Wot, No Pirates?

And so, the final volume of our trilogy draws to a close. Behold, fearsome portents are seen on every hand. Violent storms flood the roads, stranding travellers in the midst of nowhere... great whales wash up the River Irwell, picking bits of prophets from between their teeth and demanding more salt... the Fimbulwinter descends in a spate of Easter blizzards and ice giants... Man. Utd. play Liverpool before an audience of ten thousand mad Norwegians while six-month wonder The Spice Girls try to resurrect their fading careers by getting pregnant by Dr Plokta giving their first public concert (in a desperate attempt to counter the widespread rumour that none of them can sing a note...).

It's Eastercon time. Intuition. Manchester. The split site that countless other committees had looked at and said "Nah, you can't run a convention there, mate. Not with a main road running between the two hotels. It's yer basic recipe for hideous, world-ending disaster like, innit?"

But just what happened at the con? It's hard now to remember those few terrible days, when the very fate of the universe itself hung in the balance. To our surprise, the world didn't come to end; someone's heroic efforts must have staved off the ultimate destruction. I'm sure that parts of the con were excellent -- the members didn't storm the committee barricades demanding their money back, so they must have done something right. But that's boring. The problem with recounting tales of virtue and a job well done is that nobody ever wants to read them except the people involved. So what went wrong? That's what everyone really wants to know. Alas, my memory has blurred under the influence of the committee's hideous mind-warping rays, so that only a few tattered fragments remain.

We descended upon the Britannia in a car laden with paper, laser printers, computers, digital cameras, chocolate, soft toys, malt whisky, clothes, more chocolate, amethysts, peacocks and the ten thousand secret things that Albertus Magnus specifies in his mystic work De rerum conventionae. And chocolate. I tipped the remains of the porter as he slithered out of our room on quiet pseudopods and headed back along the interminable length of the longest corridor in Manchester, towards the lifts. Turning, I stared out of the massive picture window that made up a good two-thirds of our room, in the general direction of Manchester's Quaint Victorian Architecture. Unfortunately, between the aforesaid QVA and me, was the 14-storey brutalist concrete monolith of the Jarvis Piccadilly Hotel. A building generally resembling a breezeblock that has had a nasty encounter with a giant buzz-saw and has then been dropped in the garbage. Recently voted "The building we'd most like to demolish before the millennium" in an independent poll. Gods, it was ugly. Suddenly, I realised the fatal flaw in our hotel booking: sure the Jarvis had terrible rooms, but it also had the inestimable advantage of being the only place in Manchester from which it was impossible to see the hotel itself.

Next, to park the car. The Britannia itself has no parking, indeed one of the staff nearly killed himself laughing when we asked, and had to be hastily suppressed in an undignified manner by the duty manager. After aeons of searching, during which civilizations rose and fell, ice ages came and went, and a new race of fans emerged to run Intuition, we finally managed to find a parking space, a mere 20 miles away in Altrincham, and returned to the city centre on a tram. In the distance, dark clouds lowered and the thunder boomed. The Spice Girls were tuning up. We decided to try and find the rest of the convention before the heavens opened to wreak their revenge upon the cringing populace of.... Incidentally, did you know that in Australia, "Manchester" means a haberdashery? Not a lot of people know that; well, apart from 18 million Australians, but they don't count. Where was I? Oh yes.

Suddenly, dark fury (oh, alright, auburn fury) descends upon us in the person of Marcia Coy McIllingworth. It seems, we are rapidly informed while progressing in a generally backwards direction, that the committee had viciously and evilly promised that the convention hotels were perfectly configured for disabled access and that powered wheelchairs would be made available for all who needed them. However, having tempted the mobility-impaired McIllingworth clan with their blandishments, it appears that a strange and unfortunate reality distortion occurred. The massive flight of steps that has materialised, leading up to the hotel, might well be negotiable by those in anti-gravity chairs. Unfortunately, there is only one supplier of accessibility equipment and they require that all theirs be permanently connected to the shop by mains lead and returned after sundown for their daily diet of virgins. Alas, Intuition's tech is unable to cope with a two-mile long extension cord. Or virgins. Tim, Marcia and a caravan of native bearers are heading out into the deserted wastes of ancient Stockport in the hope of finding the legendary Zen master of wheelchairs rumoured to dwell there. Their quest must succeed before sundown, lest the storms overtake them, leaving them stranded and causing a great disturbance in the Plot. We wave a last farewell from the hotel steps and turn once again to the serious business of finding where the hell everybody is drinking.

