I’m a huge Terry Pratchett fan and have been obsessed with the Discworld novels along with his other books since 1996. I eventually found out that there are conventions every 2 years in the UK (along with many others around the world) and finally got to my first one in 2010. I do hope to eventually write up about those if I can remember what I even did but while 2016 is fresh in my mind I thought I’d like to do a little write up now, particularly to help out anyone who has never been to one and is considering attending.
The International Discworld Convention is nothing like anything else I’ve ever been to. Admittedly I’ve never been to any big conventions of any kind, be it gaming, comics or just entertainment in general but you see the videos of the big ones like Comic Con and E3 and you can tell it’s just different. The DWCon is fan run and therefore ‘small’ (bear in mind there are still 800 – 900 people!) and feels far more like friends gathering together than just an event you wander around.
The amazing committee spend 2 years planning this doing all sorts of jobs including picking out a hotel and testing it for suitability. They have to ensure it can house as many of us as possible, that there are overflow hotels within a suitable distance, the menus will be ok, they’re accessible for those with mobility issues and handicaps and that they have enough function rooms to support the many varied activities that will run. This years convention was held at Chesford Grange hotel near Kenilworth.
Personally I felt this was the weakest of the 3 hotels that I’ve been to. The first 2 conventions we attended were at the Birmingham Hilton near the airport and whilst I know a lot of people who went weren’t very happy with it, myself and Niall never had any issues. It probably helped that it’s so close to us anyway though and also it was our first 2 cons so we were probably wandering round awestruck most of the time. 2014 was held at The Palace in Manchester and we loved it there, it fit with the Discworld so well but unfortunately it wasn’t great accessibility-wise so they won’t be holding it there again.
There wasn’t anything wrong with Chesford Grange, it’s a perfectly nice hotel to stay in but I wouldn’t do it again and certainly wouldn’t choose it if we were simply holidaying in the area. I felt it was quite expensive for what it was (and there is always a discount negotiated for the convention!) The room cost around the same as most would but were quite small particularly compared to The Palace and didn’t include breakfast. The food was nice but nothing amazing and again was quite expensive; I also found it very weird that breakfast cost more than lunch yet both were buffet style, keep going back for more meals. Breakfast was £9.90 per person and lunch was £8.50. The evening meals weren’t bad though the first night there was nothing I liked (I’d put non-spicy on as my meal requirements but the only options were 2 types of curry or salad, salad is not a Friday evening meal to my mind) but they weren’t anything amazing to write home about. I must say the lemon chicken on the Saturday was rather good though.
The actual rooms that we had the programme items in weren’t great either. Temperature and space-wise they were fine but my god the chairs were terrible! Considering every item is planned to be around 45 minutes long we were sat on these horrible little chairs getting more and more uncomfortable. You expect mass seating to be a little awkward at these things but when you get someone like me who is only 5′ 3″ and I can’t actually fit on a chair width-wise… well that’s not great. Niall would sit down first every time and then I’d be sat off centre on my own chair because he was overlapping his and this of course just went down the row over everyone. In one room I was actually sat half on my chair and half on the next one which utterly killed my back.
The staff were great although it was quite funny to watch them. They were friendly and helpful when approached and the house staff said hello every time they passed anyone but it was so funny to see their reactions! They’d clearly never hosted anything like this before so they were a bit wary when seeing witches, wizards and Death stalking the halls. Over the weekend you could see them slowly get used to it and relax a bit more and some of the attendees even got pictures with some of the staff getting into the spirit of it all.
I love the DWCon attendees. You can split them into two groups and I shall for the purpose of this write up but really it’s just one big group of Pratchett fans. It’s just like coming home to a family and it shows how true this is as myself and Niall tend to keep to ourselves and yet still feel very included in it. For those more outgoing people it is just one huge gathering of old friends, even if it’s your very first convention!
As far as the attendees go everyone is always very friendly. You get the odd run in of course; when you’re dealing with 800+ people there are bound to be some that just don’t fit with each other (I witnessed some dirty looks, one notably during the Masquerade when someone kept falling asleep and falling towards the person on his left – she shot him some really nasty looks) but on the whole it’s so lovely to see everyone getting on. The first night is lovely as old friends cry “oh it’s you, how are you? It’s been two years!” and much hugging ensues. It’s also nice as you’ll see someone who is clearly new to the conventions get swept up into a group and instantly become one of the family.
