My First Eastercon, by Meryl aged 49.

The Lord of Longitude and I spent the Easter weekend in Harrogate, mostly at a hotel that looked like a cross between the Overlook and the Bates Motel owner’s home.  A grand old pile from the spa town’s heyday, it was playing host to this year’s Eastercon.

My first ever SF convention was Loncon, in 2014.  My second was Nine Worlds the following year – to which I’ve returned every year since.  So I was a bit unsure about what to expect from Follycon.  Would there be dodgy paintings like I saw at Loncon of the semi- or wholly-naked women who populate male heterosexual fantasyland?*  Would there be creepy sexist behaviour?**  I’m thinking again about Loncon and the man who asked a woman friend if he could look at her costume, and took her assent to mean he could walk 360 degrees around her while looking pointedly at her body parts without once talking to her or looking at her face.  And all this while three of us stood glaring and aghast and saying things out loud like ‘REALLY?’

Or would it be like Nine Worlds?  Would there be a clear code of conduct*** and a clear and accessible way to get support if needed?****  Would there be gender-neutral toilets? *****  Would there be a QUIET ROOM? ******  Would kids be welcome? Would nursing mums and parents and carers with small ones? ******

And what would the programme be like?  And would I have fun?  And would I go to Eastercon again?  Now that it’s all over, I’d say on the whole…

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Here are my positives:

There was real ale.  Who knew?  Not this Eastercon newbie.  I love real ale.  I love SF.  So do a lot of other people it seems.  It must have taken an incredible amount of organising, so bravo to the Beer wrangler and deputy (Martin Hoare and Rod O’Hanlon) and bravo to The Majestic Hotel for accommodating it.

The Follycon Committee and staff were clearly working towards making the convention a safe space for all.  Things that I noticed / appreciated:

  • The code of conduct was mentioned repeatedly.
  • When some hostile, dismissive graffiti appeared on the Gender Neutral Toilets sign, the sign was replaced.
  • A session considering women’s experiences within fandom was scheduled.
  • There was a quiet room!  YAY!  Speaking for myself, the Quiet Room was a fantastic space to retire to when sensory/social overload threatened, and it enabled me to stay the duration (I went to 3 sessions back-to-back on Saturday!  I’ve never done that before!)

I went to some really enjoyable sessions:

  • Nnedi Okorafor in discussion with Tade Thompson was so generous in sharing the details of her life and her thoughts about writing and process.  Their articulate, humorous and incisive shredding of District 9 for its racist stereotyping, their love for Black Panther for the specificity of its cultural references, their perspective on having Nigerian heritage, their observations of the gradual loosening of the white stranglehold over writing about Africa…. this was rich, intelligent, absorbing, wide ranging stuff.  I want to read all their books.
  • A really entertaining, interesting and very well-delivered pacey talk about Ray Harryhausen.
  • A fascinating panel on the future of cities.  Each of the panellists was extremely knowledgeable and could have presented a paper on the subject solo – in fact, I was a bit frustrated, because I felt the panel format didn’t always enable the speakers to enter into their specialism in-depth.  But that’s just to want more.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson.  That is all.

The convention was really well organised!  Lots of helpful information in the Welcome Pack, lots of clear signage, skilful effective tech support, clear information point.

I loved the fact that there were plenty of items on books and reading and SF lit and academia.

The cosplay!  Loved the Leia mash-up costume, the Psi Corps person and Delenn, all the Steampunky peeps.  There were a lot of great hats!

My negatives?  Well …

That hostile, dismissive graffiti on the Gender Neutral Toilets sign and this graffiti on the Quiet Room sign soured my experience.  Some people still don’t ‘get it’ or are actively hostile to the idea that SF is for everyone.

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I missed the woman-identified peeps meet up because I didn’t see it on Twitter in time!  It wasn’t programmed originally – I wish it had been – but was arranged after the ‘women in fandom’ panel session.  It’s great that the organisers were so responsive to what happened in the panel, I guess.

