This post is about the “Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival” in Harrogate in England. But it’s not your average festival review. There won’t be any author interviews or reviews of panel discussions. Because that’s not what Harrogate is really about. Don’t get me wrong. Thanks to author Mark Billingham – who organised this year’s festival – there was a stellar line-up of talent on display. Interviews with authors John Connolly, Kate Mosse and Harlan Coben; panel discussions on everything from ebooks to emerging authors. And even a good sprinkling of controversy (more about that later).
But there’s much more to Harrogate than that. Harrogate is a very special type of literary festival. It’s an event where readers and writers – both established and aspiring – rub shoulders and chat about their favourite pastime: the crime novel. And this – it seems to me and from what I’ve gleaned from other attendees – is the most important part of Harrogate. It’s been said time and time again but it bears repeating – writing is a solitary affair. Most writers spend most of their days locked away in a room. So, when they get to come to something like this and meet other writers and readers, it’s a wonderful experience. This is something that’s happened on Twitter also. In fact, many of the writers that I met on Twitter, I finally got to meet in person at Harrogate.
Someone made the comment to me that Harrogate is a very democratic festival. What they meant by that is that everyone is on an equal footing. The convention hall where the panels are held is very large but the rest of the areas in the hotel – including the bar – are quite small, so it means that everyone is within close proximity of each other. You turn around and there’s John Connolly or Ian Rankin standing behind you and they’re happy to stand and chat to you with no airs or graces.
There are a number of other things that I noticed in my time at the festival. There’s a buzz about the place – people just loving the fact that they get to stand around talking about their favourite books or their favourite pastime – writing. And there’s also a feeling of support – that everyone’s got each other’s backs.
The democratic atmosphere was demonstrated once again on the Saturday when TransWorld publicists took what they called mug shots, where people went into a photo booth with various crime-like props and had their photo taken in the style of a police mug shot. At one stage, the glamorous and hugely popular Swedish novelist Camilla Läckberg came in, donned a silly hat and had her photo taken holding a fish. (I believe it was a “red herring”).
The one moment of discord at the festival was at a panel discussing the eBook that was attended by, amongst others, author Stephen Leather. I wasn’t at the panel but it’s not an understatement to say that, from the off, Leather rubbed the audience members up the wrong way and things got very heated. The discussion is too complicated to go into in this post but author Stuart Neville has an excellent round-up on his blog. Suffice to say, however, that the reason for the audience taking offence is the very reason that Harrogate is such a success – it’s about the pure love of books.
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