Steampunk Across the Pond: Weekend at The Asylum Created by wilhelminaframe on 9/26/2011 10:37:06 PM
Wilhelmina Frame travels to Lincoln in England's Midlands to attend the Weekend at the Asylum, the premiere UK steampunk weekender.
All photos by Gretchen Jacobsen except as noted.
While most of my American Steampunk compadres were in a pre-Dragon*Con frenzy, I was on a plane bound for London's Heathrow airport. I was off on a holiday in England and Scotland that culminated in my attendance at Weekend at the Asylum, the UK's Steampunk convivial.
In its third year, The Asylum is the UK's premiere Steampunk weekender. Organized and run by the Victorian Steampunk Society, the event is held in the historic city of Lincoln. Originally a Roman settlement, Lincoln also boasts a medieval castle and a grand cathedral. The event takes its name from the space in which it is held, a former asylum. The Lawns, as it is now called, is an event space only with no lodging. Asylum attendees stay all over Lincoln, with walkable B & Bs and small hotels booked by the same attendees year after year.
The Asylum is both similar and much different than American Steampunk conventions. It is not hotel based so it is somewhat decentralized. The majority of the daytime presentations and all the evening entertainment were held at The Lawns but there were also events held on the castle grounds and the vendor's bazaar was held in the castle prison, each vendor having their own cell. Generally, The Asylum has fewer panels than most American cons and a more overarching social atmosphere. Bands and musicians are saved for evening entertainment and being quite civilized, a dinner break is built into the schedule.
The Asylum officially begins Friday evening but fifty or so Steampunks assembled on Thursday night at a Lincoln pub for an early guard meetup. Even before the weekend had officially begun many were already nattily dressed, setting the bar high for the rest of the weekend. Friday during the day the cobbled streets of Lincoln's Bailgate shopping district slowly filled with more and more Steampunks browsing, eating and scouring the local antique shops for last minute costume additions.
Friday night held two events, an evening with bands and the Major's Soiree, a variety show in the British music hall tradition (similar to American vaudeville). Due the growth in popularity of The Asylum, this year's tickets switched from an all inclusive to a la carte, with attendees needing to purchase tickets separately for the features they wished to attend. Some purchased tickets for both events so they could go back and forth. I had booked myself in for the night of bands but honestly I was in the bar most of the evening chatting. Then I was given a ticket for the Major's Soiree, so I ended up going to that event. The Soiree featured several comedians and comedy acts. Of special note were The Cogkneys, a Steampunk themed music duo emulating the original music hall style. One of the highlights of their set was a Cthulhu themed parody sung to the tune of Theme from Grease. The closing act was "occult comedian" Andrew O'Neill. You probably know Andrew from The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing. He is also currently burning up the UK alt-comedy scene and was fresh from a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And hilarious. And bizarre. Later on I heard many people speaking enthusiastically about the performance by Pocketwatch. I checked them out online later and if their one recorded song is any indication, it must have been a stellar set.
Another major event on Friday evening was the launch of Robert Rankin’s latest book, The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of The Modern Age. It is unclear to me how many Americans are familiar with Mr. Rankin. He is a widely prolific author of “far-fetched fiction”, elder statesman of British Steampunk and all around raconteur. He and his wife, Lady Raygun, are well-loved figures in the British Steampunk scene, and always affable and entertaining. I also had a fun conversation with another one of this year’s Asylum luminaries, Mr. Frazier Hines. Mr. Hines played Jamie, a favorite companion of Doctor Who. He was wearing a Confederate cap and when he heard I was from Atlanta, I immediately became Miss Scarlett. Well, I was wearing a ball gown!
My Saturday began with workshop on parasol / umbrella rejuvenation and repurposing presented by Madame Greensteam, a regular poster on Brass Goggles. The workshop was interesting and I came out of it with a new appreciation for the possibilities of broken umbrellas. It seems that the inclement weather of Glasgow provides Mme. G with many a broken brolly and her children often chastise her for flensing them by the roadside. Next I headed to the period dance workshop lead by Lady Elsie. The country dances we learned were generally easy, fun and spirited. The moves reminded me a lot of square dancing, which I guess makes sense as one came from the other. Our final dance was to The Last Steampunk Waltz by Ghostfire. I really liked this one. It had lots of spinning and partner switching. It was kind of tricky in my bustle! At this point, I needed a sandwich and some conversation. Other less chatty Steampunks had opportunities all afternoon to attend various conversations with featured guests and authors, workshops and other entertainments. Of special note was the book launch of Beyond the Asylum, a second volume of Steampunk short stories begun as a communal writing project. The final big feature was the costume contest. I actually won the costume contest in 2010 with my steamPUNK bustle gown. It was a big thrill and lots of fun so I decided to enter again with my Racing Bustle. Robert Rankin always serves as compere for the contest and generally has fun with the contestants and audience. All the contestants have to write a short description of their costumes which Mr. Rankin reads as people are presented. I remembered from last year that he had a bit of trouble reading my handwriting. My handwriting is actually very good, if a bit “flourish-y”. This happened again with some humorous results. One of the contest judges was Wilf Lunn. Mr. Lunn appeared on a British children’s television show called Vision On where he would turn up with his crazy contraptions and fabulous bicycles. To many older British Steampunks Mr. Lunn is like a spiritual godfather who set them on the path. You know how people talk being Steampunk before there was Steampunk? Wilf Lunn, is seen that way, although I don’t think he necessarily sees himself as a proto-Steampunk. Either way, he seems like a fun, trippy guy, especially when you see some of the stills from his website. The contest was eventually won by Julie Walton and her amazing wings, built by her hobbyist husband, which could open and close automatically (pneumatics?). In the back of the wing pack was a lighted vial containing a housefly, the “power” for the wings. It was a stunning build. After that, everyone went outside for an attempt at the Guinness Most Steampunks record.
