Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Part Two

I think Saturday was my favourite day of the whole festival. Once more the sun shone and the temperatures soared. I made the mistake of wearing my ‘too long’ hippy-look maxi and spent much of the day turning to the person behind me (usually male) to politely inform them that they were standing on my dress. 
After a hearty breakfast at The Cairn, Sally and I ventured forth once more to The Old Swan. I was particularly excited about seeing Ian Rankin and couldn’t help thinking of my friend, Sharon (aka Effie Merryl), who would have given her right arm to be there. I wish she had been, for several reasons, but mainly because she could have done the introductions. I now wish I’d been brave enough to speak to Ian when he sat on the next table talking to my ‘new friend’ Lauren Sarno. Oh well! 
Ian Rankin was in conversation with William McIlvanney, who, I gathered, was a bit of a legend in the crime writing world. William is from Glasgow, and I did have trouble understanding his broad accent. Apparently, he is the Godfather of Tartan Noir. Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels were inspired by McIlvanney, who treated us to an extract from one of his own gritty books. I was surprised at the literary style, although the violent scene wasn’t to my taste. I don’t really ‘do’ gangsters, preferring my crime to be a little less hard-boiled. 
Sally and I then had the good fortune to bump into Carole Blake and her handsome assistant, Tom Witcomb. I was delighted that Carole recognised me from Twitter and Facebook. Sally had met Carole before and had had lunch with her, so they nattered away like old friends. I got so carried away that I totally forgot about which talk we were going to next, so surreptitiously had a glance at my programme to realise I was in danger of missing Val McDermid in conversation with forensic anthropologist, Professor Sue Black. Fortunately, Carole also remembered she had to be somewhere else, so we said our goodbyes. There were no seats remaining in the main part of the ballroom, but lots to spare in the garden room at the back. I was relieved to see two large flat screens right in front of us, so that we could get a good view of the two friends in conversation. I could have listened to their easy banter all day. Sue Black had some fascinating stories to tell, including one in which she was responsible for bringing back two prostitutes’ decapitated heads from Verona to Dundee, where they had the specialist equipment and expertise to help identify them. She had put the buckets containing the decomposing heads into two Gucci bags and had two letters, one in English, one in Italian, explaining why they were in her possession and stating that she could not be physically separated from the heads in case of contaminating the evidence. Her experiences at border controls and customs were hilarious. I think my favourite was when the stewardess on the flight from Verona to Heathrow asked Sue to put the Gucci bags in the overhead luggage rack. Sue refused and showed the stewardess the letter. The stewardess then promptly moved her to Business Class where Sue had a seat as far away from anyone else as possible and was then ignored by the stewardesses for the rest of the flight. She didn’t even receive so much as a glass of water.
Val McDermid asked Sue how she came to be interested in bones. Sue explained her fear of rodents and how she’d do anything to avoid having to dissect them. She veered towards a study of anatomy, as a result. I found it amusing that she hadn’t heard of some well known crime authors and books! Sue said there was only one occasion when her work encroached on her personal life and that was when a middle-aged man was dancing with her daughter at her prom. Sue said she watched his hands very closely (having spent a lot of time at work studying images on paedophiles’ hard-drives for identification purposes). It transpired that the man dancing with her daughter was the father of her boyfriend and all was well. Val asked whether Sue had found this out after she’d decked him!
I was fascinated to learn that someone’s ethnicity can be determined by examining hair, nails and bone, which tells the history of that person’s diet. For example, in the case of the 7/7 bombers, Sue and her team could prove that the bombers had never been to Pakistan to an Al Queda training camp and could pinpoint their home and background to Leeds. 
There was also a good dollop of ‘pubic scalps’ in this talk, which almost put me off my lunch. I was relieved to see fresh tuna steak wasn’t on the menu!
On the subject of lunch, I was surprised to learn that lunch on Friday and Saturday were included in the price of our Rover Ticket. On both days we were offered a roast dinner as well as a vegetarian option followed by either cheesecake, chocolate mousse or fruit salad. It wasn’t gourmet cuisine, but I enjoyed mine very much! 
I was sorry to miss out on the New Blood panel chaired by Val McDermid, but there is a limit to how much you can squeeze in at these festivals. We had a post-lunch glass of wine in the bar, then headed off for ‘Vera’. Ann Cleeves hosted this session and was in conversation with the executive producer of the popular TV crime drama, Elaine Collins, screenwriter Paul Rutman and none other than Oscar nominee, Brenda Blethyn. As soon as we took our seats fairly near the front, I decided I needed the Ladies. Who should I meet coming down the stairs from the Green Room, but Brenda Blethyn herself! She smiled at me, said hello then followed me into the Ladies. I was noticeably star-struck, I’m sure. 
