Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nottingham Nights and a Piddle in the Hole

The annual FantasyCon, and the tenth anniversary of my own first attendance during that most paranoid of years, 1999. 'The Millennium Bug' never came, so I already knew quite a few of the convention-goers through Facebook ('friends' I was going to meet for the first time).
Into the bar, where I found Gary Greenwood partaking of a bottled beer with the somewhat unappetizing name of Piddle in the Hole . His wife, Ly, took a sip and pronounced it 'disgusting', but I tried a bottle anyway. Not the worst I've ever tasted, but at £3.30 a throw it wasn't likely to become my favoured tipple (not with Guinness at £2.00 a pint, and lager at £1.75).
As ever, the convention was well attended and the usual suspects started to arrive; but things were pretty hectic this year. Some of the people I shook hands with, and then only managed to catch the odd glimpse of. Other's, of course, were mixing business with pleasure. Terry Grimwood is trying to get his publishing interest, The Exaggerated Press, off the ground and was launching a collection of short stories by a writer called John Travis, who I have known for years. As a magazine editor back in the late '90's, I published one of his earlier tales, and so was keen to get hold of a copy of his collection, Mostly Monochrome Stories. I must say, the production looks good, but Terry really needs to construct a website and get himself on Facebook; it's just a matter of getting the publicity machine rolling. Still, I'm pleased to say that I became the first punter to buy a copy of John's book.
And on the whole it was a great convention, the highlight for many being the awards when a relative newcomer, Allyson Bird, took the prize for 'best collection'.
But there have been a few gripes about the hotel, and talk of a change of venue. True, there have been shortcomings in the past, especially with the staffing of the bar; but it was run efficiently enough this year, and the discount on the beer was a nice touch. As ever, we enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast, but there were misgivings about the buffet and one of the organizers was heard complaining about a lunch he had been served. These complaints were no doubt valid, but I am still in favour of keeping The Britannia as a venue; it might not be five-star, but it's well-located and fit for purpose. When we need to escape the confines of the hotel, Nottingham Castle is just around the corner , and if the hotel beer is nothing to write home about, you can be sure of a good pint of real cask ale in a wonderful old pub called Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (which also served me an excellent ploughmans lunch).
In short, the convention benefits from a familiar setting, and I'm sure that any problems can be ironed out. I obviously don't have a say in the matter, but I think that if it was put to the vote, most people would be in favour of retaining The Britannia as a FantasyCon venue.
However, there was a sense, this time around, of the event being a prelude the much anticipted 'World Horror Convention', held in Britain for the first time next year in the seaside resort of Brighton. Most attendees seemed to be going, or at least planning to, and with James Herbert and Ingrid Pitt as special guests, the success of the event is already assured. I've never been to Brighton, and while it doesn't have the appeal of the last three places I went to (Chicago, New York and Toronto), it should still make for a good, never-a-dull moment weekend; and as they've snagged one of the top hotels as a venue, I don't anticipate any complaints in that department. Brighton, here we come!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Strike a Light!

Twenty-five years ago I was working in the Nantgarw/Windsor Colliery. Or rather, I should have been; I was, in fact, on strike, and would be for a whole year. Five Years earlier, Maggie Thatcher had been voted into power and was now waging war on the working classes; the Miners were on top of her 'hate-list'.
You may have seen a recent BBC drama, where she was seen getting into power after speaking up for the 'underprivileged', and even claiming to be one of them. Well Maggie, at least Judas Escariot took thirty pieces of silver for betraying his own; just be thankful that the BBC portrayed you as a modern-day Boudicca, instead of the modern-day Lady MacBeth that you really were (so sanitised was this play, the Miners Strike was never even mentioned!).
So the Miner's became The Enemy Within. Since when? Before she was born, the coal industry drove the country during the steam-age, heated homes and powered businesses, propelled ships and steam trains. 'The Enemy' were honest men with families, working hard to provide for them in the filthiest of conditions. But they also delivered a resounding kick in the bollocks to the Conservative Party, so this vile Grocer's daughter was determined to set the dogs on them.
I have to say, I was never a Scargill's man. From the start, he seemed on the lookout for a fight and we could all see where this was heading. One year later the Union had been divided and the seeds of death for the coal industry had been sown. The Enemy Within (good, honest, hard working men who weren't contemptible racist bigots like her husband, or common criminals like her son) were facing redundancy. Twenty-five years on, and the effects are still being felt - many family members are still not talking to each other, and old friends have become old enemies.
So what's changed? Very little, it has to be said; buoyed up by her petty victory, Maggie became power-crazed and continued her war on the working classes. The Poll Tax was a turning point, a system where an old woman living in a caravan was charged the same amount as a Lord living in a mansion. The Tory's 'finally' realized that this particular mad dog had to be put down, and maggie Thatcher was history; but for most, it came far too late. South Wales now has a lot of dead area's that used to be thriving mining communities and a once great industry no longer exists. This is the Tory legacy.
Incredibly, people now want to vote them back into power; as if we'd be better off without Gordon Brown. This is not the case; the Conservative party has a history of mischief and the working classes can only expect more of the same. David Cameron is appealing to younger voters who probably have very little memory of 1984 (when unarmed working men - and women, for that matter - were baton-charged by police on horseback in full riot gear; when they were stopped in their own cars and told that they could not travel to certain parts of their own towns and cities). Even the papers started drawing comparisons with George Orwell's vision of the future in that harrowing novel. Certainly, Maggie Thatcher had no qualms about abusing human rights!
Still, my memories of the strike aren't all terrible. There was a lot of support for the Miners (though you might not have thought so, reading the papers) , and people actually took an interest when I told them that I worked in a Colliery. I made friends with other strikers and we campaigned on the street and met up in pubs. And it was a terrific summer, I remember that.
But our time had come. In December 1986, Nantgarw/ Windsor Colliery closed and I transferred to the Taff Merthyr Colliery. When that closed, in 1990, I took my redundancy and left the industry for good. Coal was a thing of the past and there was no point in hanging on. These days, I have a coin and a pewter tankard to remind me of those times. It was another world, and while I'd never go back, I'm quite pleased that I was once a part of it.
The Enemy Within?
It is rather amusing to remember that, at the end of the day, Maggie's 'real' enemies were within her own cabinet - and they knifed her big time! Just like most of the country, the old bitch was out of a job. A little late, it has to be said, but good riddance. At least we got to enjoy her ignominious exit from 10 Downing Street:-D

