Friday, October 17, 2014

UK Trip I: The North

A couple of years ago I was at a party with a few Clarion West students, several of whom—amazingly, delightfully—were from the north of England. We all instantly (if very temporarily, in the way of parties) bonded: lasses from the north. We grinned at each other and swapped stories of effete southerners, and northern culture. We talked of how we knew were were heading home when we we driving up from Heathrow and/or London and saw those motorways signs that say The North.

This trip was no different. Kelley and I were tired and bleary from jet-lag but I saw that sign and my heart opened like a flower.

The next day was my birthday. We spent it with my family—Dad, two sisters, sister's sweetie—first at a Yorkshire lunch at a pub carvery (meat! vegetables! beer!) then tea and tasty squashy things sitting in the sunshine overlooking the lake at Roundhay Park (I had flapjacks, made Yorkshire style, with treacle). Lovely.

The next day, work started. First, the Central Library at Stockton-on-Tees, which is a 90-minute drive north from Leeds. I didn't know what to expect; I'd never done a UK library event before. I knew the organisers had worked hard to get an audience but I also knew they were a bit worried about low attendance numbers. So I decided that as long as there were more than 10 people, they'd get the whole thing (but not the Full Monty which, er, has taken on very particular meaning these days...): two readings, lots of chat, full Q&A. Meanwhile, I sat back and gazed at North Yorkshire as we drove through it.

It was early evening, and the sun was setting in a mostly clear sky. Dales on one side, the edge of the Yorkshire moors on the other. Green valleys falling away to the horizon in the west, cow-specked hills in the east, lines of drystone walls hundreds of years old—all drenched in the golden slanting light peculiar to northern latitudes. I could have stared for hours. I was just lost, so lost I forgot to take any pictures. Kelley got one, towards the end of the journey but it doesn't really capture the heart-stopping view.

The event was fabulous. A gorgeous room—lots of windows, brightly-coloured and comfortable furniture, a good sound system—and a great audience: forty or fifty readers, all smart, all terrifically well-informed and fiercely proud of their northern heritage. And there was wine. Plus—and this part was definitely the cherry on top—two nuns, Sisters of St Hilda no less. What followed was long, passionate conversation on culture, history, language, bias, religion, gender. I'll remember it for a long time. The nuns, who had shown up looking for a fight (I was messing with their saint, and they hated the US cover with that mail coif) ended up thoroughly approving—we bonded over Bede's various biases—drinking a lot of wine, and buying a book. In fact, I sold a lot of books (the organisers told Kelley it was the most hardcovers they had ever sold at one event) so everyone was very happy. Also, we got back to the hotel just in time for last-orders with my UK editor, who had driven up from London. All in all, a brilliant evening.

The next day was the Calderdale Central Library, in Halifax. Again there was wine—yay! I approve of this UK trend—and again I liked the audience, but there were fewer of them, about 20 I think, and they were less forthcoming. I suspect much of their unwillingness to open up in public was a direct result of the room: a low-ceilinged basement. The organisers had worked very hard to make a great evening, though, and the people themselves were very chatty as individuals afterwards. High point for me: my niece was there, which was lovely. And I sold some hardbacks—so it was pretty cool. Also, there were many representatives of reading groups there, which bodes well for the paperback.

Then it was an editorial lunch followed by a sisterly night on the town during which Kelley ate something called Yorkshire Blue, a cheese, and I drank Ilkley Black, a beer:

Another family lunch. Then a wonderful, many-hours-many-beers-many-conversations party at my sister's house. I felt a wee bit fragile the next day but had no time to dwell on it because it was time for my big event, the Ilkley Literature Festival.

The whole trip would have been worth it just for that. For the official account see the write-up in the festival blog. I'll just say my family—a lot of family; I have an aunt who lives in Ilkley—took up most of the front row and they beamed during the whole thing. It was first time my father has even seen me perform and he told me he was very proud indeed.

Then one last dinner on the way back to Leeds, and one last morning coffee with my family before heading down to London for the next set of people and events: King's College London, Queen Mary University London, and Forbidden Planet.

To Be Continued...
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