YALC 2014 ( A Coward’s Guide to Chairing) The Last Bit

So, it was off to do the signing bit. There was a sort of makeshift corridor of trestles and false walls, with authors scribbling and giggling with queues of fans and bloggers. I was lucky enough to find myself placed next to Bryony Pearce, who I’ve bantered a bit with on Twitter but, until that point, had never met. She was sporting a fantastic Firefly costume, which looked a little warm in the heat of Earl’s Court, but I’m pleased to report that she was as lovely in Real Life as she is in the Twitterverse. We gushed a bit about who we’d met and the  she happened to mention that the tall chap next to her was Jonathan Stroud.

Photo courtesy of Bryony Pearce

Photo courtesy of Bryony Pearce

Let’s just say I’m a fan. I love the Bartimaeus books and couldn’t finish the first of the Lockwoods because it scared me too much. Having not had the bottle to have a moustache-off with the Great John Hurt or pat Carrie Fisher’s dog, I decided to step-up to the mark and say hallo.

Like one of my other heroes, Philip Reeve, Jonathan is kind of what you want a writer to be: well-spoken, unassuming and sort of quintessentially English. Not a short twit in a Marvel shirt making a bit too much noise. Jonathan and his family were lovely and I found myself wishing I’d brought the Amulet of Samarkand with me, so he might sign it for me. Hopefully, there’ll be other times.

Darran Stobbart appeared out of the crowd. I’d met Darran briefly once before, at the Waterstone’s Book Prize, when Geekhood was on the shortlist. Although it’d only been a short hallo, I took to him very quickly and we’ve Twittered at each other a lot over the last couple of years. So, I hauled him over the table to come and sit in with me. I’m told that when I nipped to the loo, he actually signed a book, pretending to be me! I do hope this is true…


And then Jesse Owen appeared. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Jesse might appear to be a bit shy but, once he gets warmed-up, he’s a hoot. According to him, he doesn’t get out much, but I think he’s lying. In fact, I’d like to issue a challenge to anyone living in the Bristol area: if you see Jesse out and about, Tweet me a photo. I intend to disprove his theory that he’s a shy bunny with an online “Where’s Jesse?” photo campaign. Go on, do it. Here’s one of him with people, proving he LIES!!!

Photo courtesy of Sarah MacIntyre

Photo courtesy of Sarah MacIntyre. Jesse in blue, hating me for dragging him into the photo.

There were so many bloggers there that I’m hard-pressed to remember exactly who I met, but I remember being enthusiastically halloed by Blondie Camps, grinned at by Charli and laughing a lot with Books Bandit who was generous enough to forgive me when I thought she was someone else with the same name. And of, course, the ever-lovely Laura Heath was there, running in around in a hat not dissimilar from mine. I like to think I may have helped shape her blossoming fashion-sense.

If I met you, but haven’t mentioned you, I apologise – but it was busy.

I tell you what – if you RT this, then feel free to stick your name in this sentence:

And a real highlight was meeting……….

Hope that gets me out of trouble.

All too soon the signing was over and it was back to the Green Room to goggle at more famous folk and wish I had more guts to go and talk to them.

I don’t know how long I was there but, eventually, my body decided it was time to eat, so I snuck off for some food, before returning for the Post Gig Party.

The thing with publishing people, from fans and bloggers to publicists and authors is that everyone just seems lovely, like we’re all part of some Big Club and we all look out for each other. At the do, I saw Paul Black, who was looking after Patrick Ness. I love Paul. Not only is he consummately brilliant at his job, he’s got one of the most instantly-engaging personalities in anyone I’ve ever met. He’s funny and caring and an all-round good egg. It was a pleasure to see him. It always is.

This is the Publicity Guy. For real.

Paul Black. Wearing white.

Dave Cousins said hallo and I saw Sarwat Chadda being very tall, but I was starting to flag. Malorie Blackman made a touching speech and there was lots of clapping and a group photo, but I was done. Shortly after that, I said my farewells and made my way back to my car.

