NEUTRAL ZONE 1997

Report by Chris Blenkarn

(This con report covers only the Blakes 7 elements of Saturday and Sunday at Neutral Zone, as that was my reason for attending. No disrespect is intended to the guests and attendees who were there primarily for Star Trek).

Prologue

I was a fan of Blake's 7 back in the seventies, dropped out of fandom then got involved again relatively recently. Neutral Zone was therefore only my second con. I'd booked for the saturday and sunday, in company with Janet, a new friend met at Who's7. Janet was to travel up by rail to stay with us on the friday night.

I had to work friday morning so the con countdown proper began at midday. In preparation for Janet's arrival I'd already cleared the spare bedroom of our daughter's wardrobe overflow, removing the chocolate bar wrappers and coffee cups festering by the bed and replacing them with a pile of zines for bedtime reading. In honour of the con I then paid real money for a proper haircut rather than hacking off chunks of hair myself.

What to wear was next, starting with the all-important choice of earrings; should it be the big black plastic ones with yellow spots, or the equally lurid twinkly pink ones, or the giant sunflowers....so the afternoon wore on, and I still hadn't sorted the washing or defrosted the fridge. Thanks to the Byzantine ticketing practices of railway companies Janet was not due to arrive at Darlington until 10.30, so in the evening husband and self went off to watch a film (his treat for doing all the family care duties over the con). Very absorbing film but a bit slow to get going.

After a while I began to feel vaguely uneasy about the time, and sure enough a big explosion on screen gave enough light for me to see my watch - 10.15, aarghh! Next time your local cinema tells you what time a film ends, ask them if they're absolutely certain.

We raced out and drove like fury to Darlington, arriving there five minutes late and full of apologies. Back home we got into practice for the con, getting through a large amount of wine, swopping zines and chatting into the early hours.

Saturday

In the morning we catch the train to Newcastle, arriving at the hotel only twenty minutes late. First glorious surprise - Sheelagh Wells and Joe Nazzaro are there selling copies of their newly published book. Losing no time, we each buy a copy before depositing our baggage in the cloakroom as our room isn't ready. Janet has previously sat next to Sheelagh, Paul and Gareth at Whos7 while stewarding at the autograph session (some people got to steward at the rear of the queue keeping the swing door clear, but I try not to hold this against her), so we go back and chat happily to her and Joe.

Sheelagh admires my earrings (the pink ones). Sheelagh is evidently a woman of discerning taste. Time for a drink. Janet goes off to the bar wile I go to locate the toilets. I enter the bar some minutes later and there is Janet talking to Gareth with Paul close by. Gareth has remembered her from Whos7 and bought her a drink. I go to join them, reminding myself that jealousy is not an attractive trait in a friend, just as both gentlemen are whisked away. Never mind, it's only saturday morning. I can wait.

Janet then gives me the sad news that Gareth will not be able to make Fantasticon as he will be working in Dundee. We are of course pleased for him, but we and every one else will sorely miss him. Perhaps we could persuade the con organisers to transfer Fantasticon to somewhere within reach of Dundee? Janet has her camera at the ready as she has been promised a photo with the two of them, and sure enough they resurface a few minutes later, by which time I have retrieved my own camera from the cloakroom as emergency backup.

Lots other people are manoeuvring for photos but eventually it is our turn. Success. Flushed with a sense of achievement and two quick halves we withdraw to the dealers room to say hello to Judith Proctor and to the Horizon table. Judith tells me that the deadline for the next Forbidden Star has slipped, so I have more time to complete my contribution. This is welcome news, as I am nowhere near finished.

Loitering next at the Horizon table, I remind myself that I really don't need any more of Horizon's delicious Blakes 7 fridge magnets, as in any case no magnet will stick to our fridge door.

The two I bought at Whos7 have to grace our bread bin instead, though I'd deliberately chosen the one of a grim-faced, armed Avon as a warning to the children not to use up all the milk and then go off for the evening leaving their loving parents to drink black tea at bedtime. I chose the one of Vila because he's adorable, well, obviously.

It is a pleasure also to meet for the first time Val Westall, who is sitting next to Judith, some of her beautiful drawings temptingly displayed on the wall behind. We all talk for a few minutes, Janet buys a zine and I don't because I already have copies of most of them. Perhaps I will come out of this con with money in my wallet. I buy a striking Avon photo for an absent friend, then glance at a flyer for next year's Horizon con.

