Monday, May 12, 2008

So, the Fforde Ffiesta is behind us. An entire bank holiday weekend of fannishness and unstrenuous activity dedicated to the work of Jasper Fforde. The Lovely Jo has now blogged about this, but I might yet be able to add something on the subject.

We had in fact done this once before, in 2005, but back then it was called the Fforde Ffestival and it only lasted one day. It felt similar in some ways and yet overall, quite different. The Goddard Arms Hotel is gone now, so I feel I can safely describe its grandeur as "seedy". (The Swindon De Vere, on the other hand, proved a large and comfortable venue for our hundred or so punters, and served a very nice breakfast too. Probably the nicest of the year so far, just edging out the breakfasts of the B&Bs around Loch Lomond by virtue of sheer merciless quantity. And mushrooms. Many, many lovely button mushrooms. Sir achieved true fungal breakfast nirvana that weekend. But sir digresses.)

The director of the committee made it quite clear, and continues to make it clear today, that he didn't view this as a convention. "Convention", after all, has connotations in the chip-shop press that any event organiser would consider undesirable. (Although I hasten to point out that the coverage we got from Swindon's local press, including interview and photos, was favourable, genuine and accurate. There's a lesson there for Exeter's local press.) I've consequently come to think of the two Fforde happenings as "fan events", which is a nice, vague, catch-all term. Nonetheless, even though The Lovely Jo and I were the only members of the Ffestival committee ever to have even seen another convention, and even though we only brought one other convention-goer into the Ffiesta committee, we soon recognised the outward signs of conventionishness. Perhaps inevitable in any event designed to bring together fans of a genre-ambiguous author and present them with silly things to do.

We got one very shitty write-up from a guy who sent his thoughts to Ansible, the SF fandom newsletter, and his beef seemed mainly to be that we weren't a well-oiled autograph queue machine with parallel programme tracks and a dealers' room. In other words, that we were a fledgling fan event catering for a small and uncertain fanbase, and that we weren't a miniature version of Eastercon. Fair enough, we'd advertised in Ansible on the assumption that some Jasper Fforde fans must also be SF fans, so it could be claimed that we were presenting ourselves to con-goers as a convention, but even so. Had The Lovely Jo and I then known and properly understood the word "relaxacon", we might perhaps have tried touting it as one of those, and I believe we'd have gotten away with it. However, in the intervening years between Ffestival and Ffiesta the world has seen The Year Of The Teledu, an entire convention of chaos programming. A con so utterly chaos-based that when it started soliciting subscriptions at Eastercon 2006, it didn't have a venue or even a date. I like to think that the author of the write-up - if indeed that is his real name, which I doubt - went to Teledu and suffered a chronic explosion of the brain. In a post-Teledu world I imagine we'd have got away with it all even more easily. But what the hell, everybody else enjoyed it and the Ffestival made money, so a follow-up was planned.

For a number of complicated reasons that follow-up happened two and a half years later. In that time, we were able to apply the lessons learned from the first event, rejig and rebrand, and make the whole thing look even more like a convention (knowingly in some cases, unknowingly in others). And yet it all started to look a bit shaky. Like George W Bush on a tiny scale, we spent our reserves and soon ran up a deficit - perhaps not a huge deficit by event organising standards, but big enough, and more significantly one that we would personally have to shoulder if it didn't go well. And none of us particularly wanted that. Ticket sales were sluggish - we could easily put this down to the large hiatus between events, but what if that one bad write-up had had an effect as well? Then just a few months before the Ffiesta we had word that Jasper's partner Mari was due to give birth soon, and it all went quiet. I stopped looking forward to the event and started to worry. We were facing potential ruin, and the committee director's assurances that it'd all turn out all right weren't winning me over.

Perhaps I should point out here that the Fforde events are linked in some part of the back of my brain with car-related stress. The journey down to the Ffestival saw the bonnet of the Punto flip right back while we were driving along the M4, causing us several minutes of brown-trousered terror on the motorway and the largest repair bill the Punto ever incurred in its eight years of service, not to mention having to leave the car in a Swindon garage for two weeks. Our weekend committee meetings for the Ffiesta had seen a string of hiccups and minor malfunctions in the Toyota and, latterly, the Skoda (which is still misbehaving at time of writing), such that as we drove down to Swindon two weekends ago I fully expected a repeat performance. Basically I was more than prepared to believe that this event had personally wreaked this havoc on our cars and would take a more terrible toll yet.

Fortunately the committee director was right and I was wrong. What I had forgotten, and he had remembered, was the tremendous goodwill and camaraderie that can build up around events like this. We made what preparations we could, but ultimately it all hung on the auction, and here all our wildest hopes were exceeded. From our initial position of debt we suddenly found ourselves with enough funds to donate a fat wad to Alzheimer's research and lay the groundwork for another Ffiesta next autumn. (Although The Lovely Jo and I won't be on the committee for that one, owing to the possibility that we could be in New Zealand by then.) And yet again Jasper put in a tremendous amount of time and energy helping to keep the event bouncing along, even while he was taking his turn to nurse baby Tabitha. In short, it was a tremendous success, and we have every single person involved to thank for that. Much relief and handing over of bank account to other committee members.

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