I’m back from the Lincoln steampunk festival, Asylum, so named because it started off in a building built for the insane, and I had a revelation there.
I first came across steampunk at SF conventions and it seemed like fun, a fashion that might last a couple of years, nothing more. Co-incidentally, I started writing an adventure series set in Victorian times, which featured some genre elements, and realised that The Derring-Do Club was steampunk.
However, it’s the cultural side that I want to talk about here and I think it’s why the subgenre isn’t a mere fad and has gained longevity.
The literature strand at Asylum was in a school hall and the playground was a food court. There were burger bars, vegetarian dishes and a double decker bus, a proper red routemaster, serving proper ales with a gin bar on the top deck. I walked in when some Morris dancers were doing a show to the gentlemen and ladies in their finery, and it struck me, quite forcibly, that I was surrounded by Britishness.
Of course, I was: it was a steampunk festival.
It was an all-inclusive, welcoming crowd bringing to the fore Morris dancing, politeness, tea drinking, industrial heritage, invention, eccentricity and a pride in – yes – the Empire. (The British Empire spanned the globe, the sun never set, etc, and it did bring civilisation to the colonies along with a global Pax Britannica. OK, OK, we mustn’t forget the atrocities and stupidities, I don’t wish to white wash history, but ours was the only empire where the subjugated nations, having gained independence, joined a club, so we could all get together to reminisce and play cricket. That’s something of which one ought to be proud.)
Steampunk is a mechanism to celebrate British culture that’s a million miles away from that nonsense on the nationalistic far right, EDL, BNP tabloid reading moronic gibberish. Englishness is inclusion, not exclusion; Englishness is politeness, not raised fists and shouting; Englishness is eccentricity and individuality, not identikit skinheads; Englishness is about appreciating other cultures (Balti anyone?), not forcing tea on anyone.
For example, there was a talk about etiquette that included how to shake hands. Men and women should present their hands differently: males with the usual start, but women ought to present the backs of their hands as if to initiate a hand kiss, though it becomes a handshake. It sounds quaint, old-fashioned, perhaps sexist, but the talk went on to say that transgender people can use this to easily indicate whether they wish to identify as male or female. That’s extraordinary when you think about it. Such diversity included and celebrated by the recreation of staid, repressive Victorian values – bizarre.
But it makes sense. The Victorians for all their faults were trying: the abolition of slavery, suffrage, rights, education, etc, etc, in a stumbling fashion, perhaps, but they went in the right direction nonetheless.
Steampunk is British pride done properly. Long live the Queen.