Alastair Scott, travel writer and photographer, did not meet Jessie Kesson until 1989, when she was 73. I met her four years earlier, but cannot better the description he confided to his journal:
Jessie Kesson has so much fun in her she is a one-woman riot. I've met only two or three people who regularly laugh so much tears stream down their cheeks, but none who do so as regularly nor as copiously as Jessie Kesson. But then she leans over and puts her hand on my arm, and quotes, 'But I laugh that I weep not.' Her memory is awesome. She talks endlessly, never-never stops, a hoarse, rough voice, a groan above a whisper, but excited as if she fears time may not allow her to finish. She is nervous and covers it with verbosity and enthusiasm – verbose she may be but she is a spell binder. Out tumbles history, stories, experiences. She always fits a joke in and laughs herself speechless frequently, nudging up her glasses with the act of dabbing a Kleenex at her eyes... She takes small steps, always loses her way, heads off in an instant for the wrong door, chain-smokes all day, dribbles ash all over herself and clothes – and just makes you want to take care of her. Her company seems so precious.
(Quoted by Isobel Murray in 'Jessie Kesson: Writing her Life,' 2000)
That was the Jessie Kesson I met in 1985, on a hectic day at the Book Festival, when she'd reluctantly agreed to be interviewed on tape before continuing a heavy day with an appointment at STV. Yet she'd tried hard, and successfully, to find new things to say to us. She was a spell-binder, maybe a witch.
But what connection does that Jessie Kesson have with the young girl in the orphanage in 'The White Bird Passes'? The one who declared to the orphanage trustees on their last visit before her 16th birthday:
I don't want to dust and polish. And I don't want to work on a farm. I want to write poetry. Great poetry. As great as Shakespeare.
I have to try to connect them, and include also one of the most gifted Scottish writers of the last century, and one at least until very recently shamefully neglected. This is partly because she published relatively little, partly because so much of her work was done for the fine but now unfashionable medium of radio, partly because...
Her life makes an amazing story, one you would not credit if offered as an 'Angela's Ashes' spin-off. Jessie was incarcerated in at least five potentially punitive institutions before she was 18. She attended four primary schools before she was 10, leaving and in some cases re-entering each with some degree of mystery.
Jessie spent her young life being separated from those she loved. She was removed from her mother when she was 10, saw her once in her late teens, and afterwards saw her once every six months, from 1939 to 1949 when she died. Liz was dying slowly of chronic syphilis in an institution in Elgin, and when Jessie became a cottar-wife she had only two days off a year on which to visit her. When Jessie was separated from the mother she missed above all, she lost also the grandmother who 'was the glow that kindled and lit up all my childhood in a slum.' Jessie never saw her again. She lost also all the characters in the Lane described by the big-hearted child in 'The White Bird Passes.' She never saw them again. Her life was full of this: small wonder she wrote stories with titles like 'Road of No Return,' or talks for 'Woman's Hour' with titles like 'We Can't Go Back.'
'The White Bird Passes' is of course the best account of Jessie Kesson's childhood, although in many details it is far from 'true'. Briefly, Jessie was born illegitimate in the workhouse in Inverness in 1916. She was brought up first, very unconventionally, in the Model Lodging House in Elgin, when she consorted more with travellers and transients than with Elgin's poor, even, and her best friends were the big horses that drove the city dust cart. When she neared school age, her mother took a room in a city slum, from which she could more 'respectably' go to school. Her mother had been cast out by her family following this, her second illegitimate pregnancy, had a drink problem, dabbled in prostitution.
The Cruelty Man, a figure of fear to most of the Lane, was always in search of 'neglect', and that was probably a euphemistic term for what Jessie underwent. She loved school, and loved her undisciplined mother, the country walks they went together, the poetry, reams of it, her mother taught her. But after warnings, the law caught up with them and Jessie was removed from her mother's custody, and sent to an orphanage in Kirkton of Skene, Aberdeenshire, until she was 16.
