Musings on two Things…

4 06 2015

Good morrow, fair readers! Look out, this is a long one – accidentally long, not intentionally long in a vague attempt to make up for not posting for over a year.

Every now and then, my work travels put me in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. In the last couple of weeks this has happened not once, but twice. Cor! There was a certain amount of stress involved, in that my work roster is published a couple of months in advance and is Subject To Change (cue ominous flourishes from the brass section), and that I’d need to do some pretty intensive sucking-up to The Train Gods to make sure I didn’t get delayed on my travels and end up not in the right place at the right time, but I went ahead and bought tickets for Two Things anyway, and much to my hurrahment the shifts in question didn’t change, and The Train Gods were kind.

One shift involved a 3.45am start from London, finishing in Exeter and getting back to a hotel in London about 12 hours later on 28th May.

The other, on 1st June, involved a more sociable 9.15am start in Newcastle, finishing back in Newcastle at 5ish and travelling up to Edinburgh ready for a shift starting at lunchtime the next day

And the Two Things?

An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at Hackney Empire in London on 28th May, and an Amanda Palmer solo gig at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 1st June

So there I was on 28th May, back in my hotel room in Ealing, installing some serious matchsticks into my eyes and consuming large amounts of a caffeine based liquid before heading off to Hackney to meet one of my oldest and bestest of pals at the hostelry opposite Hackney Empire. This was an excellent added bonus – her work schedule is about as random and unpredictable as mine (actually, more so) so we don’t get the chance to get together very often. Just before 6.30pm we headed across the road, waved our tickets at the tickety people, and entered Hackney Empire.

Ooooh, it’s a grand old place! We were seated in the circle, slap bang in the middle, with an excellent view of the stage (and near the loos, which is always handy, because You Never Know). Much of the hour or so before the show started was spent admiring the ornateness of the theatre, wondering if those two big vaguely egg-shaped things high up either side of the stage opened up to reveal anything exciting* (like extra-special privileged seats, or a naked Neil and Amanda dancing to the Tales of the Unexpected theme tune) and realizing that we hadn’t really needed to go in when the doors opened because we had tickets so could have just arrived a few minutes before the show was due to start (my excitement was probably to blame for that). Also – and I can’t remember why now – we discussed heckling, and decided that shouting “Show us your willie!” to Neil Gaiman when he came on stage would be hilariously funny. In our defence, we’ve known each other since school so there’s always a certain amount of silly schoolgirlness involved when we meet up. And neither of us has really grown up properly yet.

Anyway. The lights dimmed, and look – there’s that brilliant writer bloke and his musical wife! The show nearly didn’t go on when an innocent looking comfy chair on stage turned nasty and tried to swallow Amanda whole, but she’s a fighter and managed to escape. And that turned out for the best, as it meant they got to snuggle up together on the chaise longue, which was rather sweet.

The evening consisted of Neil reading stuff, Amanda playing stuff (on piano and ukulele), them nattering, and some special guests popping in to do stuff too. And it rather felt like we were all just hanging out at their house with their friends popping in to say hi every now and then. It was hugely cosy. Mitch Benn popped in to borrow a cup of sugar and sang a song. Roz Kaveney dropped in twice (once by mistake) to return the lawnmower and read a poem. Hayley Campbell turned up to have a root around in the attic and told a story, and Andrew O’Neill blew in on the wind to borrow a pint of (vegan) milk and made us laugh lots. Finally, because Neil and Amanda are such pleasant hosts, they all came back together for a general natter, and did actions whilst Amanda played her Ukulele Anthem (which even their imminent baby got involved in by causing an acid reflux moment). I wonder if the vibrations of the uke resting on the baby set if off? Will it be born holding a teeny uke? Will it pick one up at a year old and delight its parents with renditions of all Amanda’s songs, learned by heart after having been to so many gigs and having the songs vibrate their way into its musical nodes?

