Sunday, 24 April 2011

At the Moomins of Madness

Hello. It is Sunday evening in April. It’s been a glorious weekend, meteorologically speaking. Even here on the banks of the lovely River Lea, where the buzzy nadger things have just returned from their winter break in the Azores, the whiny skeetery bastards. A wonderful weekend for picnicking, for gardening, for long improving rambles. Which is why I have spent the last two days at the Business Design Centre in London, surrounded by several thousand sunlight-dodgers at the first KaPow! comic convention.

The Ocelot's first law of comic cons:
You will never be more than 10 feet from a young lady dressed as Harley Quinn.

What a way to spend your weekend. I’m shattered. My legs are killing me, especially my shins which are creaking and groaning like the rotten timbers of an allotment shed, incensed at the painful indignity of wearing healed boots for 10 uninterrupted hours. I should’ve worn comfy trainers and said bums to fashion. But I am vain.

Allow me paint a picture of the convention for you, by way of a massively subjective account of my own experience. Do bear in mind that this will be coloured by several powerful post-con impressions, those being:

a) good Christ my feet hurt,

b) queues, queues more bloody queues,

c) an inability to go up to total strangers and ‘sell’ myself (see Linked Out for more on that) and

d) my complete and utter incompetence in booking a ‘portfolio review’ session.

Don’t worry if those reasons don’t make much sense to you right now because I’m about to lay them all out before you in a stunning display of self-flagellation.

So, Friday night. The evening before the convention. Having had sweet FA to do at work all day, I have had plenty of time to assemble a hodgepodge of my greatest hits, creative writings-wise. To wit:

• one 180+ page wargame rulebook which I have had the honour of contributing (all the cool bits) to,

• one 7-page plot summary for a possible Union Jack comic book (the story’s called ’51 and is a corker),

• one 3-page plot summary for a possible WWII/horror serial for 2000AD comic (called The Horrors of Gnarly Hill, and is less of a corker, possibly a piner or an MDFer),

• one 6-page script extract for a possible Marvel comic called Seconds (based on a way cool roleplaying game we used to run),

• one ‘director’s cut’ of a short story I submitted to SFX magazine’s short story competition a couple of years ago (I was placed somewhere in the top 25-50 bracket. Wooo.)

• one copy of my very own Brentford: the Roleplaying Game rulebook, based on the stories of (and endorsed by) Mr Robert Rankin (approx. 5 copies sold to date)

• one copy of my wargame Vlad’s Army, pitting the men of the Warmington On Sea home guard against the Fuhrer’s undead shock troops (sadly, the undoubted mega-profit potential of this game can never be realised, giving the copyright infringing nature of its central characters)

• and finally, in some ways my crowning achievement in the world of writing, my prize-winning entry in 2000AD’s ‘write your own script’ competition. From 12 years ago. Sad to say but this is to date the single creative endeavour of which I am most proud. And all I did was fill in the speech balloons for 7 pages of old Hap Hazzard artwork they’d found lying around in Tharg’s filing cabinet. For example:
The laff-riot that is page 6

So that my dear chaps, comprises what one might optimistically call my portfolio. Not that I knew it should be called a portfolio back on Friday, you understand. I was just putting together a load of stuff to take to the con with me, on the off-chance I happened to bump into someone from a comic company or TV company or film company, someone who really, really needed a versatile and well-spoken writer right there and then. That should tell you volumes about my levels of confidence and inexperience.

So I loaded my little collection of folders and booklets and printouts and comics into my rucksack and set off early on Saturday for the convention down in London. My goals at that point? Uh... to see some famous people (well, famous in the world of comics), maybe attend a few panels, discussions and film preview events, and maybe just maybe actually meet some of my role models/idols/stalkees, strike up an instant rapport and be gathered into their bosom for to collaborate with them on their next big-name project.

It could happen. Surely. A friend of mine way back seemingly got a gig co-writing with the legendary Pat Mills just from a meeting at some pagan event, as far as I can tell. I think my brother and I were incredibly jealous of her at the time (hell, I know I still I am) for blagging a 2000AD writing job without having first put in the requisite apprenticeship of reading nothing but comics since the age of 7. Jammy so-and-so.

Not doing very well with this diary-of-a-con format am I? Let’s try to get back to the story.

Picture me at King’s Cross tube station early on Saturday, making my way down the escalator to the Northern line platform. I clock several individuals on the platform who cannot be headed anywhere but the comic convention. The tell-tale signs are all there – two men travelling together, possessed collectively of two pairs of spectacles, one ginger beard, two ratty t-shirts depicting well-loved characters from animation and comic books, two bags bulging suspiciously with the rectangular outline of what can only be piles of precious comics, brought all the way from home so that they might be signed by their fave artists and/or writers.
A not atypical conventioneer
I leave it until we all actually exit Angel tube station onto street level before cheekily asking these two chaps if they need help finding their way to the con. 'It’s that obvious is it?' one of them, a Scot (they often are) enquires. I nod with what I hope is a ‘sorry for sussing you’ expression (not unlike the one I use if I ‘read’ a fellow transgender person – they’re often crest-fallen that they haven’t passed, but hey,  like gaydar or skrulls, we can always spot our own).

