Life of crime: Val McDermid, pictured in 2004, has recently returned to Scotland
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Val McDermid: living the tartan noir in Edinburgh

The Scottish capital has a long tradition of crime fiction. Now one of the genre’s modern proponents comes home.

Two weeks ago, I took possession of a flat in Edinburgh. From the room where I will write, I can look across the Firth of Forth to Fife, where I spent the first 17 years of my life. I don’t need Alex Salmond to tell me this is the year of homecoming. In my heart, I know I have come home.

I have lived in England for twice as many years as I have in Scotland but I have never felt anything other than a Scot. That’s not just some jingoistic tartan-and-shortbread sentimentality speaking. It’s a bred-in-the-bone understanding that we have a different sensibility from our English neighbours. Our history is different. Our culture is different. Our class system is different. Our bread and our beer, those dietary staples, are different. As are the words we use to speak of them. A pint of eighty shilling. A pan loaf.

And I believe that’s why our crime fiction is different. The phenomenon of tartan noir that has sprung from the single seed of William McIlvanney’s 1977 novel, Laidlaw, encompasses a wide range of work, from apparent rural douceness to raw urban savagery. But it seems to me that all of us who write from that Scottish sensibility have common underpinnings that draw us together and distinguish us from our English, Welsh and Irish colleagues.

It begins at the beginning, in the very roots of what we’re doing. The Scots literary tradition is distinct and distinctive. For me, the crime novel’s first stirrings come with James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), an experimental novel that features a dangerous but irresistible anti-hero and ventures into the Gothic, speculative realms of angels and devils. It wasn’t even mentioned on my Oxford English degree course.

The next figure in the landscape is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Already we can see a form emerging from the swirling fog. It takes clearer shape in the hands of Arthur Conan Doyle – and now we find the key characteristics of our lineage. Dark psychological exploration, obsession, the potential for sudden explosive violence, the importance of the intellect, and a persistent seam of black humour. The polar opposite of the English Golden Age crime novel, in fact.

I always enjoyed reading classic English detective novels but, as surely as I knew England wasn’t my home, I knew as a writer I’d never fit in to that tradition. Like many of my fellow Scots crime writers, I found myself more in tune with the American hard-boiled model. Like us, they prefer the dark night of the soul to tea with the vicar.

And so we come back to McIlvanney. Laidlaw was unlike any other novel I’d read. The language its characters spoke was the vernacular I heard in the streets around me. Their lives were working class, urban, difficult and, to me, as recognisable as my own family. It wasn’t the stuff of detective novels as I understood them. With this novel, McIlvanney cracked the door ajar. Ian Rankin and I kicked it open a bit further and then suddenly the room started to fill up and the party was in full swing.

Anyone who doubts the range and quality of what’s being done by Scottish crime writers now only needs to take a look at the programme for Bloody Scotland, the annual crime festival that focuses on our work. Although it’s widely divergent in setting, style and subject matter, I’d still contend that there is connective tissue that pulls us together.

But why now? Why has there been such an explosion of writing in this particular genre in this particular place at this particular time? The answer, I believe, lies in crime fiction’s unique ability to shine a light on its setting. By its very nature, murder touches a diverse range of lives. The victim. The victim’s friends, family, neighbours, lovers and colleagues. The police. The forensic experts. The witnesses. The journalists who cover the case. One crime can draw in the highest and the lowest in the land. Contemporary crime fiction is where the social historians of the future will look to see how we live now, just as Dickens provides us with an insight into Victorian England.

When McIlvanney wrote Laidlaw Scotland was having its first serious political engagement with the idea of devolution. A referendum was on its way and, for most Scots, this was the first time we’d sat down and considered what a devolved – or even independent – Scotland might look like. What did it mean to be Scottish? How would we define ourselves in the modern world? What did we believe in? What did we think was worth fighting for? In the end, whatever conclusions we came to were wiped out by Westminster’s moving of the goalposts. A majority voted for devolution, but not enough of a majority.

But we’d started something. And Scots have a terrier tendency. As the discussions around devolved government and independence have swirled around us in recent years, so the crime novel has emerged as the literary form that engages with who we are and what we might become. In fiction, we can explore the worst and the best of us. We can take ourselves seriously and take the piss. We can create alliances and oppositions. We can, perhaps, find who we are and who we would aspire to be. These are the questions that permeate our crime fiction.

So in one sense, I have come home. But in another sense, as a writer, I have never been away.

Val McDermid’s “Cross and Burn” is newly published in paperback by Sphere (£7.99). Her version of “Northanger Abbey” will be published next month

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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