She threw herself into the life of the orphanage and the new school, as eager to be loved and accepted here as she had been in Elgin. She sang hymns of joy over clean, newly laundered clothes, and the end of searches for headlice: tried to give up the 'swears' which had liberally peppered her speech, worked hard and brilliantly at school – and missed her mother, saving up all the new experiences to pass on to Liz. But it was not to be. Liz visited her only once, horribly changed by the ravages of syphilis, beginning to go blind, come in search of her daughter to come home and look after her as time went on. Not surprisingly, this was refused. Then came the awful meeting in the wood, described in 'The White Bird Passes,' when Janie/Jessie could not find words for what she wanted to say until after her mother had gone.
All the things I know, she taught me, God. The good things, I mean. She could make the cherry trees bloom above Dean's Ford, even when it was winter. Hidden birds betrayed their names the instant she heard their song. She gave the nameless little rivers high hill sources and deep sea endings. She put a singing seal in Loch na Boune and a lament on the long, lonely winds. She saw a legend in the canna flowers and a plough amongst the stars. And the times in the Lane never really mattered, because of the good times away from it. And I would myself be blind now, if she had never lent me her eyes.
Jessie would always have a gift for friendship, and she needed it: so many people disappeared, particularly from her young life, never to appear again. She had to keep starting again. The last orphanage matron died when she was in a mental hospital in Aberdeen: links to Skene had virtually been cut when she left there for the second time. (She was sent to service on a local farm, but returned to the orphanage after six months because she couldn't concentrate on her work, and singed the best table linen while ironing and reading French poetry at the same time...)
Jessie was sent next to school in Aberdeen, to do a commercial course – hardly the recommended answer for one who wanted to write great poetry, as great as Shakespeare. More, anyone without her divided childhood might have had trouble fitting in to this regime: on the one hand she was sent to school with nice middle-class girls who were absorbed in tennis and very early approaches to boys, and on the other she was simultaneously sent economically to a hostel for girls on probation, often for shoplifting, and they all seemed obsessed with dress, make-up, slang, pop-music and boys.
School was followed by a spell in a shop selling goldfish bowls, but she was soon sacked, because she broke almost as many bowls as she sold, and she became unemployed. Now she began to be accepted by the other girls in the hostel but not by the matron. The matron she encountered in these tormented teenage years in Aberdeen was the worst of all. A former missionary, she resented the fact that Jessie wasn't a criminal, and that she was getting further education. She knew all the facts in Jessie's file, and made her dislike plain. When the girls made Jessie up, and dressed her up one day, she sneered to the effect that Jessie was following in her mother's footsteps. Jessie attacked her and then attempted violence to herself: she ended up in Aberdeen mental hospital for a whole year, aged 17 to 18, not knowing whether she would ever be released.
Alasdair Gray is on record as saying once to a beggar, 'There's nothing wrong with you, my man, that three years good luck wouldn't cure.' Jessie never, as you see, had anything you could call good luck, although she was a world expert at making the best of things. But she did have one crucial piece of good luck in hospital, when a new charge nurse came in, and they recognised each other. Charge Nurse Fowler had been a maid at the orphanage in Jessie's early days there. I don't understand how Jessie bore the extremities I've described, but I am as sure as Jessie was that Charge Nurse Fowler helped to save her. She was the only outsider who could confirm that Jessie was a coherent person, that she hadn't always been 'mad', that she was a bright girl well respected somewhere. After that long year, Jessie was released and sent to the hamlet of Abriachan, high above Loch Ness, to convalesce as helper to an old woman, and to show she was fit for the outside world again.
