It takes a life time to become yourself

Kay Carmichael, It Takes a Lifetime to Become Yourself. Edited, David Donnison. Edinburgh: Scotland Street Press, 2017. Pp. xxii, 250. £9.99 Pbk.


Very occasionally in life one meets someone who can only properly be described as extraordinary. Kay Carmichael was such a person, and this collection of her writings, both in prose and poems, edited by her husband David Donnison, offers a profound glimpse into her life and the foundations of her character. Damaged as a child by the Church, six years before her death in 2009, Kay published a remarkable book entitled Sin and Forgiveness (a revision of her doctoral thesis in Glasgow University) that is rooted, among other things, in her work in high security prisons, and speaks with a new complexity about the absolute necessity of forgiveness in a post-Christian world.
It is hard to write a review of the words of one whose presence I still miss acutely – and I am one of a very large number of people of who feel much the same about Kay. In so many ways her life was a hard one, but lived with a searing honesty and adherence to deep principles of justice and truth as is evident on every page of this book. Its honesty is grounded in Kay’s felt experience of life and her courageous battle, from her very earliest days, against cruelty and all that diminishes our humanity and the gift of life. Her prominence in national life was, in many ways, kept hidden but touched the lives of many, transforming and giving new dignity to some whom society had utterly rejected and excluded. In a way her papers for New Society entitled “Saints and Sinners” sum Kay up for me. We are all sinners, and churches and many other people love to remind us of this, but the more important thing is to find the saint that lies somewhere in each of also. Kay was, in the very best sense of the word, a deeply religious person – which is to say that her commitments were absolute and enduring, and this becomes deeply evident in the nature of her writing that can be moving, funny, angry, exact and always honest. In her soul she was a poet, and I am glad that David Donnison has preserved some of her poems for us.
I sense that in some ways the heart of this book, and the key to Kay’s life is when she describes her work as a peace activist and her time as a prisoner in Cornton Vale Prison. Nowhere is she more free, more Kay, than in these pages. At her funeral (which was packed with people) her husband read out his account of her request to speak to the Chaplain because, although she admitted to no religion, she had a spiritual problem. The problem was, she confessed, “I am finding it very difficult to love the Governor.” It was an act of extraordinary bravery, but it was also very funny – and the crematorium chapel rocked with laughter. When Kay was released she sent, anonymously, a large bouquet of flowers to the prison officers.
It is entirely appropriate that this volume of Kay’s writings should be reviewed in a journal dedicated to the study of literature and theology. It was not simply that Glasgow University’s now defunct Centre for the Study of Literature, Theology and the Arts was honoured to have Kay Carmichael as one of its graduates – she gained her PhD when she was a youthful 75 – but that her life, so hurt by the institutions of the Christian religion, was a kind of lived theology that she expressed with a humble but always ready pen. A photograph of Kay forms the cover of this book – upright, looking forward with a lovely, defiant smile, a person to be loved and not to be trifled with. Nothing became her more than her death. She had written shortly before: “… Ceasing to believe in hell or heaven came as a great relief. I could see death as a friend… no longer something to fear…” It is yet another gift that Kay left for us.

David Jasper
Glasgow and Beijing. 2017