What's this I see - Michael Keating will be there. Michael Keating will be there. MICHAEL KEATING WILL BE THERE. Oh my! Suddenly I feel the need for a glass of water and a lie-down .... Janet then leaves for stewarding duties and I go to see what is being auctioned.

I have hit a period in which no Blake's 7 stuff is up for grabs, so after a while I retire to the bar, and there is Gareth, for once not totally surrounded. Now is my chance to impress with my trenchant, witty and fascinating conversation but suddenly my brain ceases to function, thirty years of experience evaporate and I turn into a tongue-tied adolescent.

I come out with some inane remark which Gareth answers with his habitual courtesy. I follow it up with a few more of equal banality. Blloody Hell, what's the matter with me? I am a grown-up, in my working life I strike up conversations with strangers all the time. This is really embarrassing. Can I pretend it is just a run through and ask Gareth if I can have another take?

I would like to talk about theatre, but it doesn't seem appropriate to launch straight into a conversation on the iniquities of Arts Council funding or the darker side of Alan Bennett. Someone to my right is ordering drinks. His face is vaguely familiar, and I realise he is the man who played Servalan to such devastating effect at Whos7. His performance of Fever was the highlight of the con as far as I was concerned, so it's good to have an opportunity to speak to him and ask if his feet have recovered from those stiletto heels.

The next half an hour is pleasantly passed in chatting with various people and drinking Guinness, as I have made the shocking discovery that a glass of insipid white wine costs 2.50. I look in again on the auction, where Paul and Gareth are now in full flow. I have missed my chance to buy some of Gareth's hair and various other Blake's 7 mementoes of awe-inspriring quality, but am in time for the breakfast auction. I almost place a bid, but remember in time that the car tax and MOT is due, so I'd better not splash any more money.

After that I go upstairs in search of the still stewarding Janet, to see if she needs food and drink. Yes, she does. I get a baked potato with cheese and a cheese bun and we eat. Afterwards we go back to the dealer's room for a few minutes before Paul and Gareth's talk. Janet's steward badge is spotted and she is asked to undertake a few minutes emergency stewarding, to which she nobly agrees.

At 1.59 she is relieved, in both senses of the word, and we scuttle into the main hall. We are a bit puzzled to find a video being shown, but eventually get the message that the programme has been rearranged and our heros will be appearing later. We sneak out and decide we might as well go and dump the bags in our room, after which I nip out to Oddbins to buy some wine and a corkscrew, just in case.

We return to the main hall where Gareth and Paul give us some great impromptu entertainment. I know it was great but I'm damned if I can remember what they said. Probably the effects of the Guinness. Rugby and football scores intruded from time to time. On a more serious note, Gareth asks us all to give thanks for the life and work of Terry Nation, whose death has been announced earlier in the week.

Afterwards I return yet again to the dealers room. I come across an enormously fetching photo of Vila on the Horizon table but I'm running through my ready cash faster than anticipated, so I'm not sure whether to buy it. It may be a choice between the photo and more Guinness. What would Vila suggest? Pretty obvious really.

Back to the bar. Janet has had to go stewarding again, but not before she bumps into Paul in the lift. What is she using, radar? Eventually we go back to our room and have a nice cup of tea while deciding where to eat dinner. Janet realises that her turn in the autograph queue is imminent and goes back downstairs, while I flick through her new zines to locate any Vila stories and phone home to make sure that no-one has blown up the house since this morning. Our son says everything is fine, our senior cat has been sick in the conservatory, and can he go back now to watching the Simpsons, please? Perhaps this is a suitable moment to raise a glass to all partners who have stayed home on double care duty so that their other halves can have a good time.

Shortly afterwards Janet gets back and we set off into the night in pursuit of some real food. As ever this takes longer than we think, and I am almost too late for my turn in the autograph queue. I charge through the hotel doors and up to the fourth floor as the lift is slow to descend, grab Sheelagh's book and a card for my absent friend whose birthday it is tomorrow, and race back to the first floor signing, only just in time to join the end of the queue.

