I knew the secret of this book before I read it. Joss Moody, jazz trumpeter, extraordinaire is really a woman. So what, I thought. I also thought it would be set in some seedy jazz country called New York. But it’s not, it’s set in London, Glasgow and Torr and spans about sixty years from the early fifties. And I’d guess, from reading Red Dust Road, it’s the kind of quiet place and space that Jackie Kay’s parents John and Ellen, who live in Townhead, Glasgow, piled in a car and took her and her brother on holiday. Both were black kids adopted by a white working- class couple whose religion was communism. I really liked John and Ellen Kay and was glad to read an update on how they were keeping in an article Jackie wrote for The Observer. Jackie makes no secret of being a lesbian. Her Nigerian birth father took a prurient interest in the mechanics of sex between women when Jackie met him in the Hilton Hotel in Abuja. For the record, there’s not much sex in Trumpet, but there is the glitter of loving and the question of whether we can really know somebody.
The location of the book is largely a Scotland I’m familiar with, but the impetus for the book Jackie Kay tells the reader in the Afterword is Billy Tipton, a musician that had been married three times and only after his death was he discovered to be a she. In Trumpet this is shown, with the undertaker and the doctor who signed the death certificate also making this strange discovery, that the he is a she. Clothes make the man, but death leaves everyone naked and an open book. None of his wives had known Billy Tipton was a woman, had me reaching for the aye-right-pal-you’re-pulling-my-leg pills, but in Trumpet Joss Moody’s wife and widow, Millie does know, but doesn’t care. Millie was ‘a fearless girl,’ that came to Torr and ‘climbed rocks, ran down the hills and dug graves for my brothers till the tide came in’. I imagine this is the way it was for Jackie Kay, the reader, looking for the writer in the fictional text. Millie loves the man/woman the person that blows her trumpet, regardless of gender. The Joss Moody she fell in love with is the woman she has sex with three times a week and often on a Sunday. The engine of the story is Coleman, Joss and Millie’s adopted son’s outrage at his father’s deception. Like Jackie and her brother Coleman is adopted and he is black like their seafaring father. But one of Billy Tipton’s adopted sons is quoted as saying: ‘He will always be Daddy to me’. That encapsulates a world.
The structure of the book, the reader is told in the afterword, is like jazz. I’ll take the author’s word for that. ‘Riffs and solos and some characters would appear and let rip and then disappear.’
A chapter, for example, titled, ‘People: The Old School Friend’ features May Hart. May has a dream about an old school friend Josephine Moore that she went to school with in Greenock. She had a school photograph of her. Josephine was the only coloured one in the class. ‘A very pretty girl. Beautiful teeth. Lovely smile.’ For some clothes make the man, for May it’s teeth that make the man or woman. Journalist,Sophie Stones ‘ has horrible teeth…too large for her mouth and one slightly discoloured’ and May has come to realise her husband was jealous of her teeth, made her have a bottom set of falsers fitted and she hated him for that. May is not going to tell Sophie Stone that she had a schoolgirl crush on Josephine and that they had kissed. Nor is she willing to help her with her expose of the man that was really a woman, because someone with teeth like Sophie can’t be trusted.
Coleman, of course, doesn’t know who to trust. Sophie Stone is offering him the opportunity to tell his side of the story and he’ll make some money from it. His anger drives him to agree, but love, there’s a thing.
A widow’s a widow in anyone’s language. I found that out today when I was talking about cutting down a fir tree but when I asked why her husband didn’t do it. And I’d one of those ‘did you not hear’ moments. Tam Gallacher dead, who was usually puttering about the front garden and whom I usually spent a few minutes talking mainly about books (he liked Aldous Huxley). Small world. Trumpet is told from different points of view, call it jazz if you like. It’s Jackie Kay’s first novel. It won an award and is marketed as ‘classic’. A classic for me is something that makes me a better person and finds a space in my heart. This books is OK, but it doesn’t do that. It’s the kind of book I’d read on a plane in one gulp and leave the paperback in the seat.