Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Middle age? Bring it on

At the age of 43, in a hotel  in Abuja, Nigeria,  Jackie Kay had her first and only encounter with  Jonathan, her birth father.  After  decades wondering about his identity,  she  had found him  by the miracle of Google, a  prominent  ethnobotanist in his working life, and a full-time evangelical zealot.   

The poet  is grinning as she describes the  scenario to her  audience at a  reading in Glasgow.   Jonathan, it turned out was ashamed  of his long-lost daughter’s existence, the personification  of his past sins, and agreed to meet her only if she would allow to perform a religious rite in private.
And so it came to pass, chuckles Kay, that she finally found herself in a cramped bedroom, with this strange man waving, dancing, and shouting all around her:  “Oh God Almighty!  Oh God Almighty! We welcome Jackie Kay to Nigeria.  She has crossed the water.  She has landed on African soil for the very first time. Thank you God Almighty!”    
And then, hoots  Kay,  he was off,  whirling, twirling around the hotel room for the best part of two hours.  She remembers he  was “incredibly speedy”  for a man of 73, but that wasn’t the only surprise. when he kicked  off his shoes  she had a flash of genetic recognition: she had inherited his toes.
The story she recounts is from Red Dust Road,  the autobiography she published last year.  In that book, she set  out to reconcile her  childhood cocooned in the loving home of her adopted parents, with the baby girl, given away at birth by her natural mother, a Highland nurse who had slept with the younger Jonathan, when he was a student.     
Her  new volume of poems, Fiere, from the Scots word for companion, is literally that, the  companion piece to her memoir.  The title should be pronounced “Fear”, but  from Kay’s mouth it comes out as “Feary”.    “Better rhymes”, she explains with her huge grin.
In person, Kay  proves to be a force of nature. She effortlessly persuades  a friend in the front row to sing a Burns song to a room full of strangers. A little later, tears spring from the eyes of her audience, when she describes the evening in 1969, when,  as a girl of seven , she asked Helen, her mother, why they didn’t share the same skin colour.  The answer – “because you were adopted” – left  both mother and daughter weeping.  
If some of these stories would melt a heart of stone,  Kay also reveals an unsentimental side.    She wearies of questions about her private life, and  her 15 year-relationship with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, whom she lived with in Manchester. 
In Red Dust Road, she had planned a chapter on this lost love, but in the end reduced her account to a sentence.  In Fiere, Duffy is referred to directly in a single line, which records the fact that the pair remain good friends.  Kay’s new  lover  - she is not named - is celebrated at greater length, in her whole poem of her own, Valentine.
Ever since she was a child, people have been quick to emphasise the differences that seem to surround Kay. She was racially abused as a child, growing up in Glasgow, and later even endured a brief awkwardness with Helen when she came out as lesbian. In her first collection, the Adoption Papers, Kay went questing for a sense of identity,  but  in conversation after her reading, she won’t accept notion that she is any more concerned with the subject than other  authors.
 “All writers carve out a piece of turf for themselves, and they re-evaluate it again and again, exactly as I do,”  she says.  “For some reason, there is more attention on me, because the territory that I’m exploring is more specific.  In actual fact, lots of writer do it: Sarah Waters writes about identity; Dickens wrote about identity; so did George Eliot.   Who we are? Why are we here?  These are the big  questions, I suppose.
“ I would quite like people to read the Adoption Papers, Red Dust Road and Fiere all together.  They are all different aspects of one central question: what makes us who we are.”
In her  new collection, she shows the ability to transcends every chain that might confine her.  A few of these poems imagine her life as it might have been.  In Granite, she fantasises about  the courtship of her natural parents  while  Longitude conjures up her holding hands with an imagined African twin, “two young lassies, /the breeze on our light-dark faces.”     Other poems have  a harder edge. The absurd Jonathan, in real life too ashamed  of his youthful  to introduce Kay to his own family, is put away by one entitled  Burying My African Father. 
The  cumulative effect is to make clear that nurture, not nature, has  focussed this poet’s eye.   A couple of the 40 or so titles here are for Matthew, her own grown-up son, but the most touching and delightful f of Kay’s  poems  celebrate her “real mum and dad” John and Helen, the Socialist couple who  raised her. These poems drip with love.
In    85th Birthday Poem for Dad, in one verse she has her father  skimming  across a dance floor like Fred Astaire. In the next he is invoking Tom Paine and the Rights of Man: “Nobility is not hereditary, aye”.  In Windows, Lakes, she smiles at her mother’s yearning  for a house with a bay window: “Imagine – sitting in the sun and reading a Simenon – heaven!”
The warmth of the language is a debt repaid. “The thing you need in life, above anything else   is to know that you are loved,” says Kay, with an urgency in her voice. “You  need to know that as soon as possible when you are a boy or girl! If you don’t have love, you don’t have the confidence to find out who you are.  I can only write about all these things because I got that love.”    
What makes Kay even more fortunate is her parents have maintained their vigorous health down all these years. It means that she herself has been able to mature without the pain of parental loss and embrace the joys  – yes the joys, she shrieks -  of middle age.   
 Look at like this: you get a bit like a cow, don’t you?  “Cows have pivotal vision,” she says, by way of explanation. “You get to that point in life when it feels pivotal, that same  sense of vision.  As a child you see straight ahead; as an older person, you look behind.  Your vision in middle age is to look both ways.  You can see back and forward.
“Some people are frightened of being 50, but I think ‘Bring it on.’   To know what it is like to have 80-year-old parents; to remember what it’s like to have childhood friends; to be bang there, filled with all this extra emotion that comes from being your age.  It’s almost as if your heart is full, because you are looking backwards and forwards in equal measure.”
There is an obvious down side. Now her parents sit in the back of her car, when they go driving with their daughter.   “The tables turn around, and you notice it happening,” says Kay.   
She has just driven to Glasgow from Manchester, a journey she has made a thousand times and more. “There is something about crossing the border, but today the light was exceptional, “ she says. “As I was driving I was thinking how would I feel if I was coming to Scotland and  mum and dad were no longer alive.   
“All the time, the weather went from sun to fog to sleet, it was like the thoughts in my head.  I have a poem, The Shoes of Dead Comrades, which is about anticipating my dad’s death.  He  don’t like it,  He said, ‘I bloody die in it.’  But I am petrified of them dying.  It’s up ahead of you.  It’s stupid thing but it almost affects the quality of your life now.”
Kay has already has spelt out were consolation lies in the title of her book. Fiere is dedicated to the novelist, Ali Smith. She  was the rock when Kay’s relationship with Duffy died,   the constant voice of consolation, whose steadfastness  is recalled in  one of the sequence of Fiere poems that form the spine of this book.  Fiere in the Middle is among the finest of this collection, and there, in the final  couplet, is Kay’s core belief:   Should you be lost in the middle years . . ./ the true fieres appear: able, sound, equally good.”

* The article appeared in The Times Weekend Review, 22 January 2011