The guests must surely have writers' cramp by now. Gareth has a gold pen and signs first, querying in passing how I will set about getting a card to Australia in under 24 hours? Good question. Specially trained pigeon? Paul is wearing a delectable apricot-coloured shirt, and reveals that he might have been named Ernest instead of Paul. Good God.

Mission accomplished, I walk more slowly back upstairs. Time to decide what we are going to wear for the disco. I finally decide on the gold shirt and the floaty long skirt I bought specially for the con from Help the Aged, who together with Scope and the British Heart Foundation supply most of my extensive wardrobe. I remember to replace the pink earrings with long dangly gold ones, pull on some boots which given the lack of air conditioning may well be a mistake, and rejoin the happy throng. Some time later we go upstairs for Gareth's readings.

He has been allocated a small room on the first floor which has the required number of seats but is unfortunately vulnerable to passers-by opening the door to see what's going on. Some of the attendees, unavoidably delayed by slow restaurant service, enter as discreetly as they can. Unfortunately they are outnumbered by people messing around outside; one man in particular sticks his silly head around the door and makes several lame-brained remarks as Gareth is speaking. He seems oblivious to the waves of hate we are directing at him.

Gareth appears admirably unfazed by all of this. He gives us several readings, his own work and the promised Shakespeare, culminating in a riveting portrayal of a miner trapped underground that he plans to include in a one-man show. After this he talks at some length about language and drama, the actor's lot, the decline of theatres and the idiocy of the new Jobseekers Allowance - what would you call Peter Lillie, he asks? I am tempted to shout "the Antichrist" but think better of it.

(I should acknowledge at this point that as a rabid theatre-goer I agree very strongly with everything Gareth said about the way it is undervalued, underfunded and in danger of atrophy. A good stage production has an immediacy, a distinctiveness and a vibrancy that no other medium can reproduce. Whether it's the National Theatre or a cash-strapped small company touring in a clapped-out van makes little difference.

In a sensible world, actors of Gareth's calibre would be constantly in employment to the benefit of us all. How on earth have we reached a position where the Government happily throws money at buildings for the arts but disregards the needs of the artists?

Theatre starts with the performance, whether in a theatre, sports hall, community centre, local park, school or pedestrian underpass. One of the reasons it is in decline is because people don't realise what they are missing; more support for theatre companies and individuals who are trying to work in the community would be of real value. Not to mention mandatory grants for drama students.

Well, that's what I think anyway. Besides, if you never see any Shakespeare, however will you understand the jokes of the Reduced Shakespeare Company?)

Everyone hopes Gareth's one man show gets off the ground, and that he achieves his ambition to play Othello; let's make sure none of us smiles when he reaches the line "It is the Cause, my soul..." By the time we have all finished talking and expressed our thanks, it is well after 1am. Downstairs the disco is making conversation in the bar difficult. Judith and co. go in search of a suitable room for filking but end up on the first floor landing by default. She has written a lament for Gareth's absence from Fantasticon - quick worker - but we are too tired to sing, or in my case, too lousy a singer. (Judith - actually it was a filk for me not being able to make it to see him in Dundee, which isn't quite the same thing even though one is the cause of the other - Richard, link in filk)

Instead we sit and talk about Blake's 7, dyslexia and forestry, not necessarily in that order. I've recently been enjoying an exchange of email letters which began with Tarrant and has somehow transmuted into a discussion on fried bread. Only connect, as the book says.

Eventually we move on. Janet goes to take up position at the bar and I walk up the stairs to retrieve my bag from our room. I pass Paul en route for the third floor. I really do like that shirt.

Back downstairs it is very hot and very noisy. It is also nearly 2am. Normally I am the first person to get tired at parties and nod off behind the sofa but I am feeling wide awake. We have switched into action woman/human dynamo mode. We buy more drinks and contemplate dancing, but I don't know any music later than 1971 so I watch as Janet joins in. Have the organisers never heard of the Rolling Stones and Honky Tonk Women?

The bar closes, but shortly afterwards the hotel concedes defeat and reopens it. By 3.30am I have given up hope of Honky Tonk Women but dance anyway. We are seriously considering staying up all night as Janet is stewarding again at 7am. Yes, 7am! Are there really people desperate to watch videos at 7am in the morning? However we ultimately decide to retire to our room, have a cup of tea, and I eventually fall asleep around 4.30 having read a nice Vila story and set the alarm for 6.45.

