Note:- This convention report is basically a travelogue of my weekend as an Englishman in Belfast, and as such it inevitably turns, on occasions, to Northern Ireland's political status. Moreover, this is done in a manner that some might consider flippant, tasteless, or simply a stating of the insultingly bloody obvious. It did occur to me that I ought temper what I say in order to avoid causing offence, but then it occurred to me that this never worried me before, so it would be hypocritical to start now.
I'd travelled to Q-Con expecting it to be just another Irish convention. I knew that technically, I was staying in my own country, and that it was my Irish friends who, technically, were coming to my country. But I treated that as merely an irrelevant technicality of history's quirks. In fact, I felt that for me - an Englishman - to treat this as being anything other than a visit to Ireland would be rude and insulting. In my own mind it was clear: I was going to Ireland.
But by ten pm on Sunday night as the official post-QCon pub party - all five of us - were told by the barman that he was closing the bar and then - having headed out in search of drink - found that the off-license had closed... well by then I was started to seriously reconsider my earlier beliefs. This just wasn't the Ireland I've come to know and love.
But I should probably start at the beginning.
Note 2: I am horribly bad at remembering names, as will become apparent when reading this article. My apologies to both those whose names I've forgotten, and those to whom I've attached totally incorrect identifiers. If anyone who does know the names of all the people who I spoke to would care to post a comment filling in the blanks, then please do so. I have realised that in percentage terms I seem to be better at recalling women's names than men's names, but I'm not sure if this is merely a statistical quirk based on a low sample size, or the sad desperate attempts of a lonely heterosexual to prioritise his meagre memory resources.
I also have a terrible memory for faces, so it's possible - as famously happens in "docudramas" - that some of the persons described in this report might in fact be composite characters based on more than one actual person.
It was back in March that I decided to go to Q-Con, partly because my friend Natural20 suggested that I come, and partly because I felt a need for excitement. Even finding out that I was going to be going on my own didn't affect my determination to make the visit and then write up what happened in a post.
This wasn't going to be my first Irish convention: after having a very unhappy time at Conception 2002, (together with good-to-okay, but not incredible, experiences at Dragonmeets and GenCon UKs) we'd had an incredibly good time at Gaelcon 2002, and since then I've attended two Warpcons, another Gaelcon, an Ubercon and a K2.
And so, after sending the following text to my various mobile-owning friends...
I'm leavvving on a jet plane. Don't know if i'll be back again. Because i'm going to belfaaast.
...I headed off to my seventh Irish convention.
(Only one of the bastards replied by the way. I guess the others either guessed correctly that I was merely being jokily fearful, or else just didn't give a damn.)
The flight out was fairly uneventful, if delayed as most Heathrow flights seem to be. At least this time I only had to walk to Terminal 1's Gate 2, rather than - as is the case with flights to the Republic - Gate 88 or so. (When I flew to Dublin two weeks ago for Natural20's birthday, it took me twenty minutes to get from my Hounslow home to the check-in desk, and twenty-five minutes to walk from the check-in desk to my gate).
On the way in the plane swung round the south of the city to approach Belfast City airport from the east, which meant that I had very good series of views over the city, during which I was struck by how regular many of the neighbourhoods were - street after street of identical Victorian terraces. I even spotted a few of the famous "end-terrace" murals.
Belfast has two airports, of which Belfast City is both the newer and the nearer, being built on the former docks area. It's basically my favourite type of airport, new so that it has good facilities, small, so you can get through it quickly and without stress.
Being lazy and in possession of cash, I took a cab to the accommodation, but there is apparently a train station right next to the airport which I could have taken instead.
By this point, the confusion over the identity of the place that I was to have all weekend was in full flow. When you go to foreign countries such as the Republic of Ireland, there are a whole series of cues to let you know that you're travelling to another country, starting with buying foreign currency before flying out, and then building as you make that first drive from the airport to the hotel, noticing all the little details that make a country feel different: similar but different road-signs; foreign languages on the street-name signs; a slimmer little green man on pelican crossings.
But this time there was none of that, and as an event the journey hit me no more emotionally than when I flew to Newcastle at the end of last year. All around me were British shops, British road signs, British road markers, and basically, well, a British city. Every instinct was telling me that I was still at home.
In fact, on that whole cab journey, there was just one thing that struck me; I'm a bit scared to mention it for fear of sounding like a screaming pervert, but I'd arrived at just the time that the secondary schools close, and I couldn't help noticing that every, and I mean every schoolgirl in Belfast appears to wear an extremely short mini-skirt as part of her school uniform. Let's just say that it was an unexpected cultural variance.
