United Kingdom

NEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: ‘I thought, sod your status quo’: the making of Scotland’s new Makar

IT’S lucky that Kathleen Jamie had her booster vaccine before this interview. The Covid shot made her feel a bit dodgy, so she had a “duvet day”. It gave Jamie time to calm her nerves. Just the thought of such public attention makes her anxious.

It’s strange to think of Scotland’s Makar – our national poet – shying away from the spotlight, given she’s just been chosen to represent Scottish culture on the world stage. But Jamie is a very private woman. She wants her work to speak for itself, and would prefer to stay in the background. Jamie also knows that in our intensely politicised, divided nation, her every word will be pored over for perceived bias – particularly as she’s an independence supporter.

Nevertheless, she’s relishing her new role. It’s only three months since she took over as Makar from Jackie Kay, who followed Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan. However, Jamie is clearly still coming to terms with the responsibility of “speaking for Scotland”.

So what makes a Makar? And how can anybody hope to represent a nation so riven with culture wars and irreconcilable differences over the constitution?

Beginnings

Jamie, who is 59, grew up in a pretty standard home in Currie, near Edinburgh “in a Wimpey scheme, the daughter of very ordinary people, certainly not literary people”. Her sister is a banker and her brother a welder.

Her dad was an accountant, and her mother worked in a solicitor’s office. They weren’t poor, they weren’t rich, but her parents wanted a middle-class lifestyle.

“I don’t think I ever had working-class roots,” Jamie says, “my mother saw to that. She was the aspirational one – she wanted the nice house and whatnot.”

Jamie’s parents – now dead – certainly didn’t push her into the literary life. “I was the first of the family to go to university, and, of course, I assume they were proud, but they’d never give you a big hug and say ‘we’re proud of you’. Something I’ve now rectified with my own children.”

She’s cautious of revealing too much about her relationship with her parents. “What I would say is that I’m more close and more at ease with my own children than I was with my parents.”

Jamie sighs and adds: “That generation, they had their problems. There’s a trait of emotional poverty. I think they just didn’t know what to do with their emotions. They were so tamped down, almost paralysed.”

The concept of “emotion” – or lack of it – looms large in Jamie’s conversation.

When discussing what compels her to write, she states: “I am not an emotional person.” The public may be surprised by that, imagining poets as intensely emotional. “Well, they’re wrong,” she says.

Most poets, she adds, are “steely”. What does Jamie mean when she’s says “she’s not emotional”? “I don’t feel …” she pauses. “I very rarely cry. Sometimes I feel exhilarated, but I’m not quite sure what’s meant …” She pauses again. There’s lots of pauses as Jamie searches for the right phrase – a fitting trait for a poet.

“I can’t bear opera,” she continues. “I think ‘what are these people on about’ – I’m not very good with music. I can’t bear classical music. I really don’t like it. It’s just noise.”

It would “be quite nice once in a while”, she says, to experience a bit of emotional overload, like crying at a TV programme or a song.

School years

AT her comprehensive school, Jamie had no inspiring teacher mentoring her to become a writer.

“I saw that Adele moment the other

night when she was weeping over her old English teacher. I wish I could do that,” says Jamie.

Jamie began writing young, though. “For me, it was a secret thing I wouldn’t have admitted to in school,” she says.

“It was a way of getting just some bloody time – space in my own head.

“If you’re living in a small house at a crowded school, it’s hard to find a wee

bit of space for yourself. That’s where I found it.

“Writing gave me a sense that there was a life beyond that which was held out to us, by which I mean I’d a hunch that there was some other way of living that didn’t involve exams, get a job, settle down – that there was an alternative and it became apparent to me that writing might find me a way into that alternative.”

Jamie says she “still requires physical and mental space. That started very young. I need a room of my own and hours on my own in order to keep myself sane”.

How does she feel without that space? “Strung out,” she says.

Jamie’s exam results weren’t enough to get her into university. She left school after fifth year “just not knowing what do with myself”.

She became friends with a bunch of university students and “it began to occur to me that they were more confident than I was but not necessarily cleverer, and I thought maybe I should go to university”.

University

SHE went to night school, worked hard and won a place to read philosophy at Edinburgh. The choice confused her parents who would have preferred her to study “something vocational like law, teaching or medicine – something they’d totally understand”.

Her university years weren’t wild. “I don’t remember partying a lot. I got glandular fever halfway though and that wiped me out for a year. I should’ve done more dancing. That’s my great regret.”

