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Crazy weeks and sleep

It’s been a few crazy weeks.  To summarize roughly, they went something like this…

At the end of October, I was lucky enough to be a guest at Fantasycon, which this year was held in Chester.  On the Friday of going to Fantasycon, I first went to Ipswich to see rehearsals for a (stunningly good) dance show I’ve been working on for a year.  The 9 a.m. train from Liverpool St arrived with more than enough time to spare to watch a couple of runs, talk to the choreographer, sit down with the production manager and work through the outstanding paperwork, but by the time I turned round for the 5 p.m. train back to London, I was already a wee bit knackered.

There are two ways from Ipswich-Chester.  You can go north, to Norwich, then cut cross-country to Peterborough and eventually wiggle your way onto the line to Wigan.  This seemed sensible, but was slower than going back via London, and also, the station chief informed me, probably deeply uncomfortable.

So via London it was.  Between Liverpool St-Euston I used my oyster card out of pure habit to get myself through the Underground, only realising a few bleery hours later that this was a journey already accounted for by my ticket.  Euston on a Friday night is a commuter’s hell-hole, with delayed trains, a heaving concourse and mad scrambles to get a seat on the Manchester service.  I arrived in Chester having achieved very few of the noble good intentions I’d set myself for the train journey, and mostly not quite slept.

Fantasycon was lovely.  A big shout-out goes to Breaking the Glass Slipper, Starburst Magazine and the ever-awesome Nazia, Orbit’s woman on the ground.  It was also a timely reminder that in the world of ‘literature’ I am still very much a genre writer and this is a topic of some discussion; whereas to the lovely people at Fantasycon, we’re all just writing books and having a great time and damnit, that’s awesome.

After two days at Fantasycon, I got on the train back to London, arriving in time to receive a bunch of tech specs for the venues we would soon be taking the dance show to.  Monday commenced hasty drawing of these same venues, while simultaneously binging on manuals for the GrandMA2 lighting desk – my nemesis desk – and listening to a lot of music in preparation for the week to come….

… which really kicked off on Tuesday, when I went to the Roundhouse in Camden to light a gig.  This was my first time lighting at the Roundhouse, and thus ticked off one of my lifetime bucket list dreams, because the venue is, frankly, stunning.  Just a pleasure and a joy to work in.  The gig was wonderful, but let’s not kid around – I haven’t felt so nervous going onto standby for lights since my first shift at the National Theatre, straight out of college, oooh… nearly seven years ago.  In the course of the hundreds and hundreds of gigs I’ve lit, rarely have I been so proud and so scared to hit those buttons.

The day after that was technically a day off, which was still largely filled with drawing lighting plans and reading manuals, ready to catch the 7.55 a.m. train on Thursday morning to Paris, to continue lighting the same artist I’d lit on Tuesday.  This was the week of half-term, so at my four-seater table on the Eurostar were two parents and their very, very excited, both-under-five year old children.  In fairness to the parents: no one got hurt and in the grand scheme of things, the screaming was kept to a minimum.  But still.  Kids at fun a.m..  It is… taxing….

The venue in Paris was a beautiful hall just below Sacre Coeur.  I arrived in time to help with fit up, and was politely informed this was unnecessary, so sat for an hour on the hill watching men in berets (I kid you not) trying to sell portraits to the teaming tourists, and the wandering crowds trying to work out which side of the hill to drift to for a picture of themselves with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

Then into the venue proper, to meet, oh yes, my nemesis desk: the GrandMA2.

Now, before I get the very, very specific geek complaints, lemme say, I get why it’s an amazing lighting desk.  It is an amazing lighting desk.  It can do basically everything.  It can do everything five different ways, in fact, which is why the setup I met in Paris and the setup I encountered the day after, in Brussels, were basically incompatible and could have been build on a totally different machine.  Unfortunately, in being able to do everything five ways, you can so over-engineer a thing that when a simple question like “can I edit this cue?” or “what’s the intensity inside that preset?” gets asked, verily of people who teach this goddamn desk for a living, they have to phone a friend to see if there’s an easy answer.  That’s why I loathe the GrandMA2.  Because sure it can do anything… except the simplest things which on any other system would be three button-presses.  Also I resent the ‘Enter’ button being a ‘Please’ button.  I don’t want ‘please’ from my lighting console.  I want ‘yes my master I obey’.


Leaving aside my hatred of the actual operating system, the venue staff were lovely, helpful and generous with their time and kit, and the gig was a joy to work on.  By the end of it, however, at 11 p.m., I was definitely feeling the length of the day, so wandered onto the tour bus ready for the overnight trip to Brussels.

