There’s Neil Gaiman involved…

21 08 2013

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.


A lost teddy, a shed, a Sir, and an Irving…

16 08 2010

I’m rather upset.  I’ve had this blog rattling around my head for a while now, but it required a visit to the loft to find a certain element to photograph and include.  So I finally went up there at the weekend, went to the box where said element should have been in… and it wasn’t there.  Random and rather manic searching elsewhere proved fruitless.  So what prompted this search, and what was the item that has mysteriously disappeared out of its box?  Well.  In a battered old Body Shop notebook dating back to the mid-1990s, which contains (amongst other things) the random scribbled ideas for the first Shed story, is the following line:

‘Why did the yellow teddy get left in the shed?’

Are you there yet?  No?  Want another minute or two? Okay…

Now?  Good. Yes, I was looking for the yellow teddy.  It’s rather a sad old yellow teddy. Quite small, and rather… square looking.  It had a squeaker in it.   At some point in my very small life, this yellow teddy went missing.  I must have been very small, too small to remember it going missing.  Or maybe it wasn’t a very well-loved teddy, so its missing-ness wasn’t that important.  Hope not, that’s a terrible thought.

Anyway, when I was a bit bigger, a momentous occasion occured: The Pulling Down of The Shed Day.  This shed was, quite possibly, one of the bestest, most wonderfullest of sheds ever in the entire world.  Ever.  My dad might have built it from scratch.  It had been painted white at some point, but by the time The Pulling Down of The Shed Day came around, it was a bit fadey.  Step One was to get everything out of the shed into the garden, and it was during this mammoth task that the yellow teddy was found.  To be absolutely honest, I’ve no idea if it was mine or my sisters.  But when it was found, I remember feeling extremely sorry for it (having been left amongst the cobwebs down the back of the workbench for so long) and rather sad and guilty – I also remember only vaguely remembering it, and feeling bad about that too.  Actually, now I think about, maybe it wasn’t even ours – maybe it belonged to some friend of ours… oh dear. Sorry.

But it was given a wash by mum (and probably pegged out on the washing line by its ears), and I know I’ve seen it recently.

But where is it?

And why is it important?

Well, it’s just that in the shed stories, the main character has a small yellow bear.  It doesn’t get a lot of attention in the stories, and it has no lines (being a teddy, obviously, which can’t speak.  Unlike elephants.  And lions.  And vultures.  And zebras. Which – obviously – can).  But it’s The Bear!  And I can’t find it!  And it was lost for years once before, and now it’s lost again!

I’m sure you can all feel my pain.  I’m too upset now to carry on, change of subject required…

Sir Terry Pratchett.  Chiswick Book Festival.  If I don’t get tickets there’ll be serious tears.  Please, please cross your fingers for me…  The thought of even possibly being in the same room as Him sends me rather bonkers, let alone the possibility of hearing him speak (or hearing someone speak on his behalf) and even (faint!) getting the latest Tiffany Aching book signed by him… Ooooooh, I can barely type!

I have five major writing heroes.  Two are sadly no longer with us – Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens.  Of the remaining three, I’ve seen ONE in the flesh and it blew me away, and was an indescribable inspiration.  That was John Irving in the mid-1990s, reading from the newly published ‘A Son of the Circus’ in Waterstones in Hampstead, London.  Every John Irving book I’ve read (or re-read – and believe me, I do a lot of re-reading) since has been spoken in his voice – if you get what I mean.  And I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so terrified and nervous as when I was standing in the queue to get my copy signed.  I had in my head a line of his I was going to ask him to write (if I dared), but as I got nearer and nearer his desk, I became aware that every person – with no exception – was asking him to write the same thing.  If you know your Irving, you’ll have guessed what it was…

‘Keep passing the open windows.’

How could it have been anything else?

So I panicked.  ‘My god,’ I thought, ‘This poor man has been sitting here all evening writing the same thing over and over again… he must need a break! I can’t possibly ask him to write that again!’

Then suddenly it was my turn.

I was standing at a desk, looking down at John Irving.  John IrvingJOHN IRVING!!! The guy that wrote Garp, and The Water Method Man, and The Hotel New Hampshire, and OWEN FLIPPIN’ MEANY!!!

The guy that has the power to write things that make me laugh and cry and stay up all night turning page after page after page… even if I’m reading the book for the umpteenth time…  the guy that was the inspiration to me to start trying to write…

The next few seconds went like this:

Mr Irving: Hello, [nice friendly smile] what would you like me to write?


