Monday, July 24, 2006


My most lasting impression of Harrogate is heat. Intense, muggy, brain-muffling heat that saps your energy and leaves you stupid. I don't actually know what temperatures were involved - probably chilly in comparison to Phoenix, certainly cold when you consider summer in Sydney. But in genteel Harrogate, spa town to the elderly and infirm, a place where tea is taken, it was wilting weather.

The Old Swan Hotel, made famous eighty years ago when Agatha Christie was spotted waltzing in the ballroom, has recently been renovated at a cost of somewhere between five and ten million pounds. Sure, the carpet was nice enough, and they'd spent a lot of that money on magnolia paint. But no-one had thought it important to fit any kind of air conditioning. Perhaps this was a wise cost-cutting move - after all, Yorkshire is not noted for its heatwaves - but to the collected crime writers and aficionados, it felt like a serious mistake.

I wasn't staying at the Old Swan, but at the rather more amusingly named Swallow St George.* Still, I managed to raise a smile on a few faces just by telling them the name of my hotel, and humour is always the best introduction. Sadly the Swallow St George had neither undergone recent expensive renovation, nor been fitted with air conditioning. My room did have two windows, which I threw open to the elements, but it was oppressively oven-like, under the eaves on the top floor.

Even before I had reached reception to pick up my goody bag and weekend rover pass, I was hailed down by Mr Stuart, sitting outside drinking beer with John Rickards. This seemed like the thing to do, even if it was a little earlier than I would normally start. In the stifling heat, cold and fizzy went down best, and for some odd reason, people kept on buying me pints. Never one to complain, I did my best to keep up, and to try and remember the names of everyone as I was introduced to them. I'm not sure I succeeded in either endeavour.

Thinking it wise to line our stomachs a bit, John, Stuart and I headed off to a local restaurant, where we were accosted by Declan Hughes. Service was slow, though the food was tasty enough, and we made it back to the Old Swan barely in time to grab some beer before heading in to the main hall for the opening ceremony.

After the Crime Novel of the Year prize-giving (congratulations to Val McDermid),things started to get a little hazy. Theakstons, for those of you who don't know these things, is a brewer fairly local to Harrogate and famed for its Old Peculier ale. As part of their generous sponsorship of the whole event, the company hosted an opening party at which everybody was given a complimentary glass of wine or pint of OP.** Supplementary glasses of wine were available for a price, but refills of ale seemed to be endless and free.

I used to drink OP many, many years ago, when I was a student at Edinburgh University. They sold it in the Union for some incredibly cheap price, in disposable plastic beakers. Back then it was around 6% alcohol and anything more than four pints guaranteed a heavy head the next day, as well as much jocularity on the night. Then the brewery was bought out by a big multinational, OP dropped in strength and lost its taste. I moved on to more subtle beers, like Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild and Adnams Broadside. Theakstons was re-acquired by the Theakston family and is once more an independent brewery. And OP is back up to strength. There is much cause for celebration.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and the festival opening party all too soon began to disperse. A group of us, some writers, some hangers on, all in some state of inebriation except Al Guthrie (who doesn't drink), then adjourned to the grass outside the hotel's main bar. Darkness had fallen and the semblance of coolness was most welcome. Sandra had gathered together a band of the great and the good for some kind of interview, which she was recording using her video camera for reasons too complicated to go into just now. Too far gone to care, I plonked myself down with the rest of the group, and added what at the time sounded like reasoned argument to the discussion. I've no doubt that on the tape it actually comes over as 'your my best pal, y'know that? My best, best pal in alla world,' and other similar drunken ravings.

At some point during the wee small hours, it occurred to me that I was very, very drunk. Perhaps it was the realisation that I was leaning my head against the wall for support as I stood at the urinal; or maybe it was the way my knees refused to bend as I walked, making each step a little sideways jarring adventure. Either way, my inbuilt survival mechanism kicked into 'get-me-home' mode and I lurched off down the road to the Swallow St George.

Despite the two open windows and the relatively cool night air outside, my room was hot enough to slow-cook food. I was beyond caring, though I do remember that it was half past three when I turned out the light.

Next: Friday

*but spit the dragon?
**not to be confused with Organo-Phosphate sheep dip.


Blogger Trace said...

I'm SO sorry I missed that!

July 24, 2006 6:15 pm  

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