It was a delightful and extraordinary evening, based around the theme of “Saying the Unsayable”, which also happened to be the theme of that month’s issue of The New Statesman which Neil and Amanda had guest-edited. So there were some pretty powerful subjects discussed. Neil’s “Credo” was beautiful and right. Amanda’s performance of “Bigger on the Inside” made our eyes leak. Andrew O’Neill’s timing was spot on (neither of us had heard of him before, but we’ll be keeping our eyes open for him now). Hayley Campbell’s story was delightfully dark and amusing. And hey, guess what – you can read them all in that issue of the New Statesman! But not Amanda songs, because no-one’s worked out yet how to print songs in a magazine so you can hear them properly. And oh, how could I forget! Neil sang a delightfully-dark (I’ve used those words before but I’ll use them again because I can because I’m writing this so there) song about googling, accompanied by Amanda, which was funny and sad and he sounded a bit like Leonard Cohen would sound if he was Neil Gaiman. Which was nice.

So that was about the size of it. A lovely evening, and we both managed to catch our last trains home/hotelward, which was a relief. Oh, and the next day I realized the copy of the New Statesman I bought was signed by them both, so that was a nice little added bonus.

And now I’ll move on to the 1st June, and once again the Train Gods smiled on me and I got to Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh by about 7pm, having had just enough time to change out of my orange hi-visibility railway gear and into something a little less ridiculous and, er, orange. Once inside and after finding my seat, I went to say hello to Claire, who I don’t know. But I do. If you see what I mean. Let me explain. When the tickets went on pre-sale, you had to be with a certain mobile phone network to get them. Handily, I was so I got one. Then I noticed a tweet from Claire asking nicely if anyone could help because she wasn’t with that certain mobile phone network and desperately wanted a ticket before all the good seats went. Seeing as the event was based around Amanda’s book, “The Art of Asking”, there was only one thing I could do when I saw someone ask, which was to help. So I bought a ticket for Claire and posted it to her when it arrived. We had a little natter and a hug (she has gorgeous hair, by the way!), then I settled back into my seat

Oh wait – I forgot something! I had no idea really on the size of the venue, and thought that a seat near the middle on row C might not be too bad. It was actually the second row (row A either didn’t exist, or it was an invisible row for magical fairy folk, or Frodos with their rings on) and if I’d been much closer to the stage I’d have been on it. So that was good!

And oh! Suddenly there was a real live Amanda Palmer, just a few feet away, sporting her baby proudly under her frock, standing at the front of the stage, singing “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” a capella, un-miked and lovelyly

Let me just stop the review a moment and tell you a few reasons why I like Amanda Palmer

1. Her voice. It’s low, rough, sweet, imperfect (I mean that in the nicest possible way. I prefer voices that have a bit of roughness – and oddness – to them). I also like the way it quite often breaks – be it because she giggles, or because of the emotion of the song.

2. Her songs. Just go listen.

3. Her performances. She’s cracking live. You kind of have to be there, although you can get an idea from watching the numerous clips on t’internet. But nothing, NOTHING prepares you for actually seeing her live.

4. She says what she thinks. And does what she thinks. Sometimes, probably, without thinking, which is hugely endearing. Yes, this sometimes gets her into bother, but I admire her all the more for that.

4. Her general disheveledness. And her penchant for big boots and long coats.

There’s more, but that’ll do for starters! And back to the gig…

I hadn’t seen her play piano live before until Hackney, and the couple of songs she did there on it blew me away a bit. Foot-stampingly, delicately, poundingly ecstatic and heartbreakingly sad (I’m talking about her piano playing). So it was a proper treat in Edinburgh to have a whole evening of her piano playing (with some ukulele thrown in). Add a number 5 to the above list – her piano playing. Love it

The gig continued (for nearly three hours), during which she made us laugh lots with inter-song banter, cry to some songs, laugh during others, and generally just love her to bits. Janey Godley appeared for a short comedy interlude, and Amanda’s doula and right-hand-tour-person, Whitney Moses, came on stage and sang two songs with her – the hilarious “Pregnant Women Are Smug” (by Garfunkel and Oates) which was hilarious, and Delilah (the Dresden Dolls one, not the Tom Jones one) which was heartbreakingly beautiful and made even better by their voices being perfectly matched.

Just before the gig, Amanda had worked out a piano arrangement for a new song in her repertoire, the fabulous “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson. If you haven’t heard of him (shame on you!), he’s a stunningly brilliant acoustic guitar player and singer/songwriter. He’s won awards for his guitar playing. He’s Proper good. So translating such incredible, intricate guitar playing to piano – and doing it just before your gig – is no mean feat. And it was a stunning arrangement too. Eeeeeh, she’s a clever lass is that Amanda Palmer

Other covers were by Momus (who I’d never heard of), a delicious, bitter-sweet waltz called “I Want You, But I Don’t Need You”, Kimya Dawson’s “All I Could Do”, and in honour of Morrissey (who she’s supporting in the US in July), The Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”.

