Spaceships and Rayguns and Chips and Gravy - 10 Years in Manchester Fandom
It would probably be fair to say that Manchester does not spring to mind as the centre of the fandom universe. It does however seem to host an awful lot media conventions. I do believe that 'Manchester Starfleet', not surprisingly a Star Trek group, has quite a following in these parts. There's also, so I believe, a fairly active Babylon 5 group. Since 'The Doctor Appreciation Society' went seriously downhill, Manopticon has become the premier event on the Whovians' calendar. There's also the annual 'Festival of Fantastic Films'. Well, I'm afraid that I've never been involved with any of these (despite being regularly accused of being a sad media fan).
Ok, so media fandom aside, what then of 'real' fandom? Many years ago (ask Paul Kincaid how many, no really, ask him), so I am told, Manchester had a very active fan group. As recently as four or five years ago, as far as I know, this group still existed. In fact, not so many years ago, this particular group of fans tentatively announced a convention by the name of Mancon, and boasted Harlan Ellison as a guest of honour. Of this venture, I know little, other than the fact that it didn't happen. Needless to say, I have never been involved with this group.
So what do I know of fandom in Manchester then? Well, just over ten years ago [Ed's Note: 1987], a group of half a dozen or so students at Manchester University, decrying the lack of a Science Fiction society, formed one and called it 'Warped'. They then had six good months before being afflicted with that most deadly of beasts - an enthusiastic first year intake. This is where I, and many other of the players in this particular drama, make our entrance. Within weeks we'd completely taken over the committee, and Warped became WARPED. We started a fanzine. In fact two fanzines; 'Trancefer', which printed short stories, and lasted a whole two issues, and 'The Digital Aubergine', or 'DA' as it was more commonly known. A fortnight ago, I was handed a copy of the latest DA (I haven't attended a meeting of Warped in over 5 years, but the DA still tends to find its way to me), and I was struck by the thought that this thing has been produced regularly now (3-4 times a year on average), for over ten years. It's now produced by a society that has absolutely no overlap with its founders, and have simply had the name handed down to them. In spite of this, the content of the fanzine hasn't really changed that much in the intervening years.
What did we get up to in in a typical Warped meeting? Well, all the usual stuff, drinking, silly games, parties, fancy dress pub crawls, getting thrown out of bars for singing Gerry Anderson's greatest hits. We had the occasional guest speaker; Geoff Ryman, Colin Greenland, Neil Gaiman, Banksie, Bryan Talbot to name a few - all the usual suspects. Bob Shaw came to speak to us a least once a year, something that he continued to do for many years, long after I left, and is fondly remembered by the society. He would turn up having travelled from Warrington, occasionally in abysmal weather, quite often not in the best of health, and speak to a room full of people at least half of whom, till that night, had not even heard of him. I suspect that there were more fans in the room that he left, than were in the one he entered. Another thing that Warped did was attend conventions and in doing so, exposed many of us to the wider community of fandom.
I've heard that in recent years, Warped has separated its membership into several strata based on age (or perceived age). So what you have is Warped, Warped - The Next Generation, progressing up to Warped - The Living Dead. I suspect that I would rank somewhere around Warped - The Great Old Ones. At the end of our degrees, the reins of Warped had been handed to the next generation of members, and it was time to move on. But where to move on to? We decided that the simplest solution was to start our own pub meetings, and started a regular pub meeting called FONT. What does FONT stand for? Whilst attending Protoplasm, the last of the 'asm' Cons, that was held in Manchester, FONT decided to try to drum up some interest in local fans by putting a few flyers round the place. Steve Glover picked up one of these and promptly said, "FONT? Does that stand for 'Friends Of Neal Tringham'? " Needless to say he was absolutely spot on. For anyone who doesn't know Neal, he's short, furry, bears a startling resemblance to Penfold, and has his own entry in the Encyclopaedia of SF. We named the group FONT simply to wind him up.
We decided to hold FONT in the Crown & Anchor pub behind Piccadilly, because it was quite central and, more importantly, the beer was good. Quite coincidentally, when Paul Kincaid attended a meeting, he commented that this is where the 'old' Manchester group (as mentioned earlier, pay attention class) used to meet. He wondered if any of them still hung out there and, lo and behold, a few of the 'dodgy looking blokes round the pool table' were duly identified as veterans. This leads me to my 'Weird Attractors' theory of fan migration…..
We stayed in the Crown & Anchor for about four or five years, but aliens kept abducting the landlord/lady on a regular basis and substituting them with less and less friendly versions as a form of slow invasion, till finally a version was installed whose trump card was to take a real ale pub, with a thriving Thursday night clientele comprised in part of a regular SF group, a motorcycle club and a rock climbing club, and install a Karaoke Night. We survived about an hour and a half of the Karaoke Night, just enough time for the late arrivers to do so, before making an executive decision to sack the Crown & Anchor and move to Wetherspoons (where we currently reside). [Ed's Note: no we don't, see below] Out of curiosity, we stuck our head in the door of the Crown & Anchor on a Thursday night a few weeks later. The silence was broken only by the rustle of the tumbleweed as it rolled past the bar. Justice and honour were served.
So what of the legacy of Warped & FONT, and what have they given back to the wider world of fandom? Probably our most active alumnus is Bug (aka Bridget Hardcastle), erstwhile chairbeing of Evolution and prolific fanzine publisher, amongst many other things. I'm sure back in the Warped days we issued warnings before attending conventions along the lines of, "If anyone with a beard and/or glasses asks you anything, just say 'NO' ". I guess Bridget must have missed that meeting! Pete Binfield and Sue Mowbray went on to form the now thriving Aberdeen Uni SF Society, before managing to get themselves enmeshed in Bristol fandom. We also count Ian Brooks amongst our founding fathers, artist extraordinaire, whose work has graced many a fanzine and con publication, and even a recent cover of Interzone. The links between Manchester fandom and Edinburgh fandom are so incestuous as to be beyond simple rationalisation.
So if you are a long time fan, sat in the Intuition bar, and hadn't really thought of fandom and Manchester in the same context until you arrived here, then be assured, that for the last ten years at least, we've been all around you, you just didn't realise it. If you're a fan who lives in Manchester, or its surrounding environs, and your only regular fix of fandom is conventions, why not bridge the gap between cons by attending the odd FONT meeting? We even have our own resident book dealer, Mike Don, publisher of Dreamberry Wine, who you can find in the Intuition Dealers Room, and will probably sort you out with all your between-con second- hand book needs. We meet twice a month, on second and fourth Thursdays, in J.D. Wetherspoons pub [Ed's note: not any more, see below] on Piccadilly (The opposite side of Piccadilly Gardens from the Jarvis Piccadilly Hotel), from about 8.00pm onwards. We'll be the 8-12 people lurking towards the back somewhere, looking like SF fans. It's just a pub meeting, so you won't be expected to do anything more strenuous than drink beer and converse with like minded people, which is probably most of the reason that you're at this con!
N.B. Since this piece was written, we've moved again. Up-to-date meeting details here.