(are you ready for this?)

Me: [in a very small and silly, wobbly voice] To Michelle.

So he did. And I left.

Pathetic, isn’t it?!

But it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and said book is – and always will be – one of my most treasured possessions. Look, here’s the cover sheet:

And in case you’re wondering, the other two living writers on my hero list are Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  If I am lucky enough to get tickets for Sir Terry, goodness knows what a plonker of myself I’ll make if I get the chance to get a book signed… I’m cringing just thinking about it… but it will be so worth it… wow…

Right, enough.

I hate to mention it, but it’s a black-bin Tuesday so I have a little job to do…

ps… the observant amongst you will be thinking ‘Michelle? I thought her name was Rose?’
It’s both.

Erupting shed cats…

24 03 2010

Ooops, been a while.  I know it’s been a while because it was black bin day again last week, and I thought ‘Oooh, haven’t blogged since last black bin day.’  And since I thought that, the blue bin’s been emptied.  Isn’t this interesting?  Can you guess which bin’s going to be emptied next week, boys and girls?

Busy, busy, busy – Shed 3 is done, and it’s now ‘resting’.  Or ‘brewing’.  No, ‘fermenting’, that’s better.  It’s almost time to go through it one last time before sending it on it’s way.  And while it’s been fermenting I’ve been going through 1 and 2, doing a bit of tweaking (and hopefully polishing).  All things Shed-wise seem to be falling into a nice, round place.  Which is good. I think?

Also been doing a bit of drawing – found a neat site called Etsy, and have set up shop selling my stupid pictures of cats.  The shop’s called stupidcats, and it’s also on Twitter, and has a Facebook page. Called stupidcats. For some reason, I can’t put a link in to that. Oh well. Actually, I should rephrase that first bit – I’ve set up shop hoping to sell my stupid pictures of cats.  Best get drawing… I’ve only done two so far, which is a tad feeble.

Three Twitter accounts is getting a bit confusing, even with TweetDeck…

Speaking of stupidcats, ours is.  I think it might be the onset of spring.  He’s having mad half hours, tearing round the house and attaching himself to ankles.  And doing a lot of that ‘weave-in-and-out-of-your-legs-as-your-walking’ thing.

Oooh, this volcano in Iceland’s been quite exciting, hasn’t it?  Brought back memories of watching a Hekla eruption from Heimaey back in… 2000? Was at a christening party at the time, and suddenly someone rushed in, babbled about an eruption, and we all piled into cars and drove down to the harbour to watch.  I think I was expecting to see lava shooting up into the sky (yes, I know, it was miles away, silly!) so was dissapointed for about two seconds until I realised that the clouds stretching all the way across the horizon weren’t normal clouds – they were Proper Volcano Clouds.  Had one of those lift-shaft moments, you know, where your tummy drops a bit?!  And then, to top it off, a huge streak of lightening in the middle of the darkest cloud. Wow. If you really squinted, you could just make out a teeny tiny orangey-red dot on the horizon.  That was lava that was.

Right, enough, I have an appointment with a little bottle of India ink and some crayons.

Crazy hair and sheds…

24 02 2010

Good evening.  As the other half is stuck somewhere between here and Milton Keynes waiting for the AA, I thought I’d pop a little blog.

Er, now what?

Ah yes…

Braving the low shelves and book-bins (book-bins? Is that what they’re called? You know, the bits in your local library that aren’t shelves where all the bigger books for little people are kept…)… lost my thread…

Braving the low shelves and book-bins (see above) in the library yesterday I found a corker: ‘Crazy Hair’ by Neil Gaiman. Had me snorting out loud – bonkers illustrations too, sort of funny and a tiny bit scarey. Actually, I’ve just found a YouTube clip of the man himself reading it – check it out, it’s very funny!

Then I bought some kindling from the hardware store, where I overheard a rather smartly-dressed lady say (rather poshly) to her friend,

‘My shed’s so full of rubbish.  I’m going to convert it into a chicken-house.’

And that was that.

The seed for the next one has been planted, and suddenly the current one is writing itself. Hurrah! Do love the way that you get to a certain point… pause… wait… then suddenly something happens (usually when you’re just beginning to get a bit worried that you’re seriously stuck) and you’re off

Checked Twitter a bit later to find that Neil Gaiman had been giving readings of ‘Crazy Hair’ in schools probably at about the same time I read it in the library – spook…

And now… dinner.

Sadly, cake is not involved. But that’s probably for the best. Had a cheeky cream bun yesterday – don’t tell anyone.