There aren’t too many places I can think of where I might find myself saying something like that, but the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate was one of them. This annual weekend of murder, mayhem and monkey-business is always one of the highlights of the year for readers and writers alike and is one from which it usually takes a day or two to recover. This is because the Festival is quite unlike any other literary festival I can think of. There is work to be done of course. There are the usual panels and discussions on everything from hardcore sex and violence in the modern serial-killer thriller to the symbolic use of tea and crumpets in the work of Dorothy L Sayers. There are radio and newspaper interviews, there is top-level schmoozing and any number of publishing dinners (OK, not work in the strictest sense of the word), but there is also a social side to the event that transforms a literary festival into one of the longest and most enjoyable parties of the year.
The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival has now firmly established itself as the biggest festival of its kind in the world, but it is more than a fabulous array of crime-writing talent that has made it one of a kind. It is the unique atmosphere that attracts readers and writers from all over the world; something of an achievement considering that almost everyone there is addicted to all things macabre and murderous.
Perhaps the most murderous thing of all is the attendees’ bar bill. The hotel that hosts the festival has let it be known that the crime-writers and readers that fill the bar every night spend more in one hour than the average wedding party spends in an entire evening. I am extremely proud of this. Not because it reveals a deep-seated problem with heavy drinking amongst the crime-writing fraternity (though that may be true), but because it confirms the widely-held belief that those who murder people on the page are actually among the most affable and easy-going people within the literary community. There are of course exceptions to this rule (and I may well be one of them) but the Festival never fails to disappoint anyone who believes that if they want to have a good time they should look for the crime writers. I’m sure there is a certain amount of backbiting going on and perhaps even the odd spot of backstabbing (we are crime writers, after all) but generally speaking, it is not a genre peopled with writers who subscribe to the philosophy which says “in order for me to do well, you have to do badly.” Nowhere is this attitude displayed better and more publicly than at Harrogate.
While old friendships (and occasionally rivalries) are renewed, the festival also offers the chance to get to know the new blood, with sessions and awards devoted to the newer voices within the genre. Those writers yet to be published are wonderfully catered for by ‘Creative Thursday’ with classes run by established writers and advice provided by the top agents and editors working in the field. The braver of the unpublished writers can then take part in the “Dragon’s Pen” and pitch their novels directly at a distinguished panel of agents and editors. Each year it is gratifying to see so many receive such positive responses, despite the panel’s continued reluctance to take on thrillers based around snooker or accountancy. What’s wrong with these people? Can they not see the appeal of “A Cue For A Killing” or “The Spreadsheet Slaughterer”? But what makes this festival truly special is that the readers and writers spend the entire weekend together. There is, at some festivals, an element of ‘us and them’, with writers encouraged to bolt for the safety and seclusion of the Green Room or Writer’s Retreat once they have spoken and signed their books. Harrogate simply does not have this and, over the course of the weekend, readers will constantly comment on how refreshing it is that the writers they have come to see are happy to hang around and socialise with the people who – let’s not forget – are responsible for paying their mortgages.
So, hundreds of readers and thousands of books sold (which does of course keep the publishers happy) but for me, the appeal of this festival is summed up by the number of writers in attendance who are not actually programmed to appear at all, but who come each year because there isn’t anywhere else they’d rather be. It’s certainly the first weekend that gets marked off in my calendar every year, though I’d better start preparing for the festivities now, because Tony Bennett might have left his heart in San Francisco, but I’m pretty sure my liver is still knocking about in Harrogate somewhere.