Sunday, 20 October 2013

A Reading of Neil Gaiman's Fortunately the Milk

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend an event in Westminster, where Neil Gaiman read his new book for children, Fortunately the Milk. But it was more than just a book reading - there was comedy, music and the book's illustrator, Chris Riddell, drew pictures from the story as Neil told it. After he finished, he answered a few questions from Twitter, compered by Lenny Henry, and as a coda to the evening Neil's wife Amanda Palmer came out and sang a song on ukulele for us.


I've been a fan of Neil Gaiman's Sandman for more than half my life at this point, and of Good Omens, the book he cowrote with Terry Pratchett. Soon after ending the Sandman he moved into prose fiction, where I followed his career for years without actually reading much - although when I finally picked up American Gods a few years ago, it felt like catching up with an old friend you haven't seen in years. So when I saw that Neil was doing this reading in London, as the tail end of what he's described as his last-ever signing tour, I knew I had to catch it.

The first thing to say is that the story has a particularly British feeling of coziness to it. It's the tale of a dad who goes out to the store to get some milk for his children's breakfast (and his own tea), and takes a while. When questioned about why he took so long to come back, he tells them a story about being kidnapped by aliens, traveling through time, sailing with pirates, and rescuing the universe in the company of dinosaurs.

Throughout the story we have the voice of the narrator, which is of course Neil Gaiman's voice, taking us from event to event without ever getting rattled by all the outlandish things that are happening around him. For example, in his encounter with the pirates he guides them through the process of making him walk the plank, pointing out that it's the done thing in these circumstances.

The best part of course, is that he's never talking down to the kids - whether the fictional ones or the readers. I remember reading a quote years ago, which I really hope is by Neil but I can't seem to find it on the internet, where it's said that the very best children's books can be about anything at all, but not about being children's books. As an example, this is why episodes 4-6 of Star Wars are classics, but episodes 1-3 are among the most hated movies in existence.

And I guess that's the secret of why Neil Gaiman's so successful as a storyteller. His stories are always singular, dreamlike, and different from just about everything else; there's always a hint - or more than a hint - of another, more exciting and dangerous world beyond the one we live in. But you can tell in each case that he's pursuing the types of story he wants to tell, without worrying about whether he's fitting in with superhero stories, or fantasy, or horror, or whatever. This is, of course, why his books for children are so successful - children's literature seems to be a lot more willing to mix genres for the sake of a good story.

So I'm glad I caught this reading, and I hope to catch more if he ever comes to San Francisco. And in the meantime, I want to learn more about how he does what he does - because one day I'd like to be onstage reading my own work, and would love to have a cameo appearance from him.