(In my defence, I did meet one other visitor over the weekend, who'd noticed the same thing, but I'll leave it to him to out himself if he so desires). I guess I'd expected Belfast to be a more conservative place in this sort of respect, rather than less so. I'm not sure whether to be happy for Belfast schoolboys, for the display they get every day, or sad, for the havoc it must play with their concentration.
After a fairly short journey (Belfast is a compact city, and the City Airport is located pretty centrally) we arrived at the Queen's Elms accommodation centre, which is about a fifteen minute walk from the convention centre at the Queen's Student Union building (map - Queen's Elms is 49 at the bottom, the Student Union building is 24 toward the top).
There I paid the cab driver the ten pounds he demanded (I was a bit perturbed by this, given that I'd thought the meter had been reading something like four pounds something, but having heard lots of stories about Belfast and Black Cabs, I decided not to push it) and met up with Natural20 who'd driven up from Dublin.
The accommodation is nice, if basic. Each person gets a single one-person room (which is handy if you are attending alone, as I was) with shared toilets, shower rooms, plus a common room - which has a TV, chairs, a big table (which is very useful for impromptu gaming sessions) and a kettle, microwave and cooker. (I believe there were also knives, forks and so on, but as I didn't check I can't say for certain).
Here are some shots of the room:
The Shower Room:
The Common Room:
The only criticism I might have of the accommodation is that it is a little bit of a hike to the convention centre. On the other hand though, since pretty well everyone bar the locals is staying there, you often find yourself making the journey with others. There's also a 24 hours garage just before Queen's Elms which is much used for stocking up on drink and snacks.
Natural20 and I then headed off in search of food. Back home, I'd done a bit of surfing and found a vegan/vegetarian place called "Little India", carefully marking the location and phone number on the map of Belfast I'd bought, a map which I had of course left in backpack back at the Elms, which would have been fine if we'd found the place, but was a bit crap given that we didn't.
Eventually, after phoning Natural20's offices and enlisting the help of one of his co-workers, we were able to establish that said restaurant has now been renamed to Archana. Armed with that rather important piece of information, we retraced our steps back down the Dublin road and found it.
Such is the way of things when you're a vegan, when the choice of restaurants that will serve you is generally small, and the subset of those that are actually open when you need them is generally smaller. (For more details on my thoughts on Belfast's vegan restaurants check out this post on the UK Vegans LJ Community).
We then headed back to the convention, with me calling my office this time to try to get a phone number for Archana (which I eventually did, and was able to book a table for seven pm).
The main Queen's building is a fine imposing structure:
But you can totally ignore that, because the convention is actually held in the Student Union building opposite, which is currently being redeveloped:
This was a change of venue for the convention, which had previously been held in the nearby senior common room. Tthe convention's reception desk was in the lobby, beside which was a shop, with a bar at the upstairs front, and a main gaming room / trade hall in the canteen at the upstairs back.
We'd both pre-registered, so registration went pretty smoothly, although I was a bit freaked out when a bloke - who turned out to be Jonathan, the con director - approached and asked me if I was the "legendary Jonny Nexus" (it's embarrassing enough having a ludicrous pseudonym like "Jonny Nexus" without someone tacking an adjective like "legendary" on the front). One not particularly impressive point was that no time-tables / programmes were available at that point (around five-thirtyish) which would have been pretty disconcerting if I was planning on playing any of Friday evening's games (which I believed started at seven).
But other than that, it was all cool, and after receiving our goodie bags (non-vegans get a bag containing a packet of crisps, a bar of chocolate, a drink and a computer game CD, vegans get a bag containing a computer game CD) and buying a con t-shirt each, we headed up to the main hall, where we got chatting to the guys from Gamers Realm who had the only trade stall. The guys (who I think might have been called Jim and Ciaran, but I'm not putting money on it) had come all the way from Galway, which I was informed was quite a journey.
After chatting for a while with them as they set up, we headed for the bar, where we bumped into some guys Natural20 knew who I think were something to do with Dublin City University's STOCS gaming club.
The guys, one of whom I think was called Brian, were good company, and I ended up spending quite a lot of time with them over the course of the weekend. They're a great bunch of guys, whoever the fuck they were.
