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Published on November 11th, 2009 | by Lisa McInerney


Conventional Wisdom

Being annoyed that “real life” had conspired to keep me from three days of the four-day Irish Discworld Convention may not be the best excuse for my acquiring a monstrous hangover, but I don’t have much else to go on.

Well, apart from that the run-up to the weekend of the convention had been fraught with unanswered emails, precarious travel arrangements, and budget miscalculations; a few hefty glasses of wine the night before had seemed as fitting a commiseration as any. Besides, I reassure myself, as our car bounces out of another pothole and my stomach heaves accordingly, hangovers aren’t entirely out of place at a Discworld convention. Terry Pratchett understands hangovers.

terry-pratchettTerry Pratchett, after all, gave us Bilious, the Oh God of Hangovers. He gave us Scumble, and Wow-Wow Sauce as an extreme cure for overdosing on it. He gave us the worrying concept of knurd, which is the state of being so unnaturally sober that you see life as it really is, with terrifying clarity. Look, Terry Pratchett is no ordinary novelist. This is someone who not only chronicles every daft impulse and petty longing that makes the world go round, he does it through rib-busting satire; he wraps it up in fun and swords and magic; he makes it palatable. Terry Pratchett is knurd so we don’t have to be.

Well, most of the time. Right now he’s nursing a pint of Guinness in the lobby of The Falls hotel in Ennistymon, surrounded by enraptured and mostly en-costumed fans. He’s pondering the English executioner, Albert Pierrepoint. “A strange man,” he says, to a bloke painted blue and wearing a kilt. The fan nods in sober agreement; they both seem oblivious to the irony.

Ennistymon is a strange place to hold the first ever Irish Discworld Convention. Tucked away in west County Clare, it’s on the way to nowhere, and perhaps the last place you’d want to be on a wet November weekend. It does have the attraction of the prettiest town-centre water feature in Ireland, though, and as the organisers promised, there are donkeys in the hotel grounds; still, it’s an odd choice. Discworld readers aren’t generally prone to fanaticism – the wit and wisdom of Pratchett’s writing appeal mostly to people who are witty and wise – so it’s difficult to believe that anyone would want to go gallivanting this far off the beaten track. Certainly on arrival at the hotel there’s more of a cosy gathering than a messy crowd, and no one seems to know where the convention check-in desk has gotten to. Myself and my equally Discworld-mad pal Nellie cast about for a bit, until fellow culchie Darragh takes pity on us and points us at the Ops room, where we’re looked at blankly when we mention culch.ie.

“We did an article advertising this yoke? And a follow-up interview with the chairs?” I chance, but I may as well have been on about the actual seating arrangements, for all the recognition I get from the girl behind the desk. Mike the media guy, with whom I’d had memorable and recent Discworld-related discussions on the phone, walks in on cue, shakes my hand warmly, and runs off again, never to return. So much for the cheeky promise of setting up a few words with Sir Terry that he’d snared me with. I cross him off the Christmas card list and soldier on.

So, clutching a convention programme each, we’re soon settled in ruralest Ireland, listening to Sir Terry Pratchett talking about hangmen, and corsets, and the concept of imitation soot.

I wonder how long it took Pratchett to get used to people physically emulating figments of his imagination; did he baulk at his maiden sighting of an overgrown Feegle, or hide behind his hat when confronted by his first walking, talking Reaper Man? I don’t get the chance to ask him; he’s whisked away by one of the organisers (a human one, not one of the imp-powered “Gooseberries” that so annoy Discworld citizens). He seems as reluctant to leave his audience than he is to say no to her request; at this stage he’s only a third of the way down his pint, and the head has turned the colour of old straw. I joke that he prefers chatting to our national beverage. That’s hardly far-fetched; Sir Terry really doesn’t mind chatting with his fans. And for someone who’s sold over sixty million books, that’s pretty bloody noteworthy.

The fans seem just as comfortable. No atmosphere of reverence here; at one stage, the gentle voice of Pratchett is drowned out by some braying witches loudly discussing their lunches but five feet from him. A Twilight convention this ain’t. Discworld buffs in Borogravian military uniforms lounge about with colourful Twoflowers (more than one fan has dressed as the ever-cheerful tourist; hotel staff must wonder why so many of the sandals-and-socks brigade have turned up to mingle with the wizards). There are Victorian ladies with bottles of beer, and face-painted kids dodging distracted members of the Ankh-Morpork Watch. Apart from the Guest Of Honour having to compete with shouty young wans for our attention, it’s not unpleasant.

We take a sconce at our programmes (and also a giggle at a young couple clearly bewildered by the wildlife as they’re shown around their possible wedding venue), and decide to make for the Early Afternoon Show. It’s got real-life cunning artificer Bernard Pearson, scientist and honorary wizard Dr. Jack Cohen, and Sir Terry’s agent Colin Smythe; how could we go wrong?

