Friday, February 5, 2021

Festival Fever

 by Abir

It’s your first writer’s conference after the Covid-19 crisis has been contained – what are the first three things you do after checking in to the hotel?

Now this is a wonderful question. Unexpected, and at the same time, joy-inducing. Looking forward to the days when this global nightmare is behind us has helped put a smile on my face. It’s been so long now that part of me has forgotten the simple pleasures of rocking up at a writer’s conference and getting rat-arsed blind drunk to know people, that I might have to use my imagination a bit.


The first thing to say is that it depends on where the festival is, and whether I’ve been there before. If it’s somewhere I’ve never been before and where I don’t know people, like Bouchercon or Russia, I tend to have all the grace and social skills of a six year old on his first day at a new school. I will stand shyly in the corner, too scared to speak to anyone in case they think I’m a) a wierdo, b) Billy No-mates, or c) a waiter; and I’ll drink until I fall over or grow a pair of dutch courages.


But if it’s a festival that I know well, like Harrogate or Bloody Scotland, or pretty much any crime festival in the UK, then things will be different. I’ll walk in with all the swagger of a big boy who knows the ropes. I’ll mosey into reception, fling a nod to another writer, maybe give a smile to another, just to show them that, hey, this ain’t my first rodeo, and that I’m one cool cowboy.


While waiting to check in, I’ll cast the odd glance around, see who’s about. Is that Ian Rankin over there, talking to Mark Billingham? Oh…they’ve seen me staring. Play it cool, Mukherjee, play it cool – don’t come across as the fawning fanboy you really are. Are they waving? GOD! IAN RANKIN AND MARK BILLINGHAM ARE WAVING AT ME!! CRIME FICTION ROYALTY IS WAVING AT ME!!!


 “Oh hi, Ian, hi Mark,” I’ll say, and give a little wave back, “I didn’t see you there. Me? Yeah, I’m good, man. I’m good, I-,’ 


Oh, they weren’t waving at me. They were waving at Lee Child who’s standing behind me. OH MY GOD! LEE CHILD IS STANDING IN THE CHECK-IN QUEUE RIGHT BEHIND ME!!! 


Should I say something? What should I say? Should I offer him my place in the queue? Why is it suddenly so hot in here?! Play it cool, Mukhers. Play it cool. Just turn round, face the front and mind your own busines.


I glance to the right and spot a knot of other authors – feisty mid-listers like me – a combo of the wizened old forty and fifty-somethings and the beautiful, up-and-coming, hot young things, whom the wizened forty somethings both secretly envy and, at the same time, feel sorry for. Because we too were all hot young things once, and look how that turned out. This is my tribe. I am not intimidated by them as I am by the crime fiction royalty over on the left and standing behind me in the queue. IS THAT LEE CHILD’S SHADOW FALLING ON ME? IN THE NAME OF LORD KRISHNA, I HOPE SOME OF HIS TALENT FALLS FROM HIS SHADOW ONTO ME!! 


Alas, the talent contained in Lee Child’s shadow has scant opportunity to bless me, cos the queue is moving now. Only one person now between me and the check-in desk. Alas it’s a newbie. A writer who’s never been to a festival before. He’s looking around him with that wide-eyed look of wonder, like he’s just been handed the keys to the executive toilets. Everything is new to him. He’s marvelling at the sparkling porcelain, inhaling the rarified aroma of those special, executive urinal cakes. I remember that I was like him once and chide myself for a moment of cynicism. Being a writer, I remember, is an honour. It really is a privilege to be allowed to do what we do. 


The newbie is turning round. God, he’s so young…and handsome. Like Will Dean a couple of years ago. Wait. I’ve seen his face before. He was in all the papers last week. Didn’t he just get a seven figure advance on his debut novel about a parking warden who’s turns out to be a psychopath? According to his publisher, it’s a seminal novel that will change the way we think about the men and women who issue us parking tickets. Or is it psychopaths? Either way I’m sure it was money well spent.

