Guest blog by Nils Visser
Get your favourite poison out, we’s gonna have a toast at the end.
A few years ago (in ye olde merry pre-Covid days), Cair and I received an invitation from Tom and Nimue Brown to participate in the book market they were hosting at the famous Lincoln Asylum Steampunk festival. They’d read some of my stuff and liked it. As traders we were starters. The handful of previous events we had attended had all been small local affairs. We had no idea what to expect from the Asylum. Cair and I rolled into Lincoln as green as Spring’s first shoots. To say the event was an eye-opener is an understatement to be sure.
As to Asylum itself, the sheer scale of the event, not to mention the fantastic setting, was overwhelming and breathtaking. The impressions we took back home after our four-day immersion into a magical wonderland are too many to fit into the scope of a brief blog. Suffice to say, I’d definitely recommend the experience.
What we also took home was a great deal of respect for the Browns. We were already in awe of their writing and illustrating skills. Unapologetic fans of their Hopeless, Maine graphic novels before we met them in real life, we discovered that the human beings behind the art are even more impressive.
Upon arrival (in a chaotic panic as the sheer scale of the event was rapidly becoming clear to us – Steampunks everywhere in Lincoln!), we were heartily welcomed and received warm introductions to the other participants in the Assembly Rooms. Over the course of the next few days it became clear that this wasn’t a random collection of traders and exhibitors – but a proper community.
Folk willingly helped each other out, minding stalls, offering encouragement, sharing treats, and showing interest in what others were up to. The volume of the exchange of ideas, visions, and dreams conjured up a perceptible creative buzz in the air. I’m socially awkward, far more eloquent on paper than in situations which involve actually talking to people, but will emerge from my shell to recharge creative batteries in the company of folk who dare to dream.
The year after, we were invited to the Steampunk festival in Stroud, Gloucester. We greeted familiar faces from Lincoln, but also met other members of the community the Browns have built around their vision of Hopeless, Maine. Once again hearty introductions were made. That included Professor Elemental, who, half-a-year later at the annual Hastings extravaganza, remembered me instantly even though we had only spoken briefly at Stroud.
During his gig in Stroud, the Prof crowned Cair as Queen of Stroud and she fulfilled her duties most regally, it must be said, looking the part in her lacy black ball gown. There was a certain reluctance to hand back the crown at the end of the night. To this day, if I try to remind Her Majesty that the Prof said it was just for the night, she’ll stick her fingers in her ears and sing “La-la-la, not listening you simple peasant.”
Although there were many highlights for the Browns during that truly fantastic event, I suspect a main one imprinted on their memories was the improvisation made to Professor Elemental’s Chap-Hop hit Cup of Brown Joy.
Mayhap I project, as I for one can still vividly hear the crowd in the Subscription Rooms roaring back at the Prof’s request. “I say Hopeless, you say…” “MAINE!” Stuck in the memory is also an image of Tom and Nimue, surrounded by the warmth of family and friends on their home turf, roaring along – dancing together somewhere far over the moon.
With all of that in mind, I’m absolutely delighted that the webpage The Hopeless Vendetta, digital epicentre of the Hopeless crowd, is to feature a novelette-length tale I wrote set in Tom and Nimue’s Hopeless, Maine. The story is called Diswelcome. It possibly has some familiar faces. Warning: May contain tentacles.
Writing it was an opportunity to express my gratitude for Tom and Nimue’s incredible hospitality in Lincoln and Stroud.
The story interweaves two worlds in a manner that respects both the fickle and capricious habitat offered by Hopeless (Maine) and my own Smugglepunk verse in Sussex. Tom has done a fantastic illustration of what might have become of the main character (based on my humble self), provided Ned managed to avoid getting eaten by the local flora and fauna. That illustration is to appear in a future Hopeless, Maine graphic novel, which is a marvellous and tantalizing link to Diswelcome.
