First Minister & Makar Talk Poetry, Politics and Paxman

First Minister & Makar Talk Poetry, Politics and Paxman

 “She thinks she’s Jeremy Paxman,” Jackie Kay told the audience at the Book Festival earlier today, as she was pushed for answers by her interviewer, who just happened to be Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Although strikingly at ease in the role of questioner (and far less aggressive than that notorious bulldog of the BBC), Sturgeon revealed that her own childhood ambition was to be a writer.

“It would be an odd child that always wanted to be politician,” she said. “To be fair, I was an odd child. But no, I wanted to write children’s books. I thought I was going to be the next Enid Blyton. J K Rowling got there slightly before me…” Her investment in children’s reading remains, however, as evidenced by her flagship project in support of it, the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. “All of my best childhood memories come from the reading of books,” she said. Although another secret ambition revealed itself. “We’re all frustrated rock stars,” she said of politicians. “Very frustrated, in my case.”

Jackie Kay – poet, novelist and now Scotland’s Makar – also had early showbiz ambitions, having undertaken acting training at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. “There’s probably still a bit of the ham actress in me.” But writing, she said, had provided her with “a sanctuary – a place to go. It helps you to survive. The page doesn’t judge you.” Her new position had been “a wee whirlwind every day,” she laughed – and not one that she could have predicted taking up. “I didn’t feel destined to be Makar. But I wouldn’t have turned it down!”

“I wish I’d known that when I phoned you,” deadpanned the First Minister. “I’d have been more relaxed.”

Kay revealed that during the conversation in question, she had been in her car with her parents, and had been so overwhelmed that she’d passed the phone to her mother. “I’d at least remembered to say ‘Hello First Minister,’” she recalled. “Then I handed the phone to my my mum and she went, “HELLO, NICOLA!’”

“It was lovely,” Sturgeon reassured her.

Of Nigerian parentage, Kay was adopted in infancy by Scottish parents, and race and identity form central themes of her writing. Both agreed that such ideas have added potency in a time of renewed racial tensions. “Just you keep writing polemics about Nigel Farage,” said Sturgeon, referencing Kay’s poem Extinction, which addresses and attacks the UKIP leader.

An audience question about support networks between women did prompt Sturgeon to be more philosophical about the barbs thrown between politicians of different parties, however. “Politics could learn a lot from other disciplines,” she said. “It is by its nature competitive and adversarial – but there is more we could do to hold out hands of support and friendship.”

Kay senses that support not only in Scotland’s scene of writers and readers, but in its history. “Scotland has an amazing legacy of poets and you continue to have a relationship with them whether they’re alive or dead.” And if her stewardship of the Makar role didn’t work out? “Well, I’m out in four and a half years!”

“So am I, so we’re in the same boat,” Sturgeon fired back. Maybe it’ll be time for those children’s books or rock concerts then.

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