We also had a chat with a guy who's part of a new group called TableTopNorth. The background to their formation is as follows: Q-Con is run by Dragonslayers, who are the Queen's University gaming society. Until quite recently, many former students stayed involved with Dragonslayers as associate members, but various changes - among them a change of meeting venue to the Student's Union - have effectively bought that to a close, and so they have formed their own group, TTN. They had a strong presence at the con, running their own games, having their own area, and even their own "programme" listing the games they were running (something which some people suggest might be considered a bit cheeky).
It was during the drinks in the bar that I got the first indicator that I was somewhere else: the money. As part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland uses pounds sterling as it's currency, so I could just spend the cash I'd bought with me. But like Scotland, it also has its own local banknotes, and also like Scotland, it allows a variety of banks to print them.
I have to say that I found this very weird. I'm used to thinking of money as something governments print. After all, there's only one US dollar, and it's the US government that prints them. But in Northern Ireland you get bank notes from the Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank, First National Bank, and I think a few others. As a visitor you have an uncomfortable feeling that the money you're holding might be real money, or it might just be from the Northern Ireland version of Monopoly.
We (Natural20 and I) then headed off to Archana to eat, where I - an Englishman for whom curry should be a national dish, even before mentioning the fact that I come from Hounslow - managed to humiliate myself by not being able to come even close to finishing my meal. In my defence, I had - in the mistaken belief that it would be some kind of arty arrangement of five small pots of curry around a spoonful of rice - ordered what turned out to be some kind of five curry + rice + nan monstrosity - it came on a square metal tray/plate that measured around two foot by one foot, fully laden with food (with the separate side dish of Bombay potatoes I ordered as well).
TIP #1: If you order the vegan mega five-curry meal, do not order additional side-dishes.
After some more drinks down the student union bar, we headed off back to the Elm's, where I disgusted Natural20 by heading early to bed (the others were playing some kind of Sharpe drinking game - watching an episode set in the Pyrenees).
After standing for five minutes in the shower room while I drip-dried...
TIP #2: The accommodation at the Elm's does not include towels. Bring one.
...I set off for the city-centre in a search of the towel I hadn't bought with me (something which is particularly inexcusable, given that I'm a huge fan of Douglas Adams's Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy).
Alas, having spent half an hour drying myself by the sheer heat of my mammalian metabolism, I now walked straight into a massive downpour, with the result that by the time I reached the town centre (having paused only to text the message, "Have ventured into city centre in search of a towel but am about to die of hypothermia - captain scott style - some way short of my destination. It's seriously pissing it down here." to several of my closest friends) I was totally drenched.
Belfast city-centre felt very familiar, with standard Victorian town-centre architecture combined with all the familiar high street British shops: Marks & Spencers, Tescos and WH Smiths to name just a view. I managed to pick up a really nice towel in Primark for a mere four quid - although only after the following exchange between myself, and the boy and girl on the cash desk.
Boy: Is it raining?I was so pleased with my towel in fact that I texted Natural20 to tell him about it, and was just heading down the escalators towards Primark's front doors when he texted me back to ask me if I could pick up another towel for someone else who'd forgotten one. I immediately reversed my course, headed back up to the upper floor (household furnishings), picked up another towel, and resumed queuing for the above mentioned cash desk.
At which point Natural20 texted me again, to ask me to pick up yet another towel, for yet someone else who needed one, so I left my place in the queue, picked up a second towel, and then resumed my place at the back of the queue, figuring that the girl - who'd clearly thought I might be retarded the first time she'd met me - was now certain that I was retarded (either that or a pervert with a towel fetish).
(I have to confess that I was tempted to just phone Natural20 at that point and say something along the lines of: "In the name of God, just tell me how many fucking towels you want!" - but I figured that might push the girl over the edge and cause her to call security).
By now, the rain had eased off a bit, so I decided to explore a bit, taking a picture of a wet Belfast...
...and then looking around the shops, where I found a really cool place full of skull memorabilia. (Regular readers of this blog will know that I collect skull-related items - not real skulls, obviously - which I collectively term my Altar of Death). I could have spent hundreds in that place, but I knew I had but the one suitcase, so I eventually selected four reasonably small items, and had them bubble wrap them.
I then headed back to the convention, pausing only to stop at Archana to make a second attempt at the "five-curries" meal (I didn't finish it, but I'd like to think that this time I fought it to an honourable draw - the owner of the restaurant proudly told me that, "No-one ever manages to eat all of it" at which point I was rather tempted to scream, "Then why did you let me order a fucking side-dish yesterday?"). I finally made it to the convention at around three, after a quick visit to the toilet at the Elms to try and cope with the after effects of two huge roasting hot curries (ten separate dishes) within a single twenty-four hour period.