One of Saturday night’s features was Putting the Punk into Steampunk with The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing headlining, and Thomas Truax and Birthrite rounding out the bill. All accounts suggested blistering sets but I was otherwise engaged at The Empire Ball. I'm never one to pass up a formal dress opportunity and this is the premier event of The Asylum. The attendees were dressed to the eighteen eighty-nines with red and feathers being popular fashion choices for the ladies. After a few called dances (like the ones I learned earlier in the day) and a buffet meal, Professor Elemental and Sunday Driver both delivered high energy, crowd pleasing sets. The dance floor was filled and the bar was full. After the live sets were over, the music was turned over to the DJ for 80s goth and new wave. Doesn't it always end that way? Personally, I didn't remember the DJ set last year, but my companions assured me that it was indeed how the ball ended and perhaps last year's three bottles of pink sparking wine might have affected my memories. I suppose they might have had something there. I made sure to share more of this year's three bottles with my fellow revelers. Sadly, at some point, the ball ended but lots of folks just headed across the road to a pub called The Victoria. My two companions and I were actually the last to leave The Victoria, a badge of honor for sure.
Predictably, I was a slow starter for Sunday. Ok I missed about half of it. But I did arrive in time for the Illicit Market. This was a one-hour "secret" event where anyone could sell his or her goods "on the sly" after a small charity donation. Eventually, the market was “busted”, with fines, again for charity, being collected. This was really fun role playing and a nice opportunity for smaller makers and traders to sell some of their goods. Not that it actually happened, or anything. Eventually I made it to the official traders area, the Bazaar Eclectica. The day wrapped up with a closing ceremony, announcement of awards and the finals of the tea dueling competitions. The Asylum hosts The Great Exhibition of Steampunk weapons and objects. Prizes are given out in different categories for originality, craftsmanship and audacity. There is also a steambear competition to steam up your favorite cuddly stuffed friend (not bear exclusive). Medals were also awarded for the winners of the clockwork racers, modified but not motorized wind up toys, and, as a first this year, wacky racers in human size contraptions. It was also announced that over 1500 GBP had been raised for Help for Heroes, The Asylum's chosen charity. After many cheers for the organizers, with special shout outs to Major Tinker and Lady Elsie, the first couple of The Asylum, the event closed, until the after party.
This was the first year where the after party, the so called Dead Dog Party, was a formal event versus a meetup. First up was a Steampunk / Victorian pub quiz. I have to say, this quiz was hard! Who were Jack the Ripper’s five canonical victims? What was Bram Stoker’s first novel? (Hint: not Dracula) But, our motley team of one American, two Norwegians and a handful of Brits (team name: The Internationals) somehow managed to come up with some correct answers, coming in second place and winning the coveted bottle of Hendricks Gin, which was immediately opened for toasts all around. Then was the main entertainment, a performance by Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer. I must admit, I had previously sided more on the side of Professor Elemental in the chap hop wars but after seeing Mr. B live, there is definitely room for both in my lexicon. Mr. B killed, which is quite a feat for a performer with pre-recorded beats and a banjolele, rapping with a Received Pronunciation (aka snooty British) accent. Very quickly, the dance floor filled with sweaty Steampunks, dancing happily away despite their tired, sore feet. The Gentleman Rhymer definitely charmed the crowd and it was just announced that he will be headlining the Empire Ball at the 2012 Asylum.
With the end of the set the evening and The Asylum were official done, but of course there was still time for one or two last drinks at The Victoria. No one really wants to say goodbye or for the festival to end. This year’s Asylum unexpectedly turned out to be the end of an era. The Lawns, the home of The Asylum, is up for sale by the local council making it unavailable for the 2012 event. The Asylum organizers found this out mere days before the 2011 event when they went to finalize the 2012 booking. In response, The Asylum has been turned in a true fringe style event with features taking place in multiple locations in Lincoln’s historic quarter. These changes will definitely change the flavor for the 2012 event. I am sure some, including myself, will miss the centrality of The Lawns but it was also clear that The Asylum had outgrown that space in terms of numbers. We will have to wait until September 2012 to see how it all turns out. I have my room, tickets and 11 ½ months to plan my outfits!
Tickets are already on sale for the 2012 Asylum. If you are interested in possibly attending next year, I strongly suggest that you make accommodations soon. Lodgings fill quickly - think of the bum rush for Dragon*Con rooms. You can sort the details and save money later. Hope to see you across the pond!