Labyrinth Sarah Cosplay: How To

“Through dangers untold and hardships un-numbered

I have fought my way here to the Castle beyond the Goblin City

To take back the child that was stolen …”

Many of the people I know have deep and powerful memories associated with the film Labyrinth.  Released in 1986 it stars David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, and a young Jennifer Connolly as Sarah, the girl trying to win back the baby step-brother she wished the goblins would take away from her.  She has to beat the Labyrinth within the 13 hour time limit set by the Goblin King to claim back baby Toby.  But this is a goblin labyrinth that changes around you and is full of surreal perils that need all of Sarah’s wit and cleverness to overcome.

Labyrinth is a coming of age story about Sarah’s growing acceptance of responsibility and her sexual awakening, but one that recognises that we all carry an inner child within us.  Regardless of how adult the world requires us to be, we all have the need to play and our imaginations are a core part of what makes us who we are.

Bowie’s Jareth had a huge influence on many of my contemporaries, who were all at extremely impressionable ages when the film came out.

Jareth dancing with the Goblins, with prominent bulge
Dance magic dance!

Let’s get that one out of the way now: the bulge is even more impressive when you finally get to see the film on a proper cinema screen for the first time as a grown woman.  (Previously, I’d only seen it on tv.)

This is a film with a huge number of iconic sequences, but one that is particularly visually striking is the Masquerade Ball scene.  Enchanted by a magic peach, Sarah is whisked away from her friends and shown what life could be if she opted to stay with Jareth: a glamorous life as a beautiful princess.  It’s a scene full of emotional intensity that shows how Sarah has got under Jareth’s skin.  This is about so much more than a stolen baby for either of them.

It’s a classically 1980s vision of a fantasy ball: off the shoulder meringue dresses and big hair.

Jareth and Sarah dancing at the Masquerade Ball
Jareth and Sarah

I’ve always had the urge to do this as cosplay.  Who wouldn’t want to dress up as a beautiful princess and get to be on David Bowie’s arm?  But it’s difficult to do on your own.

Black and white photograph of Jareth and Sarah standing side by side in the Ball scene
Jareth and Sarah

A little over a year ago I met a woman who has since become a very dear friend.  She does the most astonishing Jareth cosplay.  It’s uncanny.  So it was with some trepidation that around the end of last year I suggested that perhaps I could be the Sarah to her Jareth.  She was incredibly enthusiastic about it.

So we did it at WorldCon in Dublin.

Me as Sarah from the film Labyrinth with a friend dressed as Jareth
Jareth and Sarah

And it was the most magical day you can imagine.  It’s instantly recognisable, and there is huge love for the film still.  I felt like a princess all day.

Jareth handing Sarah one of their crystal balls
Insert your own jokes about playing with Jareth’s balls here. (We made them all.)

A friend kindly gave up most of the afternoon for a little photo shoot.  (Though we are both considering a pro photo shoot at some point.)  My Jareth has done some modelling work in the past, and it was fantastic to do this with someone who knew how to set up interesting shots.  (Left to my own devices I tend to stand fairly awkwardly and self-consciously.)  Playing off someone for the pictures was wonderful.

Jareth and Sarah

But how did I go about making it?

The dress

This was the largest cosplay project I’ve undertaken since Missy.  As with Missy,  I needed to mix two different dress patterns to get the look I wanted.

Photograph of the two dress patterns I usedI used the pattern on the left (Butterick 4743) for the base of the dress.  It had the right shaping for both the neckline and the bodice and skirt.  I opted for the full length skirt with fishtail, and added a thumb loop to help manage the skirt (SO important for practicality).  But I used the puff sleeves from the pattern on the right (New Look 6031).  With modifications – the sleeves were fully lined.

The fabric was from one of the little fabric shops on Goldhawk Road.  I found this perfect polyester satin.  It’s white, with green lurex thread woven through it.  That gives it the perfect shimmer for the pearlescent look of the film.  As with much Goldhawk Road fabric it wasn’t perfect – it had a flaw running through it close to one selvedge that I had to cut round.  But 8 metres of it was relative cheap and gave me plenty to play with in case I needed to recut.  (And I did: I had to recut the same lower sleeve twice after it got stained by some spilled balsamic vinaigrette I’d failed to spot on the black dining table.  Wah!)  I spent more per metre on some good quality cotton lining for the bodice and sleeves.

After that it was a fairly straight sewing job to make the dress.

  • I bound the raw edges on the inside of the sleeves.  The puff sleeves are stiffened with netting between fabric and lining, and the raw edges would have been extremely scratchy otherwise.
  • I added little bra strap keepers, made from bias binding.

