Val McDermid tells DAVID ROBINSON how a sexual awakening at Oxford helped define her life as a writer
• Val McDermid's life may have turned out very differently had Fife's education policies not resulted in her attending St Hilda's College at just 16. Picture: Neil Hanna
I DON'T have a huge amount in common with Val McDermid, but we were at least young together in the same place. Oxford, Michaelmas term 1973: I was in my first year, a swotty scholarship boy, she was a second-year English student, the first Scot from a state school at her all-female college, St Hilda's. We didn't know each other then, but both of us were trying to go out with girls studying there.
Or at least I was. Because, to be precise, it was only the following year that McDermid fell in love for the first time – with another St Hilda's girl –? and started to come to terms with the fact that she was a lesbian.
So what? I hear you say, and quite rightly. You don't want to hear about the sex lives (largely uneventful, in my case, anyway) of two middle-aged people reminiscing about their student days. And the only way I can persuade you of its relevance to these august pages is the fact that a) McDermid is Scotland's best-selling female crime novelist by a country mile; b) that ?– unusually in mainstream crime fiction – all four of the main characters in her latest, brilliantly plotted, standalone novel are lesbians and c) that the key scenes take place at an Oxford girls' college where nearly all of them met.
What most people know about McDermid is that both she and Gordon Brown were products of a controversial educational experiment run by Fife Council in the Sixties that moved the brightest pupils in one year to be educated alongside pupils in the year above. As a result, when she won a place at St Hilda's she was only 16; most of her fellow students, having already taken A-levels and then a scholarship exam, would be at least a year, more likely two, older. But while I've heard her talk about the emotional damage this scheme wrought, I've never before heard her describe what it felt like to arrive, young and with a strong (to English ears, impenetrable) working-class Fife accent among Oxford's dreaming spires. Where, among the city's 15,000 students, there wasn't anyone remotely like her.
There's a scene in her new novel, Trick of the Dark, which is lifted almost straight from life. The real-life version has the 17-year-old Val reading an essay on Gerald Manley Hopkins's "Wreck of the Deutschland" in her thick Fife accent to her tutor who, after several minutes had passed, turned to her and said: "I'm terribly sorry. I haven't understood a word of that." But she learnt to make herself understood, gathering a circle of friends that included the daughters of lorry drivers and of aristocrats. Oxford wasn't, she realised, a snobbish place at all; it was the quality of your mind that it was trying to search out, and the quality of your reading. She fell in love with the place.
Looking back, she says now, about the college in which she is an honorary fellow, ?"I realise that various tutors made a point of taking me under their wing, because I really was so young". The college principal, who realised that McDermid didn't have too much money but wanted to stay in Oxford over the summers, summoned her to her office. She and her husband were going away for the three months "but I wonder, Val, if you would do us most extraordinary favour and consider staying in the principal's lodgings. One doesn't want to uproot the cats…" So yes, Oxford opened doors, offered opportunities she knows she never would have had otherwise. She met people like Benazir Bhutto ("Benny", she calls her) whose father then ruled Pakistan, she wrote poems for Cherwell, and played the guitar in the Thames flood meadows (see the picture on her website). And she read and read and read.
One day in 1974 she discovered Kate Millet's Sexual Politics. It was a turning point. At her next tutorial, she raved about the book for about ten minutes, told her tutor how it transformed her worldview, how this feminist take on literary criticism turned the subject upside down.
After about ten minutes, her tutor nodded. "Ah yes, dear Kate," she said.? "'What do you mean, dear Kate?'? I said. And it turned out that this devout Christian and very English woman had supervised the DPhil that later became Sexual Politics when Millet was at St Hilda's.
"So even with this extraordinarily radical book, Oxford had got there first."
But although Millet's 1970 book called for an end to all sexual taboos, Oxford wasn't quite so quick on the uptake. In Trick of the Dark – where the Oxford college scenes are set in the early 1990s, coming out as a lesbian is still shown as being fraught with fear and tension. Twenty years before that, says McDermid, it was almost unknown.
Was it really? I rack my brains to think of gay women I knew then, and sure enough, I draw a blank, even though I knew scores of gay men.
"I wasn't gay when I went up to Oxford in 1972,"? says McDermid. "I was going out with boys. But there wasn't any sense of an alternative life available. People weren't out. For women there was no (mainstream] gay literature, no gay films, no gay sports stars. There were no role models. Growing up in Fife, you were aware that there were these creatures called lesbians, but it was in the realms of complete freakishness. And I didn't feel like a freak.
"But for the three years I was at Oxford – that was when the world changed. By my last year, I started to know women who were lesbians, and I had this dawning realisation that that was where I should slot myself in. And what tipped it over for me was that in my last year I fell in love with someone who fell in love with me at the same time."
This – admittedly, 20 years later, admittedly again with a murder involved – is what happens in Trick of the Dark. As McDermid points out, the plot wouldn't work if the women were heterosexual. "If I'd just included four lesbian women as a political statement it wouldn'?t be a good book.?"
But what, I ask (and trust me – this isn't giving anything away) about the fact that the murderer is a lesbian? She's surely railed against fiction in which lesbians are always the ones who are unhappy and messed up and guilty as charged. Isn't she doing the same thing here?
"Well, you've got to remember that in my third novel featuring (lesbian journalist] Lindsay Gordon – 1991's Final Edition – I had a lesbian who was a murderer and I got a bit of stick for it.
"But my attitude is that there's no point in writing about anything unless you do so honestly – which is to say that lesbians behave as well or as badly as any group in the country. So if I get stick for this, I couldn't. Give. A. Shit."?
She'd already told me about how she first started writing the Lindsay Gordon books, and as she talked about the liberating effect of reading Sarah Peretsky's first VI Warshawski novel – Indemnity Only (1982) – I was struck at how much her enthusiasm mirrored that with which she'd described reading Kate Millet a decade earlier.
"I thought, 'Whoa, this is terrific! I'd never read anything like it before – a book about the kind of women whose lives I understand, which feels more like the world I live in, which has politics with both a small p and a large one.'
"So I wrote Report for Murder (1987) which, although it has the air of radical feminism, is actually a traditional English mystery. And I sent it off to the Women's Press. And again, I was lucky, because the first wave of American women's crime fiction had just hit these shores, so people knew about Peretsky, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller and Mary Wings. The British publishing houses were very keen to have a British equivalent:? I think at that point anything that was written coherently in sentences would have done."?
There's a pattern here, isn?'t there? A life that fits into the times with almost tooled precision. If McDermid had been born a few years earlier, she might be an utterly different person – not an out and proud, confident, extrovert, best-selling crime writer. Instead ?– and this is really hard to imagine – she might be like some of the people she still knows back in Fife "who are lesbians but who have been in the closet all of their lives and who aren't coming out any time soon because they never had any different option.".
She might have missed out on Oxford, on Kate Millet and Sarah Peretsky – who knows? – but she would also have missed Fife's accelerated places scheme. That, she thinks, might have been a good thing, because at least she would have had a teenage peer group she could confide in, the way she never could with children a year older than her.
"I was lucky. I survived. A lot of other people crashed and burned for no good reason ?– I mean they'd still have done well educationally if they'd have gone through the whole process a year older.
"But the one thing it left me with was a ferocious ambition. It's the same with Gordon Brown, and for me that's taken years to subside.
"It's only since I've turned 50 that I've mellowed a bit in that regard. Until then, I've always felt really driven, under great pressure to be the first, the best, the youngest.
"And now I just think, 'Get over yourself. Relax.' And I'm happier now than ever.?"
• Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown, priced 18.99