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 Epic Tragedy of Love

Romeo and Juliet (1968 film)

Romeo and Juliet (1968 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Literature, history and mythology is littered with great heroes and heroines, those mystically imbued figures whose short poetic lives have enriched ours, and whose tragic and doomed love affairs have become the stuff of legend. As a child I was first aware of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Romeo & Juliet, and their struggles against a world so determined to tear them apart. Their torn loyalties of family, responsibility, duty, honour, and the forbidden love they held for each other, seemed to mirror the angst we teenagers inevitably felt. Luckily at my school, we had a rich diet of Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Anthony & Cleopatra (another doomed couple), Julius Caesar, Hamlet (unrequited & destructive love), Othello (jealous, possessive love) & Macbeth (the manipulation of love). I was fascinated by the interplay of characters, how each couple and individual reacted to the circumstances they found themselves in, the choices they made, whether destiny played a part, how love could be corrupted or could corrupt others. As a hopeless romantic, (Shh! Don’t tell anyone! I try not to admit it and refrain from reading any chick-lit, ‘slushy trash’ as I call it, hey…sci-fi/fantasy girl here!), I do see the allure of such characters and such stories and how they ultimately convey the human condition in all its absurdities, frailties, flaws and its glory.

The Lady of Shalott, based on The Lady of Shal...

The Lady of Shalott, based on The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, my reading lists widened and as my love of the fantasy genre and its origins took hold, I began delving into ancient mythology. The wonderful Welsh sagas of The Mabinogion (based on tales from 1190-1350) and particularly Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485), is still a favourite of mine, and the eternal love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere & Launcelot. Somehow, you can still sense the searing pain of betrayal in Arthur’s heart, the conflict in the lovers and their guilt at their actions, yet their total inability to stop themselves falling in love. Of course, it is as true today as it was in 600AD, you cannot help who you fall in love with. I remember watching John Boorman’s mesmeric 1981 film Excalibur, with its incredible visuals and Carl Orff’s thunderous Carmina Burana spurring the horses on through the mists of battle. But still, through all the magic and heroism, it was the tragic love story that kept haunting me. As I’m typing this, I’m sitting looking at a beautiful print of The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1888), based on the famous Tennyson poem and all that doomed heart ache just comes flooding back.

tristan and isolde

tristan and isolde (Photo credit: kairin)

When you think of the greatest and most tragic love stories you probably think of the ones I’ve mentioned and of Tristan & Iseult (Isolde), Paris & Helena, Orpheus and Eurydice and perhaps poor Pyramus and Thisbe. Having lived in ancient Babylonia in neighbouring homes, they fell in love with each other as they grew up. Their respective families were fervently against the match, so one night the two lovers hatched a plan. They decided to meet up under a mulberry tree in the nearby fields, and run away together. Thisbe reached the tree first, but frightened at seeing a lion approach with blood stained jaws, she ran and hid in some rocks, dropping her veil as she ran. The lion picked up the veil just as Pyramus arrived. Devastated at seeing Thisbe’s veil in the lion’s bloody mouth, Pyramus took his sword out and killed himself. When poor Thisbe eventually emerged from the rocks and saw her beloved Pyramus dead, she too took his sword and killed herself.  😦

Pyramus and Thisbe

Pyramus and Thisbe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then, you have the sad tale of Heloise and Abelard, which is perhaps the most tragic love affair of all, especially as it is a story based on an actual event. Being fact rather than merely myth, makes us all marvel at the power of sacrifice and the power of love. Heloise (1101-1164) and Peter Abelard (1079-1142) had their story immortalised by British poet, Alexander Pope in 1717, who turned it into a piece of classic literature, ‘Eloisa to Abelard’. Heloise and Abelard were ridiculously in love and doomed to a tragic end in mid 12th century France. Abelard was a well-known French philosopher, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century. Heloise, was the niece and pride of the Canon Fulbert, who wanted her to have the best education possible. Abelard became the girl’s live-in tutor, 20 years her senior. A romance blossomed between them, a romance that so enraged her disapproving uncle that he had Abelard castrated shortly after they were discovered. Distraught, the lovers entered a monastery and nunnery and wrote a set of now-famous letters to each other up until their death, though they never met again.

Abelard and his pupil, Héloïse, by Edmund Blai...

Abelard and his pupil, Héloïse, by Edmund Blair Leighton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These tragedies both real and imagined have inspired such a rich tapestry of stories. As a huge fan of fantasy, from the world’s first ever story, The Epic of Gilgamesh to Beowulf to The Lord Of The Rings, Narnia and Game Of Thrones etc., I still like my fantasy to have that tragic element, that hint of doomed love or sacrifice. In the classic tradition J.R.R.Tolkien of course, being a scholar in ancient Nordic and Celtic mythology, was able to bring many of these elements into his work, particularly in The Silmarillion.