  • I used some 1 mm white rattail (Kumihimo braid) for the button loops on the sleeves.  I sandwiched this between the lining and the outer fabric.
  • The sleeve openings were trimmed with a lace and pearl trim.

The biggest challenge with this dress was the decoration.  There is a lot of sparkle going on in the original.  This was always going to be a case of “More Is More”, but finding the right sparkle proved to be a challenge.  I spent a lot of happy hours searching “Wedding Dress Applique” on eBay and looking in the trimmings section of every haberdashery shop I came across.

Dining table covered in trimmings
Too much?

Yeah, that got a bit silly …

Ultimately I settled on a few key bits of sparkle.

  • The bodice of the dress is decorated with a crystal applique design.  This came ready attached to a net backing.  I trimmed it and then couched the whole thing down using silver embroidery thread.
  • I trimmed the seam between bodice and skirt by couching on a resin crystal drop trim.  This was an embellished cup chain that came in a single piece that was a perfect length.
Back view of the dress, showing the train
Dress!

 

The accessories

The other key part of this look is the accessories.  They present another key opportunity to add MOAR BLING to the outfit.  The key one here is getting the hair to look right.  To me, the solution seemed pretty obvious: embellished hair combs.  Attach the right feathers, beads and streamers to them and you have an instant, easy approach to the look.

There are lots of You Tube videos about how to embellish combs.  The principle is simple: you need comb blanks, beads and other embellishments and wire to attach everything.  (I used 0.3 mm silver plated.)

Hair comb embellished with beads, feathers, cord, braid and ribbon flowers
One of the finished combs

The combs were embellished – in roughly the order I added them to the combs – with:

  • Two different kinds of silver feathers – silver sprayed feathers for the top (the more rigid ones) and silver goose feathers (the longer ones are the bottom).  Each feather was individually wire wrapped onto the comb – if I lost one I didn’t want the whole comb unravelling.
  • Lengths of cord tied to the bottom.  I used 3 mm white rattail (kumihimo cord)
  • Lengths of lighter Kreinik Balger tapestry braid (#12) at the top.  The shade ‘Easter’ has a green shimmer that matches the fabric of the dress.  (This took most of a reel of braid.)
  • Fabric flowers made by gathering lengths of silver organza ribbon around a large central bead.
  • A picot edging made from small Czech fire polished AB crystal beads plus some crystal AB leaf shaped beads.
  • Larger Crystal AB Czech fire polished beads in a row along the base of the comb (largely to hide the untidy wrapped wire)
  • A couple of Crystal AB drops at the bottom edge of each comb.
View showing the combs in place in my hair
The final combs

On top of that I added a large paste crystal necklace that I already own.

And I made some earrings from Swarovski crystal drops (also Crystal AB) and chandelier findings.  (As I don’t have pierced ears I used screwback findings.)

The Kingdom of Copper – S A Chakraborty

I absolutely loved The City of Brass by S A Chakraborty (read that review before this one), so I was extremely excited to get a review copy (from Harper Voyager) of its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper.  And I was not disappointed!

The Kingdom of Copper picks up Nahri’s story about five years after the climactic events that end The City of Brass.  She is living in Daevabad, married to Prince Muntadhir and the effective prisoner of the king as a hostage for her people’s good behaviour.  She is grieving the loss of her Afshin, Dara, and the betrayal of Prince Ali, a man she thought was a friend.  But the king’s repressive policies are starting to have inevitable consequences, and rebellion is brewing, fomented by the mother Nahri believed to be dead.

Everything I loved about the first book is here in its sequel.  But it has a much darker tone than the adventure/romance of the first book.  Nahri is tougher and more cynical as she learns to operate effectively within the constraints of her role at court.  Dara has fallen in with rebels and is being driven down a dark and violent path.  The moral Prince Ali only wants to live in quiet peace, helping the people of his adopted community, but he finds himself dragged back into Daevabad politics against his will, and at risk of becoming a rallying point for those wanting to overthrow the king’s rule.  Allegiances shift, and hidden agendas come to the surface.

This is a great book, and a worthy sequel.  I can’t wait to see what the final volume has in store!

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Binding – Bridget Collins

Sometimes a single, simple change can birth a brilliant and exquisite story.  In The Binding (review copy from Harper Collins) Bridget Collins turns the magic of writing a story into literal magic.  Books are the real memories of real people, and once written down, the subject has given up those memories forever unless and until the book is destroyed.  They are left with no recollection of the events that they have given up to be bound.  In Collins’s hands, this becomes a beautiful story of love and loss, cut through by a brilliant exploration of the dynamics of power.

