REDEMPTION 01: The Hedgehog Report

This from Neil Faulkner

Friday dawned, a convention beckoned, but living a mere 30 miles away I was in no great hurry. Unhurried enough, indeed, to pick up the Patricia Cornwell I'd acquired from the library the day before. I'll just read a couple of chapters, I told myself. It was only 10 am. So I did that, then a couple more. Then another. No, I thought, this will not do, I have a convention to go to. I must pack. So ten minutes later, having packed, I was back at the Cornwell, and stayed there for at least another hundred pages. Eventually, as 2 pm loomed, I put it down with awesome self-discipline, grabbed my coat and sauntered off to the station.

Less than two hours later, I was back in the Ashford International. Was it really two whole years since I'd last been there? Found Deborah Rose sitting in the lobby, waiting to greet new arrivals. "So you got the right Ashford this time?" I asked, because she is the one who hiked out all the way to Ashford, Middlesex for the '99 bash. I also noticed a diminutive form shuffling suspiciously around the check-in desk. A Red-Crested McCormack's Penguin, if I wasn't mistaken. And yes, her nose does look very, very beaklike.

Getting my priorities right, I dumped my bag in the room I'd been allocated, which looked uncannily like the room I'd had the last time only this one had an ashtray in it, and promptly left the hotel with a pair of binoculars round my neck. There's a nice little wood about five minutes down the lane which I always visit at Ashford cons. The perfect place to see teenagers roaring around on scabby old motorbikes, scaring all the birds away. Then back to the hotel via the Sainsburys next door. By now people were really starting to arrive, though they still seemed thin on the ground. I asked where I could hand in some bits and pieces for the Chaos Modelling sessions, off-cuts and other bits I'd scrounged from the reject bins at work. Try Ops, I was told, so I went to Ops, where Judith Proctor launched herself from a computer terminal to give me a big hug. Then she realised it was only me. Anyway, she seemed to like my modelling bits, so I left them in Ops, after explaining which bag contained the childsafe bits and which one might be a bit dodgy (I get a bit overparanoid about such things, since safety is obviously a major concern at work when making toys and things).

The bar was now open. Hurrah! I'm not normally one for the booze, but I make an exception for cons. People arriving all the time, mostly old faces (including the inevitable horde that you see every time but never ever find out who they are). I set out to intimidate as many as possible. Pat Carter appeared, and I cursed Sainsburys for not stocking Penguin bars, for I'd hoped to greet her with one of these. The Opening Ceremony was now imminent, so down to the main hall, where we lurked at a table near the back. One by one the guests filed on stage, saying their obligatory few words into the microphone, followed by the obligatory round of applause. Last up was Gareth Thomas. "I'M A PROFESSIONAL ACTOR," he boomed. "I DON'T NEED A MICROPHONE!"

After the mixer games (which not many people seemed to play) we stayed in the main hall for the pub quiz. Louise Rutter appointed herself captain of our table, pressganging any passer-by who might know something about Babylon 5 (for none of the rest of us did). There were 30 questions in all - 10 on B7 (which we got right, all of them), 10 on Bab5 (where we didn't do quite so well), and 10 on other stuff like Dr Who and Harry Potter (!?) where we didn't exactly cover ourselves in glory either. We ended up with a meagre 20 out of 30, somewhat behind a table in the middle of the hall who claimed 26. Or was it 25? Never mind, they still won. No, hang on, it was only 24. I left, because We Had Lost, and I'm a sore loser. It was just a bit of fun anyway, and the taking part was all that mattered, and who did those bastards think they were, not that I'm bitter or twisted or anything. Anyway, I hadn't intimidated enough people yet.

Back to the bar, then, for that's what cons are really all about, which is chatting with people about almost anything but B7. Good to meet some new faces as well as old friends. As usual, fellow Lysters in the flesh look nothing like the way I'd imagined them. I intimidated Jacqueline Thijsen, who promptly intimidated me. I picked my words with care, lest I found myself joining the goldfish in the fountain. There was Alison and Tavia and Susan and Morrigan and Iain and others I can't remember, just as I can't remember what we talked about but I know it was well past 3 am by the time I staggered off to bed. Oh, and a little pressie from Pat - *two* Patricia Cornwell's, which I swore I wouldn't look at in my not entirely sober state. Well, I wouldn't look at them that much. Just a chapter or two, y'know.


