Friday, 13 November 2015

Grahamstown Gazette: the Asylum Steampunk featurette

For the November edition of the Grahamstown Gazette, I was asked to write an feature on my experience at the Weekend at the Asylum steampunk festival held in Lincoln, England, in August 2015.

Weekend at the Asylum VII: Europe’s Most Splendid Steampunk Festival

A special report from European Correspondent Mademoiselle Archivy Daguerre Rouge, a.k.a Nicole Thorburn

As my train screeched to a slow and rattling halt, I couldn’t help but think Lincoln Central looked like every other station I’d passed through in my travels through the UK. A little brick building with the usual collection of men in suits and bored security guards, my first impressions of Lincoln was nothing out of the ordinary. 

Moments later, I saw them. Top hats and goggles, a silk waistcoat and a long lace skirt; this was a couple who didn’t do things by halves. They were the height of Victorian glamour, with a twist of science fiction. Striding through the tiny station as if they owned it, the pair was gone within seconds. This wasn’t so much a train station as a time machine. I was about to spend the weekend in a past that never was.

Weekend at the Asylum is one of the world’s biggest and oldest steampunk conventions. Taking place over four days in Lincoln’s historic Castle Square, Weekend at the Asylum turns the sleepy precinct into a neo-Victorian metropolis, where finely dressed steampunk aficionados quickly outnumber the city’s population of ‘normals.’ While weekend passes and day tickets are the most popular – allowing access to a huge variety to markets, exhibitions, events and lectures across four different venues – the hottest tickets in town are for the evening programme. The War of the Worlds Dinner, Empire Ball and Dead Dog Party are the highlights of the social calendar, while perennial favourite ‘Oh Dear, What Would the Major Say?’ is a wholesome night of ‘folk singing,’ which quickly turns into fabulous burlesque the moment the poor Major isn’t looking. 

Steampunk, however, does have a serious side, and the serious business of crowning of the UK National Tea Duelling Champion was a highlight of my trip. A far more civilised and sophisticated method of settling disputes than tradition pistol duelling (although taken just as seriously), two players face off under the watchful eye of the Tiffin Master, dunking a biscuit into a cup of tea and holding it upright. If you eat your biscuit before your opponent, or your biscuit is the first to disintegrate, you lose. The national final took place in front of a full house at Lincoln’s Assembly Rooms, where hundreds of steampunks cheered on each biscuit’s waterlogged wobble.

One event which definitely wasn’t a highlight at all, because it certainly didn’t happen and I’ve no idea at all what you’re talking about, was the infamous Illicit Market. Absolutely not held every year in extreme secrecy at Lincoln Castle, the Illicit Market provides an opportunity for independent traders to sell ‘exotic goods’ – such as crochet octopuses or steampunk jewellery – under the watchful eye of the Guild of Privateers, Illicit Entrepreneurs and Scoundrels. During a frenzied half-hour of selling and trading, all items for sale are smuggled into the venue and quickly hidden away whenever ‘the authorities’ make an unexpected approach. Of course, I couldn’t tell you anything about it, as it categorically didn’t take place and I most definitely did not buy my favourite new leather bracelet there.

I was truly blown away by the camaraderie and openness of the international steampunk community. People I barely knew offered to lend me outfits and jewellery. Professional photographers offered free portraits in the streets. Total strangers – dedicated steampunks and confused muggles alike – felt comfortable approaching each other to ask questions, share ideas and take photos. Coglings (steampunk children) dressed up with their families. Two months after the event itself, participants are still happily swapping stories and reminiscing over favourite photos online – counting down the days to Weekend at the Asylum VIII, in 2016. I was fortunate to be able to volunteer as a steward at the festival; an opportunity which gave me a rare glimpse behind the scenes. It’s the effort of a small group of delightfully mad people, with a huge amount of community support, which makes Asylum one of the world’s greatest and most splendid celebrations of all things steampunk.

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