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Beer, Barroom Tales and Tanky Smith

There is nothing like a good reunion, and a gathering of the so-called Terror Scribes was long overdue. Time was, we hung out on the notice boards of a website called Terror Tales. Then the site finished and most of us lost contact with each other. Recently, through the dubious medium of Facebook, Sue Phillips brought us all back together, leading the way to a modest, and very enjoyable gathering in Leicester.
With a fair way to travel, I arrived on the Friday evening, booked into a rather quaint guesthouse called The Croft Hotel, and then went to a pub called The Old Horse for a meal (steak and ale pie, with thick chunks of steak - delicious!). The next morning I met John B. Ford and Des Knight at the station. Having left their bags in my room, we had a look around Leicester before making our way to The Landsdown. After that, it was like stepping back in time as people (some of whom I hadn't seen in years) started drifting in. Sue, of course, with her husband Morgan and their daughter, Tilly; Joe Freeman and his family; Rob Rowntree and Derek Fox; Paul and Colleen Bradshaw; Mark West, Emma Lee (one of my first facebook 'friends' , who I was meeting for the first time), Selina Locke and her partner, Jay Eales; and Allyson Bird.
Feeling adventurous, the Fordster and myself decided to sample a rather potent brew called Hoegaarden beer (of which one pint was enough, if we wanted to keep our senses!).
Then it was time for talking, either catching up or making introductions. In time came the traditional readings; first a story from Allyson, then Joe and Mark. I came next, and decided that a little gusto would be in order. By the time I'd finished, they certainly knew they'd heard a story;-)
Derek made the last reading, a nostalgic tale about teenagers getting to see their first 'X' rated film (Dracula) back in the fifties. As a writer, Derek has always managed to come up with a great turn of phrase, and this was a fun, entertaining way to close the reading session.
We spent a few hours catching up after this, then it was time for another tradition to be upheld; the visit to a curry house, in this case an establishment called Agra (the sign on the facade of the building being written in such huge white letters, I'd swear NASA could have picked it up with their space telescope!). A new place out to impress, it served up a feast, and my Chicken Tikka was so thick I could have stood my fork up in it. At the end of the meal they gave us a free Liqueur. Mark West was driving, so he pushed his glass across the table and told me to enjoy it. I did!
This was where we started parting company, and soon it was just John, Des, Mark and myself. So we set off up the road, where Mark had parked his car.
And this is where we encountered a certain Francis 'Tanky' Smith.
Not in person, you understand, as Tanky shuffled off his mortal coil back in 1888. But here was his legacy, written on a blue plaque. (City of Leicester, Top Hat Terrace ... built by ... Francis "Tanky" Smith (d 1888) ... Leicester's first Private Detective). The plaque went on to inform us ... (Each of the carved heads on the building represent Tanky Smith in one of his many disguises). And there were those carved heads on the building; the same face, but wearing a different hat. The image was so absurd, that we couldn't help but take the Mick out of old Tanky. So that's the secret of a great disguise? Just pop a different hat on your noggin and no-one will recognize you? We've certainly come a long way since the Victorian era:-)
Saying goodbye to Mark, I went to The Old Horse for a last couple of drinks with Des and John; there were still a lot of great times to reminisce about.
Now, the Leicester gathering of February, 2009, has become another of those great memories. Say what you will about facebook, it really does bring old friends back together.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Facebook Follies

I signed up for facebook ... and immediately tried to get off it when my in-box started filling up. However, as I posted on a writers forum, I was soon getting 'be-my-friend' requests (mostly off people I knew, but a couple off complete strangers; still, I'm told people on this site collect 'friends' like a philatelist collects stamps, so nothing unusual there, it seems). Which is all very well, but I'm going to get really pissed off if my in-box starts to fill up with 'So and So has just posted a message on your forum' notices. As these postings rarely get beyond one or two lines, and no one ever posts anything of importance, I hardly need e-mailed updates to tell me this! Even more irritating, the sodding thing kept rejecting my password; after a whole week of resetting the damn thing, I finally came up with one it accepted. This was more infuriating, as I only kept the facebook page because I couldn't get rid of it (and I tried, believe me!)
So what of Facebook? Mostly crap, it has to be said. useful for organizing events and sending out invitations, but mostly a collection of banal comments which leave me feeling that some people really need to get a life. Still, I'm there now; just remember a few things if you want to pal up with me on it;
I do not want to 'join a vampire club and bite someone on the ass', and I do not want to 'join a high stakes poker game and play cards on-line'. This is some of the things I've blocked so far, and the same goes for anything else in this vain; I do not spend all my spare time on the ruddy internet!
However, I may as well make the most of it; it might be amusing, and there's a few people it will be good to keep in touch with. I just wish I'd known what I was letting myself in for when I signed up for it!