Margaret Thomson Davis


Born: May 24 1926;

Died: June 14 2016

MARGARET Thomson Davis, who has died aged 90, was the kind of novelist who would not put a lamp-post on a city street without checking that she had the right design. Her research was legendary, with piles of notebooks detailing character traits, physical descriptions, attitudes and likes. “I’m a compulsive checker”, she told an interviewer in 1995, “I couldn’t bear to put something in a book that I wasn’t sure of.”

Thomson Davis’s ability to render the texture and manners of Scottish working class communities, as well as their sights and sounds, and to render privation simply and unsentimentally, meant that she was often likened to Catherine Cookson, a comparison she accepted modestly, but without comment.

Perhaps her best known novel, The Breadmakers, published in 1972, was also likened to a Scottish Coronation Street, a similarity she (at least once) professed not to see. “It’s funny, but television isn’t very good at realism. I think the novel is still so much better at that.”

Her ability to represent ordinary life in Scotland was not merely a matter of research. Her second volume of autobiography was tellingly entitled Write From The Heart. She was able to catch the rub and tension of a struggling family because she had grown up in one.

Margaret Thomson [Davis] was born in Bathgate, West Lothian, on May 24 1926, but her railwayman father moved the family to Balornock, near the Springburn locomotive works when she was a toddler. Like many Scottish working class homes, the house was rich in books and music and Thomson Davis’s mother was remembered as a fine musician, “who could tell a story in a song”. Nevertheless her parents were startled when she announced her intention to become a professional writer.

She left school and began a lifelong practice of observational writing, noting down everything she saw and heard, storing it away. She claimed not to plot out any of her stories but to let them emerge from character and situation. “I think place is as important as the person in it. Otherwise, all you have is one of those staged portraits against an artificial background.”

While working at a range of short term jobs, in factories and nurseries, she bombarded magazines with stories and sketches, gradually learning how to judge the market. “I was writing for magazines that I had never read and which were probably regarded as a bit frivolous”, she said later.

The hesitation, even from this most committed of writers, stemmed from her Quakerism. She was a member of the Society of Friends throughout her life and clung fiercely to its principles of pacifism and mutual help, even if she regarded herself as something of a “black sheep” in the movement. War figures in her work as a tear in the social fabric, most notably in the Clydesiders trilogy that occupied her between 1999 and 2006.

But it was with an earlier sequence that she won her reputation. The Breadmakers was followed by two further novels A Baby Might Be Crying and A Sort of Peace that took the McNair’s Bakery saga through Depression and the war, introducing such vivid characters as master baker Baldy Fowler and his wife Sarah, and the insurance salesman Alec Jackson, who soap stars would have queued up to play on screen.

Thomson Davis was utterly committed to prose fiction, though, and over the next 40 years published more than three dozen books. Her range included romance and murder, and historical fiction: A Darkening of the Heart includes Robert Burns among its central characters.

Thomson Davis’s technical sureness had seemed to extend and deepen with 1981’s The Dark Side of Pleasure and thereafter she seemed to range more freely and confidently through different echelons of society. Goodmans of Glassford Street (2007) is about a power struggle over an old-fashioned department store in Edinburgh (!) and the presence of an MSP among its characters is the strongest sign that Thomson Davis had no intention of retreating into a nostalgic past. Nor was she limited to writing about Glasgow. In Light and Dark (1984) she conjured up the capital in a mood that strongly recalls Stevenson and Hogg as well as her own ability to make characters live convincingly even in the shadow of impending tragedy. Like Robin Jenkins, who she somewhat resembles in subject matter and plainness of style, she found herself approaching taboo areas, chiefly sexuality, in some of her later work, reputedly warning off Quaker friends who might find the fare too rich. Needless to say, such warnings had the opposite effect and most of them found that Thomson Davis’s humanity and ability to empathise outweighed any prurience.

Margaret Thomson Davis married and had two sons, one of whom survives her, along with three grandsons. In later years, she lived in Lenzie. When not absorbed in her own work, she offered generous help to other aspiring writers, believing passionately that writing was a craft that could be learned and always advising would-be writers not to be constrained by their own experience, a reversal of the usual advice to write only about what you know.

“That would be very boring, wouldn’t it?" she said. "The joy of writing is that you find out things you didn’t know. You just have to make sure that they happen in a world that’s real and recognisable. That’s why I check.”