The beautiful Ruth Ware and the devastatingly handsome Will Dean....and me

He’s looking at me. Why’s he staring at me? Have I met him before? Did I promise to give him a blurb and then forget all about it because I’m so f*&$ing disorganised? If he asks, I’ll blame the kids and my full schedule, but really, it’s because I’m just a bit rubbish at everything. Actually, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t asked to blurb any book about a psycho parking warden. That’s exactly the sort of thing I usually remember. So why is he staring at me? He probably recognises me. I’m one of the very few brown crime fiction writers in this country after all. Not that that means much. There’s only about five of us and white people still get confused between us all. He probably thinks I’m Imran Mahmood or Alex Caan, or that angry fellow AA Dhand, or, God forbid, that idiot Vaseem Khan. I mean, come on white people, how difficult is it really? It’s not like we look anything alike. For one thing, my mum says I’m more handsome than any of them.


I just realised. He’s not looking at me. He’s looking at Lee Child. OH MY WORD, LEE CHILD IS STILL STANDING BEHIND ME IN THIS QUEUE!!! You’d think they’d have a separate queue for writers like him. A VIP queue, for Lee Child and Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, with a red carpet and one of those velour ropes. But they’re all too nice. Too down to earth. Even if there was a special queue, they probably wouldn’t use it. I tell you, I wouldn’t be standing in this queue if I had their sales. I’d probably insist on kerb-side check-in. Do it from the comfort of my chauffeur driven limousine. And I wouldn’t turn up at any festival unless they guaranteed they’d taken ALL of the blue M&M’s out of the complimentary packet in my room (the Presidential Suite or nearest equivalent, please) because blue M&Ms are unnatural and an abomination.


The newbie has checked in. They’ve given him his tote bag and he’s…oh, he’s going through it right there, like a kid and his stocking on Christmas morning. He’s already found his name tag. And now he’s taking out the complimentary book. Looks like he got that new one by Vaseem Khan. He’s turning round, holding it up and smiling at me. I smile back.


Ba£$%%rd. Utter, utter ba£$%%rd.


My throat is rasping. I need a drink. But I still need to check in. It’s my turn though, so I step suavely up to the desk.


‘Mukherjee,’ I say. The chap behind the desk looks at me as if I’ve just sneezed. ‘Mukherjee,’ I repeat. ‘M-U-K,’

‘Oh,’ he smiles as the penny drops. ‘Could you spell that?’

Wasn’t that what I was just doing? I want to murder him. But if I murdered every receptionist who asked me to re-spell Mukherjee the British hotel industry would have a recruitment problem that would make Brexit look like a picnic and I’d get the death penalty. So I don’t murder him. Instead I give him a smile, but I make sure it’s a frosty one. God, I hate myself sometimes.

He’s checking the computer screen. His face crumples into consternation, then looks back at me as if it’s my fault. ‘I can’t find any Mucky-gee.’

‘Try Abir,’ I say. ‘It’s my first name.’

‘A beer?’




‘Ah, here we are. AA Dhand.’

‘No,’ I say with a smile, but I’m dying a little inside. I spell it for him. ‘A-B-I-R.’

‘Found it!’ he says, as though he’s exceeded his own expectations. He prints off a form and passes it across. ‘Please sign it.’

It reads Ms. Abir Muckergee

I sigh and sign it, and smile. But the little things add up: the mis-spellings, the mispronunciations and the mistaken identities. Others have it far worse, but it’s still death by a thousand slights.


I look on the bright side. At least I have a room. I remember the festival I turned up to, at that place in the middle of nowhere. The kind of place where if they see a brown face they normally call the police. It would probably have been ok if they hadn’t also invited that buffoon, Vaseem Khan, but the idea of having two brown people there at the same time must have confused someone, because the hotel only had a reservation for Vaseem Mukherjee. We were forced to share a room, like a British comedy duo for the seventies, or a brown Bing Crosby and Bobe Hope in the Road to Nowhere. (I was Crosby).


I make my way to my room and place the stupid plastic card in the door and pull it back out. A red light goes on.


I try again. Same result. The red lights, I feel, are mocking me.

