Interview: Kathleen Jamie, author of Sightlines

Scottish Poet Kathleen Jamie. Picture: Neil Hanna
Scottish Poet Kathleen Jamie. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Nature writing isn’t just the old ‘lush stuff’, but about how we interact with the world, Kathleen Jamie tells Chitra Ramaswamy

On an uncommonly hot spring day in Edinburgh, Kathleen Jamie takes a seat on a bench warmed by the midday sun. She tilts her head, and listens. An activity taken for granted by most is elevated, in Jamie’s brilliant new collection of essays, to an art form. To listen, the Fife-based writer suggests to us in her quiet, questioning way, is to know, to live, and to care. More and more, she thinks that good writing comes from good listening. “I like being around people who can listen to the world,” she tells me. “Like radio producers. They don’t feel the need to talk all the time because they’re attending to what they’re hearing. It’s good training.”

We shut up until I can’t help myself. What does she hear? What can she see? “With or without my glasses?” she laughs. “I like the way that jaggy shadow is coming down the roof. I can hear the seagulls. There’s the familiar feeling of being tucked away in an old garden. Oooh, can you hear that blackbird chucking away?”

We’re in Dunbar’s Close off the Royal Mile, a secret garden modelled on its 17th-century original. It’s a quiet, orderly place, cherished by those who know about it. The story goes that Robert Burns used to wander here on his way to a nearby oyster cellar. Now another Scottish poet, writer and lover of the land is criss-crossing the cobbled paths, rubbing herbs between her fingers to release their scent, feeling the same old sun on her face.

Jamie was originally going to take me on a forest walk in Stirling, where she is the university’s first Professor of Creative Writing. After batting businesslike e-mails back and forth for a week the plan fell through and we ended up at the Scottish Poetry Library. Then the weather was too good to be stuck inside and we came here.

There is something apt about interviewing Jamie outdoors, though she is not a nature lover in the conventional sense. “I’m actually not big on nature writing,” she says with a chuckle. “It’s a bit boring, all that lush stuff. I’m interested in what’s going on under the surface.”

Nature, for Jamie, is a broad church, welcoming in moths drowning in lochans, cancerous cells under microscopes, whale bones washed up on the beach, and the people who clean them in dusty museums. She has no interest in romanticising nature, or seeking out wild, untouched places. In her essay on St Kilda, her interest lies not in the mythic notion of an island lost to its inhabitants but in the bare fact of continuing human intervention: the jetty, power station, military base and roving satellites. “A guy shooting missiles,” she says with a grin. “How wild is that?”

Here’s how she puts her view of nature in one of the best essays in the collection, “Pathologies”, which begins with a meditation on her mother’s death and winds up in the pathology labs of Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, watching an autopsy: “It’s not all primroses and otters,” Jamie writes. “There are other species, not dolphins arching clear from the water, but the bacteria that can pull the rug from under us.”

“It’s all nature,” she says with a shrug. “We can’t make distinctions about what to admit, about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nature. The plastic of your pen has its resource in oil, which is part of the natural world. The breast milk of polar bears has chemicals in it. There is nothing untouched. To hanker after the truly wild is a fantasy. We have to accept what we have and deal with it.” Does this depress her? “No,” she says after a pause. “More depressing to me are fantasies and false distinctions.” Her function as a writer, she says with typical clearsightedness, is to see things as they are, not as they should be.

Sightlines is Jamie’s second book of essays, coming five years after Findings. Those who treasured that extraordinary collection, and there are many (John Berger called her “a sorceress of the essay form” and Andrew Marr, “a 21st-century Gilbert White”) will be delighted to hear Sightlines treads the same path. Both dip into nature writing, travelogue, reportage, memoir, and psychogeography, but their simple profundity, scope, and watchfulness make them something else altogether. They defy categorisation, and that’s just how she likes it. “I don’t want to categorise them,” she tells me. “I just want to write them. But sometimes I do wonder – what are these things?”