The Britannia Hotel

It appears that nobody is drinking anywhere. We comb the bars but the only occupants are mad football supporters (tautologous, I know, but there it is) intent on drinking Manchester out of cats' piss. Unfortunately, Manchester has an apparently unending supply of incontinent cats. Plus, of course, the usual contingent of airline staff gearing themselves up to be outraged by the noise of the convention while being completely oblivious of the soccer fans swarming everywhere like red and white termites. We prowl on through the hotels. Eventually, when all hope seems extinguished, we discover a selection of committee members, gophers and sundry other disreputable types in the dealers' room, dispiritedly stuffing sample copies of crap novels into plastic bags. We go away and stand disconsolately at the bar, hoping that our pints of fizz will spontaneously evolve into real ale. They don't.

Thursday dawns cold and wet, and oh, wet and, well, let's face it, wet. The once-in-500-year storms have struck for the third time in a row, stranding thousands of hapless travellers in the midst of the countryside as global warming finally sinks the nation beneath the waves. From the roof of every farmhouse between London and Manchester, soaking-wet fans twirl propeller beanies in the desperate hope of sexually attracting a rescue helicopter before the con finishes. Meanwhile, a solid wall of water separates the two hotels like some itinerant Niagara, attempting to crash the convention.

I dig out the piles of signs and blutack, and begin to decorate the convention with directions, admonitions and horrible warnings. There's usually only so many places where you can put up a notice saying "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." However, in the cyclopean, non-Euclidean architecture of the Jarvis, it is more a case of being careful not to just plaster them everywhere. The fact that the stairs don't seem to start till the second floor tends to make its internal geometry somewhat... discontinuous. Not to mention causing access problems of an unusual variety. The secret extra floor between the second and the third seems to cause a lot of problems, too. Since this is where the con desks have been hidden, I take care to signpost it explicitly. Fortunately for all concerned, the negatives have been destroyed.

Jarvis main staircase Britannia main staircase
The opulent splendour of the Britannia main stairs Rat-infested main staircase in the Jarvis
Could they possibly be related?

Come Friday and the programme starts. Out goeth the word from the committee saying "Find Steve and his book of signs for the people cannot find the Workshops and there is a great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the land". There is a good reason for this. I couldn't find them either. Ops thought they were in one place, Security thought they were somewhere else, the committee didn't know very much about anything at all and the hotel didn't know anything about workshops but were proudly trumpeting the oh-so secret location of the treasury (aka "Zurich") from their board in the lobby. After much running up and down stairs, it eventually transpires that a couple of fans had arrived entirely unexpectedly, very late the previous night. They had caused such a fuss on being told that there was no room in the inn (and hadn't been for weeks), that the hotel staff had given in and put them in one of the workshops, which they were now refusing to vacate. I stick a notice on their door and go away.

Meanwhile, back over in the Britannia, disaster has struck the art show. There are just too many pictures. Hero of the Soviet Union (First Class) Noel Collyer is hastily building a second art show out of a few pieces of string and a small plank of wood that he happened to have in his back pocket. Frantic art show head, Pat "will do anything for ribbons" McMurray is hurriedly trying to convince some artists that this is a special show and the fact that it is hidden away in an obscure part of the Britannia is in fact a tribute to their unsurpassed greatness. To everyone's surprise, including his own, he succeeds.

And now, it's time for the contractual obligation shift as Ops Manager. Stepping through the armoured steel doors of the Ops Room, I find that Fiona has imported several thousand Germans and is busy drilling them in the Anderson way of world domination. However, sitting in Secure Store, cuddling a white teddy bear, just doesn't seem to have quite the same cachet as stroking a Persian cat. "So, you doubt our plans for universal conquest! By next veek ve vill control the entire Vestern vorld's supply of marzipan!! And then you'll be sorry!!! Ralf, Jurgen, show Dr Plokta to the piranha tank!!!!" Amazingly, they seem to believe everything she tells them, which explains a lot about 20th century history.

Unfortunately, any problem that dares to rear its ugly head is instantly grabbed and fought over by hordes of roving conrunners, desperate for a little interest in their dull lives -- or so it seems to us in Ops who spend our entire shift in morose silence. This instant solving of problems does not, of course, extend as far any real problems, such as those innumerable disasters affecting the hotels. These we are all firmly forbidden to help with and forced to pile them onto the head of the hapless Steve Lawson who spends his con forever running between hotels, dancing to the never-ending tune of his pager. Well, either that or else it has to go to one of the vast number of duty committee members. Other conventions seem to manage with one, but Intuition appears to need dozens. Alas, Wolf von Witting and I fall under the curse of Fiona for daring to try and solve a few problems ourselves. Quite frankly, I don't think I'm ever going to volunteer to work in Ops ever again after Intuition; it's just too much trouble escaping from those damn piranhas.