The habit of shouting out comments from the floor to people you know on the panel.  Some folk still do it.  When they do it, I feel excluded.  I think things like ‘I shouldn’t be here, this event is not for me.  If I don’t know (m)any other fans, then I might not be ‘allowed’ to come to things like this.  Maybe I’m not a ‘proper’ fan?  Maybe I shouldn’t try to talk to people since I’m not part of the ‘in’ crowd?’  It’s also really boring and tiresome, because it hijacks the flow of the session away from the speakers and the moderators’ guidance, breaks the thread of thought being developed, slows things down.

I observed a couple of comments that smacked a bit of inverted ageism – and one 20-something fan being condescended to by another, older fan because of their age – and this troubled me.  At Nine Worlds, I’m definitely towards the older end of the demographic and thus in a slight minority.  I don’t mind this at all – and in fact, last year there was a session where we ‘older’ fans could meet up and talk about ageism.  At Eastercon, I was smack in the middle of the demographic I think; one of the majority.  I definitely feel that older fans and younger fans benefit from talking to people in similar age brackets as themselves – there are issues and problems in fandom that are probably age-specific – but I would hate there to be too strong a line of demarcation between us.  As a middle-aged newbie, I’ve enjoyed so much my discussions with more experienced and younger fans – and age just hasn’t been an issue of consideration in these discussions, nor should it.  And ageism, inverted or not, sucks.

So on balance…

I’m in awe of anyone who organises a Follycon.

I had a good time.

I want to read everything written by Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson and Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’m really tired.

I’m already looking at Ytterbium and wondering how much it would cost to make a Death Star skirt.

Thanks and congratulations to the Follycon committee and staff.  A huge heap of work and organisation and stress and who-knows-what else; I couldn’t do it.  I hope they’re all relaxing now – or at least are getting some proper sleep.

 

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* Er, yes there were, but not as many.  There were also some really interesting things: I was quite taken with some semi-abstract cityscape paintings, and excited to see lots of small presses represented (though didn’t have enough time to browse.  I suspect the LoL deliberately steered me away from them a couple of times).

**  See above.

***  Yes.  Bravo Follycon.  More of this.

****  I think so, but I’d be interested to hear from other attendees.

*****  Yes, but see above.

******  Yes!  Though again, see above.

*******  You’d have to ask them, as I’m not a parent or carer, but for what it’s worth, I noticed there was a creche, great, but it was in another building, not so great – I imagine that was far from ideal.  There were activities for kids and one event where kids were the panellists I think (that’s a great idea, more of that stuff!), so that’s positive.  There didn’t seem to be a space like at Nine Worlds which was a kind of kids / family base, but again, I’m the wrong person to judge whether families felt like they were a bit on the margins of Follycon or whether they felt included and/or welcomed.

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Remembering Tara on her birthday

I’ve missed her irreverence and her wisdom this year – and her encouragement to not take yourself too seriously.

She died in the August night, and we scattered her ashes beneath a rowan tree on the side of a hill near the reservoir.  These poems didn’t make it into the book, but I’m glad to share them now.  She’d probably find them too oblique – ‘just SAY IT’, she wrote on one of my drafts, once.

 

Meteor

 

Fog, this morning, at the window

mild in its inquiry.

Yes, I say, it’s true.

 

River in spate, trees taking on her colours.

 

How is it the news has reached you only now?

 

Back then, we missed the Perseids crossing.

There was cloud. We were asleep.

 

Dovestone

 

to slake the thirst of a city: this reservoir

roots anchor a hillside

 

our slow party proceeding, we help lift a buggy

the children: I’m mad for mermaids

 

*

 

wet through but still we stand

the open face of water chopped rough by rain

 

*

 

the catch on the gate, slippery    then sun    the air

moves freely down the valley

 

a train, a chimney cap, a railway bridge

dual carriageway

 

*

 

it’s done    wake to the blur of daylight, the room

a hand on the face or arm

 

the curtain, the chair, the books and piles of paper

allow the cup of coffee

 

*

 

up there: sapling rows in uncut grass

the great loaves of cloud

 

…………………………………………………………………………..