As de facto local guide, I lead the two Scots comic fans to the Business Design Centre. An easy task, as I explain to them that you really do just have to follow the stream of fat blokes in comic t-shirts up the street. Cruel but true. Not all of them fit the Comic Shop Guy template by any means, but there are enough to stand out in a crowd, like goths in a cricket team.

And then we hit the queue to get into the convention. Man, is there a queue. It stretches away from the building, up a side street, does a 180 at the end, and doubles back on itself so that we three join the end of the queue level with the head. And then we proceed to wait a good half hour to trudge to the front. And we had tickets! It wasn’t like we’d just turned up on spec. I’d forked out 25 knicker for the privilege of queuing up. Rubbish, I tell you. I could have bought what they call a VIP ticket and jumped the queue, but it was over a 100 quid for the weekend, and I weren’t paying that. Maybe in retrospect it would’ve saved a lot of needless standing and queuing over the next 36 hours, but how was I to know?

How was I to know? could have been my personal motto for the entire event. How was I to know there’d be a monster queue which would delay my getting into the exhibition hall itself until 10:30, halfway through the allotted 10:00 – 11:00 ‘signing’ hour of one Steve Dillon, a celebrated British artist who I had an extra special reason for wanting to meet (he was the artist and original plotter of the aforementioned 2000AD story I scripted, you see).

How was I to know where the two ‘event’ rooms were, or what panel / discussion / preview events were scheduled for those rooms? It took me well over an hour to notice that everyone else in the bloody exhibition hall was wandering around with a little booklet in their paws, which looked suspiciously like it contained a map of the convention and a timetable of events. Maybe it should’ve been in the free goodie bag they handed me on my way in, but wasn’t. At any rate, I tromped back out to the entrance hall and found a pile of convention guides on a counter and helped myself. It was already too late for some of the events though.

The joy of colour-coded timetables

How was I to know who was queuing for which event, or where the queues started? Or ended? I don’t think the people marshalling the events really got their act together until halfway through the first day. Up until then, queuing was a chaotic affair, with people either standing in line in an obviously queuey fashion, or else squatting on the floor behind the others like they were having a picnic and conceivably not in the queue at all. Sometimes the queue followed a straight line along one wall and sometimes it weaved back and forth across the gallery floor like a sidewinder. The only way to really work out what was going on with any given clue was to walk up to complete goddam strangers and ask them point-blank what they were queuing for. As if that was going to happen.

And most of all, worst of all, how was I to know that there was a special predetermined procedure for getting your work, sorry – your la-de-da portfolio - reviewed by the guest editors from Marvel? Okay, okay, in this case I concede that instructions for this procedure may just have been posted up on the convention website for all to read for days and weeks, but I was stupid and didn’t read that bit, OK? This complete failure to get my work seen would wind me up somewhat as the weekend progressed. As you will see.

Back to the diary. I part company with my Scots fellow travellers as we finally enter the exhibition hall. I blurt out a half-decent farewell, something about probably losing track of them inside so best to say goodbye now. And to be honest I think they were grateful to see me go. God knows what they thought of me – some desperate overly chatty middle aged bird, or worse some freak tranny, trying to hook up with two younger blokes so she wouldn’t be all alone at the convention. They’d mentioned their respective other halves fairly swiftly when I’d first spoken to them - a sure fire indicator in my mind of the ‘piss off weirdo, we’re taken’ response if ever I’ve seen it.

So, into the exhibition hall on my own, marching quickly so as to lose the Scotsmen cleanly in the mob (quick breakups are best, I find). I weave down the long aisles of stalls flogging new and old comics, t-shirts, posters, DVDs, action figures and original artwork, and find myself at the far end of the hall, where autograph tables have been set up.

Into the seething madness

If you’ve never been to any sort of fan convention, this autograph thing might need a little scene-setting. Basically, the convention organisers arrange for a bunch of celebs (sportsmen, Star Wars actors or in this case comic book creators) to attend their convention, thus drawing in the fans. In return, the celebs get to take turns sitting at a table signing autographs for one fanboy after another. They tend to sign for about an hour at a time, spending a few seconds or minutes with each member of the public in turn, as a convention-supplied minder / marshal / rottweiler ushers the plebs forward from the queue (yes, there are more queues) one at a time.

At Kapow!, they have 4 tables, thus 4 comic artists or writers are in residence at any one time. As it turns out, Steve Dillon’s signing session started at 10:00, some 30 minutes before I had even got into the bloody building thanks to Jormundgandr the world-queue outside. Embarrassingly, I don’t at first realize that there is a formal queue lined up in the gloom of the hall outskirts – it looks like you just walk up to him and say hello – I can’t believe my luck!