To my unending shame and that of all true fans, it becomes necessary to create a new set of signs to go in the lifts. They read something like "Please leave space for people in wheelchairs, don't deliberately set off fire-alarmed doors, don't be an insufferable little shit, G*rry W*bb this means you." Fiona Anderson vows a mystic vow that she will throw G*rry out of the convention or expire messily. So there is some good in her after all.

And now, down the street in a swift pan, erm, tracking shot, umm, pull-through.... Up pops John Richards with his cinema hat on, looking for all the world like the young Orson Welles, and, "Steve, you just do not know what you're talking about, do you? Why don't you give up?" He clumps off in the direction of a pint of cider, surrounded by a halo of computer-generated X-Wings, all singing out of tune filk songs. As I was trying to say, before I was so rudely interrupted.... At this point we go out for dinner to a nearby Thai restaurant in the company of (among others) the usual Plokta suspects, Jim Young (Bill Clinton's man in Lagos) and Ulrika O'Brien, one-woman Viking invasion force and widely rumoured to be the TAFF delegate. We sit down, carefully avoiding the orchids that appear to be writhing everywhere. We hunt for the menu, which seems to be rapidly disappearing into the maw of something only Nero Wolfe could love. Hurriedly, we beat back the encroaching jungle with a flame-thrower and a brace of machetes, doing our little bit towards global warming. Jim, by now an old Africa hand, advises from the security of the chandelier. Ulrika bedecks herself with a fistful of slaughtered orchids and half the tray of starters. We stare out of the window through a temporary gap in the rain forest, slowly coming to the realisation that, outside, there's a blizzard going on. Yes, the ice age has returned to Manchester and it's snowing like an explosion in a chicken factory out there.

At last, the party is forcibly rolled out of the cosy warm restaurant by a crack team of attack waiters and pointed through the six-foot snowdrifts in the general direction of the hotel. Dodging the odd polar bear/mugger/football fan as we go, we are just in time not to see a team of blood-spattered nuns clutching chainsaws fleeing the other way. On the front steps of the Britannia, the last dying survivor of the massacre is only just managing to hold his head on. Blood gushes from his face, down the stairs and into the road where it freezes in lurid puddles. It appears, I hear subsequently, that he was vociferously upset about the large numbers of commie, lesbian science fiction fans in his vicinity. Following which he called one of the hotel's bouncers a very naughty word, resulting in him being used for basketball practice down the steps of the hotel. An ambulance has been called and the bouncer is helping police with their enquiries into how they can win the divisional sports championship. Apparently this sort of thing happens all the time in Manchester.

Entering the lobby, I have a close encounter with a seriously rattled Chris Bell. It appears that, only moments before, the hotel had been invaded by regiments of riot police charging down to the disco. Chris, not unnaturally, had assumed that her children were responsible and had been frantically trying to find Rowan (or possibly Rachel) in order to spirit them away from the unwanted attentions of the Law. Since Rachel (or possibly Rowan) was actually currently engaged in being the universal centre of attention in the Games Room, Chris had little success in finding her. This naturally left her in a state of serious hug-deprivation. Look, I know you don't believe me but it's true, every word.... Well, all right, maybe not the nuns.

Alison swigging rum from a brown paper bag
Milady holds forth to her adoring fans

Still, all's well that ends well (except for the guy who got dribbled down into the gutter -- but hey, it's a learning experience!) and it's time to go party. The Britannia, having a d*cor which can only be described as mythic High Victorian Brothel (with added zebras), is especially well suited for this, particularly the 6-storey lobby (tastefully painted in blue, gold, gold, gold and gold). A different party sets up shop on every landing, vastly simplifying the job of party hopping, at least so long as you're going in a downwards direction. And now, it's time for Alison's lifestyle tips number 377: "Don't drink rum out of a bottle in a brown paper bag while lying on a chaise longue surrounded by adoring young men. You'll only overdo it and regret it the next morning. And the next afternoon. And evening. Just don't talk about it, OK? I have to go and lie down now."