As mentioned we tend to keep to ourselves a bit more but it’s still so nice as we will have a little chat with some people in the items or in the bar and you do recognise so many faces. There are the regulars who help out such as Constable Haddock (who I think was Acting Captain Haddock this year) who helps with the Watch, or just larger than life attendees who always have amazing costumes such as Jen Austin. Even if we don’t get a chance for a chat with them it’s nice just to see the familiar faces; I also find it very weird that these are people I don’t see for 2 years at a time yet instantly spot and recognise them and feel like I’ve returned home when I see them.
The other group of people are the Guests of Honour. Of course Terry himself used to be the main one though sadly 2014 was when he became too ill to attend and of course now never will again. He used to be so happy to just wander through the hotel with the rest of us mere mortals and stop to chat to anyone (unless he was wearing his Silas T. Firefly badge – that meant do not disturb me). This is why I love that this is a ‘small’ fan-run convention as well; all the guests are more than happy to mingle and talk to us ‘normal’ folk. Rob Wilkins, Pat Harkin, Colin Smythe and many many others will happily be sat in the bar on an evening like everyone else (and be found suffering the same consequences the next day!) We also get people like Diane Duane (another author if you haven’t heard of her) or Mark Oshiro (from Mark Reads/Mark Watches) but the majority of the guests are very much centred around people who worked closely with Terry or were close friends and highly involved in the Discworld.
Every convention has a theme. This years theme was Music with Rocks In. The website is designed around it and all the extra programme items are based around it. One such item is the guild activities (as they used to be called). Every con there are around 5 groups that you get sorted into (or you can swap to fit you) and are completely optional activities to help you find friends, get involved and just generally muck about!
This year they weren’t guilds but bands and you could go join one of the bands. There were then various activites over the weekend to do with this such as creating your own instruments (mainly just making weird shaped objects out of cardboard, string and anything you could find to hang on the string) or even putting on entertainment whilst the huge crowd of the Masquerade waited for the judges results. This always culminates in a competition to see which guild/band wins overall. This year was The Battle of the Bands which I didn’t go to see but assume there was an actual concert (probably with varying levels of seriousness and silliness) but one year the guilds had to fight Bel-Shamharoth by basically doing a few races and culminating in a big tug of war with the demon himself (via a cardboard wall with some tentacles stuck on it and some cunningly hidden committee members on the other side to pull back).
The hotel gets dressed up to match the theme as well. There were signs stuck on the walls advertising the bands along with merchandise (Blert Wheedown’s guitar primer anyone?) and the names of the function rooms always fit. We had a huge tent erected outside that was called Hide Park and the camping area was Llamedos. The main function room that all the big items happened in was The Cavern Club and we even went on tour to Sto-Lat and Quirm for some items.
The programme items
Of course the main attraction is the programme items. These generally consist of talks, demonstrations and hands-on activities. I won’t go into everything that was available because there is always so much going on, usually 4 or 5 items at any one time and they start from 9.00am and usually continue until midnight. I’ll just go over the ones we attended.
Friday is usually an easy one to figure out as it’s the first day and doesn’t really get going properly until the evening. The start is the Opening Ceremony at 5.00pm which pretty much everyone will attend and is usually a quick, silly introduction (this year we had Rob Wilkins and Stephen Briggs in a short film taking the mickey out of Back to the Future) and tends to go over what to expect, the rules (go to Ops!) and just generally welcoming everyone. We then had a break in which to get some food before Terry Pratchett: A Memorial at 7.00pm. In past conventions this was always a chat with Terry and Rob where exclusive news on upcoming stuff would be revealed but this year it was more fitting that they showed us some clips from the memorial that was held for Terry in April this year. Rob was up on stage talking us through it and adding in some anecdotes; you can see how much it still affects him to have lost Terry yet he still keeps up the humour as he can, it’s lovely to see. After another quick break it was Bedtime Stories, another convention tradition that again used to be Terry and Rob reading out something exclusive (we got the first chapters of Dodger one year before it was released). I can’t go into what was read this time as we were made to promise not to talk about it and it then got shredded on stage anyway! After these items were a few party-type items being held but we were tired so we headed off to bed.
Saturday is always the busiest day for us, so many items we want to attend it can be hard to fit in food! This year it seemed to work out very nicely for us though. First we went to see “Mark Watches: Soul Music” as we love watching Mark’s reactions so this was highly amusing plus I’ve never seen the animated version of Soul Music. This was followed by “The Art of the Graphic Novel” with Ray Friesen which was an interesting little talk about how he got into illustrating graphic novels, some of his techniques and just a general chat with him on the industry and fandom in general. We then went over to a talk about “The Terry Pratchett I knew…” with Bernard Pearson. Bernard is behind a lot of the official Discworld Merchandise and runs the emporium in Wincanton. He’s an absolutely hilarious, down to earth and no-nonsense guy with a seemingly never-ending host of stories so it’s always fun to sit down and listen to him talk about the silly things him and Terry would get up to. We then went for some more “Mark Reads”, this time Terry’s short story “Theatre of Cruelty”.
