‘Grief’ is becoming something of a recurring theme at this year’s book festival. Love and loss were central to the discussions that took place, in an packed hall, between the queen of quirkiness herself, Jackie Kay and the thoroughly charming Michael Pedersen.
Having been to a significant number of events this year, I don’t think two people have been so warmly received by a Paisley Book Festival Audience. The mutuality of love and respect for each other was immediately apparent, a rapport that contributed to the ease with which both authors conducted the conversation.
Michael spoke about his book Boy Friends and told the audience that the very first person to receive a copy was Jackie Kay, who fondly remembered the time when he came to the house to deliver the book in person.
They talked about friendship and loss, and the importance of marking anniversaries. Michael asked, how do we ‘tributise’ lost friends? How do we mark the loss of people who ‘effervesced’ us, who made us feel so alive? How do we honour friends who leave this world before their time?
Jackie Kay highlighted just how refreshing it was, in the age of toxic masculinity, to find someone like Michael talking about friendship in the way he does.
Jackie went on to read her poem Blue Boat Mother and Michael read from his new book.
This led to a conversation about ‘masculinity’ with Jackie asking Michael to elaborate on this, a central theme in his book, Boy Friends. He talked candidly about life as an adolescent in Portobello, which although now ‘officially’ Scotland’s most gentrified area, was at the time a pretty ‘rough’ neighbourhood. He talked about Mike’s tackle shop as being a masculinised environment where men went to war with the fish species – like Picts fighting off the Vikings. Jackie brough up the fact that the book portrays a strange tenderness that emerges from the camaraderie of fishermen and asks how Michael managed to cope in that environment. “I got away by making mistakes, embarrassing myself, with my gooey emotionality”, he says, before going on to tell the play-date story of how, when he was 12 years old, he was The Cat Prince (those who were there will know). His mother, it seems, was a central facilitator in allowing him to escape the restraints of a more ‘traditional’, childhood.
The hour passes too quickly and there is barely time for questions. Someone asks ‘is it easier to be quirky and unusual now, than it was in the past? Michael agrees, and cites figures like Harry Styles in his flamboyant and extravagant attire, and states that social media, for all its vices, can provide some comfort to those who don’t ‘fit-in’. He concedes however, that the problem of gangs and toxic masculinity remains a burden on young people.
Jackie Kay, laughs and points out that she has always been quirky, and remains so to be so to this day. Another audience member takes the opportunity to thank Jackie for helping her daughter many years ago.
The audience seem to be in no hurry to depart, so Michael and Jackie cajole each other into reading some more poetry which the audience laps up. Aware that they had run over time Jackie jokes that the Hebridean Baker (next up) might put her in his oven. Given that Coinneach was still signing books at 9.30pm, the thought might actually have occurred to him.