by Ian Bell

Breaking the Silence

October 28, 2009 | by Ian Bell

GEORGE MACKAY BROWN was a writer who had no choice in the matter. He was unfit, in most of the usual meanings of the word, for any other work. Illness mapped him out to begin with, an island within an island, but his incapacity was more than physical. Nor was it always unwelcome.

Sick or well, Mackay Brown lacked aptitude and inclination for the usual writer’s bargains with life and work. Classrooms were never his favourite places and he foiled any slim chance that he might end up a teacher. Higher education made him uneasy, aesthetically and emotionally, forestalling any risk of a career as a professor-poet, even if his post-graduate work at Edinburgh (on his beloved Gerard Manley Hopkins) had approached adequacy. Something in this author was wary of books, book-learning, and what he called “kultur”.

He filled Orkney newspaper columns for several decades, but no one ever mistook him for a conventional journalist. He did his share, for a time, of local news and reviews, and turned his ‘Island Diary’ into an institution, but newsprint was a paper pulpit, sometimes an eyrie, never a full-time, nine-to-midnight occupation. In any case, his calling, a vocation with the sense of old religion, lay elsewhere, and just as well. Early or late in life, he never got the hang of careers.

Ten years after his death the largest claims are still being made for Mackay Brown’s work. The dust jacket notes give the shorthand versions: “arguably Scotland’s finest poet and writer of the twentieth century”; “recognised as one of Scotland’s greatest twentieth-century lyric poets”; “one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished and original writers”; and so, reasonably enough, on. A self-effacing man has status; a private man is made public. It is as though he heeded T.S. Eliot’s dictum and educated the readership he needed before slipping away to avoid the fuss.

Last year the Collected Poems appeared, a handsome and hefty 547 pages of text that takes merciful editorial issue, here and there, with the writer’s tinkering and tendency to self-censorship. Now we have Maggie Fer-gusson’s elegant, affectionate Life, picking gently at the knots and tangles of a cat’s cradle personality. Greenvoe, Vinland, Hawkfall and Beside the Ocean of Time have all been republished recently. Orkney – past, present and never-existing – is meanwhile known to thousands across the world because of George Mackay Brown.

He was a writer only. Every other possibility was sabotaged along the way. The ‘need’ to write is a commonplace, but so is the need to eat, to pay your way: most compromise and he, helplessly thrawn, did not. He had better reasons than most: tuberculosis claimed him as a 20-year-old and returned at intervals, most notably ending his idyll (and disabling part of a lung) at Newbattle Abbey college in the early 1950s. Nevertheless, even a biographer as sympathetic as Fer-gusson senses an ambiguity, a hint of self-deceit, in these episodes. Of Mackay Brown’s misery during teacher-training, she writes: “Always dependable in times of crisis, ill-health came swiftly to his rescue”.

Put aside, then, the ill-luck of ill-health and the difficulty he had in reconciling his tem-perament with the world as he found it. You could just as easily say that this or that didn’t work out in his life, that he was unlucky in love or frustrated and dismayed by the modern world. It makes more sense to say that there was deliberation, even an iron ruthlessness, behind Mackay Brown’s surrender to writing. Here was a man who cast himself adrift in the hope, a dim one to begin with, that writing would provide a compass. He connived with his fate. To understand why his work is so distinctive you must first understand as much.

When The Storm, his first small, self-published book of verse, appeared in 1954 Mackay Brown was 33 and had never held down a recognised, ‘respectable’ job. He said he had no desire for such a thing. Yet by the time he was 40, in 1961, he had managed to ensure that he was jeopardised neither by qualifications nor opportunities. Whatever the proximate causes, that was no accident. Equally, while no man chooses sickness, Mackay Brown was honest enough to admit that sometimes sickness was a respite.

In Interrogations of Silence, their 2004 study of his work, Rowena and Brian Murray describe a writer attracted to “closed societies”. Whether hospital, college or university, these “would continue to provide safe havens from the pains and distractions of life”. They would also create a protective space, like a bubble, around Mackay Brown and his writing. You could view his conversion to Roman Catholicism, the least Orcadian of acts, in similar terms. You could argue, equally, that each of his intense relationships with women, as described by Fergusson, failed ultimately because Mackay Brown could not or would not admit another into his private and closed society.

Above all, his ambivalent relationship with Orkney, by no means a case of unconditional love, put him at a distance, a safe distance, from a wider world. This does not mean that he was parochial. It does mean that he marked his territory early, physically, personally and artistically. In the passage of the seasons or the hinterlands of a local, mythologized history there was, in his implicit argument, all that anyone could or would know about being human. He thus made a large, troubling assumption: what was true for George Mackay Brown was somehow true for everyone. This man was an island, or rather an archipelago, a cluster of perspectives in a variable climate. So, supposedly, are we all.

True? It was as though he prevented himself, in the long years before fame, from accepting any occupation that might have prevented him from writing. It was as though, needing love, he balked at the price of love. It was as though, intensely preoccupied with the nature of the species, he kept the species at arm’s length. This isn’t typical, or common, or universal. Yet before anyone asks about the writer Mackay Brown became, they should wonder what the hard-drinking postman-tailor’s son might have become. Without his stories, his poems, his mornings at a kitchen table with paper and pen, like a monk at his devotions? Nothing much.

Break the rules. Read biography and work side by side, one overlapping the other. What you notice, or believe you notice, is this: Mackay Brown wrote as he did precisely because of his inability to live as others live. He could see and understand the ground at his feet well enough. He was at home in nature the way some people are at home in prayer. The man who never had a job felt the deep rhythms of work, of farming labour and fishing labour. He could also sense far metaphysical horizons, mythic and religious, where time ceased to be a matter of quantity and mind became spirit. He was drawn towards those horizons in his writing over and over again.