Nevertheless, she shared a flat with a group of eclectic friends – “lesbian separatists and anarchists”. Luck, she says, was waiting quite literally around the corner. A new publisher arrived in Edinburgh and set up shop not far from her digs. Jamie heard this new publisher –Salamander Press – was looking for writers so she bundled together “an envelope full of poems and left it on their doorstep. A couple of weeks later I got a postcard saying ‘let’s publish these’.”

Her first book, Black Spider, was “scattershot”, Jamie says. Nevertheless she was a published poet by 20. Strangely, despite this early success, Jamie has no love for her twenties. “It’s the one decade I wouldn’t go back to. It felt unanchored,” she says.

Lost and found

“I THINK like a lot of people coming out of university, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. My twenties were a difficult time.”

Jamie only began to feel “grounded” in her early to mid-30s when her two children – a boy and a girl – were born. Like the rest of her family, she doesn’t wish to bring them into the public eye. It took some time for her to feel settled as a writer too. She mournfully talks of Rabbie Burns, and his contemporary poet Robert Fergusson, dying young, adding: “I only started to understand what I was about in my late thirties, early forties.”

Her partner – who she also wants to keep out of the spotlight – brings her stability. “He doesn’t take a role in my writing life. He’s not my first reader. He’s a woodworker, a really grounded person who makes, repairs and fixes.”

Politicised poetry

JAMIE’S nervousness for her family is understandable. She has spoken of her support for Scottish independence, and already there have been claims that her appointment is political. The accusation is angrily dismissed. There was no political involvement in her appointment, she says. When it comes to selecting a new Makar, an expert panel of academics and literary figures make a shortlist, pick a name and send it to the First Minister for “rubber-stamping”, says Jamie.

She also bridles at the notion of her writing being political. “Poetry which is issue-led makes for bad art,” she says. The two poems she’s written since becoming Makar – The Morrow-Bird, for the opening of Parliament, and What The Clyde Said, for COP26 – were apolitical, focused on nature and the environment, and “skelped both sides”.

The role of Makar does bring some dividend to the Government, though. “There’s an element of soft diplomacy going on, or that they’d like to go on,” Jamie acknowledges. “One could find oneself making the case for Scottish culture being visible and that would reflect well on Scotland as an entity,” she says finally.

Today, when even “the word ‘Scottish’ is politicised”, she says, it’s clear Jamie worries that her role as Makar will become haunted by the constitution. “There’s a rather sad development in unionism which would seek to deny that there’s such a thing as Scotland or Scottishness. Unionists in the past –think of Walter Scott – would never have done that. Even recently, Scottish Tory ministers would never have pretended there wasn’t a Scotland, only a United Kingdom. So these are being polarised. The very idea that there’s a Scottish nation and Scottish culture is deemed to be politicised which I think is a disaster.”

She remains alert, though, to the risk of being co-opted by any party. Jamie would emphatically say “no … if I was being pushed to be a manifestation of the Scottish ruling party, whoever that was”. She hopes that statement alone takes “some heat” out of unionist concerns that her role is an extension of the SNP. Jamie wasn’t always pro-independence, however. “Like many, it hadn’t much impinged on me until coming up to the referendum. I was very much in favour of devolution and establishing the Scottish Parliament. But when David Cameron said there’d be no third option – no devo max, just independence or the status quo – I thought, well, sod your status quo.”

Scots language

WHAT really gets under her skin is “the politicisation of the Scots language. It’s disastrous, ignorant and profoundly stupid”. She’s incensed by “the idea that the Scots language somehow belongs to pro-independence speakers … If people are thinking of giving up their birthright for some daft political stance, that’s a big ask. Why shouldn’t we have unionists who speak brilliant, glorious Scots?”

She adds: “I deplore the idea that our minority languages are becoming associated with one political persuasion or another. This is a very new development in Scotland, and a really retrograde one.”

Jamie condemns attacks from unionists on the young poet Len Pennie who writes in Scots. “What’s going on there? Why’s there this massive overreaction? Not just to her – we’re having these massive tsunamis of reaction not just about language but anything. We seem to be in a very unhappy place.”

She feels “fear” lies at the heart of so much political anger.

The environment

THE climate crisis, however, “supersedes everything” for Jamie. When it comes to the environment, “if that goes, we all go”, she says. Jamie, who feels COP26 “may have been a failure”, believes independence would allow Scotland to “make the adaptions and changes we need”. Like many today, she’s a little overwhelmed by the craziness of the world.