Well, through a long drive, a darkened function room, and the soporific qualities of three softly-spoken English gents, if you must know. All three distinguished guests are affable, clever, and have a delightful rapport with one another, but that they all sound like George from Glenroe does more for our tensed muscles than any prestigious spa. We realise after about twenty blissful minutes that unless we retire to the bar, we’ll shortly be kicked out for snoring like a troll after a night out on the Electrick Floorbangers. On top of that, the discussion is turning to the latest Discworld novel, Unseen Academicals, and the plot twists within.

“I wouldn’t worry,” says someone, from the direction of the stage. “Anyone who’s not finished it yet deserves the odd spoiler”

Ashamed that I’m one of those degenerates that hasn’t finished it yet, I reluctantly drag myself away.

Irish people mustn’t be very good at conventions. The Irish organisers tell us that only about eight paddies braved the hike to the Birmingham Discworld Con, where the idea for the Irish Con was hatched, and even now, it’s difficult to ignore the saturation of English accents and by-‘eck-luvs wafting about the foyer. You can’t deny that Discworld is very English in places (specifically Lancre. Hoho!), but tales about hangovers, the perils of emigration, shifty old biddies, and the kind of fairyfolk who’d spirit away a priest without so much as an are-ye-sure-ye’re-alright-for-next-sunday-so? are hardly going to go over our collective heads. Later, when we indulge in that most hilarious of convention traditions, the reading of The Eye Of Argon, we’re stunned by one accent of Albion after another. We’re a minority in Ennistymon; who’d have thunk it? I’m not sure why; the Discworld novels are ridiculously popular in Ireland. Perhaps the English are more likely to make a weekend of it. Maybe we just don’t have the attention span for George-from-Glenroe accents. It’s a shame.

But wait! The signing session is due to begin, and everyone comes out of the woodwork. A queue begins to form in the lobby; we watch it from our comfy couch until it dawns on us that it’s growing like a teenaged snake, so we slot ourselves in, hurriedly. It takes on the mannerisms of some sort of military parade. Committee members march alongside, roaring instructions – Sir Terry will not do dedications, only one item per person… Bellowed directions may seem out-of-place at such a relaxed gathering, but Discworld fans should know there is a good reason behind it. Since Sir Terry was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, he’s found it difficult to write dedications. He’s now unable even to type; he had to dictate Unseen Academicals to his assistant.

It’s amazing how little understanding some fans have. We’re shocked when, even after listening to the stipulations of the session numerous times while they queued, some ask Sir Terry to write a personal message. He refuses, but not angrily; he seems upset that he’s unable to honour their requests. That’s not so surprising; Pratchett has always been about his fans. That’s the reason he doesn’t just turn up at conventions in the middle of nowhere – he takes the time to have a pint with loonies in body-paint and gold top hats, to talk about imitation soot and every other surprising subject he knows so much about. And we feel rather defensive of him, and offended where he is so clearly not. It makes me look at the gathering in a much more cynical light.

We don’t have much time left either way. The convention was planned for four days, with a healthy splatter of activities either intriguing or nonsensical planned, but we are in ruralest Ireland, and there’s going to be driving home involved. We decide to check out an informal discussion on our fantasy cast for Discworld movies, which promises to be full of roars and shouts and giggles, just what I need to lift my mood again. Instead we get one of the co-chairs talking at length about her experiences on the set of The Colour Of Magic (she met Sean Astin! She stole some sugar glass!), which wasn’t quite what I’d signed up for. Especially seeing as I thought Sean Astin was completely the wrong choice in The Colour Of Magic…

So we leave. It had been fun – not quite worth my travelling over 100 miles to get there, but I can only blame myself for the time restrictions. The convention was out of the way, and simultaneously all over the place, and I can’t help but feel a little put-out at the organisational mishaps and the unanswered emails … still, I suppose to err is human, and to sulk, even more so. And for a fantasy series set in a world populated by dwarfs, werewolves, trolls and vampires, Discworld illuminates more of what makes us human than any other literary endeavour I’d care to mention.

I go off to make myself another well-deserved hangover. I really think Terry Pratchett would understand.

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About the Author

That cranky young wan from award-winning blog, Arse End Of Ireland, Lisa’s also noted for her dedication to cobbling together unrelated imprecations to make new and bemusing insults, mostly because she’s not eloquent enough to otherwise explain her deep-seated terror of genre fiction and Fianna Fail. In 2006, The Irish Times called her “… the most talented writer at work in Ireland today”, and her mam still can’t understand why this is better than being the new Marian Keyes. Which it totally is. Alright? Website Twitter: @SwearyLady Facebook.com/sweary Last FM: LeislVonTrapp

11 Responses to Conventional Wisdom

  1. Oh that was a brilliant review, Sweary, brilliant. Great read. 🙂

  2. Niall says:

    That review was genuinely brilliant. I regret even more not being able to get to Clare now.

