Following up from the last blog about comic conventions in the UK, I thought I’d tell the tale of the first comic convention I attended as a punter in 1986, though it wasn’t the first I’d ever been to as I’d helped organise the Eisnercon in Glasgow the year before but more of this another time.
No, this is about my first trip south of the border to Birmingham for a comic convention held at the NEC in Birmingham, well, it was by the NEC, it was actually held at the National Motorcycle Museum nearby and to this day it was one of those experiences that was fun, exciting, depressing, miserable, surreal and painful at the same time. Bit like being locked in a lift with George Osborne and not having a pick axe handle with you, so you have to beat him to death with your fists which isn’t as fun as the satisfying thud of wood on his flesh…
Anyhow, the year is 1986. People are depressed because it’s the 80’s and it’s a bit shite. Comics are on the verge of a massive breakthrough into the mainstream thanks to Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Maus, which meant that more and more people were taking interest in comics.
UKCAC had already started up, but I decided to go to this convention in Birmingham as it had an immense guest list including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons (who were talking about the forthcoming issues of Watchmen on one panel.) but really it was all about Clive Barker.
So a few AKA regulars decided to go down because it was cheaper than UKCAC, not to mention the lure of a good guest list did it’s trick and eventually the numbers were whittled down to just the four of us; myself, Jim Clements, Peter Coyle and a now exceptionally famous comic writer (GM) who was coming down to see Barker and Alan Moore not to mention doing some crucial networking.
However seeing at Pete and myself were daft wee kids, Jim was a mentalist and GM was hardly the most reliable of people the organisation fell on the head of John McShane (one of the owners of AKA) who booked two twin rooms in the convention hotel in the middle of Birmingham as well as pointing us towards a night bus which would drop us right outside our hotel and on a muggy July evening in 1986 the four of us met in the pub on a Friday night (which for Jim and GM was a rare thing) to go up to Buchanan Street bus station for the overnight trip from Glasgow to Birmingham.
I don’t remember much of the trip down. Jim sat next to GM and talked about Alice in Wonderland all the way down, while Pete and myself chatted or slept most of the time. The point is this was a hellish journey as travelling on long distance buses (remind me to tell you about the time I went from Bristol to Paris on a bus) is utter fucking hell to me. But we didn’t have the money for a plane or a overnight sleeper on the train.
After what seemed like a multitude of eternities we pulled up in the centre of Birmingham at 6am in the morning. Now I’ve since been through Birmingham at that time to catch connecting trains, or coming out of a club or coming back from a rave from just outside Leamington Spa but nothing prepares you for the grimness of Birmingham city centre at 6am.
But we were outside our hotel! A bed for all of us was waiting as was breakfast! All we had to do was check-in.
Except we couldn’t. We couldn’t check-in til 8am, so we had two hours to waste. In the centre of Birmingham. At 6 in the morning. In 1986. We asked where we could go for a cup of tea and we were pointed to the nearby New Street Station.Now today, New Street and the Bullring have been redeveloped and Birmingham actually looks like a proper city, but in 1986 it looked like something from William Blake’s writings but even bleaker.
We got to New Street and realised we couldn’t actually get to the cafes to get a cup of tea because you needed to buy a platform ticket, so thinking ‘fuck that’ Jim and GM volunteered to go get us all cups of tea.
And we sat (seeing as there were no seats we had to sit on the floor) on New Street Station at 6ish in the morning talking comics and vowing never to return again in our lives to Birmingham, but we managed to get our tickets to the NEC sorted and we realised the hotel and convention were miles apart.
Eventually the station started to fill as it was Saturday morning, which freaked us all out a bit as we’d been in this weird bubble of our own for 12 hours and sleep deprivation had kicked in. Thankfully it was now time to go back to our hotel and check in to get our nice comfy bed each and chill out for a bit before the convention opened at midday.
I remember being the person out of the four of us who went in first, told the girl behind the reception the name the rooms were booked in and waiting for the keys to our twin rooms. At this point the girl started looking at us oddly. Very oddly. Very very oddly up to the point where where pointed out that there wasn’t two twin rooms with four comfy, comfy beds waiting for us but two double rooms with two large double beds waiting for us. There wasn’t a chance of getting any twin rooms as the hotel was fully booked, so myself and Pete instantly bagged each other to share one room which left Jim and GM to share the other. Before this, I decided to phone John McShane in Glasgow to tell him of the situation. I think he’s still laughing about it.
