Monday, 9 December 2013

Fear and Loathing in the Chilterns

By Perry Iles

There’s a church on a hill, but the bells are pre-recorded because it’s more reliable than campanology. The sound system is more expensive than real bells, so the locals consider it a status symbol. Down the street, retired bankers live in million-pound houses behind high hedges and alarmed gates. There’s a no parking sign by the car park and no turning signs everywhere one might consider turning. It’s too old-fashioned for footballers and too uncool for internet billionaires. Every Saturday morning there are small traffic jams made of Volvos as yummy mummies take Orpheus and Chlamydia to the pony club.

Fear and loathing in the Chilterns. But in the middle of all this, set squarely in the Prosecco-and-Cambozola belt just north of the M25, there’s Chorleywood Literary Festival ( — be careful with that W, guys. Chorleywood may only be one word but sometimes discretion is the better part). I’ve come from the land of the ice and snow, from the Tennents-and-chips belt just north of Hadrian’s Wall, in a ten-year-old car with 150,000 miles on the clock, full of moody diesel that should by rights be in a tractor. My wife made me sandwiches and packed a sixpack of Pepsi Max, so I’m full of pickle and flatulence as I prepare to rub shoulders with David Suchet, Bill Bryson, Kate Adie and Sirs Ranulph Fiennes and Terry Wogan. The stars of Downton Abbey will be there, as will Tony Benn’s daughter and Hadley Freeman off of the Guardian. And the cast of Triskele Books, an independent group of publishers looking to change the world and make it a better place, hoping to lead us all closer to home, like Grand Funk Railroad only prettier. I’d met them online over the years, but never in more than two dimensions, and their third dimensions were worth the 750 mile drive. Jill, Gillian, Kat, Jane and Liza are remarkable women. They have worked in close proximity for over two years and don’t hate each other yet. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever known that to happen, and I’m quite old now. They have carved an ethos in the ether and formed a partnership on paper. Their books have a style and an imprint that sets them apart and gives them a sense of individuality. Each writer is allowed total artistic control, there are no agents and nobody tells them what to put on the cover (well, you know, within reason…)

Over the last ten years self-publishing has taken over from the vanity trade, so anyone can write a book, design their own cover and hurl it into the world like a small plastic bag full of dog eggs. Because the result is invariably crap. Off-centre block-pastel covers with bad fonts, crushed up front matter, chapters that start on the wrong page, typos, spelling mistakes and the sort of English that makes Dan Brown look like Shakespeare. The Triskele collective does not allow this sort of thing. They have stipulations, including layout and proofreading and the ultimate power of veto. They’re fussy buggers, thank God. They read each others’ books, comment, suggest, hone, polish, sharpen and improve. They do this from the profound and extensive pool of their collected knowledge, which means the books wind up being pretty good. Then they put the results out to independent editors and proofreaders and insist that their covers are designed by Jane Dixon-Smith, who does not inhabit the same universe as us. Jane has three children under five and has moved house three times in the last six months. Nevertheless she runs Words with Jam magazine when she is not busy designing book covers for a lengthy queue of people. Jane has discovered wormholes in the space-time continuum and has harnessed them for the benefit of mankind. Some say that in real terms she is 84 years old, and that she is also The Stig.

Triskele (rhymes with Jellied Eel, by the way) symbolizes the power of the collective. Read their “how we did it” book, The Triskele Trail, by downloading a copy from Amazon. It’s full of good advice which may at first seem rather daunting, but these are the hoops you have to jump through if you want to spend a few years turning yourself into an overnight success. And this is why Triskele exists. The group can call on a vast network of resources and helpful forums, giving their authors a much greater chance of success. Their authors, rather than being cosseted stars who are jetted from one book signing to the next, become part of that process, encouraging dynamic growth and endless input, giving and receiving. On Saturday morning at Chorleywood, they explained how they did it, and released three new books into the world: Liza Perrat’s Wolfsangel, Kat Troth’s Ghost Town and Jane Dixon-Smith’s Overlord – the Rise of Zenobia. Discover them at The three writers and their colleagues set themselves up for nearly two hours as a human resource library but couldn’t hope to cover all the ground that’s in the book. Then all five Triskele founders explained their ethos before letting the audience have a taste of the three most recent releases.

After all that, I went in search of lager and discovered that Chorleywood is scary. I’m from Scotland and Chorleywood is darker. I’d gone to abandon the car at the hotel so I could get drunk like everybody else, and I walked back across the common, where the path gave out and left me flailing in waist-high wet grass in total darkness. My phone wouldn’t work. There were no signals here, less than twenty miles from London, so I struck off through the grass, expecting a group of well-spoken and impeccably-mannered natives to appear in front of me at any moment and torture me by taking me to an antiques fair or making me read the Daily Mail or something. When I finally stumbled, wild and disheveled, onto the road across from the pub, I found everyone ready to go home again. Now, like any other ginger haired Scottish bastard, I wanted beer, so I had to go all the way back to the hotel and get the car and find, in this wilderness, a branch of Aldi where the lager wasn’t made from hand-rubbed Ruritanian hops and as a result didn’t cost £5 a bottle. The best I could hope for was something Mexican from Tesco Express, and thus armed I returned to the fray.

Here’s a sign of culture. If the food hurts, you’re somewhere posh (unless it’s Japan, where the food wriggles too). Here, the Chinese takeaways proved their true cosmopolitanism by filling their spicy chicken with… well… spices, to threshold of pain levels. I swear the lager hissed as it went down. My mouth hadn’t hurt this much since I was last in Switzerland and cut it to ribbons on Toblerone. I am a man of simple tastes, so my journey back to Scotland was a happy one. I ate what remained of my wife’s sandwiches, swithered between Maccy D’s and Burger King when I got hungry again and used up the last dregs of my wrongly-coloured diesel. My wife, I think, was surprised to see me again, considering as she did that the literary world was filled with loose-moralled floozies who would swoon at my every utterance like a gay man at an Oscar Wilde gig. My wife sees my better attributes, and occasionally forgets that they are framed within the body of a fat, bald sweaty bloke that’s knocking on sixty. I got home in one piece, still slightly hung over, a little bilious and marginally liverish. My first literary festival. No pretensions, no fuss, no prima donnas or over-sensitivity, just a good time with a great bunch of people and a fair amount of alcohol. Triskele books; brimming with talent and ability, populated by real people from a real world with stories to tell.

Go read them. 

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