But eventually even my woefully underdeveloped gaffe-sense tingles, and I notice the twitchy glares from various people in matching black t-shirts who I then identify as convention staff. Honestly – black t-shirts at a geek convention – can you think of anything less likely to stand out? They should be wearing bloody pink jackets if they want to stand out. So I realise I’m perilously close to barging to the front of a 50-person queue, go incredibly red and shuffle off in a random direction whilst pretending to have seen something interesting ‘over there’. Then I circle round cravenly and join the back of the queue. It is now 10:35 and I have 25 minutes before Steve Dillon’s signing hour is up.

Everybody else in the queue seems to have a copy of Mr Dillon’s artwork at the ready for him to sign. Generally this is a copy of Preacher, the DC comic he illustrated for Warren Ellis (and the only comic to my knowledge to feature Bill Hicks. Not to mention introducing a character called Arseface), or else another well-known title he worked on. I am the only person to have a 12 year old copy of 2000AD for him to sign, let alone one featuring a strip that was already 7 years old when it was printed, and long forgotten by everyone but the sad muppet that once won a competition to add in the words (probably against a load of 14-years olds) and has a 3’ by 2’ blow-up of their one and only published comic work hanging on their bedroom wall (yes, I really do).

Introducing Arseface

Time rushes on, ever closer to 11:00. The marshals are clearly chivvying everyone ahead of me as quickly as they can. When I reach the head of the queue, 2000AD in hand (not to mention my ‘congratulations you have won the competition’ letter tucked inside, and a business card with my email and web address – oh the shame), the flustered young lady in the black t-shirt asks me to make it quick. And quick it is. I walk up to Mr Dillon’s desk. I say hello. I shake his hand. I flop out my comic at the appropriate page and burble some bollocks about really wanting to meet him because of the competition back in 1999. He smiles. He signs his name. I walk off. It takes about 30 seconds from start to finish. Pretty compact for a meeting I’d been thinking about for 12 years. I look at his signature. It says ST Dil. And no, I didn’t give him my business card.

Mr Dillon as viewed at speed

To be honest, I am prepared for this sort of outcome. I’m not a total dreamer. And I’ve been here before with other, far more august personages. But y’know, I kind of thought he might just go ‘Hey, I don’t remember this artwork of mine ever getting published.’ And ‘Hey, I don’t recognise the words in the speech balloons. They’re pretty bloody funny! Who is this clever (and attractive) stranger who has brought this scripty goodness before my professional eye? I must speak to them further!’. But nah. It couldn’t have been a briefer encounter unless he took the signing to its logical conclusion and simply rubber-stamped my comic.

I stagger off into the crowd and try to dull the shock by joining another queue. I don’t even know what it’s for since the marshalling and signposting is virtually non-existent at this point. It turns out to be a panel discussion of ‘How to break into Marvel Comics’, featuring a smattering of British and American creators, all of whom work for my most beloved of comic companies. One of them is a man called Kieron Gillen, who is a new writer on Marvels’ prestigious X-Men comic. He wrote an independent comic called Phonogram about the (literal) magic of pop music, but it was really about self-involved music bores. The follow-up, Singles, is even more unashamedly indulgent – a bunch of self-involved music bores all go to a night club and talk about music a lot. They don’t do much magic, though it is a book about music-magicians. The reason for them not doing magic is explained away in the plot, but I suspect that they real reason is that Mr Gillen just wanted to write a story about a bunch of people at a night club, and the Phonogram series was his only commercial outlet for it at the time. He’ll probably do a story about the X-Men all going to a club next.

Yack yack yack

Actually, he seems like quite a nice chap when he speaks on the panel, and he gives some halfway useful advice for breaking into comics, though I think it boils down to ‘Somehow find a decent artist who’ll draw your stuff for free, work with them on some self-financed project and publish it on the web for several years. Hope someone spots it. Get the X-Men gig.’ Mainly, I’m just jealous of him. Possibly envious. I’m sure there’s a difference but I’m too poor a writer to know the difference.

For reasons I can’t recall, I leave the panel early, sneaking out the back of the upstairs gallery. I trot downstairs in order to rejoin the main convention hall, only to discover that the only door back going back that way is actually right next to the people on the Marvel panel I’ve just sneaked away from! I balk and retreat twice, going up and down the stairwell looking for another way out. But eventually I have to grit my teeth, stare straight ahead and charge out the door next to X-Men Writer Guy and his amazing friends. Oh the shame.

I talk to the people running the SFX/Comic Heroes magazine stand. They seem nice. For reasons I cannot fathom, I panic and start asking them about sales figures and how often Comic Heroes comes out. I manage to regain my wits after reflexively buying one of their mags and I cheekily ask if there are any jobs going. Naturally, they have their trusted regular contributors but the chap said there’s no harming sending something in ‘if I have an idea’ (all ideas instantly vanish from my head). We swap business cards. Woo-hoo. We’re practically meeting for a power lunch already.

