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.



14 10 2013

Good evening!

So. About them there crackleberries then…

As usual, if you want to catch up with Granny Battle from the beginning, or just jump in somewhere in the middle, Chapters 1 to 15 can be found here.

Chapter 15

There was a loud rattle, and the door was flung open, making Ellis jump. The tiny owl struggled in with a large tray containing a teapot in a jolly knitted cosy with a train pattern on it, three mugs, milk jug, sugar bowl, spoons, and a biscuit barrel. They all watched, holding their breath, as he carefully hopped up a little stepladder by the desk and put down the tray carefully. Then he hopped back down the ladder, bowed politely and scurried out, closing the door quietly behind him. Ellis wondered how he’d managed to open the door with his wings full, but didn’t like to ask.

Mr Fishplate poured, milked, sugared, and handed round the mugs. Then he cleared his throat, turned his head to one side and stared hard at Ellis, who fidgeted uncomfortably under his gaze and felt himself go red.

‘Granny tells me you are rather upset;’ said Mr Fishplate, flicking an imaginary speck of dust from the desk in front of him with the tip of one wing. ‘You feel she has behaved unfairly by hiding the fact from you and your mother these past years that your father is merely lost, not dead.’

Ellis went even redder and mumbled a reply into his mug, the hot steam making his eyes water. He liked Mr Fishplate, but couldn’t squash the feeling that he was sitting in the headmaster’s office about to get a Proper Good Telling Off.

‘It may seem a little harsh,’ Mr Fishplate continued, ‘but believe me: it was Absolutely Necessary. The Undesirables you met earlier couldn’t be allowed to know the truth, and if she’d told you – or your mother – while you were over on the other side, they would have picked up on it immediately.’ He paused and took a slurp of his tea.

Ellis was so locked into feeling like a Very Naughty Boy that he forgot to watch how he managed this with a beak.

Mr Fishplate placed his mug back down on the exact centre of the coaster on his desk, and continued.

‘If that had happened, then everything we’ve been working towards for all these years – and that ‘we‘ includes your father – would have been rendered worthless.’ He leant forwards. ‘Do you understand?’

Ellis didn’t think he had any redness left in him, but he obviously had as felt himself go even redder. He did understand – in fact it seemed rather obvious now Mr Fishplate had spelled it out, and he was starting to feel very silly for loosing his temper. He nodded and mumbled ‘Yessir,’ into his mug.

Mr Fishplate leaned back in his chair, which squeaked. Ian’s ears pricked up briefly in his sleep, and he creaked to himself.

‘You are probably feeling a bit silly for loosing your temper,’ continued Mr Fishplate, and Ellis nodded vigorously, ‘but we understand. You’d had a shock, and you were as yet unaware of many, many things. Now you are aware of a bit more than you were, and you feel silly. It is to be expected. It shows how much you love your father and your mother, because your anger was also on their behalf. That is an admirable quality in one so young, and we are proud of you for that.’

Mr Fishplate reached for his mug, his steady eye still fixed on Ellis, who was looking at him in surprise. He looked over at Granny, who was grinning widely. She raised her mug to him in a salute and took a noisy slurp. Ellis relaxed and gave a little grin of relief.

‘Thank you,’ he said to Mr Fishplate, suddenly feeling rather more grown-up than he’d ever remembered feeling before in his life. And turning to Granny, he said ‘I’m sorry I shouted at you, Granny.’

Granny looked pleased, and a touch embarrassed. ‘Oh, piffle!’ she said, and Ellis could just make out a twinkle in her eye behind the massive glasses, which were steamed up due to the hot tea. ‘Now then,’ she said, taking her glasses off and wiping them squeakily on her cardigan, ‘That’s that all sorted out. Now down to business.’ She returned her glasses to her face and leaning forwards, looked intently at Mr Fishplate. ‘What’s the news Mr Fishplate? Is he still safe?’ she asked.

Ellis held his breath – ‘he‘ could only mean his dad, surely? Mr Fishplate steepled his wing tips together on the desk and looked thoughtful.

