Making Hay with Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry and Chris Riddell!

On Monday 29th May 2017, I had the good fortune to drive to the beautiful Welsh/Herefordshire border town of Hay-on-Wye and its world famous Hay Literary Festival. The Hay Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so it felt like an extra special treat. My reason for going, apart from the fact that Hay-on-Wye is a book lovers paradise, was because I had tickets to see Neil Gaiman in conversation with Stephen Fry on the subject of ‘Mythology’, two authors and people I greatly admire and a topic I love and am a little obsessed with – a perfect day out! 😀

I’ve been to Hay and its festival many times now but it always feels like the first time, that tangible sense of excitement and child like joy just stays with me every time. I’ve been wanting to see Neil Gaiman for ages but somehow had always missed him, often because I’d bought early bird tickets to see someone else before realising that Gaiman was appearing as well. As much as I love Hay it’s just too far to go twice in a week (every route there is fiddly as hell), and too expensive and booked up to even consider staying the night. Last time, I was at the festival to see Kazuo Ishiguro and his brilliant new book The Buried Giant and had once again missed Neil Gaiman. The irony was that Ishiguro was discussing the incredible snobbery he had encountered when he decided to write The Buried Giant, his first foray into fantasy, and how he had had no idea just what genre bias, prejudice and misconceptions there was in literary circles about fantasy. In fact, Ishiguro had been so taken aback by the level of snobbery towards fantasy that he ended up, with Neil Gaiman, writing a newspaper article about it!

So when the festival programme landed on my door two weeks ago and I saw Neil Gaiman would be appearing with another favourite of mine, Stephen Fry, it was a no brainer, I booked my ticket immediately. To my delight, a couple of friends had booked up the exact same event so we were able to meet up and sit next to each other. A shout out to the lovely Roz Clarke a brilliant fellow fantasy writer from Grimbold Books (who’s not only a great writer but is an amazing editor as well as being a lovely person) and Heather Ashley, another lovely mutual friend and her fabulous fringed blue shawl which I wanted to steal and two new friends I met on Monday, Ian Halverson and Amanda Beecham who was wearing the most gorgeous dress!

I drove to Hay hoping to avoid the predicted rain as well as all the poor squashed hedgehogs along the route. My accompanying soundtrack was Soundgarden’s Superunknown album, made all the more poignant by the tragic suicide of its glorious frontman and all round poetic genius, Chris Cornell less than two weeks before. The track ‘Feels Like Suicide’, a track I had always loved now seems too loaded with meaning and full of sadness to listen to. 😦

I arrived a little late (as usual), just after 1pm. Note to all people travelling to Hay-on-Wye, don’t EVER go through Hereford, REALLY not worth it! Anyway, after a security check of bags (a sad necessity these days especially post the horrific Manchester attack the previous Monday) and the armed police that were patrolling the festival, I met up with the gang in the Food Hall. What made it more joyous, is that only Heather had been to Hay before so for Roz, Ian and Amanda this was all a gloriously new experience. We wandered past the various tents, bunting and fluttering flags like Tibetan prayers to the gods, past the smells of barbecuing foods, coffee’s of every description, acoustic music, pan pipes, fiddles and the general hubbub caused by the thousands of festival goers.

We grabbed a shuttle bus into town and started our book crawl opposite Hay-on-Wye’s impressive ruined castle…by going to Shepherd’s Ice-Cream Parlour! Yes, ice cream came before books! 😀 Shepherd’s is an amazing place straight out of the 1930’s with it’s curved glass façade, mosaic floor and café chic vibe, but it’s ice cream…oh la la! The queues were totally worth it! Made from local sheep’s milk, for me, it’s the best ice cream outside of Italy. I was a little pig and had four scoops spread over two tubs! 😀

We began exploring Hay-on-Wye’s delights by visiting the famous Richard Booth’s bookshop – THIS is the sort of bookshop you dream about, all creaking dark wooden floors and interior and several levels to get blissfully lost in. Having the will power of a gnat, I succumbed and bought my first of many purchases of the day!

We went on to Addyman’s Books, Mostly Maps and one of my personal favourites, Hay-On-Wye Booksellers. The magical thing about Hay-on-Wye, is that it casts a spell over you so utterly that you lose track of time even if you’ve only been in a few of its wonderful bookshops. Which is what happened to us. We didn’t even get the chance to meander around Hay’s largest bookshop, Hay Cinema Bookshop with over 200,000 titles! Suddenly it was 5pm and with our Neil Gaiman/Stephen Fry event starting at 5:30 in the main Tata Tent, we had to move our arses. With the queue for the shuttle buses impossibly long we decided to chance walking the mile and a bit from the town centre to the festival. We made it in time and joined the expansive queue – in all my years of going to Hay, I’ve never seen a queue for anybody as long as that one! We eventually got into the Tent and in my exuberance to grab five seats together I virtually trampled on this poor woman who had sat herself at the very end of a line of empty seats. Oops sorry! :O

The event started and to our amazement we had an extra treat, up on stage joining Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry was Children’s Laureate and illustrator extraordinaire, Chris Riddell (a FB friend of mine and someone I am in complete awe of). Chris was on stage throughout actually illustrating the conversation on the spot! Amazing! I have no idea how he does it!

