Lena Dunham (2014) Not That Kind Of Girl.

‘A young woman tells you what she’s “learned”.  Learned is kinda ironic, I guess. I’m Scottish, not sure who Lena Dunham is, but it tells me on the cover she’s the Creator and Star of HBO’s Girls. That helps. I imagine it’s a successful comedy franchise in America and it involves Girls. When I check her biography I find her show has won a stack of international awards and she has too. Lucky her. I guess that goes with the territory of the American Dream.  I’m Not clued-up, or That Kind Of Girl either. In fact, I’m a guy. The cynic in me asks if an unsuccessful and unknown called Lena Somethingelse had submitted the same manuscript for publication, well, would she be laughing now? Would we?

I quickly read through the book, missing out bits about dieting. Like reading an ex-girlfriend’s diary, (sorry about that Jackie Reid) or her copy of Cosmopolitan. I liked Dunham’s parents in the same way I liked reading about the Scottish Makar (Poet Laureate) Jackie Kay’s parents, but not as much. After all Jackie Kay’s parents were Marxists and true believers. Kooky in the right way. Lena Dunham seems kooky in the right way too. I’m not sure what I’ve “learned”, but bits of it were entertaining. I picked it up on its way to charity-shop junk and kept reading. Sometimes that’s all you can ask. Read me. Read me. Read me. I know that feeling well. Read on.  

Jackie Kay (2002 [2011]) Why Don’t You Stop Talking.

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I’m one of the few that reads short stories. They don’t sell. There are exceptions such as Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahari and George Saunders. Poets sell even less of their work than short-story writers, but usually make the best writers. I like Jackie Kay’s autobiographical writing and I admire her parents, who I’ve met on the page. They’re the kind of people that make the world a better place. But for all her awards and glitz and glamour I found this collection a bit boring. The first story in the collection ‘Shark! Shark!’ to me read like one of Billy Connelly’s jokes. If you’re so afraid of sharks just don’t go in the water. Nobody’s shoving you. So the second story ‘Big Milk’ about a different kind of fixation, a lover’s breast fixation…ho-hum. I never went in the water. I quite liked ‘Married Women.’ Possibly, the best story in the collection is ‘Out of Hand’.

Fifty years ago, hand over heart. Rose McGuire Roberts stepped off the Windrush, with her dab hands.

Britain, then as now, wasn’t ready for her. We hated immigrants, especially black immigrants. Black women immigrants that think they are something. Yes, Rose remembers how it was, the hostility, the monkey noises, the night-shifts at hospital nobody else wanted to do. All the worst jobs in the hospital given to the black woman, who should be grateful. Yeh, that strikes a note. That resonates with me. As all good stories must. Perhaps there are some stories in this collection you will appreciate in a way I could not.

Jackie Kay (1998) Trumpet.

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.

Jackie Kay (2010) Red Dust Road.

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I was vaguely aware of Jackie Kay and had read an extract of this book a few years ago. Heard her speak about her novel Trumpet and knew she was a poet. Poets make the best prose writers. What stuck in my memory was her parents. Two white working class people that adopt two kids that happen to be black or coloured, or whatever term you’re comfortable with, because this is not about race, or about class, although both her adoptive parents are staunch Communist, this is a story about love.

John and Ellen were both from Townhead in Glasgow, but met whilst working in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was 25, she 18. They went to see Death of a Salesman on their first date and were married six months later, the day after April Fool’s Day 1954. Willy Loman often has that effect. They wanted children and couldn’t have children. They adopted.

Adoption agencies in the 1950s were run by Church groups. The Kay’s religion was Communism. Both had been pilgrimages to Moscow and John was organising and proselytising for Communist Party members in Scotland. They weren’t willing to lie about their affiliation and say they supported a Christian church group to help them get a much-wanted child. They were a straight talking couple and in many ways the heroes of the book and I liked them very much.  Indeed one of the lines I laughed out loud at was later in the book, in 2009. Ellen is taken to  Gartnavel hospital because her nose won’t stop bleeding and she’s lost lots of blood and been given a transfusion. The nurse asks her if she wants to see a minister and she answers: ‘Only if he’ll resuscitate me’.

Ironically, the book opens with Jackie meeting her birth father at the Nicon Hilton Hotel, Abuja, in Nigeria and he embarrasses her with his dancing, singing, praising of the Lord and calling for his daughter to be saved. He tells her he is a minister, but takes a sleazy interest in the mechanics of her lesbianism. He is also married to a woman Jackie’s age because the Lord has provided him with a younger partner because of his high sex drive. He wants to keep Jackie a dirty secret. He acknowledges her as his daughter. She is a professor. He too is a professor that studied trees and botany at Aberdeen University in the late 1950s. Jonathan, her birth father, is in some ways the villain. Jackie works hard to uncover how he got from a bongo playing good-time man about town who got a young white nurse Elizabeth from Nairn pregnant to the preacher, patriarch and arsehole he became.

This is a biography of what-ifs, the past less travelled. If Jonathan wasn’t black would Elizabeth have been allowed to keep the child she was carrying? She admits to wishing when she was younger to being white, like everybody else, but when in Northern Nigeria and her ‘red dust road’ homeland to being darker and blacker. Jackie’s quest to find out more about her birth mother are hampered by a different kind of fog. Elizabeth when they first meat has dementia. She wants to acknowledge Jackie and Jackie’s son, but she keeps forgetting. She like Jonathan has found salvation, but in her case the Mormon Church.

I like Jackie Kay, the questions she asks herself as the questions we ask ourselves. The Kay’s her father, mother and adopted brother are a godsend. The rest leave us blest to be who we are.