This Tuesday, a friend and I had an absolutely fantastic night out. We went to see Neil Gaiman give a reading of his new children’s book, ‘Fortunately the Milk’.
Neil Gaiman has been one of my favourite authors for a long time, and his work has been a huge inspiration to me. Daisy’s Demons was written after reading some of his short horror stories. Also, I was intrigued to see how he was going to read an entire book in one evening, out loud, to a room full of what turned out to be around two thousand people.
The reading was in London. When I’m not in London, I often think that living there would be fun. Almost as soon as I got off the bus, I remembered why it really wouldn’t be. Don’t get me wrong, London is exciting, there’s always plenty going on, and I have some fantastic friends who live there. Unfortunately, I don’t do well with crowds, particularly slow-moving crowds, and London is extremely good at producing those things. The top two hobbies in the capital are Getting In The Way and Standing Around Like A Lemon, and you have to use your elbows if you want to get anywhere at any kind of speed.
The reading was in Westminster, which, when I arrived, was full of football fans and police. Luckily, the football fans were being cheerfully loud instead of angrily loud, and the police were more for show than anything else. I met up with my friend, we got dinner, and then headed to the venue.
The first question we asked, upon seeing the venue, was “Why are there two queues?”
There weren’t two queues. There was one queue, so long that it wrapped around the building twice.
Earlier this year, I went to an Amanda Palmer concert, and I’m sure I recognised some of the same people waiting for Neil’s reading. It wasn’t a huge surprise – my friend and I aren’t the only people who love the work of both halves of the Palmer-Gaiman couple. The queue moved pretty quickly, and we all filed inside and found our seats.
The show was opened by a comedian, Andrew O’Neil, who got the crowd warmed up and told jokes that made everyone giggle like schoolkids – except for one of the schoolkids, who was sitting behind me and my friend, and didn’t quite get why O’Neil was reading out a long list of words that he “wasn’t allowed to say”. There was a song from two old rockers, and then Neil came on and started to read.
I knew Neil Gaiman was an excellent writer. I didn’t realise that he was also such a good storyteller. I envy his kids their bedtime stories. The reading went on for an hour and a half, no interval, barely any pauses for water. It must’ve been exhausting, but Neil gave absolutely no sign – he was caught up in the story just as much as we were. There were actors reading some of the parts (including a surprise appearance at the end from Lenny Henry as a space-police-tyrannosaurus, because it was that kind of story), but Neil did the lion’s share, and he did it brilliantly.
Chris Riddell, who illustrated the book, was sitting at the back of the stage throughout, drawing pictures that were projected up onto a screen at the back of the stage. I am ridiculously jealous of people like Riddell, who can draw hugely complicated pictures from scratch, in pen, and have it turn out perfectly. (Mind you, I can just about draw faces – a complete human is beyond me at the moment, let alone a stegosaurus in a lab coat flying a hot air balloon – I told you, it was that kind of story).
At the end of the show, Lenny Henry asked Neil questions that had been sent in via Twitter (and made a risque joke, forgetting that it was a children’s show, which made him so flustered that he had to run around in a small circle waving his hands before he could go on). Then, finally, Amanda Palmer came on and sang an adapted version of her song “Ukelele Anthem”, with many more references to milk than you’d usually find.
I got back to Oxford late, tired, and extremely happy. If reading Neil Gaiman’s stories is an inspiration, then hearing them read, by the author himself, is doubly so. Some stories are meant to be told out loud, and this was one of them. The reading of “Fortunately The Milk” reminded me of something that I sometimes forget while writing. Stories aren’t fragile. They’re strong, robust. They don’t go wrong, no matter how much it sometimes feels like it – they just take a different turn. Stories are meant to be played with, because it brings them alive. The story Neil and friends told came alive that night, for everyone in the room, and every time I read it from now on, it’ll be alive in the same way.
Stories aren’t words on a page, in the same way that music isn’t notes on a sheet. Those two things are just guidelines for the real work, whether it takes place through an instrument, or on a stage, or in your head.