The conversation started with Stephen Fry asking Neil about how he first got into mythology, a subject they are both passionate about (Stephen Fry loves Greek Myths which he talked about a bit, whereas Neil Gaiman prefers Norse Myths – hence his new book, Norse Mythology). For Neil Gaiman it was Norse Mythology and its roots, not the Wagnerian Cycle stuff but the older original Eddas, tales of Odin, Thor, Loki and giant wolf Fenrir, of magic and cruelty, tricks and betrayal, that he loved so much. Certainly very inspirational stuff, no wonder Tolkien often plundered such tales for his own creations! Neil spoke eloquently about Loki’s children, particularly Týr and read a section of his new book, Norse Mythology, and how Odin had made the dwarfs make an unbreakable chain, Gleipnir, and had tricked Fenrir into being bound up by it because they were jealous of his strength and power. I won’t spoil the end of the tale for those of you who are not familiar. 🙂

Stephen Fry, as always, had a lovely relaxed style of questioning that made both men at ease, even under the intense stare of some 500 audience members and all the bright lights. Chris Riddell brought there conversations alive with beautifully drawn snapshots of both sitters and the various mythological characters they discussed, as well as some cheekily flamboyant moments of drawing hilarity!

The entire experience was utterly magical. I really wish I had brought a Dictaphone or something to record it all. It lasted just over a hour with some question and answer bits from the audience, including one girl asking if as writers did Gaiman and Fry ever feel like a God themselves? Clever question. Neil Gaiman replied “Yes, twice. Once when I was asked to write a Dr. Who script and I wrote… ‘Interior Tardis’, and once 30 years before that when I had to make Batman say something!” You can see the whole talk here.

Someone also asked if Gaiman would be interested in ever doing some Welsh Myths, like the Mabinogion…he didn’t say no! 😀 For someone like me, who ADORES any kind of mythology, but particularly Norse, Celtic and ancient Sumerian tales (Epic of Gilgamesh), this whole event was simply edible! 😀

After it finished I did my usual gazelle sprint to the festival bookshop, to queue up for the book signing. Despite my stumpy legs and swift weaving through the crowds, there were still about a hundred people in front of us, including the annoying serial fidget who was sitting next to me and could keep still for ore than a few seconds, making my chair move so much I was getting nauseous! But, we still managed to secure a good place, seeing as the queue snaked behind me by at least 2 or 3 hundred people!

Despite aching legs and complaining feet we queued and queued. Due to the number of people waiting Neil could only signed two books, but frankly he was amazing and ended up book signing for 5 hours! OMG! Anyway, being the naughty shit that I am and being a fan of his writing, I couldn’t resist in doing something cheeky. When it came to him singing the books I bought, his Norse Mythology and Stardust, I blurted out that I was a fan of his writing and wanted to give him a gift to say thank you. I wasn’t as eloquent as I wanted to be and slapped my novel, White Mountain, down on his table like a wet fish, but he was very gracious and seemed to love the cover. “Wow, lovely to meet a fellow author!” then to my amazement he stretched out his hand for a handshake! Gulp! What a moment, then he went and drew a doodle in one of the books!

After the book signing, exhausted but blissfully happy we said our goodbyes. It was nearly 8:30 but thankfully still light, so with the sun setting I left Hay-on-Wye and this my most favourite of festivals and taking a different route I drove through the majestic landscapes of the Golden Valley homeward bound.

What a magical day! 😀

Advertisements

The writing’s on the wall…er…tablet?

I don’t usually re-blog my own posts, in fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever done it before, but I saw this post I blogged in May last year and just loved the subject matter – writing and the history of writing! Enjoy! 😀 xx

Sophie E Tallis - Author/Illustrator

The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gil... The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian, circa 2nd millennium BC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, the writing’s on the tablet and I’m not talking computer tablets here, in terms of writing and technology, it seems we’ve come full circle! 😀

Like many of us, when I was a child I believed that the ancient Egyptians invented writing. That hieroglyphics were man’s earliest endeavour at making sense of the world in written form.

Of course, we all know this to be untrue now, that actually Sumer (southern Mesopotamia) and the ancient Sumerians invented writing, Sumerian cuneiform by writing on clay tablets with a reed called a stylus, at least 200 years before the Egyptians.

"The Flood Tablet. This is perhaps the mo...
“The Flood Tablet. This is perhaps the most famous of all cuneiform tablets. It is the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, and describes how the gods sent a flood to destroy the world. Like…

View original post 848 more words

The writing’s on the wall…er…tablet?

The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gil...

The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian, circa 2nd millennium BC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, the writing’s on the tablet and I’m not talking computer tablets here, in terms of writing and technology, it seems we’ve come full circle! 😀

Like many of us, when I was a child I believed that the ancient Egyptians invented writing. That hieroglyphics were man’s earliest endeavour at making sense of the world in written form.

