Yours truly went up to the Big Smoke last night, to attend my first BSFA monthly gathering. And a lot of fun it was too.
It’s a couple of hours on the train from Velcro City, but that gave me time to do some reading without too many distractions – at least once the three management trainees got off at Guildford and took their loud discussion of ‘exploit strategies’ and ’employee incentivisation’ with them, anyway. So I chewed through the best part of two issues of F&SF, most of which was pretty good if not entirely to my taste. That Bacigalupi story that Niall discussed was among them, and while I can see the flaws he pointed out in it, it was by far the most engaging story in the issue. But I digress.
The BSFA gatherings are held at the Star Tavern in Belgravia, an exceptionally posh part of the capital that I’d never been to before. Emerging from the tube at Knightsbridge, I arrived in a world of wide well-swept boulevards and parks, populated with pricey hotels and restaurants, Arab banks and marble-fronted boutiques offering suits that would cost more than a month’s wages for me to buy. Most unusual to my experience was the fact that the tern minute walk to Belgravia Mews didn’t take me past one newsagent or off-licence, which felt profoundly unnatural, not just for London but practically any city anywhere. I was obliged to purchase rolling tobacco (from a very limited selection) in a Waitrose equipped with those ‘unstealable’ trollies. I nearly didn’t notice it, as it was masquerading as an old terrace of residences and didn’t look anything like a retail outlet from the outside at all – I only spotted it due to the incongruous (but remarkably clean and polite) Big Issue hawker outside. How the other half live, eh?
Belgrave Mews itself is a little old cobbled ‘private’ road set slightly back from the major thoroughfares. It seemed a little too public to be private, if you see what I mean, but there was a sign designating it as private, which may well be some historical relic – it’s that kind of neighbourhood. It was like a street from some Home Counties town, displaced into the middle of London by magic (or more likely money). It reminded me somewhat of Brighton, though I couldn’t tell you exactly why.
The Star Tavern itself was reassuringly like every other old pub in the country, if slightly better maintained than many of them. Let’s see … wood panelling, check; bas-relief wallpapered ceiling, check; old oak bar polished by time and use, check; obligatory Australian barmaid, check. The beer was reassuringly cheap, which was quite a shock. I’d have felt more at home immediately if it hadn’t been for a large gaggle of city-suits having an after-work tipple, and a gentleman who came in seconds after me and proceeded to have a loud mobile conversation with someone whose ‘daddy’ he was meeting shortly after – “No, he’s being interviewed by some English TV station. I don’t *know* which one, darling, that’s one of the things I plan to ask him. Must go, email coming through, CIAO.” Lager and cigarettes provided ample distraction until other BSFA types arrived, thankfully.
The meeting itself was held upstairs, in what is a dining room by day, complete with an array of (presumably glued-down) old books surrounding a large fireplace at the far end. US readers who are unfamiliar with the British public house in its multitude of incarnations can rest assured that should they ever visit this establishment, they will be absorbing the quintessence of the ‘pub experience’. UK readers will probably know what I’m on about – it has that atmosphere of traditional pub that can be relied upon across the country.
It was a rare pleasure to be able to sit down and geek out about books with like-minded persons without recourse to these here intarwebs. I got to meet some people who I only knew as user IDs or by-lines before (hi Niall, hi Graham), and a few people I’d never met before at all (hi, Sax), and was made to feel very welcome, very much part of the gang. There was much consumption of chips.
The focus of the evening was Farah Mendelsohn interviewing the artist Judith Clute, who is married to the feted genre fiction critic John Clute. It was my original intention to try to sum up the discussion, but it was very wide-ranging and art-focussed, meaning that I was not only out of my depth as far as transcribing was concerned but also too absorbed to write things down as they were progressing. Judith was a fascinating interviewee; I’ve hung around arty types for years (in the vain hope it might rub off somehow), and love listening to people talking about their endeavours. Her utter absorption in her work was very evident, as was the character of a charming and inquisitive personality. She has a laugh like the shaking of sleigh-bells, totally spontaneous and honest, and always refers to her husband as ‘Clute’, as does almost everyone else. It transpires that their relationship extends into each others work to some extent also – she often asks him to think of titles for her pieces once they are finished, for example.
Her art itself is something I will not attempt to categorise – the visual arts are something I appreciate from a distance but know little about. Your best bet is to simply go and have a look for yourself. During the Q&A after the interview, John Clute forwarded the notion that she is not an illustrator of stories, but an illuminator of them. The explanation of the difference between the two was contentious (at least to a few of the audience), but essentially states that she doesn’t try to depict actual characters from fantastic stories so much as she attempts (and succeeds) to capture the essence of their fantastic-ness. If you want more detail than that, you’ll have to ask someone else – I think I understood the point, but I’m damned if I can explain it back to anyone else!
After a book raffle, the majority of the gathering decamped to have dinner elsewhere. The exigencies of public transport meant that yours truly had to leave at this point, which was a shame, but hopefully I’ll be able to amend the situation next time. Until then, I’d like to say hello and thank you to all the people who I spent the evening with – I had a great evening out, and felt very welcome. I shall be going again – and I recommend any other sf head within reasonable travelling distance of London to do so as well. After all, it’s nice to have a bit of a social in meatspace once in a while, eh? 🙂