Val McDermid: 'Home is where you're safe'

Val McDermid: 'Home is where you're safe'

credit: Fraser Rice

The Scottish crime writer gets bolshy about homelessness as she chats about her book festival strand, which aims to raise awareness of the issue

Amid celebrating the achievements of the housing and homelessness charity Shelter Scotland when it marked its 50th anniversary last year, there was some self-reflection going on, namely 'why are we still here after 50 years?'.

One person with this question on their mind was the bestselling and award-winning Scottish crime author, Val McDermid. 'I was shocked to discover the extent of homelessness and the precariousness of so many people's lives,' she recalls.

At the end of last year, Shelter found that 320,000 people (about 1 in 200) were homeless in Britain – a 4% year-on-year rise despite government promises to intervene. However, Shelter estimates the figures could actually be much worse as they do not include 'hidden homelessness' like sofa-surfing and insecure living arrangements.

Having had an interest in this subject since she was a student, McDermid realised the homelessness epidemic has never been as bad. 'It seems to be reaching crisis levels. And it's completely offensive that we are in a country with the riches we have. The people who run the country seem quite happy to let the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.'

Inspired to take action, McDermid suggested to Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, that they should do something about it. 'There wasn't very much in a practical sense that I could do, but the access I have to be able to shout loud and be bolshy is one way to go,' she laughs.

And so, Home/Less, McDermid's guest strand at EIBF, was born. It aims to get to grips with the alarming reality of the UK's homelessness crisis and show that it is much more nuanced than just not having a place to sleep. 'It completely wrecks your life chances. It's very hard to get a job when you have nowhere to live … the whole thing becomes a spiral where you lose everything you have.' Home/Less also explores the meaning of home and what home means for those who have been forced to leave theirs.

The first event, 'Home for Migrants and Refugees?' features Karine Polwart, Nayrouz Qarmout and Ali Smith; the second 'What Is Home?' brings together Leila Aboulela, Robin Robertson and Kamila Shamsie; the third explores 'What Does Homelessness Mean?' with Danny Dorling, Geetha Marcus and Joelle Taylor.

McDermid is heartened that such a long list of prominent people from different fields wanted to help. 'The speakers didn't need to be asked twice – it was "of course!"' And she knew that each of them had a particular interest in the subject matter. 'I knew from their work, and what I'd heard about them, that they had something to say, that they were articulate, and angry.'

For McDermid, growing up in working-class Kirkcaldy, studying at Oxford and living in various parts of the UK, has meant her own personal meaning of home has often been in flux. But she believes that home isn't something you can dictate with static geography. 'It's an emotional connection that you feel; it's a moment where your shoulders drop and you breathe. And that might not necessarily be the place where you grew up. Home is where you're safe.'

Ultimately, she hopes to raise the profile of voices that have been ignored. 'The more we get voices that have not been heard speaking, and the more we get what they're saying, the harder it becomes to be completely hostile to people in that situation.'

With the EIBF and Edinburgh's other August festivals overwhelmingly attended by privileged people, McDermid hopes that Home/Less will be both an eye opener – 'I want them to be made to feel uncomfortable' – and a call to action.

Karine Polwart, Nayrouz Qarmout & Ali Smith with Val McDermid: Home For Migrants And Refugees?, 12 Aug, 10am, £12 (£10).

Leila Aboulela, Robin Robertson & Kamila Shamsie with Val McDermid: What Is Home?, 14 Aug, 10am, £12 (£10).

Danny Dorling, Geetha Marcus & Joelle Taylor with Val McDermid: What Does Homelessness Mean?, 15 Aug, 11.45am, £12 (£10). All events Charlotte Square Gardens.

Leila Aboulela, Robin Robertson & Linda Grant with Val McDermid

One of this year’s Guest Selectors, Val McDermid leads a lively and thought-provoking discussion on the shifting nature of home with three leading authors who have written about the topic. Cairo-born Leila Aboulela was raised in Khartoum but has lived most of her adult life in Aberdeen; Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi…

Karine Polwart, Nayrouz Qarmout & Ali Smith with Val McDermid

‘Hordes’, ‘swarms’ and ‘invasion’ – words used in recent headlines to dehumanise migrants. Guest Selector Val McDermid explores stories of individuals and families who’ve faced the decision to leave their homeland. Nayrouz Qarmout talks of her birth in a Damascus refugee camp and her subsequent move to Gaza; Ali Smith…

Danny Dorling, Geetha Marcus & Joelle Taylor with Val McDermid

This discussion led by guest selector Val McDermid explores the many forms of homelessness: sleeping rough, sofa surfing, living in cars and temporary accommodation. Geographer Danny Dorling presents evidence about homelessness in British cities, while award-winning poet and playwright Joelle Taylor performs verse…

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