I was too late for the afternoon session of games (which began at 1:30 pm) so I wondered into the main hall, and had another good chat with the guys at the Gamers Realm stall, and since it turned out to be them that needed the towels, I was able to play the the towel fairy.
The TableTopNorth programme had said that they were running board games throughout the day, so I headed off towards their stand at the other end of the games room. As it turned out my timing was good, because the two girls running the stand, Cathy and someone who I think was called Brenda (I'm pretty sure it began with a B at least), were just ready to start a new series of games. They roped in two other people, a Scottish bloke who I think might have been called Jim, or possibly Ian, and another guy who might have been called Paul (but probably wasn't).
(As an aside, I think this kind of "organised" board games table is a very good idea that all conventions should consider, since it provides an easy way for "lone wanderers" to get involved with something).
The first game we played was The Bucket King which is actually an abstract card game, but which uses bucket counters for scoring. It's a fun game, although one which I suspect requires a better memory than mine for genuinely strategic play (I just adopted my usual strategy of making each move on the basis of what seems most sensible at the time, without worrying about its overall effect on the game).
After that, we tried a game called Bluff, which is a dice game involving the judging of probabilities. Basically, each person rolls a cup of five dice, hiding the results, and participants then take it in turn to make a prediction about how many total dice - across all five cups - of a certain value will be present. The predictions go up and up until someone calls someone else's bluff. It's a fun game, but I think it's largely luck-driven, something I proved by winning the first game.
Finally, we played a game that I'd bought along called Stonewall. I'm a huge fan of Stonewall, and take every opportunity I can to evangelise it's qualities. It was quite a hit at K2, and people here seemed to quite get into it too. Since it's a four player game, we played it with the other four playing and me acting as teacher / referee / annoying bloke who keeps on dropping cryptic hints about cool moves people could take.
Sorry about that.
A game of Stonewall involves the players racing through a maze which they are in the process of building up, with maze pieces being laid either to protect their route, or more commonly, to shag up someone else's. I like to think of Stonewall as a game of "elegant vindictiveness", a quality further enhanced by a rule which states that if you land on someone else's piece, they get sent back to the start, an action that the rules describe as "stomping".
Here's the board towards the start of the game:
This is it a little while later on, after more walls have been laid:
And later still, when a coming together of the pieces has made a stomping only a matter of time:
It turned out that Cathy was running a game of Philippe Tromeur's Wuthering Heights roleplaying game later that evening in the Senior Common Room (the building adjacent to the Student's Union, and the previous venue for the convention).
I'd previously not been interested in this game because the programme had described it as a LARP, which was something I wasn't up for. But it turned out that the description was incorrect, the game in fact being a table-top game with a few props. I was apparently not the only one who wasn't interesting in LARPing, because no-one else had signed up either.
As you can imagine, Cathy - the GM - was not wonderfully pleased by this turn of events, but it was pretty fortunate for me, because she basically rounded up a group there and then, and since I was pretty eager to get some roleplaying in, and this sounded quite cool, I volunteered.
We all agreed to meet up at the Senior Common Room at 7:15, which was only in about 45 minutes time, so after a quick chat with the Gamer's Realm guys, I headed back to the Elm's to dump my backpack, and then got back to the Senior Common Room in time for the game.
Actually, it wouldn't have been a problem, except that I tend to paranoia, and the trouble with paranoia is that it's a lose-lose proposition: either you have a mental problem, or everyone really does hate you.
Eventually, I gave myself a stiff talking to, managed to convince myself that yes, I was in the right place, and no, Philippe Tromeur hadn't invented / faked an entire roleplaying game of Victorian melodrama purely so that one day in the summer of 2004, a group of Northern Irish women could ditch an irritating Englishman who'd showed no signs of pissing off. I ended up drinking in the bar with Natural20 and a bunch of other guys, regularly proclaiming at five minutes intervals how incredibly relaxed I was and occasionally checking on the upstairs rooms to see if anyone had arrived.
Eventually, one of the players, an English girl originally from Peterborough (I've forgotten her name but can remember where she came from - how crap is that?), turned up, which relaxed me a bit, and pretty soon the others drifted in. We found ourselves a table in the main room upstairs and got started.
There were five players in the group (not including Cathy, the GM): me, the English girl from Peterborough, and either two or three of the other people I'd played the board games with (I think one of the guys in the RPG was the guy who might have been called Paul at the board games table - my memory for faces is so crap that I can't remember, and it doesn't help that he was wearing a false moustache and top hat for most for the Wuthering Heights game).
