On my radar: Jackie Kay's cultural highlights

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Jackie Kay is a Scottish poet, novelist and writer born in 1961 in Edinburgh. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, short story collections and novels. Her first book of poetry, The Adoption Papers, published in 1991, won the Saltire Society Scottish first book award and she has been Scotland’s national poet laureate since 2016. Her debut novel, The Trumpet, won the Guardian fiction prize in 1998. Later this month, Bessie Smith, Kay’s portrait of the American blues singer, is being rereleased by Faber with a new introduction.

1. Music

Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes

Ella Fitzgerald performing in 1962.
Ella Fitzgerald performing in 1962. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

These tapes come from a concert that Ella Fitzgerald recorded back in 1962. They were sealed and lay unopened for 58 years. They were sent to me as a Christmas present by my dear friend Ali Smith. We share a love of Ella. I grew up listening to her. When I was 14, I was lucky enough to see her in Glasgow. She was a real favourite of mine because her voice is just joy and energy. In The Lost Berlin Tapes, she sings Mack the Knife and forgets the words and has to make up her own version, but hers was kind of even better.

2. TV

Adjoa Andoh in Bridgerton (Netflix)

There’s been much talk about whether Bridgerton is historically accurate. I’d say it’s more accurate having black people in it than not. We need to put back the missing black faces from the past. It gave me the greatest buzz to see Andoh at her elegant, flamboyant and wicked best. She’s the moral conscience of the show. The scene where she says to [the Duke of Hastings, played by Regé-Jean Page] that she has to make people frightened of her, to find a way to own her own power… that was really powerful. She’s his spirit guide – another relationship we don’t get to see often. It feels fresh and fizzes with energy.

3. Theatre

Home, Manchester

Home Manchester
‘I really hope to be back in the audience again soon…’ Photograph: Mark Waugh/Alamy

Since the first lockdown, I’ve been impressed by how much theatre has adapted and made a fusion out of film and theatre to create this other kind of theatre. I’ve been interested in all the collaborations that have happened, and Home Manchester has just been great. You can go on their website and watch a film a week, you can still get taken around exhibitions. They’ve set up theatre pieces called Homemakers, where artists create new works at home. I really hope to be back in the audience again soon.

4. Nonfiction

No Boys Play Here: A Story of Shakespeare and My Family’s Missing Men by Sally Bayley

I like books that play around with form and surprise you. This just landed on my doorstep. Bayley uses Shakespeare’s plays to talk about her own family: it’s a memoir of missing men and of violence. I’ve just started it and can’t wait to get my teeth into it. The sentences are tight and crisp and she has this child’s perspective, but it’s such a fantastic idea to try to intersect memoir, family history, literary criticism and Shakespeare. My book on Bessie Smith is memoir and biography, so I’m really interested in people that mash up the form.

5. Place

Unicorn Grocery, Manchester

Unicorn grocers.
Unicorn grocers. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

This worker-led cooperative grocery runs on the ethos that they’re creating a sustainable world environment and economy. They use locally sourced produce. In the first lockdown, it was my place – in there, you have a sense of theatre, community, art and benevolence. Even the vegetables seem kind! They had chairs for people who couldn’t stand outside, they prioritised NHS workers, they teamed up with Chorlton Bike Deliveries to deliver to people who couldn’t get out. Mainly it’s just a joy going in there for the range of produce. They even have a little book stand where you can recycle your old books.

6. Fiction

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan.
‘A phenomenal Scottish writer’: Jenni Fagan. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

I was really impressed that the Edinburgh international book festival managed to put on a festival last year. One event with Jenni was buzzing. She’s a phenomenal Scottish writer. She was brought up in the care system, but in her writing she manages to break free using myth and history. Luckenbooth tells the story of a house, the people that have lived in it and the people that have haunted it. It’s a book that deals with violence and different women’s stories. She’s a writer that always offers you open doors and takes you into the past, but leads you to a very different future.

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