Probably not a future employer

Then I bump into an old acquaintance who I had emailed some weeks ago on the off-chance he’d be attending, and so he is. For the purposes of this diary, we shall call him Declan. Declan is trailing a little group of chums behind him, which is nice. Were I an uncharitable sort who likes to disassemble everyone I meet in the hope of making them seem less intimidating, I would say he subconsciously cultivates lesser, geekier persons as his companions, so as to make it that much easier for his dominant Celtic personality to hold court with.

We exchange pleasantries. He stares at my cleavage. He mentions his recently failed marriage. I try not to conjecture as to the reasons. He mention that he is here to collect signed original artwork – that is, artwork drawn by comic artists at the fan’s request right there and then at the convention, which Declan will add to his already impressive collection.

In mid-conversation with me, he turns away to request a photo of two young ladies dressed as superheroes. This wrong-foots me a bit – the sheer speed at which he turned away to charm and snap them. It’s just a little niggle, but it reminds me that in Declan’s world, I come somewhere down the list below pale 20-year old girls dressed as characters from X-Force. Evidently.

Lady Deadpool and Domino. As you well knew.

So a couple of minutes later I in turn manage to cut him off in mid-sentence when I see a young guy from a TV documentary I’d watched a couple of days before. It was about facial disfigurations. So I turn away from Declan and say hello to this chap as he walks past and I burble something about comics. This action not only makes me feel sanctimoniously noble for talking to an unusual-looking young man without batting an eyelid, but also puts me back on 15-All with Declan in our little game of social tennis.

To mix my sporting metaphors, I follow this up with a knock-out punch by inventing some event I have to attend promptly and scamper off into the crowd. This is entirely necessary for my own self-respect, as Declan is one of those guys who unassertive people such as myself find ourselves following around and deferring to, unless we take decisive action. Yay me.

Walking back through the hall, I see that some young men with large black folders (the aforementioned portfolios) are talking earnestly to two chaps I recognise as big-shot editors from the Marvel panel. They are American and thus in my mind ‘proper comics people’. They are Marvel and thus really proper. I try to work out how these young men with their folders full of home-grown artwork got to talk to these Americans. I want to talk to them too. I want them to see my Union Jack plot and my script for Seconds and my name on an old story in 2000AD. But I cannot figure out how to get inside the corral of official-looking tables before me, where the Marvel guys are reviewing the young artists’ work.

See the impenetrable barrier of tables

In an unprecedented lapse of protocol, I sneak round the back of the tables, tap a young man on the shoulder and ask him how he got in on this portfolio-review thing. He says, in that sort of ‘Oh didn’t you know, strange old person?’ way, that they all dropped their folders off earlier in the day and got their names on ‘a list’.

So. Bum. I guess I’ve missed my chance to show my stuff off today. And these were the Americans too. I sob a bit inside.

I join another queue, this one is to sit in on an interview with Mark Gatiss, he of The League of Gentlemen, Lucifer Box, Dr Who, Ghost Stories, A History of Horror and apparently anything else he damn well wants to do, the bastard. I discover that these panel discussion events tend to take place with the celebs sat behind a long table in front of a mass of people on chairs. The long table is not elevated, nor are the rows of chairs banked up like in a cinema. Thus, unless you are on the front row, you spend an hour listening to Mark Gatiss talk but actually watching the big freak head of the bloke sat in front of you. Tch.

A splendid view of Mr Gatiss

I leave, again dismayed and jealous of this man who it seems get all the fun jobs. I trawl the exhibition hall, looking at stalls. 'Trawl the hall for stalls'. Heh.

I speak to a nice chap called Russell who runs an online animation and comic art gallery. He seems genuinely happy to chat to me about the art of Alex Ross and how we both prefer drawings of Superman when he looks middle-aged (see Kingdom Come). I also speak to a chap called Dr Geof drawing amusing sketches, and buy a poster off him exhorting people to ‘ENLIST IN THE FIRST TEA COMPANY NOW! I recognise him from a steampunk event last year, and we spend a merry few minutes discussing chocolate hob nobs, re-enactors in York and the architecture of the Scala.

I buy a pencil from a Dr Who merchandise stand, purely because the pencil has a Dalek-shaped rubber top, which might just pass muster as a 28mm scale model at next week’s Salute wargaming event. I then speak to a chap who makes engraved copper book covers by copying comic artwork, and resolve to ask him to do one based on some 7TV artwork. I buy a cyberman bookmark off him.

I find myself walking past League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artist Kevin O’Neill, who I have actually spoken to (not sure I’d so far as to claim I’ve met) a couple of times in the last two years. Conceivably I could step up next to him and say hello, but then I think ‘He’s probably on his way to a signing and doesn’t want to be disturbed’. So I veer off to inspect some replica Judge Dredd helmets on another stall.

I spot a chap called Rob Deb emerging from one of the talks, and clumsily say hello. At first it looks like I’m trying to get past him and he half-steps aside – my body language is all over the shop – I think it stutters. But then we have a jolly nice chat, first about his gigging as a geeky stand-up comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe (he seems quite immune to the invariably rough reception he gets from the drunken crowd at his free gigs in the Jekyll & Hyde pub), and then we talk about which comic chops in London we have enjoyed the most – it turns out he now works at one – Orbital, just off Leicester Square.

