Glasgow’s annual book festival, Aye Write!, is getting underway. Now in its 11th year, big name writers making appearances include the philosopher AC Grayling, broadcast journalist Robert Peston, crime writer Val McDermid and the mountaineer Chris Bonington.
The name of the festival is a play on “aye right”, a sarcastic Scottish way of saying no. This encapsulates much about the literary outlook in this part of the world – a vernacular defensiveness, a strident overcompensation in the face of imagined English snootiness about Glaswegian speech. A neutral might conclude that the arts in Scotland exist in a state of perma-froth at presumed metropolitan condescension.
If support for Scottish independence can be considered a proxy for such froth, there is certainly much in evidence. At the time of the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish literary scene was near unanimously in favour of a Yes vote – nowhere close to the 55-45 split among the wider population.
This normally disputatious crowd felt overwhelmingly that the Union was inimical to Scottish culture and that the literary tradition would best flourish with independence. Little has changed since. Don’t expect much enthusiasm from them about Theresa May’s Britain at this year’s festival.
UK – Scottish crime writer Val McDermid told an audience at Impact 2018 that the best research and insight into people’s lives comes from the answers to the questions you haven’t asked.
Interviewed by Martin Lee, Acacia Avenue’s co-founder and strategist, McDermid was speaking at the climax of this week’s MRS conference.
She talked about her childhood in Kirkcaldy in Fife, how a sole Agatha Christie novel (sitting alongside a bible) at her grandparents’ house sewed the seed of her crime fiction career, and how a love of libraries allowed that seed to grow and flourish.
Born into a working class family, McDermid later became the first student from a Scottish state school to be admitted to St Hilda’s College Oxford.
But this course of her life hinged on a strategy of deceit during her childhood. As a nine year-old, she had to fabricate her mother being ill in order to take adult books out of the library. The ruse worked for years and McDermid’s muse was fed by works including those of Christie.
But that minor crime came back to bite her. When she attended an event at the library, her mother in tow, and the two librarians whom she had lied to were there, apparently very surprised. “Mrs McDermid,” they said to her mother, “we thought you must be dead, being an invalid all those years.”
McDermid’s literary beginnings were not in crime, but in an attempt to “write the great English novel”. A failure, but one that was subsequently transformed into a play, and saw McDermid gain an agent and the accidental status of playwright at age 23.