This was one of my favourite events of the weekend. My husband and I love ‘Vera’, and mimic Vera Stanhope’s accent and diction at every opportunity, often second-guessing what she’s going to say next. I was surprised to learn that Brenda Blethyn spends five months of the year filming Vera in and around Alnmouth and Newcastle. The indoor scenes are filmed at the former Swan Hunter shipyard. Ann Cleeves, who wrote the books the series are based on, went from obscurity to fame by pure chance. Elaine Collins told us that ITV were looking for a new detective series to replace A Touch Of Frost and they wanted a female detective. Elaine read dozens of crime books, but discarded them, as she couldn’t find what she was looking for. Then, by chance, she came across Ann Cleeves’ The Crow Trap in a charity shop, read it and knew instantly that she’d found ITV’s new detective. Ann then explained how the character, Vera Stanhope came to be. Ann was writing about three females sitting round a table talking and got stuck. She remembered Raymond Chandler’s advice that if you get stuck, have a man burst into a room with a gun. She said she didn’t like guns, so had a scruffy female walk into the room instead. Vera Stanhope was born, complete with old overcoat and padded waistcoat.
Saturday afternoon was wonderful! Sally and I joined Susannah Rickards, Phil Jones, Lauren Sarno and others on a table laden with wine. We met some lovely people and Lauren invited us to join her in a bottle of Prosecco. We laughed, swapped stories about our writing, talked about fashion, mobile phones and dodgy signals only to be interrupted by James Bond, complete with tuxedo and black tie. No, not the man himself, of course, but our Lee Child ticket blagger who was dressed for the License To Thrill Dinner. Susannah saved the day and took on the role of his minder, as he used my Rover Ticket to gain entry to see one of his favourite authors. I never did get so much as a glass of wine for my trouble!
Sally and I then staggered off towards town where we were due to meet my friend,  Mandy Huggins at L’Albero Delle Noci, a fantastic little Mediterranean restaurant with a cosy ambience in Cheltenham Crescent. Even though Mandy was sitting outside, we still managed to walk past her without seeing her and I had to phone her for instructions of how to get there! The food and service were excellent. Somehow we managed to consume two bottles of Pinot Grigio between us, talking non-stop about Bruce Springsteen, writing, books, travel and goodness knows what else! Little did we know that we needn’t have rushed, as Kate Atkinson wasn’t due to speak until 8.30pm. My programme stated it was 8pm. Still, at least it gave Susannah and Mandy time to finish the complimentary lollipops!
I have to confess I was a little disappointed in Kate. I’m sure I was the only one, however. I don’t think Mark Lawson got the best out of her. Or maybe I’d just read too many interviews with her in the press and therefore there were no surprises. Or maybe I’d had too much wine and couldn’t take it all in. Anyway, I loved her latest novel, Life After Life and relished every snippet of information she gave us about writing it. Apparently, there is a bibliography on Kate Atkinson’s website of all the books she used in her research, so that was something new I learned!
Afterwards we joined the long queue at the bar and I bought a very mediocre bottle of warm Sauvignon Blanc to share. Sally managed another hour with us, before surrendering and going back to The Cairn, not before Mandy had treated us to an hilarious impression of her B&B landlady. The wine magically seemed to improve as Mandy and I gossiped well into the night, although I was rather disappointed not to be surrounded by well-known crime writers, but they were all embroiled in the late night quiz. I watched Mandy stagger off back towards the town and I wended my way back up the hill to The Cairn in the company of Catriona MacPherson who was lovely. I’d already marked her out as an author whose books were right up my street (crime fiction set in the 30s and 40s). Her witty asides and sharp wit had kept me entertained when she sat next to me during the Victorian Crime panel the day before.
Despite waking at 4.45am fretting about my son going off Inter-Railing and worrying that someone had hiked up my bar bill (I’d left my room number passcard thingy lying about The Cairn), I woke again at 8.15am ready for breakfast and eager to attend the Slaughtering the Sacred Cows panel at 10am. Mandy Huggins texted me to say she was running late (hangover, more like!), so would meet me after the talk. 
The Sunday morning panel introduced me to crime writers I hadn’t read: Stuart McBride (who was hilarious), Catriona MacPherson (very witty and dry), Manda Scott (who sat in the lotus position throughout) and Cathi Unsworth. I’d been admiring a lady wearing vintage hairdo and clothes over the weekend, not realising it was Cathi. What a great look! No surprise that she lived in Camden! Mandy told me that Cathi is also a reader/editor for Take A Break’s Fiction Feast. Interesting! I loved the sound of Cathi’s books, particularly when she told us a fan had written in saying she’d made Great Yarmouth sound interesting. I gathered her books are edgy and drenched in popular culture. In other words, just my cup of tea. There followed a fascinating discussion about pushing the boundaries of crime fiction and this reassured me that maybe, just maybe, I, too, might get away with my novel not being in the conventional crime novel mould.
And that was it! I hadn’t the stamina for Charlaine Harris, although I was assured that she was an excellent writer and an entertaining speaker. I met up with Mandy again, who was now in panic mode about getting a number for a Bruce Springsteen concert in Leeds on Wednesday (Mandy is a huge Bruce fan). We had a freebie coffee, briefly reconnected with Cath Bore and Katie, before heading off to the town in search of lunch. We decided that, as the queue wasn’t very long, we’d treat ourselves to lunch in Betty’s. The tinkly piano music was perfect for a Sunday afternoon.
Now it’s Tuesday and I’m suffering withdrawal symptoms. I haven’t enjoyed a weekend as much in a very long time. I’d forgotten how thrilling it is to be in the company of other writers and to be immersed in the world of books.
Roll on next year! 

