What a ‘con’

I’m somewhere rubbish.

I’m at the NEC in Birmingham. At an event called Memorabilia. Memorabilia is a strange beast. A twice-annual weekend event based around pop culture. People travel from all over the country to meet celebrities, get informed bythe Hollywood studios of their latest releases and check out the biggest UK assembly of traders of toys, posters and general tat.

I’m here to sell off the last remaining stock from my recently closed shops. It’s not fun to spend 8 hours sat behind a couple of trestle tables, behind handwritten signs proclaiming ‘EVERYTHING £1’ as a parade of scuzzy idiots pick the bones of something once great. Did that sound a little bitter? Well, I kind of am bitter. Why did I come here? Two reasons – one, it’s the quickest way of getting rid of all of this stuff to not have to put it into storage. And two… because I wanted to.

I have a strange relationship with these events. Memorabilia, Collectormania, MCMExpo and the London Film and Comic Con. It’s love and hate. I’ll get the love out of the way quickly because hatefulness is so much more fun.

I started coming to these events when I was a teenage film geek. They blew my mind, so exciting. My dad would drive me to some sports hall in Cheshunt which would be full of maybe 50 stalls of guys selling bootleg videos of unobtainable pre-internet bounty (this is where I first got a copy of the Star Wars Holiday Special), vintage toys – carded Star Wars figures, comics, trading cards, cinema posters (both hard to obtain British quad posters and exotic American one-sheets of films you didn’t even know were coming out – pre-internet, remember?) and loads of other brilliant colourful filmy crap. Once in a…. excuse me for a second, I just had to serve a man with a tattoo of the puppet from the rubbish film Saw on his hand. ..while, Dave Prowse would attend. Dave Prowse was the body, but not the voice of Darth Vader. This always excited me. Not least because he was also the Green Cross Code Man. Very friendly chap and the glittering celebrity VIP of any provincial sports hall he entered.

I can’t remember when Memorabilia first happened, but it was like the sports hall sales on a Hollywood budget. Two huge halls of the NEC packed to burst with dealers. I think there were around 1000 stalls. And it was brilliant. If you had even a passing interest in films, toys, comics or – indeed – memorabilia, this place was nirvana. I could empty my bank account with ease. Anything I could ever have wished for was under one roof. This is still the aspect I enjoy. Seeing all the pop culture detritus from the 60’s onwards, finding something special, haggling over it and adding it to the pile of junk that is my home study.

Maybe a decade ago, Collectormania appeared. Now, whatever Memorabilia was – essentially a pop culture fleamarket – it bore no relation whatsoever to the sci-fi conventions ( or ‘cons’) that had developed in the USA since the 70’s. These were huge events where the comic and film industry met the public. All the prominent film and comic producers would have stands, give away freebies and hype up their product. There would be panels where creatives would participate in Q&As for the public and, inevitably, the stars of these mediums would pop in and spend some time signing autographs. Collectormania sought to apparently bridge the gap between the two – part fleamarket/part convention. They bought somewhat famous cult film/tv stars over, sat them behind trestle tables and charged the public… excuse me for a second, the stupid fucking twat who runs the ‘get your photo taken with the TARDIS stand is dancing heartily to ‘do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight’ which is blaring from the speakers of the face-painting cunts running the ‘party stop’ opposite me. I just got the Memorabilia staff to make them turn it down. The party guy gave me the thumbs up, it was a one-finger salute in disguise. I gave him one back…. between £10 and £60 for the privilege of a quick handshake and a signed photo. At the top of the scale, you got William Shatner, Carrie Fisher and Burt Reynolds, at the bottom, you got a bunch of non-speaking extras from Star Wars or Bond films. After a while, they contracted these people to do Q&A’s too. Often resulting in hilarious Star Wars panels conducted between 5 people, who spent one day each on set – usually with a mask on that blocked out any sensory experiences they might have had, sharing their stories with the bemused inarticulacy that goes with being a normal person who thirty years ago made a couple of quid by wearing a mask for a day.

