Laureation address: Val McDermid

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Professor Gill Plain, School of English

Friday 7 December 2018

Chancellor, it is an honour to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Val McDermid.

This might seem a strange way to start a laureation in honour of one of the UK’s most famour crime writers, but I cannot think of anyone who writes more compellingly about friendship. Val McDermid’s novels, strewn with corpses, riddled with conspiracies, home to some of the most gruesome and imaginative murder methods I have ever encountered, are also books about the ties that connect people – the often unexpected but always restorative powers of friendship. Across her career, McDermid has explored human relations unconfined by the limitations of tabloid identity categories and, at the core of her novels, are survival relationships, based on respect, shared values, shared humour and shared wine.

Crime fiction is an intensely political genre, even when it is pretending not to be. It shows us our culture, our society, our priorities, our weaknesses. It tells us who and what we value, it tells us – in the singularly apt words of feminist critic Judith Butler, which bodies matter. Over the course of some thirty novels, Val McDermid has held a mirror up to society and unflinchingly revealed its prejudices and flaws. Her first detective, Lindsay Gordon, was born during the feminist turn in crime writing. Journalist, socialist, lesbian and accidental detective, Lindsay investigated the crimes of patriarchal neoliberalism, each novel emphasising that crime is not just about individual guilt, but the product of institutional greed, corruption and abuse. Lindsay Gordon was followed by Kate Brannigan, a Manchester-based private investigator who, across a series of fast paced and witty adventures, delighted in adopting and subverting the hard-boiled idiom of her predecessors: Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

And then came the book that elevated McDermid from the merely successful to the massively best-selling, The Mermaids Singing, winner of the 1995 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award for best novel of the year. In the investigative partnership of profiler Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan, McDermid found a combination that allowed her new freedom to interrogate the psychology of crime. Appearing on Desert Island Discs, Val was asked to defend the concept of crime as entertainment. Her reply emphasised fiction’s ability to help us understand what goes wrong in our world: ‘it’s said’, she observed, ‘that we get the crimes we deserve as a society. Until we understand them, there’s not much hope of putting that right’. Tony Hill’s mission is to understand what makes the unthinkable happen – from serial killing to online misogynist abuse – and his struggles touched a chord with both the reading and the watching public: the series was adapted for TV as the hugely successful Wire in the Blood.

Val’s most recent series represents another departure. Working out of Fife and Edinburgh, cold case detective Karen Pirie specialises in righting historical wrongs, and opens up new avenues of ethical enquiry through what might be termed the spatial turn in crime fiction. The Skeleton Road, for example, exposes the insular reader to the geopolitics of the Balkans and the challenge of defining justice across the fractured territories of the former Yugoslavia. Karen is another magnificently down-to-earth, dedicated, no-nonsense woman, with a sustaining network of friends, who first appeared in The Distant Echo, a novel I am contractually obliged to mention at this ceremony. Set in St Andrews, the book exploited all the town’s resources: a corpse in the cemetery, a man over the cliffs, and some sad soul decanted into the Castle’s bottle dungeon. 

I have concentrated on Val’s crime writing for good reason – she has sold over 15 million books, been translated into 40 languages and awarded the coveted Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger for outstanding achievement – but she is also the author of award-winning standalone novels, non-fiction, short stories, radio and stage plays, a book for children, and a conceptual installation. Somehow she has also found time to judge literary prizes, appear as a rare sane voice on Question Time and win both Celebrity Mastermind and the Christmas alumnae University Challenge competition. It would be fair, I think, to categorise Val as an over-achiever – and she has been all her life. Born in Kirkcaldy to a working class family, she benefited from a quality state school education, inspirational teaching – especially from her English teacher, Wilf Allsop – and the opportunities of a grant funded university system. Indeed, she became the first Scottish State School pupil to win a place at St Hilda’s College Oxford. She felt, back then, that she had to leave the parochial confines of 1960s Fife – not least because it was a place where, I quote, there simply ‘were no lesbians. It wasn’t even a word that crossed people’s horizons’. Much has changed since then, and Val’s has been one of the voices helping to change it. She has been throughout her career a tireless advocate of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, using her visibility as one of Britain’s most popular and influential writers to speak out for equality.