“What can we do as mere mortals in the middle of all this?” Jamie asks, then answers herself: “Do less harm. It’s incumbent on all of us, whether we’re writers, ballet dancers, gardeners, or doctors.”

“Stasis through fear” is her big worry – that the world is simply too paralysed by “chaos” and “some just retreat into structures they’re familiar with … determined that things must carry on as they are even as they’re failing apart around them”.

There are young people she knows who tell her they don’t want children because of their fears around climate change. It reminds her of the 1980s and her own youth shadowed by nuclear war. “Marching in our thousands, in our half millions, has done nothing. What we need is something much more creative. What might that be?”

With Jamie politically on the left – and a woman who judges Brexit as “just stupid” – she sees a role for socialism when it comes to climate change. She’s not wild about tactics by environmental protesters which target “people just trying to get to work”, adding: “What needs to be done – and some are doing it – is making that connection between climate justice and social justice, between socialism and environmentalism, and understanding that environmentalism isn’t a middle class hobby. If working people can understand it’s them who are going to be impacted at every level – their homes, jobs, wellbeing, kids, everything – it’s time to get angry because they’re being walked over.”

Social media

JAMIE believes poetry can be the “counterweight” to the fury and speed of politics and social media. Poetry, she says, “is a place where language is measured, where deep thought occurs, where nobody is shooting from the hip, and crucially where nuance is still important”. We need a place, she says, “where language hasn’t been corrupted and bastardised”. That’s why the best poets aren’t emotional, she reiterates. “We have to chill. Think clearly. Not overreact. There’s a responsibility as Makar not to be political. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be dragged by the tidal pull of whatever happens politically.”

Identity politics

POETS can’t live in ivory towers unaffected by how society changes, though – which is why Jamie sees Black Lives Matter as “a very important movement”. It was the first protest movement that white people “couldn’t be involved in”. She adds: “It’s coming to me saying ‘have a look at yourself, have a look at your bookshelf’. It’s a fair call.” So many writers on her bookshelf were white. BLM made her realise “I’ve got to do something about that … You can’t have poetry in which not everybody is represented. We need trans people, black people”.

She worries, though, that with the rise of identity politics the concept of “common humanity” is retreating. Her generation “believed that poetry, art, could speak to what was common in all people … Now we’re being taught that perhaps there’s not a common humanity and that we cannot speak”.

BLM, she says, “is teaching us as white people that we cannot assume to know the depth of experience of another person – which is hard to give up.” However, she adds that if we’re “to get out of this environmental mess” we need to balance diversity with unity. “Unity in diversity – that shouldn’t be impossible to obtain,” she adds.

Culture

IF art really can bring people together, that may account for why Jamie is so repelled by the “philistinism” she sees in attacks on liberal arts degrees at university and the political focus on science and technology.

The commercialisation of art doesn’t much worry her, however – like those TV ads with poets performing on behalf of big business. “Do you know how little poets get paid? Not many could afford to turn down 20 grand for writing a few rhymes for a bank.”

Jamie becomes nervous when the conversation turns to her own cultural life. She’s reluctant to even talk about her favourite movie. “I’m squirming here,” she says. Why? “Because I’m completely ignorant.” When it comes to culture beyond writing, she’s “just a punter like everyone else”.

She’s not even very comfortable talking about her favourite writers although recently she’s been reading a lot of non-fiction which puts “rapacious capitalism” in the dock. Jamie’s “beginning to think” that we need to “dismantle capitalism”.

Validation

THERE’S a seam of very Scottish reserve, even humility, in Jamie. The idea of becoming Makar made her “uncomfortable being a figurehead of any sort … but I couldn’t turn it down, it’s the biggest honour the country has. So I couldn’t say no, and I didn’t want to say no. I accepted it and was a bit fearful of being a public person.”

The notion of being the representative of Scottish literature clearly intimidates Jamie a little. The shadows of very public poets, like Ireland’s Seamus Heaney, whom she idolises, loom large. “He knew what the role of poetry was in society –and could express it. He was the last great poet – I wonder if there’ll be another?”

Jamie seems unable to countenance putting herself in the same bracket as writers like Heaney despite her success, and admits that she once “couldn’t see the value” in her own poetry. Becoming Makar, though, changed her mind. “To have that confirmed was wonderful,” Jamie says, and a look of real happiness crosses her face.



NEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: ‘I thought, sod your status quo’: the making of Scotland’s new Makar SourceNEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: ‘I thought, sod your status quo’: the making of Scotland’s new Makar

Back to top button