I got off the hovercraft at 1PM, to allow plenty of time to locate the lane and get myself something to eat. As I started wandering along the Esplanade, part of my brain became aware that the man walking towards me seemed to be walking strangely. Backwards. Because he was holding a video camera filming someone OH MY GOSH THAT'S NEIL GAIMAN WITH HIM WALKING RIGHT PAST ME. Instinct urged me to rush over and start fangirling. But no, he was being filmed (apparently giving the cameraman a guided tour of Portsmouth) and the last thing they needed was for some mad fangirl to ruin the take. It felt so strange to see this familiar face from TV and internet and book jackets right there in the flesh and instantly recognised and unexpected. (Perhaps somewhere on the internet, a video of Neil in Portsmouth includes a shot of a woman in a red hat and dress double-taking and staring gormlessly after him. Sorry, if so.)
Perhaps it was best for me to have a bit of private fangirling before I actually got to meet my hero properly. By the time Neil turned up to uncover the road sign, I was quite calm, sensible and civilised. Well, mostly. It was very strange to find a crowd of people standing by a bus stop staring at a covered road sign. I arrived quite early on, and most people present seemed to be official types, though I got chatting to a lady by admiring her Firefly T-shirt. Then I was asked, "Are you KatieWhoCanRead?" The guy behind me introduced himself as Chris, better known to me as Chalbo, a fellow blogger and Isle of Wight resident.
We could see Neil, sitting in the park doing interviews with various media types, but at last he came up to the lane, where he talked about growing up in Portsmouth, and how pleased he was to be part of the city's literary heritage; how he had been encouraged as a boy by the fact that people from Portsmouth could become great writers. The sign was uncovered, and the city's Poet Laureate read two of her poems.
After the ceremony, I wasn't sure whether or not to hang around, but my feet would not let me leave. Neil was introduced to various important people, and journalists, and then got chatting to those fans who had stayed in the area, posing for photos and offering hugs. Let me just say now, Neil Gaiman is absolutely charming, taking an interest in all of his fans individually. The crowds were dispersing when I got up the nerve to say hello, but he said, "Ah, the lady with the amazing hat!" sounding happy to meet me. (I always think that for famous people, doing the signings and posing for photos must a thing to be endured rather than enjoyed, but Neil has a way of making every fan feel special.)
Between the road naming ceremony and the evening event, I checked into the Holiday Inn near the hovercraft terminal. I'd decided to stay in Southsea overnight, because I had no idea how late the signing would go on, and did not want to risk missing getting my Ocean and Neverwhere signed because I had to go back to the Island. There was a bookstall in the main auditorium absolutely loaded with Neil Gaiman books of all kinds. That was my kind of bookstall! It was such an amazing feeling to be sat in the packed Guildhall with like-minded people. When I see someone reading, I can never rest until I know what their book is, and it was so wonderful that 1. so many people were reading while they waited, and 2. they were all reading books by my favourite author!
Neil was preceded onto the stage by a Dalek, much to everyone's surprise, a Dalek he warned might look like a dummy, but would start moving 45 minutes into the evening and inflict on us all a messy death. Thank you very much, Mr Gaiman! It was not a talk so much as an informal interview with some bearded man who had something to do with the arts in Portsmouth, but whose name and exact role I did not catch. Neil spoke about his busy year: his picture book Chu's Day, about a baby panda; his Calendar of Tales project, Doctor Who, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, forthcoming video game project Wayward Manor, and his new children's book, Fortunately the Milk. There was a question-and-answer session, and Neil read passages from Ocean, and the beginning of Fortunately the Milk. The latter may be aimed at primary-school-aged children, but I plan to buy a copy for myself. Neil explained that since he'd written his story, The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, he'd been feeling slightly guilty about its portrayal of fathers as lazy bodies hidden behind newspapers. So, Fortunately the Milk is the story of a father who is whisked away on wild adventures on the way home from the shop. And it is hilarious.
I knew that there would be an unprecedented queue for the signing afterwards. I knew Neil's signing events often comprised thousands of autographs, and that it was not unknown for him to still be signing at 1 in the morning. I wasn't quite prepared for what that would look like. The ushers called us up row by row, at random, and the queue snaked around the outside of the auditorium. It was indeed a very slow process. I didn't mind, though. I had my books. I was in no hurry, and I was very glad that I'd booked that hotel, though I had left it late, and it was quite pricey for my budget. But if the queue was moving slowly, it meant that Neil was spending time talking to the people. To pass the time, one usher passed around a microphone, asking people to tell jokes or sing songs. For some reason, there was a cheese theme to many of the jokes, and they were of groan-worthy quality: so unfunny they were funny. Chris and his friend (sister?) had to leave early to get back to the Island, and I'm not sure whether they got to queue-jump and get books signed or not. It must have been half past 11 before my row even got to start queuing - two and a half hours after Neil left the stage. There was some grumbling from people in the row behind us, but generally everyone seemed happy enough to be there that we were patient, making friends. (Some people complimented me on my red outfit. It feels very weird to have people look at me because I look good. Usually I feel like if people are staring at me, it's because my dorkiness is visible. This may be left over from school insecurities.) I got to know the people behind me in the queue: Abbi, her girlfriend Jessica, and Jessica's brother (Josh?). Abbi was reading American Gods aloud complete with voices, and I eavesdropped shamelessly. I learned that she had adapted Neverwhere as a student play two years ago. I wish I could have seen it.
Neil had been signing for over three hours by the time we got to the table - and yet he was still lovely, interested, friendly. He really is ridiculously charming, remembering me from the road naming, and thanking me for coming along. "And that remains a nice hat," he said.
Yesterday was ridiculously, impossibly perfect, better than I could have realistically hoped for. Accidentally passing Neil on the esplanade, having twitter and blogger friends introducing themselves, people reading aloud in the queue, and my favourite living author remembering me (and my hat) - these were all things that I had idly imagined, but didn't really expect. Such days are to be cherished and remembered for a long, long time.