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate 2013 - Part One

Val McDermid chatting outside the entrance to The Old Swan

This was my third visit to The Harrogate Crime Writers’ Festival. The first time I went to the festival was in 2005 when it was held at The Cedar Court Hotel. Coincidentally, Ruth Rendell was the first speaker I saw that year, too. The second time I attended was in 2006,  and the festival had moved to The Old Swan. The first speaker I saw that year was Kate Atkinson, whose talk was also one of the highlights this year. 
Sally 'I Used To Live In Harrogate' Zigmond
My constant companion at all three festivals was Sally (I Used To Live In Harrogate) Zigmond (previously known as That Sally Bloody Zigmond, as she used to win every short story competition going). This was the first year we’d stayed at a hotel for the Crime Writers’ Festival (as Sally used to live in Harrogate, you know and she kindly put me up in her lovely home in previous years) and bought a Weekend Rover Ticket and oh, how much more we got out of the event as a result. We stayed at The Cairn (more of which later). Oh, and before I continue, please don’t think I’m being rude to Sally. We’re at that stage in our friendship where we can say what we like to each other without causing offence (a bit like Ruth Rendell/Jeanette Winterson and Val McDermid/Sue Black, if I dare compare myself to such literary greats).
We both arrived in Harrogate on Thursday and naturally aimed straight for the bar at The Cairn and my first Theakston’s of the weekend. From there we made our way to The Old Swan to pick up our goody bags, groaning with free books, which we then had to lug around for the rest of the evening. We were delighted that Denise Mina won the Crime Novel of the Year Award with her ‘really hard won book’ Gods and Beasts, particularly as she was the only female on the shortlist. At the opening party Sally and I stood on the periphery, sipping our pints of Old Peculier and we were just wondering whether we’d ever see anyone we knew, when a pretty blonde lady peered at me with interest and then approached and tentatively asked, ‘Are you Jo Derrick?’. She looked vaguely familiar, so I was thrilled to discover it was none other than Susannah Rickards (winner of The Scott Prize in 2010 with Hot Kitchen Snow http://www.amazon.co.uk/Susannah-Rickards/e/B00466TWYO), whose work I’d first published in Quality Women’s Fiction some years previously and more recently in The Yellow Room. It transpires that Susannah has written a crime novel and secured a well-known agent who stood just feet away from us (the formidable looking Jane Gregory). It was wonderful to meet Susannah and I lost count of the number of times I bumped into her over the weekend. We ended up spending rather a lot of time together drinking wine and discussing writing in the next three days, which was brilliant. I’m pleased to say we got on like a house on fire! 
Susanna Rickards

On Friday we awoke to another fabulous day weather-wise and excited about seeing one of our literary heroines, Jeanette Winterson interview Ruth Rendell (or Baroness Rendell Of Babergh CBE, as she is otherwise known). It was heart-warming to witness their wonderfully intimate relationship as they shared a fair amount of banter and leg-pulling. I got the impression that Jeanette saw Ruth as something of a mother-figure. She began by telling us how Ruth first gave her refuge in the 1980s when Jeanette needed space to write her second novel, then proceeded to ask Ruth about her writing, which spans a total of fifty years. I did feel rather queasy when the discussion turned to female genital mutilation, a practice which Baroness Rendell is fighting hard to put an end to. All in all, it was a great start to the festival, making me want to revisit the Barbara Vine (the pseudonym Ruth Rendell uses for her psychological crime thrillers) novels in particular. 
Now I apologise for not bringing you an in-depth account of each of the talks, interviews and panels, but I didn’t take notes! Unforgivable really, especially as I had my notebook in my handbag. I promise to do better next time. My memory isn’t what it was, so I can only bring you a scanty overview. I confess I find panels rather trying, as opinions and insights are batted backwards and forwards between the authors taking part. The heat in the ballroom at The Old Swan was unbearable at times, particularly in the afternoons when temperatures hovered around the 30 degrees centigrade mark and an audience of a few hundred people were crammed in like sardines! This became The Festival of the Fan, as I’ve never seen so many hand-held fans being wafted in one room before. It was like something out of a regency novel. Even the panelists were using them, which created a bizarre Apocalypse Now soundtrack to the proceedings as their microphones picked up the gentle thwack-thwack fanning movement. 

