Nestled in the heart of the Victorian spa town of Harrogate lies the eighteenth century Old Swan Hotel, where Agatha Christie herself stayed in 1926, this year’s host of the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival.
This is a four day event, running from Thursday to Sunday and, as hubby and I drove the three hours north last Friday amidst the blistering sunshine, I couldn’t help but wonder how much we could fit into the one day that my work and family commitments allowed. The answer? Surprisingly, quite a lot.
Arriving just before lunchtime we took a walk through Harrogate’s tree lined avenues and started with lunch at Betty’s Tea Room, famous for their wild array of cakes and pastries. Ironically Harrogate’s Betty’s was situated at the top of a steep hill on Parliament Street, kind of ‘kill the calories before you eat them’. By the time I reached the top, all I wanted was sugar and lots of it.
Afterwards, we made for the Old Swan and arrived just in time for our first event, ‘Social Media – Who Are You?’, where a panel of crime writers’ chaired by Mark Billingham debated online personas and the use of social media.
There were differing levels of online usage on the panel and various preferences – some preferred Facebook whereas others sang the praises of Twitter. Although the session did get a little side tracked with a discussion over crime writer Stephen Leather’s creation of false personas online, something that follows on from last year’s conference which I don’t wish to go into here (plenty has already been written about this online), what I took from the general discussion and Q and A with readers was that social media is an invaluable tool for communicating with readers and networking within the industry. Indeed one of the authors claimed to have obtained a TV pitch as a result of a discussion that started on Twitter.
Maybe we already know this, however what was interesting was that panellists did agree that you need to find your own medium or vein on how to use it. Nobody minds the odd promotional tweet, but mass tweeting of book links is unpopular. Where it is beneficial is as a means to communicate with readers and network with colleagues. Some of the panellists debate current news issues, others discuss what they are reading, some just chat.
In between events, the rolling party in the bar caught our eye. Last Friday it spilled out onto the lawn out front, where a plethora of attendees sat on the terrace, around the tables, or just planted themselves on the grass around the large tepees that housed the bookstore and author signings out front. What struck me throughout was the affable nature of the event. The staff at the Old Swan couldn’t have been more helpful and everyone you met, from famous authors like Val McDermid and Mark Billingham to readers and lesser known writers alike, mingled together and stopped to chat. For my first time at an event of this scale, it felt very welcoming and friendly.
Later we attended ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’ where another panel of authors, chaired by Martyn Waites, talked about the importance of writers being readers first and foremost, and discussed some of their greatest influences in the literary world. One of my personal favourites, A Catcher in the Rye, was mentioned here, alongside Agatha Christie and George Simenon’s Maigret.
The short interlude that followed allowed time for a brief exploration of the city centre, where we wandered around the ancient buildings and Turkish Baths (Harrogate’s architecture is comparable to that of Leamington Spa and Bath), decorated with colourful hanging baskets and floral displays, and squeezed in a quick mezze dinner, before heading back to the Old Swan for the ‘Guest Event’.
Originally planned as a live interview with Susan Hill, illness required a last minute change in the timetable here. Val McDermid rose to the occasion and gave us a hilarious rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘I need a Hero’ when she introduced the venerable Peter James as replacement, who apparently flew in from New York to save the day. And he wasn’t disappointing.
Articulate and hugely amusing, James talked about his first hand experience in researching his novels (which included spending half an hour in a bolted coffin), his film and book career, and his writing life. I met up with him afterwards in the signing tent and have to say, he couldn’t have been more charming and generous with his time: chatting with individuals, posing for pictures, and signing books – no mean feat considering he was flying back to New York that night for a charity event!
As darkness descended on the lawns of the Old Swan, hubby and I met up and chatted with Susi Holliday and her husband, and Rebecca Bradley – who I’m pleased to say were just as lovely in person as they are online. We also made many new friends including Annie Dyer, Nicola Ford and Octavia Grey, to name but a few.
Ok, so it’s not possible to cram a four day event into one. What did I miss? Lots more chats with interesting people and a myriad of enticing events and interviews to attend. But it certainly gave us a taste of this friendly and fun event. So much so, that I can’t wait to go back next year. #TopCrime2014 – bring it on!