Anyone who thinks that tour buses are glamorous… let’s just kick that one in the mouth, shall we?  Our tour bus was lovely, and driven by a consumate professional.  It was clean, and didn’t yet smell of pants.  There were comfy chairs and a place to store your smelly cheese.  But this does not change the fact that you sleep in a coffin on the top deck, and it’s impossible to stand up straight anywhere.  After one day I was hunched; three weeks is almost unimaginable.  Nor are the facilities ever gonna be great.  There’s one tiny sink to brush your teeth in, while bent nearly double, and resources are limited enough that the only rule that was strictly enforced was, as the manager put it: “No number twos.”

Late at night, we pulled out of Paris, and after a few bumps in the road lo, as though by magic, I woke up in another country.  It was freezing cold and pissing down, but Brussels – praise be to Brussels – does a damn good hot chocolate.  I hunched in a cafe and drank my brew and listened to a room of people who spoke on average a minimum of three languages, speaking mine with surprisingly RP British accents.  (According to a friend, this is owing to a refusal to dub BBC dramas.)

At noon, it was off to the next venue, to the next GrandMA2 and the next learning curve.  When dinner came, everyone was very, very ready to eat, and having wolfed down remarkably nice canteen food, I wandered into town to take in the Grand Place and be sold a bag of churros that ranged from the godawful to the sublime almost literally one bite at a time.

Then a gig… then to a hotel room, which was booked under such a panoply of pseudonyms that it was easier just to take the key and ask no questions… and lights out at midnight with a head full of noise and eyes flashing with the after-image of LEDs.  The tour bus left me behind, as the musicians headed to Berlin, and I slept.

Tours sometimes have more money than time, so at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning I found myself with a ‘premier standard’ ticket – second class, basically – for the Eurostar to London.  Unfortunately, though I was very, very excited by the idea of a free croissant, they’d run out of pastries.  Arriving at St. Pancras, I ran home long enough to grab a sandwich and dump my travel bag, before jumping on the DLR and heading to Comicon.

MCMComicon has changed hugely, from an author’s perspective, in the last five years.  When writers first started arriving, we were confused and bewildered and generally shoved off into a corner where we couldn’t hurt people.  Now, not only are the accoustics vastly better, but the writers feel integrated and welcomed into this space more than we’ve ever been, and that’s largely down to the work of a couple of truly excellent people who are bulldozing this into happening with sheer gumption.  For which there isn’t really thanks enough!

I did two panels – one on writing fights (because who doesn’t love fighting?) and one on science fiction in generally, both chaired by excellent moderators.  At the end of that and a signing, I was dribble, and was sent firmly home by my publisher to dribble on someone else’s patch.

Alas, before I committed to Comicon, I had committed to lighting another gig on Sunday.  This one was Turkish stand-up comedy.  Was it funny?  No idea.  What was it about?  Not a clue!  But the Turkish-speaking audience seemed to love it, and there was a general sense that the guy on stage was both a consumate professional, and perhaps a Big Deal in another land, which myself and the befuddled sound engineer were just too ignorant to get.

Monday… new gig, different venue.  This to a beautiful venue that can’t do a proper blackout, but now the sun is finally going down early enough in the afternoon for the lighting engineers to be able to see their programming mistakes, and fix them.  At 23.30 I staggered home from work, feeling by now distinctly sleep deprived.

Tuesday was technically a day off, but it was mostly a day of prep for…

Wednesday, another full twelve-hour-day of fit-up, not-quite-tech-because-there-wasn’t-really-time and a full performance of the dance show I’d attended rehearsals for all those years ago.  Despite the technical side of it being tricky and done in haste, I was both very proud of the lights, and utterly in awe of the show – it’s one of the rare ones where even in the rehearsal room I was finding myself getting teared up at the sheer power and skill of the performers.

Thursday was an actual day off, as Friday was a music gig (mod rock); Saturday was another gig (stand up comedy) and on Sunday I finally, finally crashed.

It wasn’t a great crash.  We walked to Hackney Wick to see a beloved friend, and chatted with her for a couple of hours, and were all set to go and see the fireworks at Victoria Park when it gently dawned on me that I couldn’t really speak any words any more, and walking in a straight line was proving challenging.  Given that I love the Victoria Park fireworks more than I can realistically express, the decision to go home rather than risk falling over was a bit gutting.

So to cut a long story short… it’s been a bit of a time.  Most of these days have been twelve hours or more long, which makes the ‘days off’ not really sufficient to the challenge of how dribbly I’ve got.  But!  Having learnt painful lessons from previous years, I’m now three days into four actual, proper days of rest, and gently easing back a bit in November to prevent getting to December as a wreck.  Also, there’s some writing I’d like to be doing… and all this adventure, while excellent, isn’t quite the sedate bit of scribbling that’s in the pipeline next.