After recovering from a long illness, Emmett Farmer discovers that he is a Bookbinder, one of the rare people with the talent to bind people’s memories into book form.  Apprenticed to Seredith, he begins to learn the craft of making books while continuing his recovery.  One day, Seredith is visited by a rich young man called Lucian, who is extremely distressed and troubled and wants his memories bound.  Emmett has never met him before, but Lucian is intensely focused on Emmett.  Seredith’s health is failing, and she dies before Emmett’s training is complete.  He is taken on by another bookbinder who lacks Seredith’s prize for craft skills and her view that binding is a sacred calling that should be offered to all those that need it.  Give up too many memories, or do it too frequently, and the person who is bound can be left as little more than a hollow zombie.

This is one of the real strengths of the book for me.  Its exploration of power and how the wealthy exploit and commodify the experiences of the vulnerable and less fortunate is extremely contemporary, particularly in the #MeToo world.  In Seredith’s hands, binding is a way of helping others to move on from tragedy, and is not something to be done lightly or without thought.  But Collins shows how the powerful use the same mechanisms to silence others – including sexually abused servants.  Others sell their life experiences for the titillation of others as a way of briefly escaping poverty.  Books containing people’s experiences are bought and sold for entertainment, with a dark trade in the most horrific experiences.  The books of people who are bound are used as tools for blackmail and extortion.

But the heart of The Binding is a beautiful queer love story.  It unfolds throughout the second part of the book.  Collins writes it with grace and a wonderful emotional intensity.  It is joyful, evoking the tender fragility of a burgeoning love affair, but bitter sweet for its forbidden nature.  It’s impossible not to be swept up in Collins’s lyrical prose as the romance unfolds.

This is a book to immerse yourself in, but prepare to be hit in the feels.  Hard.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Green Jay and Crow – D J Daniels

I’m always excited when people try to push the boundaries of SFF story-telling.  Ambitious approaches are good, and we should encourage them.  But they don’t always work.  And Green Jay and Crow by D J Daniels (review copy from Rebellion) was a fail for me.  It just doesn’t quite work.

There’s an interesting puzzle box story in there.  Brom is hired by the local crime boss to collect a box and deliver it to a location.  The box is “time-locked”, reflecting the value of its contents.  Inevitably, the box goes astray and shenanigans ensue.  The box contains mysterious medication that can help Eva.  Eva is a 3D printed copy of a person that was designed to only live for a few days.  But Eva is a girl on the run, desperate to live a separate life.  As the story unfolds, Brom, Eva and his best friend Mac travel between parallel versions of the place they live in, meeting strange characters and trying to find a way to save Eva.  That premise is incredibly engaging, but Daniels fails to deliver on it.

I was most frustrated by the characterisation of Brom, the point of view character for most of the book.  Despite Mac being his best friend, Daniels writes Brom as having little or no knowledge of his friend’s past, motivations or their shared life in the place they live.  Within the novel it is a technique to hide Mac’s motivations to enable a reveal later in the book.  But it’s a lazy way of creating suspense that undermines the reader’s confidence in the writer and the work.

There are a lot of extremely intriguing things about the setting of the novel – particularly the alien Tenties that have arrived in the world; the 3D printing technology; the sentient robots; the parallel versions of the same place; the technology around travel between the parallel worlds; and strange cult-like figures.  But the whole is put together in a way that feels chaotic and difficult to navigate.  And Daniels doesn’t help you to find a coherent path through it.

It’s definitely an interesting work, but I don’t think it ultimately succeeds.  I’ll keep an eye on Daniels as I suspect any future work – as she matures as a writer – has the potential to be extremely interesting.

Goodreads rating: 2*

WorldCon Dublin 2019

Two years ago I travelled to Helsinki to attend WorldCon.  I pre-supported Dublin for 2019 and voted for it in Site Selection.  I’ve been looking forward to it for the last two years, so it was fantastic to finally make it there.

Me driving a Back To The Future DeLorean
A DeLorean! I’m so glad someone brought one!

And I had an amazing time.

It was great to see a distinctly Irish flavour brought out throughout the event.  Some of that was in the programming, with a strong thread around Irish writing, myths and legends.  But it also featured in the stuff around the convention centre.  There was a Back To The Future rigged out DeLorean (a fine Northern Ireland company!) and a version of the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones (a show filmed in Northern Ireland) that was made from hurley sticks and appeared on the day of the All-Ireland Hurling Final being held in Dublin.

Me sitting in a reproduction of the Game of Thrones Iron Throne - except made from hurley sticks
The Throne of Games

The proximity of Dublin to the UK meant that there were a lot of friends there.  Many more than in Helsinki, and from three distinct groups in my life: EasterCon people; book club/SRFC people; and old friends who were also attending, many of whom live on the island of Ireland and were attending their first WorldCon.  And after this year’s EasterCon and a really busy first part of the year I’d made the deliberate choice not to put myself forward for Programme so that I could relax and enjoy the event.  That changed the tone of the event for me, making it much more social than either of the two previous WorldCons I’ve been to.  Fewer panels, more late nights, and a lot more bar con.