The YALC was brilliant and everyone should be proud of it as an achievement. I’ve seen some stuff on Twitter about its imperfections – some of which I agree with – but I think it’s worth bearing in mind that this was the First One. Even LFCC had to start somewhere and I bet that first foray wasn’t the well-oiled machine it is today. The important thing is that it happened at all; details can be ironed-out with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight but, for me, it’s enough to say that I was there and I was part of it.

And so were you.

That moustache is now gone.

That moustache is now gone.

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YALC 2014 (A Coward’s Guide to Chairing) Part 3: The Next Bit

Even my basic knowledge of chairing led me to a point I couldn’t ignore: we couldn’t do the panel event without all the panel – but there was no sign of Rainbow Rowell!

The foot of the Rainbow

Help arrived in the form of Emma Bradshaw who told us that Rainbow was on her way, but she’d twisted not one, but both her ankles and would need them looked at. I took the time to check through my notes one last time, make sure my laptop and dongle were both up and running and to panic a bit more.

And then Rainbow was there, sitting at the other end of the Green Room, an ice-pack on one ankle. I went over and introduced myself and asked her if she’d like a quick butcher’s at the questions. Most of us have twisted our ankles at some point and I’m sure  you’ll agree that it hurts. A lot. But Rainbow was chipper, cheerful and chatty – if a little chagrined. All the ch’s. She took a look at the questions and brightly declared that everything was OK.

And then we were off.

To the Boards!

I vaguely remember seeing geek extraordinaire, Jim Dean, and pointing at the blogging juggernaut that is Jesse Owen. But there were so many faces and we were being shepherded so fast that it was impossible to say anything. As we got closer, I offered Rescue Remedy to the panel. Only Lucy Saxon turned it down, possibly drawing on some comic-strip-courage from her Captain America costume. Tim, bless him, didn’t even know what the stuff was but went for it anyway. He’s since contacted me to ask what it was as it seemed to work. My and CJ Skuse’s theory seems to be gathering ground…

We arrived at the stage and I have a vague memory of asking everyone if they were happy to go. After a quick fiddle with the microphones, we got the thumbs-up and I found myself standing up in front of a Large Crowd of People.


No matter how many times I’ve stood on stage, no matter how well-rehearsed I feel and no matter how well-supported you feel by the people around you, there’s always that first, horrible moment where you take in your first breath to speak. Is it going to sound OK? Will you forget your words? This tends to accompany itself by an overwhelming desire to just turn and run. But, if you haven’t done this sort of thing before, here’s the trick:

Just do it.

I’ve never jumped out of an aeroplane, but I imagine it’s a similar kind of thing: you either do it or you don’t. The thing is, once you’ve opened your gob and that first sound comes out and turns itself into that first word that becomes that first sentence, it gets easier. It’s just that first bit that’s the Big Hurdle. So, do it loud and do it clear. The feeling of tension doesn’t quite go; standing up in front of a crowd isn’t natural and it does challenge your fight or flight instincts but, if you commit to it, it becomes much more bearable than you might think.

The bits I can remember

So, we were up and running. My blurred memories of the initial bit are of an audience who wanted to enjoy themselves, so I let them know that that was I wanted, too. I might be wrong, but it felt like we trusted each other, pretty sharpish. From the outset, I’d wanted to make it more of a conversation between the whole assembly, rather than a panel event that people watched – and it seemed to work! People gamely put their hands up and came on down, gameshow-style, to ask the authors questions. I was dimly aware of Bev Humphrey in the crowd, giving me a thumbs-up, which really helped.

The panel and the audience were brilliant, bouncing of each other and rolling with questions and answers. The few bits I remember clearly were Lucy getting a round of applause for her costume, me blaring into the mic that Rainbow wanted to write for Marvel and, later, putting out a call for Carrie Fisher, because Tim had a crush on her. The rest of it is a bit vague, but I remember lots of laughing and desperately listening to make sure that each of the panel had a good crack of the whip when it came to talk-time.

My Secret Weapon

I also had a secret weapon up my sleeve.

