Quilts, weddings, Star Trek…oncology? Tom Rowley spent four months at Britain’s biggest convention centre. Here’s what he learnt
At first, they hesitate. “Is it a meditation?” one woman asks. Curiosity piqued, they trickle in, 25 of them easing onto brightly-coloured cushions. There they sit, inside a bell tent, inside a cavernous hall, inside an exhibition centre: in the belly of the Russian doll. A bearded Swiss man in a purple golf jumper sits cross-legged at the front. People close their eyes as he begins to rub a golden bowl, making a low whirring sound. For a moment, all is calm. Then someone noisily unwraps a cough sweet. Outside, a woman with a thick Brummie accent finds a quiet spot to take a phone call. “It’s actually my birthday today,” she confides down the line, and to everyone inside the tent. “I’m at the Mind Body Spirit Festival.” At the National Exhibition Centre (the NEC), it’s never quiet for long.
In one form or another, expos have pulled in the crowds for centuries. Paris hosted one of the first grand exhibitions in 1798. Half a century later, six million visitors trooped through the “Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” in London’s Hyde Park, browsing cotton from the South Atlantic island of St Helena, sugar from Mauritius and fossils from Alabama. At this showcase for the world, Britain showed off its inventive genius.
Today the world is full of convention centres, and the NEC is Britain’s biggest – though it has little of the glamour of 1851’s Great Exhibition, with its cast-iron and glass “crystal palace”. The NEC’s architecture owes more to a regional airport or a leisure centre from the 1970s. Its tatty toilets and broken moving walkways betray its council-run heritage. As in a Las Vegas casino, there is little natural light, making it difficult to discern the time of day or even the season.
Not that most visitors seem to care. Each year 2.4m of them and 39,000 exhibitors fill its 18 hangar-like halls, which occupy the space of about 26 football pitches. Most come for just one show a year, making a beeline for their relevant hall. To them, the NEC means only the Festival of Quilts, Crufts – where 20,000 dogs vie for various trophies – or Insomnia, which draws thousands of computer games addicts to pitch up in one of the halls, amid the overwhelming whiff of sweat. Soon, all are engrossed in the latest merchandise. A tiny pack of detergent to fit inside a doll’s house, £1.50. The UK’s first “intimate lubricant” made with cannabis oil. Or perhaps Exodus, a coach with a coffin-loading bay, for a smooth ride to the underworld.
One drizzly day in August last year, at the start of the four month stint I spent here, off and on, I spotted a middle-aged mother sitting outside one of the halls, playing solitaire on her tablet. Somewhere inside, her 16-year-old son is among the masses at “Magic: The Gathering”, a card-game convention. “I’ve tried it,” she insists. “Too complicated.” She plans to spend the three days sitting here. Still, she isn’t bored, casting her eyes towards the throngs bustling into each hall, like worshippers called to prayer. “It’s great people-watching.”
Over the next 15 shows I attend, she is proved right. I notice how each human tribe has their own pen, like a self-categorised zoo. The first tribe are the company reps, easily distinguished by their suits and lanyards. They gawp at your badge as you pass their stands, trying to reel in a big fish. When there’s nobody passing they perch on stools, tapping away at their laptops or eating sandwiches. They go to impressive, sometimes desperate lengths to pull you in. At the Contamination Expo, a show for people who earn their keep clearing up hazardous waste, reps from an asbestos-removal firm offer visitors a round on their miniature putting green. At Vaper Expo UK, twentysomething women in lab coats – presumably designed to lend an air of medical respectability – and tight red dresses chivvy male punters onto stands to try vape pens, mostly sold by men in suits. “Sex sells,” says one, with no apparent qualms.
The NEC was built for this first tribe. When it opened in 1976, the inaugural show was Spring Fair, a vast trade fair for the owners of gifts and interiors shops. Birmingham City Council, which ran the NEC for its first four decades, tried to emulate similar convention centres around the world, stressing the need for Britain to compete “with our continental neighbours”. An early exhibition showed off a new Austin Metro, “a British car to beat the world”. (It didn’t.) Spring Fair is still the biggest show – taking up every hall for five days each February – but the NEC is no longer solely a stomping ground for reps. They now share the territory with members of the public, who come to the growing number of consumer shows, which are open to all rather than restricted to particular professions.
