There’s a familiar comment people often make that a Sunday roast takes hours to prepare and then about fifteen minutes to demolish, although in this case, it’s probably more appropriate to talk about the brewing/drinking time for a pint of Theakstons Old Peculier. Regardless, I’ve been helping to work on the programme for this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival for about a year and a half, on and off, and the weekend itself seemed to pass in a heartbeat. It always does, but in this case – for me – it’s especially surreal to realise it’s all over.
And yet it is! It seemed to go very well, I think. Certainly, there seemed to be a real buzz around the hotel this year, and I lost count of the number of people who came up to me to thank and congratulate me, and to say “well done” and tell me how much they were enjoying it. Which was lovely – obviously – and we’ll come back to that at the end. But first, I figured I’d list a few of my my personal highlights from the weekend.
There have been various incidents over the last few years, and it’s common currency (and I don’t think this is by any means unique to Harrogate) that there’s usually at least one ‘controversial’ panel. While a little controversy can be fun, it’s also nice once in a while to have panels that are just enormously entertaining and informative without anyone actively falling out. And I think we achieved that this year. Which is mostly down to the fact that every single panellist was great and interesting and sensible. In fact – without exception – for every single panel I had somebody come up to me afterwards and say “that was really, really good!” And from what I managed to see of each of them, I completely agree.
There’s a young couple called Scott and Jo who come to the Festival every single year. Honestly, they’re probably as familiar to regular attendees as many of the authors. So it was a huge pleasure to arrange for my afternoon panel that, after I’d thanked the panellists and wound things up, there’d be time for one more question – whereupon Scott proposed to Jo in front of an audience of nearly 500 people. (She said yes). It was a really lovely moment – and the whole Festival team was totally into it: there was music and champagne and everything. I can hardly imagine how nervous Scott must have been, sitting there for the hour beforehand, but hats off to him, and massive congratulations to them both. Happygate.
3) My panels!
I didn’t fuck them up! They were the only things I was really nervous about the whole weekend, because, while I enjoy moderating, you want to make sure they go well, and you’ve got enough questions, and so on. Fortunately, my panellists were uniformly ace. In the afternoon, I had Lauren Beukes, Sharon Bolton, James Smythe and Lavie Tidhar talking all things cross-genre, all with charisma and aplomb. My late night panel on plot twists was a more relaxed affair, with Alex Barclay, Simon Kernick, S J Parris and Nick Stone gamely trying to guess various famous twists. At one point, Simon was scrabbling on all fours for his dropped buzzer, and the audience were shouting “It’s behind you!”. Loads of fun. (Although I think that if the audience had had a collective buzzer, they’d have well won).
4) J K Rowling!
On Friday night, with a capacity crowd at the Royal Hall, I got to introduce Val McDermid from the side of the theatre’s stage, and then stand very quietly for a minute or so next to J K Rowling as Val introduced her. Which was kind of a surreal pinch-yourself moment – I mean, I can’t imagine I’m ever going to do anything like that again. (And J K Rowling is possibly very glad about this). It was the biggest event in the Festival’s history so far, and a real thrill for me to have played a small part in it. The event itself was amazing.
5) Special Guests!
But they were all brilliant. It was especially nice to have Lynda La Plante winning the Lifetime Achievement award and then appearing at the Festival for the first time (and going down an absolute storm with the audience). But they were all superb, from the paired conversations to the individual events. And all such genuinely nice people. One of the perks of being Chair is that I tried to make sure I went into the green room before all the events, special guest and panels, to check if everyone was present and happy, and everyone was utterly lovely. The lesson? Crime authors are ace. But you knew that.
It’s often impossible to talk to everyone you want to for more than a few minutes, and sometimes not at all, but one of the things I look forward to most about Harrogate is catching up with people I’ve come to know, and I managed to do a surprising amount of that this year. I was also fairly sensible. There from Wednesday to Sunday, my bedtimes were approximately: 11pm; 2am; 2am; 5.30am. (It’s not Harrogate for me unless I go to bed after dawn on at least one night; and I did get to the green room on the Sunday for the first panel at 10am). I talked to so many wonderful people – old friends and new – and had so many laughs. I said crime authors are ace, but of course, it’s also crime readers, agents, editors, publicists, organisers – absolutely everyone. It’s impossible to describe or explain all those little magic conversational moments that have you laughing out loud for hours on end, but there were lots of them.
7) And finally…
I said at the beginning we’d come back to all those “congratulations” and “well done”s. Early Sunday afternoon, I gave a short speech to the audience. I think it got progressively shakier as it went on (I can make a green room on three hours’ sleep, but holding a mic and talking for five minutes seems harder), but this is the gist of what I said.
As lovely as all the thanks were, I can only take the tiniest amount of credit for how good the weekend was. It wouldn’t have been anything without the various sponsors, including Theakstons and others and the various publishers. And at heart, it was a good weekend because we had so many excellent, interesting authors, so a huge thanks to everyone who took part and made it what it was.
Harrogate International Festivals are just amazing. Onstage, I described the various members of the team as being like ninjas; they don’t assassinate you, of course, but you hardly notice them on the desk and the doors, facilitating everything, doing a fantastic job of making sure the whole thing runs like clockwork. I didn’t get most people’s names, but Naomi in the green room was brilliant (and good luck, if you ever read this, with your philosophy degree at Leeds; it can lead to interesting careers, honest!). Also thanks to the Old Swan: I watched everyone transform that huge hall from lines of chairs to tables for the quiz in less than 15 minutes, and I’ve genuinely never seen anything like it. Thanks to Ann Chadwick for telling me who I needed to talk to and when. And special thanks to the utterly awesome Gemma Rowland and Sharon Canavar, who I think between them could probably have dealt with a direct atomic strike on Harrogate and still kept the Festival running without anyone noticing.
Along with the rest of the committee, they made the whole programming thing an absolute joy from start to finish. So thanks also to Jane Gregory, David Mark, Val McDermid, David Shelley and Daphne Wright for that. There has been no stress; I’ve genuinely enjoyed every single second. I’ve got a small handful of career vague-milestone stuff I keep: my first acceptance letter; my CWA Dagger; my Theakstons shortlist tankard. I’ve now got an admin folder stuffed with random bits and pieces, cards with hastily-scribbled speeches, my ID, and so on. Not as ostensibly glamorous, perhaps, but equally valued.
And most importantly of all, thanks to all the readers who came along, because you’re the people who help to make it the most welcoming, friendly and enthusiastic weekend of the crime calendar.
I’ll probably do a post rounding-up some of the coverage, and after that, normal service here – cynicism, gratuitous swearing, impotent rage, moral panic, etc – will resume. Before it does: thank you all from the bottom of my heart for contributing to one of the best and most memorable weekends of my life. You’re an awesome community, and I’m proud to be part of it.