Truly a man without fear

I watch Mark Millar sat before an enormous bloody queue, signing copies of his comic Kick-Ass. He’s a little Glaswegian dynamo and no mistake – all weekend he’s busying around, giving talks, signing books, hustling and bustling. I think the con is partially his baby, or maybe his other half’s. He seems decent enough, but I can’t help but slightly resent someone whose biggest claim to fame is coming up with the character of a little girl with a sword who says the c-word. Genius.

A shakespearean moment from Kick-Ass
I walk past a stall selling various non-superhero comics and books. My view is slightly obscured by people pressed up against the counter leafing through the products, so I can’t read the titles clearly as I go past. In a weird case of persistence of vision, my eyes conmfuse two neighbouring book titles, one by Tove Jannson, the other by HP Lovecraft, forming what I consider to be the title of the greatest unmade book this year – At The Moomins Of Madness. I resolve to write this great work one day.

In need of a sit down, I decide to queue for the very last event of the day – a preview of the forthcoming Thor movie. It starts at 6:30pm. I start queuing around 5:00pm. The queue practically circles the entire exhibition hall. I refuse to sit down on the ground like some kind of a homeless, so remain standing with a rucksack full of pointless portfolio material slowly giving me curvature of the spine. I manage to strike up precisely no conversations with the people standing in front or behind me in the queue. My social skills seem to be actively losing ranks by the hour.

The security for the film preview is monstrous – I haven’t seen measures this tight since we queued to get into a post-9/11 Empire State Building, being shouted at and herded by loud black ladies in uniforms every step of the way. At Kapow! we are required to surrender our mobile phones ‘and other recording equipment’ so as to prevent naughty pirating of the movie clips and subsequent leakage onto YouTube. I cannot be arsed to explain to the goons in the suits that my old mobile is incapable of anything but phone calls and texting, and so into a wee plastic bag it goes.

The screening room itself is unbearably hot once we finally queue our way in. Oh, I should have mentioned before that once we’d handed over our phones and held out our arms for a scanner to be passed over us, and had our bags searched, we had to queue again, inside another room. We actually queued up to one blank wall of the room, wheeled en masse like a military band at the Trooping of the Colour and then queued all the way back and finally entered the main room.
Dodgy Asgardian bling sets my turkey-sense a-tingling

Which was hot, my god was it hot. And sweaty from the massed odour for overweight men in fading Green Lantern t-shirts. Granted, it was cool to see about half an hour of the films ahead of the official release, and nice to see (sorry - listen to from behind someone’s fat head) the actors who play Thor and Loki, but I’m not so sure it was time well spent, even if everybody did cheer at the cameos of Stan Lee and Hawkeye. There was a suspicious amount of slapstick during the ‘mortal Thor on Earth’ segment, and I’m just not sure about the supporting cast, particularly the foreign bloke from Pirates Of The Caribbean (Stellan Something – this decade’s Max von Sydow). And don’t get me started on the shiny gold bling worn by the Asgardian characters – I’d hoped for more of a Riders of Rohan vibe.

I leave the convention hall and finally arrive home at 9pm in the evening. Footsore and not a little wired from sensory overload, celebrity disappointment and eating an entire packet of custard creams on the train home.

I spend most of Saturday night and Sunday morning dreaming about how to make it all better when I return for Day Two of the con. And having nightmares about Moominshoggoth.

Tekele-Li! gibbered Snufkin

Peaceful Coexistence

A short story I wrote for an SFX fiction competition:

* * *

The Thames river police launch came to a dead halt exactly halfway between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges. An older officer steadied the hand of the woman from the Ministry as she rose from her seat and squinted out across the choppy waters.

“Oh, it’s there alright, ma’am,” he rasped reassuringly, “Not that we can see it right now. Nobody’s been able to see Temple Bridge with the naked eye since 1968.

The woman from the Ministry managed to crane her head round to regard the grizzled copper without toppling over. She kept her voice professional, as if she did this sort of thing every day.

“I have read the subject’s file, Sergeant.” And with that she drew a slim leather spectacle case from her handbag, bearing the embossed initials WSC. She slipped on a pair of nondescript old-fashioned half-moon glasses, and gazed about the twilit river before her.

“As you can see, we in the Ministry are perfectly well-equipped to deal with the unnormal, on land, sea or– ah!”

She stepped back instinctively at the sudden appearance of the massive stone structure that now spanned the Thames directly aft of the boat. Temple Bridge, dark, solid and brooding, loomed before them. A sturdy flight of steps spiralled up from the nearest piling and climbed to the parapet high above them. As she whipped her neatly bobbed hair back and forth, she could see the bridge stretching toward, but not quite reaching, both banks, as if whatever power in the spectacles granted her this vision didn’t  extend that far. Either that, or the bridge itself really did just fade out at either end, as if the architect had built it from the middle out, and then got bored.

