JACKIE KAY ON THE CHALLENGES OF BEING AN OPTIMIST AND WHY SHE LOVES BEING THE MAKAR
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.”