Me sat in the Captain's chair on a mock Star Trek ship set, flanked by two friends
Captaining the USS Cuchulainn

Some of that was down to the programme.  Apart from a couple of items, which I will come on to, there was very little in the “cannot miss” category for me.  Lots of great items, but very few that were wowing me either in the subject or the panellists.  And with the venue offering rooms that were often quite small (leading to lots of advance queuing and frequent complaints from people who weren’t able to attend items they wanted to go to) sometimes the best thing to do was to skip a session and let someone else take a spot.

But there were a couple of sessions I simply could not miss, and I’m glad I didn’t, because they were highlights of the weekend for me.  I’d particularly wanted to catch these because I have an academic and professional background in Irish history, culture and literature, so looking at Irish writing through an SFF lens was a must.  The first of these was a session on Northern Ireland SFF, featuring Ian McDonald (one of the Guests of Honour) and Jo Zebedee.  The second was a panel on Irish SFF more generally, featuring McDonald and Zebedee again, but also Sarah Maria Griffin, on her only panel of the weekend.  I adore her writing – Spare and Found Parts is a brilliant, astounding novel – so I was particularly keen to hear her speak

There was a lot of commonality between both discussions, pulling out the essentially political nature of Irish SFF – North and South.  In both cases, writing focuses on engaging with the past, whether colonial history or the Troubles, and it provides a vital and urgent way of engaging with contemporary political issues around feminism, queer politics, violence, migration etc.  Griffin (who is a joyously angry and articulate goddess in person) was particularly vocal about the need for writers to be archaeologists, exhuming buried skeletons and exposing them and their consequences to the light.  In all cases there was a tension between writing authentic fiction rooted in Hiberno-English and strongly redolent of place, with the imperatives of finding a commercial audience.  At times that meant fighting hard to protect the text, at times a “word by word battle” as Griffin put it.

Me with writer Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald giving me a free ARC of his new novella

 

If there were differences to be drawn out between North and South, then they were ones of style and tone.  You should expect writing from the North to be sharper and harder, with a distinctive black humour.  But it’s harder to escape the Troubles, with writers frustrated at expectations that everything they write should be about that to some degree or other, or that they should expect people to read unintended Troubles allegory into their writing regardless.  (Zebedee talked about the pressure she felt under to put alien bombs under cars, and McDonald related the story of a NI screenwriter who had their work un-commissioned by the BBC because it wasn’t about the Troubles and the commissioner considered that the only appropriate topic for a NI-set drama).  If there is a gap, then Zebedee felt writers in the North were at risk of being disengaged from their cultural heritage, which otherwise would provide a rich heritage for them to drawn on.

Another stand out panel for me was one on the treatment of faith and religion in SFF.  It’s rare to see religion treated as anything other than world-building colour in SFF.  It provides some seasonal celebrations and the basis for rituals, or Gods are made manifest and appear as characters (the old Granny Weatherwax line in response to Nanny Ogg pointing out that gods exist: “That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ’em.”).  But characters are often relatively secular in their outlook – rarely do you get the sense of characters being guided by a faith-based moral code.  (One of the rare exceptions to this is Maia in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, whose quiet faith is deeply rooted.)  This ended up being a conversation that continued in the bar with Meg McDonald, one of the panellists, while she was painting glitter on my face.  In her view, faith and belief should be active things, constantly engaging with the events of the world and adapting and changing as a result.

Blakes 7 cosplay - Avon and Servalan are back to back and Blake has his gun aimed at Servalan
Blakes 7 cosplay

Otherwise, the major theme for WorldCon for me was cosplay.  I’d arranged a couple of group cosplays with friends.  On Friday and Sunday, I cosplayed as characters from Blakes 7 with a couple of friends, who were Blake and Servalan.  It was particularly poignant this year, given the recent sad losses of Gareth Thomas, Jacqueline Pearce and Paul Darrow.  I’m very glad we did it, and it was great to see so much love out there for a forty year old television show.

Me as Sarah from the film Labyrinth with a friend dressed as Sarah
Jareth and Sarah

 

I also debuted a new costume on Saturday, with a friend.  I was Sarah from the Masquerade Ball scene in Labyrinth, to her Jareth.  I’d been apprehensive about suggesting it to her, given it could be read as me crashing an already extremely successful cosplay of hers.  But it had been a lifelong dream of mine to do, and Ida was delighted to have the excuse to refresh her costume for a very specific – and famous – scene in the film.  (I’ve blogged separately about the cosplay and the making of the costume.)

