Bemusing Neil Gaiman

I’m fed up with not writing on my blog. There’ve been all sorts of things I’ve wanted to type up recently that haven’t made it out of my head, and it’s usually because I want to do them justice. That doesn’t seem to be working, however, so I’m going to try the less-coherent-as-written-late-at-night-but-at-least-there tactic.

With this in mind, here’s me this evening:

Me and Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of a few fantasy authors I really rate, but it’s interesting how much more often he turns up in my thoughts and writings relative to the others. I think it’s because he’s a strong and accessible personality, and this ends up inextricably linked to his work. I’ve been thinking about it today, and I don’t think it’s any surprise he’s good friends with Jonathan Ross. They’re both very open about their lives, give every impression of being entirely decent people, and their characters are a strong part of everything they do. A Jonathan Ross show will always make use of his particular presenting style that (unless he’s an extremely good actor) is his genuine personality; a Neil Gaiman novel isn’t an anonymous fantasy text, it’s very much his style – his books of short stories contain explanations for how he came to write each of them, and when reading I feel like I’m becoming familiar with him as a person, and not just his writing. Neil Gaiman also writes daily on his blog – he’s written something about this evening already – and his family life has been a regular feature of my daily reading for over a year.

I booked tickets for an interview with him at the Criterion Theatre a few weeks ago. They were only £5, and with the train ticket at £10 there seemed little reason not to take a trip. I arrived in good time, and the theatre wasn’t quite full.

He started by reading an excerpt from Stardust. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking listening to authors read their own stuff – they’re writers, not public speakers, and it can be cringeworthy. In this case I realised after thirty seconds that I was completely engrossed in the story and barely aware of his reading at all. And I’ve read the book before. That’s some skill.

The Guardian’s literary editor asked a few questions about his past, and then it was opened up to the floor. The first person asked for a kiss, which got a good laugh, and plenty of interesting questions followed. Had he ever shelved a story with religious themes due to fear of offending people1? Who would he want to play him in a film of his life2? What happened at the end of the (recent, and excellent) Steve Ditko documentary3? There was a quick draw for the winner of two tickets to tomorrow night’s Stardust premiere, and then it was over to the local Waterstone’s for a signing. I got lost.

It’s only 100m away, and I got lost. I tried to follow the crowd, forgetting that London is one big crowd. I found it a couple of minutes later, but by this point was near the back of the queue. I got chatting to a nice guy called George, and together we shuffled forwards in the evening drizzle, until finally getting through the doors about 45mins after arriving.

We were unsure whether there’d be books near the signing table, so headed to the graphic novel department to pick up something appropriate. There was nothing there – everything was near the signing table – so we went back downstairs and found ourselves the last two people in the queue. Which was fun 🙂 Not long after this I started worrying about time. It was 2100, the queue was 100 people long, and the last train was at 2200, fifteen minutes away. We crept forward, and I could see it was going to be close. Waterstone’s was closing shortly, and before we reached the table they cleared the books away. I was very close to leaving, but in the end decided I’d get a coach home if necessary – I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, since I was by this point only 10 people away!

I finally reached the front, and this happened:

A Critical Introduction, not by Neil Gaiman

I explained that I hadn’t a book of his as they’d been cleared, but I did have this one on photographic theory and it’d be wonderfully surreal, and entertaining for my classmates, if he’d sign it. To be honest I can’t remember exactly what he said in reply, but I recall it as brief bemusement followed by a smile and something along the lines of ‘no problem’. ‘Not written by Neil Gaiman’ was a nice touch, especially considering he’d been signing books for over two hours solid by that point. George then quickly took a photo and I said thanks for all the hours of entertainment. It was a nice little moment. He gives every impression of being a very decent person in interviews, and in person practically exuded friendliness. Definitely a cool guy.

Then we ran, George not actually needing to but in solidarity with me, and we split at Piccaddilly Circus. I wish I’d given him a moo card as we got on pretty well. I reached Marylebone at 2203, and it turned out that the last train was at 2210. So I made it. Jammification!