Sunday

What the Hell is that vile noise? I grope for Janet's alarm clock and press every button. Nothing happens. I switch on the light, get my glasses and try again, this time successfully. It's 6.45. I tell Janet the good news. "Wurggh, derrhh" she replies, or words to that effect. Eventually we stumble out of bed, she gets dressed to go and her duty, and I put the kettle on for a refreshing cup of tea.

Venturing down to the main hall with two full cups, I notice a headline in the Sunday Times about Blake. ??? On closer inspection it's about the spy George Blake. Oh well. Downstairs, various inert bodies are draped across the furniture, while in the hall other bodies are sitting up straight watching a video. Amazing. At 8am, duty done, we crawl back to our room and have more tea, which singularly fails to rouse us from our comatose state. It's going to take a lot more than one cup of tea.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you eat enough hotel breakfast, it saves you having to spend money on lunch, so we attack the breakfast bar in earnest. I have the healthy items first, followed by the grease crisis stuff. Janet does the same in reverse and thus gets the last of the scrambled eggs (for the time being). We also order copious quantities of coffee, for medicinal purposes.

We are still diligently working our way through the food when Gareth and his breakfast guest are shown to the table next to us. It's very close, and we are careful to look the other way in order not to intrude. What is the polite thing to do in these circumstances? We could leave, but there is still the toast to eat, and I for one have not had nearly enough caffeine yet. Do we sit silently, thereby giving the impression that we are listening hard, or do we launch into an animated conversation and pretend we haven't noticed their presence? Just how badly do we need that toast and coffee? I decide my need for more caffeine is paramount and stare at the table cloth as I gulp it down.

At 10am Paul and Gareth give another hugely enjoyable talk. They tell a lot of anecdotes and jokes, old, new, borrowed but hardly blue. Paul does the one about the Jewish lad with the nice watch "my grandfather sold it me on his deathbed". Gareth reveals that Michael Keating previously had a spot of legal bother when he took positive action against cars parked on the pavement. Michael should be congratulated - inconsiderate car owners are high on my list of people first up against the wall when the revolution comes (must have a word with Blake).

I've spent years phoning the police to report cars owned by lazy sods who park right across the pavement near to our local primary school, forcing parents to drag their offspring along a very busy road. The police don't appear to ever take any action, and it's very tempting to do it for them. Anyone care to join me?

I think it was during this talk that Paul was asked what make of car he drove (Renault), and he said he would rather like a Jaguar. This set me wondering what cars the Liberator crew might drive. I later consulted my husband and we made these suggestions:

Avon: As Paul had already brought up Jaguars, how about my favourite Jaguar XK150, fast, elegant, dead classy, and available in silver or black? Husband insists that a Porsche 911 would be more Avon's style. Alternatively, a Honda NSX because he could fiddle to his heart's content with its advanced computer systems, or a De Lorean because of its association with big time fraud. Or, as Avon wants to be a loner, how about forgetting cars with their redundant passenger seats and going for a Ducati 916? Lots of power, no pillion, and he already owns the leather gear.

Blake: a sturdy Land Rover for cross country travel in search of rebel outposts; it will go up hill, down dale, and presumably into quarries. He can also have a Range Rover (green) for Sunday best.

Jenna: an Alfa Coupe, the colour of her eyes. Smart and fun to drive, not that I would know.

Gan: a number of options. Gan's car should be reliable, sound, not flashy. Triumph Herald? (too small). Lancia Gamma?(it would rust). Diesel version of the Ford Sierra, slower than the petrol version and with a low rev limit? (Maybe). Perhaps he's bored with his image and secretly lusts after a Mercedes 500 SL; with a limiter, obviously.

Vila: with his peculiar talents, Vila should be able to steal a different car for every day of the week. A suitable permanent choice might be the Ford Sierra XR2, the most stolen model in the country last year, or if he wants something more classic, a Mini Cooper. However I like to think his sense of humour would allow him to run a custom-built Morris Minor with a vroom vroom Rover V8 engine hidden inside. Imagine Avon's face as he overtakes the Ducati.

Cally: a Saab 900 Turbo, eminently sensible and with a powerful engine to steer clear of trouble - more likely to steer straight for it, so be grateful for the anti-skid brakes. The gearbox- locking ignition system would also be a challenge for Vila.