"Look, Steve" says Fran Dowd, soft furnishings supremo of Intuition, appearing in a puff of smoke and sequins from behind a nearby metaphor. "This just isn't good enough. We're nearly three pages in, you've only got as far as Friday night, and all you can do is ramble in a vaguely surreal fashion. Tell you what, I'll show you the mystic passes required to call a lift to the ground floor of the Jarvis, and in exchange for that all I want is your immortal soul for you to skip straight to the end of the convention. Think of the advantages, you can miss three whole Ops shifts and be first in the Jacuzzi when the convention finishes!" "How about if we just jump to Monday afternoon? I'm on next year's committee and I have to go to the Gripe Session and find out what went wrong while I was dying of boredom in Ops." "Done!" Thunder peals three times from an empty sky.

Alien Masquerade entry
Dave Wake -- saving the con from the scum of Aliens

Apparently there was a masquerade on Saturday. I understand that Dave Wake knows something about why I can't remember anything about it. Fortunately, someone carefully broke both Dave's ankles for him and left an Alien's head at the foot of his bed, so I don't think he'll do it again.

Monday. Hey! How did we get here? I swear it was Friday night only minutes ago. Conventions seem to go so quickly these days. Oh shit! The gripe session's in half an hour (oh, OK, I know it's not called a Gripe Session, but that's what they mean by Feedback Session, isn't it?). Look, nice talking to you, but I have to go take notes. Suddenly, an angel (Sue Edwards) descends from on high, saying "Blessed art thou above all mortals for thou and the rest of the Reconvene committee art on a programme item, and Intuition will buy thee each a drink (supposing we can convince the barstaff to accept the sodding drinks tokens for once)." "You what? No, I've got to go listen to the Gripe Session. I'm not on any programme items...." A flash of divine light, a rushing wind like the beating of mighty wings; then my sight gradually clears, showing a ghastly vision. There we are in the Gripe Session, but instead of Intuition's committee facing the baying mobs... there we stand, the target of their wrath. "No! No! Aaargh! That's not meant to happen till next year! Fran, I renounce our pact!" The room echoes with a dreadful cackling and with cries of "á la lanterne!" the packs of hungry fans close in for the kill.

"Well?" "Well what?" "So how did you survive Mephistophelfran betraying you to the mob?" "Well, that would be telling." "Oh, come on! You can't just leave it like that!" "How about, 'and with one bound he was free!'?" "No!" "Spoilsport." "Come on, you're going to have to tell us someday." <Sigh>. "Oh, alright. Well, first we gained some time and a lot of popularity by grabbing Wilf James and throwing him to the lions. Then Chris Bell invoked the holy name of the recently beatified St. Andy of Croft, after which we just blamed the Intuition committee for everything including the weather, Paul Kincaid, Manchester and not invading Poland when they had the chance." "Did it work?" "No. Fortunately, Alice Lawson realised that if we didn't make it we wouldn't be available for them to hand over to at the closing ceremony. So she whisked us out of there with inches to spare. It was a damn close-run thing, though." "Whew! And did you make it to the Jacuzzi party afterwards?" "Sort of, by the time we got there it was full of Intuition committee members." "How could you tell?" "Tell what?" "How could you tell they were committee? Don't all fans look the same without their glasses on?" "Ah, it's the waistcoats, you see. If you were a real committee member, your waistcoat was red silk all over, if you were just staff like me, the back of the waistcoat was plain black." "In the Jacuzzi?!" "Look, nobody ever said you had to be sane to be on an Eastercon committee." "True. What do they say?" "Mine's a pint."

A rabble of fans
Dissipated reprobates -- Austin Benson, Mike Scott, Caroline Mullan, Naomi Saunders, Alison Scott and Jim Trash

And so our saga draws towards its inevitable and unedifying close. That evening, driven temporarily mad by drink and desire, Pat McMurray and Chris Tregenza dress as coypu for Night of The Living Women. This event will live in infamy as long as the photographs exist. Untouched electronic copies now available from the Plokta archives at low, low prices! Get your blackmail material today! John Harold wins countless raffle prizes (all utterly unwantable), assorted strange Things (e.g. Tobes) are auctioned for TAFF, and the rest of us? Well we just get drunk. There's no option really, due to a strange confluxion of cosmic forces beyond the comprehension of mere mortals, buying an orange juice in the Crystal room bar suddenly costs ten times as much as anywhere else. Reality is gradually reasserting itself. Overhead, without any fuss, the less probable fans are winking out one by one and returning to amorphous mundanity. The walls of the world are closing in. Ia! Ia! Shub Niggurath! No, wait, that's been done.... Uh, That's All Folks!

-- Steve Davies

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