I arrived Friday lunchtime and after a short detour via TKMaxx to buy a pair of sunglasses (£5 from the women's section if you must know, and very fetching they are too) arrived at the Crown hotel to find everything in full swing. Actually that's a lie. I arrived to find everyone staggering blinking into the sunlight, still recovering from the night before.
Dinner at the Courtyard restaurant followed, hosted by those lovely people at Harper Collins (Rachel R, Alice, Amy, Emad) for myself and Stephanie Merritt / SJ Parris.
Quick review: Food - variable. Decor - smart but a little clinical. Service - willing but disorganised. Overall rating: five stars out of five.
Why the high score given the distinctly average overall experience? Simples. When we ordered the wine the waitress, in what may have been on reflection an inspired stroke of genius, asked whether, before we ordered, she could just check what ages we all were. Aged 37 and they carded me! OK, so the question may have been directed more at Emad who looks about 12, but coming on the back of last week's rant about buying a Volvo, I wasn't about to split hairs. I have therefore no hesitation in declaring the Courtyard to be the best restaurant in Harrogate, and quite possibly, the world.
Feeling suitably youthful, we headed back to the hotel bar, rounded up some other lost souls, and headed out into the mean streets of down-town Harrogate. You think I'm joking but behind the "stunning parks and gardens which testify to Harrogate's status as England's floral town", beneath the thin veneer of "Harrogate's reputation as an antique hotspot attracting people keen to find a bargain" lurks a hard-core party scene. As we discovered.
First place we hit was a small club called Rehab. Within five minutes of walking in a black bra landed at my feet. I looked up and saw that a young lady was, how shall I put it, "dancing in a state of partial undress". Dancing rather too energetically for her safety or for those within striking distance, if you catch my drift. England's floral town indeed. Luckily at that moment her boyfriend, or someone whom I rather naively assumed to be the girl's boyfriend, appeared behind her and reached around to cover the offending items and preserve her modesty. Or so we thought, until we realised that he seemed to have mistaken her for a car, his hands rubbing in small circles as if he was trying to buff up a front wing. We drank up and left, trying not to stare.
Next stop, The Viper Room. Now some of you may have thought that the original Viper Room of River Phoenix notoriety was in LA. And having visited the Harrogate version, I can confirm that you are right. Music was quite good I have to admit - especially a 30 minute late 90s set which brought the memories flooding back - but it had the feel of a school disco, with more make-up and bigger hair (which considering I left school in 1991 is saying something.) I headed back to bed around two, leaving some of my companions to sample the local flora and fauna, and was in bed for 2:30, pausing only to see Kevin Wignall standing in exactly the same spot I had left him in 4 hours earlier...
Three nurofen washed down with black coffee kick-started my day - an early one, given that Joe Finder and I had to be at the BBC studios in Harrogate for 8:30 for our Today radio slot. Only problem was that when we got there the doors were locked and no sign of anyone. A few frantic phone calls later and someone appeared from round the back ("didn't anyone tell you?" Er no.) and rushed us into the studio only for the microphones to stop working. Cue furious scrabbling around with dials and switches by the onsite technician and barked instructions from the producer in London who was on the verge of suggesting they call us on our mobiles when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the technician flinch and then surreptitiously flick a small switch on. "Oh it suddenly seems to have started working," he lied.
I won't recount the nature of the conversation Joe and I had. You can listen to it here. Suffice it to say I won...well, that's my story!
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. Lunch at Cafe Rouge with Wignall, Sarah Pinborough, Rachel R, Agent Phil, Simon Kernick and Stephanie Merritt; getting my eyesight tested; buying a 1950s Longines military watch from a junk shop for what seemed like a good price - we'll see what the repair bill is!; catching up with various people in the bar again. And then preparing for my panel.
And what preparation. A few years ago I did a James Bond panel and have forever regretted not going up on stage wearing a dinner jacket. This time there was to be no such mistake. Courtesy of Union Jack Wear I pulled on union jack boxers, tie, socks and lapel pin, all set off nicely by a pair of union jack trousers concealed under my jeans. A quick word in the ear of panel chair NJ Cooper engaged a willing accomplice and at the pre-agreed time she asked me: "James, when you strip British crime writing down to its core, what do you see?" My answer: "Let me show you!"
I've never pulled my trousers down in front of 100 people before - probably never will again. But it was a fun moment, only partially spoilt by my suddenly earthing myself on the floor and releasing the massive static electricity charge the 100% polyester trousers had built up in my groin area...) As to the panel, I would say an honourable draw and my fellow panelists - Joe Finder, Chris Carter and Michael Robotham, were true gents and answered far more thoughtfully than me and I wish them every success.
Then out to dinner at Hotel du Vin where I had two courses with the Harper Collins crew and dessert with my Curtis Brown brethren, with other guests including the lovely Jeff Deaver who had all sorts of interesting things to say about his forthcoming Bond book and the very smart lady in charge of the books side of the Fleming estate, whom I tried to convince should consider commissioning a highly talented but less well known author (great PR value in that!) with a passionate interest in 007 and who had deliberately referenced sections of his debut novel to From Russia With Love and who first became interested in art crime because of a scene from Dr No. - i.e. Moi! Poor woman must get idiots like me suggesting themselves all the time. But I could do it and it would be great.
After that, bar, drinks, bed. You may notice a pattern evolving...
By now I was feeling pretty broken through lack of sleep and excess of booze. My memories come in small bursts, like flashbacks, but the gist of it was three hours of extended goodbyes and promises to write (like the last day at Mallory Towers) and then a train home, eyes screwed shut, my forehead pressed to the glass in the hope that it will help stop my head pounding.
Roll on next year...
P.S. Thank-you Ali for the photos