I’d never been to Ely before. And I didn’t know it really did get its name from eels. A long, long time ago, eels were used there as currency. Whether they were pressed flat and folded up so they’d fit in your wallet, or stuffed live into large drawstring pouches you could hang from your belt, time doesn’t tell…
Ely called, because I’d managed to procure tickets to see the Amazing Incredible Neil Gaiman doing one of his Things at Ely Cathedral. Imagine being really, really – no, really – excited and nervous, then triple it. Then quadrillion it. Five times. Or maybe ten. There, you’ve about got my level of excitement and nervousness. The Thing was in celebration of his latest book, The Ocean at the End of The Lane:
First stop was Toppings Bookshop to collect the tickets; a proper bookshop, a bookshop stuffed with Wonderful Things and smiley friendly staff, as all proper bookshops should be. Whilst browsing in the children’s section, a familiar cover caught my eye, and I had to buy it – look, it’s the Dixie O’Day book, written by Shirley Hughes and illustrated by Clara Vulliamy!
If you don’t follow Clara in Twitter, please go there right now and do so. She’s a fab illustrator and a very jolly tweeter!
So, be-ticketed, we wandered round the corner to the cathedral and saw this:
The queuing had commenced… This was about half past four, so we decided we’d have just enough time to grab a quick pint and some food before joining in, which we duly did.
Ely’s very pretty, and I was struck by its air of tranquility and calm. No-one seemed in a hurry – apart from the Gaiman fans hurrying to join the queue…
We headed back to the cathedral about an hour later, and the queue now stretched along the front of the grounds and round the corner, about half way down the path. Gaimanites were sitting on the grass in the sun reading (mostly copies of Ocean), or standing around chatting, or twiddling with their phones. We joined the queue and did the same, although I read Dixie O’Day (which is great!), stopping occasionally to gently flick tiny spiders off my satchel. Tiny spiders I can deal with – it’s the big ones that make my head implode.
Quite Interesting Fact about that photo of the queue – see that turret in the background? That’s the south west transept, that is. And see that slopey bit in the foreground? That used to be the north west transept, until it fell down in the 15th century. I know that ‘cos after I’d finished reading Dixie O’Day in the queue, I found this excellent article online all about the cathedral – worth a look if you like your history.
Then – oooh! – the queue (which by now had stretched out into infinity and possibly beyond) started moving forward, and suddenly we were in the cathedral, and I was trying not to trip over as I couldn’t help looking everywhere except where I was going – it’s such a beautiful work of art. So massive yet delicate, so grey, but then so surprisingly colourful with painted woodwork and bright stained glass. Yum. Oh, there were wee cups of wine for one and all as we went in, so double yum. We were also issued with a little raffle ticket for the signing afterwards – mine was number 195.
After procuring what turned out to be a smashing seat, we waited for the rest of the 1000 or so folk to make their way in and get settled. Above where Mr Gaiman would be standing soared The Octagon:
That doesn’t do the colours justice – the wordwork is richly decorated in reds, greens, golds and blues. It’s absolutely stunning. And (as nearly-promised by Toppings Bookshop in their email) as I gazed up at it, an occasional bat flitted across. I’m not sure what the difference is between your standard bat and an occasional bat. Actually, I rather like the idea of Occasional Bats. Maybe they’re not bats all the time… hmmmm… Anyway, I hoped they wouldn’t poo on him* while he spoke.
The whole cathedral was all very Unseen-University-esque, and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to hear a faint ‘ook‘ echoing around, or for a peanut shell to drift lazily down from on high. And while I was mulling over those thoughts, a door just to the right of me opened and Mr Gaiman himself came out and disappeared into another room behind us. Except I missed that, because at that exact moment, as well as mulling, I was checking his Twitter feed on my phone, and going “Awwwww!” in my head because he’d just sent some flowers to his wife (the equally Amazing and Incredible Amanda Palmer), who was poorly.
