Sunsets and Suburbia

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Shortly after I began teaching on the creative writing programme at Middlesex University, Shena Mackay was appointed as our Honorary Visiting Professor. Her inaugural lecture in 2001 was titled A Horror of Sunsets: The Writer’s Palette and the Enemies of the Imagination. This referred to a line from Proust: ‘I have a horror of sunsets: they’re so romantic, so operatic.’ I’ve never got on with opera myself, not being able to let the music sweep me past the banality of the plots, but I knew at once I would get on with Shena Mackay. Her subject was synaesthesia, a condition from which she suffers, if ‘suffers’ is the right word. I suspect not – ‘inhabits’, perhaps. In her case, it means seeing words or individual letters in colours.

‘The way in which a person visualizes words’, she said, ‘affects many aspects of life, not least his or her attitude to names, and perhaps the owners of them; for me Cyril Connolly is red, Don DeLillo black and white, Beryl Bainbridge brown. As a child I had a problem with Graham Greene, [seeing] the sound and colour of his name in a sort of lovat; like a grey/green woolly pullover or a pair of socks – so I assumed wrongly that his books would match. With Beryl I have to make a conscious effort, to go beyond the brown to get to the true green or yellow gemstone that her parents envisaged when they named her.’

Mackay sees her own name as yellow.

The characters in her latest book, The Atmospheric Railway: New and Selected Stories, invariably possess distinctive names – Imogen Lemon, Blythe Beaumaris Gridley, Effie de Vere, Mrs Blizzard, or Teddy and Webster Shelmerdine, for instance – and, although I can only guess at the colours these names evoke for Mackay, they seem to trail behind them a faint cloud of rainbow motes illuminated by a cut-glass vase perched on a mantelpiece in the Home Counties. Her characters dwell in a postman’s nightmare of semi-detached villa

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About the contributor

Linda Leatherbarrow, feeling rather violet, recently collected a short story prize at Hay-on-Wye in a most atmospheric bookshop, once the property of Richard Booth who in 1968 famously declared Hay an independent republic.

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