Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Dangerous Territory : Out-of-Town Author Events

I like to go to the final event of the Oxford Literary Festival each year - the one with the awards, that is, not the one with the pricey dinner.  This year, Hilary Mantel would be presented with a special prize on Sunday 24th March.  I'd heard her speak in London when Wolf Hall was on the Booker shortlist, but I was too slow and the event sold out before I checked my diary.  
Luckily, I could buy  tickets to see Val McDermid one of my favourite crime writers, on  Sunday 17th,  in the beautifully vaulted  Bodleian Divinity Halls.
She has a great sense of humour and a fine line in anecdotes. I laughed when she told how, as a nervous beginner to the crime writing scene, she consulted  Colin Dexter, author of the Oxford-based Inspector Morse novels. Although she wanted to include detectives, she didn't have a clue about police procedure. 'Just make it up,' he told her.
She talked of  her early days at St Hilda's, where she was  one of the youngest students to be admitted, and the first from a Scottish state school. She chose crime writing because she liked reading crime novels and thought they allowed for a wide social spectrum. I'd come to the same conclusion.  Maybe it was because I laughed so loudly at her jokes that she paused from signing her latest book to smile for my camera.
We lunched at the Royal Blenheim, a favourite pub down a side street near the Westgate Shopping Centre, then came straight back to London on the three o'clock bus.
There's usually time for a stroll round Oxford, calling in at bookshops and a museum, but that day we weren't even tempted. On the bus from London we'd watched the snow falling on Oxfordshire fields ; the city itself was deep in slush. We kept our heads down and concentrated on avoiding the  icy  puddles at the kerbsides.
I'd have better luck at St Alban's, I thought, where I'd reserved tickets for the following Thursday evening , to hear a trio of crime writers at the library. Roy was already laid low with a cold and I didn't feel marvellous, but St Alban's is even easier to get to - only an hour or so from Lewisham.


The weather was, if anything, even colder, and although it wasn't actually snowing, the wide St Alban's streets were draughty. I settled for reading about the town's illustrious past -it claims to be the oldest settlement in England -in the map/guidebook that I'd bought at the station. I'd had sandwiches on the train but when I ventured out at 5.30 pm to stroll along to the cathedral and hopefully find a restaurant open I was out of luck. The tea-rooms were closing and the formal dining places were all deserted. I settled for a toasted panini in the Costa Coffee house in the shopping mall, curiously misnamed 'The Maltings'. The library was on the second floor, next to a small theatre. 
It was a good library - warm and welcoming with a pleasantly hushed atmosphere and  attractive displays. The study tables even had those cosy wooden dividers called carrels.  There was a good turn-out for the talks by three quite different writers.
Howard Linsky said he hadn't read much at all during his upbringing in County Durham. His anti-hero detective,  David Blake, works in Newcastle. Howard  said he became a writer as a result of seeing a lot of bad films and thinking he could do better. By contrast, Peter Murphy  joined the law profession at a time of great changes in the system, especially  the expansion of legal aid.  Employed as a junior by an old school barrister who kept him busy, he had lots of  stories to draw on.
I knew Leigh Russell , because I've attended a couple of her excellent workshops. After a career in teaching she 'fell into' crime when an idea for a murder story came to her as she walked through a park. I  think of it as the South London Park where Antonioni's moody thriller   Blow Up was filmed, complete with sinister wind-stirred bushes. Leigh went home and completed a first draft in 6 weeks. She's written a whole series of successful crime novels since, during a period of great change in the publishing world. I bought one of the books, a present for Roy, before the talks began,  because I knew I'd have to sneak off to get the London train and be home by 10pm.
I can't entirely blame the out-of-town gallivanting for the cough that's kept me indoors for the past two days.  On Sunday I walked across Blackheath and down to Greenwich in the face of a biting wind. I'm reminded of Thomas Hardy's characters who sign their own  doom when they set foot  outside their usual habitat.