If you came to the launch-party for Geekhood: Close Encounters, you’ll know that, just as I started my speech, my then-eight-year-old son walked through the crowds and came and sat at my feet, just to help me out. Well, he did it again. If you remember the lad who came up and asked the panel which movie they’d like to be in – that was him. I didn’t ask him to do it; he just wanted to let his scaredy-cat father know that he was there and everything was OK. So, my top tip for future chairs is: hire a member of your family to sit in the audience and ask a question. It just takes the edge off. But make sure they look interested by the answer, which may have been where my son fell down…

And then somebody was whispering in my ear that we had to wrap it up, as we were out of time. By this point, I was feeling comfortable and had given in to my natural leaning towards Showing Off, so it seemed like a real shame. I gave the last, meaningful and poignant question over to Twitter:

“What’s your favourite cheese?”

And then we were done, being escorted back to the Book Zone, to take our places for signings.

Part 4 to follow when I get round to it.


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YALC 2014 (A Coward’s Guide to Chairing) Part 2: The Middle Bit

Where was I? Ah, yes…

Bounties and Sentences

The crowds; the beautiful, geeky crowds. I’ve hosted Geek Nights at various Waterstones and judged cosplay events, but I’ve never seen so many costumes in one place at one time. And these were astonishing. From a bounty of Boba Fetts to a very long sentence of Judge Dredds, there were people geeked-up to the eyeballs. My Marvel shirt suddenly felt a bit muted (although I was wearing a Judge’s badge on my 8th Doctor frock-coat).

Robb meets Dredd

I’ve got to give a huge hand to the YALC staff who were so helpful. Within minutes of showing my face at the door, I was being escorted through Stormtroopers, superheroes and Game of Throners, back to the Green Room. En route, I spotted Ewa Scibor-Rylska (@EwaSR) and we managed a quick hallo as the opposing currents of cosplayers we were caught in swept us past each other. Ewa’s a fine person; wherever and whenever I’ve seen her, she’s always looked happy to be there – but not in a gushy way; it’s always capped off with a wry eyebrow.

CJ Skuse and Herby Booze


So, back to the Green Room. I was getting nervous again, but turned to my Old Faithful – Rescue Remedy. I met CJ Skuse a bit later, just as she was about to start her workshop and she confessed to being nervous and we ended up chatting bout Rescue Remedy and we decided that even if it’s just a placebo, we buy into it. I’d never met CJ before and I’m really glad I did; she’s from Weston Super Mare, which is just up the road from where I was born and spent my childhood. I’d also recently read Rockaholic, which I didn’t get round to telling her how much I enjoyed. CJ, if you’re reading this: top book, Missus!

I’d arrived fairly early, in my Quest to be a Damn Good Chair – much earlier than I needed to and way before Rainbow, Tim and Lucy. So, I plonked myself down and went through my notes, which I’d brought two copies of: one for me and one for the panel to have a butcher’s at before we took to the stage. The questions were divided up into specific questions for the authors and general questions for the panel; my reasoning was that they could have a look at the extra copy and decide if there was anything in there they didn’t like the look of or if they felt I’d missed anything. It was also to help them retrieve and stories or points of view they wanted to pass on; I don’t think a chair’s job is to catch anyone out with surprise or contentions questions. I wasn’t setting out to be Jeremy Paxman.

Malorie Blackman and Other Heroes

While I was waiting and reading and spraying Rescue Remedy, people started to wander in and out. It was brilliant to finally meet Malorie Blackman. We’d passed at a literary festival last year, but she was doing a piece to camera so it didn’t seem like a good idea to step in and start grovelling…

For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting her, she’s just lovely. She’s bubbly, enthusiastic, fiercely intelligent and laughs like a drain; one of those people you feel you’ve known forever within five minutes of being introduced. I also got to meet Katherine Woodfine, who managed to keep any stress she was feeling (and I’m sure there was a fair bit) completely under wraps. Like Malorie, she was happy to chat – even though I’m sure she had more important places to be than looking after a bewildered author/chair/fanboy.

