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Laureation address – Candia McWilliam

Candia McWilliam BA
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

To be presented by Professor Robert Crawford, School of English
Friday 30 November 2012

Vice Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Candia McWilliam for the Degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

Born in Edinburgh in 1955 to a horse-riding, Nancy Mitford-reading mother and a father who co-authored what remains the standard architectural guide to that city, the writer Candia McWilliam was raised ‘to notice every astragal, every stone’ in the Scottish capital. At the start of her teens she was sent to boarding school in England after her mother’s death; she read English at Girton College, Cambridge, graduating with first-class honours before starting work in advertising and journalism. Though Candia McWilliam has spent most of her adult life in the south of England, Edinburgh and the Hebridean island of Colonsay have remained among the compass points of her existence. Her literary formation owes not a little to Muriel Spark’s pinpoint novella The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (which Candia has read ‘more than twice a year since I was ten’), and to James Hogg’s wily, fractured novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner ‘in which’, as she puts it, ‘so much Scots writing has its roots’.

With its ‘Scots Calvinist’ aristocrat Anne Cowdenbeath who is ‘used to the idea of there being unjustified sinners’, McWilliam’s first novel, A Case of Knives (1988), follows Hogg’s in presenting a murder from several points of view. It also investigates gender identity and sexual exploitation. In McWilliam’s often troubling but very deftly crafted fictions easy and commercially-reinforced assumptions about femininity are both acknowledged and toppled. Both her first novel and her second, A Little Stranger, are written with a degree of reined-in, decorous anger.

North and south, displacement, and loss are explored in different ways in McWilliam’s short story collection, Wait Till I Tell You, as well as in her novel of Edinburgh and globalization, Debatable Land (1994), which takes six characters on a voyage from Tahiti to New Zealand. Whether describing the Roslyn Chapel (‘a building that seemed to have been cooked at different temperatures over much time’) or the way the sea ‘divided and remet itself’ around the keel of a boat, McWilliam’s prose fuses lyrical grace with hints of humour and wise verisimilitude. Among other awards, she has won the Guardian Fiction Prize, Scottish Arts Council Book Award, Italy’s Premio Grinzane Cavour, the Betty Trask Prize, the South Bank Sky Arts Award, and the Hawthornden Prize. Candia McWilliam has known success, beauty, considerable privilege, and has carried with her shards of pain. Her gift retains surprise. I was never more impressed by her deep humanity than when I saw her read with nervous and telling intensity to a completely won-over audience in Glasgow’s Castlemilk housing scheme. She is a writer whose work crosses many boundaries.

Candia McWilliam’s most remarkable book is her 2010 memoir, What to Look for in Winter. Dictated during blindness, adventurously structured, laceratingly honest, and shrewdly moving, it details her alcoholism, her experience of the severe visual impairment of blepharospasm, and her mother’s suicide; it also contains wonderful accounts of Edinburgh New Town life, of the art of writing, and of the benignity of a small Scottish island. It is tenacious, superbly constructed, and unlike any other memoir: a one-off from a thrawn and unflinching writer each of whose books has its own unmistakable presence.

Vice Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to the art of literature I invite you to confer on Candia McWilliam the Degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

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