Of course, we all know this to be untrue now, that actually Sumer (southern Mesopotamia) and the ancient Sumerians invented writing, Sumerian cuneiform by writing on clay tablets with a reed called a stylus, at least 200 years before the Egyptians.

"The Flood Tablet. This is perhaps the mo...
“The Flood Tablet. This is perhaps the most famous of all cuneiform tablets. It is the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, and describes how the gods sent a flood to destroy the world. Like Noah, Utnapishtim was forewarned and built an ark to house and preserve living things. After the flood he sent out birds to look for dry land. ME K 3375.” In the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we grow and get older, thus our knowledge grows. What will we learn tomorrow? 😀   The reason for my focusing on ancient history, apart from the fact that I love it, study it and it continually inspires me, is simply the wonderment of the act of writing itself. That miracle of thought made manifest that we all take for granted.The Sumerians were this planet’s earliest known civilisation, although new discoveries are being made all the time so never let your knowledge be set in stone!

Clay tablet with Sumerian cuneiform script lis...

Clay tablet with Sumerian cuneiform script listing gods in order of seniority, 2400-2200 BC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As well as inventing writing, the Sumerians invented the round wheel, astronomy and agriculture as we know it. A truly amazing people, thousands of years ahead of their time. Yet we know so little about them. Their great ziggurats (pyramids) have not withstood the ravages of time as well as their later Egyptian cousins, many of their stele ‘stelae’ (huge standing stones inscribed with cuneiform) are but broken fragments. Of course, time has not been the only eroding factor. Sumer as it was, lying between the great river deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates, is modern-day Iraq, a country which has been ravaged by war for hundreds of years.

English: Ruins from a temple in Naffur (ancien...

English: Ruins from a temple in Naffur (ancient Nippur), Iraq, are said to be the site for the meeting of Sumerian gods, as well as the place that man was created. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sumer’s greatest city states were Uruk, Ur, Nippur, Eridu and Kish, though these are ruins now, their history overwritten by the Babylonian Empire which followed, the Akkadians, Assyrians, Hittites and a host of other invading and overlapping peoples. In such a rich environment, it was hardly surprising that the fertile ground of the Tigris and Euphrates would be a prize worthy of fighting for.

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Anti...

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Antiguas ciudades de Sumeria Magyar: Ókori sumer városok (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, the reason I’m focusing on the Sumerians in particular, is simply because they also gave the world its very first story, The Epic of Gilgamesh. A wonderful fantasy adventure story on an epic scale, with our hero Gilgamesh, along with his friend Enkidu, trying to defy the gods and find the secret to immortality.

Gilgamesh Sumerian King

Gilgamesh Sumerian King (Photo credit: tonynetone)

Think of it, the world’s very first story, long before the Bible, Torah, Qur’an (Koran), the ancient Vedic Rig-Veda (early Hindu sagas), Buddhist tales, Zoroastrian writings or ancient Chinese scrolls of Confucius, the Sumerians were writing about their lives and they were writing stories. We have SO much to thank the Sumerians for!

What made them first think of projecting their thoughts in written form? No doubt the need for trade pushed the need for communication between peoples.

Evidence suggests that it was this cuneiform, written on clay tablets, that travelled to Egypt and India and other parts of near/middle Asia as part of the ancient trade links of the time; and that these later inspired the Egyptian earliest proto-hieroglyphics and the written language of the Indus Valley Civilisation (centred around Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa), covering modern-day India and Pakistan.

English: Mohenjo-daro

English: Mohenjo-daro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I suppose that is one of the contributing factors to my liking fantasy, particularly epic fantasy –  the fact that such sagas were written thousands of years ago, is certainly fuel for the imagination. The Sumerian King List for instance, a legendary text now where fantasy and fact certainly mix. The King List simply lists all the great rulers of the time, but it is not this which makes the record so extraordinary. It is the fact that this document cites many of those Kings as having lived and ruled for hundreds even thousands of years! Immortals? Talk about a feast for the imagination. If you’re looking for inspiration look to history.

Mace dedicated to the hero Gilgamesh (fifth ki...

Mace dedicated to the hero Gilgamesh (fifth king of Uruk, according to the Sumerian king list) by Urdun, civil servant of Lagash, Ur III. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The melding of fiction and fact is something I adore. Looking at history as we know it and daring to ask, what if this happened? For me, researching for an ancient forgotten people/culture that pre-date humanity, I had a lot of rich source material to draw from. Were these Sumerian Kings immortal exiles perhaps? Banished from their own Ǽllfren or Dworllian kin, to live amongst lesser humans? Perhaps it was these early sun-gods with their advanced knowledge and long life that seeded our civilisations? Are they the reason for the sudden unexplained jump in technology and culture all those thousands of years ago?

For me, my mind boggled with the possibilities. Certainly a rich pre-history from which to hang the tapestry of imagination.

But, fact and fiction aside, all we do know for certain, is that as readers and writers and lovers of the written word, we owe much to that ancient civilisation and their miraculous inventions!

😀 xx

Ziggurat at Ur

Ziggurat at Ur (Photo credit: jmcfall)