Thursday, June 2, 2016

To London to see Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has been among my favorite authors since I was a child and first read Neverwhere. I didn't understand it all at the time (it means so much more now that I'm actually well-acquainted with the London Underground!) but many of his books have captivated my imagination since then, and it's been remarkable to see his name attached to other things I love (he writes splendid book introductions, for example, and did you know he did the screenplay for the English voice dub of Princess Mononoke?) When he announced on his blog that he'd be giving a public talk on his new book (a collection of his nonfiction, including some of the aforementioned book introductions) in London, I didn't actually realize right away that I'm actually in the UK; I could go to that!

So I planned my first day in London of this summer research trip. My train would get me into London around lunchtime, and the event wasn't until the evening. What would I do in the meantime? Find lunch at my third-favorite London restaurant (Husband had asked me to save our two favorite pubs for when he got here), and plan research appointments at two London libraries, of course!

The cafe of St-Martin-in-the-Fields does my very favorite meal deal in all of London: housemade soup and warm pudding, all for less than 8 pounds. This time, carrot and coriander soup, and apple crumble with custard.

My first library date was with the Society of Antiquaries

This unassuming facade is one of the most beloved places in England for an academic. Walking up to the British Library, my poor heart went pitter-pat, and I couldn't stop beaming. (The beaming stopped when I'd settled in the Rare Books and Music reading room and realized I'd forgotten my account password from two years ago, so I couldn't get on the internet...)

Then it was time to head towards Union Chapel. The event started at 8, the doors opened at 7, and I'd booked the 6:30 dinner reservation in the chapel restaurant. I arrived in the area around 5:45, planning to camp out in a coffee shop for the next almost-hour, when I spotted the queue already forming at the chapel doors. So I got my tea to-go and hurried off to join it! It was a remarkable experience. It was cold and grey, dismal in atmosphere but delightful in company. I've never camped out or even queued for an event before, and it was absolutely wonderful to learn that fellow geeks are just as easy to talk to as fellow academics. Talk of favorite Gaiman books, Harry Potter conventions, and Doctor Who occupied us all the way to 6:30, at which point, I realized that there had been no need to wait in the line after all: those with dinner reservations would be using a separate door.

I have no idea why everybody didn't book the dinner. It wasn't all that expensive, and even if it had been, I'd learned that the chapel uses the money raised in its restaurant and bar to help fund its work with the homeless, and I wanted to support that. The restaurant/bar itself was totally cool, dark and colorfully lit, with loud, pounding music. It was out of the cold (and indeed, apparently it did start raining--and even hailing???--before the line was let into the church at 7). They were serious about reservations--each seat was labeled with a name. I had lamb and potatoes cooked in cinnamon and cumin, a glass of pinot grigio, and yet more fun conversation with a fellow fan. And the very best part? We were allowed into the church first, which meant that we all landed in the first three rows!

Dinner and the excited wait for the event to start felt as surreal as the time my choir sang with the Rolling Stones. Perhaps even more--I'm not a rock fan, and my excitement there stemmed largely from the excitement of everyone around me. Here, however, I was about to see one of my favorite authors, in real life. He was a real, physical, material human being, not just a source of text. Someone I'd loved for years, and had so little thought I might ever see in person that it wasn't even on my list of things I hoped to do someday.

The view from the second row
The event came with a signed copy of Neil's new book!

The surprise special guests turned out to be, unsurprisingly but still awesomely, his wife Amanda Palmer and her father. The two have just created a soon-to-be-released album, and they performed one of the songs for us.

Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger discussing The View from the Cheap Seats

Neil reads us one of its shorter pieces--a spooky reflection on Halloween and why we love ghost stories

Interestingly enough, as I was leaving for home, things felt a whole lot less surreal. This wasn't a life-changing event; I didn't go away with my entire worldview shattered by the things Neil said or from the mere fact of seeing him. This was just an author, a really genuine and open author, chatting about his new book and answering questions about his writing. In a way, I love that even more. Neil Gaiman is just a person who has ideas that I love and that sometimes some I don't, who encourages the creative process in everybody. And if you don't have to be some otherworldly celebrity to do it, but just a person, perhaps we all can write things that are beautiful and meaningful to someone else.

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