"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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times