Carrie Fisher wandered in, with her dog. I was too scared to say hallo to her. John Hurt came and stood next to me, looking all magnificent and old. I was too scared to say hallo to him – even though I’d grown my moustache as an ice-breaker. Paul McGann, Jenna Coleman, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss – too scared to say hallo to all of them, even though I shared tables with them, stood next to them or exchanged brief nods with them. It’s that thing isn’t it? In your head, the conversation always plays out naturally and you end up with a celeb from your favourite TV show or film as your new BFF. Real Life’s that bit harder: you don’t want to appear rude or weird or intrude on their Quiet Time; most of them were going to be stapling smiles on and signing stuff for the rest of the day and I didn’t feel quite right about bothering them.

Now THAT'S a 'tache!

Now THAT’S a ‘tache!

A familiar face appeared in the form of Sarah McIntyre. Sarah McIntyre was impossibly lovely with my son. He’s been a big fan of hers since reading Oliver and the Seawings and she took the time to make his day by chatting with him and posing for a piccy. It’s inspired him to write and illustrate a book which he’ll give to his younger sister as her first reading book. Sarah: the designs have begun and there is a character called Jigabov Jellybum the Giant involved..!

Although I’ve met Sarah before, it’s always been briefly; we’ve probably said more to each other online than in the flesh. I can confirm that she’s lovely and beautifully nuts.

I tell you who else I met: Catherine Johnson. Now, I haven’t read any of her books but, based on her personality, I bet they’re good. I have it on good authority that Sawbones is the way to go, so I shall.

The Gang Assembles

Tim O’Rourke was the first of the gang to rock up, looking suitably confused and nervous. We had a bit of a look over the questions and then his family arrived so he went to soak up the support that only your loved ones can give you. Tim’s a cool guy; wonderfully self-effacing and down-to-earth. On the face of it, he looks just like an ordinary bloke, but chat to him about his life, his work and his writing and you’ll find yourself thinking about that old adage about a book and its cover. I met his children and asked for any dirt I could pull out of the bag during the event. Turns out that for a significant part of his life, Tim based his look on 1980’s George Michael, replete with earring. I want photos.

Tim O' Rourke reads another review.

Tim O’ Rourke reads another review.

Lucy Saxon was next to arrive, sweating under a blonde wig and the many layers of her Captain America outfit, aided and abetted by her mum. Lucy is also very cool and a geek to her core, giving me the low-down on what to expect from a Con audience. Like Tim, she’s incredibly easy to talk to and there’s not much off-limits. When we met in Holland Park, I asked her if she was happy to talk about her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Not a problem.

Photo courtesy of The Book Zone.

Photo courtesy of The Book Zone.

All we needed was Rainbow Rowell – and time was ticking on.

In the meantime, I had an unexpected interlude, bumping into Adjoa Andoh, who you might remember as Sister Colette Griffiths from Casualty or Francine Jones from Doctor Who. I first met her about ten years ago in my other life as an actor. I was doing Casualty, playing a psychopath in an episode called The Ties That Bind Us. The thing is when you’re what they call a ‘guest actor’, you are sort of trespassing – or you can be made to feel that way. The regular cast have often spent years working together and have built up a rapport that can feel impenetrable to new bugs, like me. But I remembered Adjoa specifically because she’d been so welcoming and inclusive, so I went to thank her. As we were yapping, she introduced me to her daughter who asked what I was doing here. I waved the first Geekhood around (like the cheap tart I am) and to my complete surprise and ego-centric joy, her daughter told me that she’d read Number 1 and it was one of her favourite books! So I signed her a copy of the second (like the cheap tart I am).

One of the staff gathered me, Tim and Lucy together and told us that we had about 15 minutes until show-time.

But where, oh where, was Rainbow?

(Cue Eastenders drum sting)

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YALC 2014 (A Coward’s Guide to Chairing) Part 1: The Build-Up

Hell, Yes!

When I was asked if I would chair a panel event at YALC, my reaction was something along the lines of “Hell, yes!” – but maybe a bit more sweary. It’s always like that with me: the idea is always brilliant. And then the reality of it starts to dawn and the nerves kick in and that big old yellow streak starts to glow. Normally around midnight, keeping me up until I’m too exhausted to be frightened.