‘I think we must assume he is. After all, if they’d found him, I’m sure we would have heard,’ He took his cap off and scratched his head, then smoothed his feathers back into place again. ‘I must admit though, I am becoming increasingly concerned over the condition of his protection. It must surely be wearing a bit thin after all this time.’ He out his cap back on and adjusted it carefully.

Granny nodded thoughtfully. ‘I bought a spare one with me in case of that,’ she said, patting her bag, and Mr Fishplate gave a low screech of satisfaction.

‘A wise move,’ he said, ‘Chuntie Knowe may be giving him additional protection; but on leaving his old one may not be strong enough.’

Ellis couldn’t stand it anymore.

‘His old what? What protection!’ he asked urgently.

Granny reached into her bag and pulled out a bundle of dark cloth. She shook it out and held it up. It was a hooded robe – or a floor length hoodie – similar to the ones The Undesirables had been wearing, except this one was clean and new-looking. It was also a lot smaller than Granny in all directions.

‘Here you go,’ she said, tossing it to Ellis, who caught it in his feet. ‘It’s been soaked in Odour Eater – you know, the stuff I was making from the crackleberries? The stuff you trod in in the kitchen?’

Ellis had reached down to pull the garment off his feet, but recoiled as he remembered the strange, creeping gunk that had explored inside his shoes and around his toes.

‘Oh, don’t be such a big silly,’ said Granny, ‘It won’t hurt you. It’s your protection – those Undesirables have a very keen sense of smell, they can pick us up from miles off. But this’ll mask your smell, and it’ll also let you know if any of them are nearby. That’s what the crackleberries are for.’

‘How can a robe let me know something?’ asked Ellis, gingerly holding up the robe and giving it a tentative sniff. It didn’t smell of anything. In fact, he thought as he sniffed again, it really didn’t smell of anything. It had an anti-smell – a total absence of smell. So total, it made him feel a bit dizzy.

Granny shrugged. ‘It creeps,’ she said, ‘Only a little bit, but enough to let you know.’

Before Ellis could enquire further, a loud bell rang on a large, clock-like contraption on the wall.


Mr Fishplate

13 10 2013


It’s time for a bit more Granny Battle! Before we get stuck in to Chapter 14, there’s a small amendment to the end of Chapter 13. I’ve updated this on the Granny Battle page, so if you’re catching up or reading from the beginning, you won’t miss out.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin – with the tweaked end of Chapter 13…


Before Granny could answer, a screech erupted from the shadows. It was such a screechy screech that Ellis felt all the hairs on his entire body stand up, and his ears tried to close in protest. The screech was followed by a looming presence which oozed authority to such a degree that Ellis knew the screech’s owner possessed a total unwillingness to even slightly bend even the most loosest of rules. At all. Ever.


The last word was screeched so loudly that Ellis’s ears rang, and Ian stopped fizzing and thrust his head into Ellis’s armpit, whimpering.


Chapter 14

The be-hoodied figures had frozen. For a tiny moment there was total silence; then, as one, they all turned tail and fled silently – except for the smaller tubby one, who ran into a lamp post in panic, re-bounded onto his back, scrabbled himself back to his feet, hitched up his robe, then (throwing a terrified glance over his shoulder at something behind Ellis) scurried after the others whimpering.

Granny turned to the owner of the screech and nodded. The owner of the screech inclined its head to Granny. Then it turned to Ellis and eyeballed him with interest.

‘Ellis,’ said Granny, ‘This is Mr Fishplate, the Station Manager.’

Ellis got to his feet hurriedly, forgetting Ian for a second who slid off his lap, tried to hang on to his trousers with a hasty claw, failed, and landed on the platform with a soft thud and subdued squeak. Ellis nervously shook the wing that was extended towards him. The wing belonged to a large – Ellis corrected himself – a very large seagull, that at first glance appeared to be all beak. Big, yellow, sharp, hooky beak. Then he saw a pair of dark unblinking eyes in a gleaming white head that felt like they were looking right through his skin, into his soul, and out the other side.

Mr Fishplate cocked his head to one side, and Ellis was quite impressed that his smart peaked cap, deep blue with gold frogging, didn’t fall off.