  1. no, although one story involving ‘feotal dreams’ never made it as he was worried some sadist would use it as anti-abortion material []
  2. anyone, providing they had Dylan Moran’s hair []
  3. they chatted with him for a while []


I finally saw Mirrormask last night, after possibly the most expensive DVD rental period ever. Dark, unpredictable and visually gorgeous, it’s full of wonderful ideas: the library where books must be caught with nets, a woman held prisoner by her cats, intricate and stylised backgrounds that are still pencil drawings, the continual imagery(s)1 of the mask…Dave McKean is credited as Director and Designer, from Neil Gaiman’s script, and there’s not an uninteresting frame in the film. Its one of the few movie posters I wouldn’t get bored of five minutes after putting it up. I’d call it a modern fairy tale, but what isn’t? A great couple of hours if you fancy something otherworldly and beautiful.

  1. possibly a made up word. I mean both visual and metaphorical imagery []

Symonds Yat dance weekend – the good

On Saturday morning a group of us headed over to the Hay Festival. Originally only two of us were planning to go, but we’d been explaining its literary nature the night before, and at breakfast a few others asked if they could join us. The Hay Festival is a week-long event, run by the Guardian, at which authors and thinkers debate, lecture and engage with anybody who wants to come along. I’d never actually been before, and was looking forward to it. Hay-on-Wye turned out to be further away than I’d anticipated, and after a lengthy journey via the sat-nav’s favourite country lanes we parked in the wrong car park and walked up to the festival site.

It was a gloriously sunny day, and we wandered beneath the tents. While the others bought “sheeps’ milk” ice cream I wandered into the official bookshop, and looked up to see Neil Gaiman:

Queue for Neil Gaiman

He’s one of my favourite authors, and for a few moments I hovered in front of a woman I later realised was Anne Fine, and took a couple of pictures. I had Fragile Things in my bag, and made to join the signing queue, but a lady ahead of me was turned away as they’d closed the line. She was most annoyed, wanting to know why. I wasn’t, strangely. It would have been cool to get something signed, and I even had something not-too-stupid to say – I was going to wish him luck with his new dog – but I didn’t mind not being able to say hi. Maybe I’m not as dazzled by celebrity as I used to be.

I think the Hay festival isn’t designed to be something you just turn up to. There’s a huge amount going on, but most of it is scheduled and ticketed, and the most interesting things were sold out well in advance. I’ll certainly go again next year, but shall plan ahead. We walked around the stalls for a while, and just before lunch caught the shuttle bus into Hay.

This is an incredibly obvious thing to say, but there really are a lot of bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. I can’t understand how I’ve never been before. I’ve also no idea how they all stay in business. One in particular was enormous, and I nearly got lost upstairs. Every aisle looked like this:

Shelves and shelves

It was too much, actually. I could easily spend ten minutes going through the contents of an individual shelf, and spend days in there without realising. I’ll have to go back with Abi. None of the bookshops we visited had any comics or graphic novels, strangely. I wonder whether it’s because they’re too niche, and keeping a decent stock would require a reasonably detailed knowledge of a subject your average book lover doesn’t find interesting…I can’t think it’s a snobby thing.

The town itself was decked out in bunting, and it was a lovely day to walk around. Despite numerous warnings from Lynsey, I got sunburnt. No excuse.

We had some good times dancing, too. It’s rare to have a ballroom not in the basement, and it was nice to dance in the evening sunlight:

Packed dancefloor - 4

On Sunday we drove home via Ross-on-Wye, complete with steampunk fish and enormous houses, and Ledbury with Mrs Muffins and happy dogs. I also drove into this particularly evil bit of kerb:

Evil kerb

on my new-last-week tyre. Whoops.

But the best thing I saw all weekend was the people who ran to Harry’s side on Saturday night. Although ultimately unsuccessful, they knew what to do and didn’t hesitate. I was barely aware what was happening, and they were already working. They’d undoubtedly deny it was brave, but anybody who has the ability and presence of mind to react and help in such situations has my full admiration.

Not a weekend I’d want to repeat, but there were good times too.

Superman Roundup

I’ve been happy to see the Superman shield appearing everywhere as the film gets closer to release. Amazon are selling astonishingly expensive action figures, as well as a Fight N Fly Cape that offers “amazing motion-activated sound effects that track kids’ movements”. I’m assuming it’s the sound of, um, flowing wind. I still think there’s a market for a decent quality cape. Big kid that I am, I’d probably buy one…even if it never got worn (let’s face it, opportunities would be few and far between) it’d look great hanging in the cupboard 🙂 Amazon also have Punch N Crush gloves, which are a bit weird.