The characters were:
Me: ?Arthur? Bellington-Smith, eldest son of aristocrats, now forced to "work" for a living following a socially unwise marriage The Guy Who Might Have Been The Guy Who Might Have Been Paul: ?Henry? Bellington-Smith, my younger brother, currently serving in the military. Scottish Jim/Ian: ?Edward? Bellington-Smith, my bastard (both my nature and lineage) cousin. B., Probably Brenda: [Some] Bellington-Smith, my sister. Girl From Peterborough: ?Aurelia? Bellington-Smith, my wife.
Cathy had bought a load of props: wigs for the ladies, and top hats, monocles and false beards or moustaches for the chaps. I was a bit concerned about sticking my beard on, given that I already have a (goatee) beard, but I was able to find a bare spot of skin. The monocle was pretty uncomfortable, but did give me an easy way of distinguishing between in-character and out-of-character speech: I told the group that everything I said while wearing the monocle was in-character, while everything I said while not wearing it was out-of-character.
I enjoyed the game a lot. I don't want to give too much away in case Cathy ever wants to run it again, but I think it's safe for me to repeat the description that was in the programme:
Wuthering Heights LARP [sic]: Table Top North presents a delightful LARP [again, sic] that begins at 7:30pm in the Senior Common room at the senior lounge. The scene is 19th Century Yorkshire and you [sic] here for the Reading of father's Will. What secrets will be revealed in the Will? What torment hides behind the veneer of your Sober Victorian Household?I really enjoyed myself sprouting a whole load of rants and whines (which isn't that hard, because that's pretty much me in real life) including one very nice sequence during the reading of the Will (which had not been to my character's liking):
Me: I'll storm out!This sort of thing continued on for a few minutes, until:
Me: And now, for the third and final time I shall storm out!There was one thing about the game's conduct that I have to say did somewhat amaze me, which was that not only were we attempting to play the game in the same room as the very loud pub quiz, but half of the players in the game were simultaneously acting as a team in the quiz. It was very weird, although I have to admit that it didn't disrupt things anything like as much as I would have thought it would have.
Myself, I just tried to tune out the activity of the pub quiz, which was a pity because it meant that I totally missed one of the questions...
"Who is the author of the Slayers Guide To Games Masters?"...which was a real pity, because it would have been incredibly cool to lean across the table and say, "Actually, that was me."
(Natural20 told me a neat story about the Ubercon 2003 pub quiz. One of the questions was, "Who is the author of the A|State RPG?" and since that author, Malcolm Craig, was on Natural20's team, they returned an answer sheet saying simply, "Me". They got the point.)
I never actually found out whether my table had got the question right, because when I wandered back over to ask them how they'd answered, I ended up getting into conversation with a Critical Miss fan, who asked when I was going to do a new issue (sorry) and Cathy, who immediately asked if I was "the vegan?"
Which somehow sounds a bit dodgy in an infamy kind of way.
But it turned out she was a vegan too, which was pretty cool (because I don't get to meet many vegans, and this was the first time I'd ever met one at a convention). Anyway, we had quite a good chat, of the sort that vegans typically have when they meet (generally revolving around how long they've been vegans, and how much they like the various chocolate flapjacks made by the Handmade Flapjack Company).
After a few more drinks, we (all the non-locals) headed off back to the Elm's, where I disgusted Natural20 by heading straight to bed.
I took Sunday fairly easy, wandering down to the convention around 11, and then taking part in a series of board games. I started off by rounding up some of the STOCS guys, and then grabbing Natural20 when he arrived, for another game of Stonewall.
Natural20, who was there to demo stuff in his MIB role, then ran a game of Frag, which is a board game that simulates first-person shooter games like Doom and Quake. The players were him, me, some of the STOCS guys, and Omegar. I'd heard of the game, but never played it before, and it turned out to be quite cool.
After that, we played a few rounds of a truely insane card game called Fluxx This is a totally mad game where the rules are constantly changing based on the cards being played. On at least one occasion I managed to reduce Natural20 and Omegar to helpless laughter by totally tying myself in knots. (Such as when I played a card which changed the rules so that you have to play all the cards in your hand each turn, thinking that would screw over the two of them. Unfortunately, rules changes take place immediately, so I now I had to play the remaining card in my hand, which was not only a card that I'd wanted to save, but had the effect of cancelling all rules changes, including the one I'd just played).
After a fairly quiet closing ceremony (a lot of the Dublin crowd had already left to make the evening trains) a group of us ended up in the Senior Common Room bar for what I guessed was the "semi-official post con pub party".
