The 50th Novacon
Arthur Chappell reviews the event at the Palace Hotel,
Much to commend here with the milestone Novacon convention of the Birmingham SF Group, and for many, the first in person convention attended after the lengthy CoVID lockdown isolation period. Sadly, it was not a con without troubles, mostly related to the Palace Hotel venue.
There were around 250 attendees: about a quarter of those you’d get at the average Eastercon these days. Being the 50th anniversary event, the occasion was marked by a special publication, Burning Brightly, edited by Ian Whates, gathering stories generated exclusively from various Novacon publications over the decades, with work by such luminaries as Iain M Banks, Adrian ( Shards of Earth) Tchaikovsky and Stephen (Flood) Baxter among others. Each attendee received a free copy.
There were two programme streams with main hall events running parallel to fringe events in a side room, and everything was on the ground floor with easy access. (The accommodation was upstairs, served by a dreadful, slow rickety tin elevator with a mind of its own).
The dealers and art rooms were very well laid out and managed. Many books were also offered for free or for voluntary donations to charitable causes.
Though the hotel is in Buxton – famously noted for its mineral spa water from the surrounding Peak District National Park's limestone. – rooms were stocked only with bottled waters from other towns; mine was produced in Morpeth.
Buxton proved to be a great location, with many good bars, and restaurants. Its railway station was literally next door to the venue and connected to Stockport and its Manchester-to-London main line. The Guests of Honour were wonderful, notably Christopher (The Adjacent) Priest. Here, an indisputable highlight was the screening of a short film based on one of his stories, 'The Stooge'. It starred Robert Picardo, the holographic Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager: trailer here. (The early Novacons of the 1970s were noted for showing recent, rarely-seen films.) The other GoHs were Chris Baker, Emma (Before Mars) Newman and Claire (Notes from the Burning Age) North, though in the event Emma was unable to attend.
There were many lovely workshops, especially one run by Miles Nelson on creating credible, inclusive, politically-correct characters in the current time when giving offence unintentionally is deterring many from writing or presenting their work at all. There were informal, relaxed poetry reading events, and lots of casual chat and gather opportunities: I spent a lovely afternoon playing Scrabble with friends in the bar. The real joy of the con was seeing friends missed through CoVID lockdown, and knowing that they were all right.
The beer tasting event was a closing highlight, with attendees invited to donate three bottled or canned ales for attendees to choose drinks from over the evening.
There was much attention to CoVID-19 precautions, with attendees wearing masks while moving between rooms and events but able to unmask while static, or obviously when eating and drinking. A few attendees did sadly prove to have been tested positive after the con, but the majority, myself included, found our post-convention lateral flow testing (LFT) giving negative results. We were all asked to take LFT’s prior to going to Buxton, which I did, but no one asked for evidence of such testing occurring when we arrived.
Ian Sorenson staged a comedy play, though sadly not one of his best: it seemed under-rehearsed and the heavy emphasis on rather lame Boris Johnson jokes (much of the plot involved the crazed Prime Minister inexplicably travelling through time and trying to destroy Novacon hotels) led one attendee to yell out that we come to the cons to escape real world politics.
The hotel was grossly understaffed for the full service of a major convention, and while bar staff were terrific, desk service was often lacking. I ran into a major problem when my electronic hotel key failed as the lock on the door had broken. I had to get to my room with some urgency for medical needs (having had a major operation) but I had to wait for an engineer to completely replace the door lock first. The total door failure (which the staff attributed to 'closing the door' cut me off from my medical bags. The staff ignored my efforts to point out the crisis I was having and my attempts after having to completely change my clothes, to draw the problem to the attention of a senior con committee member frustratingly fell on deaf ears (though I eventually received a full written apology).
Then there was the closing night banquet meal, for which attendees, myself included, paid £14 (US$19) each. Unfortunately, there was barely enough food for about a third of those attending and many ignored the request to go up when told, on a table-by-table basis. Those of us following the instructions, and on the two tables going last, found little but scraps and lettuce leaves remaining. The committee blamed the hotel staff but the committee had made zero effort to stop some going up to fill their plates high out of turn (others even making repeat visits to the table). The banquet was a disastrous famine for many of us!
Understaffing and the banquet aside it was a largely successful Novacon. Here's to the next fifty.