1500 people attended the first ever Subaquatic Steampunk weekend in Gosport an event that looks set to get bigger every year. Helen Salsbury was invited to perform a subaquatic tale at this event as a member of Portsmouth Writers’ Hub and many other Portsmouth writers performed too. In this behind the scenes exclusive, Helen tells S&C how it went.
There’s something special about arriving at an event as one of the performers. You arrive early, over wet tarmac to catch it just putting on its greasepaint. You see the event organiser directing cars with a high vis jacket over his Victorian shirt. You see people donning top hats, holstering steampunk guns, and sauntering towards the marquees and stalls and stage. You see the Submarine Museum near the water, just waiting for the steam-curious and steampunk alike to view its many marvels, where you might also view the Victorian submarine (Holland 1), recall childhood readings of Jules Verne’s 2,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and conceive of alternative versions of reality where the world is still powered by steam.
But all that was for the future. Let’s go back to where my journey began.
Recruited to perform thanks to a subaquatic story I’d written for the Octomorphosis anthology, I only had a hazy idea of what steampunk was when I arrived. I knew just about enough to borrow a Victorian hat accessorised with goggles and lace and a pocketwatch on a chain from a friend, and to root out a couple of rather eccentric clothing purchases from the back of my wardrobe. I was in effect a steampunk virgin, left pondering whether there might in fact be an outfit for that too.
I found my fellow performers in the gin and beer tent, where Charlotte Comley was having one temple and cheek decorated with purples and blues and a medley of gearwheels, and Will Sutton was setting up the microphone and speakers. There was time to pose beside a poster of a steam engine, and to admire not just the Steampunk Nerf Shooting Challenge but also the huge ingenuity of the customised guns and other accessories sported by the early morning steampunks.
And then it was time.
I have great admiration for opening acts. While Victor and the Bully sound-checked on the music stage, Charlotte Comley proved what a born performer she was, ad libbing a rather grisly Victorian tale involving a hand of glory (don’t ask!) and a band of murderous felons with great dramatic verve. We were away. Nick Morrish followed this with a tempting speculation for would-be investors – a mechanical project to float the Isle of Wight. Then Victor and the Bully struck up on the music stage, ad-libbing lyrics about the rain and delivering a rousing set which had many of us dancing in the rain, a wonderful blend of steampunk, swing, mariachi and other influences, which resulted in stomping beats, cheerfully bad taste lyrics and a theatrical, carnival vibe.
And that’s when I got it. Steampunk is fun. It’s ingenious, insouciant, thrilling, playful and joyous. Everyone was there to enjoy themselves – dancers with hair coloured in blue, green, yellow, red and purple, nautically themed steampunks and those accessorised with kraken tentacles or a mechanical parrot or even fully encased in mechanical costumes.
So what is steampunk? And why is it so infectious?
The steam-curious could do well to consult the wonderfully informative Subaquatic Steampunk Weekend website, where I learned that steampunk is a branching off of the Victorian age, or wild west, strongly influenced by science fiction writers from that era, such as Jules Verne and HG Wells. It’s a ‘Re-imagining of the future as if things were still run on steam.’
So that explains the steam goggles! Also the gear wheels, the ‘retro-futuristic’ guns, and such wonderful items of Victorian garb as the top hat, monocle and corset (a little hard to breathe in if you keep it authentic, apparently).
Thanks to Will’s pied piper style accordion, and the ever-growing crowds, the lunchtime and afternoon Writers’ Hub performances saw a larger audience for Orpheous & the Spice Island Nymph (which you can read for yourself here on S&C this Friday). The story was performed in a variety of accents by Will Sutton, the Victorian crime writer whose flamboyant novels and personality seem tailor made for the steampunk audience. Next up was my own story of mysterious lights in a watery world, inspired by the work of unrealist painter Jon Everitt. The audience was abandoned rather abruptly by their subaquatic mermaid guide (Tessa Ditner) when she discovered that mermaid was listed on the lunch menu and did a runner.
Thanks to HG Wells and his creation the Victorian time traveller, the scope for steampunk invention and ingenuity widens even further. Which is why, after our performances, Will Sutton and I repaired to the Velvet Buccaneer, a pirate ship vendor of raunchily titled cocktails and gin, where we were served by a couple of fire performers from Hellrazerfire, one of whom had flaming red hair, perhaps to match their act. I ordered the homemade raspberry gin, and was touched to be given a quick lesson in how to make it at home. Will had a ‘Kiss from the Madame of the House’, an exquisite cocktail of mint-infused Cachaca, Raspberry and Citrus.
The music acts continued with varied and hugely enjoyable performances by Captain of the Lost Waves (wonderful voice and audience interaction), Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer (funny, quirky, subversive) and Alice’s Night Circus (Florence and the Machine meets Kate Bush) all compered with great verve by Matt Wingett, writer, performer and Holmes Fest organiser, a man who started the day in a greatcoat so heavy that any sailor wearing it and falling overboard would be one more subaquatic adventurer (or food for the fishes, for the less romantically inclined). The main stage concluded the day with a steampunk fashion show and the results of the Make a Kraken in 80 days challenge.
It wasn’t just steampunks who had a great time. I heard from a family who’d wandered into the weekend by chance, and were thrilled and delighted by the costumes and other events. Mark Winterford, the event organiser, told me the organisers of The Asylum Steampunk festival in Lincoln (the world’s biggest steampunk event) had been very helpful and the Gosport Steampunk Society (GSS) has provided valuable assistance both in advance and on the day, running the Tea Duelling and Nerf Shooting challenge. Other events included talks, workshops, a steampunk market and steampunk artwork. With cafes, a micro-brewery beer tent and other vendor stalls, there was plenty to choose from.
Sunday saw more great music and Writers’ Hub steampunk tales, including Leviathan, a submarine-in-peril story stolen from Jules Verne’s waste paper basket, no doubt using HG Wells’ time machine; a lady scientist who takes Mr Darwin on a trip in her submarine to demonstrate her evidence of the theory of evolution; a woman’s steamy love affair with a steampunk, with somewhat unfortunate consequences; and a state inquiry which causes a man to end up in a doctor’s waiting room fishtank.
The majority of the Writers’ Hub stories were crafted specifically for this event, so a subculture which was inspired by science fiction writers has now inspired a new collection of fiction. How delightfully circular. And I have begun to understand the other great tenet of steampunk, which can be applied to the costumes, the stories, and the music: ‘If you feel like you’re doing it – then you’re doing it right,’ a wonderfully inclusive encouragement to unleash your own creative genius.
As a writer, that message particularly appeals to me. The creativity, imagination and ingenuity which goes into setting up a weekend like this; into creating the stories behind the outfits and the outfits themselves; and into the adventurous performances makes me feel right at home. And it means the answer to my question about whether there’s a steampunk virgin outfit is that there is, just as soon as I get round to imagining and creating it.
With plans already taking shape to make next year’s event even bigger – including the possibility of a main stage, acoustic stage and even more street performers, including a steampunk magician – I for one will be putting this in my diary just as soon as the date is announced.
If you want to find out more about Steampunk:
What is steampunk? from the Subaquatic Steampunk Weekend website
That’s Solent TV feature on the Subaquatic Steampunk Weekend
Find out more and join the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub on Facebook