"I chose...responsibly": fiction preview

A sneak-peak at Jackie Kay’s short story, "Mind away", featured exclusively in this week’s magazine.

We've all been there. The frantic scramble for misplaced keys amid a heady morning rush never fails to infuriate. "'The brain's a sieve. Maybe not a sieve, maybe a...what's the name of the thing with bigger holes?' ". But what if you found yourself forgetting not just where you placed your keys, not just words, but whole worlds? This is the struggle that shapes Jackie Kay's Mind Away, a dreamlike story in which the symptoms of dementia weave together a mother, daughter and doctor. Published exclusively in this week's New Statesman, it anticipates the release of Kay's latest collection, Reality Reality, a series of short stories which place the banalities and strange obsessions of everyday life into captivating tales.

Kay is loved by readers for her ability to conjure strong, believable voices that are rooted in accessible human experiences - in Mind Away, a mother and daughter attempt to reassemble what has been lost through their own whimsical imaginings. Though saddened, the daughter resolutely attempts to jog her mother's memory, prompting her to recall vivid sights and sensations from the past: "'What happened to that dress?', I asked, 'One night your father took me to the Locarno. I remember I was wearing it then...I felt like a million dollars'".

But the frustrating reality of the present is an ever-lingering spectre: "'Years ago is not the problem. Yesterday is the problem. Today is the problem. Years ago are piling up!'". To deal with the present, the daughter attempts a writerly solution - it is here that Kay demonstrates her ability to render multi-perspective narratives with real finesse, as the story wanders into the failing mind of a doctor, shocked at his own symptoms of memory deterioration.

Kay's message is one that celebrates the power of the imagination to ease the pain of reality, and the potential of stories to be healers in themselves. As ever, she deals compassionately with moving subject matter, and even leaves room for a witty take on a situation that we often assume offers little cause for optimism: "'What have we got to lose? Isn't life an awfully big adventure? Who was it that said that again? I've forgotten'". It's a timely endeavour, since more people than ever are feeling the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's, both as sufferers and carers.

Mind Away is accompanied by an illustration from Liam Stevens and appears in this week's New Statesman available from newsagents now.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue