Jackie Kay: Scotland’s poet of the people
The Guardian, by Kevin McKenna
To say there was a national outpouring of joy at the appointment of Jackie Kay as Scotland’s makar last week might be overdoing it, but not by much. In previous decades, perhaps, not many beyond bearded and ponytailed literary circles might even have known the identity of a new makar or even the purpose of the post. The profile and efforts of the two previous incumbents, Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead, though, have helped to raise awareness of the position so that it has begun to insinuate itself into our national life.
Following the appointment of Kay as Scotland’s national poet last Tuesday, a press colleague who had interviewed her was simply thrilled. “She’s just wonderful; she’ll make people read poetry and write poetry who have never done so before.” The words were spoken in a tone that suggested he had touched the great woman’s hem.
The story of Kay’s life has also travelled well beyond the salons of the literati: her adoption as a baby by a Glasgow couple; her childhood in douce Bishopbriggs, just north of the city, and her subsequent rise to become one of the UK’s finest and best-loved literary figures. “Her poetry achieves that joyful and rare thing,” one literary commentator said last week. “It is of high literary merit and also accessible to even those who may not have encountered poetry before.”
Kay has said that she was “blessed’” that she and her brother were adopted by John and Helen, and that they gave her such a loving and normal childhood. Her poem George Square conveys this as well as the quiet affection of old age and a hint of the politics at the heart of these relationships.
My seventy-seven-year-old father
put his reading glasses on
to help my mother do the buttons
on the back of her dress.
“What a pair the two of us are!”
my mother said, “Me with my sore wrist,
you with your bad eyes, your soft thumbs!”
And off they went, my two parents
to march against the war in Iraq,
him with his plastic hips. Her with her arthritis,
waved at each other like old friends, flapping,
where they’d met for so many marches over their years,
for peace on earth, for pity’s sake, for peace, for peace.
Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh in 1961 to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father whereupon she was given up for adoption. John and Helen had adopted Kay’s brother, Maxwell, two years earlier. Many years later, she located her biological father and made plans to meet him while harbouring some anxiety as to how this might be received by her adoptive parents who had given her and her brother so much. She has referred to this as a “kind of adultery”.
She needn’t have worried, though, as they both told her simply to go ahead and do what she had to do. She met her birth mother, too, in 1991 and has recalled how Helen Kay constantly told her that this woman must love her too and miss her every day.
As Kay’s aforementioned poem George Square suggests, her adoptive parents were leftwing activists and, for a while, members of the Communist party. There was no suggestion, though, of a young child being politically indoctrinated. Indeed, the writer David Aaronovitch, who was raised by communist parents, compares his childhood in that respect unfavourably with Kay’s, whose formative years were reassuringly normal and free from adult manipulation.
In her memoir, Red Dust Road, she addresses her adoption. “I am only alone in the way that everybody is alone. And yet it seems that the bundle of child that is wrapped up in the ghostly shawl of adoption does have another layer of aloneness wrapped up in there.” Yet her love for John and Helen, and her gratitude to them, is never far from her work.
Alan Taylor, the literary critic and editor of the Scottish Review of Books, said: “Jackie has talked often about how blessed she feels she is at having been adopted by John and Helen. They really are a lovely couple and if you knew them you would know what it is to carry on a love affair with the same person for 60-odd years. They are a bright, warm and welcoming couple and it’s always a joy to be in their company. You can see where Jackie gets her lust for life and living from when you meet them. With Jackie there are never any silences because she always wants to talk. She is one of the warmest and most engaging people I’ve ever met.”
There are worse places to be brought up in than Bishopbriggs, a commuter-belt town that is home to many who might aspire to middle management and a seat on the golf club committee. It has good schools. Jackie’s parents had interesting friends and hosted the sort of parties that would end with a mixture of old Scottish folk songs and Dean Martin.
The tawdry disappointment of racism, though, stalked her childhood. Most people of Kay’s generation who were brought up in the west of Scotland may never have encountered a black person until adulthood, so the sense of isolation and otherness of a black child would have been far more acute then than it is today. Multiculturalism in 1960s Scotland was having a lad called Luigi in your class at school.
She addresses this in her 1991 poetry collection The Adoption Papers:
I chase his Sambo Sambo all the way from the school gate.
A fistful of anorak – What did you call me? Say that again.
Sam-bo. He plays the word like a bouncing ball
but his eyes move fast as ping pong.
I shove him up against the wall,
say that again you wee shite. Sambo, sambo, he’s crying now.
She had initially wanted to be an actress but a teenage meeting with the great Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, whose novel Lanark is among the finest works of Scottish fiction, convinced her that her future lay in writing. She studied English at the then unfashionable Stirling University and it was here that she began to write poetry seriously. In 1992, The Adoption Papers won the Saltire Society Scottish first book award. The collection marked her out as a writer of vivid wit, depth and sensitivity by giving voice to an adoptive and a biological mother and the mixed-race child between them. Other awards followed, including the Somerset Maugham award and the Guardian fiction prize. Each of them was proof that she was now a towering literary figure unafraid to address issues such as race, gender and sexuality head on, but with affection for the human condition.
In Red Dust Road, she describes a motorcycle accident that, she says, “made her write”, and in an interview in the latest edition of the Scottish Review of Books she expands on this. “I think the acknowledgment of the closeness of life to death is often the catapult that makes a writer write. Writers have often been created during a period of illness; it gives you another way of seeing time. A brush with death is sobering and can make you value life in a different way, particularly if it comes when you are young. It is almost as if you write to assert that you’re alive.”
Kay is gay and had a 15-year relationship with fellow poet Carol Ann Duffy. She had a son, Matthew, while in her 20s with the writer Fred D’Aguiar. And though she’s lived in Manchester for many years now, she doesn’t feel that this diminishes her Scottishness: “You don’t need to live in Scotland to be Scottish, to have the language, to have a Scottish heart and a Scottish sensibility. If anything, it can heighten those senses.”
Kay was unveiled as Scotland’s third makar at Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh and said that she wanted to “open up the conversations, the blethers, the arguments and celebrations that Scotland has with itself and with the rest of the world”. In an interview with the Guardian’s Libby Brooks, she talked about Scotland’s recent political renaissance, saying that it was “an extraordinary time to be Scottish”.
“It was a really exciting time to be living through and it continues to be. As a poet, you have a relationship with your country all of the time. I think Scotland is finding a way to have a really interesting conversation with itself, but also we are looking outwards to the world.”
Kay will take poetry into classrooms, factories and prisons and she will take it out into the street. It is a great time to be Scottish, but this is a woman who will make it a great time to be writing poetry too.
THE KAY FILE
Born Jackie Kay, 9 November 1961, in Edinburgh. Her biological parents – a Scottish mother and Nigerian father – gave her up for adoption to a Glasgow couple.
Best of times She has a clutch of literary prizes that span her entire working life from the Eric Gregory award in 1991 to the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust book of the year award in 2011. She was made MBE in 2006 and is currently professor of creative writing at Newcastle University.
Worst of times Finally meeting her biological father only to discover that he believed her birth was the embodiment of his sin and wanted to know what lesbians did in bed together.
What she says “I think of a story as something you can pass down, like blood or genes. Family mythologies are as important as family heirlooms, and they become part of a family’s identity.”
What others say “She makes great poetry and soon she will have others making poetry too.” Alan Taylor. “She is a much-loved poet and author in Scotland and beyond, and her work sometimes deals with challenging subjects, and she has a particularly Scottish brand of humour.”