Angela Jackson is a woman who knows the art of conversation.
Hers flows from the meaning of happiness to Thatcherism, meanders past what feminism means to young women today and how the elderly are made invisible by society, scurries by a life-changing mammogram, before a tributary on singing jazz diverts the stream of chat, putting it back on course to its destination: the publication of her first book which has her husband most concerned that she’s quite possibly encouraging her readers to leave theirs behind.
After two hours, her mug of green tea is untouched and most definitely cold. Her own cup, though, is brimming over.
The 45-year-old was recently named one of Edinburgh’s Unesco City of Literature’s emerging writers, her debut novel, The Emergence of Judy Taylor, was launched at one of the Capital’s newest and trendiest independent bookstores – Looking Glass Books in the Quartermile – and the reviews are already looking good.
Then there’s her occasional turn singing jazz in a city bar and all the while there’s the day job – running Edinburgh University’s Living Happily course, which aims to make people more content with their lot. Which sounds like the holy grail of modern living.
So is she happy? “Yes,” comes the definite reply. “I think I am a generally happy person. I wake up happy in the morning – not that I jump out of bed singing – but it takes a lot to knock me off. I’m fortunate that way. There’s some belief that it can be genetic. David [her husband] is a lot more melancholic, but I think I’m just pretty lucky.
“I’m in control of my life, which is important in terms of people’s happiness, I have a lovely family, lovely friends and I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world so why would I not be happy? What have I got to moan about?
“As a society we are much more affluent, we’ve all got better lives, more stuff, but the things we think will make us happy, like winning the lottery and owning a speedboat, are not what we need.
“It’s more about altruism – that makes us happy rather than acquiring stuff. People need enough money to be comfortable, but after that having more money doesn’t make us happier.
“Gratitude makes us happy. Keeping a journal of things we’re grateful for makes us happy. People who come on the course say ‘I’ve got a nice house and a big car but I’m not happy’ – they don’t understand why they feel a level of discontent. But we ask, how much time do you spend doing something you enjoy, something you feel passionate about? How much time do you spend with other people? Communication and connections with people are very important.”
It almost feels treasonous to suggest on the month Margaret Thatcher was buried, that materialism is making society at large unhappy.
Angela, who grew up in Wigan, Greater Manchester, laughs: “We’re no happier now than we were 50 years ago because we’ve forgotten what makes us happy.
“I remember my grandad, a miner, and my gran who had very little materially being incredibly happy people. It sounds cliched, but they knew what they had. No car, but a love for each other and their family. And there was a dignity attached to their lives which added to that – he worked hard and provided for his family. Of course, when the mines were shut, that dignity was stripped from people when they could no longer feed their families . . . just don’t get me started on £10 million for a funeral.”
It was her grandad who taught her to read and write before she started school, which is where her talent for fiction first showed itself.
She recalls her primary school walls being covered with sheets of paper telling tales she’d dreamed up (but which were written out much more neatly by her classmates). Yet she put such childish things away while she studied psychology, dabbled in journalism, carved out a career in public relations, before moving into teaching and lecturing in her degree subject.
She was in her late 20s when she and her husband moved to Edinburgh because of work, but they fell in love with the city and stayed for more than a decade. There was a brief sojourn back to the north-west of England with their son, and although they missed Edinburgh “hugely” it wasn’t until a more pressing event occurred that forced them to re-evaluate their lives and bring them back to town: Angela had found a lump in her breast.
“Thankfully it was completely benign, but every woman sitting in that room waiting for the biopsy results was thinking the same thing: this could be it,” she says. “When you find a lump you’re immediate thought is ‘am I going to die?’ So we were all sat there, facing death. It was a fork in the road and some of us would go one way, others a different way. When I was told it was nothing to worry about it I came straight home and began writing what has turned out to be my first book.
“It made me face my mortality, made me ask ‘have I done what I wanted in life?’ And those are the themes running through the book.”
Angela believes her experience in PR – especially when she was churning out press releases for Fringe shows – has made her writing style pacy and engaging. It’s also helped that she’s had to do the same to make her lectures to young students more palatable.
“There are big themes in the book but I wanted it to be readable and to be able to stand as a story in its own right, without people thinking it’s all about death and mortality – though it is,” she laughs.
“My publisher keeps telling me not to say it’s about death because it doesn’t sell, but Freud says death is always at your elbow, so to truly live we have to tackle our mortality. Most of us are in denial that we’re mortal, but you have to look it in the eye and say OK, if I’m only going to be here once then I’m going to do something with this life.
“Not necessarily big things, but certainly make a choice about what you’re doing with your life and whether you’re happy about that.”
Like her creator, the fictional Judy Taylor is confronted with cancer and decides to change her life beyond recognition.
“I’m not suggesting everyone has to change to be happy,” she says. “But it is good to question to ask: are you happy with your choices?
“It’s about forks in the road and whether you are passive or active in choosing which road to go down. Being passive is still a choice and it’s fine for many. After all change is hard – people will feel rejected.
“One of the reasons Judy moves to Edinburgh in the book is to start again. It’s hard to do that when you’re surrounded by people who like and don’t want you to change.”
Again Angela knows how that feels. When she returns to Wigan, which she says has the lowest migration rate in the UK, nobody leaves, it’s like being smothered in a blanket of love and familiarity, where you have to fight hard to pull it from your face to breathe again.
“It can be addictive, why leave somewhere where everyone loves you? When we left we were the talk of the town. But there I’d always be the same person I was as a child, places like that don’t allow you to change. I think I always knew I couldn’t stay.”
To illustrate her point she tells how an elderly relative just couldn’t understand why she’d ever have wanted to write a book in the first place, and how her gran told people she was a typist rather than a journalist or in PR as that was more respectable.
Goodness knows what they’d make of her Sunday night singing at the Jazz Bar in Chambers Street – her love of jazz is another gift she says was given by her grandad.
“I really couldn’t bear being away from Edinburgh,” she says. “It’s home now and I can be myself here. I feel looser, freer, not as uptight, when I’m here. I’m definitely happy. I was even before the book, but that’s just added to it.”
• The Emergence of Judy Taylor by Angela Jackson is published by Canvas (an imprint from Constable Robinson), priced £12.99.
Mental wellbeing on a long-term downer
IT was Ken Dodd, below left, who sang that happiness was “the greatest gift that we possess”, yet according to surveys by psychologists, while the country is generally more affluent than it was 50 years ago, the general mental wellbeing of the UK populace has been on a long-term decline.
As a result, two years ago the coalition government got the Office of National Statistics to measure the country’s happiness using a list of ten indicators, to complement other such indices such as GDP. The Happiness Index as it was dubbed, asked people to appraise their lives and families with questions like ‘Do you feel your life is worthwhile?’ and ‘How satisfied are you with your partner?’ as well as whether they achieved a work/life balance and were satisfied in their job.
The results when they came out in July stated that people who are married, have jobs and own their homes are the most likely to feel satisfied.
Teenagers and the retired are the happiest in the land, and people in Wales and England less happy than those in Scotland and Northern Ireland.