  3. Peter says:

    Always like your writing but I have to say I think we may have been at 2 different conventions!
    Maybe it is to do with the time you spent there. After the first day on Friday my partner asked me if I would go to another convention and I said ‘nah – I think one is enough’ Not that I wasn’t having a good time – just that I thought I had done everything and seen everything I wanted to see. But by Monday I was committed to going to the next convention.
    I found it to be the most relaxed, friendly and open experience. There was no ‘them and us’ by the long term and repeat conferences types.
    I was almost taken aback at the lack of hype around pTerry – both he and nearly all the conference people were very relaxed in each others company. So much so that Terry decided to stay an extra day!
    Pity to have missed you though!

  4. Dawn says:

    I have to agree with Peter, I was there for the four days, unfortunately missed the Friday morning and Monday evening but I had a great time. The casting talk that you left actually turned out really well and we spent an hour after continuing the talk.
    I did like your article though and I have to also agree with feeling very protective over Terry with “fans” who didn’t seem to know anything about the Discworld or his condition.

  5. Peter says:

    I was actually impressed by the great respect people showed Terry – or maybe its just the Irish way of dealing with celebrity – we just ain’t that bothered.

    Two very important points about the weekend though:
    1) Nerds can’t dance. I don’t know why – it just seems to be a natural law or something
    2) Be careful when talking to Darragh Doyle – seemingly he is an undercover reporter for a major newspaper DESPITE the wealth of readily available information on the internet stating what he does, where he does it and with whom and possibly what he had for breakfast

  6. Sweary says:

    Thanks, everyone.

    Peter and Dawn, ’tis only my experiences, and I can’t account for all that I missed. I certainly don’t disagree with anything you’ve said; there was loads I would have liked to attend but unfortunately events conspired to keep me away!

    The casting chat was something I really DIDN’T want to leave, but my Con-Companion and lift-provider had to get home. I was rather mortified at having to get up in the middle of the talk, especially as it wasn’t a crowded room, but we did have to press on, and the co-chair was rather warbling on at that point … plus Sean Astin. SEAN ASTIN! He’s a turnip!

    I do agree that there was no “them and us” feeling at all, which is a huge plus for a setting like this. But I really was annoyed on a couple of different occasions by people not showing TP the respect I feel he deserved. Shouting over the man about what you had for lunch is verrrry annoying for those actually trying to listen to him; he’s a fascinating person and very engaging.

  7. Keleher says:

    Excellent review, never heard of him or his books before getting involved in Culch.ie .. guess I should read his books.

  8. Delores De Syn says:

    Ah, now if you had stayed for the Oswalds….!

    I felt that the hype around PTerry was very relaxed, and I also felt that he appreciated it very much.
    Wait, why am I saying that ‘I felt’? he SAID it!

    Truly, this was the greatest convention I have ever been to, and not because it was well run (which it was) but also because it managed to be so relaxed and personal.

    Also…dude, the Oswalds!

  9. Tramp says:

    I somehow feel Delores may be a little bit biased about the Oswalds…

    PS PTerry was on newstalk on Friday and his *very* last line was:

    “And the Irish Discworld Convention will be held again in two years time, and I will be there.”


  10. MJ says:

    omigawd REALLY Tramp?! Right that’s it, I don’t care if none of my friends want to come with me, I am most certainly going to be there in 2 years time! I can meet Sweary & Darragh and be totally fine going on my own.

    Who’s up for arranging something in the midlands so that it’s easier to get to? I understand that the small group of dedicated organisers were all from the wesht so had every right to hold the con there…so next time, how’s about meeting half way? I would of course go mad for Dublin but seriously…half way could suit more people right? Who’s up for it? If we get a bigger group of volunteers to join the guys who did such a great job this year we could all help out! I’m game…

  11. shivers says:

    I think the midlands would be tricky to get to for the UK and other foreign fans (though perhaps not as tricky as the edge of Clare). But hosting it in somewhere like Cork, Dublin or even Limerick with access from buses, planes and trains would have made sure more people got to stay for more of the events. People travelled to the IDWCon from as far afield as Canada and India.

    There are more than 8 of us Irish fans who make it to Birmingham every 2 years (though I don’t blame the con organizers for thinking that since we are far outnumbered) but I agree with the idea of making a weekend of it being something British Discworld fans are better at. But here’s hoping we can spread the word for 2011 and make sure more Irish fans make it to their own Con.

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