Val has many loves in life: music, computer gaming, her partner Jo, her son Cameron, her football team, Raith Rovers. And I think I can justifiably call them her football team, as anyone taking the train from Leuchars to Edinburgh will be able to admire the ‘McDermid Stand’ at Raith’s Kirkcaldy ground. Val has been a director of the club and is currently their shirt sponsor, and this investment comes in part from her lifetime enthusiasm, but it is also a tribute to her father, a man who encouraged her, supported her and told her ‘to call no man her master’. Words she undoubtedly took to heart.

Chancellor, in recognition of a career that has combined outstanding crime writing with a lifetime commitment to a civil, equal and just society, I invite you to confer on Val McDermid the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Val McDermid's response

Thank you very much. I'm very moved and very touched by those words. I shall take a deep breath. 

I should not be here. I say that not out of any false modesty, or imposter syndrome, though like most women who have achieved anything in their life, I do feel imposter syndrome on a regular basis. I say it because when I was growing up, people like us didn't aspire to the life that I have had. I grew up, as Gill said, in a working class family. My parents were both bright children who passed the exams to go to high school but couldn't go because their parents couldn't afford the uniforms. They had jobs, not careers, but they understood that the way for a better life for their child was through education.

My mother would take me across the Council estate to the library before I could say the word "library". I used to say we were going to the "labrador", because that was the kind of dog we had. And there she would read me picture books, but when I was six, my parents did the best thing they possibly could have done for me, although I don't think that was the principal reason behind moving house. But they moved house to live opposite the central library in Kirkcaldy, which was a very well provisioned library - a public library given to the town from the proceeds of the linoleum industry by the Nairn family. It was well provisioned, as I say, and it was a welcome place for someone who loved the world of stories. And stories have been what's made up my life. Stories that have been read to me, stories that I have read myself, stories that I have seen in the cinema, stories that I've made up.

And in the library there, I had access to all the stories I could want: fiction, and inevitably because in those days of course, in Presbyterian Scotland, although you could take four books out at a time, two of them had to be non-fiction. Heaven forbid you should have unmitigated pleasure. And this, of course, opened up much wider horizons to me than I might otherwise have experienced, and part of that, I suppose, is why I made the decision that I wanted to go to Oxford University and not to my local university. The reason that I probably chose Oxford was that I was a great fan of the Chalet School novels, and if you were a girl from the Chalet School, when it came to higher education, there were only three institutions: there was the Sorbonne, and I knew my French wasn't good enough; there was Oxford; and there was the Kensington School of Needlework. So it wasn't really much of a choice. 

In Oxford I was exposed to - I think I can only describe it as - culture shock. For a start, nobody understood a word I said. I did not have what my partner now calls my Radio 4 Scottish accent. [Speech in traditional Scots]. Nobody know what I was saying, ken? Even the vegetables were different in Oxford. Fife in the 1960s, we only had three vegetables. But I was exposed to a challenging environment where I was forced to defend my arguments, where I learned how to think for myself, where I was surrounded by academics who brought great rigour to everything they did. Your principal here, I have to tell you, is not only an expert in medieval Scots literature, she's an expert in contemporary Scottish literature. We were once at dinner and I was talking about one of my books, and Sally leaned over and said, "I think you'll find that's a different book altogether." The awful thing is, that she was right. But these were the kind of academics I was exposed to. You couldn't get away with an unsupported statement. And it taught me many fine lessons that I took forward into my later life. 

Three years after I arrived at Oxford, I stood at the edge of an awfully big adventure. The whole world was out there. I was trepidatious, I was excited, I was terrified, but I was also ambitious. 

Now you're probably sitting out there, all you young students, also standing on the edge of adventure, thinking, "what has this old fart got to say to me?". But I have to tell you that this old fart has approached every single project with that same sense of an awfully big adventure. Every time I sit down to write a book or I sit down to write a radio play or some piece of journalism, I have that same feeling of excitement, that same feeling of possibility, those same doubts: can I do this? Is this the time where I fall on my face an make a complete fool of myself? But what has kept me going through all these years, all these different projects, through all these different aspects of my life, is that absolute determination never to lose that excitement. It's the excitement, that passion, that keeps you going. Excitement and enthusiasm, and that sense of standing on the edge of something that will define the next bit of your life. It's the seasoning that deepens the satisfaction of your successes. 

All of you here today are facing an uncertain future. None of us knows what lies ahead of us. These are particularly dark and difficult times, but I have every confidence in your ability to go forward into those times as me and my friends did all those years ago, with that sense of excitement, that sense of "we can make something of this". So I wish you all the best, all the good fortune you could desire in your endeavours, and I wish you success in those endeavours. And thank you again for honouring me today. 

Thank you.