Perth on the Edge of a Convention
by Christina Lake
All right, so I did make it to an Australian convention in the end. But this was pure chance. I happened to meet Leigh Edmonds and Valma Brown at Readercon last July and they told me that Swancon was on in Perth in January. What's a Swancon? I wondered. It sounded exotic. A convention in the most isolated city in the world, in the middle of the Australian summer. I imagined us picnicking on the banks of the river, black swans gliding by, golden champagne sparkling in my glass. Who could resist? Particularly as I just happened to have a flight to Perth at the appropriate time.
I soon discovered that a certain portion of the sense of wonder of being in Perth can only be obtained by gazing at a map. Fortunately I'd already equipped myself with the UBD Australia 1:4,600,000 map with a nice picture of river gum trees on the cover, and which fitted neatly on Leigh and Valma's dining room table. Here they could point out names on the map, like Baldonia hotel, which were exactly what they implied -- not a town, not a village, not a hamlet, but simply a hotel, marked on the map, because there was nothing else there worth mentioning, bar a few tufts of spinifex and some red soil. Many of the other places marked on the West Coast in relatively large type would barely have rated a mention in the more populated East, my hosts informed me. The nearest cities really are more than a thousand miles away -- Adelaide to the East, Darwin to the North and, at a guess, Johannesburg to the West.
Without the map, though, it has to be said, Perth does not feel particularly isolated. It's not like the city sits in glittering splendor on the edge of the Indian Ocean, sprung fully-formed from the desert. It's surrounded, like any other city, by its own hinterland of freeways, residential suburbs, drive-in McDonalds and out of town shopping malls. Isolation does not mean immunity from the 20th century either, because, of course, everyone there can still get TV, still wants to own a car, still shops in the same chain stores and still builds ghastly housing estates next to the main road (there may be a lot of space in Western Australia, but how much of it is actually habitable?).
But, there is one sense in which Perth is truly isolated, and that is in terms of its culture. It's not easy (or cheap) to go anywhere from Perth, and by the same token, it takes extra encouragement and funding to attract major figures in the arts or music to the city. So, by and large, the inhabitants of Perth make their own fun. Which could account for Swancons -- Australia's only regular convention, now up to number 22, yet so isolated that I'd never even heard of their fan GoH, one Dave Cake, and no-one there had heard of me (which, whilst not being surprising, was rather a pity as then I could have tried to talk them into having joint guests of honor, Cake and Lake.) The committee, so I was told, were mere youngsters, barely in their 20s, and inexperienced enough to believe that they could run a convention for over 200 people in a hotel with less than 30 rooms available. Then again, the committee did have the good taste to invite Howard Waldrop as their international guest of honor.
The lack of hotel rooms didn't seem to dampen anyone's fun. Its main drawback was to make it rather harder to test my tricontinental sex, drugs and rock n' roll theory of fandom. Drugs, of course, is US fandom. Rock n' roll, for which read beer and a taste for sleazy, smoky pubs is British Fandom. And sex, or so my hearsay evidence would have it, is (or was once) Australian Fandom. Well, it quickly became obvious that drinking was no big deal in Perth fandom. The committee announced a Happy Hour at the bar and no-one showed. The committee gave away party packs containing whiskey, vodka, port and a wine box and there was no big rush to hold parties (though admittedly they didn't detail the contents of the party box at the opening ceremony, or I'd have held a party myself!) At least the bar was open -- Perry Middlemiss told me horror stories of Easter weekend Swancons where no one sold drinks for love or money. As for drugs, I would say most of Swancon's members were high on a combination of youthful energy and caffeine, though speed is probably the only way to account for Danny Heap, special guest of honor from Melbourne, who was running around all weekend like a hyperactive weasel. Then, of course, there were the Tim Tams. Not cool designer drugs from the streets of Perth, but chocolate biscuits. Drinking port through Tim Tams, or the Tim Tam suck as they call it in the Sydney papers, was the activity de choix at the inevitable @ party. And sex? Well, there were rumors of skinny-dipping in the hotel pool at three in the morning and the convention did seem to be heading toward a bacchanalia on the last night as everyone put on their masquerade costumes and sighed orgasmically as fireworks illuminated the Perth skyline to celebrate Australia Day. Who knows what happened after I had to leave for my non-hotel room in the suburbs?
But perhaps the true addiction of Australian fandom is science fiction. At Swancon, the heart of the scene seemed to be the semi-professional SF magazine Eidolon, and Grant Stone, who collects science fiction as part of his role as humanities librarian at Murdoch University (though he does collect fanzines too! For scholarly purposes.). Throughout Australia, the people I met tend to be involved in some way with the writing, editing or criticizing of science fiction. Fanzine fan isn't a dirty word, just one without much meaning among the mass of fans. Why devote your energies to describing the activities of fans when there is so much to be done to maintain Australia as a presence within the science fiction world? People of talent, therefore (with some obvious exceptions) want to put out literary magazines rather than fanzines, run discussion groups and attempt to write, if possible, the definitive Australian science fiction story. There was plenty of evidence of this addiction at Swancon with its copious guest-list of emerging Australian writers, book launches, Waldrop's new anthology of stories (published by the Eidolon bunch). True, there was room at Swancon for non-literary pursuits -- gaming, quizzes, media panels -- but if you were going to be inspired by the convention into any activity it would be to write fiction, not put out a fanzine. Which is perhaps one reason why Swancon remains an isolated local phenomenon, appreciated by its habituÉs, but not exactly part of the mainstream of Australian fandom. It has plenty of myths, like the signed fencepost from the Nullarbor, auctioned for ridiculous sums every year, but has yet to develop a written tradition to make them famous. Then again, no written tradition however sparkling is going to remove the huge expanses of empty land (that I had to travel across myself by train for two long days after the convention) that separate Perth from the rest of Australia.
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