Yalc news logo

But, long before the butterflies started flapping in my tum, long before they were even caterpillars, I decided I wanted to be a Damn Good Chair. I’ve had the fortune to be chaired by three Damn Fine Chairs: Hannah Love, Julia Eccleshare and Jo Nadin. As far as I was concerned, they made it look like a walk in the park, like it was something you just did; like it was was easy. So, I emailed them for advice. Uniformly, they said I had to read the authors’ latest books and really get to grips with their themes.

If you’re ever going to chair an author panel,make sure you do that. I’ve got reams of notes about each book and it helps you sort out what you want to ask. Might seem obvious, but I am notoriously stupid.

Reading the books was interesting; they weren’t all the sort of thing I’d usually read, but I’m really glad I did as it opened my eyes to different thoughts and writing styles.It also helped me nail what they had in common, which also helped to form questions.

Meeting the Two-thirds of the Gang


Me, Tim and Lucy

Before the caterpillars even chrysalised, I arranged to meet Lucy Saxon and Tim O’ Rourke one sunny Friday in June. Rainbow Rowell couldn’t be there as she was in the USA.I dare say it might’ve cost more than an Oyster Card to turn up for the afternoon. The three of us met up in Holland Park and sat at a bench, just yapping.I fired out some of my embryonic questions and we just sort of batted them back and forth. Both Tim and Lucy were easy talkers; just fire them a topic and off they went. We covered everything from trains and cosplay to the nature of evil. And squeezed in some coffee.

After that meeting, I went back to my notes and then to the Internet.Not having met Rainbow yet, I found some interviews she’d done on YouTube and tried to get a sense of her. From what I could see, she seemed happy to talk and with some good gags up her sleeve. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to ask any questions that she’d been asked before.

So, over the next few weeks, I revised my questions, trawled the ‘Net and spoke to a few people I trust about what might make good questions for authors. Slowly, to paraphrase Richard Burton in War of the Worlds, I drew my plans against them.

The Problems with having a Massive Ego

In the meantime, there was my outfit to consider. Having been to a few cons in my time, the temptation was to go for something outrageous (I did have my eye on a Stormtrooper outfit). Thankfully, I was able to quieten my Massive Ego enough to realise Something Important: you don’t upstage the bride at a wedding. And I had three. I needed to think like a bridesmaid or a best man; look good, but not spotlight-stealing-good. That’s bad form.

Robb meets Dredd

Robb meets Dredd

So, I decided to try and pay tribute to as many things as possible without going nuts. I had a green, velvet frock-coat (Paul McGann’s Doctor), a Marvel Comics shirt, a pale fedora (Watchmen’s Rorschach), a Game of Thrones-style necklace and Star Wars boxers (hidden under my jeans, I hasten to add).Plus, I grew a beard and ‘tache in the style of John Hurt to use as an ice-breaker, in case I met him.

My YALC outfit on some fancy London steps

My YALC outfit on some fancy     London steps

Christ, No!

Forty-eight hours before the Big Day, the caterpillars hatched. Suddenly, ‘Hell, yeah!” became “Christ,no!”.

I spent a day rehearsing my intro and couldn’t remember a word of it by the time night fell. And sleep? Forget it. My head just kept creating possible goofs I might make and then started coming up with reasons why I might not be able to go. Faking a broken arm was on the list.

But this was the First Ever YALC – and I’d been asked to be part of it! Plus, my Massive Ego wanted to do a Good Job.

The day before the event, the butterflies had a good old tour of my stomach. No amount of tea could drown the bastards; they just kept on flapping. I think it was around 2am, when I suddenly thought: “Hang on- what’s the problem? Your panel is made up of great and talkative people, you’re all prepped-up and you’ve got a moustache. Just do it.”

The next morning, at 7am, me and my moustache drove to Earl’s Court and, amazingly found a parking space. By 10am, I was weaving through the crowds, goggling at the sheer array of costumes and generally soaking up the welcoming, celebratory, joyous feeling of a Mighty Gathering of Geeks.

Nerves? What nerves?

Part Two of my post about the actual event: Coming Soon……

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