‘There is…one amongst us who can write about blear and drear and perform some kind of magic on them that turns Tippex to liquid gold. This alchemist’s name is Shena Mackay and she is probably the best writer in the world today…Shena Mackay – savage sphinx of the suburbs, and simply the best woman writer since Ernest Hemingway.’ – Julie Burchill
Shena Mackay was born in Edinburgh and grew up in the south east of England. She left school early, but in life as in art, Mackay was destined for something more.
‘Things were difficult at home. My parents had an unhappy marriage. So I used to play truant. If we had the money we would catch the train into central London and wander around Soho.”
She won a Daily Mirror poetry prize at 16 and, enticed by life in the capital, began working at an antique shop on Chancery Lane.(See her story ‘A Silver Summer’ in ‘The World’s Smallest Unicorn and other stories (1999). Through the shop, Mackay began to mix with the art scene of the time: the shop was run by Frank Marcus (author of The Killing of Sister George) and owned by the parents of art critic David Sylvester. Her affair with Sylvester took her to the Colony Room club in Soho where she met the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
“Yes, I did meet them, but I was a young girl and they were middle-aged… I met Giacometti. I certainly realized who he was. Sometimes, the impression is given that I used to hang out in the Colony Room. But I didn’t really. They were David’s friends, not mine…”
Pursuing her talent, she had her first book – a duo of novellas ‘Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger’ and ‘Toddler on the Run’ – published in 1964 when she was just 19. Her writing at this time focused on the flotsam and jetsam of city life: the untethered souls whose lives were neither squalid enough for the kitchen sink, glamorous enough for the spy thriller or held enough angst for the middleclass family saga.
From the city to the suburbs, Mackay’s characters are the dowdy, the down at heel whose very ordinariness holds them in your peripheral vision while they ready their suburban uprisings and whispered revolutions. Her characters yearn for a new tomorrow, hoping to escape a fruitless past. They are the cat-women and the bag-ladies, the butch bull-dykes and the lonely school ma’ams. In real life, they are the outsiders whose very otherness enchants, but also repels, making us afraid to enquire within. As a writer, Mackay holds no such fear.
Also essential to Mackay’s work is that great leveller, nature – always at the elbow, teasing, sometimes malevolent, sometimes playful, always potent. Take this from ‘Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger’ (1964): ‘Abigail thought: snow is filling the hockey nets and glittering on the yellow mud, freezing the drive and filling the hedges. Mounting in desolation on the windowsills, wailing at the pane, drifting under the doors. Soon it will cover the desks and the algebra books, fill the crucible and the belljar and thoroughly obliterate the blackboard. Blue glaciers will form in the inkwells. Perhaps Benthall’s car will skid on the drive and hurtle in frozen flames through the hollyhedge.’
Mackay’s work is never stodgy or polemic. Her light, lyrical touch means she can tackle the most bitter of subjects, bringing you out the other side feeling sad and mournful, not battered and bruised. In many ways, the perfect soundtrack to one of Mackay’s novels would be Saint Etienne, a glorious pop group whose heartbreaking symphonies come laced with that most delicate of emotions, melancholy: that happy-sad feeling which also seeps through Mackay’s stories.
(In fact, pop pickers, you can hear Mackay’s voice in Saint Etienne’s film ‘Finisterre’ in which she talks about her love of London.)
Mackay is witty, playful, often funny, sometimes surreal – as seen in one of my favourite of her short stories, ‘Radio Gannett’. The story concerns two sisters – Nora and Dolly, who live in the same seaside resort albeit in differing circumstances. While Nora lives in a large detached, Dolly lives ‘on the wrong side of the tracks of the miniature steam railway’ in a mobile home. One night, unable to sleep for fear of a giant meteor hitting Earth, Nora switches on her radio:
‘ All you hear is Radio Gannett, Radio GaGa, Radio Gannett. Greetings all you night owls, this is Radio Gannett taking you through the wee small hours with Joanne and the Streamliners and their ever lovin’ ‘Frankfurter Sandwiches’
At the female DJ’s voice, Nora sat bolt upright, hyperventilating. Over the music came the spluttering of fat in a pan, and a muffled expletive. It was the indisputable sound of her sister Dolly having a fry up. ‘Whatever happened to the good old British banger?’ grumbled Dolly. ‘Answers on a postcard’
Now, however you think this tale might end, forget it.
I’ve always suspected that Mackay’s light touch has encouraged some to see her work as lightweight, but Mackay’s mock-croc mitten hides a stainless steel fist. Her 1965 novel ‘Music Upstairs’ shines a light on the grubby reality of a menage-a-trois. ‘Old Crow’ (1967) lays bare the brutality when the baying crowd senses fresh outsider blood. ‘The Orchard on Fire’ (1995) tears through the sepia tinted nostalgia of the 1950s with a tragic tale of child abuse and, in one of my favourite novels, ‘The Artist’s Widow’ (1998) she properly skewers a generation of hipster, sensation seeking artists by revealing them as needy children.
If you haven’t already done so, now is the perfect time to get to know Mackay’s work: 2015 saw Virago purchase the rights to publish all Mackay’s books, a project they kicked off with ‘Dancing on the Outskirts’ a collection of classic and new Mackay short stories. Fresh new paperbacks are due any moment and we have the tantalising prospect of a memoir covering her early years in London.
Shena Mackay is a true original, one of the best of British writers who should be read by anyone who considers themselves a lover of fiction.
Above all else, she is a writer who fills me with pure, unadulterated joy.
- Dust Falls on Eugen Schlumberger/ Toddler on the Run (1964)
- Music Upstairs (1965)
- Old Crow (1967)
- An Advent Calendar (1971)
- Babies in Rhinestones (1983)
- A Bowl of Cherries (1984)
- Redhill Rococo (1986)
- Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags (1987)
- Dunedin (1992)
- The Laughing Academy (1993)
- The Orchard on Fire (1995)
- The Artist’s Widow (1998)
- The World’s Smallest Unicorn and other stories (1999)
- Heligoland (2003)
- The Atmospheric Railway: new and selected stories (2008)
- Dancing on the Outskirts: selected stories (2015)