The story and experience taught me that it was possible to link different creative worlds and art forms together, vital skills for Smugglepunk, as it turned out.
‘Smugglepunk’ started as a joke, in an amusing online convo on a Steampunk fb page regarding the voracious growth of sub-SP genres. I was almost tempted to indulge in a suggested Viking-Punk themed story, when it occurred to me that I was always explaining my story genre as being Steampunk with a bit of a difference, so I might as well invent a specific sub-genre for it as a laugh. Hence Smugglepunk, which was immediately confused for Snugglepunk, which I thought hilarious and brilliant. Snuggling sells, they say and I’ll stoop to any low to sell a handful of books.
When I first met Tom and Nimue there wasn’t much to this brave new world as of yet. Just a Steampunk novel, dropping hints as to a smuggling background history for the main character, and two short stories that had appeared in Writerpunk Press Anthologies, a recognition of which I was and continue to be mightily proud.
Smugglepunk is set in an alternative version of Sussex, in which old South East coastal smuggling lore is fused with Steampunk technology and culture.
Tom and Nimue encouraged me to pursue the ‘genre’ and explore every nook-and-cranny of this ‘Visserverse’, as someone has kindly named it. Short stories for Anthologies and two novelettes followed, and I’m currently scribbling away at a novel, the first part of which has been shared online on my website for free as Lockdown treat. As that part of the world kept growing, I contemplated other means of establishing Smugglepunk as a semi-serious genre. Before long I asked myself: What would the Browns do?
The answer was simple, they would certainly not circle the wagons whilst keening “my precious”, but share the magic of creation and invite others to partake in the sheer joy of it. So I set out, in my own clumsy way, to emulate their example.
From a one-man-show, Smugglepunk has grown thanks to the input of a great many splendid people, some from the Brown’s tribe, others new faces, or friends of old. Photographers, radio-phonic broadcasters, fellow authors, illustrators, songwriters, musicians, editors of various Anthologies, reviewers, mad inventors, Steampunk Bikers, Hastings and Eastbourne Pyrates, West Sussex Steampunks, museums, and old smuggling inns have all hopped on board.
Highlights were: a pre-Lockdown photo shoot by Corin Spinks in the old smuggler’s town of Rye; hearing Felix Clement sing a song based on a poem of mine; receiving splendid contributions for SCADDLES (the first Smugglepunk anthology); hearing Daren Callow of Tales of New Albion read chapter after chapter of Fair Night for Foul Folk (the Lockdown freebie novel) on the British Steampunk Broadcasting Co-operation; Julie Gorringe’s dunnamany Smugglepunk illustrations; and working with Professor Elemental on a new song of his called Elemental Smugglepunk.
It’s worked like a charm I reckon, a bit of the Hopeless magic in Sussex. Tom and Nimue were there every step of the way, commending the mostly impulsive mad-cap ideas I shared with them. None of these new connections or old connections rekindled would have happened without their example and mentorship.
Of course, this year has seen most of this collaboration take place online, at an awkward distance that gives a sense of connection but is still a poor imitation of real human interaction.
I’m positively certain I’m not the only one who misses those splendid moments of real and genuine contact at Convivials and Festivals. I can’t wait for the moment that I can thank the Browns in person, for believing in me when few did and all the wonderful things that have flourished since. It’s my understanding I’m not the only one whose life has been touched by these two wonderful people, always willing to give and modestly reluctant to take. I’d like to impress upon them how they have enriched the life of others around them in an exemplary manner, and how much Human meaning this has in a world that seems at times to be on a downward trajectory with regard to patience, tolerance, understanding, and empathy.
Hopefully these current dark nights reflect the rock-bottom of this crisis. Vaccination programmes take time to implement. It’s still unclear when we can all meet up again, but there’s a new hope born from the knowledge that we will all meet up again, this thing isn’t going to last forever. Until then…
…raise your glass please, and join me in a toast to absent friends.