Three? Four years ago? I set aside 10 days of my life to volunteer at the inaugural Children’s Literature Festival in Bath. This was day nine, or night nine for that matter. After a long day running around delivering spare tickets to the variety of venues in central Bath I ended up in the Art Deco wonder of ‘The Forum’, a new age church, for one night only to bring the congregation of Neil Gaiman together in holy worship.
Moving furniture, stage setting, a smoke machine strategically placed, an armchair, a lamp, a small table and two pop up ad-banners with the festival logos and art at each end of the stage and a massive Daily Telegraph banner across the front. In front of the stage Waterstones were setting up their stall and myself and some other volunteers helped shift the heavy boxes of books.
That night was the main event. Everyone turned out, backstage, like a reunion of all the volunteers and authors from the other events of the day for a religious festival. I chatted with children’s picture book maestro Rob Scotton fresh from presenting his one-man show. Neil arrived in his trademark leather jacket looking chilled surrounded by a small entourage eating from the selection of Waitrose sandwiches and Duchy Originals I’d bought earlier that day.
25 years previous my dad took me to Crystal Palace Sports Centre to see the light heavyweight boxing champion Dennis Andries giving a public demonstration of his training, which basically involved him punching at his shadow and skipping skipping skippiing. We went, not because we were massive boxing fans but because the centre was just down the road from our house and it also happened to be that my grandfather, Sid Nathan, would be refereeing the title fight Dennis was training for.
My grandad was a WBA boxing referee and travelled all over the world wearing a white shirt and a big black bow tie, slapping the canvas and counting to 10. He was famous for stopping fights, ill-matched, eyebrow bleeding fights. I was quite glad as a child to have a famous grandad, famous as in ‘very well known’ in his niche – boxing. Then, fame seemed like a magic-halo that gave you a passport to respect and admiration and for little 7 year old me, anyone ‘off the telly’ made me feel as if I was meeting a super-hero.
As we walked to the sports centre with butterflies twitching in my belly I asked my old man if he was scared about meeting the great Dennis Andries? He said “Daniel, why should I be scared? He’s just a bloke that gets paid for punching people, and he’s good at that. That’s nothing to be scared about. He’s another bloke but a lot of people know him”.
When we saw Dennis in the gym bouncing around in his big white leather boots beating seven shades out of his shadow I saw a bloke that was good at punching. When he came over and said hello I spoke with him confidently, 7 years old and punching above my own weight, about my grandfather and how I would put in a special word for him. On the way home with my dad I said “He was a nice bloke who punches people!”, “That’s it” he said.
So 3 years ago when I found myself volunteering at the first Childrens’ Literature Festival, and Neil appeared in the Green Room, I didn’t jump up like everyone else did to take his bags or offer him handshakes and refreshments. I just carried on reading my Plastic Forks. People fussed. In our makeshift green room, surrounded by fawning fans that’d been masquerading as volunteers perfecting ‘micro-chitchat’. He was charming and patient with them, simultaneously weary and excited to get on with the show.
I recalled a scene from A Beautiful Mind where Russell Crowe’s character, the mathematical genius John Nash is in a bar with his friends and there is a group of women, he talks about Governing Dynamics, the ‘ignore the blond’ theory. For the best chance of success he advises his friends to do nothing. And in doing so they all end up scoring. I had no intention of scoring with Neil Gaiman but considering the number of fanatics present I thought there was little chance of having anything like a meaningful conversation unless I didn’t even try.
It was time for him to go onstage and everyone rushed off to get a good seat, I hung-back with my camera and like a lucky Peter Parker said “Hey Neil! Quick photo?” He stopped and said “Alright”. I passed over my sunglasses which he was missing and took the photo above.
It was a fine one-man show. The armchair was at the centre of the stage and John McLay introduced him through the cliched creeping dry ice. Neil walked on, sat down then proceeded to read from the first chapter of his forthcoming ‘Graveyard Book’ fresh from his brain.
Almost precisely 10 years previous I’d attended Waterstones bookshop in Hampstead, with a ticket purchased my estranged strange brother. Neil read from the first chapter of his debut novel ‘Stardust’. Introduced by Paul Gambaccini. Neil, much less confident then with a voice that did not carry the words with as much sincerity as he did now. He was reading from a page then but this time it seemed as though the hours upon hours of reading audio recordings and bedtime stories that, despite the thousands of people being in the room he was just reading to me.
It went to Q&A and then the signing. I don’t like the idea of Neil signing my stuff. The last time I let him at my copy of the first appearance of Death in Sandman. He drew silver pen over Dave’s cover. This time I knew better and preferred to hang about chatting to people, until it was time to pack up. It was good to hang out until after the events because some of us volunteers would go for a drink.
As the signing went on late most people dissolved away. John and I were left with Neil and his heavily pregnant publicist to escort them to the train station. Neil’s train to London was cancelled so I was charged with finding somewhere suitable to wait and grab a bite to eat. The pub nearby was open and had space at the back for us to rest up with Neil and the pregnant publicist. With a Ray Liotta swagger I secretly slipped the landlord a folded up £20 note to reopen the pub kitchen and make us some sandwiches.
So there I was, sitting opposite Neil feeling a little bit bemused with myself at just how effective doing nothing had resulted in this audience with a chap who’d created stuff that had a significant impact on my personal narrative, but with it all I was still quite tired, not feeling too much of a fanboy but still humbled all the same.
I just sat quietly, tired, and waited for the conversation to begin. Neil’d been making small talk with strangers for two hours and it would have been rude of me to drag him down that road again. I took out some comics from my bag that i’d been carrying around all day whilst marketing bubbles were being blown about. Issue 1 of Plastic Forks by Ted McKeever. These were the days before Abe Books and hunting for Plastic Forks and Rubber Blankets had been a part-time hobby of mine. I’d been fortunate to stumble upon a comic shop in Bath earlier that day between the Moroccan Cafe and the bakers that i got my breakfast croissants from. The comic shop just so happened to stock those precious copies i’d been searching for and with that the ice was broken.
Neil asked what I was reading and I passed over one of the sealed issues which he carefully opened, without allowing the scotch tape to touch the cover and for the next hour or so Neil and I were shooting-the-breeze. With being so popular and so much travel I suppose he’s gotten used to these fleeting connections, conversations with the ether, we must become a blur, a kind of gestalt friend.
When time was up and no trains were coming, we said farewells and Neil and publicist got in to a taxi for the long drive to some far away hotel and I wandered home with tears in my eyes and a massive grin on my face, just as Neil had after meeting Ditko.
Then time resumed its shape and all was as it was before.
Apologies to Harlan Ellison.