Peculier words and Badlands

TWO sunny days in Harrogate and now the rain is falling like sin, upsetting the ritual. The run will have to wait and so for now at least the knees have been reprieved.

Man On Ledge has been attending the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival for years now, as a journalist, crime fan and, as it happens, the writer of two published crime novels.

I dipped in and out of events yesterday and on Friday. Time and the train timetable did not allow me to see everything, but plenty of crime talk was listened to and absorbed. Crime-writing conversations were had, writers met, a pint or two swallowed.

The thing about this festival is that the readers just love their crime novels. They are fanatical about crime, many reading little else, and this creates a community feel. Strange in a way that blood should stir such fellowship, but it does. The festival is a big club of criminality, with writers caught blinking and drinking in the light of day, happy for once to be away from all that lonely typing.

Some of the best events are the conversations, the head-to-head encounters between two writers. There is an evenness and democracy to these elevated chats, and when they work a proper bit of chemistry bubbles up.

Val McDermid, more or less the patron saint of this festival, talking to Sara Paretsky was one such engaging chinwag, with McDermid paying tribute to the American writer who, she pointed out, did so much to pave the way for other women writers. Paretsky it was whose VI Warshawski novels inspired McDermid to be a crime writer, showed her how it could be done, pointed a torch down a dark alley, as it were. There is genuine warmth between the two women and that came across.

Other one-on-one encounters relied less on the personal link, but worked just as well. Festival chair Ann Cleeves, author of the Vera and Shetland novels, had a lively and engaging talk with US author Lisa Gardner, even though, as Ann told me later in passing, they had not met before.

The comedian Fred MacAuley proved an inspired choice to interview fellow Scot MC Beaton, author of the Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth novels. With his stand-up skills and easy charm, MacAuley was highly engaging in his own right – and then there was Marion. The onetime Fleet Street journalist and veteran liver of life was warm and amusing, batty and forgetful, and just lovely to listen to.

I missed Eddie Izzard in conversation with Mark Billingham and Rory Bremner interviewing Lee Child. Child popped up earlier to on a panel about Yorkshire Pride. This seemed to surprise everyone, as the Jack Reacher author has only tenuous links to Yorkshire, but never mind, he had much to say. Peter Robinson, as Yorkshire as they come even after all the years in Canada, was good value as always. Hull writer Nick Quantrill sat in the chair and handled everything well, and was later due to take part in the north versus south football match (result unknown at time of writing).

Fertile discussion was had in a talk led by Christopher Fowler, author of the lovely Bryant & May novels, on whether or not the past really is a foreign country.

A session led by David Mark explored why people read certain books, and what influences readers. While the writers taking part – Isabelle Grey, Anya Lipska and James Oswald – were all interesting and had much to say, it was a minor masterstroke to include on the panel the Orkney librarian Stewart Bain, a Twitter star whose influence extends well beyond his own bookshelves.

Manchester writer Cath Straincliffe tapped into a rich vein with a delightfully chewy discussion on the morality of murder, with great contributions from Belinda Bauer, Wiley Cash, the Guardian journalist and thriller writer Jonathan Freedland and the husband-and-wife double act Nicci French. Cath asked great questions, and told me later that she’d really done her homework, down to nerves. The homework showed, the nerves didn’t.

Broadcaster and writer Mark Lawson, always a genial and amusing host, led a great discussion on extreme environments, and whether weird landscapes can take readers into bold new territory. He expressed surprise about his selection for this role as his books are set in Buckinghamshire. Interestingly, one of the writers, the Swede Hakan Nesser, sets his novels in a fictitious city in a made-up country – a bold imaginative move, but one that, as he said, does remove the need for research. You just make it all up instead.

An intriguing thread ran between two of the talks. Both Ann Cleeves and Glasgow writer Louise Welsh mentioned how important it was for writers to earwig other people’s conversations, especially in restaurants or on public transport. Louise suggested that writers should do away with the headphones when on public transport, and instead surrender to nosiness. Ditch the noise for the nose. Ah, hard words but good ones. I do like to listen in to what people say, but I also like my music.

So, yes, I was still plugged in on the train back. Well, that line is very noisy and there is little chance to overhear people above the rattle and creak of the train. And sometimes your iPod throws up a nice juxtaposition. Fancying a walk, I got off the train one stop early. As I walked away, Bruce Springsteen’s Badlands came on. The disjunction made me smile, which you will understand if you have ever been to Upper Poppleton.

I had to wait at the crossing while another train came through. Then the station master or whoever he is pushed the white gates back and the pedestrians and the little cue of cars could move on. Badlands indeed.

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