Tara Louise Few

22.03.68 – 11.08.13

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Yarl’s Wood and Pastoral

I’m trying write about pastoral.  I have these essays about the environment and nostalgia and pastoral’s forgotten satirical critique, and instead of writing them I am scrolling down my Twitter feed.  It’s International Women’s Day, 8th March, 2018.

It dawns on me that – rather than deal with something knotty and human and relational – I am escaping into environment.  Even when I bewail the whales’ extinction, even when it is terribly painful to realise that in my everyday behaviours I’m implicated in their extinction, my privileged subjecthood* of wailing is unassailed.

Why is it more comfortable though terribly painful to think about the plastic in the ocean than it is to address myself to the hunger-striking women, indefinitely detained at Yarl’s Wood?  Why is it even easier to think – though in a panic and terror that tightens these asthmatic lungs – about London’s rising pollution levels, the tang of burn and chemical that makes my nostrils tingle – see how I aesthetically enjoy defining it? – than it is to think about the women protesting and imprisoned in Yarl’s Wood?

Huh.  The aesthetic pleasure of repeated questions as a structure.  ANSWER.

It is easier because when I think about environment I feel pure and comfortable.  I feel comfortable being implicated in my privilege, even, in a way that I don’t feel comfortable being implicated when I think about the hunger striking women imprisoned in Yarl’s Wood.

And this reveals the collapse lament-fantasy that my thinking about environment truly is.  Even when contemplating the fatberg, or the rubbish barge spewing out its filth breath over cormorant and black-headed gull on the Thames, I’m subsiding in comfort into elegy and nostalgia, into the static pleasure pastoral can offer.

Meanwhile, women are still imprisoned and protesting and going hungry in Yarl’s Wood.

 

*white, ‘able’-bodied, in a heterosexual relationship, savings in the bank, middle class, ‘UK National’ …

* NB: edited in: privilege blanking itself out again: I am cisgender! Being a person who menstruates painfully and too much and then not for a bit and then very frequently and who has a fibroid and who is in chronic minor pain most of the time and having to do all this in a world where this aspect of my personhood is generally supposed to be hidden in order for me not to be abject and to still be a person is not a privileging experience and this is something else I’m writing and thinking about at the moment.  Being a person whose occupation of the category of woman is unchallenged because my body and the gender assigned to me have more or less not been at odds, yes, that’s a privilege. 

And am I now congratulating myself on how tender and sensitive and aware I am?  That’s aestheticising again, making comfortable, rendering inert.

Magic

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I just got back from a walk in the wood at the end of our street.  The oak leaves that made such a beautifully crisp pavement a couple of months ago are now churned into indistinctness; the walking surface is all puddles and mud.  To my left, and very close; a woodpecker, that rapid drilling-knocking, each blow so loud and distinct.  Magic.

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During the festive season, on a trip back to the Forest of Dean to visit my folks, I took the Lord of Longitude on a walk round some of my teenage haunts.  It was muddy there as well, though there were whole swathes of leaf-pavement, still.  And I saw the places frequented by my morose, teenage self through new eyes.  The scowles and knotted tree roots, the deer between pine trunks in the darkening afternoon, the strange cleft in Jesus Rock … they took on a kind of glamour as my beloved, a born-and-bred Londoner, encountered them.

 

Here in our E11 terrace, dusk comes on with the roar of aeroplanes.  The vixen is back, uttering her triple bark; we might hear her tonight – or the neighbour’s cat, rowing with an interloper.  The light is taking a bit less time each day to leave the sky.  And what sunsets!

I wish you magic in 2018.  I wish you hope and energy and faith.  I wish you the certainty that peace and equality are not faint, foolish dreams but possible and near, as startling and sudden as a woodpecker’s rapid beak on the bark of a tree.