This shift becomes clear one weekend in September, when the second tribe pootles into view: the tinkerers. They come in droves to the Toy Fair, where the trade shows’ spotlights and fresh-smelling carpets are replaced by bare floors and trestle tables. The scent of tobacco pervades. That does not bother these (mostly) grey-haired men. They are too busy ogling dusty model trains or bartering over old teddy bears. For a glorified car-boot sale, it is an incongruous venue.
Many are collectors, and know exactly what they want to buy. A 20-year-old who works as a green-keeper at a golf club heads straight for a model-vehicle stand – his hobby is to identify as many different lorries on the roads of Britain owned by Eddie Stobart, a logistics company. He has never met another “spotter” but is in his element chatting to the stallholder, whose table is home to dozens of miniature Stobart lorries. He buys one for £15, to add to the 170 or so he keeps in a box in the attic. Once every year, he gets them all down from the attic and builds a depot for them from Lego bricks.
Most of the tinkerers are older. One of the stallholders at the Toy Show is a 72-year-old woman who used to buy and sell dolls. These days, she mostly sells them. “There’s nowhere for them to go. [My grandsons] aren’t interested in dolls and my daughter doesn’t even like dolls, she thinks they’re weird.” But she will never sell the doll her parents bought her for Christmas in 1953, named Elizabeth after the newly-crowned Queen. “I love her because she was my childhood doll. She’s not perfect like these,” she says, gesturing to her stand. But, she adds, “to a lot of doll collectors that’s what it is, the emotional connection”.
The NEC’s catering staff can tell which tribes are there each day by the food they order. The tinkerers, who also come to the Festival of Quilts and Miniatura (a fair of tiny furniture for dolls houses), like British staples. “It’s all fish and chips, tea and bread and butter,” one of the caterers gossips. “They’ve come for the full day and round about 4.30 they tend to get very angry, upset. It’s almost like they haven’t had a nap yet.” At Miniatura, some are unconvinced by the healthy Middle Eastern menu. “Chargrilled skewers!” exclaims one grey-haired woman, turning to her husband with a grimace. A few minutes later, an elderly couple walk into the cafe with their granddaughter and examine the menu. “But I want something with chips!” she demands. (At the National Wedding Show, there is a long queue for vegan food.)
A third tribe – the achievers – come to claim prizes, or to learn from and celebrate the winners. At Cake International, amateur bakers line up their ever more elaborate creations to be judged in various categories. Some resemble bouquets of flowers; another, a roast dinner with all the trimmings. A Turkish baker shows off a life-sized depiction of Villanelle, the psychopathic killer in the television drama “Killing Eve”, rendered in chocolate and cream sponge.
October brings the Horse of the Year show, with its sea of tweed and stench of manure. One family orders champagne from the bar to celebrate their teenage daughter, who has just won her first rosette. The majority of attendees are not competing, and they come to venerate – and perhaps emulate – the excellence of others. Each set has its own pin-ups and heroes, unknown to outsiders but worshipped within the ranks of the faithful.
Everybody at this show has heard of Jeff and Alison Osborne, the king and queen of scurry driving, a hair-raising sport in which riders on carriages compete to be the fastest to manoeuvre their horses around a series of obstacles, like a 19th-century ski-slalom. A race-track is set up in an arena adjoining one of the halls. Mr Osborne, 83, has been coming here for 30 years. His company sponsors the event. “It’s Jeff Osborne with the Osborne Refrigerators Dollar and Dime!” yells the plummy-voiced commentator. A few minutes later, as a rival strains to beat the Osbornes, he booms: “The man from Hemel Hempstead is doing all he can!”
