The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - “In the mid­dle of the jour­ney of our life I found my­self within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.” In­ferno, Dante

The Makar Jackie Kay gives Teddy Jamieson the low­down on pol­i­tics, po­etry and par­ent­ing

RE­ALLY, I should start with an apol­ogy. The fact is Jackie Kay caught me on a bad day. Up­stairs and into the Grass­mar­ket restau­rant, I bring my maudlin gripes, mid­dleaged angst and the odd quote from Dante and dump it all out on the ta­ble. Maybe it’s be­cause the Makar has one of those voices that could soothe an an­gry vol­cano and comes across as warm enough to be a fac­tor in cli­mate change. Maybe I’m hop­ing she will make every­thing bet­ter.

Or maybe it’s be­cause I’ve met her a cou­ple of times, know she’s roughly the same age as me and might know all about what it feels to be at this point in our lives. Not an ab­so­lute begin­ner. Not (one hopes) near any sort of end­ing yet. But aware that there’s more be­hind than in front of us.

And so I’m only five min­utes in the door be­fore I’m quot­ing Dante’s In­ferno at her. The ques­tion is, Jackie, is that how you see your own mid-fifties?

“They feel chiaroscuro, th­ese years,” Kay ad­mits as we wait for our risotti. “A mix­ture of light and dark. If you’re lucky enough to have your par­ents alive, as I have, they feel in­cred­i­bly blessed. But on the other hand there’s an in­cred­i­ble stress to hav­ing older par­ents, and to the in­ten­sity and loud­ness of the tick­ing clock.

“Your sense of time be­comes re­ally height­ened in your mid­dle years and it is pos­si­ble to get lost in a Dante-es­que way in the mid­dle of the dark for­est, be­cause mid­dle age is one of th­ese times where you don’t ac­tu­ally see your­self. You be­come cu­ri­ously in­vis­i­ble in mid­dle age.”

She pauses, looks at me and smiles. “Per­haps it’s not the same if you’re a man.”

If it wasn’t such an in­vid­i­ous la­bel, I’d be happy to sug­gest Jackie Kay is a na­tional trea­sure. Poet, nov­el­ist, short story writer, owner of the big­gest smile in Scot­land, she is a plea­sure to spend time with (even if the feel­ing might not al­ways be mu­tual).

Although she spends half her time in Manch­ester, Kay is, you could cer­tainly ar­gue, a sym­bol of the new Scot­land. Born to a Nige­rian fa­ther and a High­land nurse, Kay is the adopted daugh­ter of a Com­mu­nist white cou­ple, John and He­len Kay. She grew up in Bish­op­briggs on the edge of Glas­gow and in a world of ca­sual racism. The colour of her skin and the fact she was gay and (even worse) a fem­i­nist have been held against her at some point or an­other.

And yet here she is, the coun­try’s Makar, some­one who is wel­comed into town hall and knit­ting club the coun­try over. But then as she says the coun­try it­self has changed hugely from the one she grew up in and opted to leave.

“It’s sur­pris­ing to think how Scot­land is chang­ing and the sense of con­fi­dence in Scot­land; the sense of dif­fer­ence from Eng­land. That feels quite strong at the mo­ment.”

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