A Chair’s Eye View of the Colchester Unconvention

Before the Main Event

Goodie Bags by ApoloniaX on flickr

For me the Unconvention planning began many months ago, but the weekend itself started with some days off work on the Wednesday and Thursday. Between school runs and nappy changes I spent those days creating name badges, goodie bag labels, signs for the venues and raffle prize posting boxes and beginning to fill the goodie bags with their first items. Things were starting to get exciting as some last minute bookings came in and our months of planning began to come together.

Friday 28th September

After dropping my girls at school and nursery on Friday morning the real business of the Unconvention weekend could begin. The car was packed to the gunnels with books, goodie bags, raffle boxes, tins of sweets and more, with just enough space for a few clothes. Things didn’t start well with a delay in the Dartford Tunnel, but before I knew it I was arriving in Colchester….. and driving straight out the other side due to a sat nav malfunction! After a brief detour around the north east outskirts of Colchester I finally arrived at the town centre and met up with the local committee members and volunteers.We made quick work of emptying all the Uncon items from my car, making use of some handy supermarket shopping trolleys to transfer everything into Slack Space, where I was introduced to the lovely and very helpful Chris. By now we were getting hungry so we headed off to the Purple Dog for a delicious lunch. I’d only been in Colchester for two hours and already visited two OBCZs – things were not looking good for me going home with less books than I arrived with!

After a speedy check in at my hotel (and a rather damp walk back up the hill to Slack Space with ApoloniaX, managing to find the only five minute rain shower of the afternoon!) things moved into overdrive as we set up for attendees starting to arrive. By this point we had been joined by a number of additional volunteers as well as some early arrivals with goodies for attendee goodie bags. Lucky attendees this year were treated to a selection of items in their goodie bags including chocolate and biscuits from Sweden, knitted items from ardachy’s wife Nita, smellies from weebly, earrings from pookledo, bookmarks from vekiki and many other goodies. This was in addition to the usual booklet and name badge plus ghost walk tickets and Headgate theatre armbands for those who had paid for those events.

Books at Slack Space by ardachybc on flickr

We set up the various areas in Slack Space (a fantastic venue with a great large open space downstairs as well as several smaller rooms which we could use). Registration was installed upstairs due to the sheer amount of space required to lay out all the attendee goodie bags. Meanwhile downstairs we had books starting to arrive in the main area, as well as raffle prizes, NSS gifts and the beginnings of the Unconvention jigsaw in the room next door.

Before we knew it it was registration time and attendees began to arrive in a steady stream. Being hidden away upstairs the registration area fluctuated between buzzing with attendees and leaving me alone for a brief Skype with my children to say goodnight!

Unfortunately there was nothing we could do about the traffic (and confusing Colchester signage) which delayed a number of attendees including key members of the committee! A little later than planned but by 19:30 we were ready to go with our first official event of the weekend. Following a brief introduction to the committee we launched into MissMarkey’s fantastic icebreaker game which involved finding out which BookCrosser had answered certain questions about themselves in a particular way. We never did find out which BookCrosser posed topless for a WI calendar – MissMarkey claims it was a trick question and it was none of us, but I still secretly suspect it was her! More importantly I’m still shocked by the number of BookCrossers who were convinced it must be me! The game worked brilliantly and got us all mixing and talking with each other helping first time attendees feel welcome and get to know some of the regulars (possibly even better than they might have intended!). There was confusion over the winner so prize giving was delayed to Saturday afternoon allowing MissMarkey to do some official marking.

Once the Guess Who Game was over it was time to head out for the ghost walk. This was a massively popular add-on event with around half of all attendees deciding to join in. David Mayhew and his team led us round some of the oldest and scariest places in Colchester, with spooky lighting effects provided by his iPad presentation. With a stop off for refreshments at a pub along the way (haunted of course) this turned into an epic event lasting the best part of three hours and by the time I finally reached my bed at 00:30 it was definitely needed!

