Jackie Kay and Nicola Sturgeon reminisced about the day the First Minister phoned to tell the writer she was to be made Makar.
‘It’s not about me, it’s about you!” said Nicola Sturgeon, turning the conversation around again to focus on Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar. But it’s hard when you’re the Book Festival’s most famous event chair, and everyone in the sell-out crowd is hoping that, as well as interviewing your guest, you’ll talk about yourself.
The First Minister began by asking the audience to be gentle: “As a politician, I’m more used to answering the questions, or, the cynics would say, not answering them!” which set the tone for the friendly, easy-going conversation which followed.
Both women reminisced about the day Sturgeon phoned Kay to tell her about her appointment. Kay was in the car with her parents, and had to pass the phone to her mother because she was “genuinely lost for words”. Kay said she hope she could do justice to the role: “If I don’t, I’m out in five years.” “So am I!” quipped Sturgeon, to much laughter.
Sturgeon kept the focus of the event firmly on her guest, but, partly thanks to some clever cross-questioning from Kay, she did share a few snippets of her own. We learned that she grew up wanting to be a writer of children’s books – “I wanted to be the next Enid Blyton, though J K Rowling got there slightly before me” – and that she was and is an avid reader.
As she gets ready to launch the First Minister’s Reading Challenge, aimed at primary school children, she said: “All my best childhood memories in some way come from the magic of reading books. For any child, a life that is lived without that is a life that is not as full as it should be. I was an odd child – I spent my fifth birthday party under the table reading a book.”
Several times, the conversation turned back to Kay’s adoptive parents, John and Helen, who were in the front row. Kay spoke of the joy of “having within your family the most extraordinary friends”, and Sturgeon agreed that the support of family is “indispensable in my life”.
Sturgeon said she had been re-reading Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road, and picked out the story of a racist attack Kay suffered at a London Tube station when she was 20. Sturgeon said the story had a more powerful impact on her now than when she first read the book in 2010, saying: “Perhaps then I thought it was in a bygone age. This time, it reminded me of the racist attacks in the aftermath of the EU referendum; it felt a bit too current.”
She encouraged Kay to “keep writing polemics about Nigel Farage” (as in a fine poem called Extinction) and closed the event by saying she felt entirely vindicated about her choice of Kay as Makar – something with which the audience readily agreed.