Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Immortal Memory: a Burns Night guest blog by Val McDermid

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:
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.
And now, our speaker:

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.

You know what’s coming, don’t you? 
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)


  1. Oh god I wish I were in Santa Cruz! Off to order my UCR tartan in honor of the day. xo

  2. Wonderful post Val--thank you! I'd love to have dinner with you but I don't know about haggis and whiskey:)

  3. I'm sorry for you and your neighbors that you'll be missing the Burns Night supper in your home village. I'm sure your giving of the Immortal Memory is a highlight of the year.

    We enjoyed a semblance of a Burns celebration last Saturday here in Portland, Maine. Wonderful poetry and fine music (especially the piper) but no food, so it hardly qualified.

    I'm currently immersed in your Trick of the Dark and enjoying every page. It was lovely to start my day reading this post.


  4. OH, you make me cry. Thank you..and we will raise a glass tonight in his honor--and yours. (even one writer plus husband makes a party! And you're so right--I've gotten to know so many writers in green being in a lifeboat together.)

    Val--it was so terrific to see you at ALA! I has honored to join the verrrrry long line of fans who anted to snag The Retribution...and now I am devouring it! (And it's much tastier, I bet, than haggis.)

    Have fun in SC--they are in for a treat!

  5. Burns Night Supper - I'm putting it on my bucket list and will try to find you, Val, some year when you're not on tour. I had haggis which was quite tasty in Fort William, if memory serves which often it does not.

    Bob Dylan claimed Robert Burns was his greatest creative inspiration (not Dylan Thomas which I would have guessed.)

    With all the mystery novels out there channeling dead poets and writers as sleuths, maybe someone should write the Rabbie Burns series. I know, terrible idea. Gives me writers block just thinking about it.

  6. Oh, the chieftan of the pudding race. Ross ordered haggis in a tiny, wonderful restaurant on the Isle of Skye. I tried it. It wasn't bad, but I took a much larger portion of Tipsy Laird (whiskey trifle.)

    My family tree is littered with McEacherons, Powells, Reids, Macdonalds, Campbells, etc., etc. I was married in my hometown, Argyle (where the school team is, you guessed it, the Scots) and honeymooned in the Highlands. If you cut me, I'll probably bleed oatmeal and overcooked turnip.

    Of course, as a Canadian friend observed, "No Scot is more loyal than one who's been living in another country for 200 years." ;-)

  7. Welcome Val!
    I too am still feeling the weight of sadness on the death of Reginald Hill. What a magnificent writer!

    And I think your post brings out about Scotland exactly what I have always felt about Wales--that these tiny countries, populated more by sheep than by people, have had such a disproportionate influence on the rest of the world. Our writers, engineers, explorers, philosophers have literally changed the world. I'm raising a glass to you on Burns Night.
    Your back-up singer, Rhys

  8. Aw, man. I knew I'd cry today, but I thought I'd make it past breakfast. Fantastic post, Val.

    On haggis: McKean's in Maine make one that we reckon's even better than McSween's in Scotland (gasp) and they mail it anywhere in the US - for a hefty fee.

    Mind you, mine isn't here yet. Thankfully, we're not having ten for dinner (like last year) but if it doesn't turn up in today's post, Neil and me'll be two of those whae wid eat but want it.

    Picture us sitting looking at a plate of tatties n tumshie. Oh - with a bottle of Macallan. That helps.

  9. Brilliant, I love the thought of Val, Ian Rankin, Stuart McBride et al sharing a dram with the immortal bard.
    Also a moving tribute to one of the best drive writers that Britain has ever produced, Reginald Hill.

  10. Hill's wit came through in everything he wrote. How lucky you were to know him personally, Val.
    p.s. Great to see you here.

  11. Val, so lovely to see you in Dallas, if too briefly... sigh. But I'll raise a wee dram to Rabbie Burns tonight, and to Reg Hill, and to you--but minus haggis, I'm afraid. Not in Texas.

    Great post. And love the Burns in Shades:-)

  12. What a wonderful writer you are, Val! I just learned something -- had never heard of Robert Burns suppers and celebrations. Haggis aside, I love the idea of celebrating a writer!

  13. Fabulous post, Val! I know what you mean about crime writers. I've been for many years one of those "whingeing poets" and only recently joined the other side. And you're right. Poets and other "literary" writers can be horribly competitive and mean. (It's the tiny stakes, you know.) But I've found mystery writers to be unanimously warm, welcoming, and generous, not to mention convivial and liable to drunken pranks.

    We'll raise a toast to Robert Burns, Reginald Hill, and you tonight. (But no haggis!) Have a great time!

  14. Val's wonderful post is the highlight of my Burns' Day so far.

    There's no haggis. It turns out I thought he'd ordered it and he thought I had - this wouldn't have happened in the good old days when men were men and women minced the offal.

    Speaking of which, I'm now trying to make my own. I don't have all the ingredients, despite visiting every butcher within pleading distance, and I've never done it before. What could possibly go wrong?

  15. Cat, you a brave lassie. You have to let us know how it turns out.

  16. OMG, now I'm weepy. ::clink:: goes the glass. Thank you for visiting and sharing your tradition.

  17. Val,I have not read much Burns since graduating from college oh so many decades ago. I am going to go rummaging through my poetry books and start re-reading him through your eyes.

    Oh, and I am not at all surprised to read that mystery writers are party animals! Every mystery author interview I have ever read reveals a person who does not take herself/himself seriously. Some "literary"authors can come off sounding as though they are "full of themselves". Not you folks, though! Gee, I've just GOT to start putting pennies aside so I can attend one of the conferences you're always talking about.
    (I just burned dinner -- again --
    because I got engrossed in reading today's blog. No, it's not haggis. Even though I have a reputation for being willing to try eating almost anything, I am not sure I want to put haggis on that list!)

    Deb Romano

  18. Och, and I do remember the Bobbie Burns celebrations at Sanders Theater when Robert J. (Lertsema) would carry in The Haggis on a massive tray of silver (or maybe aluminum, but it did shine). The pipes would play, Laura would dance, and all would make merry in his honor. Do they still have Burns night at Sanders?

  19. Hi Anne,

    They moved the concert to early November and moved into a new home at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington about the time they were remodeling Mem Hall in the 90s.

  20. Deb,

    The end of the haga-saga is up on my blog now. ;-)

  21. The two most important things Val McD said: that crime writers are joyous for each other's success; and that Reginald Hill was a writer extraordinaire. RIP Reg and Robbie B~