Time for lunch then we listened to Stephen Briggs talking to Rob Wilkins; it was kind of an informal chat and Q&A session so again it was nice to hear some of the behind the scenes stories and hear about some of the processes and random mishaps that occurred on a daily basis. We then skipped one of the items we were going to view as we desperately needed drinks so sat out in the grounds until “Music in English Folktales and Beliefs” was on with Jacqueline Simpson. She’s a wonderful lady, she studies folklore and wrote “The Folklore of Discworld” and it’s great to see where some of the myths and folklore in the Discworld has been influenced by real world tales. We then attended “Science of Discworlds that never were” with Ian Stewart; unfortunately Jack Cohen was recovering from illness and couldn’t attend but it was still very interesting to see all the ideas that had been thrown around for the Science books and then thrown out. Finally we grabbed some food before spending all evening at the Masquerade. This is always highly recommended by me as it’s a chance for the attendees to put on short scenes, dances, songs or just show off their costumes in front of everyone and they win prizes too. Plus you get to listen to the never-ending and groan-worthy puns of Pat Harkin. After that it was off to bed for us; a large number of people stayed up very late and got very drunk however (another fun pastime at the con each morning is seeing how many people are clearly struggling with hangovers!)
Sunday was a quieter one for us, there was plenty in the day we were interested in but nothing in the evening. We went to a chat with Stephen Briggs which was just an open Q&A so there were lots of anecdotes about working on the audio books, play adaptations and just generally about his life. We then went to another Jacqueline chat, this time about “Death on the Disc” which was actually more about death in folklore in the real world. We then attended “Maths with Rocks In” with Ian Stewart which was about the mathematical theories behind music which went completely over our heads. After some food we watched Watchman Haddock show us how he had turned an old copper boiler into the costume armour he wears for the convention and a few people had a go at making copper bracers. Before our evening meal we headed over to hear Mark read from his own writing which is yet to be published; we had no clue what to expect, didn’t even know what genre he was writing so that was interesting particularly as there was a Q&A session at the end so people could ask him about his processes and so on. Mark is always a delight to chat to particularly as he can be a bit scatty at times so it’s always fun to listen to him. There wasn’t anything else we were interested in that evening; this is the night they usually have a big gala dinner with limited tickets that we never go to and the alternatives for everyone else are essentially drink and dancing which we’re not interested in. So it was back to the hotel room for TV and sleep!
Monday is the last official day; some people stay the extra night to make life easier and have more partying time but we usually don’t. It tends to be a day of the ‘larger’ itemss and events as well as just generally wrapping up. We started our day with more Mark Reads, this time him answering questions on how he got into the whole Mark Reads project in the first place and the Discworld project in particular. This was followed by some more folklore with Jacqueline, this time about “A Storytelling Rhapsody” and how music features in stories. We then paid a last visit to the dealers room (aka Sators Square) for some last minute bargains and grabbed some food before heading over to “The Venerable Order of the Honeybee” with Rob, Stephen, Bernard and Pat. This was a lovely and heartwarming talk about one of Terry’s last wishes; to set up the order to both say thank you to those who had been important to him and his works and also to ensure that his creation is looked after. All members have an incredible honeybee piece of jewellry and some of the chat and tributes were really tear jerking at times, most notably Bernard’s speech about Rob and what he has done for the family. After eyes were dried we headed over to the final big event. “Witches Abroad: The Musical”. It was absolutely fantastic (one song “Dear Jason” sung by Nanny Ogg was incredibly difficult to get out of my head!) but it was rather late starting and pushed out everything after it. Luckily the only thing after it was the closing ceremony. We normally would attend and had intended to but as it was so late we decided to just head home early.
So there you have it. The Discworld Convention is for any Discworld fans, no matter what your preferences. Introverted and like to stick to yourself? It’s fine, people will respect that. Love to get drunk and make new friends every 5 minutes? You can do that too and anything in between. I highly recommend going to at least one just to give it a try. You’ll probably end up being very addicted to it! There are of course many other programme items other than what I listed. On Saturday for example between 9.00am and midnight there were a total of 51 items (some of these revolving around running the convention) alone. So pack up your sentient, homicidal luggage, grab your iconograph and book your tickets to the Discworld. It’s way more fun than Roundworld.