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Kay’s Portraits – Scottish Review of Books
by Todd McEwen

Kay’s Portraits

June 8, 2012 | by Todd McEwen

A few years back, the social critic Judith Williamson wrote a despairing essay in which she described how it was becoming possible for young girls to exist in a parallel world, a non-world made entirely of pop music, dreams about hair and sexual fantasy. That was before celebrity culture and the web made this our grisly daily nightmare. In the first story in this intimate, generous, optimistic and highly artistic collection, Jackie Kay gives us a woman in just such a situation.

Stef is, or imagines herself to be, on a scary, high-energy ‘reality’ cooking show. In her ‘to-camera’ monologue she describes to us not only the hip dishes she makes (there’s Gorgonzola in everything – this book has the best use of runny cheese since More Pricks Than Kicks), but also her longing to lose weight through consuming them. Painful worries about weight, appearance, smoking and drinking pervade these stories in a kind of litany – reinforcement of the idea that all of us, but particularly women, have their brains constantly tumbled about these things in a very unserious and toxic way. Stef’s talk is peppered with phrases from TV and garbagey magazines (‘Today was day one of My Big Week’), creating a recognisable and even appealing mixture of self-knowledge and media-fuelled naïveté. She’s a mixture of sadness and perkiness, such as one often encounters in those in their twenties, intellectually adrift in the Land of the Coalition.

The use of the concept, the word ‘reality’, is skewed in Stef’s head: she’s so alone it’s like she’s talking to herself. She imagines that the blinking red light on her burglar alarm is that of the TV camera, and begins to have a psychotic interaction with the now unsmiling chefs on her ‘programme’, whom she believes have turned against her. This is crazy, superb stuff, and it rings so true – as in the chilling, falsely ‘interactive’ soap opera in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. ‘You’ve let yourself down!’ is the judgement of the show; ‘I haven’t realised my dream’ is what Stef tells herself with equal ferocity. She gets ratty with these shadowy cooks – ‘Is it because I didn’t do snail porridge?’ – and descends into a rueful whiskyed stupor, as usual, one suspects, the night before she has to go back to her job, which stinks, like all the jobs in the book. Need any more be said about the unhelpfulness of television? It’s a funny and sad picture of the way far too many people live: people without books, in fact. Culture and the lack of it is a theme that Kay weaves in and out of the collection. You will also learn here about the ‘culinary equivalents of dog poo’.

‘These Are Not My Clothes’ is a poetic, imaginative triumph. It’s a monologue by Margaret, a woman in a care facility who is probably suffering the early stages of dementia, though we’re never really to know.

There’s something a little demented about the carers and the regime too, of course, and messages from the outside world aren’t any too clear either. In a dissection of consciousness and memory, we are reminded to ask ourselves what we believe to be the dividing lines between insight, art and loopiness. If you were confined in such a place, against your will, and you thought the trees outside were waving for help, would you be dotty? Or would you be a poet? Margaret projects her thoughts, almost all of which are cogent,
onto other people and things. There’s a real poignancy to her attachment to what she can see from her window:

‘Even the crocuses, yes the crocuses, are nodding their tiny heads in the wind. The bench still has nobody sitting on it and has bowed its head too; it is staring at something I can’t see, maybe a book. Maybe the bench is reading a book. Maybe the bench is reading Madame Bovary – that was the name of a book I once read, Madame Bovary. It was written by Flaubert. Maybe the bench is French.’

There are echoes here and everywhere of the sadness in Violette Leduc and the game-girlness of Stevie Smith. Margaret thinks, remembers, and also observes, with a grand uniqueness. When the matrons tell the patients that they no longer need to know what time it is, she is shocked: ‘But nobody registered anything on their faces. Their faces were like the empty bowls, lined and ridged with the remains of things.’ Mar-garet hatches a plot not to escape the place but to acquire something of her own which will allow her to feel like herself again. She’s thwarted in this by circumstance and the meanness of the institution, and it’s heartbreaking.