Now you have to remember that I'm used to Irish conventions. Our first visit to Gaelcon ended in a long drunken evening which culminated in dozens of people spilling out onto early morning streets and swearing eternal friendship.
I also remember a (genuine, I swear) conversation I had with someone at Ubercon 2003, a Cork hotel-based convention which run from Friday evening through to Sunday evening. On the Friday evening some of my group (Bog Boy and Stu) had stayed up drinking until 4am, although I'd wussed out at about 2, while on the Saturday evening, myself and Stu had stayed up until 4am. On the Sunday afternoon, with myself fragile, and Stu quite frankly wasted, I asked someone what time the bar would be closing that evening. His reply - which was said in absolute seriousness - was:
"It closes at two am on Sundays. I mean, people do have to work in the morning."So I have to say that Q-Con's "semi-official post con pub party" was something less than I'd been expecting.
There were about a dozen people there when I'd arrived (which didn't include Natural20 and the organisers, who'd gone off to a Chinese restaurant for a post-con meal) but over the next couple of hours, people just started drifting off one by one, citing the need to work the next day. Eventually, it was just five of us, playing a card game called Torches & Pitchforks (quite a good game, although I have to confess that for me, it seemed to be missing a certain spark of inspiration).
My time at the bar was "livened up" at one point when I received a call on my mobile from a number that wasn't in the mobile's address book, but which turned out to be Demonic. Conversations with Demonic tend to the unusual and this was no exception. It went something like:
Me: [Struggling to hear because there was a huge amount of interference on the line] Hello! Hello! [Goes out of the bar into the street outside to try and get better reception] Hello? Hello?So for those of you who might have been leaving the bar at around that time, and were wondering why there was an Englishman wandering about shouting, "There is no sex in Wuthering Heights!" - well that was why.
After being kicked out at the horrifically early time of 10 pm, and then finding the off-license already closed, we met up with Natural20 and some of the organisers, and a debate started as to what to do next.
One of the locals did say that there was a "special" off-license that would still be open, a "special" off-license coincidently located near to a Sinn Féin office. After a brief discussion about who could go (I was, not surprisingly, eliminated pretty soon) it was decided that no-one wanted to donate money to paramilitaries, and so we headed straight back to the Elms, pausing only to pick up various snacks from the 24 hour petrol station.
It was just after visiting the petrol station that one of the locals pointed to a funny little round single story "tower" located just beside the road (it was cylindrical shaped, with narrow windows, and a tiled, conical roof), and which poked out from a wall of chipboard plastered with posters advertising land to be developed.
It turned out that the tower - which I'd never noticed before - was a former British Army lookout position, and that the area behind was a former army base which had now been released for development.
(I did point out how nice it had been of the British Army to disguise their lookout position by dressing it up in "mad Bavarian king's castle" style).
One of the guys also mentioned that during the Troubles, some student residences had been built behind the base, and while they were still in the process of being built, they'd been hit by a mortar attack.
Opinion was apparently divided as to whether this was the Provisional IRA attempting to hit the army base and overshooting, or the builders, attempting to get additional overtime.
But it apparently wasn't all bad to be living in student residences located right next to an army base, because while it was true that you risked being mortared by mistake, there was no petty crime whatsoever - what with the whole area being constantly watched by armed soldiers for anything suspicious.
(According to the guys, one side-effect of the ending of the Troubles is that there's a lot more ordinary crime - guess there's a cloud to every silver lining).
We ended up in the common room playing a game of Chez Goth, followed by some games of Fluxx, and then the longest game of Stonewall I have ever played.
The participants were myself Natural20, Omegar and a local guy from somewhere north of Belfast, and having started at around 12, we finally finished sometime around 2, after multiple stompings and with practically everyone having had at least one chance to win. (At one point, I was within about six squares of winning when Natural20 used his "change the maze" move to trap me in a little dead end, leaving me with a meandering path of around 50 squares to get home. (And I then proceeded to roll three consecutive ones, which had everything in tears of laughter).
I think that in the end I managed to win, but to be honest, I was so tired that I wouldn't like to swear to that.
Just before turning in, Natural20 asked me when I was due to fly out the next day. I told him that I thought it was around 1:30 pm, but I figured that I'd better check my tickets, so I did, and found that I was due to fly out at 19:35.
The situation Monday was this: me and suitcase had to be out of the Elm's by 10:30 am. I needed to check in at Belfast City Airport at around 5:30 pm. The more astute among you might be spotting the seven hour disconnect between those two times.