‘You look very much like your father, young man,’ said Mr Fishplate, and before Ellis could answer, the gull turned back to Granny.

‘I must say, Madam, I’m surprised to see you here without your protection. You of all people must know that to come here without it is certain to draw out The Undesirables – unless, of course, that was your intention?’

Granny grinned.

‘Busted!’ she said cheerfully, ‘I need to know exactly where they are, see – Mousole in particular. And the only way to do that is…’ she paused, and looked at Ellis expectantly.

Ellis, who’d picked up Ian and was trying to stop him from climbing on to his shoulder, realised he was being looked at and replayed Granny’s last words in his head.

‘Oh!’ he said, ‘…is to get him – well, a bit of him – into your map app.’

Granny nodded approvingly.

‘Off you go then,’ she said.

Ellis looked down at the glistening gobbet on the ground and wrinkled his nose.

‘I’m not touching that!’ he said hotly.

Granny sighed. ‘I don’t expect you to pick it up with your bare hands,’ she said, ‘find a twig or something and dip it in.’

Ellis lifted Ian – who’d stopped whimpering – carefully off his lap, slipped down off the bench and went off moodily in search of a twig. When he returned, Granny was deep in conversation with Mr Fishplate about train times and connections. He tentatively dipped the end of the twig he’d found in the gooey glump and walked over to Granny.

‘Good lad,’ said Granny, whipping out her phone. ‘Hold it up a bit higher.’ Ellis did so, making sure the goo didn’t ooze down the twig onto his hand. Apart from looking disgusting, it also stank. Then heard the sharp whistling buzz and this time closed his eyes against the painful blue flash.

Mr Fishplate returned the large pocket watch he’d been consulting to the pocket of his impressive blue jacket and gave a low-pitched screech. There was a rattling of claws, and a small, rotund owl wearing a miniature version of Mr Fishplate’s uniform but with less gold frogging appeared from the gloom, struggling with a large bucket and mop. It proceeded to mop up the rest of the gloopy gobbet.

‘My youngest,’ Mr Fishplate explained proudly, ‘he wants to be train driver when he fledges.’ Ellis couldn’t help himself and looked from the tiny owl to the huge gull in disbelief.

‘Adopted,’ said Granny, patting the young owl on the head as he scurried off, bucket and mop clattering, stopping to politely take the twig from Ellis on his way.

Granny picked up her bag, and tucked Ian under her arm. ‘Mr Fishplate has kindly offered us a brew whilst we wait for our connection,’ she said to Ellis, ‘and I still have a bit of explaining to do, which he can help with – he’s probably a bit more up-to-date than me, what with being here on-the-spot, like.’

Mr Fishplate nodded gravely and led the way down the platform to the station building, which looked very much like Granny’s cottage except it was immaculately clean and tidy, so really didn’t look anything like it at all except in shape. He ushered them through a door and into a small office. There was only one chair, apart from the one behind the large, highly polished desk which the gull settled into, and Granny plomped herself down in it, whilst Ellis looked round and settled on a large wooden trunk. Ian wriggled out from under Granny’s arm, trotted across the floor and hopped up onto Ellis’s lap where he promptly fell asleep.


Ooooh, whatever next?!

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.

An argument with myself about the stuff in my head…

3 08 2013

I’ve been having a right barney with myself about the difference between being influenced and being inspired.

influence: the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something…

Someone asked me recently on Twitter who influenced my writing. I replied with a list of my favourite authors, then later thought, ‘No, wait…’

I’ve been mulling over this off and on for a few days now. Just because I like a certain author, does that mean they’ve influenced me? Have they in some way had an effect on the way I write? Shaped my thought process when I’m writing? Do I write because I’ve read them?

My answer – I think, now, after all that mulling – is:


At least, I don’t think so.

They may have inspired me to write, or to want to write, but I don’t think they’ve influenced how I write. Or why I write. And hang on, does the who even need to be a writer?

How about this…

inspire: to fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative…

Now that makes more sense.