Travis 1: AC Cobra

Travis 2: Dodge Viper

What more can I say? If he/they damage the bodywork though, I hope it will be properly repaired and not bodged up.

Servalan: a fleet of cars as befits her rank. A white chauffeur- driven Rolls for public occasions, a Black AMG saloon with speeds of up to 200 mph for personal use, and a Brabus Mercedes (A Seat of Power...the ultimate in performance and styling, says the ad) for good measure. I would add a sports car, but the open top would be fatal to those big hats and fancy shoulder jobs.

Tarrant: an Austin Healey (red). Macho, uncomfortable, difficult to drive, but tres dashing.

Dayna: we had trouble identifying a car for Dayna, James Bond cars being unobtainable from your average show room. Perhaps a souped up VW Beetle, or a Porsche just like Avon's...

Soolin: open sports models are out with those hairstyles, so how about something eyecatching and dangerous, an Escort Cosworth?

Well, it's just an idle thought. Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Sadly, Gareth and Paul's talk has to give way to the next auction, though it looks as though they are going to participate. Janet is stewarding again and I am looking after Judith's table for a while, having triple-checked that she's left me her calculator. Things are fairly quiet at first so I can do some illicit zine reading, but soon I am having a nice time talking to passers-by and even selling some zines.

Selling zines is an intrinsically noble activity, enabling the fortunate purchaser to make a sound investment for their future happiness, especially if the zines in question are "The Machiavelli Factor" and "Roads to Hell" (ok, so that's just a personal opinion). Paul said during a talk that he liked "The Other Side of the Coin" and Judith, being a shrewd business person, has placed a notice to this effect. Of course to fully appreciate "Coin" you should really read "Cheeseboard" as well, a fact I point out to prospective buyers, one of whom believes me enough to buy both. In between times I rifle through Horizon's fridge magnets, give in to temptation and buy three more.

Suddenly it's 12.30ish. Janet appears to tell me that we should have checked out of the room long since. I hand over the key and she goes off to lug all our bags to the downstairs cloakroom while I remain at my post. Shortly afterwards Judith returns and I dash off to give Janet a hand. I meet her emerging from the lift with my bag and half a bottle of red wine minus the cork, which with a gross lack of foresight we had thrown in the bin the night before. We'll have to purloin glasses and drink it right away, it's the only possible course of action. Janet declines the treat so I'll have to finish it all myself. Tough, but that's life.

Before long it's time to mind Judith's table again so she can attend the stewards party. I ask her to ask Gareth if he was involved in the filming of "By the Sword Divided" at Rockingham castle, which is next to my home village. If so, what did he think of the beer at the Sondes Arms?

People are coming to the dealers room with what is left of their cash, and I do my best to divest them of it. It's for their own good, these are class zines. Val or Judith comes back to inform me that Gareth was indeed at Rockingham. I wish I had known, I'd have been down visiting my parents in no time.

By mid-afternoon the lack of sleep and two glasses of wine are beginning to tell, but now it's time for the guest panel/raffle draw/ award presentation/ closing ceremony. What, already? But I don't want to go home yet. Janet has to leave straight after the presentations to catch a train so we say farewell until the next time. Judith and Val go to pack up the table and I wonder whether I should get something to eat. The sensible thing would be to walk across the road to the Laing Art Gallery and buy something civilised, but I seem to be sinking into catatonia and therefore buy an apology for a sandwich from the bar and find a corner in which to eat it.

My brain is having difficulty engaging first gear. I dimly recall that come tomorrow I am supposed to be be taking off the silly earrings, donning a smart suit and conducting a training course, followed by a couple of hours badminton in the evening. I don't really think I'll be up to badminton by tomorrow. Or ever again. I realise I forgot all about that lovely Vila photo, damn. Judith and friends reappear, and I hang around a bit longer, but real life is beginning to reassert itself. Back home I have some work to prepare for tomorrow, and very probably some shirts to wash, our kids having yet to make the discovery that school uniforms do not jump in and out of the washing machine of their own volition. I say goodbye, heave the bag over my shoulder, and regretfully set off for the station. Splendid con weekend, wasn't it? Roll on the next one, bring on the fridge magnets...See you there?

Chris Blenkarn


Back to the convention index

Back to B7 Top