I was going to focus this post on FantasyCon 2021, which I attended in Birmingham last weekend, but I found that I couldn’t engage with the event in the normal way. This is not a criticism – with Covid-19 still very much on the rampage, I’m not sure any of us felt entirely comfortable. Instead, I’m going to talk about the significance of the event to me past and present, my mental state leading up to it this year, the fears and hopes I carried, and the final actual experience of reconnection with my tribe.
For the curious out there, FantasyCon is an annual convention hosted by the British Fantasy Society. The bulk of attendees tend to be authors and publishers, but all-comers are welcomed. The BFS exists to encourage social interaction between people who enjoy *fantastical literature, to promote excellence in the field, and to help spread any news related to the subject. It’s done a great job of that over the years, by and large, though I understand it’s been in something of a decline over recent years. Ironic given the golden age of Geekdom we live in.
My first FCon was in York, back in 2014. I’d provisionally agreed to edit **Sunny, with a Chance of Zombies by that point, but I wanted to actually meet the publisher and talk things through before I committed. I was nervous, naturally, but Phil stuck by me throughout, helping to stave off my social anxieties and introducing me to a whole bunch of people. Until that point I had predominantly been an SF and Fantasy reader, but this was the Horror crowd.
They couldn’t have been more welcoming, friendly, or kind. I signed up right away. Scardiff followed in October, and EdgeLit 2015 saw the launch of my little anthology.
By the time FCon 2015 came around, the convention scene seemed an essential part of my business. I say business; back then it was more of a hobby. I loved the experience of putting Sunny together so I pursued a follow-up gig, my shared-world anthology: This Twisted Earth. I figured I needed to get to know writers and publishers if I wanted to keep things going afterwards—and here they all were in one place, socialising!
I’ve never been much for meeting new people, but even I could see the benefits of putting myself out there. I don’t much like the term, ‘networking’. There’s a cynicism to it, a transactional quality that turns my stomach. There’s no doubt that forming connections has benefits, business-wise, in terms of visibility and trust – so it cannot be dismissed entirely – but the more events I attended, the more familiar these people became, the more I simply saw them as my friends. My tribe. My family away from home.
That bond has only grown stronger as the years have passed.
Nobody was surprised when FantasyCon was cancelled in 2020. The UK Government pissed away the summer months, doing nothing to prepare us for the inevitable second wave of Covid-19. Some people held on to a sliver of hope; that first lockdown had been hard and, for all the lives we touch, writing and publishing can be a lonely old business at the best of times. I was in full withdrawal though, working from home with special dispensation from the bank. My mental health had crashed big time under the pressures of being a ***‘key worker’ during the pandemic. I only left home for a daily walk in the woods, and a weekly drive to get food for my parents—yet I was still convinced I would kill them.
If that narrow vector terrified me, how could I even think of going to an event that brought people together from all over the UK? It didn’t even bear consideration.
The intervening year felt like warfare: a constant state of anxiety, spiralling casualties, yet very little to actually do most of the time. I took redundancy in November and threw myself into editing full-time. That helped keep my mind off things to a degree. The vaccine made all the difference – both physically and psychologically – as first my parents, then my wife, and finally I received our doses. The constant strain on my heart and my mind began to ease. The clown-car Government may continue to botch every damned decision in service to Mammon, but the risks of actual death by Covid-19 did finally start to drop for the vast majority of people.
I booked my ticket for FCon 2021 with trepidation, but also with something like joy.
We were under no illusions that this would be a normal convention. It was made clear from the start that Covid security was a priority and, whilst vaccine passports were not required, the level of trust was high that attendees would take Lateral Flow Tests before and after the event; that we would respect and abide by the personal comfort zones of each person we came into contact with; that hand-hygiene and mask-wearing would be top of the mind throughout—though social distancing would be far harder to maintain. For around half of us, that was enough.
Different people go to these events for different reasons. For my friends Myk and Pippa Pilgrim, for instance, it was all about the panels – soaking up the experience and wisdom of those who came to share. (And yes, they shared plenty of their own in return. This is the essence of community.) For others like myself, it was all about reconnection, pure and simple: rejoining that beloved group of writers and reprobates. We’ve been in touch online throughout, of course but I have to tell you there is nothing like seeing people in the flesh again.
Dammit. And now I want to tell you about the con itself. Time’s short and I’ve kept you long enough. I’ll be back with a con report (of sorts) tomorrow. Until then, take care xxx
* People often get caught up on the word ‘Fantasy’, but the BFS includes Horror, Science Fiction, Slipstream, Weird, Heroic, Supernatural and the like in their remit. It all sounds fantastic to me!
** My first ever editorial gig. It was published under KnightWatch Press. Theresa Derwin hired me, but by the time the book came out, she had sold the business to Steve Shaw. He published Sunny, and then This Twisted Earth a year later.
*** Between online banking, telephone banking and Business Quick Deposits, so few of our customers actually needed us there. I felt we were risking the lives of our loved ones for the sole purpose of pandering to Covid-deniers and determined Luddites.
Should you be unfamiliar with the kind of business I run at The Fine-toothed Comb, I recently set out my Principles, promises and values.
My audio recordings continue apace, with The Room Next Door dropping last week. I have just bought some new equipment and the sound quality has massively improved. You can find all of my performed readings here.
Alongside the various reviews I write on this blog each month, I also write comic reviews at The Ginger Nuts of Horror, called Splashes of Darkness.