Jareth and Sarah

We had a fantastic day.  We couldn’t walk across a room without being stopped at least three times by people wanting photographs.  We gave up most of the Saturday afternoon to a mini photo-shoot, and the pictures are stunning.

Jareth and Sarah

It was the definite highlight of the con for me.

Tangle’s Game – Stewart Hotston

Tangle’s Game by Stewart Hotston (review copy from Rebellion) starts extremely strongly, with the experience of a mixed race woman detained at an airport for questioning.  Subjected to racist abuse and sexual harassment, Amanda Back, a successful banker, doesn’t know why she has been detained.  It is only when she is finally released and makes her way home that she finds out that her ex-boyfriend Tangle has involved her in a complex plot about blockchain and AI by sending her an encrypted USB key containing datafiles that are being sought by governments across the world.

On the one hand, Tangle’s Game is a very prescient novel that extends current issues in society.  Technological development is mixed up with global geo-politics and attempts by one nation state to undermine others.  Its conclusions and their impact on Amanda feel startlingly plausible.  And Hotston is to be applauded for his characterisation of Tangle as a charismatic but selfish and self-obsessed man.  Another, lazier writer would have romanticised Amanda’s toxic ex-boyfriend and tried to redeem him.

But this is a flawed novel.  The authorial voice is far too prominent for me, with a didactic tone that is determined to tell you how to interpret the events of the book and the issues it portrays.  This kind of “tell, not show” is intrusive, and throws me out of books.  The novel also relies on too many early coincidences – the arrival of two hired mercenaries in Amanda’s flat, and the presence of a helpful AI.  Neither is fully explained and feels clumsily done in order to move the plot along.  And while the story flows competently if predictably from thereon in, it’s hard to care about any of the characters.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Celebrity Werewolf – Andrew Wallace

Imagine, if you will, if David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick got together to tell a story of human progress in the face of competing drivers.  Don’t be fooled by the title, or by the light, witty prose – Celebrity Werewolf by Andrew Wallace (NewCon Press) is a book with a lot to say.

Gig Danvers, the titular Celebrity Werewolf, pops into existence without warning one day.  He has no memory of his past or why he is here, but after a series of heroic acts he captures the public imagination.  Gig is “a lover, not a biter”, not your typical, violent werewolf.  Together with scientist Becky and businesswoman Helen, Gig sets out to make the world a better place with inventions based on his own biology.  But his efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the world are repeatedly undermined by arch-rival Gavin Dergs.

This is a conflict between two competing views of the world.  Gavin is about profit, control and a narrow view of who should benefit.  By contrast, Gig is a humanitarian wanting to share his discoveries with everyone.  He advocates an inclusive approach based on love and compassion.  Yet he finds himself outflanked by Gavin at nearly every turn.

This is a love song to human progress, and the need for radical change to address the real problems facing humanity at the moment.  In order to develop, we must change and be willing to embrace the new and different, and overturn the old and existing orders.  We need to reconcile the duality of left and right, profit and public service, love and cynicism if we are to have any chance of succeeding in the longer term.

Wallace amps up the strangeness as the book progresses.  His creativity is fresh and exciting, particularly in the way he breaks down traditional sub-genre boundaries to tell this story.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Not For Use In Navigation – Iona Datt Sharma

One of the joys of reviewing books is coming across exciting, new writing.  Iona Datt Sharma was kind enough to send me a review copy of their short story collection Not For Use in Navigation.  It is full of wit, staggeringly subtle insight and exquisite prose. These are stories that foreground queer and genderfluid people, and focus on liminal spaces.

At EasterCon I was on a panel with Charlie Stross.  We were talking about how rarely stories deal with those behind the scenes people who in real life make change happen.  Charlie’s point was that in a Joseph Campbell-based tradition of story-telling, we want to read about heroes.  That mode of story-telling doesn’t lend itself well to ensemble casts or the acknowledgement of the necessity of collaborative effort.  But Datt Sharma puts that to the lie.  Every person is the hero of their own story, and Datt Sharma tells stories that elevate the mundane and use it to illustrate the profound.

The collection opens with Light, Like A Candle Flame.  This is the story of a woman whose job it is to persuade colonists on a new world that they all need to agree to build a sewage treatment plant, because their current arrangements will not support the growing colony.   Not the most exciting of topics, but in Datt Sharma’s hands this becomes a meditation on leaving home, the tension between past and future and how human beings living in communities work out how they live together.

