Val McDermid needs no introduction. Creator of the Lindsay Gordan, Kate Brannigan and Tony Hill series. Winner of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year, Pioneer Award (Lambda Literary Awards,) Los Angeles Times Book Prize, New York Times Notable Book of the Year, the Anthony Award, Macavity Award, and Dilys Award.
The Robert Burns Night Supper may need a bit more introduction. Luckily, we have an expert. Let's begin the customary way:
And now, our speaker:
- Some hae meat and canna eat,
- And some wad eat that want it;
- But we hae meat, and we can eat,
- And sae let the Lord be thankit.
All over the world today, my compatriots are sitting down to a feast of minced sheep’s offal mixed with oatmeal, onions and a liberal amount of black pepper, all cooked inside a sheep’s large intestine, accompanied by mashed potatoes and swede (a kind of orange turnip). This meal will be washed down with large quantities of whisky.
This is not a punishment.
It’s a celebration. A celebration with a reach far beyond a small nation that occupies the top half of a larger country sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. It’s a celebration with global reach. From Vladivostok to Valparaiso, from Anchorage to Adelaide, we’ll be toasting the same great man. Not a politician or a revolutionary leader or a messiah, but a writer.
That’s right, a writer. A man of humble origins, like so many writers. A man who was driven by his dream to overcome poverty, illness and woman trouble in his journey to become one of the world’s great writers, a man spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare and Cervantes, Homer and Goethe.
Tonight, there will be thousands of Burns Suppers held in honour of Robert Burns, commemorating a writer whose life and work have inspired people for two hundred and fifty years. Usually I would be on my feet at one of those dinners, giving the speech known as the Immortal Memory, a toast to our national bard. This year I will be at the Santa Cruz Bookstore, where I suspect the best I can hope for is a decent drop of whisky. (Please don’t bring haggis – I once ate American haggis and it was without doubt one of the five worst things I have ever put in my mouth!)
A lot of people who do the rounds giving the Immortal Memory have one finely honed schtick. It’s all they need because they are somewhere different every year. I have no such luck. When I’m not in Santa Cruz, I deliver the Immortal Memory at my village Burns Supper. So just as I have to come up with an idea for a book a year, so I have to find an annual variant on the life and work of Robert Burns. I’ve done Burns the lover, Burns the revolutionary, Burns the stand-up comic, Burns the activist, Burns the drinker, Burns the social chameleon... You get the picture? Believe me, there’s plenty of variety in his life and work to keep me going for a few years more.
This obligation means that I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the years pondering where Robert Burns would choose to place himself in the literary canon if he was around today. In the 18th century when he was writing, there weren’t so many options for a part-time jobbing writer who lived out in the sticks. It was basically poetry or poetry. But now, he’d have choices.
Yes, I think if Robert Burns had been born in 1959 instead of 1759, he’d have been a crime writer. Just think about it for a minute. His poetry reveals a man who was passionate about injustice, who believed in the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality. He loved his country but was alive to its faults. He pointed the finger at hypocrisy, he took on the establishment and he questioned the world he lived in. He was observant, compassionate, fascinated by women and sex, and had the typically mordant black humour of the Lowland Scot. All the qualities, in short, that embody the genre of Tartan Noir.
That on its own should be enough to convince the sceptics. But there is a clincher. What sets crime writers apart from other cadres of wordsmiths? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you conviviality. Crime writers are the party animals of the literary circuit. Three crime writers in a bar is a party. Three crime writers in the green room can turn the stuffiest literary festival into a shindig. We enjoy each other’s company because we enjoy and respect each other’s work without feeling threatened by the success of our peers. In my experience, this is unique to our genre.
Robert Burns was a man who loved a good night out. If you doubt me, just read the opening section of Tam O’Shanter. There’s our hero, in the pub with his pals after market day, getting loaded when he should be loading up his horse and heading home.
Yes, Burns would have found his natural home with us, not the whingeing poets. After all, we’re the only genre who boast an organisation -- the Detection Club in the UK -- whose primary qualification for nomination for membership is that one should be clubbable.
But here’s where I stumble. That word, ‘clubbable’. I can never see it without smiling at the thought of the inimitable Reginald Hill’s debut Dalziel and Pascoe novel, A Clubbable Woman. Reg was one of the first crime writers I met socially and he became a good friend. We walked in the Dales together, we ate and drank together, we had book event adventures together. He was erudite, generous, witty, the best of company and one of the finest crime writers the UK has ever produced. Robert Burns would have loved him.
I know I did. He was part of the rich tapestry of my writing life. And shortly before I left on this US trip, Reg died. The weight of that sadness has taken the lightness out of my days. But sitting alongside that sadness is the knowledge that our crime writing community will come together to celebrate Reg’s achievement. He’ll be spoken of with affection for years to come, he’ll be missed and like Robert Burns, that crime writer manqué, his work will be enjoyed. Even by people who don’t know how to enjoy a wee dram.
If you’re anywhere near Santa Cruz tonight, come along and celebrate writing and writers. I’ll be the one in the Robert Burns football shirt.
Ladies and Gentlemen, please be upstanding, raise your glasses, and join the Reds in toasting the immortal memory of Robert Burns and his fellow scribe, Reginald Hill.
You can find more about Val McDermid at her website, friend her on Facebook, and chat with her on Twitter (@valmcdermid). Her 25th novel, The Retribution, brings back Dr. Tony Hill, DCI Carol Jordan and "her most thrillingly murderous creation, Jacko Vance." (Daily Mirror)