We were relieved to find that our standard double room was as nice as the website had claimed, spacious and tastefully decorated in brown, red and gold. Rarely for a British hotel, the shower and bath were excellent, with plenty of hot water and pressure, and my only complaint is that the bath was a bit narrow! I wallowed happily in it nonetheless and enjoyed using the Sea Kelp miniature toiletries. The room was well-appointed with a really good hairdryer, iron, ironing-board and electric fan, and unlike some hotels I've been to recently, the Falcon actually deserves its four AA stars.
Anyway, we spent Thursday night unpacking and exploring the huge and rather lavish hotel, which we had almost to ourselves (a silver lining to the recession at last!) I don't think I'd ever seen such a large amount and variety of comfy antique chairs in one place! We had a drink in the bar, where exposed beams, huge fireplaces and mullioned windows abounded. There wasn't the greatest ever selection of drinks or nibbles, and I thought the wall-mounted TVs filling the room with miserable BBC news jarred with the olde-worlde charm, but at least the sound wasn't turned up too loud. After that we decided to amble around Stratford (not exactly buzzing on a Thursday night) and after locating the nearest Diet Coke source we stocked up on some provisions and then went back to the hotel. After our drive we were too tired to face the restaurant and elected to have dinner brought to our room. My tuna sandwiches and Duffy's penne pasta were very nice but I must warn you all off the Knickerbocker Glory, which was nothing more than a measly fruit salad thinly disguised by a spoonful of poor-quality vanilla ice-cream. It was in fact an Inglorious Basterd of a dessert, but the comfort of our large bed did a lot to smooth my feathers again and we both had a good night's sleep.
On Friday morning (yes, I did a MORNING) we set out for a more thorough exploration of the town. Stratford town centre was everything I'd expected it to be - an almost excruciatingly pretty huddle of half-timbered houses and rosy old brick, populated by very rich middle-aged people and stuffed with tourist traps of every description. We had a hard time choosing where to eat, but eventually plumped for a scone and panini (which both acquitted themselves reasonably well) in the more humble post-war area behind the Bard shopping centre (a place reminiscent of Exeter's concrete architectural embarrassment Princesshay, which I've always loved.) We didn't visit any of the Shakespeare attractions but we went past Shakespeare's house and I did try to peer through the leaded panes of Shakespeare's sitting-room window. I couldn't see very much though and apparently it's very sparsely furnished. After that we went dress shopping, since I forgot to pack my outfit for that night. There were very few shops catering for anybody under 60 - it's all Jaeger this, Edinburgh Wool Mill that - but we struck lucky in East, where I bought a long-sleeved indigo dress for half its original price!
In the evening we went to the Shakespeare (virtually across the road) where the traditional Friday night FoAM piss-up was just getting started in the bar, with about a dozen Machenites lolling in comfy chairs before a roaring fire (the Shakespeare is even more olde-worlde than the Falcon!) A short while later we all traipsed down to the Avon Spices restaurant for the equally traditional Machenite Curry. I can't really recommend the place - we were very cramped and most people found the food average at best - but my butter chicken and peshwari naan were OK and most importantly we were in very good company. After that everybody staggered to the Windmill, a venerable old pub, to continue drinking. Duffy and I couldn't keep up with the hardcore drinkers though and ducked out after just one drink!
The next day it was time for the AGM. Duffy hustled me out of bed to eat a satisfying fry-up at the generically-named Deli Cafe before hurrying to the Shakespeare's Cabinet room for the AGM. As usual the businessy bit was dealt with fairly quickly, and after that Geoffrey Brangan gave the customary post-AGM talk. This year it had nothing to do with Machen and was actually about criminology (one of Geoffrey's other interests) and the effect of subjectivity on the process of law, with a bit of Beatles trivia thrown in. That sounds a bit dry, and I would obviously have preferred a supernaturally-themed talk, but it wasn't too bad. This was followed by the book auction, which is always conducted by Ray Russell to raise money for the drinks at that night's celebratory dinner. This time Ray only auctioned a few of the rarer books himself, and the rest was done by silent auction. I bagged lots of books, including the 8th Black Book of Horror, Terror Tales of the Lake District by Paul Finch (which I'd been wanting to buy anyway), and a bundle of 90s horror magazines like Dark Horizon. All for a measly £7.50!
After that we went back to the Falcon to rest for a couple of hours, and then returned to the Cabinet Room for the dinner. The first two courses were mediocre, and I suspect that my crayfish and cucumber entree gave me a touch of food poisoning, but I did enjoy the bread-and-butter pudding, and was able to bend the ear of a fine assembly of Machen luminaries such as Sarban biographer Mark Valentine and scholar Sara Inkster! After dinner librarian gothique extraordinaire Gwilym Games, John Lwellwyn Probert and co entertained us all with readings of short Machen essays and the first chapter of The Great God Pan - not my favourite of Machen's stories, but you can't have everything I suppose. Some of the FoAM meet-ups have been pretty bachanalian in the past, but that evening was relatively sedate. A few people straggled on to a pub but most of us just sat around chatting about ghost stories and looking at scrap-books in the lounge, which suited me down to the ground as I am not a very bacchanalian person these days.
On Sunday we had to check out at the revolting hour of eleven o'clock, and we were both sad to leave. As Stuart Lee pointed out in his Arthur Machen essay, the Friends are a friendly lot and this time around we got talking to some people I hadn't had the chance to speak with at the Usk meet. There was one notable absence, secretary Mark Samuels, but we did get his friend Quentin S. Crisp instead, which was a very fair trade. Although neither I nor Duffy were hardcore Machen scholars no-one noticeably looked down on us or tried to make us feel stupid, which I'm told is actually quite unusual at literary conventions.
Anyway I am off to catch up on my sleep now, with possibly a short interlude of gloating over my latest acquisitions!