Around Harrogate with Stav Sherez

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Yesterday saw the final hours of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate play out. Our eyes, ears and other sensory organs at this year’s festival were attached to the body of Stav Sherez, a crime author of some note who agreed to write a report for Crime Fiction Lover. He’s come back to us with a colourful first hand account of the event that’s every bit as detailed, lucid and entertaining as his books. So, if you missed the northern charms of Harrogate this year, sit back and enjoy what he has to say. However, if you were actually there, maybe you’ll recognise some of this… then again, maybe not… Now we hand over to Stav Sherez:

“None of this happened, except for certain parts…”
They say that if you can remember the Harrogate Crime Festival, you weren’t there. Luckily, your dedicated reporter made ample provision for this eventuality and these following thoughts and recollections have been put together from scribbled notes made on fast-food napkins, my own skin, internet rumour and scuttlebutt – with additional material transcribed from nifty and efficient recording devices which I installed at strategic locations before the fun began so that I could provide a true and accurate report of the weekend.

The arrival in Harrogate is always something of a culture-shock after London. Hordes of savage brutes roaming the night-time streets, knuckleboys on the rampage looking for blood and carnage – ugly scenes that would make even the most hardened war correspondents run screaming straight back into their mothers’ arms. This unruly scene greeted me as I exited the train station and it took me several minutes to realise that I knew these people, that these marauding hordes were friends of mine – fellow crime writers rampaging through the streets of the quiet spa town red-eyed and delirious after a particularly vicious drinking binge at the previous night’s opening party. For reasons of professionalism, and on the strict advice of my personal physician, I had skipped this.

Naturally, I avoided them and ducked into the nearest coffeeshop for some well-needed fuel, demanding the strongest, most eye-popping espresso they had. The girl behind the counter asked if I meant a double. I looked at the gathering crowds outside and said, “Four doubles, make sure you don’t make them too watery, and pour them all in one cup.”

She gave me a look that I couldn’t possibly describe here. I downed the rank excuse for coffee and with eyes pinned and the heart-beat of an Olympic runner in the last stretches of a gruelling race, I entered the maelstrom and approached the Old Swan Hotel. Just as sometimes the most elegant townhouses hide brothels and junkie-pads behind their Georgian facades, this weekend the magnificent structure of the Old Swan, with its promises of a bucolic Wordsworthian idyll, concealed something more akin to a superhero mash-up between Dionysus and Bacchus.

Now suitably amped up on coffee, nicotine, and Lucozade, I staggered into my first panel. It was really good and I was getting quite into it but after about five minutes I realised the room I was in was empty and the voices I could hear were all in my head. I had a sudden flash of certainty that the waitress had spiked my coffee with some brutal drug reserved for soft Southerners such as me. I could have kissed her but she was the kind of girl that whose kisses would taste like fists.

The panel I most wanted to see was next. The room was massive and elegant and packed solid. I found a seat and perched on the lip of the chair, the caffeine running true and strong through my blood, my hands and heart and feet beating triple time. Said panel consisted of four of the most talented up-and-coming American authors: Gillian Flynn, Ryan David Jahn, Chris Mooney, and Megan Abbott. Each talked about their own work, their writing process, and what makes American crime fiction so different from British. John Connolly moderated the panel with wit and poise. Unfortunately, at that point, the coffee was peaking and my heart roaring so loudly in my ears that I didn’t hear a further word anyone said but I’m sure it was very fascinating.

Once the panels were over the serious business could begin, and everyone congregated in the bar and rain-sprinkled gardens outside. Readers and writers stood or sat conversing and drinking but after midnight the room quickly emptied out. I was rather disappointed by the utter lack of willing and moxie evinced by the majority of people still reeling and stomach-clutching from the previous night and the refrain of ‘I should have paced myself better’ was heard so many times over the next 48 hours that Old Theakston’s would do well to adopt it as their motto.

Aware that these desultory conversations were not going to yield any more rumour, innuendo, or strange sexual slander, I duly departed and with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it £50 note slipped into a bellboy’s palm I managed to acquire a master key for the guest rooms. In the interests of decency and British libel laws I cannot tell you what I found there, only that it will stay with me the rest of my days.

Back downstairs, and despite this reporter’s attempts to liven the party up with copious amounts of bourbon and banter, even the staunchest nightflies departed by three. Disgusted and disappointed, I left the hotel with an urgent need for more espresso. Roaming the streets of Harrogate as the clubs were spilling out and asking saucer-eyed teenagers where a good cup of coffee could be found at this time of night was not the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had. A little worse for wear and lost and stumbled, I eventually found my quaint bed and breakfast. Negotiating the series of locks on the front door was akin to trying to solve four Rubik’s Cubes at once while explaining String Theory to a four-year-old. Despite great effort, ingenuity, and a little brute force on my part, the door wouldn’t give. There was no reply when I pressed the buzzer but a broken match jammed between buzzer and casing made sure my landlord wouldn’t mistake the noise for a drunken prank.

“What kind of filthy degenerate establishment are you running?” I shouted as he unlatched the door at the exact same time I gave it a gentle push, resulting in an unfortunate and somewhat painful injury to his right eye. “You expect me to sleep in a low-rent stable like this? It’s not fir for dogs,” I said, but the poor brute was too stunned and blinded to reply. I demanded he send three bottles of whisky and two Thai whores to my room immediately or I would burn the sorry excuse for a hotel down to the ground.

