Posted by: Nick Walters | September 27, 2009


Bristol sometimes surprises me.

I’m so used to the place – I’ve lived here most of my life; I work, eat, drink, sleep, read, write, and cycle here. Sometimes I hate the place and wish I lived somewhere else, somewhere by the sea or in the country or another city like Glasgow or Leeds. Or even another country entirely. Sweden or the States. But I’m a lazy creature of habit and these day-dreams never come to anything more than, well, day-dreams.

But then sometimes something happens that makes me glad, and even proud, that I am in Bristol.

Future Bristol is one example – the SF anthology edited by Colin Harvey to which I contributed a story, Trespassers. Available online and in all good bookshops now!

BristolCon is another example. A small convention organised by the Bristol SF Group, which took place on Saturday 25th September at the rather surreal Mercure Hotel opposite St Mary Redcliffe. Guests included Alastair Reynolds, Charles Butler, Colin Harvey, Gareth Powell, Jim Mortimore, Paul Cornell, and me. (For a full list see the con website). I’m rarely asked to guest at conventions as my output is small compared to others but I am always grateful to be asked because it reminds and reassures me that yes, I am a writer, and I still have something to contribute. And there’s no doubt, people coming up to you and asking you to sign books feels just bloody wonderful – even if you can’t think of anything witty to put (sorry, Sue!)

It’s weird going to a hotel in one’s hometown, it gives you an entirely new perspective, makes you see the city as an outsider would.  Ignoring suspicious glares from the people rich enough to be able to afford to stay at the Mercure, I took the lift (same make as the ones in work! Same voice! “Doors Closing!” Argh!) to the 5th floor where the con was to be, and helped Jo Hall (BristolCon chair) set up one of the tables. I was distracted from this by the arrival firstly of Paul Cornell and then Jim Mortimore – who I hadn’t seen in YEARS – and so we had a lot of catching up to do… sorry Jo!

The view from the 5th Floor of the Mercure is stunning, giving you vertiginous vistas across the entire city. It was a fantastically sunny day and any regrets I may have had about not going cycling were soon quashed as the con got underway. The first panel – TV Adaptations, Are They Any Good? – was modded by me; something I’d never done before, but it wasn’t too hard, just like chairing a meeting at work, only a billion times more interesting. The panel concluded, amongst other things, that the BBC’s 1981 Day of the Triffids set the benchmark for TV adaptations that has never been bettered, even 30 years on.

After the panel I met up with former Bristol SF group members Chris Lake and Sue Winter, both of whom had emigrated to Cornwall some years ago, friends who I rarely see so it was great to catch up with them (though shame I missed Chris’s partner, Doug Bell, who had decided to go comic shopping instead of attending the con!)

The second panel followed quickly (the programme was tight – 5 panels in 3 hours!) and was the first Guest of Honour talk, from Charles Butler on the work of Diana Wynne Jones and place within fiction. Charles is Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England and specialises in children’s literature. He talked about how Wynne Jones and writers in general use place in their writing, either consciously or subconsciously,  levels of reality in fiction, and much more that I don’t have room for here. I’ve never read Wynne Jones  but will add her to my list. So much to read, so little time – I don’t have a pile of books to read, I have shelves.

The next panel discussed UK vs US SF – which is better? A rather strange and somewhat specious question which Paul Cornell sorted out early on: “there is no question of ‘better.’ ” The panel then discussed differences in style between UK and US authors, and the question of influence; when most of us were young, it was authors such as Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury et al who dominated the library shelves so US authors undoubtedly had their influence in writers of our generation. My experience differs somewhat as I was brought up on Clarke, Wyndham and Wells so my SF education was more transatlantic. Kudos to Staple Hill library.

The second GOH talk was by Alastair Reynolds who expounded on Hard SF, its definition and variations. This led into a discussion about reclusive Australian SF author Greg Egan whose works are so far out there that they risk leaving the reader bewildered. Sounds like fun! Another to add to the list. Must get more shelves.

The final panel was another arguably artificial dichotomy: this time, Fantasy vs SF, definitions, dividing lines, cross-overs, and those authors who like to pretend the SF they’re writing isn’t SF.  Rather predictably, Margaret Attwood got quite a drubbing here. The best moment was when Hugo Award-Winning panel mod Cheryl Morgan asked for a show of hands – if a gun were put to your head, what would you choose, SF or Fantasy? The former outnumbered the latter by a comfortable margin and someone shouted “WE CAN TAKE THEM!” (For the record I am SF; Fantasy just does nothing for me – my loss, I suspect, but there you go).

That was it – panels over, and down to the bar. £4.95 for a bottle of Bath ales Gem! Frustrating for this local oisk, as in my mind was a map of all the decent pubs within a stone’s throw of the hotel. I stuck to the relatively reasonably-priced Carling, and thence back up to the con room to hear Colin read from his new novel Winter Song, free copies of which were available. A hard SF tale (though not on the Egan scale) about an accident in space, this is next on my pile, once I’ve finished my current book (Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, for the record).

This was followed by an impromptu discussion about why writers write, during which Jim Mortimore exhorted serious writers to give up their day jobs and write full time as he had bravely (madly at the time) done 17 years ago. I greatly admire Jim, he is one of the most talented writers I know, and I wish could follow his advice but, at the end of the day, I’m too scared. Bills to pay, job security, etc. And I can keep up the writing and the day job, though, if I did chuck in the latter I’d be able to do much, much more of the former. Oh Jim… one day perhaps I will make the leap.

Colin said something which resonated with me: “when I don’t write I get depressed.” Now that is also true of me. I don’t write nearly as often as I should and I feel mildly depressed almost all of the time. On holiday recently I wrote (in longhand on A4) a complete short story which I think is one of the best things I’ve ever written. It’s probably shite – as I’ll find out when I circulate the second draft to my writer peers – but the point is, I walked around on a high for days afterwards. And I still feel good when I think back to that feeling. So I should really stop going to the pub when I feel down, and write – God knows, I have enough ideas, and enough things I should be getting on with. If there’s one thing I took from BristolCon, it’s this: write!

Back to the con… everyone went off to eat after Colin’s reading and the discussion of writing, and Sue, Chris and I went to the pub next to the hotel, the Coliseum; a lovely, faintly bizarre pub which is like stepping back in time to 1982. To give you some idea of the place, the dartboard is concealed behind a massive photo of Marilyn Monroe. We examined the contents of our goody-bags: a Buffy soundtrack CD (“Once More With Feeling”), a Highlander novel and a Street Fighter VHS were the pick of mine. Then back to the con: the charity auction was well under way, and stretched on into the evening, meaning that the pub quiz I was due to host didn’t happen. No worries –  we plan to do it at the next Bristol SF Group meeting as a fundraiser for BristolCon 2010.

That sound you hear is Jo Hall screaming.

Here’s hoping it does happen next year, though, and I hereby offer my help in making that hope a reality.



  1. Flattered as I am by your praise, it wasn’t be that asked that question. I wasn’t even on that panel.

  2. Oops! I misremembered.

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