Thursday, October 23, 2014

UK Trip II: London

After our whirlwind (and beer-saturated) few days in Yorkshire Kelley and I were feeling a bit used (though pleased with ourselves) by the time we got to London. So the serenity of the hotel in Holborn was a lovely surprise. This was waiting in our room:

The photo is a bit blurry because, well, I was a bit blurry. We were so tired that we just unpacked, tottered down to the restaurant, and then went to bed.

The restaurant was a rather odd but—that night at least—just what we needed. I ate delicious smoked salmon followed by chicken, accompanied by a very reasonable bottle of Rioja. All chosen from something they called their pre-theatre menu. I took this pic of Kelley, who was grinning at something luscious she'd seen on said menu. Or maybe just at the thought of getting to bed at a reasonable hour :)
The next day was an event I'd been looking forward to for an age, at King's College London. (Also a fantastic breakfast featuring mackerel. Oh, I love mackerel.)

King's is one of the two founding colleges of the University of London and—depending which way you squint—possibly the third oldest university in England. (Seriously, there's a whole Wikipedia article on this, "Third-oldest university in England debate." Academics are... Well, before my recent trip I would have said Academics are weird, but it turns out that in some ways I am scarily attuned to their world-view.)

So, anyway, last year I was invited to sit on a round-table discussion about medieval history and fantasy but I couldn't get a plane ticket. This time I was determined to do whatever it took—walk the continental US and swim the Atlantic—to be there. The people who made it happen were Professor Clare Lees (whose name you might recognise from her wonderful collaborative texts about early Anglo-Saxon England, particularly as it pertains to issues of gender, language, and place, many of them written or edited with Gillian Overing, see, for example, Double Agents and A Place to Believe In—both of which I'm proud to say I own), her graduate student Carl Kears (who will soon be Dr Carl) and also Dr Josh Davies. Many, many, thanks to them; they did a bang-up job.

First of all, the event was held in a gorgeous room, the River Room, taller than it was broad or deep (though no dimension was insignificant), with a magnificent view of the Thames. The acoustics were brilliant—if you were singing plainchant. Given that I was planning a dramatic reading of the beginning of Hild, which unfurls quietly and wouldn't benefit from reverb, I used a microphone. The audio was almost wholly academic, a mix of storied Professors, working archaeologists, historians, and students of every stripe, with a smattering of readers from other walks of life.

It was SRO with lots of people having to sit on the floor at the front.

Clare introduced me, then I read, then we talked about a few things—Bede's agenda, for example—then I answered questions. These were mostly about Hild, but also my research, my writing, and (the inevitable) When's the next one?! Then I signed books.

I was there about two hours (there was wine...) then there was a truly marvellous dinner for about ten people. Or maybe it was eight (I'd been talking for about five hours; I was not keeping track of details). The conversation ranged from the cost of education, to politics, to gender and power, to Mandeville's Travels. It was everything I'd hoped for. A truly wonderful evening. I can't wait to do it again.

The next day, we went across the city to Queen Mary University London. QMUL a very different venue from King's, much more recent (Edwardian) and with a different focus. But I enjoyed it just as much. Instead of a huge room with sweeping views, I was in an intimate (seating for 30) cinema with bright pink seats on a serious rake. I sat on a comfy sofa, beer in hand, and chatted with Matt Jacobsen (who organised everything perfectly) about Hild, and Aud, and Ammonite, and more. The audience were students: film students, creative writing students, history students. I had a great time. I felt as though I could really help some of them with issues they were wrestling with.

Matt had prepared very well. It was essentially a staged interview, a very good one. We explored all kinds of things, some of them new to me, but intriguing. I had a good time, and came away thinking a lot about class and education, and how teaching works.

That's the place I was in when we met two friends for dinner, both academics at different points in their career. So as well as the usual personal things, and books, we talked about the UK and US education systems and, again, how teaching works. I find I'm getting more interested in that. One day I probably do something about it. But, hey, as usual today is not that day.

The next day, Thursday, Kelley and I went to the offices of my esteemed publisher, Blackfriars. (At least they are esteemed by me; they're very new—Hild was their first hardback—so there simply hasn't been time to become esteemed by the rest of the world, yet.) Blackfriars are part of Little, Brown, with spiffy offices on the Embankment. There was Champagne, decent stuff, which I happily sucked down while talked to a bunch of editorial, managerial, web, print, and production people who all said very nice things about Hild. My biggest surprise was how startlingly young everyone was. I mean, really really young. I'm so used to having business conversations with people in their forties and fifties that it was quite odd to talk about it with those in their 20s. I'm not sure I did a very good job of getting over my startlement, though to be fair by this stage I was getting very, very tired, and I had two more things to do that day.

The first was my signing at Forbidden Planet. I'd never been there before and wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Here there was no beer or wine, but there was tea and biscuits, which is what I needed at that point so it worked out perfectly. A zillion people showed up, lugging tons and tons of books, including some I'd never seen before, like the Polish versions of Warhammer stories. Wow. It was very cool. Anyway, I talked and talked. One sadness: I didn't get time to talk to everyone who showed up to the extent I would have liked.

Then it was on to another dinner, this time with two people we'd never met (and who had not met each other) but whom we'd worked with in various capacities over the web and to whom we felt very kindly disposed. We had a great time, sadly cut short by each them having to run for different trains, and us having to get to bed.

We did, finally, get to bed—but had to be up at 4:45 am to pack and make the early Heathrow to Seattle flight. The fight was an interesting experience in and of itself in which we ended up being given a bottle of Taittinger by a cabin attendant for doing a favour for her and a fellow passenger. We got no sleep, of course, and I couldn't really eat the food, so by the time we got back to Seattle I was a bit out of it. We had time to have a cup of tea, eat some chicken, and change into fresh (ish) clothes and hoof it to the Washington State Book Awards.

I won, and made a half delirious speech referencing the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, specifically: Getting up before anyone else had gone to bed... By the time we finally got to bed I'd been up 27 hours on top of a cumulative sleep deficit. I'm still recovering.

It was a great trip. I'd do it again in a hot second. Just not, y'know, for a while. Except, oh...
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