Jessie went to Abriachan quaking, frightened, amazed at her release. But now she took her life into her hands for the first time – at the first opportunity. She had learned to love poetry and woods from her mother; she had learned it again from the dominie at Skene School. Now she discovered it all over again. I think her important self-therapy maybe began here. In Abriachan she put some armour on. One of her most effective radio plays was about a little Glasgow boy boarded out at Abriachan away from his alcoholic mother, and learning to survive in an alien but beautiful environment. I think Daniel Kernon can be thought to encapsulate her Abriachan experience here:
After that I was happy, I lost need of any personal affection at all from the 'aunt': her coldness skimmed over me and it didn't hurt me any more. I even lost need of the near memory of my mother. I belonged so fully to my own mind, to the brave words I learned in school, to the things my eyes saw, to the music my ears heard.
(Jessie Kesson, 'Somewhere Beyond,' ed Isobel Murray, 2000)
In Abraichan Jessie also met Johnnie Kesson. While all the younger men had been scared off from 'the mental patient,' Johnnie Kesson was sweet and friendly, and proferred sweeties, for Jessie a long-forgotten treat. He was some 11 years older, and had served abroad in the forces. The two fell in love, and soon married, a marriage that was to last 58 years. After her mother, it was the most important relationship in Jessie's life. She once described Johnnie as 'my ballast.' Fairly soon, it wasn't a passionate affair, and all too soon she discovered that he couldn't share her joy in words and writing; but he was her comfort and stay – and she his – for the rest of their lives, and it was this relationship that made possible, in the end, Jessie's taking over her own life, and writing it.
Jessie had taken charge of her own life, but it was still fraught with difficulties. She and Johnnie were unskilled, and they soon started a family, baby Avril being born in 1938. The Kessons became farm workers, cottaring round the north of Scotland, sometimes staying only six months or a year at any one farm. This hard, nomadic life lasted from 1939 until 1951, when Jessie went off to seek the family's fortunes in London. But she began the New Life about 1941, when she began writing for Scottish periodicals, two in particular, the Scots Magazine and North-East Review. Being published was an exhilarating experience in itself, but I also argue in my biography that it was the beginning of a long process of self-healing, of finding that if she could express some of the chaos of her childhood experience she could come to terms with it to some extent, and convince herself of her own coherence as a person.
Much of the early periodical writing was poetry or prose about the early experience, and when Jessie began to write for radio in 1945, it was again her own early experience that she began with. Her bitterness over being deprived of a university education never entirely left her: at 29 she penned her famous poem 'A Scarlet Goon' from a pokey farm-worker's cottage: it ends like this:
But still, I'd hae likit a scarlet goon,
An' a desk o' my ain 'neath the auld grey Croon.
Learnin' a little from the wise,
Dancin' wi' gowden sheen,
Launchin' wi' carefree eyes
– Instead o' lifting tatties in mornin's glaured and cauld.
– O the regret, as a body grows old!
Acceptance by these magazines was unspeakably important to her, and a lesser but important joy came with it – the gradual meeting with other people to whom the life of letters was important. This was a long-held dream. She met J B Salmond, editor of the Scots Magazine, and she and little Avril went and spent a short holiday with the Salmonds, an epoch-making event for both. Then, despite being tied to farms, often near Elgin and her mother, she began gradually to meet the circle of young men who ran North-East Review. To visit Alex and Cath Scott, for example, was a big thrill, even though they were short of beds, and she spent the night in the bath. She went on to establish a number of epistolary relationships with people she could communicate ideas to – usually men, although Nan Shepherd was a notable exception. Her publisher Peter Calvocoressi was the most important of these, and the publishers' archive where he filed her letters was treasure trove for me.
When Jessie laid siege to it, the BBC in Scotland gave way quickly. Although they managed to withstand a number of patently daft ideas, they were bowled over by most, and Jessie's writing became more and more confined to radio, although privately she continued to try to write the early life, the book that would become 'The White Bird Passes,' a book which was already started by 1941 and was not published until 1958. The early radio work was often again fictionalised autobiography, and became not only an end in itself – Stewart Conn has called her 'one of the finest of for-radio practitioners' – but also a means of honing the small body of fiction she produced, in which she claimed always to aim at 'the sma' perfect.' By the time she decided to make for London in 1951, she was well known to the Scottish BBC, writing, appearing in her own plays, and appearing in other people's, such as James Crampsey's famous 'Sunset Song.'
