Sunday, October 21, 2012

Taking tea with Jackie Kay

Afternoon Tea with Jackie Kay, Thursday 18th October, 3pm (tour at 1pm), Midland Hotel

Words by Laura Maley. Photographs by Jon Atkin.

It’s an unusual experience to hear a story about the room you are sitting in, but this afternoon event delivers just that. Jackie Kay’s role as writer-in-residence at Manchester’s imposing Midland Hotel has led to a commission for Manchester Literature Festival. This event is the first public performance of that story, Afternoon Tea, set in the French Restaurant. The story is now available to download and read on the Manchester Literature Festival website: click here.

As juxtaposition to reading in such elegant surroundings, within weeks Kay will read a new anti-racism poem before a Sheffield United football match and will also read at Styal Prison. The second is part of RISE: Reading in Secure Environments, a national partnership between Manchester Literature Festival, The Reader Organisation, other literature festivals and criminal justice and mental health care settings.

Without wishing to give too much away about the as-yet-unpublished short story, through the eyes of 22-year-old narrator Connie, we see the French and The Midland as a member of staff may have seen it years ago. Thanks to Barbara Frost, historian and author of Memories of the Midland – who gives a tour before the reading (above), Kay gained an insight into some of the working practices of the hotel. The story features a couple taking afternoon tea in this very restaurant, perhaps with linen as crisp and silverware just as gleaming. Afternoon Tea also goes behind the scenes to Connie’s role as chambermaid and chef’s assistant; to the sights she sees, at times the descriptions are almost dreamlike.

For anyone familiar with Kay’s work – which includes poetry, novels, short story collections and plays like this summer’s Manchester Lines for the Library Theatre Company – her lyrical style stands out in Afternoon Tea. But more than that, the audience feels an immediate sympathy with the narrator, her sense of wonderment, her vivid imagination. The differences between the wealthy patrons and the staff are crystal clear, in the well-crafted descriptive details. The story features Connie discovering a secret, an idea which surprised Kay herself and forced her to stop the flow of writing to allow the idea to settle, before finishing the story.

After her reading, Kay takes questions from the audience. She speaks about her excitement learning about the hotel’s past – before this she had intended her story to have a present-day setting; but that the story encompasses certain aspects of Connie’s own past present and future. Asked whether writing for a commission is scary or not, she agrees that it is (and that she was making small changes as late as the night before), but that what is most scary is sometimes what you have to do with the story at the end (though I imagine a football stadium is more intimidating than The Midland).

One of the particularly amusing moments of the afternoon comes when talking about her love of baking and she says she often mentions it in her work. Kay jokes that she expects a future university thesis to be titled, “The role of the scone in the work of Jackie Kay", and says that Ali Smith, fellow writer and author of this year’s Manchester Sermon for MLF, who is present for the event, loved her line about “scones looking incredibly pleased with themselves” so much that she used it as the title for the email she sent to Jackie about the story. Pleased-looking scones is such a quirky idea, I’m sure I’ll think of whenever I look at a scone from now on.

An event like this is not just about hearing from a writer, it’s a sociable occasion too, including cream teas and time for chatting to people at the same table. The relaxed convivial atmosphere belies the imposing grandeur around the audience. Kay is a delightful host, at ease, warm and funny as soon as she starts speaking, describing the pages of her new story as “fluttering with anxiety”, as poetic an introduction as Afternoon Tea itself.


Laura Maley writes about theatre, art and other cultural things in and around Manchester at Cultural Shenanigans which was shortlisted in the Blog North Awards category, Best Arts and Culture Blog.

You can read more reviews of this event, by students at the Centre for New Writing, on The Manchester Review.