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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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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 villas and 1930s bungalows with names instead of numbers: Shalimar, Fernybank, Holly House or even Trevenidor inscribed on a ‘slice of varnished oak’ (Trevor and Enid wrought in a true lover’s knot). It isn’t just names that Mackay is so good at. Titles, as every writer knows, are often the hardest thing to get right. Sometimes a dull working title becomes stuck and can’t be deposed, sometimes the name of the main character must do the job, sometimes a publisher imposes a title on a reluctant author. Shena Mackay has no truck with any of that. Her titles blaze across her book jackets like searchlights. The Atmospheric Railway contains thirteen new stories and twenty-three others from previous collections, all with memorable titles: Babies in Rhinestones (1983), Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags (1987), The Laughing Academy (1993), The World’s Smallest Unicorn (1999). Like titles for poems, short-story titles are expected to earn their living. In her title story, cousins Neville and Beryl have come together to research their family history. On the train home, Neville thinks about a relative who worked on the construction of an Atmospheric Railway in South London.
Its name had enchanted Neville since first he heard it as a schoolboy. At once he’d seen a silver superstructure – The Atmospheric Railway arching across the sky on a series of viaducts supported by immensely tall pylon-like legs – and high, high up, a silver train streaming its own vapour through the clouds.
In fact, this train, with its experimental pneumatic engine, ran along the ground and only during 1864 and 1865 between the Sydenham and Penge entrances to the Crystal Palace, an area Mackay knows well, having lived there for years. With its concrete dinosaurs, dilapidated stadium and leafy roads of Victorian villas gazing towards the Downs, it’s a tantalizing borderland where residents are constantly crossing invisible frontiers. What better place for a writer to live? Born in Edinburgh in 1944, Mackay moved to South London when she was 3. Scotland became a place for holidays and visits to grandparents, but although some of her stories in this volume reflect this Scottish background, she has become most associated with a particularly English notion of suburbia: Crystal Palace, Norwood, Dulwich. Between the lavish poetry, magic realism and subtle excess, the irony and wit, lurks a world of Green Shield stamps, Meccano, tinned peas (never mange tout) and The Archers. No one conveys the tawdry melancholy of suburban front gardens better than Shena Mackay. No one writes a more potent opening line. This is how she opens Babies in Rhinestones:
The Alfred Ellis School of Fine Art and the Araidne Elliot School of Dance and Drama stood semi-detached from one another behind a small tearful shrubbery of mahonia and hypericum, snowberries, bitter blue currants, spotted laurel and pink watery globes of berberis spiked on their own thorns.
The misspelling of Ariadne is deliberate, a little jab at the more than-slightly-desperate aspirations of a dance teacher whose real name is Gwen. Alfred and Araidne walk down the road together, cross some railway tracks at a level crossing and go past ‘a large bronze ballerina pirouetting in the wind’. This is Dame Margot, born according to Alfred as ‘plain Alice Marks’. (The statue described here was probably inspired by the bronze ballerina near the station at Reigate, Surrey, birthplace of Dame Margot Fonteyn, born plain Margaret Hookham. Mackay worked in the library at Reigate for a short time.) Alfred and Araidne are fighting over the affections of a tom cat known as Ginger, or sometimes Rufus; he is seducing it with blue mackerel and she with condensed milk, and there is much gentle fun to be had out of their lonely rivalry, even a happy ending, of sorts. The title, Babies in Rhinestones, refers to an unperformed revue written by Araidne, in which ‘strings of sparkling babes, shimmering in precision, crisscrossed a vast stage . . .’ At 16, Mackay won a poetry competition in the Daily Mirror, the prize £25, then a considerable sum which had to be ‘squandered on pleated skirts and cardigans’ for work. She left school with only two O Levels and worked first as an office junior and then in an antique shop in Chancery Lane. The manager of the shop, Frank Marcus, was also a playwright (probably best known for The Killing of Sister George). Mackay showed him a novella she’d written and he showed it to an agent who sold it to André Deutsch on the condition that she wrote another one. A great stroke of luck, admits Mackay. At 20, her first book containing both novellas, Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger and Toddler on the Run, was published. After this came a relationship with David Sylvester, the art critic, and father of her eldest daughter. Sylvester introduced her to the artists of the Colony Room Club in Soho: Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud, every painter who was anybody then. Mackay was famous herself, a literary prodigy. Two years later she married someone else and began the pursuit of a very different kind of glamour in Surrey – real life. There she brought up her three daughters and understandably stopped writing altogether. ‘Not an unhappy period,’ she told me. ‘Just different.’ Babies in Rhinestones and Other Stories was her triumphant return in 1983 after a thirteen-year silence. She has written eight novels, won the Fawcett Society Book Prize and the Scottish Arts Council Book Award, been short-listed for the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award, but for me her greatest achievements are to be found in her stories. ‘To get the right words down,’ she said in her Middlesex lecture, ‘one must be at once a still-life painter, a conceptual and installation artist and a narrative painter – all this in a short story.’ It sounds daunting but Mackay can achieve this in a paragraph, even two lines. Take this opening to Other People’s Bathrobes:

Her underwear slipped through his fingers in silky shoals of salmon and grayling; stockings slithered like a catch of rainbow eels. He moved about the bedroom like an assassin . . .

Her narratives are spiked with beautifully observed small tragedies as well as the kind of calamities a lesser writer could never carry off. A grandmother plunges into an icy harbour to rescue a drowning grandson and both are brought to safety by a heroic yellow dog, possibly a reincarnation of a previous lover (oddly without a name, simply ‘the illusionist who wore an embroidered bolero and silk pantaloons’). A rejected lover turns into a vengeful nanny goat with rectangular eyes that savagely sinks its long yellow teeth into a pompous academic with a penchant for snakeskin boots. A gas meter man is dispatched with the full weight of a striped green marrow, the rear doors of a train travelling through Hampshire are found to be open . . . Whether it was Shena Mackay’s early introduction to the Soho art set or her synaesthesia, or some other mysterious influence, there can be no question that her prose comes from an artist’s palette, all her stories possessing a ravishing sensuality and an extraordinary visual and sometimes menacing precision.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Linda Leatherbarrow 2010


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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