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Tales from MECON

The Annual Science Fiction convention of
The Queen's University of Belfast

It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times
by Eugene Doherty

Once upon a time (well twelve years ago) in a galaxy far away (okay, just down the road) a cheeky young chappie called Tommy Ferguson went to an SF convention in Glasgow and enjoyed it so much he asked his chum, firm of jaw and smooth of cheek (for it was a long time ago), if he'd like to help run the same in Belfast. Being irrepressibly cheery and hopelessly na´ve, Eugene (for it was I), said, "Yes, that sounds like a jolly wheeze", or words to that effect and so NICON (Northern Ireland CONvention, clever eh?) was born.

After various trials and tribulations, already well documented in TASHs past, the dynamic duo were joined by a medley of other university chums and looking like a rabid version of Team Banzai they ran a series of regional SF cons of varying degrees of success, culminating in the 10th National University convention, called UNICON (Bid slogan "We have Nicon, all we need is YOU", despite this we won it). After this the horrible world of work meant that we had to disband the concomm and go our separate ways.

It was thus that Tommy and I approached the idea of attending MECON, the "first Northern Ireland SF convention this decade" (ouch!) with a certain amount of history and a couple of steamer trunks of emotional baggage. This was not only because of our previous involvement in running or own cons but also because the present one was being organised by the Queen's University Science Fiction society which Tommy had originally set up and which I had subsequently managed for years. However, a lack of realpolitik meant that I had let it run into the ground and in order to ensure that it could rebuild and revamp itself I decided to divorce myself entirely from it and let them make their own mistakes (though always being approachable for advice if they wanted it but not sticking my oar in anymore).

Though the committee had made noises about approaching the greybeards for words of wisdom they had never really been interested and so I was keen to see what sort of a hash they had made of things. It wasn't that I wished them ill as such but let's just say that, because of the frame of mind I was in, any disaster was liable to produce in me a frisson of schadenfreude.

Not wishing to appear overly keen (well, not being very organised actually) we didn't get ourselves there in the morning, so it was only after fortifying ourselves with a pleasant lunch in a nearby coffee bar (most unfhannish lime and chicken with focaicia bread, washed down with americanos and iced moccachinos; Tommy's cosmopolitan ways are so persuasive) and showing off the new digital camera I had bought that morning and wanted to break in, that we made our way to the first northern con this decade.

Straight through the door and the first folks we see are Peter Morwood and Diane Duane, the Richard and Judy of Irish Skiffydom. This was truly a home-coming as Peter was one of the guests we had at our first convention all those years ago. Even more poignant was the fact that, through ill-advised comments we had made about him and his hat in a con newsletter at Octocon in 94, we had been banned from that con and Octocon for the next two years (more on this at the Cortex saga online).

Though we didn't think they would remember us we decided to play it safe for a time and make for the first programme item we were in time for after registering. This in itself was interesting as the pack included a free condom. How had they known that Tommy was coming (if you'll pardon the pun). Was this part of the recent 'Getting Laid in Fandom' that I heard (and seen) so much about at Corflu, and if this was the case where did I register for my share? This would have to be kept for a later time though.

First item and it was like coming home. It was the Guest of Honour speech with James White, the gentle giant of sixties hard SF - another stalwart of our previous cons and all of the Octocons down south as well. Listening to him was like pulling on a comfortable pair of old slippers. Eamon Waters, who was hosting the talk, was nervous as James claims not to like making speeches but rather prefers an interview format. Yet, really it's just a matter of setting him up a few feed lines and then sitting back and enjoying the show. James loves the chat and in all honesty is the most self-effacing egotist in fandom and we love him for it. We had anecdotes new and old, and none the worse for that, and some of his infamous puns ("Walt Willis's granddad was a printer so Walt's fanzines were just a case of reverting to type"). The only regret Tommy and I had was that we hadn't brought some Tunnocks teacakes for the famous unwrapping ceremony (an experience all fans must have once in their lives) He claims to be unemployable now but five novels and several short stories (and a screenplay option) seem to have kept him busy for the last few years. This wasn't a talk at a breakneck pace but you know what you're going to get, and you get it in spades.

Feeling that we should try to break the mould, we then stayed on for the next panel, the good old "Politics in SF" theme. Actually this had some reasonable twists as the panel itself was very well suited to this topic as most had written something with strong political backgrounds or foregrounds of one sort or another. Unfortunately, the low numbers in the audience (indeed at the con itself but more of that later) meant that there was a certain hardcore Trekkie contingent doing battle with a Babylon 5 redoubt and what they may have made up for in passion and loyalty, they lacked in articulation or coherence. Here's a tips guys, if you've going to speak up try and have a point to what you're saying. Also, as enthusiastic as the guests were, even they flagged trying to make politics sexy for an hour, though Ian McDonald was making great headway with his Paisley anecdote until the rest of the guests stopped him from expanding on his Rhonda Paisley fantasies. In summary, politics is boring, it don't sell books.