I write because there’s stuff in my head that needs to come out. There’s always been stuff in my head, and I’ve always written it down to get it out, even when I was a little wee thing and was only beginning to master the black art of Putting Letters Together To Make Words. I just hadn’t always thought that the stuff was worth sharing with anyone. How it comes out – how it ends up sounding when it’s read – is my voice. Is my voice a copy of a favourite author? Or an amalgamation of lots of favourite authors?

I don’t think so. I hope not.

I suppose you could say that my writing is as much influenced by, say, John Irving, as it is by the two old ladies gossiping at the bus stop. Or the conversation between a child and his father on a train. Or the way a cat jumps in through a window. Or how the rain falls. Or because of that story on the news. Or the song I heard on the radio. Or the weird dream I had the other night. Or remembering what it felt like to run through the stubble in a newly harvested field on a hot day as a child. Or the zillion things I might not have consciously noticed I was noticing, but they slipped cheekily in to my subconcious anyway…

I’m reminded of a conversation between two authors at The Lowdham Book Festival recently about how long it takes to get into reading a novel – how long it takes before you decide it’s any good, and whether you’ll carry on reading it or give up. About 50 pages seemed to be the general opinion.

I can’t give up. Even if a book or story is really bad, I have to finish it. I can’t tell you why – though maybe it’s a need to know what happens next, no matter how badly written it is, or how poor the story line or plot is. I don’t see it as a waste of time to read something you’re not enjoying. Actually, I’ve just had a thought – maybe that has something to do with being force fed those classics at school; being fed little chunks, skipping about from chapter to chapter in the wrong order, analysing the characters and dissecting the plot before we even knew the story… and hating the process and hating the books and hating the authors and hating the teacher for making me hate the books, because I loved books and loved reading. I remember once getting told off by an English Literature teacher because I read a new book we were given from cover to cover before we started studying it. WHY?! Years later I read those same hated school books and plays for pleasure – and discovered their greatness. Perhaps that has something to do with why I now have to finish reading everything I pick up… just in case there’s some greatness I might miss if I don’t finish it?

Which brings me back to the word influence. (Or does it? How?! Oh well, I’m going back to it anyway.) Other writers may have influenced my behaviour sometimes by making me want to drop everything and get on with my writing. But it doesn’t have to be a good writer, a writer I admire and whose work I love, that influences my behaviour in that way. It could be that I’ve just read something I thought was crap, or that I didn’t fully understand. Or on the other hand, it could be something that I thought was truly wonderful, that blew my mind, knocked me sideways with its brilliance and left me glowing and breathless. Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ just did that to me – but it didn’t make me think ‘Ooooh, I want to write just like Neil!’ or ‘I’ll never be that good a writer so I might as well give up.’ It made me happy to read it. It made me feel good. It made me feel like a child again – and that feeling is I think perhaps key to some writers. The feeling that you’ve never quite grown up properly; the feeling that in your head you’re still running around going ‘Wow!’ and ‘Why?’ at everything – from the mundane to the bizarre, the joyous to the saddest or most painful. You see a leaf blow across the pavement, and you want to chase it. You wonder where it came from, how long it’s been travelling. Did it leave its home by choice, or was it blown away by the worst ever storm ever? Or is it just popping out to visit friends? Maybe it’s going on an adventure? If it could speak, what would it sound like? Does it have friends? Are they leaves too? Maybe its best friend is a conker?

Now I want to write a little story about a leaf and a conker. Did I influence or inspire myself? Where did those thoughts come from?! Who put them in my head? Was it you? Does that story already exist? Am I just remembering something I read?

My conclusion is that a writer is influenced by a big tangled messy conglomoration in their head of everything they have seen, heard, read, felt, and experienced since the day they popped out into the world. Even the bad stuff. And that sometimes things happen that trigger weird reactions in that big tangled messy ball, which starts fizzing and popping – sparks fly, strange bits link up which hadn’t linked up before, bells and buzzers go off, sparkly coloured lights flash, a honky thing honks… And that’s inspiration.

ps – This is what I think today. But tomorrow… Ah, well. Tomorrow is an entirely different story…

There’s shortcuts…

26 07 2013

Hello hello hello!

