Novelist AL Kennedy. Photo: Campbell Mitchell
Published: 7 June, 2012
by AMY SMITH
We’ve all marveled at a friend or relative who changes their accent on the phone or around certain people.
For writer and comedian AL Kennedy the different voices we use are the subject of her one-woman show, Proof of Life, that she will perform as part of the Holloway Arts Festival on Sunday.
The show will make connections between a writer’s different voices beyond the page; the voice in which they carry on their own interior narratives and the voice with which they address the world.
“It’s a talk I wrote after working on voice for quite a long time and having thought about voice for a long time.” Kennedy says.
“It strikes a chord with people – everyone wants to be heard and accents and audibility and who’s allowed to be heard are all such big issues.”
Ruth Robinson, director of the Holloway Arts Festival, saw Proof of Life being performed and was so impressed she was determined to include Kennedy in the festival programme.
“It was a tour de force,” Ms Robinson says. “She told us about a life-changing experience and took me along on the journey. It was exhilarating.”
Born in Dundee in 1965 to English parents, Kennedy became skilled at living with a different accent at home to that at school.
“I never really had a Dundee accent,” she recalls. “My parents were English, so at home I sounded like them and their university friends. I could pass in the street and sound like a middle-class scot for school. And I could mix in with my grandparents who were in Staffordshire.
“Like a lot of people in communities with a non-dominant sound, I can basically sound the way you’d like me to. My parents had erased their accents (North Welsh and Brummie) and so they were very fastidious that I should be RP [Received Pronunciation], or as close as I could get.
“I’ve written in Staffordshire, because that seemed to belong to me, or be something I knew. My basic writing voice is my voice, which is a bit colourless really.”
This early skill at manipulating language and inhabiting different accents has perhaps contributed to her storytelling ability.
She has won many literary awards including the Saltire Award, Costa Prize, Lannan Award and was also a Booker Prize judge.
Her most recent novel, The Blue Book, was long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.
It follows the reunion of two fake psychics on a cruise ship and moves between their shared past and present.
Kennedy’s meticulous research for the book involved meeting a number of mediums.
“I visited a swami, an obeah woman and a cyber witch and all kinds of palm readers,” she explains. “Some were bored, some were outright malevolent and wanted to render the sitter dependent – ‘Everyone is plotting against you, only I can tell you what’s real’ – one was quite nice and clearly wanted me to feel good about life while one did the sitting and then left, stepping out into the road and nearly being hit by a van he didn’t see...
“I’ve didn’t meet anyone who impressed me as being in any way real.”
This was compounded by her discovery of a particularly cynical tip in a guide to faking psychic powers: when you are struggling to make a connection with a person, mention an attempted suicide.
“The manual reckoned that would always be penetrating and correct stab in the dark, which made me pause – because it’s horrible, but also because it means all the people who annoy me and get in my way and so forth have had or will have moments of utter despair.”
Despite each book having a long gestation – The Blue Book took 4 years of writing and research – Kennedy doesn’t have any problems with saying goodbye to the characters.
“It’s time they should go and you’re happy to hand them their hat and coat,” she says.
“They came to you to tell that story and it’s been told.”
The decision to write under her initials is founded in Kennedy’s childhood appreciation of authors JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, E Nesbit and e.e. cummings. And for those wondering what the initials “AL” stand for, I won’t say but 150 visitors to her website believe it to be “Almond Ladybits”.
Kennedy is currently in the research stage of a new novel and plans to release a book of non-fiction pieces, On Writing, next Spring.
• Tickets are available for Proof of Life at www.hollowayartsfestival.co.uk (see panel below)
Thursday June 7
Comedy Night with Josie Long, Otis Cannelloni and host Paul Lyalls. The Horatia, 100 Holloway Road, N7 8JE. 8.30pm until late, £7/5, age 18+
Friday June 8
Singer Songwriter Com petition Finals. The Horatia, 8pm until late. Free. age 14+
Saturday June 9
Unlocking the potential of Family Film Footage: Workshop from Paul Sherreard of the London Metropolitan Archives. The Old Fire Station, Mayton Street N7 6QT.
3-5pm. Free. Age 12+
Liz Bentley Performance Night, with comedian Rosie Wilby, poet Rob Auton and country band Senor Al & The JJs. The Old Fire Station, 8.30pm until late. £5/£2.50. Age 18+
Sunday June 10
Sunday Best: A day of events including acclaimed author A L Kennedy, performer Lois Tucker and Islington Reels Gala Screening. Platform, 260 Hornsey Road, N7 7QT. 7.30pm
Holloway Arts Festival Closing Party. The Horatia, 8.30-late. Free. Age 14+
• The Holloway Arts Festival is produced by Rowan Arts. Full details of events at www.hollowayartsfestival.co.uk. For tickets and enquires call 07975 758 756, or call at The Old Fire Station, 84 Mayton Street, N7.