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! 


Rachel Green said...

What a super write-up! I couldn't afford to go, alas, so thank you.
Sharon and I are old blog friends.

TracyFells said...

Sounds an absolutely fabulous weekend Jo. I don't particularly write crime but I love reading it and recently discovered Belinda Bauer - so do try her books.
Did you pick up any leads or interest for your crime novel?

Jo said...

I didn't, Tracy, because I didn't push it. This isn't the place for pitching! However, the whole event inspired me and made me feel I'm on the right track.

Jackie Sayle said...

Another most interesting post, Jo. The heads in Gucci bags - there's a story there somewhere.

Joanna said...

Jo, that was fantastic. I loved the Gucci heads. Another brilliant account of an amazing event. x

Denise said...

I was at the Kate Atkinson talk too. I thought she made the whole writing process sound accidental as though she didn't know what she was writing or why. And I just didn't really believe that was possible. Loved the festival though!

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