Author Val McDermid has teamed up with photographer Alan McCredie for a personal journey through Scotland’s cities and landscapes. In this extract from My Scotland, the crime writer talks about her early career in journalism
By the time I started work on my first published novel, Report for Murder, I was living in exile. Well, that’s what it felt like. I was working in the Manchester office of a national Sunday newspaper and living in Buxton in Derbyshire. It’s the highest market town in England, surrounded by a bowl of hills and the dramatic scenery of the Peak District. Looking back at that choice now, I can’t help feeling that some part of the reason I chose Buxton was that it was the nearest I could get to a sense of belonging.
And although Report for Murder is mostly set in Derbyshire, I couldn’t resist basing my protagonist, Scottish journalist Lindsay Gordon, north of the border. She’s a freelance, living in Glasgow and selling stories wherever she can, which is what brings her down south on an assignment that swiftly turns into a murder investigation.
I’d spent two years working as a news journalist in Glasgow before I moved south and I gave Lindsay bits of my own experiences.
I’d gone to Glasgow to work on the Daily Record. I’ve often encountered a surprised reaction from people who didn’t expect me to opt for a tabloid after gaining an Oxford degree in English Language and Literature. But once I’d settled on journalism as a job to tide me over till I could make a living writing fiction, working for a red-top had been my goal. The Record had been the paper of choice in our house and I believed that working people deserved newspapers that were informative as well as entertaining.
I’d arrived in Glasgow with a degree of apprehension as well as excitement. Although only 45 miles separate it from Edinburgh, the two cities are startlingly different.
What I knew of Glasgow before I arrived:
– My cousin, who had been to university there, said it rained twice a year. From September to April and from May to August.
– According to William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, it was a city of violence and hardship.
– Sectarianism was a brutal and ugly reality, as witnessed in the clashes between football fans whenever Celtic and Rangers played each other.
– Billy Connolly was the epitome of an extravagant and outrageous sense of humour that burned brightest among those with least to lose.
What I didn’t know of Glasgow before I arrived:
– It’s beautiful. It was the second city of empire and its streets and squares are studded with glamorous buildings. The long streets of tall sandstone tenements – even those still ingrained with generations of industrial pollution – have a presence that knocks spots off the brick terraces of other cities. What I also didn’t know then was that the capital to build them came from slavery, sugar and tobacco. I know better now but it still doesn’t diminish their impact.
– Its name means ‘dear green place’ in Gaelic, and there are more than 90 public parks and gardens in the city.
– Everybody speaks to you in Glasgow. Everybody has an opinion and not a shred of reluctance about sharing it.
The great advantage about being a news journalist rather than a specialist is that you get to know a city very quickly. Every day brings another story; another street; another cast of characters. Glasgow was a daily adventure for me, and I was up for it.
My Scotland by Val McDermid with photography by Alan McCredie is published by Sphere today, priced £20.