This week’s Wired has a great Superman article, co-written by Neil Gaiman:

Singer’s movie hasn’t yet screened in its entirety, so no one knows what he’s going to add to the myth. The few minutes of the film that outsiders have seen (watched with a chaperone, on a DVD that gets shredded after viewing) look good, a spiritual successor to the Richard Donner films from a quarter-century ago. The special effects will be flawless. But Singer’s Superman is bound to be less interesting than his Clark Kent. Of all the relationships at the heart of the myth – Superman and Lois Lane, Superman and Jimmy Olsen, Superman and his adoptive parents – the most important is the one with his alter ego.

Although not related to the film, I recently came across scans from Action Comics #1. It’s the world’s most valuable comic, and I’ve never seen the inside pages before. It’s bizarre:

First page Action Comics #1

Supes can’t fly and seems to enjoy wrecking stuff for no real reason. The grammar’s somewhat dodgy, and the costume art is rather different. Lois Lane is at least a proper reporter, unlike the comics of the 50s in which she morphed into an annoying whiny bug on Clark’s shoulder, continually pestering him to reveal his secret identity and marry her (these comics are very, very bad). Fascinating, though.

Neverwhere, and happiness

How often do you recognise joy as an emotion? More than just extreme contentment, but the emotion that’s coupled to a physical feeling of happiness and it’s like you’re sparkling inside…I imagine that everybody gets this from different things, but for me it’s words and language.

The first time I remember being consciously aware of the feeling was when reading a collection of Byron‘s poetry. There’s just something about the twists and spirals of wonderful language that really hits me. Stephen King does the same thing frequently – he’ll drop in a sentence so wonderfully surprising that I stop short and read it multiple times. I think it can be caused by beautiful phrases, but more often it’s because of a perfect metaphor or simile. It can happen in non-fiction too: Richard Dawkins and particularly the late Carl Sagan often express their meanings in beautiful linguistic turns, and I love feeling that wave of complete understanding when two seemingly unrelated ideas converge. I’m undoubtedly forgetting various authors, but those immediately spring to mind.

It just makes me happy. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to exemplify, as I guess much depends on the moment, context, etc. Much as I enjoy all my various interests, I don’t experience that kind of joy with anything other than reading, and I guess it’s what compels me to try writing.

The reason this occured to me is that I just finished reading Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman and wanted to recommend it very highly. It’s a wonderful modern fairy tale set in London Below – the city of those who fall through the cracks. The book’s full of quirky little ideas that intrigue for a few paragraphs, but then the tale moves on. If I came up with just one or two of these creations for one of my stories I’d be happy indeed 🙂 Neverwhere is also another example of something of which I’m slowly becoming aware – that the things I most enjoy are entirely unpredictable from moment to moment.

You get the feeling throughout that Neil Gaiman is entirely in control of his style of writing. It’s told in a very relaxed style, but there are occasions where the language dances effortlessly around a revelation which was in hindsight fairly obvious, but simply never occured to you. Or there are times when reality shifts, and the language changes to become slightly more detached – as a reader you’re not quite sure what’s happening, mirroring the main character. There’s a sense of power behind the words; it’s like listening to Annie Lennox, or Celine Dion – the song could be soft and relaxing all the way through, but you’re aware at any time that they could turn up the volume and blast you away. You get the feeling that Neil Gaiman could, if he wished, scare the hell out of you without breaking a sweat. That, or drive you into madness.

The use of language frequently gave me the shivers, although often in a more subtle way. It was more of an overall thing in Neverwhere – the language was fantastic but also served to deepen the impression of the scene. It’s not that the words were just strung together nicely, it’s that they revealed more in the process. I think that makes sense.

Maybe this is too gushing, and maybe in a few weeks I’ll read it and cringe, but right now I can’t recommend Neverwhere enough. I found the novel excellent, from both a plot and language perspective, and encourage you to try it out. I’m trying to decide whether to read American Gods next, or whether to save it…I think I’ll read it now 🙂