The bathos is most present in Alnwick, the story of a civil servant working on the UK’s space programme.  Disturbed from a party by an accident that has left many people badly injured, Meg has to deal with the immediate aftermath and ensure the planned space launch will go ahead as intended.  I felt deeply seen by this novel.  Meg does radical work at the cutting edges of technological development, but is seen by her girlfriend Deepika’s activist friends as boring and conventional.  Meg’s story is the heroism of hard work and complex problem solving, and a competent woman doing her job well.  The image of her briefing her Minister in a party dress and snow boots sums this up for me: glamour mixed with practicality.  Meg is the ultimate public servant, quietly doing radical world-changing work that those around her underestimate.

These themes continue in Flightcraft.  Talitha Cawthorne is a flight engineer scarred by the experience of war.  Trying to find a path for her future, Talitha finds herself drawn to a nearby airbase, and the friendship of a civilian flight engineer called Cat.  Talitha was someone forced to do things that others might find unethical during the war, but in the name of saving others.  These are hard and difficult choices that are not ones that most people have the ability to make.  Flightcraft asks who are we to judge from a position of partial knowledge when we are the unwitting beneficiaries.

The collection also includes a novella called Quarter Days.  It follows two magical practitioners, and their new apprentice, who are caught up in the reaction to a railway disaster.  One of them, Ned, is held responsible for the accident because he was one of those that worked on the railway signalling equipment.  But the investigation into the incident begins to show their may be another cause.  This is a story about the impact of migration on a city.    Datt Sharma doesn’t shy away from the bigotry and Othering of those migrant communities, but this is a story about how those people can enrich a place in unforeseen ways by what they bring with them from their homelands.

Interspersed throughout the collection are stories of Akbar and Birbal.  These are reimagined versions of popular folk stories about Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor of India and his friend and principal adviser Raja Birbal.  Akbar struggles to be a good ruler, and it is often Birbal’s cleverness that helps him solve problems, grow and learn.  Datt Sharma’s genderflipped Akbar and Birbal are transported to a space-faring empire.  But the core heart of the stories remains – a strong friendship between two individuals who are not afraid to speak truth to one another.

This is a brilliant collection of fiction that deserves a wide audience.  Datt Sharma is a writer to watch.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Paul Darrow

I lost a friend today.

Long ago, hormonal 14 year old me watched repeats of her beloved Blakes 7 on UK Gold and idly dreamed of Avon being in her bedroom.  Little did 14 year old me imagine that would one day happen.  But 14 year old me could also never have imagined that there would be seven of us, warm white wine, crisps and a lot of bad jokes about nuns told in an Irish accent.

Lots will be – and is – being written about Paul Darrow’s acting career and his contribution to the cultural life of the world.  But I want to talk about the man I was privileged enough to get to know and spend some time with.

Paul holding court over lunch, the first day I met him.

 

I first met Paul in October 2012, at a small lunch in aid of charity that I’d seen advertised somewhere online.  I was at a moment in my life where I wanted to meet some new people and mix up my social life.  I took a day off work and went to Hastings for the day, not sure what to expect.  I found an engaging, intelligent man full of enthusiasm for life who was brilliant company and the polar opposite of every cold-hearted, calculating bastard he ever played on screen.  Lunch extended into a slow wander through the autumn sunshine.  Conversation turned to an event he (and Jacqueline Pearce) were due to be at the following day at Kennington Cinema Museum.  As we parted he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Paul and I outside a Hastings restaurant

So I duly presented myself at the Cinema Museum the following day.  And I found myself sucked into Paul’s entourage.  We spent a lot of time hanging out on the smoking terrace – with Jacqueline Pearce – and generally running round the Cinema Museum giggling (we were hiding from someone Paul was trying to avoid).  I laughed so much my ribs were aching.

Three months later I found myself in a small hotel, deep in the countryside.  There were about 10 of us, and after a fantastic dinner we played Trivial Pursuit in teams.  Paul’s team won.  He was always very competitive, and picked the pink questions at every opportunity.  (A category where he always had an unfair advantage, I feel.)

l-r Michael Keating (Vila), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), me, Paul Darrow (Avon), Steven Pacey (Tarrant)

 

That set a pattern for the last six years.  It was like a long lost uncle had suddenly arrived in my life.  But an uncle determined to drag me to the pub and tell me stories about all the exciting things he’d been doing while long and lost. Fascinating insights into the acting profession from repertory to working for the BBC and ITV, and film, told with real pride about his craft.  Behind the scenes stories from on set.  History told with an instinct for drama.  And underneath it all, a childlike enthusiasm for life, often expressed through filthy jokes, impressions and a mischievous sense of humour – all with impeccable comic timing.

Giggling with l-r Stephen Greif (Travis), Michael Keating (Vila), me and Paul Darrow (Avon)

This long lost uncle introduced me to an entire extended family of cousins I’d never have known otherwise.  I met and made some amazing friends through Paul.  Fascinating people I would never have met otherwise.  And a circle of remarkably un-fannish people at that.  Paul drew around him those that were interesting, engaging and good company.  And we all cared for him deeply.

