My wife Ann was a keen cook, and an inventive one. As we approach Halloween and the wintry months ahead, I offer this extract from one of her notebooks.
I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to hear John Gilbert’s attempt to relaunch the horror magazine Fear has been called off after just four issues, especially as I had features in two of those and had hoped to place more in the near future.
That is the second occasion Fear and I have crossed paths. Back in 1991, I was approached by then-publishers Newsfield to become its production manager. The lengthy commute to Ludlow (a round trip of nearly 120 miles) and likely long hours proved too high a hurdle, despite a follow-up approach by John himself. It was a lucky decision: Newsfield went bust a few months later, and it’s likely I’d have joined the list of employees left out of pocket.
This time around, John was reportedly been stiffed by his unnamed backer, who’s failed to cover editorial expenses (which included surprisingly high website fees). He’s talking up the possibility of a further resurrection, but I know from personal experience (nine years co-publishing Critical Wave) how difficult it can be to reach a loyal audience. So many genre magazines spend their time fighting over the same potential readers (just line up the latest issues of SFX, Sci-Fi Now and Geeky Monkey, then try and spot the difference), success is more often than not decided by who’s got the biggest bank balance rather than straight quality. The remarkable longevity of The Dark Side (which I also work for, of course) is a regrettably rare example of a magazine finding a niche and developing a loyal readership; whether Fear can pull off the same trick remains to be seen, but I wish John luck.
Chrissie and I were invited along to Birmingham’s Electric Cinema on 28 May, to meet Annabel de Vetten, founder of speciality bakery Conjurer’s Kitchen, and Victoria Price, author of Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography. The resulting interview turned out to be our final appearance on Made in Birmingham TV, as we finally lost patience with a company which treats its outside contributors with utter contempt.
Saturday evening found me back at the Two Towers Brewery, but for once it was not the Birmingham Horror Group which drew me there but Czech Club Birmingham, which had invited me to introduce a screening of the 1977 time travel comedy Zítra vstanu a oparím se cajem (aka Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea). You can see the footage on YouTube, though it would have been nice to have the use of a real time machine to fix my comment that Josef Nesvadba was born in 1912 (it was actually 1926, a year he shared with the first true science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories).
One of the long-term plans for the Birmingham Horror Group when it launched in December 2015 was for members to host an old-style horror event in the city, as opposed to the soulless, commercially-orientated merchandise and autograph fairs which have proliferated since “geek culture” became fully monetised. After all, what’s the point in hanging out with friends in a pub, discussing old episodes of Doctor Who or your favourite comics, when you can stand in line to pay £45 to be photographed next to John Barrowman (£10 extra if he wears his “Captain Jack” overcoat) or buy five versions of the same superhero reboot with different covers but the same identical Manga-style interior art? In fact, why even hang out with friends in the first place, when there are thousands of “friends” willing to give pretty much any passing comment a ‘like’ on Facebook?
Well, I believed there was still life in the original concept — and boy, does it look as though I was wrong. Running the monthly group has long ago ceased to be the fun it should have been, the erratic turn-out proving most “fans” are now only willing to show up if there’s some kind of gimmick, like a guest speaker or a free screening, and prefer to scurry back to the warm glow of their computer screens as soon as that part’s over. As for the Birmingham FearFest, ticket sales have been embarrassingly lack-lustre, and we’re currently facing the very real likelihood of having to pull the plug on its incubator. It’s been suggested to me that it could simply be postponed until later in the year, allowing a new round of publicity, but I’m not convinced I have a sufficiently deep reservoir of energy or optimism.
A little over thirty years ago,so many people turned up at a Novacon I chaired in Birmingham that we ran out of programme books, and we’d printed more than 500. These days, I find myself quite literally unable to run a party in a brewery. The world has allegedly evolved, but I’m not sure whether I want any part of this latest mutation; it clearly wants no part of me.
I had the immense pleasure of interviewing my old friend Dave Hardy on Tuesday, with the footage (photographed by Chrissie Harper) to be divided between two separate programmes on Made in Birmingham TV. As I reminded him, the previous time I profiled Dave was way back in 1979, not long after I moved from the Walsall Observer to its sister title in Solihull (my home town, of course).
Back in the autumn of 1993, I made several appearances on The Way Out, broadcast live on BBC Radio 5 each Friday night from Birmingham’s famous Pebble Mill studios. Shortly afterwards, Radio 5 was re-engineered beyond all recognition into 5 Live, ending my blossoming career as the show’s resident horror and science fiction pundit, whilst the studios were closed in 2004 and demolished the following year.
Anyhow, my rather busy Saturday began with a call from the regional station BBC Radio WM, so that morning presenter Mollie Green (no relation) could ask me about the Birmingham Horror Group, that evening’s guest appearance by Adam Nevill and plans for the first Birmingham FearFest. You can hear our conversation via the link above.
I learned yesterday that my old friend Peter Weston passed away on Thursday, aged 73. He’d been severely ill for several years and had consciously wound down a lifetime’s involvement in science fiction fandom in order to spend more time with his wife Eileen, their daughters and the wider family.
Next month would have been the fortieth anniversary of our first encounter, at the Birmingham Science Fiction Group, one which he quoted me recalling years later in his own memoir With Stars in my Eyes (NESFA Press, 2004). Later in 1977, he returned from Miami with news of the UK team he chaired having secured the 1979 Worldcon, the very first of those events I attended. His friendship, counsel and support was always welcome, such as when I headed up another worldcon bid, this time for 1989 (it eventually mutated into the successful 1987 bid, under more experienced hands).
My life would have been incalculably different and diminished had our paths not crossed, and I know this loss is shared by many, many people across the world. For now, my thoughts remain with his family.
[From SFX #33, 1997; thanks to Chrissie Harper for scanning this page for me.]
[Right-click above to open larger image]
There’s a little story behind this article (which unaccountably appeared without a byline, although I did receive a credit for the reviews of Satan’s Slave and Terror published in the same issue). I’d interviewed Norman at the 1997 Festival of Fantastic Films, but during the closing ceremony, whilst I was on stage with John Landis, some unknown scumbag sneaked into the main hall and stole the bag containing both my camera (with irreplaceable photos of myself with my new god-daughter, Heloise) and my tape recorder. Fortunately, Norman was agreeable to recreating our conversation via telephone, and my late wife Ann generously offered to transcribe the result.
Bringing the story forward to the present day, Norman is actually working on a new movie and has agreed to discuss this project on a forthcoming edition of Ghostwords TV.