We got in our double rooms and very nice they were. We thought it’d only be for the one night as we were going back to Glasgow on the overnight bus on Sunday night and we’d probably be mixing in the bar anyhow. Jim and GM were probably going to continue talking about Alice in Wonderland and drinking a water between them.
After tidying up and chilling out, we got our act together and went back to the hell of New Street Station to get the train to the NEC, and as we got onto the platform we saw other obvious comic people and chatted with them as we headed up to the venue.
At this point I need to point out that the NEC wasn’t fully built, and as we quickly discovered neither was the road from the NEC to the Motorcycle Museum so once we got there, you either waited for a shuttle bus that didn’t seem to run, or walk the mile or so through a building site. We chose the latter which fucked up GM’s winkle-pickers but we eventually got to the Museum and after weaving our way through the venue we found the convention which was held in a number of their halls, and I headed to the dealers room which wasn’t especially full but it was interesting to see faces for the first time like Martin Skidmore who’d enter my life again two or three years later.
Now I confess to being a huge fanboy at the time. I lapped up panels featuring creators talking and was engrossed by Alan Moore telling us his plans for his DC after Watchmen assuming DC played nicely. This was one of the first times in public I think he was clearly making the point that he was getting fucked off by DC, but he was cheery and fun not to mention great to listen to.
Sadly Clive Barker wasn’t, not because Barker isn’t a great storyteller. He is. It’s just he had to cancel, so we listened to Ramsey Campbell talking boringly about horror and his works, so I left GM and Jim to lap this up and headed to the bar to meet Dom Regan who had moved from Glasgow to London a year or so earlier to work for Dez Skinn’s Quality Comics and his line of 2000AD reprints aimed at the American market and this was the first time most of us had seen Dom since his move to London.
We caught up, drank beer slowly as you do when you don’t have a lot of cash and you’re young in a strange city, and had an enjoyable day before heading back to the hotel to get something to eat and head to the party in the bar for the convention. Before that though myself, Jim, Pete, GM, Dom and a mate of his all sat in our room talking bollocks, drinking weak lager and preparing for the party ahead.
Problem was that we were all so bloody knackered through lack of sleep, hiking through the NEC, the building site outside the NEC, all over the convention and not eating properly we were on the verge of collapse but it’d have been daft not to come all this way and not go.
We went down to the party which was held in one of these faceless hotel bars that hotels seem intent to always have, but if was fun. I do seem to remember a joke about Double Diamond that somehow kept the spirits up but I’ll be buggered if I remember it exactly. I just remember laughing.
And we all did. We had a fun time before going to our double rooms and sleeping as far apart as two people possibly can in a double bed. Having went through a few painful splits with girlfriends I can say this was even further than that.
On the Sunday we got up, had breakfast, sorted ourselves out, packed our bags and hiked again up to the NEC for the final day after checking out our hotel. Nothing much happened that stands out. Jim and GM spent more time talking about Alice in Wonderland, more weak lager was consumed and we left early as the bus back to Glasgow left early evening.
As we said a farewell to the NEC I thought that was the last time I’d do anything comics related there. That proved to be amazingly wrong as a future blog will tell you, but we headed back into Birmingham city centre through all the greenery of the outskirts of the city and finally into the shit-brown and grey of 80’s Birmingham to get the bus home.
The bus pulled out of Birmingham and I don’t remember us saying much as we were all knackered but by this point you see I discovered how much I love travelling, and making as much of an adventure of these things as possible. I also decided there that I wanted to go to Glastonbury to help feed this sense of adventure, but that would take another six years to realise.
I remember us getting back into Glasgow early on Monday morning and mingling at the bus station with people going to work and realising I didn’t want to work in offices, or do normal things. I wanted something else but I didn’t know what, but we said our very tired farewells and I got the bus home to Milton where I was then living to collapse in my own sad wee bed.
As I write this I stopped wanting to be different a while ago and have spent too long working in offices with similarly sad people who have either seen their life slip out of view, or haven’t had one as yet. This isn’t a sad end to a story, but it’s a bit of perspective and writing these blogs are helping me find what I thought I’d lost so yes, you’re allowed to feel happy now.
Next time, the story of the Eisnercon and then, UKCAC through my eyes!