Behind the Liberator control console with l-r Michael Keating (Vila), me, Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Glynis Barber (Soolin), Stephen Greif (Travis) and Paul Darrow (Avon)

If there is one thing I learned from the time I spent with him, it was the joy that can come from time spent in good company with no particular plan in mind.  He turned hanging out into an artform of existing in the moment.

They say you should never meet your heroes.  Take the chance.  You may find your life is impossibly enriched by doing it.

Paul and I late one night. Or was it early one morning?

EasterCon 2019, Or The Fear Of Over-Exposure

Last weekend I was at Ytterbium, the 70th annual British science fiction convention.  It’s run each year by a committee of volunteers, and is a huge endeavour that attracts around 1,000 people.  It’s my fifth year attending, since my first, Dysprosium in 2015.  And it was far and away the best EasterCon I’ve been to in those five years.  So much so that it’s taken me nearly a week to get over my concrash enough to consider writing a con report.

Me with Gareth L Powell after he won with BSFA Best Novel Award for Embers of War

Over the last five years my personal involvement in SFF communities has increased significantly, as has my confidence in these spaces.  Reflecting back to Dysprosium, I spent a lot of my time feeling like an unwelcome outsider.  I was a Muggle at Hogwarts and none of the cool kids would give me the time of day.  Now, I know far more people in the community, and have found/built my little subset of the tribe to hang out with.

Me (l) with friend Ida (r)

Building that community has taken time.  I have one friend who has that fierce brand of confidence that means that she can walk into any room, be the centre of attention, and emerge feted.  That is not me.  I joke that I grow on people more slowly, much like mould, until I become part of the furniture.  A wise friend always remarks on my networking ability.  Professionally, part of my job is to know lots of people and understand the connections between them.  I have slowly learned that not everyone works that way, and I’ve also learned that it’s something I unconsciously bring into my personal life.  But I’m not always good at deepening those connections beyond the superficial, however much I might want to sometimes.  (Fierce, confident friend had to have a few goes at it before I finally twigged what she was doing.  Two bottles of wine and the sharing of many confidences one evening, and the rest is history.  Wise friend invited me for tea and cake with astonishing clarity, and then patiently and explicitly explained to me over said tea and cake that it was because she liked me and was interested in deepening our friendship.  The rest is history.)  And I forget – unless reminded – that the flip side of being the person who knows lots of people is that I’m a person known by lots of people.  I struggle with that, largely because inside my head I think of myself as pretty boring in comparison to all the amazing and interesting people I know.

All of that made this a bit of an interesting EasterCon for me.  This was a weekend where it felt like I was everywhere.  Being on six programme items was, by any measure, a lot.  And it led to the surreal experience of having people keep coming up to me to talk about them.  Plus having lots of the organising team loudly calling me a hero and trying to buy me lots of gin on Sunday night, after I stepped into the breach at short notice earlier that day (see below).  I’m not used to that kind of attention.  Really, I’m not.  I’d already gone into the weekend worried about being over-exposed.  I’m not a famous writer or fan.  I don’t work in publishing.  I’m just me, who sometimes dresses up as characters from Doctor Who and runs a relatively low-traffic book review blog.  So this is a weekend that has messed with my head and my self-perception quite a bit.

Six programme items.  I was on three of them because I’d suggested them.  But the rest were down to accident, the programme scheduling gods, or not moving quickly enough.

SF-ing Clue. L-R me, Helena McCallum, Tony Keen, Tiffani Angus, Tlanti.

SF-ing Clue.  In homage to a popular radio comedy show, this was a team-based panel game, done as a con warm up event on Thursday night.  It had been deliberately set up with an all-woman set of contestants, to help counter the idea that men have the monopoly on doing funny things at conventions.  In line with its inspiration there was a premium on puns and witty wordplay.  We had only 48 hours to prep the rounds, which was harder than you might think.  They included the Umbridge English Dictionary (giving existing words SFnal definitions, such as “Revoke: to turn back into a Klingon”) and YA Film Club (“To Kill A Mockingjay”).  I won’t be giving up the day job.  And the moral of this story is never to agree to do something in the pub when you’ve had a lot of wine after a long day.

Planning For The Apocalypse.  I’d suggested this because it seems that my friends and I have fairly well developed apocalypse plans, and it’s a regular topic of discussion.  I’d had in mind a kind of Choose Your Own Apocalypse type thing, but I had not envisaged the chaotic, surreal hour that followed.  Someone described it as three feminists on a panel with Alan Partridge.  Someone else wondered if it was a scripted radio play.  Regardless, it defies description or summary.  You had to be there.  All I can say is that Tiffani and Helen, my fellow panellists, are goddesses of deadpan humour and witty comebacks.  I was mostly corpseing with laughter.