Back in my room I plugged my speakers into my iPod and blasted late Coltrane dying-mule-sax-scream abstract Jazz at full volume feeling the divine buzz in my chest as the entire room rocked in time with the music. My neighbours seemed to like it too and were banging their fists against the wall of my room but they were hopelessly out of time and I had to plug in the sub-woofer to drown out their arrhythmic efforts.

The combination of coffee, liquor, and strong headache pills produced wild and profuse dreams wherein I repeated all the conversations I’d had the night before except this time I was funny, erudite, charming, and said all the right things. Then I woke up. And was shocked to discover a bearded homeless man in my room. It took me a few seconds to realise that I was looking into a mirror.

Crime writers are a competitive bunch and Saturday was officially designated by festival curator Mark Billingham as Western shirt night. Of course, Mark knew he had the coolest Western shirt in town but what he didn’t know was that I had entered his room the previous night and unstitched the skulls and roses decorating the front of his rather magnificent shirt and with a skill my grandmother had taught me I re-stitched them into lewd and possibly prosecutable patterns.

Even the weather had recovered by Saturday and the day started with a host of fascinating panels all of which I missed as I was preoccupied with downloading the data from the recording devices I’d strategically placed around the hotel and transcribing them for you, faithful readers.

This reporter, now fuelled by 17 espressos and four bottles of Lucozade, tried stalking the beautiful and talented Gillian Flynn (who is an amazing dark noir-as-hell novelist and was also quite good as Scully in The X-Files) for an interview but she ran away at the sight of me and I realised that crime writers can be quite a suspicious and paranoid bunch. The fact that the caffeine and headache pills rendered me stumbling and listing and staring out of eyes that looked like I’d bought them at a joke shop, notwithstanding.

There is always a lull before the storm and just prior to the quiz grand finale I found myself in a dark wood behind the hotel pondering the potentially heretical question of ‘what is the point of these crime festivals?’ Are they just an excuse for writers to slap each other on the back (and sometimes in the face)? Or is there something more valuable to be gained? I think that for the readers it’s a wonderful thing – a truly democratic space where anyone can walk up to say, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, or Mark Billingham and chat to them as you would anyone else, rather than the way it is at literary festivals where authors spend all their time sequestered behind a phalanx of piggy-eyed bouncers and VIP areas where they barely pretend to like each other.

But, for us writers, is it helpful? Personally, I think very much so. Each time I go, it reminds me how lucky I am to be doing this job. You’re in the middle of your next book, you’re tearing your hair out and contemplating suicide trying to find your way through the tangled mess of your draft – you think it is because you are useless and not very good at it and all this time have only been pretending to be a writer and then you roam the bar and talk and discover that everyone else, no matter how big or small, new or established, goes through the exact same process. Harrogate is a great equaliser, both between fans and writers and between the writers themselves (and we’re all a little bit of both, as witnessed by my sad attempts to stalk Gillian Flynn).

I once asked Lee Child why he still came to these festivals – surely when you sell a book every micro-second you don’t really need to do any extra promotion? “I come because only other writers know what it’s like,” he replied, and that is the heart of these festivals for me. I arrive often disenchanted and jaded and two days later I think this is the best job in the world. It’s also virtually the only time we get to meet our readers, the very people who allow us to exist.

But, you’ll have to excuse me, I was getting all serious there for a moment and it’s about time for the quiz and subsequent decent into last-night madness and abandon. Ferociously hard questions and huge amounts of liquor were consumed and the bonus round of sending readers out into the night to return with a crime writer’s shoes was the kind of thing Ted Bundy would have approved of.

Memory is more poet than reporter, the great James Sallis once said, and so the following few hours, fuelled by tequila and talk, are lost to me, and these scattered fragments, all that remain.

1 – An agent who will go unnamed was wearing a thick heavy matted jumper and was forcibly held down by four pretty blondes, the offending item surgically scissored and removed from his body and burned in a ritual pyre at the edge of the hotel grounds.
2 – A 3AM sofa conversation with various people about the disappointments and discontents of our lives. A sudden and startling gravity and pathos in sad sweet eyes and the perennial myth of the horizon.
3 – Tequila. Oh, tequila. Chainsmoking round a picnic table, passing around a bottle of Mexico’s finest (well, Tesco’s finest, for the sake of accuracy) and the subsequent memory loss and high clean wave of non-stop talking talking jabbering debating talking which followed.
4 – The unwelcome early morning light and sinking feeling, knowing that tomorrow you go back to the rest of your life, to the blank page and blinking cursor, and that this weekend will live only in memory and, perhaps, if you had a really good time, not even that.

And, if I haven’t put you off already, dear readers, then you must come to the next festival. Crime writers are the nicest people you’re ever likely to meet in the literary world, despite the blood and horror and suffering in their books – or maybe it’s precisely because of it. Maybe we let out all our hurt and frustration and rage at the cruelty of the world onto our pages, leaving us as functional human beings, at least until the next draft begins.

Author’s note: With apologies… to everyone… but especially HST.

A huge thank-you to Stav Sherez for his account of the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival. If you also went along please do share your comments below.


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