Saturday 29th September

Raffle Corner at Headgate by ApoloniaX on flickr

Saturday morning started bright and early, with me needing to be at Headgate theatre to meet the key holder at 08:00. The local committee members and volunteers did a sterling job transporting everything except the books and jigsaw from Slack Space to Headgate and we set ourselves up for registration round two. In addition to the registration desk we were able to set up author signing tables, an NSS and gift table and a raffle corner in the cosy Headgate bar. This was another amazing venue with theatre posters from past events on every wall and of course the theatre itself which was perfect for our needs.

After a frantic hour or so of set up, registering, meal booking and raffle ticket selling it was suddenly time for the main event to begin. Our first author Elizabeth Haynes had arrived and after being mic’d up was ready to present, kicking off with a reading from one of her books. It was lovely to see that despite presenting early in the morning Elizabeth stayed for most of the rest of the day and attended all of the other author presentations. This gave plenty of time for her to socialise with the BookCrossers at the event.

Elizabeth was followed later in the morning by the lovely Anthony Grey who gave a fascinating talk mainly focussed around his experiences as a hostage in China and how this has affected his approach to life since. A hug from an Unconvention author was a first, but was one of the sweetest moments of this year’s event for me.

After Anthony’s presentation the schedule told us it was time for lunch, but most of the break was spent offering moral support and assistance to GaryJ while he got to know the Headgate sound and lighting system so that we were set up for one of the events later in the day.

Before we knew it Mark Billingham and Martyn Waites (aka Tania Carver) had arrived for their afternoon presentation. Mark treated us with a new foray into erotic literature with the first chapter of ’50 Shades of Thorne’, complete with gold mask for effect. Not to be upstaged this was followed by Martyn Waites telling us the story of how he became a woman. This rather hilarious author talk opening was followed by some more serious book readings from each of the authors. This then led on to an interesting and highly entertaining Q&A session covering a range of topics including whether characters in a book are actually the author in disguise (most of the time yes), whether authors only write about their own experience (generally no as this would lead to a rather boring book with a lot of dog walking and arguing with teenagers) and the use of sockpuppets on Amazon (a scandal in the world of crime fiction writing).

For the afternoon we had access to the dance studio adjacent to Headgate bar, so we were able to extend in there for MissMarkey’s book bag game instead of trekking everyone to Slack Space as originally planned. I wasn’t able to attend the book bag game myself but it appeared to involve lots of glittery bags, playing cards, shouting and hilarity. Oh and books… and chocolate….

During the book bag game I was busy selling last minute raffle tickets and running a dress rehearsal for the next event with GaryJ. It took some serious technical wizardry to set up a Skype link with Sweden which allowed them to hear me and hear the audience (even see the audience at one point) in addition to us hearing them and seeing them on the big screen, but GaryJ managed to achieve this with his work during the lunch break and book bag game.

As the book bag game ended the scariest aspect of the weekend approached for me (way scarier than the ghost walk!). I found myself at the front of a packed theatre, talking about a country I’ve never visited, using a presentation I hadn’t written, that I’d only received that day and had about 10 minutes to look at. Not only this but my fetching head mic made me feel like I should be breaking into a Madonna song at any moment, although the assembled audience were relieved that I resisted the temptation! The Sweden presentation was very well received and the Skype link worked perfectly thanks to GaryJ’s hard work. It was lovely to see the gorgeous elis-fromSweden again but a shame she wasn’t present in person to offer one of her wonderful shoulder massages as it was much needed by this point. She was joined on the Skype link by nalle42 and both did a fantastic job of encouraging the assembled BookCrossers that they want to go to Gothenburg in 2013.