So, these events have become their own thing. The film industry has resolutely avoided involvement. At the London Film and Comic Con (ineptly orgainsed by the same goons behind Collectormania), you might get a Universal Pictures stand where some hired help will hand out flyers and badges and posters whilst a big screen behind them shows some trailers, but you won’t get executives or panels pushing big releases. The closest they came was a visit from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost a few years ago pimping Hot Fuzz. Nothing close to that before or since. And I’m not surprised the events aren’t nearly as big as the American ones and they have become an embarrassing yokel imitation of such. They are the Butlins to America’s Las Vegas.

I first came to these events as an exhibitor about 5 years ago. I was pushing the DVD I had released – Jerkbeast. The details of that adventure are for another blog but I was introduced to the hell of having a stall at these events. 16 hours of boredom peppered with endless fucking idiots.

I feel like now is an appropriate juncture to go into detail. Let’s start with the people….

THE HEROES: There is a long tradition in American conventions of fancy dress pageants. This has been filtered through the UK psyche and resulted in a rather embarrassing parade of at-best pathetic and at-worst inappropriate offerings. There are a LOT of people dressed as Doctor Who, almost always the David Tennant incarnation – which is easy (pintstripe suit, long brown hair, gelled up quiff), occasionally you’ll see a Peter Davison. Impressively this weekend I’ve counted 8 people dressed as Matt Smith. This is impressive as his first episode has yet to air. They’re dressing as something they haven’t even seen. That is blind fandom, my friends. There is an organisation called The UK Garrison. These are people who dress in high quality stormtrooper costumes (Star Wars, not Nazis) and,well, I guess they just walk about really. Sometimes they are trailed by a herd of Jedis. Essentially a group of chaps with neat beards wearing bathrobes. I cringe when I see them. Stormtroopers don’t have to act. These guys walk around as if they actually think they are Jedis. With this expression of benign power and wisdom. I really want to bully them. My favourite member of the garrison seems to have left their ranks. It was a guy dressed as Boba Fett. A, um, portly guy. Quite portly. Porky even. I once saw him posing for photos and someone shouted ‘Look! Boba FATT!’ it’s an impressive thing, to see a man’s heartbreak from under a helmet. He just kind of slowly hung his head and slumped into a posture of abject sadness before sloping away. The last few years have seen a rise in Japanese culture in the UK. MCMExpo is heavily skewed towards this. These costumes are far more impressive and the kids make a huge effort. Creative, homemade and zany. One of the few elements of these events that don’t feel saggy, stagnant and nostalgic in a wretched, miserable way. That said, some of the female characters are drawn to that strange Japanese male taste which leads to a certain volume of horrifically inappropriately dressed teenage girls. Some naked but for a couple of bands of lycra. Many in fishnets up to their belly buttons, skimpy leotards and odd wigs. It’s kind of horrible. They are too young. It seems kind of innocent but so wrong. Ironically, this is the only environment in the world where they are perfectly safe to walk around in such gear as I doubt there’s another erectable cock in this entire room and I’m far too beset by tedium and rage to respond to such stimuli.

THE FATTOOS: Sound like some kind of alien race but it’s a name I’ve coined for a (literally) huge demographic of attendees – fat people with rubbish tattoos. Now, I know I’m not one to be throwing fat stones in fat glasshouses, but these people just blow my mind. It’s the tattoos more than the fatness, it’s the uniform wrongness of the tattoos. The guys have one of two themes: Horror films or West coast Hot-rod. I’m not a tattoo guy, I lived with a brilliant tattooist once and can appreciate body art. I just don’t really get why anybody would get Freddy Kruger tattooed on their body. Tattoos make a statement. The statement ‘I really like Freddy Kruger’ is perhaps better served by a T-shirt. Or better kept to oneself, even. I’m not judging. Beyond proclaiming anyone with a horror film related tattoo a monumental fucking idiot, I’m not judging at all. The hot rod stuff is artistically better but still kind of wretched. The desperation to embrace American culture whilst existing completely outside of it is kind of sad to me. Obviously it’s more acceptable to be fat in America so a lot of British chubs dress accordingly – Thug style. It’s such a low pretension to hold, such a downward aspiration. Ugh. I hate it. The girls all have ‘romantic’ tattoos. Sub-Buffy wiccan symbols and lots of roses Huge enormous buoyant boobies with badly drawn roses bang in the middle of the cleavage, like a liqourice allsort in a bath of blancmange.

THE CELEBRITIES: Post recession, these events are booking lower and lower rent celebs. The biggest stars in attendance here this weekend are Ron Moody and Mark Lester – Fagin and Oliver from the 1960’s musical film of Oliver. Who would want their autographs? LOADS of people. The kind of punters who populate these events (especially in the crappier cities like Birmingham and Milton Keynes) are hugely in awe of anybody who has ever had a camera pointed at them. Other celebs this weekend: Mrs McClusky and Zammo from Grange Hill (if anything’s likely to drive him back to heroin…. etc. etc) along with international stalwarts of such events Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the midget from Willow. I can’t complain too much about this. Through these events, I’ve been able to meet some of my childhood heroes – Ray Harryhausen, Peter from The Monkees, Lou Ferrigno, John Landis, Coreys Feldman and Haim (RIP). Just because some people want to pay money for the autographs of the cast of Allo Allo, who am I to judge? I am Jon. Paying money for the autographs of the cast of Allo Allo is fucking dismal. There is a ‘renegade’ celebrity at Memorabilia every time – a bloke who was in one of the series of Big Brother who tries to style himself on Wolverine. He is not an official guest, but spends the whole weekend walking round hoping to be recognised.

THE NORMAL PEOPLE: I hate them too. All fucking normal and boring.

The stalls themselves have become a real hotch-potch of oddness…..

COPYRIGHT BREAKERS: As I previously mentioned, I’ve spent the weekend opposite a fake Tardis. The buffoon who owns it charges people £5 to stand in it’s doorway and aim a toy sonic screwdriver at a camera. I’m sure this is an infringement of BBC copyright. It’s an infringement of my temper. Seeing a parade of morons filling his cashbag for the opportunity. This is far from the worst collusion of infringer and moron I’ve witnessed at such an event. One time when we had the Jerkbeast stall, the guy next to us was selling fake money. Not like good usable fake money, this was colour photocopied £10 notes with a photo of a celebrity or popular film/tv character badly cut and pasted over the queen. At that show, for a tenner, they could have got from us a brand new double disc copy of Jerkbeast, a free poster – signed by the cast of the film who were in attendance, sticker, plectrum and soundtrack cd. The punters just stared at us with utter incomprehension, then silently moved to the next stall where spending £5 for a fake £10 note made complete sense to them. Honestly, that bloke sold HUNDREDS of them. People ADORED them. Not one of them thinking ‘I could do this at home myself and do a far better job even if I was having a stroke’.

DON’T TOUCHERS: The internet has done away with a lot of the kind of stalls that used to populate memorabilia. It’s easier and more profitable to shift this stuff on ebay now. The few proper vintage stalls are more like museums now – huge signs everywhere saying ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ and, I would imagine frustratingly for the owners, nobody seems to spend money there, just gawp. The guys who make the money here are the end-of-line pile them high, sell them cheap folks.

THE ART DEALERS: Something which has appeared over the last few years is a proliferation of ‘art stalls’. There are two types, both selling essentially the same thing. The first type takes famous iconic images from films – Scarface, Blues Brothers, Get Carter, that kind of thing. Puts them through a photoshop filter (paint effect/comic effect/pixellate) and gets them printed on big canvases. The other type take those photos, prints them on the same canvases, paints over the guide photo and charges three times as much as the other guys. These are obviously huge copyright infringements but I feel that their biggest crime is proclaiming themselves artists. This shit is not art. A pile of bricks can be art. A painted copy of a still from Scarface can’t. OK, it actually can. But this swill isn’t. Art is about thought. This crap displays a staggering lack of. This weekend I am situated next to one such stall.

THE ENTREPRENEURS: As Dragons Den teaches us, the average person is capable of coming up with mind-bogglingly bad ideas to dedicate their life to bringing to market. These events often feature stands by such misguided fools. Ubiquitous over the last few years have been ‘The Turds’ a line of ceramic defecations with faces. Also in the foul ceramics category, the Bad Taste Bears – ceramic teddy bears exposing their genitals and breasts. There are many stalls of ‘original’ film themed art. Gloriously wonky renderings of almost recognisable faces. Independently produced computer games get their own stalls with people in shonkily made costumes representing the characters, handing out free cds. There’s usually a stall promoting a to-be-made indie sci-fi epic, too. Encouraging people to invest £50 in exchange for a walk-on part. I’m not sure any of these films have ever made it to production. I’d love to see one – populated by hundreds of mishapen provincial yahoos all staring at the camera and savouring their moments of fame. The biggest swindle out there is ‘genuine film frames’. People will pay around £30 for a tackily framed clip of five or six frames of 35mm film from their favourite movie. I think they might think that this is the original film that passed through the camera on-set. They’ve just purchased a two-thousandth of some knackered old film print. It’s meaningless and worthless and you’d have to hold it up to the light and squint to make it out.

THE ‘WHAT????’S: There are always a couple of stalls whose presence makes no sense at all. Like they’re pimping something insanely far removed from this demographic or something that doesn’t seem necessary. As I said, I’m opposite the ‘party stop’ which appears to be a couple of kid’s party entertainers. I guess they’re trying to drum up business by blasting 80’s disco hits at me and giving awful balloon flowers and machine guns (!) to any passing kid. Also here is the amusing ‘DREAM OF A LIFETIME’ stall, which I’m sure is grammatically iffy but can’t quite be bothered to focus in on why. They sell ‘experiences’ All detailed in a classical font. Fly in a private jet! Eat a meal in France! These dreams can come true! Excuse me, it’s just been announced over the tannoy that they’ll be premièring the new video of band ‘WINK (or week?)13’ at the stage zone. Stage Zone. Seriously. It’s a stage. Not a zone full of stages. Anyway, should I go and watch this momentous premiere? Someone here has passed wind. Looking around it could really have been anyone. They all look highly capable of this crime. Maybe it’s like Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe they all did it. Ha ha, the video just started, it’s just people shouting ‘GIVE ME THE SAFETY’ over rubbish random bass notes and fuzz guitar. I can hear people laughing at it!

It’s such a strange environment. This bizarre confection of misjudged business, failed celebrity, unwashed proles and an awful lot of junk served up in this provincial monolith to global business. I deeply despise it on every level and yet I find myself drawn back time and time again. Even though this will be my last ever one as an exhibitor, I know I’ll be back for a look around because it’s like a living Blake painting of the modern age. Grotesque and colourful and compelling and obscene and infuriating and ridiculous. And kind of cool.

There now follows an exhibition of my photography of this event….

A podgy woman dances to the music blasting forth from the Party Stop stand. Behind her, childrens TV celebrity Sarah Jane Honeywell poses for a photo for a childless adult. Centre frame, an un-noticed Burt Kwouk heads to the gents for a wee.

Rubbish pop culture mash-up! Zammo, Roh-land and Benny from Grange Hill pose in an illegal fake TARDIS.

Then, of course, it's Mrs McCluskey's turn.

Fake Jack Sparrow will gladly pose for photos with you. Fake Xena will furiously glare at you if she catches you looking at her boobs.

Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 12:14 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hilarious post Jon – never been to one of these, but somehow I think you captured it perfectly somehow 🙂

  2. I’ve only been to one similar convention, Otakon, the US’s largest Anime convention (not because i like that stuff, it’s just a crazy spectacle of weirdos) and this description is spot on for the vendor area.

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