Then he was standing right next to us whilst a nice lady introduced him most delightfully, and (after realising at the last second that he’d forgotten his clip-on microphone, which I thought was a nicely normal thing to do) he took the stage. Or the podium. Or the bit at the front of us all under The Octagon, where the golden-eagle-of-a-lecturn lurked behind him.
And he spoke. He spoke of how his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was born, then he read from it. I’ve seen the odd clip online of him reading from his books, but no video clip in the world really prepares you for actually hearing him read In Real Life. It’s sort of like the completion of a massive circle of wonder… Those words that you’ve read, that came out of his head, that he built into sentences so craftily and perfectly, that read like you’re hearing them – well, suddenly you are hearing them, in his voice, right there in front of you, and they sound just like they sounded in your head when you read them. I’m a huge believer in reading out loud what you write – it’s only then that you find out if things work or not, if they sound right, if they sound real (even if the subject matter couldn’t possibly be real). The three living writers that achieve this art perfectly (in my humble opinion) are Neil Gaiman, John Irving, and Sir Terry Pratchett. That’s not to say that all the other wonderful writers who’s work I’ve read (and haven’t read) don’t achieve this – I think probably everyone’s internal ears (I know what I mean!) are different. I just mean that for me, the words of these three have something extra-special that gets right into my head and speaks to me.
I’ve already read The Ocean at the End of the Lane – I bought a copy from Bookends in Carlisle (another proper bookshop) in July when I had an overnight stop there for work.
It’s so good that it left me feeling as if I had just witnessed something incredible. As if I’d discovered a book that would be looked back on by future generations as one of – or The – absolute all-time best book ever written. It was so familiar, I felt as if it had all happened to me. I’d had one of those ladybird magnets! I remembered those feelings, those childish thoughts! I’d had an ocean at the end of my lane! Well maybe not, but do you know what I mean? Perhaps those of you that have read it will do. There were also many, many bits that made me stop. And re-read, and re-read, and re-read again, just because of the beautiful, complex, simplicity of the writing. There’s one particular bit that for some reason just floored me, and after reading it again and again I had to just sit staring into space for a while to get my breath back. If you have the hardback, turn to page 120. Read from ‘I found a kitten,’ and stop when you’ve read ‘…If you listen.’. I have no idea why that innocent little exchange of dialogue blew my mind so much, but it did.
It’s the best book I’ve ever read. So please read it.
After he’d read, he then answered some questions from the little ‘Ask Neil…’ cards we’d filled in, and answered them most Neilily. Massive flashback when he read out the question ‘What scares you?’ (or it might have been ‘What frightens you?’) and suddenly I was about seven years old and had just got a new game for Christmas called “Tell Me” – look, I found a picture of it:
Remember that?! It was brilliant! It loved it so much that I’d often play it by myself. You span the little metal spinney thing, and it landed on a letter. Then you picked a card, read out the question, and the first person to give an answer beginning with that letter won the card. And the reason I loved that game so much was because for a lot of the questions you could make the answers up – then make up stories in your head around your answers. Although that always worked better when you played it on your own. ‘What frightens you?’ was one of my favourite questions….
Melting eyes, a lisp, reading poetry and prose aloud when you were little, fatbergs… He spoke, we listened, chuckled, and the cathedral loomed around us as the light faded outside, dimming the stained glass and turning the colours in the roof to shades of grey.
Then the cathedral was lit up by the stunning shinyness of the cover of his new book for children, ‘Fortunately, the milk…‘, and he treated us to a reading from it, which was a bit cruel as it isn’t due out over here until September and I want to read it now. Our belly laughs echoed around the cathedral, and I’m pretty sure that the golden-lecturn-eagle cracked a smile at one point.
Look, here’s Neil!
Oh dear, this is turning out very long, sorry. But we’re nearly there, so stay with me.
Neil then took a break, whilst all 1000-or-so of us were organised into groups and given queue times. We were in the first 200, so only had about an hour and a half of waiting – we were out by 10.30pm. Do the math… I heard it was around 2am when he finally finished. You see, he signs and has time for everyone, although apparently this is the last tour he’ll be doing this – my guess is that the muscles in his writing hand must have developed to such an extent that if he doesn’t stop doing it soon, he’ll have to start having all his shirts and jackets specially made with one extra-wide sleeve so he can get his magic-writey-hand in.
