The best stories, it is often said, contain within them elements of truth. A story that is entirely fictional is one that is difficult to relate to or be immersed within. Likewise, a poem must be a relatable tell. In the case of Jackie Kay’s Brendon Gallacher, a story is told that is a fiction in two ways, one for the reader of the poem, and in another, for the characters within it. In a sense, this is a poem about stories, and it uses those stories, familiar to most, to discuss various themes, such as childhood innocence, the burden of knowledge, and growing up. It is intelligently crafted to discuss these themes simply through the telling of its own story.
Brendon Gallacher Analysis
The first verse of the poem, which can be read in full here, begins in an informal, conversational kind of tone that carries through the rest of the piece. It is told in the first person, and the narrator begins discussing their childhood. The past tense nature of the verse suggests that the poem is being recited as a memory, which adds to the atmosphere, albeit in an unknown way — it suggests, for instance, that something has happened to Gallacher, which is why the narrator feels the need to reflect, but this is unconfirmed. Based on the rest of the verse, it is clear that, even at the ages of six and seven, the two became close, and had discussed their families and heritage. Brendon is one year older than the speaker, and at the time of the memory, they appear to have bonded over their fathers, one of whom was in prison, and the other who worked for the communist party. This line, simply stated, suggests a friendship between the two children, who could relate to each other by talking about their fathers, or about their siblings, or heritage.
The second verse continues the informal tone of the poem, and also continues the pattern of five lines in each verse. It describes the things the two children would do together; holding hands, they’d spend time in natural sceneries, and Gallacher would discuss his family’s poverty, and his desire to contribute financially, and to buy his mother a holiday, someplace far from Glasgow, the Scottish city in which she lives. The narrator also notes that they told their mother about their friend. It is interesting to note that when the two children hold hands and speak, they are discussing Gallacher’s family and his life, rather than the speaker’s, or evenly discussing both children’s lives.
Continuing from the previous verse, the speaker tells their mother about their friend, and, as mentioned previously, much of their conversations had to do with Gallacher’s life and family, so the speaker has much to tell — about how his mother drinks, his father is in jail, and the poverty of the family. Despite this, the speaker resists having him over for dinner, preferring to meet him outside, and suggesting he may be embarrassed by the holes in his pants.
What’s interesting about this point in the poem is its atmosphere. The language is highly conversational — “I like meeting him,” “He would hold my hand,” “Then one day…” — and yes, there is no pointed purpose for the story so far. As is, the speaker is simply reminiscing about a time, however long ago it was, when they had a childhood friend named Brendon Gallacher, but why they’re reminiscing is unclear. The implication remains that something has happened to Brendon, but not knowing what it is or where the story is headed almost makes the colloquial language uneasy, as though there is important information missing.
The story now takes a turn for the strange, as, after two years of friendship (suggesting the narrator is now eight years old), the speaker’s mother approaches them and asks them about Brendon, because she recently met a Mrs. Moir, who lives next door to Gallacher’s address, and has never heard of him or his family. Despite the fairly surprising suggestion, the language remains casual, reminding the reader that they are experiencing a memory, a reflection of the past, and nothing more.
By the end of the poem, much sense can be made of the earlier verses. As soon as the narrator’s mother tells them that they are not, nor have there ever been a family called Gallacher at the house, Brendon Gallacher dies, which suggests that he was never real in the first place — an imaginary friend the narrator created as a child. That Gallacher dies only in that moment suggests too that as a child, the narrator truly believed him to be real. Despite this, it’s worth pointing out that subconsciously, they always knew — in the way they insisted he not come over for dinner, and only ever met him in quiet wilderness areas.
Two years is a long time to have an imaginary friend, however — the speaker wound up creating an entire history for Gallacher in the form of his criminal father and drunk mother, and also in physical appearance — when the speaker returns to their room after that conversation, they imagine they see the body of their friend, complete with minute details like the one fully flapping ear. They truly created a real friend, and with a few short words, the reality of the present ended the last two years in an instant, leaving nothing behind but a memory.
Brendon Gallacher draws upon a number of similarities from Jackie Kay’s own life that add additional depth to the story. Kay, for instance, was born in Edinburgh and adopted by a family in Glasgow. Her adoptive father was a member of the communist party as well. If Jackie Kay was to be presented as the narrator of the poem, it would make sense to consider Gallacher as a parallel of her own identity, rather than simply a metaphor for growing up. The poem uses Gallacher in such a way, exploring the thin divide between reality and a child’s reality, and the point by which they’ve grown up, casting away their imaginary friends and embracing their real ones. Whether or not any parallel exists between this moment and Kay’s own life is unclear — but it is fair to assume that like most children, the experience of growing up is one that she remembers and carries with her throughout adulthood.