Not sure if there was a dry eye in the house when she picked up her ukulele and played her achingly sad yet comforting “Bigger On The Inside”, or a chuckle-free face when she closed the evening with the cannily clockwork “Coin Operated Boy”.

For those interested in what else she played, I could pretend that my memory is amazing, or admit that a fellow concert-goer had the presence of mind to make a note of the set list and tweet it after the gig. Thank you @JP2796, whoever you may be! We were also treated to Astronaut, Ampersand, Vegemite, The Bed Song, Map of Tasmania, The Thing About Things, and a couple of readings from her book, “The Art of Asking”, chosen at random by a member of the audience.

Obviously, I bought a t-shirt. And a pen, which I forgot about until I opened my pencil case on the train on the way home and was confronted by a tiny naked Amanda Palmer, which made me giggle

And then I went back to my hotel.

And now, because I couldn’t go to the book signing in Edinburgh the next day as I was working, I’m on a train to Manchester where she’s doing a signing at Waterstones. Haven’t quite worked out yet how she’ll sign my audiobook, but I’m sure she’ll manage – as I said before, she’s a clever lass is that Amanda Palmer.
* They didn’t. Which was a bit of a shame.


A year of books…

1 01 2014

Well hello there 2014!

Last year I tried to keep a record of every book I read, and rather annoyingly the total comes to 99! A fair few were audiobooks or eBooks – I do a lot of travelling by train for work, and they’re handier when packing light.

The list is in vague order of time (but not always) and at the end I’ve picked my favourite previously-unread book from a few sort-of-genres. I don’t do reviews, so don’t expect much blurb…

Oh, and by the way – the little ‘r’ means it’s a re-read.

Right, here we go…

The Impossible Dead – Ian Rankin
Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Ian Rankin
Doors Open – Ian Rankin
Blood Hunt – Ian Rankin
Witch Hunt – Ian Rankin
Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin
Beggars Banquet – Ian Rankin
The Shining – Stephen King r
Consider Phlebas – Iain M Banks r
The Bridge – Iain Banks r
Espedaire Street – Iain Banks r
The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks r
Disolution – CJ Sansom
Close to the Bone – Stuart MacBride
Dark Fire – CJ Sansom
Sleepyhead – Mark Billingham r
Scaredy Cat – Mark Billingham r
Lazybones – Mark Billingham r
The Burning Girl – Mark Billingham r
Lifeless – Mark Billingham r
Buried – Mark Billingham r
Death Message – Mark Billingham r
Bloodline – Mark Billingham r
From The Dead – Mark Billingham r
Good As Dead – Mark Billingham r
The Dying Hours – Mark Billingham
Report For Murder – Val McDermid
Soverign – CJ Sansom
Common Murder – Val McDermid
The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith
A Good Hanging & Other Stories – Ian Rankin
Harvest – Jim Crace
A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki
Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch r
Moon Over Soho – Ben Aaronovitch r
Whispers Under Ground – Ben Aaronovitch r
Broken Homes – Ben Aaronovitch
We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo
American Gods – Neil Gaiman r
Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman r
Watching You – Michael Robotham
The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
Police – Jo Nesbo
The Bat – Jo Nesbo
Laidlaw – William McIlvanney
Doctor Sleep – Stephen King
The Ocean at The End of The Lane – Neil Gaiman
Fortunately The Milk… – Neil Gaiman
Dixie O’Day: In The Fast Lane – Shirley Hughes & Clara Vulliamy
Paddington Races Ahead – Michael Bond
Gangsta Granny – David Walliams
In the Night Kitchen – Maurice Sendak
The Incredible Book Eating Boy – Oliver Jeffers
Penguin – Polly Dunbar
Love Splat – Rob Scotton
The Life of Charlotte Bronte – Elizabeth Gaskell
Captain’s Purr – Madelaune Flloyd
Wuthering Heights (graphic novel) – Siku/Adam Strickson
Stuck – Oliver Jeffers
The Works – Pam Ayres
You Made Me Late Again – Pam Ayres
The Quarry – Iain Banks
The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman
The Falcons Malteser – Anthony Horowitz
Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder – Jo Nesbo
NOS4R2 – Joe Hill
Chu’s Day – Neil Gaiman
The Heart & the Bottle – Oliver Jeffers r
The Complete Verse & Other Nonsense – Edward Lear
More About Boy – Roald Dahl
The Green Ship – Quentin Blake
Iceland’s Bell – Halldor Laxness r
In One Person – John Irving
The Water Method Man – John Irving r
What Would You Do with a Wobble Dee Woo? – Colin West
The Coming of the Kings and Other Plays – Ted Hughes r
Shifty McGifty & Slippery Sam – Tracey Corderoy & Steven Lenton
Oliver & The Seawigs – Philip Reeve & Sarah McIntyre
Noah Barleywater Runs Away – John Boyne
The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party – Alexander McCall Smith
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection – Alexander McCall Smith
Fergus Crane – Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
More Than This – Patrick Ness
A Boy & a Bear in a Boat – Dave Shelton
Yeti and the Bird – Nadia Shireen
Saints of the Shadow Bible – Ian Rankin
Crazy Hair – Neil Gaiman r
The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett r
The Way Back Home – Oliver Jeffers
The Storm Whale – Benji Davies
Cockroaches – Jo Nesbo
The Wire in the Blood – Val McDermid
The Last Temptation – Val McDermid
There Are Cats In This Book – Viviane Schwarz
Beneath The Bleeding – Val McDermid
How to Wash a Woolly Mammoth – Michelle Robinson
The Torment of Others – Val McDermid
The Great Paper Caper – Oliver Jeffers
There’s a Shark in the Bath – Sarah McIntyre

