The Scottish Parliament's think-tank

Betty Bags a Booker by Karine Polwart

Photo: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

To launch the Scotland 2030 Programme in 2017, we invited folk singer and writer Karine Polwart to reflect on how technology might change our society. This is one of her responses.


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 years’ 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 taking 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, and that’s us, isn’t it? We are those unexpected items that don’t quite fit.”

Known to fellow staff as Betty Donaghy – McDade writes under her maiden name – the 48 year old was a dux medalist at Douglas Academy, before becoming pregnant in her teens. Former head of janitorial services, Tom Anderson recalls, “Betty’s been getting printed in the Telegraph letter-pages for decades, under the name E.R. McDade. Brilliant social commentary. 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. Thank goodness the council never shut the place.”

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

Asked if she missed her cleaning days, McDade remarked, “I miss the craic and the space to think and imagine. Boredom and rhythm are the mother 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. So maybe automation does open up new opportunities. 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.