After two items in a row, a nuMutant record we had to retire to the bar and there found the Politics panel had already beaten us to it. It was there that much entertaining chat ensued with Ian McDonald, with whom I found that we both share far too great an interest in Channel Four sitcoms. We also chatted with Graham Joyce after pretending that we had actually read any of his books or stories (no slur on him, I haven't read anything current apart from Pratchett and Rankin for about five years… but I am still a fan… I think).

We even chatted amicably with David Wingrove and allowed ourselves to like him after finding that he rather regretted the extremely unPC nature of the first Chung Kuo book ("Ah ye, well I have had a daughter since then and rather changed my mind about that now"). We gossiped with Peter and Diane and much to our disgust found that they were rather likeable too (the nerve of them).

Of course the question must be asked, did we beard the Morwood in his lair over our previous brief encounter? Well, not quite. Tommy did drop many hints about that Octocon and that Hat. Subtlety was not his watchword: "What about your hat then?" But Peter was either very dim or very politic: "Oh I wore it out" so the subject never arose. The bar conversation continued on down the road with the familiar meal-break crocodile of fen making their way to the Empire which had a special offer on that night. More pictures of the guests at the trough can be seen in the accompanying photo supplement.

This helped to set the scene for third phase of the night - the Grand SF & Fantasy Pub Quiz. In the best tradition of such things this was extremely late in kicking off but fortunately this being a bar we soon discovered that a few pints made the pain of delay tolerable. As for the rest of evening we will draw a veil, suffice to say that the bearable ignominy of being second last was replaced half way through by the crashing shame of last place. However to this day and beyond to our last breath we say that there were shenanigans afoot in the scoring not least because the Chairman's girlfriend was on the team that swapped places with us. (Not that I'm bitter).

Still we were able to lead the community singing in most of the theme tune round, even if we couldn't name them. I also discovered that David Wingrove may be a new man and a nice bloke but he can't tell a joke to save his life, as he killed the Michael Caine/Gillian Telford number stone dead.

Despite the several pints (and more pints) drunk, some of the crowd felt the need for a little diversion and left for the Empire and a late licence whilst I stayed on with the die-hards from down south and James White for a last sup. Given the frailty of his advancing years it's amazing how he still manages to be the last out of the bar at night. Surveying the talent (for purely academic reasons) convinced me once again that sex and cons don't really mix. I know that Corflu almost had me convinced but, the condom not withstanding (sic), Mecon confirmed my prejudice in this respect.

I was again struck by the prevalence of fannish archetypes - as the number of folk in the rump of Irish fandom that I ended the evening with who all resembled someone else I knew. It's lucky that I'm unique myself (a sentiment I'm sure many folk share).

Tommy had said he was going on to the Empire with his new-found chums, the Morwoods, but as I discovered later he disappeared for two hours only to arrive back at his house where Mark McCann was holding an impromptu party. Tommy was handed a bottle of beer and then proceeded to sit in the corner and gibber for another while before crawling off to bed and not surfacing again for 13 hours, missing Sunday entirely. Obviously these Belfast cons take it out of the wee lad. This however was quite in keeping with his past track record when he used to pass out on the second day of the con, though at least he had the excuse then of being the world's unhealthiest veggie at the time.

After all the excitement of Saturday, Sunday was a bit of washout. A feeling I think many shared as the low overall turnout meant everybody felt the need, if not to perform, at least to put themselves about a lot. The time travel panel was a prime example with too much about the mechanics and not enough about the ideas, and again the problem of the over-keen, inarticulate audience was evident. I bumbled about for a few more hours but the gloss had worn off and it was clear by the closing ceremony that they had blown their wad. Despite this they did seem keen to go again next year and I know that this time I would like to join them.

It was strange that, from chatting with various members of the concomm at different times, I kept hearing the same complaints that Tommy and I had made all those years ago. I certainly think they should have had better publicity both at home and further afield. I had asked for flyers before going to Corflu knowing that it would be full of Yanks doing the tour of Europe and keen for any cons to visit whilst here, but I didn't get the flyers until I got back. Part of the problem though is that there just isn't a big enough local fan-base who understand the idea of an SF con. Despite a top class guest list that would cost three times as much across the water, they balk at paying ten quid for a weekend. Yet the local media groups have no problem getting thirty pounds or more for one day with a Trekkie or Dr Who guest and a bunch of old videos. Belfast is not worthy yet.

Next year, I'll be back and I'll bring my mates with me!

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