Not one, but two Granny Battle chapters all in one go to delight (hopefully) and confuddle (probably)!

To catch up with the story so far, click here… (As usual, I’ve added these latest chapters to the end).

Chapter 12

Location: Chuntie Knowe, Glenbourach”

Ellis felt his tummy turn upside down, inside out, twist sideways, do a backflip, then settle down into a state of indescribable jitter. He dragged his gaze away from the phone and looked up at Granny, who appeared to have dissolved slightly. In fact, it looked like there were about seven of her. Numerous appendages extended and something white zoomed towards his face.

‘Have a tissue,’ Granny said.

Ellis blinked, took the tissue, and rubbed his eyes hard. Granny settled back into the singular, and Ellis became aware of a gentle kneading sensation on his tummy. He looked down to see Ian gently treadling him with his front paws and staring intently into his eyes. Ellis automatically tickled him under his chin, and Ian closed his eyes, stretching out his neck contentedly. Dabbing his eyes again and feeling a bit self-conscious, Ellis blew his nose. There was a faint creak from his lap, and Ellis saw – without much surprise now – that Ian had returned to his scaly self.

He looked up at Granny, who appeared to be extremely busy in her bag with her back to him. There was a muffled parp, which sounded suspiciously like someone trying to blow their nose in secret.

She turned, giving her loud glasses a final polish on her cardie before shoving them back on her face, and squinted at Ellis.

‘Ok?’ she asked, ‘Ready to carry on?’

Ellis took a deep breath and exhaled. The exhale came out a bit more wobbly than he’d have liked.

‘Yeah,’ he croaked, then cleared his throat and tried again. ‘Yeah, it’s just – well…’ he shrugged, ‘It’s proper real now, isn’t it.’ He looked up at Granny. ‘He’s… my dad… he’s not…’ Ellis struggled for the right word. ‘He’s not lost anymore, is he?’

Granny smiled a little tight-lipped smile. ‘It’s always been proper real, lad. And no, he’s not lost anymore. Never was, really, not in that sense; but he needed finding. And we done it.’ She smiled again, a little less tightly. ‘And that’s your fault that is. Right, come on now, let’s get your old man into our maps so’s we can keep our eye on him and find him properly.’

She switched her phone back on, clicked on the words “Ellis’s Dad” and selected the option “Add to map“. The orange dragon span lazily on the screen for few seconds, then the map app automatically opened, and Ellis saw the three coloured blobs that were himself, Granny and Ian, clustered around Lower Brimpton. Then Granny pinched the screen a few times to zoom out and Ellis’s jaw dropped.

According to the map, Lower Brimpton was a small town, just south of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Berwick?!’ exclaimed Ellis, ‘No way can we be right up there! We were only on the train for, what, half an hour? Forty minutes? It’s impossible – it must be at least 200 miles to Berwick from Arnotts Hollow!’

Granny pushed her glasses up her nose. ‘There’s shortcuts,’ she said quietly.

‘Shortcuts?’ asked Ellis.

‘Yeah, that’s one of the reasons that bloke closed all those railway lines down donkey’s years back. Kept that part of it quiet tho, didn’t want people knowing. Not good for business. But this side found a way to keep them open, but hidden, see. Until a few years back, when all The Trouble started. That’s what we were fighting against when It happened.’

Ellis looked incredulous. He’d read about the time lots of railway lines were closed – including the one that ran past Granny’s house. But… shortcuts? Then he replayed the last bit of what Granny had just said.

‘We?’ he asked.

Granny looked uncomfortable.

‘We who?’ pressed Ellis, but in the back of his mind he thought he knew.

Granny took off her glasses and started polishing them on the bottom of her cardie again. ‘Me and your dad,’ she said quietly.

Ellis once again felt as though his world was going backwards and sideways all at once.

‘You and dad? Hang on, so you’ve known all along that he wasn’t…’ Ellis paused briefly, ‘…dead?’ It seemed easier to say now that he knew he wasn’t. Or at least, had some very peculiar sort-of-evidence that he wasn’t. ‘And you didn’t tell us?’ Ellis voice rose in pitch and got louder, ‘You didn’t say anything to us?! You just let us believe that… that was it?! He’d gone?!’