The final event of the day was the prize giving and raffle. Having spent some time carefully perusing the Guess Who Game answer sheets, MissMarkey awarded a joint prize to Cassiopaeia and ApoloniaX who each won a unique Roman Bally clock (one black and one chrome). The best badge competition was won by Ally1665 for her owl creation which saw her taking home a Roman Bally paperweight. This year we had an amazing 16 raffle prizes up for grabs covering a wide range of themes from the obligatory Colchester prize (The Only Way is Colchester) to contributions from Wales, Spain, Sweden & Dublin. There were smellies, chocolates, wine and even a sewing box and a holy grail and that’s before I mention the Roman Bally goodies (including a mug, candle, teddy bear and key rings). Oh and of course books, books and more books, not least of which a donation of 31 books by local Colchester bookshop Red Lion books which contributed to several of the raffle prizes.

A surprisingly quick tidy up and we all went our separate ways to Saturday evening meals. As the smallest of the four groups with just seven of us, the Thai 1 party decided to see if we could sneak in early. Luckily the owners were happy for us to eat at 18:30 instead of 19:30 although they were a little miffed that there weren’t 3x as many of us there! Two gin and tonics, some great conversation and a yummy meal later I was definitely feeling more relaxed and by 20:30 I was back at the hotel and settling down for an early night.

I didn’t even make it to Slack Space during Saturday but am told around 150-200 people passed through the doors and browsed the book tables during the day, which is pretty impressive figures, and that miketuk did a fantastic job registering all the non-BookCrossing books that were brought in by members of the public.

Sunday 30th September

Shopping trolley by ApoloniaX on flickr

Sunday allowed for a minor lie-in – getting up at 07:30 instead of 06:30. After checking out of the hotel it was straight down to Slack Space to bag up books. We had so many books we ran out of bags – not release bags (as ardachy had done an amazing job creating bespoke Colchester release bags and there were plenty of those) but bags to actually carry the books in. I’m not sure who it was but someone suggested the shopping trolley last seen on Friday afternoon and this was quickly crammed with books under the guidance of MissMarkey, who left Slack Space looking like the most well-read bag lady in the world.

Early in the release walk we descended on Culver Square for MissMarkey’s Domino Rally flashmob. This was intended to be a domino rally style event but using hard backed books instead of dominoes. All was going well as we stood ‘reading’ our books and awaiting MissMarkey’s whistle telling us to create the domino lines. But as the whistle blew and we started to lay the books out, around the corner came a familiar yellow jacketed figure pushing a little trolley. Memories flooded back to Nottingham, where the flashmob book release was marred by over-zealous roadsweepers clearing up our books as quickly as we could leave them. Unfortunately despite attempts at persuasion by MissMarkey, karen017814 and seadbed the roadsweeper (who had by now been joined by a second yellow jacketed figure) was not going to be swayed. We managed to hand out a few books in person to passing shoppers, but the remainder were packed back in the shopping trolley and continued on the release walk with us.

Domino Rally by ApoloniaX on flickr

MissMarkey made an interesting decision to push the trolley around the longer option on the release walk which resulted in some fun moments including negotiating some rather steep stairs down to the riverside and GaryJ stepping in to help lift the trolley back up the low rise (but numerous) steps in Castle Park. The highlight of the release walk for me was all 20-odd of us briefly joining in the Race for Life in Castle Park, as it inconsiderately cut right across ardachy’s carefully planned route, while overhearing the spectators commenting ‘So are this lot just out for some shopping then?’.

The final event of the Uncon weekend for me was a lunch trip to the Layer Fox pub in Layer de la Haye. vekiki was unfortunate enough to come in my car, so she experienced my complete inability to follow sat nav not to mention the rather odd selection of music being broadcast by Essex FM. That aside, it was a lovely couple of hours to just sit and relax with a hearty meal and a refreshing drink before the (actually not long at all) drive back home. By 17:00 I was being greeted by my 4 year old with a massive hug and a tiring but brilliant Uncon weekend had finally come to a close.

About pingucb

Claire is responsible for Communications for the Convention committee.


  1. pingucb says:

    Apologies to nalle42 who I had referred to as narre42. Now corrected – thanks to GaryJ for spotting the error!

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