Friday morning at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

Friday morning came and I was out of bed on the first alarm – I always am at these things, as no wife or children to alert me if I oversleep.

A hearty breakfast at the Holiday Inn and a brisk walk back to the Old Swan Hotel for the first event of the day.

Martina Cole interviewed by Dreda Say Mitchell.

An illuminating and, at times, hilarious discussion between these two writers of tough gritty London and the South based crime kicked off with Martina, dressed all in black and with her microphone headset, bounding onto the stage to announce that she and Dreda were thinking of ‘doing a Britney’, but that they couldn’t as they’d both had a wash that morning!

Cole was an inspirational speaker – I’ve always found her work a little too heavy on the dark side for my liking as a rule, with few redeeming features to her character, but I loved hearing her speak and will be seeking out more of her books as a result.

Both spoke of their involvement with prisons and writing groups within and of their love of theatre, particular of their support of the Theatre Royal, Stratford – where I saw an excellent adaptation of Cole’s The Graft a few months ago.

There were comments and subjects I never expected to come up, such as Cole’s love of tv show ‘Come Dine with Me’ which she described as having everything – Food, idiots….

It was great to hear of her start in writing too, and her putting on a phoney posh voice when top agent Darley Anderson called her, as she thought it was one of her mates winding her up.

The thing I’ll take away more than anything from Martina Cole’s talk was her inspirational ‘Go for it!’ attitude and advice to anyone in the room who wanted to write, saying that if she and Dreda could make it, then…..

Top lady and a great start to the first full day at the festival.

 

Next up was Penned In.

This was the one event on the list that I was a little unsure of as to whether it would work for me – as essentially the panel was made up of former prison inmates who made a writing career for themselves whilst inside and are doing pretty well out of it now they are on the outside.

The panel was chaired by investigative journalist and crime author, Duncan Campbell, who unfortunately tripped up as he stepped onto the stage, a pattern which was followed by Cass Pennant who followed him in similar style – resulting in nervous laughter from the audience, not daring to mock too much.

I’ve joked to my wife in the past that if I committed a crime and served a bit of time for it, it could just be the space and time that I need to concentrate on my writing without having the day job and bills to concern myself with – This event threatened to reinforce that idea. However, despite the fact that all the men on the panel (Erwin James, Cass Pennant and Jonathan Aitken) had become successful in a new writing career as a result of starting to write in prison, there were stories of very dark experiences at times which I wouldn’t have wanted to face.

The common thread seemed to be that these men were able to read and write in a place where not everyone else can and, as a result of that, they were chosen to help those other inmates. Everything from reading letters from briefs and assisting with replies to penning love letters to girlfriends on the outside – they each became very useful to the others on their wings. Cass said that he realised just how important reading was to inmates when one told him he was ‘on the moon’ because a book he was reading placed him there and that’s where he was escaping to whilst he read it. He’s the first person to be titled a ‘Hooliologist’ for his knowledge of football hooliganism and is now known as ‘the book man’ to others inside who look to him for contracts (of the publishing kind!).

Jonathan Aitken illustrated how respected he was in prison when an inmate walked along the corridor holding a letter he’d written for him, shouting ‘This MP geezer of ours – he’s got fantastic joined-up writing!’ Aitken’s letters of love to the ladies of Brixton also made him very popular.

Erwin James confirmed that his favourite read whilst inside Wandsworth Jail was Papilion – which he read three times – he knew that there was no chance of escape from Wandsworth other than through books. He also agreed with the comment that a prisoner is at times free-er than a free man on the outside.

The last panel of the morning was entitled Wrong ‘Uns, and was, I thought, one of the most impassioned panels – mainly due to some serious opening up to problems in her past from Mandasue Heller and some strong arguments during the discussions from Denise Mina.

Alex Wheatle and Craig Robertson made up the rest of the panel, which was chaired by James Twining. The discussion began by asking the panel if they believed there was such a thing as ‘evil’. Denise Mina suggested that crime fiction enables us to unpack veiling of truths and that, if you want your children to become psychopaths, then you really need to work at it.

Craig Robertson also agreed that he didn’t believe that there was such a thing as ‘evil’.

Mandasue Heller then told of a terrible attack that she’d suffered when younger, by a man with a claw hammer and that she’d been very badly treated by the police afterwards as she understood that there had been a number of attacks on prostitutes in the area and they had little sympathy for anyone regardless of their own situation, tarring all victims with the same brush. Later, she suffered a tumour behind her eye, meaning that her balance was impaired whilst on stage – so all this led to her sitting and starting to write down all of her problems – a memoir too personal to publish, but enough to make her realise that she wanted to write.

Alex Wheatle spoke of needing to include context/background to the reasons why people can turn out the way they do.

The conversation then turned to fictional violence and whether it was necessary to up the gore quota to outsell an author’s previous novel or books by others.

With his superb debut novel, Random, Craig Robertson wanted to put the reader inside the killer’s head to make the reader as uncomfortable as possible (it did) but all agreed that there is still a strong case for good writing meaning that not so much violence needs to actually be ‘shown’ on the page.   Alex suggested that a slow-down in the lead up to the scene of violence can greatly improve the pace/action and recommended watching Sergio Leone movies to see great examples of how that pacing can work so well.

Denise Mina stood up for violence – she likes her gore and wasn’t ashamed to say so.

‘We’re not buying books about cats!’

She said that we all like the fact that we read things that we maybe shouldn’t and she recommended the movies of Beat Takeshi for great examples of the aftermath of violence.

‘I like a bit of gore – Let’s be honest about it’. She went on to say that many people probably bought books where characters are stabbed to take on holiday to reduce the chances of them wanting to stab their own families whilst away.

James Twining stepped in to say that, from the discussion so far, all seemed to be in agreement that the increase in violence in books was a mirror on society and not a distortion of it.

Craig Robertson fell into trouble with Denise at the fact that he had a sex worker killed in his second novel, Snapshot.

But should books be restricted?

‘Everybody read dirty bits’ in books at school, advised Denise.

Mandasue agreed and added that ‘The Happy Hooker’ was a favourite when she was younger.

So, has the battle been lost – our children have already seen bloodshed/violence on the internet and in videogames, but in books it’s usually different, in most cases there is a resolution at the end.

Denise Mina suggested that those present in the room should start a ‘secret censorship’ – we should go out and mark books by Robbie Burns and Milton as XXX and put them on a high shelf in bookstores and libraries and tell children not to read them!

Alex Wheatle stated that he felt that publishing and books in general was still too white middle class and was still under-represented in black authors/editors and readers – he’s on a mission to improve that.

The panel was then asked for their favourite anti-heroes:

James Twining: Glenn Close’s character in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’.

Craig Robertson: Robert Murdoch (going for a very topical name), and then added James Stewart as Mr Potter in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.

Denise Mina: ‘Violent Cop’ by Beat Takeshi – despite the fact she’d discovered it by accident in thinking she was renting another in the ‘Maniac Cop’ horror series. She also added Humbert Humbert from ‘Lolita’.

Alex Wheatle – Noodles from ‘Once upon a time in America’.

Mandasue Heller – Bette Davis in ‘The Anniversary’ – pure evil and fascinating to watch.

Craig Robertson then got the chance during a Q&A session to redeem himself with Denise Mina when he told her he did feature a bit of male rape in his first novel.

And Denise commented that she felt that we are a much more visual culture now – and, as a result of that, we don’t want a lot of detail and long descriptions of landscape, we just need glimpses of scenes.

And that was Friday morning up until lunch-bell.

Five more panels to go on this first packed day of criminal activity.

Keith

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Filed under Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Harrogate 2011

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