So what made her go to London? Her mother finally died in the Craigmoray Institute of Elgin in 1949, and it was only after that that she talked of departure. And she had an ambition to write for TV, and she had no way of seeing it. And she began to fear that some of her Scottish journalistic mentors were encouraging her too much to 'keep it cosy,' to write Kailyard, and she determined that distance was necessary to keep her writing in proportion.
The job front was always insecure. Johnnie was never strong, and never skilled, so despite his hard work Jessie had to work until retirement age at a succession of usually very heavy jobs, where a supposedly 'unskilled' worker could earn a decent wage. (By the time they went to London, the Kessons had a son, Kenneth, as well as daughter Avril).
Her least pleasant jobs included cleaning the nurses' rooms at the lunatic asylum at Colney Hatch; cleaning the men's lavatories at a cinema in Palmers Green; the night care of invalids and/or elderly, doing heavy lifting, helping with toilet, sitting with the dying as a matter of course; setting up and running old people's homes; being employed as a park snooper, set to look for fungus in the grass and incident exposure in the populace. Jobs she didn't mind included her old standby, Woollies, but they couldn't pay enough for extended periods. Those she really loved included doing psychodrama with disturbed teenagers in London and at Tynepark; posing in the nude as an artist’s model all over London ('the only time I ever got paid for thinking my own thoughts') and being deputy principal of the Cowley Recreational Institute in Brixton, a catch-all institution to contain and hopefully train displaced evacuees back from the country. Best of all was a magic year as a part-time producer on 'Woman's Hour.' Anyone else could have been excused for seeing all this as full-time work.
But not Jessie. Besides work, running the home, and taking care of the children, she had two ongoing quests – to write seriously for the BBC and along the way to make any money she could appearing on 'Woman’s Hour' in any number of unlikely contexts. In the serious writing for the BBC I think she quietly passed a crucial milestone with the radio play 'Somewhere Beyond' in 1961. This first expressed all the tangled emotional horrors of her teens, and left her free to find new subjects – 'Dear Edith,' about a solitary resident in an old folks' home; 'You've Never Slept in Mine,' about a teenage girl taken into care after sexual abuse by her father; 'Three Score and Ten, Sir!' about an old woman who has to relinquish her freedom and move in with her daughter's family, every one of them making serious sacrifices.
The other major achievement of course was to produce those four slim volumes we know as 'The White Bird Passes' in 1958; 'Glitter of Mica' in 1963; 'Where the Apple Ripens' in 1976; and 'Another Time, Another Place' in 1983. Moultrie R Kelsall said in 1963 that he had always known she had a streak of genius: we are all in a position to know this now. More: while writing the biography, I produced another mixed volume of written work and radio work, 'Somewhere Beyond' (2000), which adds substantially to her published oeuvre, if people will demonstrate willingness to read radio scripts.
National fame came late to Jessie, with Michael Radford's television dramatisation of 'The White Bird Passes' in 1980, and then the two co-operated on the film 'Another Time, Another Place' while Jessie produced the book. That film won 14 international awards, and Radford said to me with strong emotion as late as 1998: 'If she had been younger, I could have turned her into a great screen writer.' But all too soon Johnnie's health deteriorated further, and Jessie's life revolved more and more around caring for him. Housebound and very deaf, he was a patient but very exhausting patient.
Two rewards were still to come. When the late Sir Kenneth Alexander was installed as Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen in 1987, he had four Honorary Doctorates in his gift, and one of these was for Jessie. She got a 'scarlet goon' at last, and a very splendid one. And the schoolmates at Skene, whom the orphan had always envied for their security and rootedness, held a special lunch in her honour. This was the nearest she could get to completing the circle, coming home. She died, just six weeks after Johnnie, in 1994.
This article was initially delivered as a lecture at a conference of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland