'It Takes a Lifetime to Become Yourself,' a collection of writings by Kay Carmichael, edited by David Donnison (Scotland Street Press)
This is a difficult book to review. The material it contains is of different kinds. Not long before her death at the age of 84, Kay Carmichael began to write what was clearly a kind of autobiography though she herself did not see it as that: 'This is not a book,' she wrote, 'it's more a conversation. My intention is to share some experiences, some ideas, some thoughts. Some of what I write about is long past, lost in my personal history, but as alive to me as if it happened yesterday rather than nearly 80 years ago.'
This story, arranged by David Donnison, makes up the early – and most compelling – chapters of the book. Most of what follows it consists of material that Carmichael wrote and published in her regular column for the New Society magazine between 1982 and 85 – around 200 articles in total. (Their nature will emerge in what follows.) In addition there is explanatory material provided by the editor, and finally a selection of poems both by Carmichael and (her second husband) Professor Donnison.
Let me begin by agreeing that by any standard Kay Carmichael's life and career were truly remarkable. Most remarkable of all is the simple fact of her survival. In her comment on her decision to share her early experiences, quoted above, she goes on to say that 'Much of those early happenings is ugly which is perhaps why I remember them so clearly.' But that is a huge understatement. In recent years we have become all too familiar with troubling accounts of how children have been mistreated and abused particularly in religious institutions. The story of abuse in Catholic orphanages and schools seems to run and run. However, nothing I have seen reported prepares one for the horror of the story set down here.
Born in 1925 in Shettleston, in Glasgow's east end, and neglected by both her parents, the child Kay found and returned love and affection only with her grandmother. However, when she was only four years old, her mother, training to be a midwife, despatched her to a convent boarding school in Girvan. Her life there for the next two years emerges as unimaginably horrific. A nun called Mother Stanislaus persecuted her relentlessly over an issue of bed-wetting. Trying to explain the nature of her experience, Kay comments that she, 'like all children, needed love, needed comfort, needed the warm feeling of being valued. I had been given those experiences by my grandmother, but Mother Stanislaus had created for me a world, cold and hostile, in which there was no place for kindness and in which the only plant that could grow and flourish was hate.'
Looking back, Kay believes that it was only her hatred for her persecutor that kept her alive: 'The hatred kept my spirit, my sense of self alive.' The details of what this child experienced between the ages of four and six are numbingly vivid, and whatever the role of the hatred she felt, her real salvation was actually a serious attack of polio. In hospital in Glasgow for six months, and left with a permanently damaged arm, her illness meant she escaped from the Girvan boarding school and never returned.
In the following decade Kay Carmichael lived again with her grandmother in Shettleston. At first she wore on her arm a metal contraption that was supposed to support her paralysed arm. However her father, temporarily back with the family, refused to be seen with his 'crippled' daughter, and forced her to remove it. In 1936 her parents finally divorced, and her midwife mother grew increasingly alcoholic. By now a keen reader in a nearby public library, Kay's school education was intermittent at best. But salvation came once again in an outwardly unhelpful form – the outbreak of the second world war.
In 1939 Kay got herself evacuated from Glasgow to rural Dumfriesshire. Unlike the great majority of evacuated children, who soon opted to return home, Kay preferred to remain an evacuee, attending school and living in three different homes, the last of which was clearly a house of wealth and beauty in which she was treated as an honoured guest. However, at the age of 17, she returned to Glasgow to live with her mother.
Now doing extremely well at school, Kay's life began to take on what would prove to be its permanent shape. She joined the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and participated in other radical political groups. Soon she left the ILP and joined the Labour Party, feeling it was her duty to move it in a more radical direction. (Typically, near the end of her life, having resigned from the Labour Party of Blair and Brown, she joined the SNP, presumably with identical hopes.)
In 1948 she married Neil Carmichael, also then a member of the ILP – in 1962 he would become the Labour Party MP for Glasgow Woodside. Having taken courses in both Glasgow and Edinburgh universities in the 1950s in both social studies and mental health, Kay's career in the field of social work began to flourish. Soon to be a lecturer in social work in Glasgow University, in 1960 she was responsible for creating Scotland's first training course for probation officers. From this point on Kay began to play an increasingly prominent role in a range of important social initiatives.
From 1964 she was a member of the Kilbrandon Committee reviewing Scottish social work, juvenile courts, and child care services. One result was the passing in 1969 by Westminster of legislation which replaced juvenile courts in Scotland with children's panels. In the same period her political contacts led to her appointment to the Supplementary Benefits Commission, and a part-time role in Harold Wilson's policy unit in 10 Downing Street. In 1974 Kay became a senior lecturer in social administration in Glasgow University, and a year later was appointed deputy chair of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. At the same time she also played a key role in setting up the special unit in Barlinnie Prison which aimed to create a redemptive programme for some of Scotland's most violent prisoners.
Given the career I've described, I've no doubt that some readers will regard Kay Carmichael as a kind of archetype of the social activist – always standing up for the democratic, the progressive, the liberal, the compassionate – always on the side of the minority, the marginalised, the anti-establishment. A lifelong supporter of CND, she marched against the bases at Holy Loch and Faslane. She campaigned for gay rights, for prison reform, for the decriminalisation of prostitution. One feels that whatever the progressive cause, Kay Carmichael would be there, ready to carry the flag.
This book then becomes the celebration of a remarkable life. Perfectly naturally, David Donnison wants us to share his admiration for everything his wife achieved, and I imagine that most of us will do so. But perhaps that admiration will not always be unqualified. Was it sensible of Kay to force the police to arrest her on a CND march – so that she could then refuse to pay her fine, get herself (however briefly) into Cornton Vale women's prison and complain of her treatment? Was it such a good idea to spend three months in a Glasgow housing estate pretending to be living on supplementary benefits while being secretly filmed by BBC television?
Am I alone in being troubled by this assertion she makes in one of her New Society articles: 'I have met stronger, braver, more courageous men and women in prison than I ever met in my university'? And I struggle with Kay's conclusion, after one week's meditation in a Japanese temple, that she had somehow been wrong to blame her parents for their treatment of her as a child. (Did her new sense of sympathetic enlightenment extend so far as to include Mother Stanislaus?)
But let me not end on a negative note. Living as we do in an atmosphere apparently dominated by Trump, Brexit, the Sun and the Daily Mail, it is great to be reminded of a life led by a woman dedicated to values that have become less than fashionable in our brave new world.
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