Jackie Kay is a Scottish writer of mixed ethnicity. She was born in Edinburgh in 1961 and adopted by a family from Glasgow, where she grew up. She often draws on her childhood and family situation in her writing. As a Scottish, half-black lesbian woman, adopted as a small child, her experiences are interesting and unconventional. This may be why her poetic voice and the subjects she tackles are so intriguing and relatable.
Kay is known for dramatic performances of her work at readings, in the Scottish tradition of public poetry. Her work has strong, simple images and she often uses repetition, associated with the theme of loss. Music is a strong influence on the rhythm and style of Kay’s work.
The poem, Brendan Gallagher, tells an unusual story about Jackie Kay and her imaginary childhood friend, in the context of her life in Glasgow. GCSE students in the UK may also be familiar with Jackie Kay’s poem Yellow. The two can be usefully compared, in that they both describe family life and how children deal with their internal lives and their place within the family.
The poem comprises five stanzas of five lines each, known as quintains'. There is an interesting and subtle rhyme scheme. Nearly all the line endings are consonantly rhymed. For example, ‘dinner’, ‘burglar’, ‘Novar’. ‘Trousers’, ‘years’ and ‘indoors’ make up another set of consonantly rhymed line endings.
Langauge and Imagery
The voice is the first person singular ‘I’, and the language is colloquial and easy to understand, though the poem expresses complex ideas and emotions. The depiction of the childhood imaginary ‘friend’ is vivid; notably the ‘impish grin’ and ‘funny, flapping ear’.
He was seven and I was six, my Brendon Gallacher.
He was Irish and I was Scottish, my Brendon Gallacher.
His father was in prison; he was a cat burglar.
My father was a communist party full-time worker.
He had six brothers and I had one, my Brendon Gallacher.
He would hold my hand and take me by the river
where we’d talk all about his family being poor.
He’d get his mum out of Glasgow when he got older.
A wee holiday some place nice. Some place far.
I’d tell my mum about my Brendon Gallacher
how his mum drank and his daddy was a cat burglar.
And she’d say, ‘Why not have him round to dinner?’
No, no, I’d say, he’s got big holes in his trousers.
I like meeting him by the burn in the open air.
Then one day after we’d been friends two years,
One day when it was pouring and I was indoors,
My mum says to me, ‘I was talking to Mrs Moir
who lives next door to your Brendon Gallacher
Didn’t you say his address was 24 Novar?
She says there are no Gallachers at 24 Novar
There never have been any Gallachers next door.’
And he died then, my Brendon Gallacher,
flat out on my bedroom floor, his spiky hair,
his impish grin, his funny, flapping ear.
Oh Brendon. Oh my Brendon Gallacher.
When you first read this one, a very definite impression is made on the mind of the reader. A young boy is speaking and telling the reader about a friend he had when he was young, but as you get to a certain point in the poem, the eyebrows raise and you suddenly realise that Brendon Gallacher is not real, but an imaginary friend.
The boy tells us that when he was very little, he had this special friend. It is something that some of us have in life, a crutch if you like, to help us walk through difficult times. This friend is no different for the reader sees that “Brendon Gallacher … was Irish” whilst the young boy in the poem is from Scotland. At that point the hint is made that something is wrong here but the reader goes past it assuming that he is talking about a boy who lives nearby. We are told that Gallacher’s father is “in prison; he was a cat burglar,” whilst the boy’s father “was a communist party full-time worker.” once again, the romance of the “cat burglar” in a world where his father is aligned to the Communist Party shows a boy who is living and growing up, using his active imagination.
The use of rhyme here helps the reader to grasp this sense of friendship and camaraderie that exists between real and made up friends. This is borne out in the next line when the reader sees that this friend, called Brendon, has “six brothers” whilst the boy in question has only one, his “Brendon Gallacher.” There is a feeling of loneliness in life here, a feeling that we are reading about one very unhappy little boy, possibly a boy with few friends who needs to be imaginative to survive.
Then the poem goes into some detail about what the boy would do during the day with Brendon Gallacher. The two of them would go to the river where Brendon would “talk all about his family being poor.” The words here are meant to echo and be symbolic of what the young boy wants for his family when he is older. In psychological terms, the young lad is projecting his own angst of being alone in life into an imaginary friend, someone who has the power to “get his mum out of Glasgow when he [gets] older.” To the little boy, who has no power, this is an outlet for his own feelings and is a perfectly acceptable form of behaviour in a way. He wants to get out of Glasgow, where he lives into “a wee holiday some place nice. Some place far.” As he is unable to make such things happen he makes up the imaginary friend and then tells his mother about his friend as a way of making these things happen in his imagination. But the boy’s imagination is one that paints a lurid picture of his friend, a friend who has a Mum who drinks, a father who is “a cat burglar,” making it so that the reader feels some sympathy towards the little boy. His friends are ‘rough and ready,’ the sort that stand by you whilst at the same time, are considered by mothers and fathers to be the sort of friend that is not good enough for you.
Then the poem turns the reader into the right direction when the mother says “why not have him round to dinner?” At this point the boy, who has made up the new friend, has to go on the defensive. He has to lie to his mother, something she would no doubt not be happy with. His excuses are normal. He says the friend cannot come to dinner because “he’s got big holes in his trousers” and he would therefore be ashamed of his poverty, again maybe that the little boy might be feeling at the same time. So his mother pushes the point home, as if she knows this lad is made up by her son, as if she is trying ultimately to help her son out of this make believe situation. This is a loving and caring mother.
He has ‘known’ this imaginary friend for “two years” when his mother finally challenges him about Brendon Gallacher. The mother does something that mothers do; she checks on her son’s friends to see who they are, where they live, what sort of friend are they? Parents do this because they do not wish their children to be walking the streets with the ‘wrong sort.’ It is their way of protecting their children, so to see words like “my mum says to me, ‘I was talking to Mrs Moir who lives next door to your Brendon Gallacher,” does not come as too much of a surprise to the reader, for we expect a resolution to the conflict in the poem.
The mother checks and asks “didn’t you say his address was 24 Novar?” When this has been done she follows it up with “there are no Gallachers at 24 Novar; there never have been any Gallachers next door.” At this point the reader sees what is happening and realises all too well that the friend is indeed, made up. For the first time reader, this is the moment where truth dawns in a world of lies, where we see what the boy is actually doing and then the sadness emerges. The boy tells us that “he died then, my Brendon Gallacher.” It is as if his mother has switched off the boy’s dreams by proving her point, that his imagination has been defeated, that he has to return to the land of the normal, the reality of existence as it actually is, poverty stricken, miserable and painful.
His form of escape has died at this point which makes the poem, for me, quite sad and emotive [emotional]. The added description of the now deceased imaginary friend, laid “flat out on [his] bedroom floor, his spiky hair, his impish grin, his funny, flapping ear” brings the reader to a sense of sadness for the little boy, which is done on purpose to make us think about our own childhood and the friends we have, to make us think of what we do as parents when we destroy the imaginary in favour of the real in our children’s minds.
“Oh Brendon. Oh my Brendon Gallacher,” cries the boy, as he once again realises that he cannot get away with this made up friend in a very real world. This makes the ending of the poem both sad and reflective, the sort of poem that makes you stop and think at the end, bringing about a feeling that although the little boy has been made to grow up a little more, his growing up is being handled well by his mother, who tries to show and share her love for him.