But the middle ground? The place where people lived, married, studied dull books for the right to work in dull jobs, raised children, watched TV, and never grasped the seductiveness of the closed society? The big world, wider and narrower? It appears rarely in Mackay Brown’s work. When it does, as in Greenvoe, it is shown no mercy. Sometimes it is seen – and there is nothing worse for him – as merely “modern” and materialistic, a world of “progress” that is no progress. It seems to deny God, nature and common roots. It destroys the old island sense of community. More than that, it disturbs the silence to which, he believed, art and belief tend.

He spoke of silence, paradoxically enough, in many of his poems. “In a sense all writing – my own included – aspires to the same condition of silence,” he said. Silence was associated with death, death with God, and each with the quest for the unattainable perfect line, the perfect verse, the perfect book. “The second-best poem is silence”: the very best poem cannot, after all, be written. “When the lamp pales/ And every story is told/ And the last bottle is dry,/ Be off, quickly get back/ To your good silence.” (‘New Year Stories’).

Sometimes Mackay Brown demands much of his readers, sometimes too little. In his poems, the concentration of metaphor, gleaned from Norse sagas, is endlessly surprising. A poem such as ‘John Barleycorn’, conflating and confusing pagan and Christian ideas of rebirth – “In furrows born,/ Forever I flush the winters of men with wassails of corn” – is distilled, aptly, to the point where no excess remains. Equally, the writer’s persistent belief in life’s “constants”, in the essential, ineradicable facts of humanity, is justified time and again in poems such as the early ‘Hamnavoe Market’, or the late ‘Lux Perpetua’: “A star for a cradle/ Sun for plough and net/ A fire for old stories/ A candle for the dead”.

Nowhere is Mackay Brown more stubbornly insistent on his own reality than in his poems. For the sake of greater truths, as he sees them, he excludes many things. Does he also exclude many readers? The Collected Poems contain no fewer than seven poems on St Magnus, a totemic figure for the writer. Yet in one, important sense you would need to have lived Mackay Brown’s life to understand how Orkney, belief and art are conjoined in the story of a long-dead saint. It approaches a private mythology and the poems become texts for another closed society.

Mackay Brown looks backwards constantly. In 1969’s An Orkney Tapestry he described a history and a culture, but he also created a kind of manifesto deriding “progress” – “a rootless, utilitarian faith, without beauty or mystery” – and elevating “a place of remembrance”, “roots and sources”, as the heart of poetry. In his work, the past lives. Yet in point of hard fact, no one lives there. You could say that Mackay Brown offers a rich, complex, life-affirming personal mythology. But as you unpick his sometimes archaic syntax, as you notice that his universal “Hamnavoe” (his native Stromness) excludes as much of the world as it embraces, you reach a different conclusion: this is a reactionary writer, in the deepest sense of the word.

At times, in fact, you wonder if there is not a little too much of what the French call folklorique about Brown’s self-created Orcadian universe. In the poems, sheer skill quells most such doubts. It is no crime for an artist to be reactionary, particularly if he is intensely concerned with God and man’s fate. Brown’s stories and novels are, however, a different matter.

They are praised routinely for their spare, economical, near-childlike style. After a few dozen one-sentence paragraphs you begin to wonder if they are not, in fact, slightly childish. Certainly the tales are formulaic, the characters so ‘universal’ they seem clichés. The best stories approach the simplicity of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and invoke the same sense of wonder towards the mysteries concealed in everyday things. At other times – Beside the Ocean of Time is a clear example – Mackay Brown’s approach to character and history is about as sophisticated as Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.

Prose, too often, allowed the writer to recycle a dilute version of his poetry into a misty, imagistic and portentous mode that is anything but “spare” or “lean”. Take a passage, genuinely at random, from Beside the Ocean of Time. “See, there he is, the new-born child, in his little ship of time, his cradle/ It is early morning – sunrise – and the ship and solitary voyager have been cast on to this island, out of the vast of eternity. A young mother bends and kisses the stranger. The young bearded father lifts him into the light.”

A matter of taste, perhaps. There are, in any case, many better examples of Mackay Brown’s prose, but also many examples a good deal worse. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that Edwin Muir, the writer’s Newbattle mentor and Orcadian predecessor, advised him to stick to poetry. Poet-novelists are rare, perhaps because the disciplines mix badly, if at all, perhaps because the habits of mind required are somehow antithetical. Where Mackay Brown’s poems are finely-wrought, his stories too often seem slapdash. What is concentrated to kernels of meaning and image in his verse becomes diffuse in his prose.

Grant, nevertheless, that many admire his novels and stories hugely, even that odd and (for my money) incoherent allegory, Time in a Red Coat. Yet would this passage have survived in a George Mackay Brown poem? “Most summers, the stalks grew tall and yearned towards the sun, green and dewy, and larks sung above the fields morning and evening. Then, yearning too ardently, the stalks drooped their overburdened heads, and they had a burnish on them, to signify that they were kin, the benign fire in the sky and the bronze whispering hosts in the village fields below.”

A decade after a writer’s death the cards, inevitably, are reshuffled. George Mackay Brown was a fine lyric poet who possessed a heroic stubbornness and a matchless ear for the rise and fall of a line. He made readers see a world that had become invisible, reversing opinions on truth, reputation and the job of a poet in the process. A decade on, he still seems a man chosen by his gift. He proved that Scottish literature is even more various than anyone had imagined. Yet he became a captive, somehow, of a character named George Mackay Brown, a man rushing to meet the past while defying the present.

There is a third bitterness –

To put more and more of one’s joy,
As the flesh shrivels,
On a white page with black markings on it, So that the young
May learn the various categories of joy

‘Three Songs of Success (in a Chinese Style)’

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