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Memory lane

September 29, 2022

Man, I enjoyed reading this week’s “Sunday dinner with” (a tradition which began on Valentine’s Day last year with another Val McDermid). Finished it last night.

The heroine, Allie Burns, is a young female journalist starting out on a Glasgow daily in 1979. As it happens, that same year I was a young female journalist starting off at a London weekly. 

What a lot it brought back: typewriters and copy pads and, oh, yes, smoking at your desk. One of Allie’s challenges in the otherwise all male newsroom is being taken seriously and not assigned to “miracle baby” stories. When she is approached by a younger male colleague who wants her help with an investigation he’s doing off the books, she’s all in. 

My first job was also (other than the secretary) in an all male environment and it was clear to me on my first day that some of the other journalists were far from impressed that the editor had hired me. Fortunately, my creative swearing and ability to hold my own in the pub after work won all but one over fairly quickly.

When you say “1979” to me the first thing that comes into my head is “Thatcher” and the beginning of the end of politicians even pretending to have a gram of empathy. 

No one who had just lived through that winter of discontent could pretend that many unions were out of control or that the Callaghan government had lost its grip, but that woman’s hatred of everything trades union stood for and her determination to annihilate them was alarming. It galls me to say this, but she was no fool. Her first attack was on something most union members would have agreed needed to go: the show of hands voting. I’d already attended meetings in which I’d simply not raised my hand because to do so in opposition to whatever the union was recommending could earn you its wrath. So passing legislation requiring secret (paper) ballots did not seem like a terrible thing to me and many others. It was what came after, when she was aided and abetted by that megalomaniac Scargill, that was truly appalling. 

There is no “society” she said and she did her utmost to make that true. From the ridiculous and thoroughly discredited implementation of trickle down economics (brought back this week to crash the economy by her bargain basement mini me), to the selling off of council homes to shutting down care homes to forcing renters to pay the taxes of property owners, she did everything in her power to make that statement true. Between her and Reagan, the 1980s in their countries became a great time to be a merchant banker (which has indeed been adapted in Cockney rhyming slang), and a terrible time for almost everyone else.

So, yes, 1979. Thatcher. Well, no. Although the milk snatcher does get a mention at the very end of 1979, the action takes place in the winter before that fateful May election. 

I don’t honestly remember there being a vote in Scotland on devolution at that time. But there was and it is a central plot point. (Low turnout allowed Callaghan to ignore the results.) I am certain that I had no idea that the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual acts in England in Wales, did not also apply in Scotland where gay men remained in fear of exposure and prosecution until 1981. Another plot point. 

Beyond that I am saying nothing, as you really should have a read yourself. And when you do, make sure you read the author’s note – or more importantly what follows. When I was sitting down to dinner with Val the other night I had a quick scan of my CDs for something appropriate to the year and pulled out The Clash. At the very end of the book McDermid provides her “top 40” songs played while working on the novel. Yes, The Clash are there, but so too are Patti Smith, Blondie, Bowie, Boomtown Rats, ABBA, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and so many other songs that take me right back.

There is a second Allie Burns novel, set in 1989 (not sure how 1979, purchased some time ago, managed to remain buried in the bedside book pile for so long), which I have just ordered. I see the ravages of the Thatcher years are now front and centre: “Although Allie is no longer an investigative journalist, her instincts are sharper than ever. When she discovers a lead about the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable, Allie is determined to give a voice to those who have been silenced.”  Ah, yes, in 1979 we couldn’t have guessed quite how bad those years were going to be.

From → Reading

  1. Donna permalink

    Fantastic book. So cool that you can relate to being a journo in the same time frame.

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