‘Shut up.’ Granny said sharply.

Ellis gaped at her and was about to reply when he realised she was staring coldly and rather dangerously over his shoulder. Then his nose noticed the smell – and this time it wasn’t Ian. This was a much darker smell, a bad smell. A smell that boded.

And not in a good way.


Chapter 13

A rather whiney, scratchy voice broke the silence.

‘Well, well, well, if it ain’t the Old Woman and her scrawny pet,’ the voice said, sounding just as dark and boding as the smell. ‘And who’s this squirt? No wait, I can smell him…’

Ellis turned, his hot anger disappearing into cold fear as a tall, skinny figure in a raggedy robe – no, Ellis checked himself – it was more of a hoodie than a robe. A dirty, raggedy, floor length hoodie, with the hood up and the drawstrings pulled so tight that the face was lost in shadow. Ian had woken up and gone rigid in Ellis’s lap, his eyes narrowed to slits and the occasional spark flickering around his nostrils as he fizzed quietly. The thing leaned towards Ellis, who recoiled in disgust, and it sniffed deeply and snottily. Then it gave a huge involuntary twitch that raised one shoulder up to where its ear would be if it didn’t have its hood up, and its head appeared to twist halfway round on its neck. It spat a large gobbit, which splatted wetly onto the platform. ‘Aaaaaaah,’ the thing said, exhaling noisily, ‘The son…‘ it hissed, with a snickery giggle.

‘Mousole,’ said Granny coldly, ‘What are you doing here? I didn’t think you lot used the railways.’

‘We use whatever we like,’ the thing hissed, it’s head snapping towards Granny. ‘We knew you was here,’ it continued, ‘We smelled you.’

‘I’ll bet you did,’ said Granny, and to Ellis’s ears she sounded as though she was trying to sound annoyed, whilst also trying to hide a touch of smugness.

The thing gave a piercing whistle, and more skinny, be-hoodied figures melted out of the darkness around them. Well, three of them were skinny. The fourth was a lot smaller and definitely not skinny. It’s hoodie was stretched tight over an podgy belly and trailed on the floor around it, and a large pair of thick, round glasses protruded from the tightly draw-stringed hood. It hung back a little from the others and projected an air of nervousness.

‘All right Moleface?’ said Granny loudly and cheerfully, ‘still trying to burrow your way into the wrong crowd? Bet your poor old mum’s turning her grave.’ The figure jumped and tried to sidle behind one of the taller shades, mumbling inaudibly.

‘Leave him be,’ snapped Mousole angrily, then turning to the figure nearest to him, he hissed ‘I tole you not to bring him! Whatchew bring him for?!’ A muffled, hissy, argument ensued between the two of them.

Ellis leaned towards Granny, trying to make it look as though he wasn’t leaning towards her, which was a little difficult because he was.

‘Who – what are they?’ he asked out of the corner of his mouth.

Before Granny could answer, a deep, resonant voice, that seemed to have a hint of hootiness about it boomed out of the shadows making them all jump. The voice was accompanied by a presence which oozed authority and a total unwillingness to even slightly bend even the most loosest of rules. At all. Ever.



Gosh, what an earth will happen next?!

Incidentally, that station bylaw is true. As is this one, which made me giggle a bit:

“No person shall enter or remain on the railway if, in the reasonable opinion of an authorised person, he is in an unfit or improper condition or his clothing may soil or damage any part of the railway or the property or clothing of any person on the railway.” Section 219 of the Transport Act 2000: Station bylaws.

So beware, rail travellers – make sure what you wear isn’t likely to soil or damage stuff or staff…!

Handy things, cats…

22 07 2013

What, more? Yes, more! Two Granny Battle instalments in two days – has the world gone mad?!

To catch up with the story so far, click here… (I’ve added this latest chapter to the end).

Chapter 11

The tiny orange dragon chased its tail on the screen of Granny’s phone for a few moments, then faded and the screen went black.

