Sue Wilson looks back on the career of George Mackay Brown. whose 70th birthday is celebrated this month.
George Mackay Brown has said that he first became aware that he possessed a way with words as a seven or eight-year-old schoolboy, when ‘I found to my astonishment that I always wrote the best composition.‘ Although he has since produced a body of work which places him firmly in the big league of Scottish literature, he takes little of the credit for his skill. ‘I believe with scripture that every person has a talent of some kind, a creative gift. and he must spend the rest ofhis life trying to perfect it. It is a gift you do not ask for, nor work for. It is a grace given for no apparent merit.’ Brown’s life of ‘trying to perfect‘ his gift has been almost exclusively spent in Orkney, apart from a spell in Edinburgh during the late 505 and early 605. His efforts have yielded a rich harvest: nine volumes ofpoetry. four plays. four novels and six short-story collections. plus assorted essays, letters and children‘s books. The explanation he gives for his prolific mastery of so many literary forms is typically unassuming. ‘I just
CHRISTMAS BOOK SPECIAL
get bored if I stick with one mode, so I vary it a good bit; if I’m bored with writing a novel I turn to verse, or write a little story for children; the variety makes life more interesting.’ Seamus Heaney has said that Brown ‘transforms everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney’; virtually everything he writes has its roots in the rich prehistory. recorded past and modern life of the islands. Perhaps his central concern is the elemental. cyclical and (he believes) redemptive relationship between
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George Mscksy Brown humankind and the land or sea; hence his fascination with crofters and ﬁsherfolk. His work disregards the surface detail of20th century life, delving deeper down in search of the essential and universal. He is an obdurate enemy of the modern god of Progress, referring to it as ‘a roofless utilitarian faith, without beauty or mystery’. The pessimism which often pervades his writing derives from the fear that the cult of change will destroy the history he treasures, particularly his beloved Orcadian heritage.
Brown was 70 in October, an anniversary to be celebrated at a gathering in the Queen’s Hall this month, which will feature, along with readings and music, an appreciation by fellow poet and playwright Stewart Conn, who first met Brown in the early 605. ‘George is one of these people you just spontaneously warm to.’ he says. ‘He’s all one person — he’s not playing the writer one minute and somebody else the next; the integrity of the man is extraordinary. That applies to his work as well - he’s always kept to what his inner compulsion drove him to do. He’ll talk of his muse, or his inspiration. and credit it to something outside himself , but the craft. the hard work is there, too. I think it’s meaningful, and it will mean a lot to him. that people will gather to celebrate him and his work; all too often it doesn’t happen until someone’s not around any more.’
Even though Brown has reached the three-score-years-and-ten mark. his output shows little sign of diminishing. A new Selected Poems has recently been published, chosen by the author himself (‘I just left out the ones I didn’t like any more’), he has recently completed a novel. and is working on new poems and stories. He’s refuses to be drawn on his future plans. however. ‘I don’t look so far ahead; when you reach my age you stop thinking about next year or next month, even. you just live from day to day.’
A Celebration of George Mackay Brown ’3 70th Birthday takes place at the Queen’s Hall on Sunday 8 December; see Books Events for details.
Selected Poems 1954—1983 is published by John Murray at£12. 95.
_ The real story
Sue Wilson picks out a few prize titles from the lucky-dip of this year's fiction.
Any attempt to sum up a year‘s worth of novels and stories in a few hundred words is clearly doomed from the start. so what follows is a pared-down and admittedly personal selection of 1991's best reading. More than enough has been said about this year’s ‘controversial’ Booker, Ben Okri’s spirited winner and Martin Amis’s reverse runner-up, but at least the shortlist gave William Trevor a '
Reading Turgenev and My House In Umbria, the brace of contrasting but thematically linked novels which make up Two Lives (Viking £13.99), explore the forceful interplay between fiction and reality through the experiences of an unhappy rural lrlshwoman and the survivor of an Italian terrorist attack
Consolidating her reputation as one L 80 The List 6— 19 December 1991
well-deserved moment in the spotlight.
with assurance and understated power.
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of Scottish writing’s fastest-rising stars, Janice Galloway strikes a taut balance between gritty, stream-of- consciousness realism and wry humour in her short story collection Blood (Secker and Warburg £12.99). Tales from the sharp end of urban female existence, they zero in on experiences of violence, fear and humiliation, butwith a gutsy, saving appetite for life. Still in the realm of
home-grown talent, Elspeth Barker received a shower of plaudits for her first novel 0 Caledonia (Hamish Hamilton £14.99), an elegantly perceptive and bleakly comic study of adolescence, isolation and disappointment. The paperback reissue of McVitie-wlnner William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach (Penguin £4.99), seems to have created afar bigger stlrthan its initial appearance, but this playfully metaphysical and hugely entertaining tale of bellicose chimpanzees, obsessed scientists and a down-to-earth young woman struggling to make sense of it all more than deserves its bestseller status.
The wonderfully warped and fertile mind of Angela Carter gave us Wise Children (Chatto and Windus £13.99) reckoned by many to be her best novel. yet. Two elderly, happily unrespectable twin sisters look back on their stage careers, occasionlng a wickedly funny, anecdotal romp through the world of theatre. 0n the darker side of black, Margaret
'_AN00d'8 finely wrought stories in
Wilderness Tips (Bloomsbury £14.99) strip away the layers of surface conventionality and probe at the
cruelty, betrayal, pain and fear stirring beneath the surface of individual lives.
One of the year’s soundest ‘sleepers' was Alistair MacLeod’s The Lost Salt Gift Of Blood (Jonathan Cape £14.99). The twelve stories in this collection, representing virtually the whole of the Scottish-Canadian author’s oeuvre, are confined in locale to the freezing landscape of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, but the gradual, meticulous lyricism of MacLeod’s writing endows the straitened lives of his beautifully-rendered characters with an almost mythical resonance.
A bumper-bargain pack of satisfying reading is provided by Best American Short Stories 1990 (Houghton Mifflin £6.95). The latest in an outstanding annual series, it contains abundant evidence that the Stateside mastery of the lorrn remains unrivalled. There are two worthy Caledonlan challengers, though, in The Devil and DrTuberose: Scottish Short Stories 1991 (Harper Collins £5.99) and the recently reissued The Devil and the Giro: Two Centuries of Scottish Short Stories (Canongate Classics £7.95). Any significance in the ‘devll’ in both titles, lwonder?