I just posted on the Odyssey Workshop forum, to see who was coming from the USA to World Fantasy Con in Brighton, UK, later this month. In case some of them are visiting the UK for the first time, I thought I’d give them a bit of guidance to help them fit in:


There are two ways to pronounce ‘Brighton’. The toff method is to go, ‘Bright-un’ – you pull back your mouth from your teeth and articulate ‘Bright’ crisply, ending with a sharp ‘t’; then ‘un’ like a soft but well-enunciated ‘en’. If you want to say it more like the traditional tourist (i.e. from South East London) and therefore not sound out of place, you go: ‘BrEYE-n.’ Keep your lips fairly close together but not actually touching (except on the ‘B’ at the start), emphasise the ‘eye’, then a slight gap finishing with a mumbled, ‘nnnn’.

Actually, there are three ways to pronounce ‘Brighton’ since the modern indigenous local is now gay, Brighton being the gay capital of the UK. But I’m not going to give you advice on how to pronounce gayly – it’s more about performance, anyway.

Tipping: unlike in the USA, you won’t be chased out of a bar by a barman with a hatchet if you tip less than 20%. Tipping in UK bars is not, in fact, required at all; if you do tip, you will be easily identified as an American and therefore probably find yourself paying twice as much for the next round. When you (finally) receive your drinks from the bar person, all that’s required is a brisk ‘Cheers, mate,’ accompanied by a brief nod of the head – this nod is an ancient traditional vestige of a time when all British peoples (outside of the toffs) felt an affinity with each other. Your little nod says you recognise that while he/she is serving you, you are no better than he/she. The fact that he/she is almost certainly Polish these days has not yet altered this much-loved social requirement.

10% tipping in restaurants is fine, up to maximum 15% if the waiter didn’t make you feel like you should really be troughing in McDonald’s. Remember that in the UK as a general rule, waiters and bar staff aren’t trained; they’re paid peanuts and no one expects them to do much more than stay awake while they pretend to take your order. Brighton is better in this respect than most places in the UK, mainly because many of the B&Bs and restaurants are run by gay couples and therefore are top-notch establishments.

On no account do a ‘Hendrickson’. This is to find yourself talking to a Scottish/Welsh/Irish barman and in an attempt to show you understand the local sporting culture, observe that since Scotland/Wales/Ireland (North and South) did not succeed in reaching the World Cup finals next year, you expect he’ll be cheering on England. Let’s just say it won’t be safe to drink whatever he serves you following this, even if it stays in the glass.

If you do want to talk about the World Cup, please remember that what the entire world apart from the USA plays is ‘football’, not ‘soccer’. American football is a game played mostly with the hands; the rest of the world plays football that’s, um, played mainly with the feet.

It’s probably best to not mention the Royal Family. This is because the British tend to be sharply divided in their views on this subject (pretty evenly, too, despite the pro-Royals impression the media tends to give). On the one hand, the Royals exemplify all that’s best about Britain: ceaselessly and tirelessly working for the good of all; sacrificing their lives for the nation; smiling and waving cheerfully through all adversities, etc, etc. On the other hand, they’re the Nazi-loving descendents of the robber barons who stole the nation’s wealth and have perfected the Mafia-like trick of getting the people to pay to keep them in luxury (although unlike the Mafia, the people actually feel grateful for doing so) while holding on to said wealth, and of exemplifying the nonsense notion that breeding equals privilege, etc, etc.

Ditto ‘Downton Abbey’.

Finally, the British attitude to SF/Fantasy. Like everything else, it’s complicated. When I was young, admitting you liked SF/Fantasy was another kind of coming out – not of the sexual closet but out of the same rickety old foundations-less shack as comics, musical theatre and the ‘Carry On’ films. Back then, even Patrick Moore scoffed at the notion that there might be life on other planets. And while he changed that view in time, and even wrote an astronomy book with the lead guitarist of a popular music combo whose name wouldn’t sound out of place in Buckingham Palace, it doesn’t mean the British as a whole has embraced SF fully.

Dr Who now exemplifies this British contradiction. When it first appeared (and I remember hiding behind the sofa during the first-ever episode) it was difficult to hear the dialogue on account of the constant parental barrage of, “What you watching this rubbish for?” and “Why can’t you watch something educational instead?” Dr Who now, of course, is a national institution on a par with the Royals – and it’s just as risky to criticise it. But that doesn’t mean we British are at peace with SF. Check out ‘As Others See Us’ in Dave Langford’s wonderful ‘Ansible’: (lots of other useful UK SF/Fantasy stuff there too).