Cover of "The Silmarillion"

Cover of The Silmarillion

The Silmarillion, I book I still adore and one which I am very lucky to have a cherished first edition of, has two tragic love stories which really wrench at the heart. The first of course, is the heroic story of Beren and Luthien, later mirrored in the love story of Aragorn and Arwen in LOTR. Here, the story of Beren and Luthien (with similarities to Orpheus and Eurydice) tells of the love between a mortal man, Beren and the most beautiful immortal elf-maiden, Luthien Tinuviel and the struggles and obstacles they face in their quest to be together. But for me, by far the more tragic love story and the one which is the antithesis to Beren’s story, was the darker tale of poor Turin Turambar. Despite being a great hero, Turin Turambar, seems forever cursed with ill fortune and the very worst of luck. He battles valiantly against evil foes, yet whatever he turns his hand to seems to go wrong. Eventually both Turin and his sister Nienor are enchanted by a mighty dragon, Glaurung. Under its enchantment, they fall in love with each other and live as man and wife. But, when Turin kills the dragon and the spell is lifted, they are driven mad by the realisation of their sins and they both commit suicide. This perhaps, is Tolkien at his darkest, but still as a reader, you cannot help feeling such sorrow and sympathy for these two sad characters.

My personal favourite though, and a story that inspired Tolkien himself, has to be the story of Sigurd and Brynhild, from the Volsunga Saga. Sigurd (Old Norse: Sigurðr) and Brynhild from the Volsunga Saga (ancient Norse mythology

Sigrdrífa gives Sigurðr a horn to drink from.

Sigrdrífa gives Sigurðr a horn to drink from. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

c.1000AD), is a bittersweet tale of romance, heroism, greed, betrayal and tragedy. The later German hero, Siegfried from the Nibelungenlied (1180 to 1210) (The Song of the Nibelungs) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is based on Sigurd and the Volsunga Saga. Basically, urged on by Loki and Odin, Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir and takes his treasure hoard. He bathes in the dragon’s blood to become invincible, and meets Brynhildr ‘shieldmaiden’, who in some incarnations of the story is a Valkyrie imbued with supernatural powers. They fall in love but Brynhild prophesies his doom and marriage to another. They part temporarily. Sigurd travels to the court of Gjuki, whose wife, Grimhild poisons him with an ‘Ale of Forgetfulness’ to force him to forget Brynhild so he can marry their daughter, Gudrun. Meanwhile, Gunnar, Gudrun’s brother courts Brynhild who is still waiting for her beloved Sigurd. To win Brynhild over, Gunnar devises a plan and convinces an enchanted Sigurd to help him. Unable to get near to Brynhild himself, but seeing that Sigurd can, Gunnar swaps bodies with him to seduce Brunhild and break her defences/powers, enabling him to seize his prize thereafter. Eventually, all deceptions come to light. Gunnar plots against and kills Sigurd, in some stories Brynhild then kills him, but the story ends with Sigurd and Brynhild finally reunited in death as she throws herself onto Sigurd’s blazing funeral pyre! What a way to go!English: A Christmas bonfire in Guelph, Canada.

 

The map to the human heart is a complicated route indeed, full of hidden perils, surprises and joyous heights!

Now…you may well ask, why on earth I am exploring tragic love affairs in literature, myth and history? Why the sudden interest?

Well…I’m glad to say I haven’t had a tragic experience myself, but…I am, I’m afraid, witnessing one as I write this. Yes, I’m not talking about my favourite tear inducing movie, or the howls of, “NO, GOD NO!” that I heard being cried at the TV screen from my friends who were apoplectic at the death of Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey. No…I’m talking about a real life love tragedy unfolding before my eyes right now – a scene of unparalleled sadness, of unrequited love that makes all of the previous tales pale into insignificance.

Forget Romeo & Juliet, Heathcliff & Cathy, who cares about Tristan & Isolde? This is the sad sad tale of…Tolly & Mimi…

On the 1st August 2009, four years ago this very day, I was travelling back from Bridgewater having rescued two gorgeous white balls of fluff from the most hideous living conditions you can imagine. Four years later, my beautiful white wolves, brothers Korrun & Tolly, are happy and healthy and well…totally gorgeous. 349

Only one problem…Tolly is in love, deeply, passionately, unconditionally…an all consuming obsessional love and one which tragically, it is completely unrequited.

Wherever Mimi goes, Tolly follows, every move she makes he mirrors, no more than two inches from her face at all times, staring adoringly, gazing, dribbling, sighing with pensive longing when she retreats upstairs. Such desperate longing, such sadness…the poor boy just hasn’t realised that cats and dogs simply don’t…well, it’s a barrier greater than that of the Capulets and Montagues!

006

011

014

015016