But a bit of phoning around (thank you 118 24 7) established that the Belfast Welcome Centre (that's the tourist information office in non-bullshit speak) had a left-luggage facility.
TIP #3: If you're ever faced with several hours wandering around a city centre with a suitcase, try checking if the local tourist information have a left-luggage facility. It had never occurred to me that they might do it, but it can be incredibly useful.
So after yet another quick pot snack (I travel to conventions with a suitcase full of vegan pot noodle-type snacks and packets of pitta bread) I checked out, said my goodbyes to Natural20, and took a mini-cab into the centre.
Unfortunately, the mini-cab driver had never heard of the "Belfast Welcome Centre", but fortunately, I remembered that it was near Boots, and the cabbie had heard of that. So after checking my luggage in at the welcome centre - and being hugely surprised that they neither searched the suitcase nor asked me for ID - I set off to explore the city centre.
Belfast itself seemed to be just a standard Victorian industrial city, but what struck me was it's small size (I'm used to London, which just stretches for ever) and the mountains that seem to rise from the end of every long straight street. It looked like a nice place to live, compact, and with gorgeous surroundings.
I also managed to find a really cool vegan/vegetarian cafe called Caffe Utopia, where I had a really nice burger. This was a bit of a relief, as the alternative was to go back to Archana, and to be honest, after 72 hours living exclusively off roasting-hot curries, pot snacks and crisps, my guts were at crisis point.
(Again, for more details on my thoughts on Belfast's vegan restaurants check out this post on the UK Vegans LJ Community).
Having spent the morning exploring Belfast City Centre, I spent the afternoon wandering around the Ulster Museum. It's a very different place to the London museums I'm used to, in that instead of being dedicated to a particular area of study, it covers everything under one roof. So you start at the top in the arts section, move down through natural history and then the sciences, and finally end up with history and technology on the ground floor.
Two items in particular moved me.
The natural history section had a cabinet dedicated to illegal skins and stuffed animals from endangered species, all of which had been confiscated by HM Customs at Belfast International Airport. One of them was a tiny bobcat kitten, stuffed. It's the cutest thing you've ever seen. Given how many animals are killed each year, it's pretty stupid and sentimental to get upset over just one, but I'll confess that the thought that some bastard would actually think that a murdered kitten, stuffed, would make a cool holiday souvenir actually had me in tears for a while.
The second item was in the "Conflict" section on the ground floor, which is a history of warfare in Ireland, including the Troubles. As you can no doubt imagine, this is full of pretty emotional stuff, especially the multimedia station about the Omagh bombing. But what really got me was a school magazine, left open on a page containing a story written by a six year-old boy, which was published posthumously after he and his parents were killed by an IRA unit who mistook their car for that of a judge and his wife.
There was one incident that I found amusing, which happened as I entered the museum.
You see, to me, there's a simple routine when you enter a museum wearing a back pack or carrying a bag: you hand it over to security, they search it, and then you go in. It's not something you even think about. It's just the way things are in the twenty-first century.
So when I entered the doors and saw a women sitting behind a central booth marked "security" I marched straight up to her. But all she did was hand me a sheet with a plan of the museum and tell me that they recommend people take the lift to the top floor and work their way down.
Confused, I muttered something like, "Don't you want to check my backpack?" but she misunderstood and replied, "Oh you can leave your backpack with the receptionist if you don't want to carry it around!"
(Which I did, again with no search, and no request for ID).
I found it kind of funny - given the prejudices we Englishmen have about the place - to come to Northern Ireland and be shocked at the lack of security.
By now, the day was winding down, so after heading back to Caffe Utopia (for a burrito this time) I got my suitcase from the welcome centre, and took a cab to the airport.
I took one more photo, a shot from the lounge, to give you an idea of how the visible the surrounding hills are, even from a central location like the City airport:
Thoughts & Conclusions On Belfast / Northern Ireland
Before I get going here, I just want to state four things:
a) I'm just reporting what I saw and how I felt - and not trying to make any political points.
b) I do understand that I had only a very short visit to Belfast and spoke to only a few of the locals, and then not to any great extent.
c) I do believe that as an Englishman, I do not, and should not, have any say in what happens in Northern Ireland - as far as I'm concerned it's for the people there to work out their own destiny.
d) I do accept that since much of my feelings about the "Britishness" of the place were driven by things such as road-signs, to say it feels British because it has British road-signs is a circular argument (i.e. it comes down to "it feels British because it's part of the United Kingdom, and if it was part of the Republic of Ireland it would feel Irish").