The Art of Reviewing.  Much less eventful.  And a chance to meet and spend some time with the wonderful Maureen Spellar of Strange Horizons and fantastic book-tuber Claire Rousseau.  We got into the democratisation of what ‘good’ is, and the role of reviewers as influencers.  Claire and I spent a lot of time talking about how lovely Runalong Womble is.

Conflict Without Violence panel. L-R John Scalzi, Aliette de Bodard, Juliet Kemp, Brian Atterbury, me

Conflict Without Violence.  This was the panel I’d been most anxious about all weekend.  It was my first time moderating.  I was doing it in the big room, with John Scalzi `(one of the Guests of Honour) and Aliette de Bodard, two writers I really admire, plus Juliet Kemp and Brian Attterbury, a professor specialising in SFF literature.  And on a serious topic too – the prevalence of stories about physical violence in SFF, when there are so many different ways of telling stories and resolving conflict.  Much of it is a blur, but I think we explored the topic fairly well.

I walked out that room congratulating myself and feeling in desperate need of a cup of tea and the chance to decompress.  I bumped into one of the organisers, who was in a massive panic because the moderator for one of the panel items had pulled out at the last minute.  Stuff happens to us all, but there is something inexcusable about letting down volunteer organisers at short notice and without good reason.  It creates a horrible mess for them to have to sort out.  I’ve been in that organiser’s position, and there’s no way I could leave them with a crisis on their hands.  So …

The 2019 Hugo Award Shortlist.  I ended up moderating this with 10 minutes notice.  10 minutes.  That was long enough to Google the shortlist, try to work out what areas to focus the panel on, introduce myself to the panellists and take it from there.  I think I got away with it.  But a badly prepared moderator is not a good thing, and bad moderation can ruin a panel, however good the panellists are.  I’m incredibly grateful to an understanding audience and the panellists for their tolerance, and for enabling us to have a great discussion.

Me looking exhausted and very hungover (l), Charlie Stross, Kate Towner (r)

Administering Fantasy Worlds.  My final panel on Monday lunchtime was a struggle.  I was exhausted and panelling is Hard Work.  But I poured my remaining spoons into it.  This was a re-run of a panel a few of us had done at Nine Worlds last August, looking at governance and bureaucracy as world-building issues in SFF.  My friend Kate (an accountant) moderated, and did a fantastic job helping us to cover a lot of ground.  The other panelists were Wendy Bradley (retired tax inspector) and author Charlie Stross.  Kate and I have been fans of Charlie’s for years, so were having to suppress our inner fangirls whilst talking about the lack of proper procurement frameworks for laser guns, or the logistical challenges of handling taxes paid in live chickens.

me (l) with Ida (r)

The programme as a whole was excellent, and the organisers should be congratulated for that in particular.  Diversity was built in right from the start, with none of those awful “Women in SFF”-type panels that compartmentalise people who aren’t straight, white, able-bodied men into discussions only about their protected characteristics.  The team did an amazing job in building thoughtful panels of knowledgeable people that brought different perspectives to issues.  Big name authors were mixed up with debuts and subject experts, leading to rich discussions.  Inclusion was built into the event from the ground up, in panelist/moderator guidance, with the use of pronoun badges, and badges to signify access needs, including invisible ones.  It feels like the best parts of events like Nine Worlds were taken account of.  It’s in marked contrast to previous years and ha set an incredibly high standard for next year’s EasterCon.  I hope next year’s organising team have been paying attention and deliver the same standards.

Andrew Wallace performing from Celebrity Werewolf

Other stand out items were a performance by SF author, songwriter and comedian Mitch Benn, who performed his new song Zombie Jesus Chocolate Day.  Rapid-Fire Info Shots was a gloriously chaotic mix of three-minute segments by willing volunteers on subjects as diverse as why Captain Benjamin Sisko is the leader we need right now; how to draw the perfect demon summoning circle; and the problem with Lembas bread.  All while having (vegan) marshmallows thrown at them.  I also saw author friends read from their work, and went to their book launches.  I’m sad I missed so many other great items for scheduling or energy level reasons – including a couple of brilliant-looking Doctor Who items.

me (r) with Magnus (l)

But the best part of the weekend was the bar-con.  I met and hung out with loads of amazing people, some of whom I’ve known in passing for a while, but got to know better over the weekend.  One friend made a special trip to come down for the Sunday night.  There was dancing.  There was gin.  There were many hugs.  Nights were late.  Feet were sore.  Heads were sore the following morning.  The craic was mighty.

Roll on Dublin in August.  Roll on EasterCon next year.