What do we really know about Shena Mackay? Well, Virago announced a while ago, before publishing the Dancing on the Outskirts collection, that they had acquired the rights to a memoir to be written by Shena, scheduled for publication in late 2017. The prospect is an enticing one.
The charity shops are full of ghost-written accounts of the lives of showbiz and sporting personnel, all left on the shelf, not even going cheap. There may be birds of a very different feather, like Manuel Rivas’ enchanting memoir of growing up in Galicia, The Low Voices, for those who (like Muriel in Shena’s story The Atmospheric Railway) have “rediscovered the pleasures of being a random reader at the library and not having to bother with book reviews.” It seems certain Shena’s story of her life will not read like anything else.
The basic biographical details are freely available, and routinely repeated in pieces about Shena. There is also a smattering of interviews with and profiles of her on the Internet, but not that many really. In a quiet way she shuns publicity, or at least the treadmill of promotion. Perhaps the most detailed of these profiles and interviews is an Ian Hamilton piece from 1999, which is on The Guardian website.
Ian will always be associated here with the mixed feelings his book In Search of Salinger provoked. This was Ian’s well-intentioned attempt to unravel the Salinger myth, and it details the obstacles he had to overcome, making the book a bit of a precursor to Laurent Binet’s HHhH. As Ian put it, his quest was cursed because it was as if Salinger’s “inaccessibility was a national treasure that I the invader somehow threatened to despoil.”
It is tempting to see Ian’s piece on Shena in a similar light, but that is unfair. They at least knew and admired each other. Ian published some of Shena’s stories in the 1970s, when she was bringing up her three daughters and presumably struggling to keep going, in his New Review. Among these was the remarkable 1976 short story Curry at the Laburnums, a tale that takes in disruption on the Southern rail network due to the weather and industrial action, the response of cheesed-off commuters, their unpleasantly casual everyday racism, and some glorious revenge.
“A rare bird among young writers of her sex since she does not write about herself,” is what the Radio Times said about Shena in 1966 when her novella Toddler on the Run was adapted for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play series, apparently with Michael Robbins as the narrator. But then it is said often that all writing is autobiographical, and it is tempting to trace Shena’s story through her work, at least in terms of location.
From the period soon after WW2 in Canterbury as featured in the short story Trouser Ladies (with Doris Day shining brighter than the sun), through Shoreham and up to the Blackheath area and on to Earls Court, to Finchley with a young family, back down to Dorking, Redhill, Reigate, up to Norwood and then down to Hampshire where The Atmospheric Railway takes her. There is projection here, too, seeing traces of Shena’s own story in tales like Angelo and A Silver Summer.
Thinking about Shena and her memoir prompts thoughts about where she has already turned up in life stories. One that springs to mind is Brigid Brophy’s Baroque ’n’ Roll which was published in 1987. Fans of Shena and Brigid are likely to be aware of the friendship between the two writers. Brigid was a champion of Shena’s work, and played a vital part in getting A Bowl of Cherries published in 1984. Indeed, that book is dedicated to Brigid, just as Baroque ’n’ Roll is dedicated to Shena Mackay.
Brigid chose Shena’s Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger / Toddler on the Run to be included in Writer’s Choice: A Library of Rediscoveries, edited by Linda Sternberg Katz and Bill Katz in 1983. 20 years later Shena chose Brigid’s 1953 novel Hackenfeller's Ape for the ‘Buried Treasure’ series in The Independent.
More recently, in October 2015, Shena took part in a conference at the University of Northampton to mark the twentieth anniversary of Brigid’s death. Apparently she spoke, in part, about Brigid’s role in the campaign to introduce the Public Lending Right scheme in the UK. This is something Shena jests about in A Bowl of Cherries where the successful Rex gloats that “one can read the books of authors one despises without putting a penny in their pockets.”
Shena appears in the fragment of autobiography that opens Baroque ’n’ Roll. The essay deals with the onset of the muscular sclerosis that Brigid endured, and she pays tribute to the practical help Shena provided, particularly in accompanying Brigid to hospital appointments. It is hard to think of any better character reference in English literature than what she says of Shena:
“Her company was freely and affectionately accorded, even though she fulfils many responsibilities, including those to her three daughters, and, since she is a non-driver who lives in the Philistia of the home counties, my requests doomed her to the unloveliest of rail journeys, on the Southern Region.
“It was, all the same, a philistine use to which I put the finest architect of literary baroque, funny and tragic, and the most Firbankian master of surrealism now extant in the English language.
“I cannot excuse myself except by need of, precisely, her gifts. Only a great baroque imagination could make acceptable to me the comic and tragic occasions paraded while we waited. The abrasions the system inflicted on my rationality could be balmed and surmounted by the gift of a great surrealist.”
One other book that features Shena is Michael Bracewell’s England is Mine, a one-off survey of “pop life in Albion” which first came out in 1997, and is still one of the great books on music, and all it touches, simply because it creates its own little world free from the usual categorisation and nasty niches. Brilliantly Bracewell brings together things that would not ordinarily fit together, like Benjamin Britten, Sham 69, Virginia Astley, Dexys, and the films of Powell & Pressburger. If it seems illogical at times, then that is to its credit.
The section in the book on “the sound of the suburbs” sandwiches Shena’s work between The Cure and Television Personalities, with particular reference to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Suburban Relapse’ where the lyrics do read rather like a synopsis for one of Shena’s short stories. Michael makes a point of homing in on Shena’s Surrey period in the 1980s, and specifically her novel Redhill Rococo.
He links Shena’s work to that of her friend Nell Dunn, but notes the differences: “Where Nell Dunn’s Clapham or Battersea were vivid and volatile, Mackay’s suburbia is a place where deliquescent gentility, urban over-spill, hypocrisy and ennui are encoded on to the landscape. Suburbia has been synonymous with boredom and stillness – a suspension of morbid speculations such as The Cure translated into foggy post-punk”. He also links Shena’s suburbia with that of Stevie Smith, and any book ostensibly on pop culture which quotes from Shena and Stevie within a few pages will be treasured here.