts, Converse sneakers and a baseball cap turned back to front. I had an electric guitar I could hardly play, but loved to strum it along with those two tapes.
But then the musical landscape changed, and as I broadened my horizons I retrospectively discovered Pixies, witnessed the dawning of Britpop, and saw Green Day take American hard rock in an even catchier direction, whilst by night I was in clubs grooving to N-Trance, Faithless, and The Prodigy. I didn’t hate everything about UKJ, but with all this other music around me I no longer had time for them, and they were soon completely forgotten, save for a cursory listen to their follow-up album Menace To Sobriety. Nevermind was similarly discarded to be honest, but the major difference was that the songs from that album were everywhere: played on the TV, the radio, at the alternative clubs and discos, at house parties or in people’s cars – you didn’t need to put it in and press play to hear it. UKJ meanwhile, seemed to have been as neglected by the rest of the world as they were by me: I don’t recall ever once hearing them through the media, only at all through a friend of a friend’s covers band who included Everything About You in their set (complete with the stanza omitted from the single release).

Thankfully, before my fandom waned, I passed it on to my dad and brother. They continued to follow the band well enough to invite me to UKJ’s comeback tour gig at a tiny alternative nightclub in Bournemouth, which in turn gave me the impetus to listen to them once again and get reacquainted with the songs.
I surprised myself.
You see, I’d grown to recall my affection for UKJ as a guilty pleasure; a rare lapse in my otherwise impeccable taste. Although I knew that I liked the band, and the songs, what I hadn’t really registered is that that they were So. Damn. Good. Like, seminal moment in music history good.
To properly gauge how good, and how important UKJ were, we need to look at them in context of the rock music scene at the time. On the alternative side, Nirvana had broken big, with a plethora of lesser grunge bands waiting to follow in their footsteps, while their chief inspirators Bob Mould and Frank Black had run their course with Husker Du and Pixies, and were looking to launch new band Sugar and a solo career respectively. On the commercial/stadium side, Def Leppard had regressed into a cartoonish parody of themselves, whereas Guns ‘n’ Roses had reached a creative zenith with the towering epic November Rain, but this was not a song to fill a mosh pit, and felt like a swansong to mark the end of an era. Meanwhile, a young band named Green Day were big in Berkley with their naïve, clean-cut surfy pop-rock which I would grow to love, but wasn’t the sound that would make them famous.
Another question is how to categorise UKJ. I’d taken to them at around the same time I adopted Nirvana, and they grew in my affections together, but I never considered them part of a shared movement. Casey Kasem likened UKJ to Nirvana when he gave Everything About You its UK TV debut, and although I was attracted to the similarities at first, the sounds were really quite different, moreover; their ethos worlds apart. Nevertheless, to this day Wikipedia includes grunge amongst its descriptions of UKJ.
Nor would you associate them entirely with the old metal though; and certainly not the privilege and pomposity that came along with it. UKJ and their fans didn’t want to be angst-ridden or grandiose, they didn’t want a polystyrene Stonehenge or to bite the head off bats; they just wanted to go to a show, get sweaty and have a good time.
But that over-simplification does UKJ a disservice: their music could be diverse, such as the funky beat of Same Side, or unorthodox, as in the complex structure of Panhandlin’ Prince, from which I’d remembered the various different hooks, but forgotten that they all came from the same song. Crucially though, these innovations never came at the expense of Rocking the Fuck Out.
There’s a case for describing UKJ as something of all of the above, and a bit more besides; they were made multi-dimensional by the talents of their members. In Klaus Eichstadt they had a god damn virtuoso lead guitarist, with solos even Slash might envy, whilst Whitfield Crane’s clipped, nasal delivery, and bulging eyes, gnashing teeth, in your face intensity was reminiscent of Johnny Rotten. Given that this attitude seemed to epitomise the band, I find it strange that nobody has attached the punk tag to them.
In fact, I would contend that America’s Least Wanted was the first of the modern pop-punk albums, not that I’ve seen them on Kerrang TV or the Teenage Dirtbags compilations, even though the bands who are there probably owe them a debt. Instead, by the time UKJ had released Menace to Sobriety – more mature, arguably more accomplished (Milkman’s Son remains my favourite of theirs), but sadly less successful – Green Day had borrowed a lot of UKJ’s sass to break big with Dookie. Yes, that had angst too, but even when they advocated suicide bombing, it was angst about being bored and unable to get laid: much easier for the average teenager to identify with than having crippling back pain and a heroin addiction. They found success with a sound and style more similar to America’s Least Wanted than their own earlier work, while UKJ… well, they barely entered my thoughts until last week, I’m sorry to say.

Still, I shouldn’t portray them too much as unlucky losers who didn’t make it: America’s Least Wanted went double platinum, and UKJ did indeed sell a lot of records, tour round the world, make a lot of money and meet lots of girls. Furthermore, I’m glad they’re playing Sound City, Bournemouth rather than the Milton Keynes Bowl, how else could I have seen them at two days’ notice and stood within spitting distance?
You might also want to know if they can still cut it live – hell, yeah! Some bands are good live because they play so well, as good as on the record. Others have great stage presence, and the charisma to whip the crowd into a fervour. UKJ do both in spades, creating an epic all-encompassing experience that be enjoyed from the bar or in the heart of the mosh pit.
I’m sure they’ve picked up a fair few new or returning fans on this tour, but whether they’ll get the full credit they deserve is more doubtful. One thing is certain though: even if history continues to forget Ugly Kid Joe, I never will again.