And here are my favourite new reads…

Crime Fiction
Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Ian Rankin
Mr Rankin at his twisty-turny best, and a massive relief!

The Ocean at The End of The Lane – Neil Gaiman
Blew my socks off. Made me cry. And laugh. And frequently made me put it down, stare into space for a few minutes contemplating the Wonderful Words I’d just read, pick it up again and re-read the same Wonderful Words over and over again in awe before carrying on.

The Quarry – Iain Banks
I don’t really need to say anything about this.

Young Fantasy (Well that’s what I’d class it as!)
Fortunately The Milk… – Neil Gaiman
Laughed my pants off! Loudly, snortily, and in a public place. Hilarious from start to finish, beautifully complemented by Chris Riddell’s perfect illustrations, and made even better by hearing it in Mr Gaiman’s voice in my head after listening to him read a bit of it in Ely Cathedral earlier in the year.

Picture Book
There Are Cats In This Book – Viviane Schwarz
I LOVE THIS! It has flappy bits! And cats! And balls of wool to throw at cats! It’s BRILLIANT!

And now to crack on with my 2014 list…

Rhyme and reading…

6 10 2013

What better way to start National Poetry Day than with a watery-themed Crazy Rhymey Challenge on the train to London!

Later, after dumping my bag at my friend’s house, us girls headed back into town to see Pam Ayres at Cadogan Hall with the free tickets I’d won for being shortlisted in the top ten in her recent competition.

We had a slightly tense moment when we got to Sloane Square and tried to find a pub that sold real ale rather than fizzy lager and overpriced cocktails. The clock was ticking, but thankfully we eventually stumbled upon a good old Rose and Crown tucked away in a backstreet. Then we headed for Cadogan Hall.

It’s a lovely old place, quite small and intimate. And our seats were perfect – slap bang in the middle five rows from the front.

I have lovely fond memories of watching Pam Ayres on telly with mum as a youngster and both of us laughing our socks off, so I’m not quite sure how I managed to forget about her for all these years – I found her again fairly recently on Twitter, and must admit that as I rediscovered her work I couldn’t help but wonder if those rhymes of hers I heard when I was wee have had some bearing on the rhymes I’ve penned since I got bigger…

Bang on time the lights dimmed, and out skipped Pam and proceeded to make our bellies and faces ache for a good hour with rhymes old and new, and tales from her memoirs.