“No need to panic love,” chuckled the sergeant, as he steadied her . “Bit of a shock the first time, innit? I remember when the Chief Constable sent me out to see ’im the first time. Oh, it must’ve been ’75, ’76… blimin’ hot, I know that. Anyway, there I was, stood like a lemon with old Winny’s specs on when-”

She broke in, reluctant to endure another of the old relic’s interminable been-there-done-that yarns.

“Thank you, Sergeant, I was just… unprepared for the sudden materialisation. Now, if you will just bring us closer to those steps?”

* * *

The stairs led her high up over the river, affording a marvellous view of London at dusk. Or it would have done, if the city hadn’t taken on a curiously indistinct look, as if somebody had replaced it with a moving impressionist painting. The twinkling of bus headlights and the sodium yellow of the Embankment streetlamps blurred and washed out, the skyline beyond getting extremely sketchy. Even the police boat rocking below her now had a cartoonish quality, the sergeant looking somewhat Lowriesque. Only the bridge on which she stood, a structure which did not officially exist, stood in sharp and thankfully solid reality.

She glanced down at herself and was relieved to see her sensible suit and extravagant heels were still visible. Regaining her composure, she turned away from the steps and marched purposefully over scrubbed cobblestones to the impressive Edwardian house that stood across from her in the very centre of the span – Number One, Temple Bridge Road, WC3.

Standing in the warm illumination of two gas lamps, she smoothed her hair, straightened her jacket and knocked confidently on the sturdy teak door twice, the very picture of governmental professionalism. Within a heartbeat, the door clicked and swung open to reveal the master of the house.

“Mr Kismet? Mr Adam Kismet?” The woman from the Ministry had adopted a bland, officious expression much practiced by traffic police. The man looking down at her was perhaps 40, well-built with neatly trimmed blond hair and wearing a purple Nehru jacket and a large leaden medallion of unusual design. He smiled at her politely through amber-tinted John Lennon glasses.

“Ah, you must be Ms Pargeter. Welcome to Temple Bridge.”

“You were expecting me?” Her immaculate-shaped eyebrows raised slightly in surprise. The Ministry preferred not to forewarn those it had cause to visit, thus avoiding any possibility of ‘prepared answers’.

The man tilted his head a fraction, his long nose and old-fashioned bowl haircut lending him the appearance of a sturdier version of Peter Tork from the Monkees.

“Madam, my wards are tuned to detect the beating of the brazen heart of Big Ben and the granite breath of the leonis trafalgaris. Believe me when I say that your approach was no surprise.”

He delivered this all without a trace of pomposity, though that was evidently lost on Ms Pargeter from the Ministry, who bristled with indignation.

“Well then Mr Kismet, perhaps you also know the purpose of my visit? I shouldn’t wish to waste your no-doubt valuable time.” She fished around once more in her handbag, this time producing a small envelope marked ‘Ministry of Unnormal Affairs: FAO Kismet, Adam’.

“I confess that the Divining Winds of Arim-Za did not confide your intent to me, Madam; I assume that Her Majesty’s government has need of my occult abilities once more?” He took the envelope from her manicured hand and smoothly slit it open with a silvered paperknife that flickered into his hand from nowhere.

Ms Pargeter allowed herself the merest hint of a superior smile.

“It has been quite some time since I was last called upon by a Prime Minister,” he continued. “The last occasion was to repel an incursion of the Shadow Taxis of Londinium Obscura- By the Five Gates, what madness is this?”

Kismet thrust the official letter toward the woman from the Ministry.

“Sir, this restraining order states quite plainly that as of this date, Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland requires that you, Adam Kismet, the so-called ‘Lord Mage of London’, cease immediately your unlicensed, inflammatory and aggressive activities towards the unnormal citizens of this country.”

“In plain English, if you please?”

“Mr Kismet, it has come to our attention that you have repeatedly perpetrated acts of occult oppression upon legitimate British residents, newly arrived from the intra-planar territories of Dimension Tau, the Shimmering Worlds, and of course the Doompits of Ulak.”

Adam let out a short incredulous bark.

“The Doompits of Ulak? You’ve let the Ulaki through? Are you insane?”

* * *

Within the comfortably familiar surroundings of his study, Adam Kismet had regained some of his characteristic composure. He had settled down into a deep high-backed armchair finished in an odd blue leather, and was sipping from a steaming porcelain cup, which gave off elusive wisps of some exotic oriental herbs. He sighed, removed his amber glasses, and attempted to fix his unwelcome guest with the sort of steely enigmatic gaze that had halted the ascension of Bonaparte’s Armee du Mort at the Thames Flood Barrier by sheer force of will.

Ms Pargeter seemed frustratingly impervious to his practiced posture, and continued her lecture with the almost bored, tone of a railway ticket inspector delivering a fine.

