Good Reading : June 2006
JUNE 2006 ı goodreading 11 author profile I should have a better life than they had. And that the way to that was through education.You got an education and you got out, you got a better life. I was also brought up very much with the Robert Burns view: “rank is but the guinea’s stamp – a man’s a man for a’ that”. We’re all equal, and I should call no man my master.That imbued me with a certain level of self-confidence – arrogance, even.’ She was determined from a young age. Growing up in Fife, where, she says, the people feel different from the rest of Scotland and are ‘bolshie, difficult, stroppy, radical!’, she knew she wanted ‘a wider world, a bigger canvas – something different; I wanted more. And I don’t know if it was a sense of my sexuality [McDermid is openly lesbian] or my sense as a writer that made me realise that I had to have wider horizons. I decided I was going to go to university in England. I found out how you got to Oxford. I sent away for the prospectus for the women’s colleges and I picked St Hilda’s because it had the nicest pictures.’ Her school wa outraged, because they prided themselve on the number of students they sent to Edinburgh or Dundee, but there was on supportive teacher who coached her in t things she needed for the entrance exam that weren’t in the Scottish syllabus, like Milton and Chaucer. After the entrance exam she went off to Oxford with her little blue suit- case and did the entrance interview. ‘I remember the principal saying, “We’ve never taken anyone from a Scottish state school before!” I said, “Well, it’s about time you started, isn’t it?” I wasn’t intimidated at all.’ She was sixteen at the time – a product of a ‘crazy’ educa- tional experiment in Fife, accelerating the clever – and had visited England only once before, for a holiday in Blackpool. Because she was so young, they tried to make her defer for a year. Her response? ‘I said, “Och, I’ll go elsewhere, I’m not wasting a year.” So they took me in.’ She had a great time at Oxford. ‘I found, essentially, a society where people were more interested in your intellect than anything else, and that was the basis on which you were judged: how smart you were, and how well you used your smarts.That suited me fine,’ she explains. ‘I went there convinced these people had the keys to the kingdom, and I was deter mined not to leave until they handed them over. That’s what I felt I’d done by the time I left.’ When she graduated, she already knew she wanted to be a writer, but knew you can’t just leave the starting blocks and become a writer. Earning a living was a problematic priority. ‘I knew this would be problematic because I’ve never been good with authority; anything remotely hierarchical was out,’ she says. ‘And I’d never been good with routine, so I knew I couldn’t do nine to five office work. The only thing I could think of was to be a journalist.’ She was accepted into the Mirror Group training scheme and given a two-year cadetship in Devon, working on local papers. An experience about which she has this to offer: ‘The capacity of parish councils to debate utterly inconsequential things never ceased to astound me. I can remember one night being trapped in a room with village councillors on the edge of Dartmoor discussing what to do with the inside of a bus shelter: whether they should just flat-plaster it and paint it, or whether they h ld t into little peaks, and arguing that the problem with that is that the sheep then come in and scratch themselves. I thought, I don’t believe this!’ Escape came in the form of a six- week attachment to the Daily Record n Glasgow – where she was treated with what she describes as ‘impish iciousness’, to see whether she could ut it or not. Her first assignment was a eath-knock for four teenagers killed in car crash the night before in the Lake strict: ‘Go away down and get pictures the dead boys’. She did it. ‘I wasn’t ing to show them I couldn’t.’ She cut it; they kept her on; and in 79 she transferred to Manchester to rk on the People. ‘The People at that e was the high point of tabloid news- ers,’ she says proudly. ‘You really had ved if you got a job on the People. le reporters were regarded as the best, cream of the tabloid press – in the days n it meant something to be a good id journalist.’ She enjoyed Manchester, too – a fact that endears her to me. ‘I really liked Manchester a lot. I liked its edge, its toughness. I liked the buzz, and the feel- ing that you could cut us off at the knees but we’d still get up on our stumps and walk, you know? I remember the 1996 bomb; two days after the IRA blew up the centre of Manchester the Co-op had put up posters all over town saying ‘You can blow up our heart but you can’t take away our soul’. It is a rough city – it’s full of gangsters; but it’s a very interesting city to live and work in, and that’s why I stayed.’ “We’ve never taken anyone from a Scottish state school before!” I said, “Well, it’s about time you started, isn’t it?” I wasn’t intimidated at all.