Follycon Follies

Ah, so the second Follycon has come and gone, thirty years after the first and what a magnificent folly the Majestic Hotel was!  What con-goer would not want to spend the weekend in the company of W. Anderson’s Grand Harrogate Hotel and its idiosyncratic crew?  What’s not to love about a place where the downstairs gents – dark wood panelling, acres of chequerboard tiles, a conference table and a six-seater banquette -exuded more grandeur than a pie, mash and liquor joint; a place begging for LARP campaigns and guerrilla tourism, since half the bedrooms remain out-of-bounds after a mysterious fire, several years ago; a place where every other space aped the throne room at King’s Landing (just don’t get stuck behind a pillar during panels); a place where the lounge bar’s coffee machine had demised and the tea was even more toxic than the insane levels of citra hops in most of the offerings from the real ale bar.  I do hope Eastercon returns to the Majestic soon!

Harrogate is an attractive town, on foot of its Regency/Victorian spa heyday.  Who could forget the sweeping staircases of the Wetherspoons, ensconced in the Winter Gardens, or Betty’s iconic tea rooms – all cast iron and olive brown sandstone.  The excellent Colin Fine guided a walk through the Valley Gardens and Pinewoods on the Friday morning – a welcome opportunity to get some pre-con fresh air and testament to the con’s ambition to offer new and different things.  If I was initially a little taken-aback by the glorified shopping mall that was RHS Harlow Carr; overflow car park no. three heaving with the great and good of God’s own county as we arrived, I did find much to enjoy in the less beaten tracks at the wilder extremities of the site and in the alpine house.  Heck, I even relaxed enough to buy some sweet cicely seeds in the shop.  They’ll tub up nicely – I can almost taste the tempura style fritters already.  Fantastical highlights of the place were the wicker Ferengi gardener and the steampunk bug-hotels.

An area of decline in recent years has been the amount of second-hand books available for sale in the Dealers’ Room.  One can no longer rely on a con for filling a gap or two in one’s collection.  In general, Follycon did nothing to reverse this trend though to be fair, I did snare a few of the original Man from UNCLE tie-ins I was missing.  I had considerably more luck in Harrogate’s excellent Books for All, up on Commercial Street.  Still, at least Follycon had a dealer selling tea – that was a plus.  I should also plug the small and pretty Imagined Things bookshop in the arcade, which hosted SF and Fantasy readings on the Saturday afternoon.  I attended the former and was delighted to meet Christopher Priest for the first time: one of my lifelong literary heroes.  He signed a copy of The Gradual for me.

Another highlight of the con for me was the poetry ‘open mic’ on Sunday lunchtime – I seldom have opportunities to read any of my poetry in public, so I leapt at the opportunity.  I chose The Shrill Carder Bee to read, as it is probably my only poem containing SF imagery.  It seemed to go down well.  And in fact the event was more of a general poetry thing, so I could have brought a few others to read: next time.  This was the only thing I did on the programme this Eastercon: all of the ideas for programme items that I had pitched to the organisers, fell on stony ground.  In general I didn’t mind, if there’s enough new blood coming into our hobby that I’m not needed, then great.  Nevertheless, on seeing how underused the Majestic’s fabulous billiard room was over the four days, it made me a little sad that my offer to run a fiction ‘open mic’ had been passed over.  The space, where passers-by could have dipped in and out as they liked, was tailor made for one.  A similar event I compered for Mancunicon a couple of years back was a runaway success, in far more difficult conditions.

I had high hopes for the Pointless quiz on Saturday evening. Regrettably, Witless, it might better have been called, or Toothpull.  I like the Pointless format on TV but the creators of this panel never satisfactorily solved how to adapt the format to accommodate the live audience participation which they sought.  To be fair, some of the questions were engaging and fun (I particularly enjoyed the ‘fictional religions’ and ‘third books of series’) but the hour could neither overcome the shortcomings of the format devised nor recover from the creaky start, the unconvincing score-keeping and the fact that the man bringing the buckets of saline containing the contestants’ brains, only showed up around half-time.  Still it’s one worth persevering with for the future, if the format can be better adapted to the requirements of a con.

Lastly, am I the only person to wonder if Follycon’s most egregious folly was to allot programme space for TAFF (Trans-atlantic Fan Fund) fundraising?  Our hobby has made great strides in recent years to, for example, provide a safe and welcoming space to people of all genders and sexual orientations, embrace diversity and to be helpful and accommodating to those with disabilities of all kinds.  Why the Hell are we continuing to raise money to subsidise travel to/from a country that seeks to ban the entry of ordinary citizens from several countries on account of their religion?  The least we could do in solidarity, is to freeze all TAFF activities until such time as the US ditches its Fascist policies and returns to being the open democracy we once knew and loved.

Postscript 04/04/2018

A friend of mine has commented to me that there were significant accessibility issues at the hotel.  Indeed, she knew of two attendees who had to leave the con early because of it.  This is not good at all, given how inclusive our hobby strives to be and rather makes me doubt my fulsome affection for the hotel.  If I was oblivious to it all, it was because I was heeding the signage to keep the lifts free for those who needed them and use the stairs; thus I built up no picture in my own head over the weekend as to how accessible (or not) the various zones were.  My friend related the story that accessible access to the Dealers’ Room required a golf-buggy ride right around the hotel’s vast bulk that might take twenty or thirty minutes, if one included the time needed to locate an insured driver from the hotel staff.  Not great at all; though it would be remiss of me not to mention that a programme of renovations/improvements  is underway at the Majestic, so hopefully this wouldn’t happen again.

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