‘The First Lady of Song’ plays in a kind of American, elegiac tone, rather like living in a Wallace Stevens poem. It is the life story of a songstress who is over 300 years old (she was a scientific ‘experiment’ of her father’s – there’s a nice smidgen of magical realism running through this book). It is at once a positing of the eternal female, a demand that femininity be accepted as the bedrock of existence, and a fairy tale. Elina has, in her three centuries, sung every kind of music there is, and had lots of kids (‘Some of my children are a blur, but the pianos are vivid’). She cannot feel affection anymore until she manages to begin to age. She does this by paying a lot of money for a formula left by her father (who’s continued to hold power over her life). Freed of this ‘spell’, she makes a friend and begins, at last, to go grey. There are telling asides on history, particularly the Sixties and the subsequent wholesale abandonment of artistic and political passions.

When you read a writer like this, who knows instinctively and intellectually how to use language, whatever her subject, it’s like turning your face up to spring rain. A parent’s disordered mind is represented by a missing letter on a typewriter: ‘The trut was I was terrified, terrified of losing my mot er…’. A pregnant girl feels her child: ‘She flipped and flashed like a fish.’ There is delight in simple, off-hand word play, half-rhyming and alliteration: ‘Pear drops? Teardrops, more like. Crème brûlée? Cry baby.’ You wonder why other prose isn’t like this, why other organs are missing all these stops. There are several different kinds of stories here: most are fully formed and tailored, some a little less, and several aren’t stories so much as glimpses of stories, or lives – and quite satisfying at that. There’s one about the first two women to marry each other in Shetland, notable for a joyful enumeration of the textures and foods of the wedding lunch, and how unease is overcome through a discussion of the sex life of oysters.

One of Kay’s effective narrative techniques is to abandon us just at the point when something crucial is going to happen. After a while you realise that you’re constantly expecting the worst. And why is that? What is the matter with you? In the story ‘Hadassah’, she uses this to portray a small but effective and extremely moving rebellion among some prostitutes. There’s even a ghost story or two – one along MR James lines, but even scarier, as it involves real madness and not just Edwardian flapdoodle.

Puzzlingly, there are a couple of duds. There is a story about smoking and one about weight loss that seem lectury and less deep than the others. They are all the more noticeable because everywhere else Kay writes without artifice, self-consciousness, or the blazon of ‘message’. Yet in ‘Mini Me’, it feels as though she donned a fat suit to write it –it’s hindering her acting ability. These stories are ventriloquial, yes, but fresh on the subjects of dieting and addiction, no. ‘Mini Me’ is also written in a strange kind of Scots – it reads like an inadept translation of a Jackie Kay story into Scots. Many of the spelling conventions are ignored – fair enough, it’s demotic speech – but to confuse the spellings of ‘cannae’ and ‘canny’ and so on is just confusing.

There’s a lot of sex, winningly done: sweet, raunchy and even funny. Lovers are too loud, or can’t be heard at all, they exert ‘lesbian dictatorships’, they appear, disappear and reappear years later with beguiling, baffling unpredictability and charm. There’s a really amusing story, ‘Bread Bin’, about how one relates to one’s own orgasmic history as one grows older. Thoughts on how sex itself ages as we do: ‘I often see secretly smiling sixty-year-olds when I’m out and about.’

The book is full of sly humour – one of its ticklesome pleasures is that in reaching for a name for an utter fool, she pulls Nick Clegg out of the hat each time. However the last story, ‘The Winter Visitor’, is appropriately chilly and chilling, full of subtle echoes from many of the others. An elderly woman cannot any more identify the person who periodically arrives in her house to help her: ‘She is coming for me and there is nothing I can do’ – the carer, if that’s what she is, is Death, too.

Reality, Reality is a pointed wander through the stages of life we all know to be there, with digressions and reminiscences, a recognition of life’s shortness but also that childhood and youth may be recalled as succour. Despite the tribulations deliberately set down in the lives of women, that these cruel and unnecessary agonies over looks, pleasure, health and self-worth can crush, there is optimism, strength and sweetness: ‘There’s nothing like the old excitement of girls.’


Jackie Kay
PICADOR, 239pp, £12.99 246PP, ISBN: 9781447217565

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