So here goes...
If you're worried about going to Belfast because of the troubles, don't be. It felt very peaceful. Other than two armoured police land-rovers (and you had to look hard to notice that they were armoured) and the abandoned watchpost, I saw no evidence of any bother. Everyone I met was open and friendly.
I'd definitely recommend flying into the City airport, because it's small, comfortable, and convenient for the city. I'm not quite where the International airport is, but the general feeling I got was that it's quite a trek away.
I found Belfast both fascinating and confusing: I'd expected "Ireland", but instead felt as though I'd gone to somewhere like Cardiff, somewhere that was "British" without being "English". It felt hugely weird simply because it didn't feel weird; it felt totally familiar and comfortable. I knew from the accents that I wasn't in London, but I didn't feel like I was somewhere foreign.
And yet I know, from thirty-five years accumulated knowledge, that this can't be the case. The situation must be vastly more complex. I guess that I only saw the surface symbols and never the truths beneath.
I've heard it said that if you think you understand the situation in Northern Ireland then you really have no idea what's going on. Well in the spirit of that, I'm happy to say that I left Belfast with a lesser understanding of Northern Ireland than that which I'd arrived with.
Thoughts & Conclusions On Q-Con
It's hard for me to judge the convention on a impartial level (as I would have experienced it if I was just some bloke walking off the street who know no-one) because I did know people, and that did help a lot. But here are my observations anyway.
Also, a lot of what I'm about to say might be quite unfair, because I'm comparing it to the other Irish conventions I've gone to, all of which (with the exception of K2, which is pretty well unique in what it does) are much bigger, and therefore run to different standards.
So again, here goes...
In general, it was a nice, friendly convention. The accommodation was very good, and reasonably convenient for the convention, and the venue was pretty fair in general.
I do have a number of minor niggles, some that I noticed myself, others that were raised by other people.
The main gaming room / trade hall felt a bit large and soulless for the number of people that were there - making the convention feel a bit empty and lacking in numbers. But I guess that had the advantage that the noise never got to be a problem.
I didn't like the slot timetables, which seemed to me to be more akin to a British convention than an Irish one (and yes, I know the obvious comeback to that is that 55% of the population of Northern Ireland would consider Q-Con to be a British convention).
In my experience (and I am generalising here) Irish conventions will typically have two three-hour slots:
Morning: 11 am to 2 pm
Afternoon: 3 pm to 6 pm
(The evening is then free for special events, such as charity auctions or pub quizzes).
The reason I like this is that if you want to split your day between gaming and touristy exploration, you can either:
- Sleep in a bit, play in a morning game, then head into town at 2 pm, or;
- Sleep in a bit, head into town, get back before 3 pm, and play a game (and still have the evening free for the special events).
By contrast, British conventions tend to operate on a system of three four-hour slots, typically:
Morning: 9:30 am to 1:30 pm
Afternoon: 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm
Evening: 7:30 pm to 11:30 pm
Q-Con seemed to have a hybrid of the two systems, having two three-hour slots at the following times:
Morning: 9:30 am to 12:30 pm
Afternoon: 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm (Sat) and 2 pm to 5 pm (Sun)
(There were also some evening games, such as the Wuthering Heights one I played in, but although these were in the main Q-Con programme, they were lumped in as part of the afternoon slot, with just the description giving the different time).
The problem I personally have with this slot structure - and I accept that this is very much a matter of personal preference - is that to make the morning session you have to get up pretty early, and that if you decide to skip the morning session and go into town, you're in danger of then not making it back in time for the afternoon session.
(People might point out that you don't have to get up that early to make a 9:30 start, but my take on this is that a) it's supposed to be a "holiday"; and b) people tend to drink / stay up late on the nights before).
The organisation / staff also seemed less "tight" than I would have hoped (the timetable not being available when we first arrived is an example of this, as was not seeing any obvious sign of people being marshalled for games). Someone else mentioned that he didn't notice many people wearing staff t-shirts.
None of that is to say that the organisation was in any way bad, simply that it wasn't as good as the super-efficient organisation I've witnessed at Gaelcon and Warpcon. (And I'm not sure how fair a comparison this is, given that they are in the 500-700 attendees range, while Q-Con is far smaller).
But all in all, it was still a fun convention. I can't say for sure that I'll be going to Q-Con 2005, because I don't know what conventions will be on during that period - but I definitely hope to go.
So my final conclusion:
Q-Con was either the best British convention I've ever been to, or the least-good Irish one, and I damned if I know which one it was.
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