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Noise

It’s been a noisy summer in our neighbourhood, with lots of building work and renovations and loft conversions – none of it ours – going on.  The cumulative effect of months of this meant that I was ready as hell for my home-made ‘retreat’, from which I returned just over a week ago: 7 days alone in a rented house in a small hamlet outside a village, with no wi-fi, no mobile phone signal, no landline, nada.  There was a telly – but reception was patchy and it didn’t always work.  Ditto the radio.October 2017 Fawber retreat

It was quiet.  Extremely quiet.

In the daytime, I listened out for the farmer’s quad bike in the field above the house.  Sometimes the sounds of the quarry above the village would reach me, or a walker or two would go past.  Apart from that, all I heard was the occasional fighter jet on ‘exercises’ streaking through the valley, the cow or bull in the barn kicking and bellowing occasionally, the injured sheep in the smaller field with the hay bleating once or twice, and conversation between the sparrows in the hedge.  Once a neighbour was out with her dog and a leaf-blower, tidying up her garden, but that was about it.

In the night, I heard nothing – or nearly nothing.  One night, a rainstorm brought fierce wind and clattering at the window.  Another night, an animal snuffled and crunched outside the front door.  And one night, I heard an owl.

The only other sound that week – as I cooked and washed up and tried to lay a fire and tried to get the telly working and sat beside the fire and wrote and thought and walked – was the sound of my own voice.  Towards the end of the week, I went to visit friends who lived nearby and subjected them to an evening of non-stop talking.  ‘I’ve been on my own for 5 DAYS’, I kept saying, and I nearly burst into tears when I hugged them hello.

Pen Y Ghent from Horton i R stationYou can probably guess, it was a pretty intense experience.  What struck me was the way in which my anxiety and my hyper-sensitivity to noise, which I had been associating with the noise and bustle of London, were ever-present.  How I’d fixate on something and find it really, really difficult to let the thought go.  The night of the storm, I watched the water level rise in the drainage channel that funnels water down from the hill to a beck and from there to the river at the foot of the valley.  I became convinced it was going to flood the house, and even got as far as moving all my belongings upstairs.  I knew, logically, that it probably wouldn’t rise that far, but the thought had gripped me and I spent the night entertaining fantasies of dramatic rescue by helicopter and waders fashioned from carrier bags.  I had the carrier bags beside my bed, just in case.

Back in Leytonstone, I feel almost suffocated by the constant arrival of sounds from everywhere.  So much is happening, all of the time.  But it does me good to know that so much of this feeling is me, my habitual response, and that, even in an environment much more conducive to calm, I will still latch on to noise, my mind will still run away with itself.  Because if a lot of it is me and my mind, then I can do something about it.

One of the other things I did while I was away was to finish the companion piece to Aldeburgh Music 1.  So here is Aldeburgh Music 2, recorded in June this year at the time of the Aldeburgh Music Festival.

Ten Years Ago,

my first pamphlet was published by Arrowhead Press.  I’m so grateful to Joanna and Roger for that.

As a way of marking the moment, I made an audio poem: here’s a version of ‘What’s the Matter’, written for and about – and recorded in – E11, London, UK.  The wood in question is Bushwood, the marsh in question is inside it.

It’s tempting to read your earlier poems and disavow them; you’ve changed since then, you’ve (hopefully) developed as a writer.  But here, in this poem, still: this standing askance from the notion of a ‘self’, this pull exerted by a specific place, this awareness of its other creaturely inhabitants, this tug between ‘escape’ and ‘home’.

‘Theme isn’t something which you can impose on your writing; it’s something that writing imposes on you.’ (W N Herbert, in his excellent book for the OU)

And ten years later, it’s kind of lovely that I find myself working on the edits for my first, full-length collection, due out in early 2018.  It’s been quite a long road to get here, but so worth every step.  You can’t rush these things, I don’t think.  And I’m utterly delighted that my ragged writing and thinking from the PhD has coalesced into a book.  So, huge gratitude to the wonderful Penned in the Margins for giving Natural Phenomena a home.