In Bloody Orkney

Robert Crawford

  • George Mackay Brown: The Life by Maggie Fergusson
    Murray, 363 pp, £25.00, April 2006, ISBN 0 7195 5659 7
  • The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray
    Murray, 547 pp, £18.99, October 2006, ISBN 0 7195 6884 6

Poets need to dig in. This involves psychological concentration, a focus on the act of writing, but also on how to limber up for writing: they must be open to the often accidental stimuli that nourish poems. Travel can encourage this, but too much travel dilutes it. For many poets familiar ground is best. Tennyson had the gateposts of his house distinctively painted so that he didn’t carry on past them when he was out composing. Poets must also entrench themselves in sound and syntax, learn to be at home in rhythms, etymological echoes, idioms and vocabulary. This linguistic digging in can be quickened by listening to other tongues, yet it is almost unknown for a poet to settle in a language – as distinct from an accent – learned after childhood. Only a few remarkable people have written with distinction in a language that was not their first.

Native language matters more than native place. Robert Frost was a Californian who entrenched himself in New England. T.S. Eliot, for all his Russell Square papistry, came from St Louis. These poets grew to be associated with the territories they adopted and which adopted them. The idea that a place or community might actually speak through the poet, or co-produce the poetry, may be a primitive one going back to a time when poet and place might be inseparable – was the Delphic Oracle a poet or a place? Some diggers-in emblematise that act to such an extent that their lives as well as their poetry and their place acquire an undeflectable fascination. This is as true of Cavafy in Alexandria as it is of George Mackay Brown in Orkney.

Born in the Orcadian harbour town of Stromness in 1921, Brown was the youngest of six children. His father was a local postman, his mother an incomer from mainland Scotland. He came to be associated with the terrain of the Orkney archipelago, about which he wrote poetry and prose collected in many books from the 1950s until his death in 1996. Some of the small stone houses on the long, crooked main street of Stromness are built end-on so that their frontages face the stone piers that lead off the street. Cars are forced almost into shop doorways as they attempt to pass each other. The street, like Brown himself, who lived a good deal of his life just off it, negotiates between antiquity and modernity with a resilient, weathered aplomb. Today, tourists travel from Stromness to nearby Neolithic sites, such as the Ring of Brodgar, or the great mound of Maes Howe. Going for a short walk you can tramp across several millennia – from a car-ferry terminal to a Stone Age monument in an hour or less. Orkney is a very distinctive place, and anyone who digs in under its huge skies must come to terms with that; must, as Brown did, risk the accusation of willed eccentricity.

The digging-in of poets can be romanticised, but more usually their relationship to place and community is scratchy. The poet is drawn into the place and draws it into his or her work. He or she also wishes to take from it what a poet needs, and what the place and its people may resist giving. There is often a tussle between the necessary immediate selfishness of the writer and the essential communal life and obligations of a society. Afterwards, fans, commentators and alert local tourist officers make it seem as if the poet and the place had been made for each other all along.

One of the many strengths of Maggie Fergusson’s biography is that she does not sanitise her subject. He is presented neither as a northern St George, nor as a modern-day version of St Magnus, the patron saint of Brown’s archipelago. Fergusson feels and captures the importance of Orkney to Brown. She also communicates his strong, sometimes tortured spirituality and gives a good sense of his poetry. Fergusson is tempted at times by a version of Orkney as idyll: she could not have written this book were she oblivious to the beauty of the place through whose ‘eye of the needle’, as Seamus Heaney puts it, Brown ‘transforms everything’. At the same time, though, her book reveals the ruthlessness of poets as they hunt for and construct an environment from which they can draw (and sometimes leech) the resources they need for their work. Following the awkwardly constructed and uninvitingly written ‘literary biography’ of Brown by Rowena and Brian Murray, published in 2004, this new account is clear and stylish. Fergusson’s most arresting new material concerns his dealings with women, about which she is remarkably non-judgmental. At times, however, she seems reluctant to sift the inferior, autopiloted Brown (‘Truth turns to pain. Our coats grow sere’) from the master craftsman with language.

Brown made his first poem, a ballad in praise of Stromness, when he was eight. Seven decades of creative engagement with Stromness (aka ‘Hamnavoe’) followed. There are remarkable – and occasionally monotonous – continuities in Brown’s work: a TLS reviewer (not quoted by Fergusson) called him ‘Johnny One-Note with a vengeance’. The first poem in Brown’s first pamphlet, The Storm and Other Poems (1954), begins: ‘For the islands I sing.’ More than four decades later these same words become the title of Brown’s posthumously published autobiography. Wisely, Fergusson does not always take Brown’s autobiographical writings at face value, but she does use them to show continuities and connections. In his teens Brown grew seriously intoxicated by poetry: ‘It was the words and sound and rhythms that made me drunk. I never stopped to ask what the poets meant; the music and the dance of words were the whole meaning.’ Though the poetry of his fellow Orcadian Edwin Muir baffled him, he heard in it a beguiling ‘secret and exact music’.

Brown learned much from musical masters such as Tennyson, Hopkins, Eliot and Dylan Thomas, although at his best he could cut free from them and write with a plain clarity:

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