Over the weekend – 17 to 20 July – crime authors from around Britain, and all over the world, made their annual pilgrimage to Harrogate for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. One of them had a special mission. In addition to attending talks and sharing thoughts with similar-minded writers, Craig Robertson was Crime Fiction Lover’s man on the ground in Harrogate for the 2014 festival. And here’s his report…
There’s an annual physical anomaly which occurs inside many UK crime writers. It happens when they first see the ivy-clad walls of the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate in the third week of July. Simultaneously, their cynical hearts skip a beat of excitement and their kidneys cringe in fear. It’s Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival time. Neither literature nor livers will be quite the same again.
And yet we’ve survived it. Somehow. Most of our internal organs are already in recovery (or rehab) and our minds are full of sweet murder. There’s nothing quite like a weekend in Harrogate to reinvigorate those remaining brain cells and have you gagging to brutally off someone in the pages of a book. It’s good for the dark soul.
It was a fantastic few days, possibly the best festival yet but it was also, as ever, an education. Here’s a list of things that I learned across the weekend. These come in no particular order other than the one I’m typing them in. Some are more relevant than others.
1 – Espionage author Charles Cummings knows where you’ve been. Or at least he does if you have an iPhone. He had the entire audience groping for their mobiles as he talked us through the process of finding the hidden settings that reveal everywhere you’ve been for the past few months. It does not, I repeat not, mean that Charles has been a spy. It might, repeat might, mean that he was.
2 – Helen Fitzgerald is Australian. No, I knew that already. What I learned is that swearing is genetic for the Aussies and even three-year-olds are very good at it. The domestic noir panel was very f***ing amused.
3 – Luca Veste, author of Dead Gone and who was recently snapped up on a three-book deal by my own publishers Simon & Schuster, used to be the bass player in the Zutons. Luca’s cousin was the band’s regular bassist but he broke his wrist and the author-to-be stood in for three months during which they recorded their major hit Valerie.
4 – Drinking double Jack Daniels and coke at four in the morning is not a good idea no matter how much it may seem so at the time. Just remember kids, it’s not big and it’s not clever and it might make your head sore later.
5 – Robert Galbraith (you know, the one that used to be JK Rowling) has the next six, yes SIX, books in the Cormoran Strike series planned out in his/her head. Six books. In her head. Most authors barely have the current one in their head. And even less so after a weekend in Harrogate.
6 – Actually this is still really number 5 but I felt the need for a paragraph break. Having Robert Galbraith as your headliner is a big deal. No sugar Sherlock, I hear you say but the organisation required to host the event outside the festival venue, beam it back into the Old Swan for another few hundred people and deal with the accompanying security issues takes some doing. Nice job guys.
7 – My average distance for being able to walk during the festival without getting into a conversation has gone down to 2.7 yards. It has dropped from an opening high of 100 yards on my first visit in 2010, falling incrementally each year until I can barely walk a few paces without being convivially assaulted by an author, publisher, agent, reader, barman, Zuton, editor or publicist. This, for the avoidance of doubt, is a good thing.
8 – The new beer tent is also a good thing. It is parked on the main lawn and offers a selection of delightful beverages, refuge from occasional torrential rain, and respite for the overworked staff in the hotel’s main bar. It also features a ski slope down from the path that can be fun when you’re carrying four glasses at once.
9 – Kevin Wignall makes stuff up. Okay, all authors do but Kevin stretches things further than most. It turns out that Luca Veste was never in the Zutons.
10 – When offered tequila and back rubs at some satanic hour of the night by ace scout Ros Ramsay, you should take one but not the other. And be wary of the one that you do take.
11 – Okay, I’m running out of things here and I still have to ramble on for a further 300 words. I might have to actually talk about books and authors and panel events and stuff like that. You know, the stuff the festival is supposed to be about. Bear with me.
12 – There was a lively discussion on the new routes to publishing, those dark and devilishly digital arts that have moved the goalposts so much that we aren’t even sure that there even are goalposts any more. James Oswald – hirsute of chin, keeper of cows and writer of bestsellers – hit the nail on the nail’s head when he pointed out that one consequence of the new dawning is that people are prepared to pay three quid for a good cup of coffee but grudge doing so for a novel. Buy less coffee folks, you know it makes sense.
13 – At the end of one panel, the chair Steve Mosby asked for questions from the audience. A young man named Scott put up his hand, was furnished with the microphone and duly asked his question. Which was to ask his girlfriend Jo to marry him. Remember kids, Theakston’s Old Peculier is 5.6% and that’s quite strong. She said yes, by the way. Awww.
14 – The annoyingly brilliant Belinda Bauer won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year for her frustratingly excellent book Rubbernecker. No other author was jealous.
15 – Simon & Schuster held the party in the tent on the Friday night which was great fun, drew a big crowd, everybody had a fantastic time and that was all very well. However I do think it was slightly extravagant to spend money on booze that could have more profitably gone on my next advance. I suppose they know what they’re doing.
16 – The meet-the-author dinner on the Saturday night had a Shetland theme under the direction of the lovely Ann Cleeves. That’s right, they filled the room with sheep, turned on the wind machine and made it rain. We had to solve a murder mystery that was played out for us by a cast that included two actors from the BBC adaptation of Ann’s books. My table worked out who the killer was but not quite the motive so the prize went to the dastardly clever Mari Hannah instead.
And that’s about it. I’m on the organising committee for the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling in September so I have an idea of how difficult it is to put on a crime writing festival that is as good as this one is. Festival programming chair Steve Mosby and his team did an amazing job. Again. Why do they have to make it look so easy?
If you went, please post your own Harrogate memories below…