Sally and I attended a fascinating dissection of Victorian Crime with Kate Colquhoun, Lyndsay Faye, Kate Summerscale and Andrew Taylor. Old Sherlock Holmes has a lot to answer for, as one particular panelist dominated the proceedings. We opted out of Social Media: Who Are You? choosing to sit in the bar with a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc instead. This was a double-edged sword, as we were ‘treated’ to a discourse on crime authors with a gregarious Glaswegian with a fine line in blagging a ticket for Lee Child. As with most of the Harrogate delegates we met, the gentleman asked where we were from, prompting Sally to stress that she used to live in Harrogate and I was told, for the first time in my life, that I had a ‘neutral’ accent.
We listened to diverse opinions on the nature of evil in the Touching Evil panel with Michael Ridpath, Belinda Bauer, Nicci French, Alex Marwood and Stav Sherez. I came away grateful that a) I wasn’t married to Sean French, b) annoyed at Michael Ridpath’s casual misogyny and c) vowing to read the novels of Belinda Bauer and Alex Marwood. 
Sally had had enough at this point and said she needed an early night. I think this was simply an excuse to escape me blathering on any more about my crime novel (that I still haven’t finished) and moaning about the bar prices. I took the opportunity to dash back to my room to change into yet another maxi dress (I resembled a magician pulling them out of a hat like rabbits) before setting out in search of a meal. On the way back down the hill towards town I met Susannah Rickards and her newly-made friend Lauren Sarno. They kindly invited me to join them for dinner, so I accompanied them back to their hotel, The Majestic where I waited in the beautiful foyer for them to freshen up. I was just cursing the organisers of the festival for dumping me in the inferior Cairn Hotel, when Susannah and Lauren reappeared with two more Festival delegates in tow; Cath Bore, whom I’d met earlier - we are ‘Friends’ on Facebook - and who instilled serious maxi dress envy in me when she appeared wearing a stunning purple one; and Katie, a prolific crime novel reader. 
Cath Bore
The Majestic Hotel Foyer
There were murmurs of Wagamama’s, which piqued my interest, never having eaten there before, but we found ourselves lured into a rather mediocre bar and grill where I was presented with chicken, which had been cooked under a brick (!) and a few thick chips. (I can’t believe that a restaurant in this day and age presents food minus at least a few peas and some greenery.) We rashly ordered two bottles of wine, which was a bit much considering we had to be at another talk by 8.30pm, but I manned up and finished it off for them. It was the least I could do. 
Sally Zigmond and I had been disappointed that Susan Hill had cancelled earlier in the week to be replaced by Peter James, but in hindsight I’m glad she did, if only to hear Val McDermid singing a rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s I Need A Hero (Val proved to have a pretty good voice!). 
Peter James is a born raconteur. His background is fascinating (his mother was a Jewish refugee who came over to England in the late 1930s with ‘Jude’ stamped on her passport and a suitcase full of gloving leathers. She ended up being glove-maker to the Queen) and anyone who calls Martin Amis a tw*t is all right by me. Peter James was snubbed by Amis at a literary event in 2010, having known him when they went to the same ‘crammer’ in the 1960s. As revenge and following a bet with Ian Rankin on Twitter, Peter wrote Amis into his next book, giving him a very small penis. (Amis Smallbone is ridiculed by a prostitute, who compares his manhood to a stubby pencil. The gangster he is staying with says, “You’ve always traded on being your dad’s son, but you was never half the man he was.”)

Some of you will know that Peter James’s books are set mostly in Brighton. He told the audience that Brighton is a magnet for criminals and is the drug-injecting capital of the UK (son’s girlfriend who has applied to Brighton Art College take note). I was particularly intrigued by the existence of ‘knocker boys’ who dupe pensioners into selling their heirlooms for a fraction of their value. 
Lots of laughs later, I headed back to The Cairn and was greeted by a particularly bad ‘pub singer’ in the foyer doing a poor rendition of Islands In The Stream and a middle-aged lady dancing alone while her husband looked on lasciviously. I just hoped my room wasn’t next to theirs. I got as far away from the ‘entertainment’ as possible and ordered a glass of wine while swapping ‘Gromit’ expressions with a Scottish lady who obviously had escaped the foyer seating area for similar reasons. I was then joined by two lovely Swedish librarians who I’d met in the lunch queue at The Old Swan earlier in the day and we proceeded to talk books and Britain.
This blog is going to have to be at least a two-parter! More tomorrow!