Thursday, July 28, 2016

Harrogate 2016: beautiful location; tough questions

Stanley - Thursday

Michael and I were honoured to participate last week in a panel called MURDER OUT OF AFRICA at the remarkable Theakston Old Peculier Writing Festival in Harrogate in the UK.

Photo - Steph Broadribb

Harrogate is an elegant spa town, which was once the favoured destination by the European well-to-do.  Left over from that era are extravagant hotels, beautiful buildings, open spaces, and the gorgeous Valley Gardens, in addition to the baths themselves, some of which are still open.  There’s a lovely restored Edwardian concert hall, the Royal Pump Room Museum, and shops and tearooms galore.

We stayed at the festival venue - The Old Swan Hotel

Cenotaph and Yorkshire Hotel (Photo-DS Pugh)
Harrogate Theatre (Photo-Celia Perry)
Town Hall (Photo-Colin Smith)
Majestic Hotel (Photo-DS Pugh)
Royal Pump Room (Photo-John Tomlinson)
Betty's Tearoom
In some ways, more impressive is the way the town has grasped the opportunity to become a modern-day tourist destination.  Building on its physical beauty, the town has developed a thriving festival industry ranging from our crime writers festival to musical concerts throughout the year; from small animal shows to Gilbert and Sullivan extravaganzas; from theatre to youth festivals; from flower shows to gatherings of MG owners.

There are also many opportunities to explore the countryside’s castles, cathedrals, abbeys, and museums, as well as to walk or bike through Yorkshire's countryside.

I have to say that I was gobsmacked (that’s the appropriate English expression, I believe) by the town and what it’s doing.

The Theakston Old Peculier Writing Festival was also mightily impressive.  It is so named because a local brewery, Theakston’s, is a major sponsor and, needless to say, those attending the festival thanked it many times. 

As a writers festival it differs from any other that I’ve been to.  First, there is only one panel at a time, which provides authors with a large audience (over 14,000 tickets were sold for the two-and-a-half-day event).  I estimate the Murder out of Africa panel had about 300-350 people in the audience.  

Second, there are relatively few authors – about 80 – which means readers have plenty of time to chat to them over a Theakstons or two.  And third, there is a huge area outside the Old Swan Hotel for everyone to mingle.

It is a delightful event to which I hope to return.

Our new UK editions from Orenda Books
Our panel turned out to be very special.  The panelists were Leye Adenle from Nigeria, Paul Mendelson from the UK whose books are set in Cape Town, Deon Meyer from South Africa, and ourselves.  We had a superb moderator in the person of NJ Cooper.

Two things stand out in my mind from the panel – moments where panelists pushed back against some tough comments and questions.

I don’t remember exactly how the topic surfaced, but the idea that Africans are misogynistic was raised.  Leye’s reacted strongly and retorted that historically many Nigerian and other African groups have and have had women as leaders, that women have traditionally been the backbone of most communities.  Then both he and Paul commented that Christianity, with its a-woman-should-obey-the-man preaching and its pushy preachers, had undermined a lot of traditional beliefs, resulting in a growth in misogyny to the detriment of the continent. 

leye Adenle

Paul Mendelson
I had not thought about this aspect of the European presence in Africa, but I can see what a revolution it caused.  It is easy to see how male European priests would naturally try to deal with local men, thinking they were in charge.  It is also not surprising that this started to shift local values and traditions with respect to gender roles.  In my observation, women are still often the foundation of black society with men believing the should be in charge.

Then a member of the audience appropriately asked why from a continent that was predominately black was there only one black face on the panel.  It was a issue Michael and I had talked about before the festival too.

Deon responded that there were few black crime authors published in the UK (and fewer in the US, I would think).  Publishers are responsible for pitching their authors to be invited to Harrogate, he said.  To have black African authors in their stable whom they can propose for Harrogate, publishers would have to see a potential demand from readers.  He then pointed at the people in the audience, telling them that they shared some of the responsibility for the make up of the panel.  If readers read only British and American writers, he asked, how can African writers ever make their mark?  He admonished the audience to get out of their comfort zones, to take a chance and read writers from Africa and elsewhere.  “You’ll find they are every bit as gripping and entertaining as the authors you are used to.”

Deon Meyer
This exchange caught me by surprise because I have always read books written by authors from all over the world.  I've always enjoyed new settings to which my mind can travel.  To learn that so many readers read only what they know was a bit of a shock.  I suspect readers of this blog are like me - reading widely and enjoying foreign locales.

This discussion also rang true in a slightly different was, as we have often been told that American readers don’t have an appetite for books from Africa.  We always thought this was wrapped up in the fact that America, unlike Europe, has had little contact with Africa except through the import and use of slaves.

It is interesting how race weaves itself into so many contexts around writers from Africa.  I can’t count the times we’ve been asked “How can two white men write a black protagonist?” or “How can two white men know how a black man thinks?”  And so on.  

When I first went to Paris to meet our French editor and our French agent, I was very excited about the prospect of being published in France.  Some of my enthusiasm was dampened, however, when I met them for lunch, because they both expressed disappointment that I wasn’t black.  Although this was done with a smile on their faces, I have no doubt a black face would have been easier to market than my lily white one.  Sigh.  I did offer to work on the situation, but . . .

Anyway, if you have a weekend free at the end of July sometime in the future, I highly recommend going to Harrogate for the Theakston Old Peculier Writing Festival.  Not only will you enjoy meeting and talking a wonderful array of very relaxed authors, but you’ll also enjoy a beautiful town and surroundings.

Valley Gardens


  1. I've no idea how you guys manage to force yourselves to drag your minds and bodies to these foreboding and destitute locations, only to have food, drink, and fine company wedged down your gullets, time after time.

    It's shameful. Down-right shameful.

  2. Wish I could have been there. Sounds like the panel discussion was fascinating.

  3. What a beautiful place! I wish I could have been there! Did you take the waters or just the spirits?

  4. That's quite a post, Stan. In fact, from all your racing around and rambunctious back and forth with the audience, I'd almost be tempted to say it's a pillar to post post.

  5. I think readers in the U.S. are even more provincial in their reading. From what I've noted from articles on reading habits here, most U.S. residents read books mainly by U.S. authors published by U.S. companies.
    A few writers from Britain sneak in.

    If I didn't read great blogs on crime fiction and learn about international books, I'd be reading U.S. mysteries and a few from abroad.

    I know that European readers read a lot more translated books. Few readers in the States read translated fiction, crime or otherwise.

    It's too bad. There's so much to learn, I agree, from reading globally.

    There are many people of AFrican descent who write crime fiction and are read in the States. I actually just read a list of authors new to me, but whose books I'll read.

    1. Kathy, please share that list either directly here or email it to me so I can share it. Thanks, Stan