Amazingly, I was up for breakfast by 9 am, but with a splitting head and a queasy feeling in places I didn't want to think about. Con or not, I pledged to go easy on the lager from now on. No time to go birding, despite the outrageously pleasant weather outside (this was my 5th con, and the first four had been marked by some the vilest weather the British climate can muster), since I was doing a panel on science in science fiction with Andy Lane, who I had never met. (I presumed he wasn't the Andy Lane who is crap at fixing the machines where I work.) It took about ten seconds, or was it two, to establish that Andy knew far, far more about science than I ever will, so clearly I was going to have to co-host this panel with my usual fallback strategy, ie bullshit like crazy and hope the audience take over. They did, or at least seemed to, but as is usual with panels that I've hosted my mind was burning too fiercely in an endeavour to not look like a total prat for me to remember anything that was said.

An hour at the bar, sticking strictly to Pepsi, and then the Blake: Terrorist or Freedom Fighter debate. This was in the main hall, with Gareth, Una, Judith and a hastily press-ganged Pat Carter. Barely minutes earlier Una had been in the bar with me, hastily scribbling down flimsy apologies for thoughts. I suggested that the Freedom Fighter/Terrorist dichotomy was a false one, since freedom is an objective whilst terrorism is a strategy. "Ooh yes, I'll use that one," she said, pencil flailing in her flipper. But she didn't, so I had to raise it myself. I'm not sure if this was before or after Gareth asked to check on one minor point, namely what this Star One thingy was.

One audience member who spoke up vociferously for Blake was an overseas attendee who I took to be Spanish. Not so much a bad guess as a bloody awful one since she turned out to be Bulgarian, and was in fact none other than the Lyst's own Hellen. And true to form, looked absolutely nothing like the way I'd imagined she would. From the main hall to one of the video rooms, which Iain had purloined for his workshop on performances in B7/Bab5, of which much has already been said. This was perhaps the most memorable session of the whole con, perhaps because it involved more than merely talk.

The Zine Publishing workshop looked like it might be a bit of a struggle, since Tavia and I were on our own until Judith suddenly materialised to save us. Or me, at any rate, since Tavia had a very smart looking zine to flash around and illustrate some of the practicalities of formatting and layouting. Judith, of course, is an old hand at this game, and could answer any question with ease as well as throw up issues out of the blue if things started feeling a bit slack.

I skipped David Walsh's panel on Realism In Slash, because I'd seen it the previous time (when I'd been impressed by David's candid handling of the subject and he'd been a bit impressed that I'd turned up at all. "Why did you come?" he'd asked me in the bar later. The correct answer should of course have been, "Steady on, David, it wasn't that exciting," but typically I only thought of that keenly honed retort about three months later). If I'd known Gareth was going to be there this time I might have paid a second visit, though.

Political Systems in SF: This time I wasn't the only bullshitter on the panel, all four of us were at it, though maybe not as blatantly as me. I was impressed by the turnout (the room was packed), but can't remember much about the discussion, which somehow never seemed to flag. I don't recall any of the anti-American rhetoric that others have cited, though there were some rather barbed comments about Star Trek. Is that what people meant? You don't slag off ST because it's American, you slag it off because it's Trek and hence crap by default. Or something.

The splitting head I'd carried since breakfast hadn't gone away in all this time, if anything it was worse. Quick trip to Sainsburys for some paracetamol, and then I considered the unthinkable - going to bed while the con was in full swing. Actually, this wasn't a bad idea. It perked me up a bit, cleared my headache, and left me with enough energy to intimidate people well into the small hours. Long enough, anyway, to catch Una on her way back from the Glam Rock disco. I had come equipped with my digital camera and I wasn't afraid to use it. Una's fate is now sealed.


Highlight of the morning had to be the Trial of Roj Blake. Pat and Morrigan had bravely chosen to defend the indefensible (Ika with a scrap of underlay draped on her head), while the prosecution seemed to be relying on brute force and ignorance. More fool them. Jem Ward, aka Travis was the first witness, taking his chair while insisting that it was "all an illusion". Pat ripped into him with a ferocity that had me carefully eyeing up the door. A quick exit might prove prudent. Morrigan more sedately packed an awful lot of words into an amazingly short period of time without a single scrap of guff, claiming that the Federation had effectively declared war on its own citizens, thus legitimising Blake's campaign. The prosecution (sorry, don't know his name) feebly pointed out that Blake had sort of half acknowledged that he might have vaguely admitted to having been mentally incompetent at some time or other and was therefore guilty as hell. The jury didn't agree.

