DIGNITY (Pt. 3) | betty bags a booker

Dundee grandmother, Elizabeth McDade, is the surprise winner of the 2030 Booker Prize for her debut novel The Bagging Area. A tragicomic tale of robotics, redundancy and redemption, the story mines McDade’s thirty-five year experience as a cleaner at the Police Scotland HQ in Dundee, before advanced maintenance bots made cleaning staff obsolete.

“The transition back in 2024 was brutal,” recalls McDade. “The Government was talking up the savings to the public purse, and there was a lot of Guardian guff about the liberation of the human spirit from manual drudgery. But we’ve been trained to turn up and do what we’re told for centuries. And without work loads of folk have no sense of purpose or dignity.”

McDade explains the book’s title, “Remember twenty years ago, when the unstaffed supermarket tills first came in? We were all constantly getting buzzed and red-lighted by those ‘unexpected items in the bagging area’. Well we’re in the bagging area now. We are those unexpected items that don’t quite fit”.

Known to fellow staff as Betty Donaghy, McDade writes under her maiden name. The 52 year old was a dux medalist at Morgan Academy, before becoming pregnant in her teens. Former head of janitorial services, Tom Mair recalls, “Betty’s been getting printed in the Telegraph letter-pages for decades, under the name E.R. McDade. It’s brilliant social commentary stuff. But she never wanted anyone to know”.

“When I got laid off”, stresses McDade, “I wrote every morning at the Wellgate Library, just to stay afloat and feel that I mattered. Thank goodness the council never shut the place”.

Booker Judge Jackie Kay says, “Elizabeth’s debut work speaks to the opportunities, and the indignities, of technological change and to the ultimate resilience of the human spirit”.

Asked if she missed her cleaning days, McDade laughs, “I don’t miss the piss on the back of policemen’s urinals”, before adding, “I do miss the camaraderie and the space to think and imagine. Boredom and rhythm are the mothers of invention. We’re just saturated with stimulation now”.

McDade insists there’s nothing remarkable about her ascent, “The talents and voices of ordinary people have been lost to soul destroying work for centuries. Maybe automation does open up new opportunities, if we manage it kindly. At the very least, we’ve got our stories — and the bots don’t have them yet”.

The Bagging Area is published by Canongate Books.

About this:

In 2017, I was asked, to my surprise, to participate in the launch of The Scottish Futures Forum. The Forum is a non-partisan, Scottish Parliament-sponsored think-tank with a remit for exploring long-term civic and cultural challenges and opportunities.

The topic for the opening session was Culture and Technology.

A folk singer and songwriter is not an obvious choice for this one.

My fellow contributor was video games entrepreneur and leading Scottish business advocate, Chris Van Der Kuyl. By the by, Chris, like Betty, and Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross, is from Dundee. Amongst his many gifts, he does live sound for the mighty Gary Clark (of Danny Wilson fame), and was pals with Dundee legend Michael Marra (if you don’t know about Gary or Michael then, jings, what treats await).

Chris knows a lot about technology. I do not.

I spent weeks genning up on the technological trends that are already shaping our future lives. In the end, Chris and myself were on pretty much the same page about the personal, civic and ethical challenges that rapid technological change presents.

This is one of three brief stories I presented to the Scottish Futures Forum as a provocation on the theme.

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