Before They Were Famous (1990 – 2011)
In 1990 I entered a competition in a magazine which I went on to win. It was a much simpler time back then as you can tell by the prizes which consisted of a CD and a couple of audio tapes. Truly a different age. The magazine duly published my name as one of the winners but, in what’s amiss from today’s security-minded era, they also printed my address: An action which led to me receiving a speculative letter through the post from a group of much-older men luring me a rendezvous at a city centre pub. I was only just fourteen.
I didn’t end up getting murdered. The Manchester and Salford Local Group were a group of Doctor Who fans, later branching out to science fiction in general, who met in The Mitre Pub’s function room primarily to screen old episodes of the world’s longest running science fiction TV series, although most of them were there to drink and chat.
Try explaining to kids these days how special old TV used to be. A time before just about all of it was available to buy in WH Smith. A time before DVDs existed. A time before the internet worked and YouTube existed, where dodgy bootlegs on VHS tapes were shared and traded amongst fans. Back then I got to see TV from the sixties and seventies once a month on Sunday afternoons.
I think it’s fair to say they weren’t expecting me to be as young as I was, but they were happy enough to take my subs and welcome me into the fold. Hanging out in The Mitre also provided me with the coming-of-age experience of buying my first drink in a pub which was a nervous affair as I had to beat a path to the crowded bar where the stern landlord, arms crossed, head shaking, told me that I had no chance before I even had the opportunity to open my mouth and only ask for a Coke.
The guy who ran The Manchester and Salford Local Group was called Steve Lyons. Amongst everything else he was the one prepared to lug a video recorder and TV set into the city centre before going through the sometimes arduous process of connecting and retuning it. He also produced a programme/fanzine which I thought was hilarious although, later on in the day, I think my parents might’ve had a different opinion as they examined it, raised an eyebrow, and refrained from commenting upon the “content”. Steve Lyons, along with Chris Howarth, would later capitalise on this themed humour when they got published The Completely Useless Encyclopaedia (1996) and a sequel The Completely Unofficial Encyclopaedia in 2006.
Because, as alluded to above, this was before he was “famous” which is a bit odd to me as on many occasions, back in the day, he’d give me a lift home in his van as if he were a normal human bloke.
To give you some background Doctor Who, the world’s longest running science fiction series, was taken off TV in 1989. The baton was picked up in 1992 by Virgin Publishing who secured the rights from the BBC to produce original novels and, right from the start it seems, they were open to new writers. And a generation of fans stepped up to the plate.
In 1994 long after I’d drifted away from the MSLG Steve Lyons became one of these and by my reckoning one of the more exciting writers in the range. When I knew him he worked in a bank or a building society, but now look at him go. Someone else who I’m pretty sure must’ve also gone to the MSLG is a guy called Paul Cornell who seems to have spearheaded the vanguard of fans becoming writers. I say “I think” as, for one thing, in his Manchester-set novel Goth Opera it includes the passage:
“On the bench by the cathedral, opposite the Mitre Inn, Russell sat. He was a student, went for Salford ‘cos of the night-life, and he’d found some.”
This was before a vampire attack, right there on the bench outside The Mitre, which is all very odd when you know it’s a real place that you used to hang about in. Paul Cornell went on to write for the TV series when it returned and also one of the few good episodes of Primeval. The one with the mammoth loose on the motorway if you were wondering. In 1997, at the collapse of the Virgin books range, the final few novels became rare and very hard to get hold of. Although I seem to have hallucinated a wonderful bookshop in the centre of Birmingham where I managed to pick them up for practically nothing. I say “bookshop” but it was effectively a second-hand porn emporium (second-hand porn being the worst phrase in the English language, just pipping bus replacement service and physical theatre). I went in with my eyes closed, obviously.
I also found in there an original 1964 Doctor Who Annual for just five pounds! Having never seen one before then even as a poor student I couldn’t hand over my money quick enough. I’d barely got a couple of steps before I was called back, the mistake obviously realised, and the owner pointed to the sign above the counter which informed me that it was “Everything 10% Off Day” and he gave me back 50p change. An original 1964 Annual for just four pounds fifty!
To add more mysticism to the shop I returned there a few years later to find it was a trendy bar called The Slurping Toad, and was told that it always had been. Like Brigadoon the second-hand porn emporium had disappeared back into the Midland haze.
From 1992 until 1997 a total of sixty-one new Doctor Who novels were produced by Virgin Publishing at which point the BBC told them to knock it on the head. Thanks to the final push living in Birmingham in the nineties I managed to collect them all. And now, twenty years on, I’ve just finally finished reading them. To be honest, I’m not sure if it was worth all the effort.
Steve Lyons though, and this can’t be said for all the Virgin writers, has since gone from strength to strength. Sadly he’s not made it to TV yet, but he’s now a mainstay in the science fiction world with the number of novels and audio dramas he’s written and contributed to. The MSLG came to an end (as far as I’m aware) in 1996 when the IRA bombed The Mitre by parking a 3,300 pound bomb outside of it. I know I’ve already alluded on another blog post to the destruction the bomb caused by being parked outside the site where I eventually met Jon Pertwee, but that was WH Smith on the other side of the van, it’s not a catch-all excuse for everything in Manchester.
Checking up on details now I see that The Mitre escaped with minor damage as those buildings around it shielded it from the impact of the blast and were demolished as a result. I do think I took a lot from having known fanzine-producing writer-becoming Steve Lyons as famous people are normally on a pedestal, not people you see in real life. And knowing that normal people can go on and become successful writers surely must have had helping hand, somewhere along the way, in my own decision to quit my job and become a failing writer.
A conclusion to this tale, in 2011, is that after a violin concert in Bolton I went out drinking with “the talent” in Manchester, in something of an after-show party, and my ears picked up when it was suggested that we should move on and go to The Waterhouse pub. I was keen as I’d never been and also remembered, in The Completely Unofficial Encyclopaedia, Steve Lyons proclaim on the subject of a charity eBay auction to win a night out with two other writers, Paul Cornell being one of them: “They’re smashing blokes and everything, but we’re not sure it’s worth the two and a half thousand dollar winning bid”, before adding: “Come into the Waterhouse and you can have an evening with us for the price of a few pints.” And what did we do? We walked through the door and there he was right in front of me, as he returned to his table with a round of drinks for other probable luminaries who I just couldn’t identify. So I’m thinking that either he’s in there all the time, fulfilling a bold claim he made in print in 2006, or he was just in for the very reasonable-looking Thursday curry-night offer.
I didn’t speak to him, but then if I were to remind him I knew him twenty years ago, before he was famous, and that when I was a child he enticed me to a rendezvous in a city centre pub… Well, it does sound a little bit too much like an accusation of the olden day version of internet grooming, doesn’t it.