Sunday, 24 July 2016

Jackie Kay, Scotland's new Makar

Jackie Kay is a poet and novelist. Her many awards include the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Scottish Book of the Year Award. Her books include the novel Trumpet; her memoir Red Dust Road; Reality, Reality (short stories); and the poetry collections, Fiere and The Maw Broon Monologues.

On March 15th 2016, it was announced that Jackie Kay is to be Scotland's next Makar, our official national poet. The position of national laureate, entitled the Scots Makar, was established by the Scottish Parliament in 2004. That year Edwin Morgan received the honour to become Scotland's first Makar. He was succeeded in 2011 by Liz Lochhead.

'A poem is a little moment of belief'

"Scotland has shown that it can be a player on the world stage and has shown the world that it can do different things. I’m really looking forward to engaging politically and socially in all sorts of different ways to make poetry have an active and exciting role in our national conversation.”

‘Between the Dee and the Don’

I will stand not in the past or in the future
not in the foreground or the background;
not as the first child or the last child.
I will stand alone in the middle ground.
I was conceived between the Dee and the Don.
I was born in the city of crag and stone.
I am not a daughter to one father.
I am not a sister to one brother.
I am light and dark.
I am father and mother.
I was conceived between the Dee and the Don.
I was born in the city of crag and stone.
I am not forgiving and I am not cruel.
I will not go against one side.
I am not wise or a fool.
I was not born yesterday.
I was conceived between the Dee and the Don.
I was born in the city of crag and stone.
I can say tomorrow is another day tomorrow.
I come from the old world and the new.
I live between laughter and sorrow.
I live between the land and the sea.
I was conceived between the Dee and the Don.
I was born in the city of crag and stone.
from ‘Fiere’ (London: Picador, 2011)

Jackie was conceived in Aberdeen and born in Edinburgh. After adoption by Helen and John Kay, she was brought up in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow. Her first book, The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe 1991), won the Forward Prize, a Saltire prize and a Scottish Arts Council Prize. She was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002. Her book of stories Wish I Was Here won the Decibel British Book Award. She also writes for children and her Red Cherry Red (Bloomsbury) won the CLYPE award. She has written extensively for stage and television. Her most recent play Manchester Lines (produced by Manchester Library Theatre) was a great success. She is currently working on a new novel, Bystander. She is Chancellor at the University of Salford and Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

Trumpet was published in 1998. Legendary jazz trumpet player Joss Moody dies at the beginning of the novel. The coroner discovers that he has breasts and a vagina.
The reason Joss lived life in such a way remains a mystery; Jackie avoids any stereotyping. Instead she highlights a passionate person with secrets, someone who didn't easily fit into either of two distinct forms - masculine and feminine. Much of Jackie's work explores what it means to be human and the complexities of identity. Jackie drew inspiration from the real-life story of Billy Tipton in the writing of Trumpet.

On 2nd September 2015 Jackie presented readings from her books at the lunchtime Culture Club in Aberdeen. Jackie is a consummate performer who could easily have found success if she had pursued teenage plans to become an actress. She gets her warm spirit, humour and modesty in part from Helen and John, her Mum and Dad, those proud parents in the Scottish Poetry Library when her national laureate appointment was announced. The baby whom they had brought home in a basket in 1962 had become Scots Makar in 2016. Knowing them all, I imagine that they were all pretty ambivalent when Jackie was awarded the MBE in 2006.

Jackie's talk in Aberdeen was peppered with past examples of less than flattering reactions to her work, which provoked mirth from her fans in Aberdeen's Music Hall - 'F you, Jackie, with your shite poetry' and 'You made my High School education unbearable'. On one occasion at a talk, she invited questions from the audience to be asked how much she weighed!  After the Culture Club, Jackie signed books, got tagged in photos and met her fans.


'My mum is on a high bed next to sad chrysanthemums.
‘Don’t bring flowers, they only wilt and die.’
I am scared my mum is going to die
on the bed next to the sad chrysanthemums.

She nods off and her eyes go back in her head.
Next to her bed is a bottle of Lucozade.
‘Orange nostalgia, that’s what that is,’ she says.
‘Don’t bring Lucozade either,’ then fades.

‘The whole day was a blur, a swarm of eyes.
Those doctors with their white lies.
Did you think you could cheer me up with a Woman’s Own?
Don’t bring magazines, too much about size.’

My mum wakes up, groggy and low.
‘What I want to know,’ she says,’ is this:
where’s the big brandy, the generous gin, the Bloody Mary,
the biscuit tin, the chocolate gingers, the dirty big meringue?’

I am sixteen; I’ve never tasted a Bloody Mary.
‘Tell your father to bring a luxury,’ says she.
‘Grapes have no imagination, they’re just green.
Tell him: stop the neighbours coming.’

I clear her cupboard in Ward 10B, Stobhill Hospital.
I leave, bags full, Lucozade, grapes, oranges,
sad chrysanthemums under my arms,
weighted down. I turn round, wave with her flowers.

My mother, on her high hospital bed, waves back.
Her face is light and radiant, dandelion hours.
Her sheets billow and whirl. She is beautiful.
Next to her the empty table is divine.

I carry the orange nostalgia home singing an old song.'


'No one looks at the whole of me,’ my mum says. How the NHS is breaking apart'  Her Mum's local hospital was once state of the art, but now it creaks, with over-full wards and over-worked staff.

'The dead don't go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.'
From ‘Darling: New and Selected Poems ‘(Bloodaxe Books, 2007)


'So no room at the Inn,

No snowy winter chalet.

No holiday in Chamonix,

Just a caravan for Calais.

A tin roof in the wind,

A safe chamber on Christmas day,

A shelter from the melee,

A caravan for Calais.

Away from the din,

Above the flooding malaise,

Safe from the night raids

In a caravan for Calais.

The world’s kith and kin,

Stowed-away in lorries.

No rest for the weary -

But a caravan for Calais.'

I found the following links to be relevant and of interest.

World War I project - a collaboration titled 'Fierce Light'

Interview by JP O'Malley in the Bottle Imp

2010 interview with Helen Brown: 'Red Dust Road'

'The literary life of Jackie Kay' - Kevin Crowe writes in KaleidoScot

“Her further books – Other Lovers (1993), Off Colour (1998), Life Mask (2005), Darling (2007), Fiere (2011) and Reality, Reality (2012) – take her in all sorts of directions: public and personal, exploring politics and language, geography and history, motherhood, falling in love, racism, prejudice, pride, popular culture, Shakespeare, Scotland and Africa.'   'Scotland’s new Makar - standing up for poetry' - Anni Donaldson

'Not a hint of schmaltz as new Makar Jackie Kay expresses a love of love': Alan Taylor

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