Pam’s delightfully energetic on stage, and her delivery – be it a rhyme or a story – is spot on. Perfectly timed pauses, often with that cheeky, dimpley grin slowly spreading across her face, and hilarious actions. On the subject of those pauses, they were often punctuated by chortles of anticipation from the audience, and the faint murmer of folk filling in the next line under their breath.

After a short interval (during which I discovered the lady sitting next to me was the competition winner, and my friend nearly had a heart attack when a wall-mounted telly outside the loos suddenly came on very loudly as she walked past it – in her words, it was a good job she was on her way out the loos, and not in!), out skipped Pam again and made us ache some more. The occassional rhyme brought that other sort of tear to the eye – she’s a cheeky one is Pam, and sometimes drops a delightfully sad one on you.

Seeing her on live on stage is like shuffling into your living room in your favourite pyjamas and slippers, with the lights dimmed and a toasty fire burning merrily in the grate, settling cosily on the sofa, putting your feet up, then laughing so uproarously that you spill your cocoa and nearly choke on your After Eights.

Afterwards, we joined a little queue, picked up a copy of her new book each, and soon were standing in front of her doing the signing thing.

You’ve read here before my previous experiences at signing events, so I won’t go into detail. Now I don’t know if it was the real ale beforehand, or the after effects of all that laughing, but I managed to blurt out, “You were ace!” to which she gave such a lovely reply that my Fear subsided and we had a nice little chat about the competition and my rhyme (which she remembered!).

After my friend had got her books signed and had a natter with Pam about growing up in similar necks of the wood, off we skipped to catch our train home, feeling much lighter than when we’d arrived (despite carrying the extra weight of books) as I think we’d each laughed off a good few pounds during the course of the evening.

But that wasn’t quite the end of National Poetry Day. I had a few lines buzzing around my head as I went to sleep, and they turned into this:

I went to see Pam Ayres last night,
She really was quite ace;
Her rhymes and ramblings made me laugh
‘Til tears rolled down me face

Did I say I saw Pam Ayres?
She really was fantastic;
She spoke of snoring, cows and teeth
And white knicker elastic.

I went to see Pam Ayres last night,
She really was quite ace;
And afterwards I met her
And I told her to her face.

The following day I discovered that The British Library had opened an exhibition of children’s illustrated classics that very morning, so I headed off early and spent a lovely couple of hours soaking it up. Do go if you get the chance, it’s well worth a visit!

Then I had an accident in the gift shop and bought Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the milk… to read on the train home. Unfortunately, the large sandwich I bought at the station nearly resulted in a choking incident on the train as I gaffawed my way through Mr Gaiman’s most excellent story.

All in all I had a most excellent couple of days, full of rhyme and reading. I’m hugely grateful to Pam Ayres and the competition organisers for giving me the opportunity to go and see her perform – I’d highly recommend to anyone to go see her live, you’ll be smiling for days afterwards!

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.

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.

Today so far – in rhyme

4 11 2009

Woken up by dodgy knee

can I walk? We’ll have to see.

Coffee, toast, arthritis pill,

harvest roses in FarmVille.

Job search – yawn – there’s nowt today,

apply for something anyway.

Open Tweetdeck, see what’s new,

on Twitter, FaceBook, MySpace too.

Ooh look at that, well goodness me –

Spaceships playing NEC!

Tidy kitchen, empty bin,

catflap rattles – Oscar’s in.

Has his breakfast, cleans his fur,

sits on laptop with a purr.

Get some coffee, move the cat,

Skype and Bluetooth – let’s try that.

Plug in Bluetooth, wait and see…

dongle doesn’t like handsfree.

Open Word and move the cat

Granny Battle, more on that.

Sometime later time for toast,

check for email and for post.

Back at laptop, move the cat,

he isn’t very pleased with that.

Granny’s coming on quite well

when someone rings the front door bell.

Windowcleaner and his mate

pay him then unlock side gate.

Nightshift partner’s out of bed

coffee on and cut some bread.

Ask him how the evening went,

someone had an accident.

Car’s a write off but he’s fine

phone starts ringing, isn’t mine.

Back to Granny, nothing new,

light a fire and make a brew.

Wonder what to cook for tea

fancy curry, wait and see.

Neil Gaiman tweets a link,

pep talk on how writers think.

Read it through and feel inspired,

back to Granny ‘til I’m tired.