He sat before the grand altar, and we filed up past the ornate organ (snigger), me getting more and more nervous, changing my mind about the dedication I wanted him to write, then feeling a little disappointed when we were told that it would be names only, then panicking about whether I’d made the right decision to have my Special Thing personalised and not his book… and the nearer to the front we got, the smaller and younger I got until I was about seven years old and processing up the choir in the tiny village church to sing a solo which never happened because I was so nervous I fainted and was sick all over my choir robe and I came round in the vestry and the vicar was giving me little sips of holy water to revive me because that’s the only water there was and it tasted sweet as if it had sugar dissolved in it.
Thankfully, I didn’t faint, I wasn’t wearing a choir robe, and I wasn’t sick on it. Instead I just went all shy, managed to say ‘Lo,’ in a tiny voice, watch mesmerised as he wrote my name (AND the extra little thing I’d written in my post-it note that the lady had missed and didn’t cross out) with his magic-writey-hand that he writes stuff with, in purple ink, with a proper ink pen, filled from the little bottle of purple ink on the table in front of him. Then I just about managed to squeak ‘Q,’ – and ran away.
What happened?! Must have been The Author Effect – it was practically a repeat of what happened when I met John Irving!
I wanted to thank him for writing the best book in the world, and for writing all those other amazing books, and… and.. and… oh, I just wanted to SAY stuff!
But instead I went all shy, then ran away. Well, walked away in a daze. But in my head I was seven years old and running, sandals slapping on the flagstones of the cathedral floor, running to find my mum and dad who’d be waiting for me at the back, waving my signed goodies to show them proudly, with tears of awe and joy running down my cheeks and (probably) a snotty nose.
Anyway. Despite turning into a Big Silly, I now have two Very Wonderful Things – my copy of The Ocean at the End of The Lane which has a lovely purple signature in it… and my Special Thing…
The Special Thing I eventually plumped for is my latest writing journal. I filled up the last one a few days ago, so bought a new one. Yesterday it had about four pages of the next two Granny Battle chapters in it (in black ink), but nothing yet of my Shed stories (which would be in green ink, if there was anything there).
It also now has this written in the front, in purple ink:
I was very, very sneaky. I got Neil Gaiman to write a little line from one of my stories in the front of my writing journal with his magic writey hand. I haven’t put my Shed stories (there are three) on my blog, but there’s a picture here, and below is a little snippet leading up to the offending line:
Sam struggled to get his arms free and waved them wildly.
‘But where’s it gone? When will it be back? It never disappears at home! How do I get home if it doesn’t come back? I haven’t got any money! Or a passport! And tea’s at six! There’s cake!’ he howled, struggling to squeeze out of Arthur’s trunk.
Arthur looked shocked. He put Sam down and flapped his ears.
‘Cake?’ he asked, ‘Oh dear. Oh no. Oh dear. Ohdearohdearohdear.’ He looked at George, who was picking his teeth with a claw and obviously hadn’t been listening.
‘George?’ called Arthur, ‘George! There’s cake!’ George pricked up his ears and looked round.
‘Cake?’ he asked, ‘What, here?’ He got to his feet and padded over. ‘Where?’
‘Not here,’ said Arthur, ‘Sam’s got to get home for six. There’s cake involved.’
I’ve been a bit stuck with my Shed re-write for various reasons, and as I stood in the queue, that line popped into my head, and I thought… I thought, ‘Maybe, if he writes that in my journal, then every time I open it, I’ll see it. And maybe… maybe seeing it there, written with his magic writey hand, maybe it’ll somehow unstick me…’
Isn’t that silly?!
But it’s working already.
The Shed stories are back in action. There is green ink in my journal.
You see? Neil Gaiman really does have a magic writey hand…
*The bats didn’t poo on him. At least, not that I saw.