Thursday, 23 July 2015

The 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate Part One

The Old Swan, Harrogate
Fast paced, intense and addictive. No, I’m not talking about the work of Patricia Highsmith nor the latest novel by Eva Dolan, but The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.
I’ve been trying to work out how many of these festivals I’ve been to. I was definitely at the 3rd one in 2005 (highlights were Kathy Reichs and Ruth Rendall) and the 4th in 2006 (highlights Ian Rankin, Jeffrey Deaver and Kate Atkinson). I was there last year and the year before (here’s a blog about the 2013 Festival). If I’ve been to any more in between, then my memories of them are hazy, to say the least.
Anyway, this year was the very best experience for me. It could well be because my good friend, Sharon Birch (aka Effie Merryl/Ash Cameron) had introduced me to so many lovely writers last year, so that this year I felt part of the gang.
Soon after we arrived at The Old Swan, Sharon and I met in her room for the obligatory bottle of pink fizz followed by Prosecco. I met her lovely husband, Steve, who polished off the complimentary bottle of Theakstons Old Peculier in my goody bag within minutes. Then after a quick change, Sharon and Steve treated me to a lovely meal at The Crown (more wine was consumed). Then it was back to The Old Swan for another drink to take into the Crime Novel of the Year Awards hosted by Mark Lawson. (If you’re getting the impression that this festival is a very boozy affair, then you’d be right). We were thrilled that our mate, Sarah Hilary won with her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin. The after-party was fun and gave us a chance to chat to more friends (I made the mistake of ordering a complimentary pint of Old Peculier instead of a glass of wine.....). Then it was time to mingle outside and drink even more wine. I had a lovely chat with both Paul Finch and Cally Taylor, as well as enjoying a brief conversation with Mark Billingham about Eddie Izzard’s marathons (Mark even offered to buy me a drink). I was one of the sensible ones who went to bed before 1.30am... Enough said.....
I admit I didn’t feel great on Friday morning, but I did make it down to breakfast, even though I couldn’t face anything cooked! I did have to go back to bed afterwards, but managed to pull myself together sufficiently to attend the 10.30am panel, They Do Things Differently There... a marvellous selection of historical crime novelists (Lindsey Davis, William Ryan, Manda Scott, Christopher Fowler and Elly Griffiths) discussing crime solving in the past. Some of the most interesting points made were that Neanderthal man actually spoke in a high-pitched voice (makes sense when you think they were much closer to apes -; Roman buildings like the Coliseum would have been painted in bright colours and weren’t plain white; how the Romans completely changed the cultural landscape of England and how we wouldn’t recognise Boudica’s Britain at all.
Before this panel started, I had a serendipitous moment. A lady sat down next to me, leaned forward and said, “Jo?”. I felt bad for not remembering her name, but then she introduced herself as Mary Jane Riley. I’d published Mary Jane’s stories in QWF many years previously. She told me that her crime novel, The Bad Things, was coming out in August. After the panel, we went for coffee together and had a wonderful discussion about our experiences of writing crime fiction. Being able to talk about the problems I was having with my novel face-to-face was incredibly useful. We then went off for lunch together and we caught up on mutual writer friends and our families. Of course, we then had the obligatory glass of wine in the bar area, where we were joined by Sharon, clutching a bottle of water and a sandwich. She had only just surfaced (it was 2.30pm by now) and missed both breakfast and lunch. (Warning: Attending this festival can seriously damage one’s health.) We discussed the possibility of the first festival attendee to be found dead in their room.
We all trooped in to The Morality of Murder panel at 3.30pm (Belinda Bauer, Wiley Cash, Jonathan Freedland, Nicci French and Cath Staincliffe). ‘Is there anything you couldn’t bring yourself to write about?’ Cath Staincliffe asked. Husband and wife writing team Nicci French said that they were asked the same question many years previously when their children were growing up and said then that they couldn’t write about the murder of young children, then subsequently wrote about it in their next book. The general consensus was that we make sense of the senseless and of evil by writing about it. Through fiction we can bring victims justice and this doesn’t always happen in reality.
There was just time to nip off to The Slug and Lettuce for a bite to eat and a glass of wine before the next panel, Yorkshire Pride (Steve Mosby, Peter Robinson, Lee Child, Nick Quantrill and Frances Brody). Having recently decided that I must get out of the house to write, as I’m finding it impossible to write at home these days (too many distractions), it was interesting to hear that Steve Mosby wrote in Leeds pubs. Does he buy a pint and make it last three or four hours? I think a café or library might be a safer bet for me! I was thrilled that Winifred Holtby got two mentions as being a writer who put Yorkshire on the map. South Riding is one of my favourite novels.
Sharon and I noticed that the panelists’ geography was a little shaky. Peter Robinson said that one of his Yorkshire heroes was Captain Cook, who was actually from Middlesborough (however, that may have been classed as Yorkshire at the time he was born) and another panelist mentioned that Get Carter was filmed in Yorkshire, when it was, in fact, Newcastle. Reginald Hill was born in a village two miles outside Hartlepool when it was part of County Durham, so not strictly a Yorkshireman. One more interesting fact (this time from Sharon, not the panel): There are three pub/restaurants in Benidorm called Yorkshire Pride!
Friday night was a heavy one in that there were two more events I didn’t want to miss. Mark Billingham in Conversation with Eddie Izzard followed by The Black Art of Criticism with Ann Widdecombe, Stav Sherez, NJ Cooper, SJ Parris and Jake Kerridge. The Criticism panel wasn’t quite as controversial as I’d hoped. Ann Widdecombe said that it was generally the writer who was criticised, not the work,. I liked Jake Kerridge, if only because he made it clear he thought Dan Brown was a terrible writer (‘Brown gets better and better: where once he was abysmal, he is now just very poor’). I couldn’t believe that ‘Widders’ had written a crime novel based on Strictly Come Dancing. Sharon foolishly parted with £10 for a copy of this self-published tome (and she was stone-cold sober!). I read the first page and was appalled at the over-long sentences and poor punctuation.
Mark Billingham

The colourfully dressed and heavily made-up Eddie Izzard was funny and weird. Mark Billingham, his old Comedy Store buddy (and fellow struggling stand-up comic back in the Eighties), was funnier, in my opinion. I am one of those people who don’t ‘get’ Eddie’s surreal humour. To think he can now fill The Hollywood Bowl at one of his stand-up nights... He has recently turned to acting and I’m told he’s very good at it. Mark Billingham, of course, turned to crime fiction writing and he’s excellent at that (I have a bit of a girl crush). Eddie left us with his answer to the theory of the universe after he revealed he drank gin and tonic while sitting in an ice bath once he’d completed each of this forty-three marathons. I hope Mark Billingham will conduct more interviews with guests next year.
After the last event of the evening, I was lucky enough to be asked to meet with Eva Dolan to discuss my novel. Eva has been so supportive of my writing and I can’t thank her enough. She always seems two steps ahead of what is happening with agents and publishers. I feel so privileged to have access to such inside information. We then joined Cally Taylor, Mark Edwards, Phil Viner and others for a lively chat about LSD and stalkers amongst other things! Phil Viner was also very generous with his advice.
The lovely Cally Taylor

This blog is going to have to be a two-parter. Writing it is proving almost as exhausting as attending the festival!


  1. Can't wait for Part 2, Jo. What a fantastic event. I must try and get there next year. All of my favourite authors were there - Elly Griffiths, Jeffrey Deaver, Mark Billingham - wow - and so many more! Mind you, I don't think I'd be able to keep up with the 'pop'. Thank you for sharing! Great post!

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