Why can’t they just have keys? What’s wrong with good old fashioned keys? If it’s good enough for your house, why’s it not good enough for a hotel room?

I try one more time, holding my breath and trying not to jiggle the card, but it’s no use. The thing is buggered. Maybe the guy at reception programmed it for the wrong room? Or have I held it too close to my credit card and demagnetised it? It’s probably the latter. 

Well, enough of this. I decide to leave my bag at reception and head down to the bar.


It’s just gone noon, but the bar is already packed - like Glasgow on a Friday night – or any night for that matter. I fight my way to the bar and order myself a whisky. Don’t judge me – it’s medicinal. I take out my credit card and hand it over. A minute later, the bar lady hands it back.

‘I’m afraid it’s not working.’


‘Your card,’ she smiles. ‘It’s not going through.’


I ask her to try it again, but I have this sinking feeling. 

‘Nope,’ she says. ‘Still not working.’ I think she’s looking at me as though I’m some sort of serial fraudster. I wouldn’t blame her. Most authors are. But not me!

I have to think quick. I’ve got no cash and I’m here for the next three days. I could try to charge it to my room, but I can’t remember the number and anyway, I can’t even get in the door. I scan the room, looking for a friendly face, and then I see him, my saviour. That wonderful, beautiful Vaseem Khan, sitting in the corner by himself, nursing his glass of milk.

I wave and give him a smile. ‘Mate!’ I shout. ‘You couldn’t help me out, could you?’

The ridiculously talented Vaseem Khan scowling at me


AA DHAND said...

Isn’t that a picture of Alex Caan?

Abir said...

Ha! Alex Caan is far better looking.

Susan C Shea said...

Priceless essay - a delightful reminder of what it's like to be a not-VIP at a big conference check in desk when LOUISE PENNY IS STANDING RIGHT BEHIND YOU hugging and being hugged by everyone. And when you turn around to smile weakly because another of her friends has bumped into you, she beams at you and gives you a big hug and throws her arm around you and says, :"God, don't you hate these long lines?" I loved this post, Abir.

Catriona McPherson said...

If anyone needs another reason to come to Bloody Scotland in the aftertimes - the hotel has keys. Brill bit, Ms Mukherjee.

Lori Rader-Day said...

"Alas, the talent contained in Lee Child’s shadow has scant opportunity to bless me..."

Delightful except for the part where white people can't tell four or five brown men apart. I'm sorry for that part. Hope to meet you at a future conference!

Terry said...

Abir, with all the talk of cowboys, maybe you should hold out for a conference in Texas.

But on with other things. Try being a girl with the name Terry Klar (my maiden name). Clark? We don't have you registered. No, I say, it's K-L-A-R. Clar? like Claire? No, it's K-L-A-R. Ah, Klark. Nope. FINALLY they get it and it's Mr. Terry Klar because of course Terry is a boy's name. When I was single, everything was addressed to mister. And it was usually never K-L-A-R. It was Clar, or Clark or Klark or even Kelly. Do I feel sorry for you? Nope.

But did I love your post? Yep.

Abir said...

Cheers Susan! I'm glad you liked it! I can't wait for the next festival!

Abir said...

Cheers Catriona! Hope you're well, matey!

Abir said...

Hi Lori! I look forward to meeting you, too! Maybe at Bouchercon one day? I'll be the shy guy hiding in the corner.

Abir said...

Ha! Terry! I would love to come to a festival in Texas! Here's hoping!

James W. Ziskin said...

Abir, I loved your post! Looking forward to seeing you again someday soon. Maybe I’ll come to one of the festivals on your side of the pond and I’ll be the wide-eyed newbie.


Unknown said...

Class. I can't wait to have a whiskey with you at the next festival when they are back buddy.

Frank Zafiro said...

Hilarious, man. I was right there with you. I was even anxious.

Abir said...

Cheers James! And it would be great to see you over here!

Abir said...

Cheers Frank! Hope you're well, mate!

Abir said...

Cheers unknown - but if we're going to have that whisky, you'll need to tell me who you are! :)