Laureation Address – A L Kennedy

Thursday 21 June 2012

A L Kennedy
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

Laureation by Professor Robert Crawford
School of English
Thursday 21 June 2012

AL Kennedy

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present A L Kennedy for the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

A L Kennedy – the initials stand for Alison Louise – was born in Dundee in 1965. A piece of hers in the Dundee High School magazine was commended as the ‘best item of prose’ by judges in a competition run by the Scotsman newspaper. In the 1980s she wrote monologues and stories while studying for her BA in Theatre Studies and Drama at the University of Warwick, where she has taught Creative Writing since 2007. After her student days she returned to Scotland, working in Clydebank as a Community Arts Worker, before being appointed in 1989 writer in residence for Hamilton and East Kilbride Social Work Department and Project Ability, an arts organisation championing equality of access to the arts.

In 1990 A L Kennedy’s first collection of stories, Night Moves and the Garscadden Trains, was published by Polygon in Edinburgh, the publisher whose list included work by James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and other celebrated writers. The stories showed a finely nuanced imagination, sometimes with a controlled zaniness: one story is titled ‘The role of notable silences in Scottish history’; another is called ‘Genteel potatoes’. As well as winning the Scotsman Saltire prize, the book was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Its gift for phrasing and unsettling narrative established A L Kennedy as a singular new voice, something recognised again when her first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, was published in 1993.

Over the last two decades a succession of short-story collections and novels has established Kennedy as one of Britain’s leading fiction writers. Whether bringing Cyrano de Bergerac to Glasgow in So I Am Glad or reimagining the Second World War in her 2007 historical novel Day, she has made fictions whose subject matter has a writerly unpredictability. She has produced non-fiction about topics that fascinate her – from classic British cinema to bullfighting; but it is her sheer style which has established her as this country’s finest short story writer.

When Alison Kennedy taught Creative Writing at this university between 2003 and 2007 I recall a conversation in which we discovered we each admired a phrase from Muriel Spark’s novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: ‘hard-wearing flowers’. Like Muriel Spark, A L Kennedy is a very shrewd listener; her listening informs a prose both keenly alert and bleakly humorous. Her gift for pinpoint phrasing is heard in the title of her 2002 collection, Indelible Acts, and, though the book includes considerations of such subjects as war crimes and domestic abuse, its characteristic ‘indelible acts’ are so significantly subtle that, as in the opening of the first story, a less careful ear would fail to imagine them:

Things could go wrong with one letter, he knew that now. Just one.
‘Actually, I moved here ten years ago.’
He had found it so terribly, pleasantly effortless to say, ‘Actually, I moved here ten years ago.’
There had only been a little thickness about the m, a tiny falter there that might have suggested a stammer, or a moment’s pause to let him total up those years. Nobody listening, surely, would have guessed his intended sentence had been, ‘Actually, I’m married.’ In the course of one consonant everything had changed.

That ear for detail, that finesse, characterises Kennedy’s prose throughout her work. Nor does she hesitate to write about the deepest human needs. Her writing disturbs more than it consoles, as if she has little time for consolation. Few things are more gripping or disturbingly funny than her 1999 account of being about to jump from a fourth-storey window, but being stopped by hearing ‘a man’s voice, cheaply amplified and criminally flat and singing what has always been my least favourite folk song in all the world – Mhairi’s Wedding … Murdering myself to this accompaniment is more than I can bear.’

A L Kennedy is not a ‘safe’ writer; but as an artist she is often wise. A driven literary perfectionist (her entry in Who’s Who reads ‘Recreations: Few’), she authors prose that is important, while eschewing self-importance. A L Kennedy has won numerous prizes, including the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award, the Costa Book of the Year Award, the Encore Award, and, in America, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. Her work is translated into many languages, including German, French, and Spanish. She has had successful parallel careers as a journalist and as a stand-up comedian; yet her best invention is the remarkably crafted literary prose that makes her one of this country’s finest contemporary writers.

Chancellor, in recognition of her signal contribution to the art of fiction, I invite you to confer on A L Kennedy the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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