“Attitudes change, Mr Kismet. Your aggressive approach to Ulaki affairs is out of step with modern British attitudes. Were you aware that we have a sizeable Ulakian community living right here in London? And other communities across the country in Foulswood, Little Hobscombe and Crowley Edge? These beings are no longer faceless, nameless targets for your indiscriminate spell-practice on the other side of the world-”

“Not this world at all, actually...”

“Be that as it may, Mr Kismet, the United Kingdom has ceased to be the cosy 1960s all-human enclave of your youth, and we must now embrace the challenges of a multi-cultural, pan-dimensional Britain for the 21st century. Diversity, Mr Kismet, Diversity.”

Adam could hear the capital letters in her voice.

“Are you seriously telling me that there are cultists of Ulak living in the open, right here? Has the government gone mad?”
Adam instinctively reached for a tennis-ball sized stone, apparently carved from jade. It seemed to glow from its core and soften in his grip, slowly enlongating.

Ms Pargeter looked sharply at the stone and then up at Adam’s face once more. She breathed out through her nostrils, flaring them ever so slightly. “You see, that is exactly the sort of behaviour that is threatening a greater understanding between existing communities and our new citizens. The Ulakians are not ‘cultists’ as you term them – and frankly I find that term somewhat abusive – but members of a legitimate religion, who should be free to practice their beliefs without the threat of being branded-”

“Demon-worshipping lunatics?” Adam interjected, his patience wearing thin.

“Mr Kismet, Ulak the Uncanny, He Of The Fiery Countenance, is a recognised Belief Object of the Ulakian people, not a ‘demon’. Likewise, whilst I am in the process of re-educating your outmoded language, their licensed centres of worship may no longer be referred to as ‘Shrieking Churches’, ‘Obsidian Occularia of Ichor’ or indeed ‘The Pain Factories of Ulak’. Continued use of these and other inflammatory, anti-planar terms is tantamount to a Hate Crime, Mr Kismet.”

“Hate crime? My dear woman, have you actually met any of those frothing fanatics in the decaying flesh? They wear slippers made from flayed gypsy children and wield daggers gnawed from the still living thighbones of Buddhist monks. Eight years ago this midsummer they almost managed to open the Eye of Balor inside the Millennium Dome – thousands of Londoners would have suffered terrible shrivelling deaths if I hadn’t stopped them!”

The jade stone in Adam’s grip had now become a short rod of the same material. One end had assumed the shape of a small fox’s head, the eyes of which flashed menacingly at the woman from the Ministry.

She sighed, barely restraining a professorial tut-tut.

“You really are terribly out of touch, Mr Kismet. That was the old regime of extreme radical Ulakists, who were swept from power by the peace-loving majority Ulakians, empowered by a trans-dimensional programme of political reforms. The disenfranchised Ulakian people reached out to us in their time of need – how could we refuse them the aid and support to which all sentient beings are entitled?”

“Reforms? The Ulaki don’t reform. What do you think they are? A democratic republic with elections and independent enquiries? They’re the Progeny of Ulak – Ulak the Uncanny. He is the Cardinal of Agony, the Organist of Forbidden Arias, the Broodfather of one million Bilespawn! His followers have no free will, save that of their infernal master. He drinks the blackened wine of their bitter souls, woman! What do you think happened, they all got together one day, decided that they’d had enough of chanting ‘Rise Rise O Dread One’ up to their orifices in lakes of human blood and thought they’d jolly well better complain to ‘OfGod’?”

“Sarcasm does not become you, Mr Kismet. While you have been away, no doubt furthering your own imperialistic crusade against the indigenous inhabitants of some innocent unnormal culture-”

(“I was half a mile beneath Mornington Crescent, halting the Enwakenment of Tubilex the Undergod actually…” Adam muttered).

“- Her Majesty’s Government have opened up a series of dialogues with representatives of the Free Ulakian People, and built a broad spectrum consensus aimed at activating a greater understanding between our two cultures, and ultimately seeking a new era of peaceful coexistence.”

Adam stared blankly at her. He had mastered numerous alien tongues over the years, including the curiously fluting patois of the Bog-Dwellers of Right Anglia, but the woman’s descent into undiluted bureau-speak had left him behind. He tapped the jade fox-head rod lightly on the arm of his leather chair, raising a brief sparkle of glittering motes.

“So, let me understand you – whilst I’ve been defending our country against countless devil cults, unliving invasions, and tentacular outer gods, you’ve been inviting them to Number 10 for tea and crumpets? Have you any idea what you’re dealing with here, Ms Pargeter? They’re evil, with a capitalised, blood red E. The only reason the people of Britain can still sit in front of the television every Saturday night and vote for their favourite opera-singing estate agent, is because a few lone souls have chosen to stand against the screaming, frothing tide of madness that laps against the shores of our society. If it wasn’t for the likes of me, you and your entire ministry would be currently stripped naked, bent over double and being used as mongoloid candlesticks for Gris-Gris the Drooling One! Let me say this one more time – the Ulaki are evil. No matter what they say, no matter how many ‘cultural exchanges’ or coffee mornings at the local forbidden moor you arrange, they will not change. They are the eyes, ears and pseudopods of a cosmic force so ancient, so alien in conceit, that to even attempt to consider them in human terms is like a, a meringue tart trying to relate to a vacuum cleaner.”