The B7 Movie panel was a lively one, ably hosted by Tanja Kinkel who did amazingly well for anyone, let alone a non-native English speaker. My own great contribution to this debate was a possible title for a sequel - Blake's 7 II: The Wrath of Jenna. Various scenarios were tossed around - would we want a straight carry on from 'Blake'? (No.) Who should be in it? (Surprisingly, there was a lot of support for having none of the original characters, not even Avon.) One suggestion, Tanja's I think, that really took me by surprise was the idea of setting it alongside the events of the original series, as a parallel bunch of characters wandering around at the same time as Blake et al. There might even have been talk of remaking the original series with a brand new cast. We ended up with a show of hands: Would or should a new film or series be regarded as canon? Yes. And would it be any good? Probably not. (But what I really want to know is, who was that bloke who suddenly marched up from the back of the room and plonked himself on the panel? And having done that, why didn't he say anything? Strange.)

The Great Slash Debate: Yet again I had wangled my way (or more properly been wangled by Judith) onto a panel for which I wasn't really all that qualified. Down in the bar, Jane Carnall put me on the rack. I didn't like slash, I didn't read slash, so what the hell did I think I was doing? Good question. But by putting me on the rack she gave me the answer I needed. With Predatrix as pro-slash, Kathryn as the anti corner, and Judith keeping them apart, I was there to ask two questions. What gets written, why is it written, and who wri - *three* questions. In other words, I was to be the Spanish Inquisition. Not that I got to don my red cardinal's hat, since the debate was fast and furious, with Judith having to keep the more loquacious contributors in check to make sure everyone had their fair turn. Whilst not quite as memorable as Iain's performance workshop, this was for me the very best session of the con. With one notable exception, everyone behaved remarkably over this traditionally inflammatory subject. Kathryn bravely explained her religious objections to slash without getting howled down by an angry mob, and the overall level of discussion was intelligent, informed, and although things got a bit lively at times it never turned angry or bitter. It was agreed, I think, that reading a gay subtext into character interactions is a highly personal thing that works for some but not for others, and simply agreeing on that without rancour is a tribute to those who took part. Indeed, once our allotted 90 minutes was up we adjourned to another room to continue the debate, under the impromptu chairmanship of David Walsh, and continued for more than an hour. Predictably it never actually reached any conclusions (eventually drifting towards some of Steve Rogerson's more bizarre pairings), but that's not the point of these discussions. Simply hearing the different points of view was what mattered.

And then, since it was 10 o'clock, it was back to the bar. Sunday night is when the sense of a fading con sets in, and the urge to milk it of every last moment grips the soul with an urgent frenzy. About a dozen of us gathered round a table by the fountain, conversations floating from one subgroup to another like virtual butterflies, settling on heads at random. Ika stamped her foot and literally jumped up and down when I mentioned Richard Dawkins. Apparently he opposes her primarily Derridist loyalties. I proved her wrong by threatening to crown her with an ashtray. She proved me wrong by pointing out that the ashtray might not exist (or something). We met somewhere in the middle, the putative ashtray unthrown. Pat went to the bar, with an order for a pint of Carling for me and half a bitter for Ik a. She came back with a pint of bitter and half a Carling. "Looks like she's done a Vila," I said. The hands of the clock went by all too fast. One by one, people drifted away. Eventually there were just three of us, now back on the subject of slash. I'm usually the last person to slouch off to bed on the last night of a con, but not this time. There's another group further down the boulevard, and suddenly they pounce on us. "People!" declares one, hauling up a chair. So with two on one side of us and two on the other, shouting over our heads as they continue their own conversation, we somehow try to struggle on with ours. No good, they are too loud. They don't want to talk to us, they don't even want to know who we are. I mutter something about h*j*ck*d threads and retire.


Normally I hate Mondays. The con is dead, cremated overnight, its ashes scattered beneath the feet of mundanes who have taken over 'our' hotel. But not this time. There are enough people still around to talk to. Morrigan needs some luggage hauled out to the car park. Like, 70 pounds of zines. Guess which mug gets lumbered with that job? Lots of goodbyes, to Pat, Tavia, Morrigan, Steve, Kathryn, Julia and Judith (who gives me another hug, so she still hasn't twigged who I am). Finally it's time to go, sharing a cab with Susan because we're both going to the station. I pay the fare to make sure she owes me a drink next time. Some traditions can't be abandoned. A mix up with the lifts, an embarrassing faux pas known as Forgetting To Buy A Ticket, and I'm off, with only Patricia Cornwell for company, and a sad but somehow satisfying (not to mention alliterative) sense of having properly said goodbye to a wonderful convention.

All together now - Aaaahhh!


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