It was a day of firsts, in all kinds of ways.
If you were in the vicinity of Battle Library in Reading yesterday, you might have seen some rather strange sights. A guy in a hazmat suit wandering around, accompanied by another in full camo gear. A girl erupting out of a side room, screaming her head off, chased by something that looked very much like a member of the living dead. A tall, wiry chap looking like he was about to soil himself. That last one was me, 10 minutes before I was about to stand up in front of a paying audience and read from a piece of my writing.
And that hadn't even been the most stressful part of the day.
Yesterday was Z-Day, a celebration of all things zombie held by Reading Borough Libraries. There were workshops, screenings and talks, and a little bit of zombie literature. Which was where I came in. In my remit as contributing editor of the United Kingdom Zombie Defence League (UKDZL hereafter) I was to pimp out our increasing collection of short story anthologies, and do a reading. I would also talk about the guide my friend and partner in shenanigans Rob May (Sarge hereafter) had put together to help the citizens of Reading retake their town post zpocalypse.
That angle had got us some interest. In the course of the day, I would talk to the man from the Reading Chronicle, and get myself on local radio. And that, Readership, was where things got interesting.
BBC Radio Berkshire is a twenty minute walk from my house. It's based in the same building as BBC Monitoring, which keeps an eye on the world's broadcasting. Caversham Park is a beautiful old manor house, set in grounds that for the most part are now publicly accessible. Soft rain fell as I was buzzed through security and into the building. I was early, of course. I wasn't going to keep the BBC hanging around.
At just after 10am, I was ushered into Studio 1 to shake the hand of Henry Kelly. I had grown up watching this guy on Game For A Laugh and Going For Gold. Now, here he was, charming and chatty, and I was waving a plan to help retake Reading from zombies at him. Surreal? You have no idea.
We chatted on air for a little under five minutes, joined on the phone by Sarge, calling in from Dorset where he's freelancing on the reshoots for World War Z. We were gently jibed at and prodded by Henry, who viewed us as hoaxers. We agreed absolutely, but the best hoax is one that's played straight-faced. He probably thought we were nutters. But he was very pleased with the badge I presented to him before I left. Our charm offensive worked, I think.
Tell you what, see what you think. Here's the interview
Back home for a coffee and a bite to eat. TLC assured me that I sounded calm and serious. She didn't say sexy. Fair enough. It's hard to sound sexy when you're talking zpocalypse.
Nice as it would have been to call a trip to local radio the achievement of the day and curl up on the sofa, I knew things were barely getting started. I loaded up a wheelycase with a stock of copies of The Dead Files, badges and a copy of the plan, and zoomed off to Battle Library. OK, for zoomed read plod through gridlock. Appropriately nasty weather conditions had slowed traffic to a zombie-like crawl.
I arrived late, therefore, and I wouldn't be the only one. I arrived just as a youth theatre performance of the opening of Night Of The Living Dead was getting started. It was surprisingly disturbing, and the use of strawberry string candy as a gore effect was remarkably effective.
The man behind the performance was Chris Lambert, hazmat-suited, impressively-moustached, and our MC for the day. Drama teacher by day, zombie-head by night. Enthusiastic and frighteningly well-informed, he would make sure the day ran smoothly.
I introduced myself to Miriam, the librarian who had brainchilded Z-Day, and set up my wares. Soon, there was a tug at my sleeve. Laura Hamilton, one of my fellow Dead Files authors, had come down for the day with her partner and editor Matthew. Sparky, chatty and fun, it was great to finally met someone I'd rabbited at on Twitter. Soon afterwards, we were joined by another Dead Filer–Jethro Jessop, who'd come in for the afternoon session. All of a sudden, I felt like I had a support crew.
I grabbed a quick five-minute chat with a gent from the Reading Chronicle, who seemed very interested in the Reading Defence Plan, suggesting I offer it to the Borough Council following an FOI request about the town's preparedness for a zombie incursion (nothing to do with us, I swear). Worth doing, and I'll keep an eye open for articles mentioning us in the next week or so.
Before I knew it, Chris was inviting me to the front of the room, and there I was, Kindle in hand, introducing the opening section of The Key To The Gates Of Hell. The last time I'd done anything like this was at primary school. I was nine. I was reading some Star Wars fanfic. It seemed to go down well.
Reading your own work is hard. It's performance, and it's tough to do right. You need to keep yourself slow, pitch your voice a little lower than normal, and remember to look up every now and again. Don't let a slip or stumble knock you sideways. Try to breathe every now and again.
I wasn't expecting the torrent of questions afterwards. A lot of people were interested in the plan, in my favourite z-movie. I even got the “how hard is it to come up with ideas” question. I think I answered them all satisfactorily, but to be honest with you, the whole 40 minutes is a bit of a blur. If I fumbled, I apologise. I'm new at this. Give me six months and I'll have it nailed.
After that, I was happy to sit at the back, sell and sign some books and badges and enjoy the show. Fortean cryptozoologist Richard Freeman gave a mind-boggling talk on the undead African creature of legend, the Tokoloshe. This veered away from the zombie remit, but was head-mangling enough to hold my interest throughout. The phrase “ethereal penis” will be with me for a while.
Lee Miller and Joanne “Bob” Whalley talked about the symbolism and cultural meaning of the zombie in a talk that mashed up performance, video and yoga. They were definitely on the side of the zombie. Mushy liberals. I'll have to keep an eye on them.
I joined Lee, Bob, Chris and Richard for the final panel discussion on top zombie moments in film. There were some crackers here, from The Serpent And The Rainbow to John Carpenter's The Fog. I raised the flag for my all time favourite, Return Of The Living Dead, the film that introduced both fast zombies and the first appearance of the word “braaaaaaains.” I was reminded and need to reacquaint myself with Dan O'Bannon's Dead And Buried, and find I need to check out the moving French film Les Revenants, a treatise on the nature of grief.
All too soon, we were saying goodbye. Jethro, Matt and Laura vanished back into the storm. I joined Miriam, Chris, Richard and some other chums for pie and beer at the extraordinary Sweeney And Todds, a basic and brilliant restaurant that's been a fixture in Reading for the last 30 years. I know, I've only just discovered it. I'm shaking my head as I write this. We discussed the merits of Doctor Who vs. Star Trek, and the possibilities of getting Alan Moore to do a reading at Battle Library. I signed Chris up for contributions to Dead Files 4, and invited myself onto Richard's Fortean fiction collection.
I'd have loved to stay and yak all night, but my introvert tendencies were digging in. Too much social interaction physically exhausts me, and I'd had a barrelful. I made my excuses, picked up my cases and headed home. A half hour after leaving the pub, I was in bed.
Z-Day was an extraordinary, remarkable milestone for me. I won't forget it in a hurry. Thanks and hugs to Miriam Palfrey, the Queen Of The Zombie Librarians, Chris Lambert, and everyone that turned up and made the day so enjoyable.
I like to think we made Reading more prepared for the hard days ahead. And if not, at least we had a little bit of fun.
Fancy a free copy of the UKZDL's Defence Plan for Reading, that led TV and Radio's Henry Kelly to exclaim “It's all about explosives!”?