The essays are written with a different part of her brain to the poetry. “I can almost feel the physical difference when I’m writing,” she says. “I’m probably more satisfied with the essays. The poems are more wrangly and difficult.” Jamie does, however, struggle with her own presence in the essays, with being forever stuck behind her own gaze. “I annoy myself,” she sighs. “I look at a page I’ve written, see that I’ve used the word ‘I’ 17 times and go back and reduce it by two thirds.”

Why does she want to be absent? “I am the perceiving centre of the experience and I can’t help that,” she acknowledges. “But it does get wearying. I want to try to enable other people to see, rather than say, ‘look at me doing this!’ I can’t stand that TV presenter thing when you see people – invariably men – bouncing up and down saying, ‘look at me in this wild, difficult place! Aren’t I manly!’ Just get out of the way and let us see the iceberg!” She laughs her head off. “So I have that firmly in my mind. I don’t want to be bouncing up and down, tossing my hair back”

Jamie has a reputation for being an intensely private writer. She can come across as aloof and prickly in interviews. (She refuses to meet me at her home in Newburgh, Fife, where she lives with her husband and two children.) Yet the essays are personal in tone and subject matter, covering everything from family illness to bringing up children as she watches a gannet colony. It’s all rather confusing. The upshot is that I expect a tricky, staccato encounter but find myself in the company of a warm, mischievous, and quietly subversive character. “Maybe I’m getting over myself,” Jamie jokes when I tell her this. “Maybe I’m developing a wee bit of confidence at the grand old age of 50. Have I changed as a writer? I think I’ve accepted it in myself.”

Jamie was born in Renfewshire in 1962 but grew up in Currie, outside Edinburgh, one of three siblings. Her father was an accountant, her mother worked in a solicitor’s office. The only books in the house were “Burns and the bible”. None of the family were readers, hillwalkers, or nature lovers. Somehow, Jamie became all three. “We lived just under the Pentlands and that was what you saw every time you looked out of the window at school,” she recalls. “They were there, and I spent a lot of time looking at them.” Was she an anomaly in her family? She laughs. “My sister might say so, yes. Not every family turns out a poet. It’s a bit odd but they embraced it.”

In a powerful essay entitled “The Woman In The Field”, Jamie returns to 1979 when she spent the summer after leaving school digging up the remains of a Neolithic henge in Perthshire. It was a turning point, a literal hinge, a moment in time when the directionless teenage girl, by both accident and design, found what she loved. “The exams I’d just taken were already far from my mind,” she writes. “The Stone Age was closer to me than secretarial college would ever be.”

What did she discover that summer? “Possibilities,” she says. “They were greater in the world than I had been led to believe. That happened through writing poetry and working on the dig. There was more in writing and more in the landscape than I had realised.” So the two were connected, right from the start? “Yes,” she says softly. “It’s taken me a long time to realise that.”

Jamie published her first collection, Black Spiders, at the age of 20 while studying philosophy at Edinburgh University. She went on to win numerous prizes, including the Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Forward Prize and to write an acclaimed book about her travels in Pakistan. More recently she was included in Granta’s issue introducing “The New Nature Writing” alongside the likes of Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane. “Nature writing has been in abeyance for 40 years and now it’s back,” she muses. “Our relationship with the natural world has changed, meanwhile, and the new writing reflects that. Before, nature was bigger than us, something that would be here beyond us. Now, we know we can affect it. We are affecting it. The new nature writing comes out of that perspective, or should do.”

This isn’t necessarily a source of despair. Human intervention, folly, and arrogance – this is characteristic of our species, too, and therefore worthy of investigation. And paying attention to the world, for Jamie, has always been a way of paying respect. “Things will pass and change,” she says. “We will pass and change. It would be interesting to see it all from the perspective of someone who understands deep time. To know that we only arrived on the face of the earth last Tuesday and that by next Tuesday we may be gone. It’s a tricky one because it’s arrogant to assume we can impact on the world, and arrogant to assume we can not.” Jamie laughs, enjoying the absurdity of the conundrum. So what do we do in the meantime? “Live well and appreciatively and scale back a wee bit,” she says. And so we stop and listen, once more, to the garden.

• Sightlines is published by Sort Of Books, priced £8.99.