A fourth tribe has no such ambitions. For them, a day at a show is an end in itself. One of these experience-seekers lolls on an inflatable chair at the Hemp and CBD Expo. She is in no rush to tour the rest of the hall; soaking it all up is the point. “I’ve gone for the African Green Goddess look,” she explains, of her dress. “Yesterday was my Indian Green Goddess look. I always try to dress in honour of the plants. Beautiful plants.” In the tent at the Mind, Body, Spirit Festival, a 36-year-old woman is trying ‘sound healing’ – which our instructor claims it is good for the back as well as the soul – for the first time. She brought along a friend. “We met at a vegan festival.”
In theory, the National Wedding Show is a mercantile affair. Stalls tempt couples to choose their venue (“Say I do in Malta”), book a band or even buy a wedding dress (here, at the NEC!). Spend five minutes in the hall, though, and it becomes clear that it is really another hen party. Women outnumber men five to one; most brides-to-be bring along either a posse of friends or their mother. In a few cases, granny comes too. The cost of a glass of champagne – £8.50 – does not prevent a large queue forming at the bar; a posse of women start to dance as a wedding band strikes up “Walking on Sunshine”. At a fashion show, they cradle their chins in concentration as models show off various dresses. The only man in the front row nods vigorously, mouth agape, as a woman appears in a particularly sparkly number. With his eyebrows, he asks his fiancee if this is the one.
Like the experience-seekers, members of the final tribe view the event as an end in itself. But the intensity of their obsessions – and their geekiness – sets them apart. They are the fans. At “Magic: The Gathering”, one student, from Argyle in Scotland, spent £1,000 to come for the weekend. Some queue up for autographs from the illustrators who designed the cards, at £2 a pop. At the Destination Star Trek convention, autographs fetch much more. “He’s become a god overnight,” confides one fan of Anson Mount, an actor who only appeared in a few episodes but is charging £45 for each signature. “I think he does it for the women, you know. He definitely has the attraction factor.”
The fans wear common uniforms to express their shared status as insiders, ranged against a bemused, or even unkind, world. At Magic, several have proudly geeky t-shirts. “Nerd?” queries one. “I prefer the term ‘intellectual badass’.” At Star Trek, an Austrian woman wears a scarlet costume from the series. She came “to talk to people who can understand you – not the other people, the normal people”.
Some forge lasting friendships. A gang of 30 or so Trekkies from Ireland regularly fly to conventions together, handing out brooches in the shape of the show’s famous delta symbol, with added Irish harp. “We’re a family,” says one. “I had a bit of a meltdown on the plane and they were all very good.”
All of the tribes – reps, tinkerers, achievers, experience-seekers, fans – could replicate much of what the NEC offers them online. Yet still they make their pilgrimages to this soulful, soulless place, this mecca in concrete and linoleum. People have a hard time explaining why. “Why not?” some ask, defensively. “It’s 100% experiential,” says an NEC saleswoman, bafflingly. One of the Irish Trekkies – who works for DHL, a logistics firm, but is wearing a home-altered costume for the convention – puts it best. “If you follow Manchester United and go to Old Trafford, you get immersed in the whole atmosphere of it. For me, going to a convention is similar. You meet like-minded people, make new friends and just enjoy your fandom.” Whatever the event, however niche, a minority becomes the majority, for a day or two.
On my last visit, in November, the place settles into its now-familiar routines. Experience-seeking toddlers scurry towards Brick Live, a giant collection of Lego sculptures; an army of elderly tinkerers in sensible shoes and anoraks in seasonal reds and oranges advance towards a craft fair. And the moving walkway? Broken, of course. But I was no longer distracted by the scale of the place or the quirky variety of its merchandise. After tens of thousands of steps and more than a few puzzled glances from cloakroom attendants, baffled by my insistence that I was here for both the Toy Fair and the CBD Show today, I had realised that the most interesting exhibits are the people. One doughty grey-haired woman in a woollen jumper leads her tribe down the broken walkway, her walking stick pointing the way. Time is getting on, and there’s always a show to go to.
PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER BETHELL
BY: Tom Rowley is Britain correspondent at The Economist
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