Ellis and Granny waited a few seconds. Nothing happened. Granny frowned, and pressed the power button on the top of the phone – the screen lit up briefly, then died. But it gave them both enough time to catch a fleeting glimpse of the tiny text next to the battery icon which said 1%.

‘Bugger.’ said Granny.

Ellis looked a bit worried. ‘Now what?’ he asked worriedly.

Granny was rummaging around in her bag again. ‘Wake Ian,’ she said, ‘We’re going to need his help.’ She pulled a knot of cable out of her bag and began untangling it; one end had the normal charger-type plug on it, and the other end – Ellis couldn’t quite see it properly, but it looked flat and shiny. He gently shook Ian, who opened his eyes sleepily and burped. Meanwhile Granny had had another rummage in her bag, and was now holding up a fluffy silver ball and eyeing it with distaste.

‘Can’t abide fluffiness,’ she muttered, ‘Ah well, needs must…’ She waved the ball in front of Ian’s nose and cooed in the high-pitched voice of the terminal cat-talker ‘Ooooh, lookie here Ian! It’s your favourite fetch-ball!’

Ian’s ears pricked up and he swivelled his head to follow the ball as Granny waved it about. Keeping his eyes on it, he sat up suddenly on Ellis’s lap.

‘Ready Ian?’ cooed Granny, ‘Ready? Reeeeeeadyyyyyy?’ Ian flicked his tail impatienly. ‘Iaaaaaannn… FETCH!’

Granny chucked the ball.

Ellis winced as Ian leapt off his lap and raced down the platform after it, disappearing into the dark in a clatter of claws. There was a slight thud, silence, then Ellis saw something orange racing back towards them, the dull glow of the lamp shining off the silver ball in its mouth.

Ian leapt back into Ellis’s lap, dropped the ball on the bench, and purred. Ellis blinked.

‘He’s a cat again!’ he exclaimed.

‘Can’t resist his fetch-ball,’ said Granny as she plugged the cable into her phone. ‘Now just hold him still while I give him a good going over.’

Ellis realised that the shiny flat thing on the other end of the cable was a tiny metal comb, and he laughed in disbelief.

‘You’re kidding!’ he said, ‘You can charge your phone by combing a cat?!’

Granny was working up a sweat combing Ian vigorously, who’s purring got louder and louder. There was a sudden loud snap. Ian twitched and flattened his ears, Ellis jumped, a bright white spark flashed up the cable and the screen on Granny’s phone flashed back into life.

‘Static electricity,’ she said matter-of-factly, ‘Handy things, cats.’ She peered at the phone’s screen. ‘Still only 98% tho – I’ve never managed to get it to a hundred.’

Ellis shook his head grinning as Granny stuffed the cable and Ian’s fetch-ball back in her bag.

‘Now then,’ she said, dumping her bag on the ground and hutching up the bench nearer to Ellis, ‘Let’s see what we’ve got.’

She tapped and swiped at the phone’s screen, pursing her lips and making “tch-tch-tch” noises under her breath, then she said ‘Aha!’ triumphantly and showed Ellis the screen.

“Found Three Nachos”?’ he read out loud.

Granny looked at the screen and tutted. ‘How did I not pick that up?!’ she said resignedly. ‘Matches, it should say matches. Stupid spellchecker.’

‘Ohhhh,’ said Ellis, then ‘Oooooooh!’

Granny tapped on the screen and they both leaned in close to read the tiny writing, apologised as their heads bumped together, then leaned in again a bit more carefully.

The tiny text on the screen read:

1. Name: Ellis
Species: homo sapiens
Gender: male
Age: 10 1/2
Location: Bench, Platform 1, Lower Brimpton Station

2. Name: Bernard
Species: mus musculus
Gender: male
Age: 1 1/4
Location: Cupboard Under Sink, 23 Station Road, Arnotts Hollow

3. Name: Ellis’s Dad
Species: homo sapiens
Gender: male
Age: 36 1/2″

Ellis stopped breathing as Granny scrolled the screen with a stubby finger.