I watched a film the other day which led to me thinking about enthusiasm envy. It was one of those sombre affairs that critics and intellectuals like, heavy on intimation of meaning (rather than actual) and somewhat light on fun. To like such stuff, you have to buy into the notion, probably first encountered at school, that worthy art is the kind you have to suffer.

It’s difficult to resist this brainwashing in our educational journey. Older, clever, teachers keep telling us which books, plays, films are the ones we should bend our minds to understanding. Our parents either echo this or at least agree the teachers must be right. So, if they find us reading genre fiction or, even worse, comics, we’re punished or censured or scorned. A dichotomy builds in our lives, between ‘approved’ and ‘worthless’ art – well, not actually called worthless so much these days, but rather things like ‘commercial’, ‘genre’, ‘light’.

Okay, so far so obvious. We all know about the war between Literary and Genre. But I want to talk about an aspect of it that might not be so apparent, to do with enthusiasm.

Take SF/Fantasy, for example. People who like speculative fiction not only have thousands of books and films to choose from, there are all sorts of online communities to join and conventions to attend. At these conventions, they tend to drink, talk and dress up a lot and, apart from the odd writer who feels he ought to perhaps be a little more ideologically restrained, they really, really enjoy themselves. Oh, and they’re incredibly, unashamedly, enthusiastic about their genre.

I don’t really often see the same enthusiasm in the worthy corner. At least not of the same open-ended nature. I’m not sure there are even any Literary conventions as such. I’ve heard of book events held in towns full of afternoon tea shops, where readers sit and humbly listen to authors talk about their books. I’ve listened to The Book Club on Radio 4 with its carefully articulated questions from the audience to The Author. And a while ago, I swapped favourite books with a colleague at work, someone who loved pubs and jokes and silliness of various kinds. But the book he gave me, as his favourite, was The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. (I gave him The Once and Future King by T. H. White.) When I returned it, I said, “I’m sorry, Steve; I managed about 80 pages but it’s very heavy going.” He said, “Yes, it is heavy going, I agree.”

Now, I may be wrong but I doubt very much that if you asked anyone at a speculative fiction convention to tell you about their favourite book, they’d qualify their comments by admitting that in effect it’s pretty boring. Why would anyone want to read a boring book? Well . . . see above, perhaps.

My own moment of liberation was on a train between Swansea and Cardiff in the 1970s, struggling with The Magus by John Fowles. It suddenly occurred to me that I really didn’t have to read this book, or even like it, no matter how worthy it was. So I threw it out the train window and ever since have only read books I actually like.

I’m a member of various writers’ forums and groups and have noted that at times the Literary people can be rather disparaging about genre writers. Oh, they disguise it more these days, perhaps because some genre writers make a lot of money and even, whisper it, write very well at times. However, the old prejudice slips out from time to time. For example, recently I bumped into this, from the writers’ guidelines of the literary journal The Gettysburg Review:

“We do not publish genre fiction—mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and the like—but are certainly not opposed to considering work that self-consciously employs the tropes of formulaic writing for more sophisticated literary ends.”

You can certainly have fun with that, assuming that is you understand what they’re going on about.

Anyway, the barely suppressed hostility that is sometimes shown by Literary fiction people towards genre folk is often rooted, I believe, in envy. Genre lovers don’t wade through difficult wordage because they feel they ought to. They just plainly like their stuff and aren’t shy in expressing the fact. They don’t like books just because they’re told to (although many do suffer from Robert Jordan syndrome – which is the chronic inability to stop buying books in a series that died long ago, because they can’t shake their initial loyalty to something they loved).

Does prejudice run the other way? Of course, and I’m no doubt expressing a fair bit of it in this post. However, I don’t think genre lovers actually envy ‘worthy’ lovers. They may feel inferior at times, since Literary still claims it owns the most ostentatious awards. It also tends to bag the teaching positions, at least in this country. If you haven’t had much published, or anything at all, it needn’t matter. As long as you have a creative writing degree and like the right books, then you can always tutor what you in turn were tutored.

I guess this post is a plea for enthusiasm from all writers. I’m tired, for example, of hearing writers go on about how difficult writing is. About the dozens of drafts they turn out before getting it right. About the ‘shitty first draft’. If it’s that kind of difficult, don’t do it. Look for enthusiastic difficult instead, which is taking leaps across the creativity void, for example, trusting there’s something inspiring and new on the other side. But you have to leave the tired, old but comfortable behind you. Or taking yourself and all your writerly struggles out of the way, to stand aside and just let your characters speak, your plot breathe and your prose tear down mountains, magical or otherwise.