Adam sat back, momentarily drained. He had not spoken so forcefully, so passionately, since his defence of the unfortunate villagers of Lower Cromton during the Witch-Trials of Matthew Hopkins the IV in the 1970s. The foxhead rod had begun to lose some of its sharp outlines, as if melting back to its former spherical form.

“Well,” began Ms Pargeter, with an air of annoyance, “I can see that this is going to take some time.” She snapped open her handbag and made a few notes on a printed form, before checking her Blackberry tm for messages. “Your personal views on the matter have been duly noted, but kindly consider this to be official notice that should you be seen or caught on camera within 100 metres of any Ulakian place of worship or business-”

“Lords of the Enigma - business? Don’t tell me – they’ve opened up a chain of specialist ‘leather goods’ shops?”

“Well, yes they have, as a matter of fact, not to mention butchers and abattoirs.” There was not the faintest wisp of irony in her response. “The Ulakian people fill a vital skills-gap in the British workforce.” She positively beamed with the fervour of someone who knows they’re doing A Good Thing. “But, to continue with the substance of the restraining order - should you approach any such Ulakian locale, you will be in direct violation of the Dignity of Intrasentient Residents Act of 2008, which carries not only a substantial fine, but also mandatory community service. Though I suspect six weeks on litter duty at the Anglo-Ulakian skateboard park and sloughing clinic in Croydon might force you to confront your prejudices.”

Adam raised a weary eyebrow, eager to conclude this encounter. He placed the now-dull jade stone back in a pocket and started to mentally recite the Mantra of the Restful Glade.

The ubiquitous Blackberry tm beeped a reminder at Ms Pargeter and she tutted loudly.

“Dear me, is that the time already? I really must dash. As you may be aware, tonight is the grand opening of the new Ulakian Outreach Centre in Hackney marshes, and I simply must collect my ceremonial gown first.”

With a flick of Adam’s fingers, the study door flew open expectantly.

* * *

Ms Pargeter’s heels clicked sharply along the polished wooden hallway back to the front door of Number 1 Temple Bridge, whilst Adam’s soft Indian slippers padded gently beside her.

“Please, remember that the order came into effect as of today, so I cannot stress enough the importance of your not interfering in tonight’s programme of events. I’m told that the Festival of A Thousand Sights is one of the most sacred dates in the Ulakian calendar, and one to which we are honoured to have been invited.”

“Strange, I’ve never heard of it before – might I see your invitation, madam?” She passed Adam a small vellum scroll, which he read intently while she continued her monologue.

“As I say, this is a very high profile Awareness Raising opportunity, Mr Kismet, The Deputy PM, the mayor, even a couple of royals will be attending. Not to mention quite a few representatives from the local community – schoolchildren, vicars, imams, rabbis and so forth. So the very last thing we need is you appearing in a puff of smoke during the main course and throwing Ochre Bolts of Banishment left, right and centre. Do I make myself clear?”

Adam’s eyes flicked up from the scroll, a curious expression on his shadowed face. “This… ceremonial gown of yours, what does it look like?” She looked as if she were about to take offence at the question, but Kismet’s leaden medallion seemed to draw her gaze, and when she spoke again, the woman from the Ministry did so without a trace of ego or artifice.

“Why, it’s a traditional Ulakian ‘crimson robe of friendship’. Apparently the colour represents the warmth of the community; the stomach left bare to embody trust. All the guests will be wearing them.”

Adam frowned and touched the medallion, releasing Ms Pargeter from the Telling. He opened the front door of the mansion for her, and then placed a long fingered hand upon her shoulder; an almost protective gesture.

“Did you know the Ulaki language is notoriously ambiguous, Ms Pargeter? A single word can have many different meanings, making accurate translations something of a labyrinth. The Ulaki noun szath’nach for example, can mean not only ‘festival’, but also ‘feast’, and qa’zirr translates both as ‘vision’ and ‘eyeball’.” He looked at her meaningfully, but she had already turned and begun clacking across the bridge to the stone stairs.

“Laudable though it is for you to start displaying a genuine interest in Ulakian culture at this late stage, I’m afraid there’s no way we could rescind the Ministry’s order in time to procure you an invitation for tonight, Mr Kismet.” She began to descend the steps down to the police launch. Adam walked to the bridge wall and stared down sadly at her as she took on a somewhat insubstantial quality.

“Goodbye, Ms Pargeter. May the Seven Golden Sages watch over you.” He spun his fingers in an eldritch spiral and two small objects unfurled out of the air. One a carefully folded letter bearing the arms of Her Majesty’s government, the other a small vellum scroll of rather more exotic origin. He plucked them from the evening air and stared at them both for several minutes, his brow furrowed. At length, he sighed, tossed one over the low wall into the Thames below, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.