It’s been nine years since my first attendance at BristolCon, and although I missed a couple of years, it’s always been one of my favourites. The previous seven have all been long and busy days with daunting early starts, but this year, for the first time, I treated myself to an overnight stay the night before.
The seeds were sown back in May at CrimeFest, a longer convention which required a three night stay, during which I formed quite a fond attachment for the Cabot Circus Marriott – apart from injuring my leg by falling off the running machine attempting to recreate the OK Go video! The plan was to travel on the Friday, stay another night in the same place, and have a big tourism and sightseeing day ahead of the convention.
Unfortunately the British weather said no, we will send gale force winds and torrential rain to keep you in the hotel. Or near it at least. But we made the best of it, shopping for bargains in the mostly covered mall, and taking in a matinee of Maleficent, before getting a chicken dinner and going back to the hotel for a swim and to watch the Saints game against Leicester on Sky. I’d considered watching it in the hotel bar, which always showed sport, but they declined to on this occasion, possibly because of the presence of the Portsmouth FC squad at the hotel, all of the players looking very young, very skinny, and very tall, and easily identifiable, clad as they were in team tracksuits throughout. Needless to say, I would be very glad I ended up watching the game in the privacy of my room, rather than in a crowded bar in the presence of our arch rivals.
It was a magnificent performance by the Saints, producing a masterclass in precision passing and total football, elevating the game to a standard which few who saw it will ever forget. But then Leicester scored nine lucky goals against the run of play, to snatch an undeserved win. Well, I’m assuming that’s how it went: thankfully I had the foresight to bail out at 2-0 and down to ten men, choosing ITV3 instead, and their adaptation of Murder at the Vicarage, in which the dream team detective duo of Miss Marple and er, DCI Banks solved the crime and brought the killers to justice, but not before I’d correctly guessed whodunnit.
Morning brought a much bigger game to watch, one which I was only to happy to miss the start of the convention for, and so thankful I was that I hadn’t been given an early panel. As it was I was able to give my full attention to England v New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup semi-final, right down to my wardrobe. I had two of my favourite new shirts to wear to the convention: my new red England rugby one, which I thought looked really good against Argentina and the USA, if we won, and my 2019 Cricket World Cup winners shirt, with a thrilling win against New Zealand in the final, to wear as a classic piece of whataboutery if we lost. Reader, I did not need it.
Tongue removed from cheek, this was masterclass in precision play and total rugby, backed up by a relentless display of powerful but controlled and disciplined aggression, and yes, elevating the game to a standard which few who saw it will ever forget. Surely the greatest England performance ever, from facing down the haka, to the electrifying start and early try, to controlling almost the entire match from that point on. Forget the 19-7 scoreline, this was a demolition job, a domination of territory and possession, a smothering of the All-Blacks’ increasingly desperate running game, and the ability to turn the ball over almost at will. You could have named half a dozen or more as Player of the Match, and most of the rest had put in career-best performances too. But for two disallowed tries, a couple of missed kicks, and a few visits to the posts where we couldn’t quite get over the line, it would have been a huge margin of victory. And given that our only real lapse gave New Zealand their only score of the game, this could easily have been 30, or even 40 points to nil, and it would have been a fairer reflection of the play than the eventual 12 point margin. But this did nothing whatsoever to detract from my enjoyment and I was on an unbelievable emotional high as I finally made it to the convention.
First presentation I saw at the Con was from Patrick Mahon, an astrophysicist explaining how harnessing the power of the sun might allow us to send probes beyond our solar system. My techie knowledge isn’t great, as I would point out in my own panel appearance, so to sum up in layman’s terms. It’s theoretically possible, but it’s a big ask. And we are talking big in astronomical terms here. Like BIG. Biiiiiiiig. You dig? Unfortunately, a mind-frazzled audience filed out en masse immediately after, and Grimbold’s Joel Cornah never got the audience he deserved for an excellent reading.
From there I went to by first author panel of the day, discussing whether Science Fiction is harder to write than Fantasy. The resounding answer, of course, was yes and no, with Science Fantasy presenting itself as the ideal compromise. I’d been on a similar panel two years previously, and come up with nothing more insightful than recommending the Phineas and Ferb episode, ‘Nerds of a Feather’, so this was an admirable attempt.
It was book launch and signing time next, and a major milestone for me as I sought the 200th signed book in my collection. Another fellow Grimmie became 199, artist extraordinaire Sophie E Tallis with one of her forays into writing, White Mountain, and then the big milestone came up with R.B. Watkinson signing a copy of The Cracked Amulet – it was Daniel Kelly’s great idea to capture the milestone moment for eternal posterity.
It was back into panels for that, firstly one about the advancement of artificial intelligence, which would overlap slightly into the panel I was on about the future of work, and one about superheroes of mythology, of which another Grimmie was star of the show, Ellen Croshain demonstrating first a lovely set of pipes, breaking into song in her pre-panel reading, and then a formidable knowledge of the classics during the panel itself.
It was shaping into another stellar day for the Grimmie collective, despite the absence of our leader Sammie H K Smith due to ill health, but I was delighted to sign a Get Well card for her, and the publisher was especially strongly represented at the next panel, starring Joanne Hall, Steven Poore, Roz Clarke, and Cheryl Morgan, in which they talked about early influences and their first loves within the genre. But it was the other panellist, Phil Gilvin, who said what I would have had I got onto the panel – which had applied to be on – by mentioning John Wyndham and his body of work, which has been a strong influence of most of my writing.
I got Jo and Roz to sign a copy of the anthology North by Southwest, thus making it the 201st signed book in my collection, before I had to bite the bullet, overcome my nerves, and make my own panel appearance, alongside Juliet McKenna, Nick Walters, Julia Hawkes-Reed, and Donna Scott. All were great panellists, and clearly more knowledgeable and/or more prepared than myself. It was a particular honour to share the stage with Juliet McKenna, whose aikido demonstration on Joe Abercrombie at the 2010 event is one of my all time top convention memories, and a big reason why the BristolCon bug bit me so hard.
I was hoping to mask my lack of technical expertise by being the funny one on the panel, but such ambitions were punctured by my being juxtaposed with a real, actual, professional stand up comedian in Donna Scott. So instead I opted for my Socialist Worker persona, triggered by Nick Walter’s suggestion that robots will do dirty, dangerous jobs that humans wouldn’t, but I countered that by saying that the very real threat of the erosion of workers’ rights could lead us to a situation wherein the proletariat workforce are cheaper and more expendable than the machines they operate. And there was no turning back from there; I think I tackled every question thereafter from a political standpoint. Hopefully I refrained from addressing the audience as ‘citizens’ or ‘comrades’, but it was all very Wolfie Smith.
Not having the luxury of a second night stay in the hotel, and not wanting to be too late home, I headed to the train station straight after my panel, and just my luck, had to share the journey home with a large number of Pompey fans, who I’d assumed would have been out of Bristol by then. Fortunately the noisy majority were mostly in the back coach of three, and I put myself in the front, with only a couple of quitter groups of them around me. They’d lost a late 2-0 lead to draw 2-2, conceding an injury time own goal, but they seemed in fairly high spirits. The Southampton score from the night before might have been mentioned once or twice, but I wasn’t really listening.
What I would have been listening to had I stayed, was the string quartet, and by all accounts I missed quite a show there. But I still came away with a bag full of books and a head full of good memories; I never expect anything else from BristolCon, and I’ve not been disappointed yet.