A doughty champion of his local culture. (Poet Tom Hubbard)
And there are no
poets in Orkney.
Two short extracts from the new biography of
George Mackay Brown
I Late 1940s
Although he lived in the heart of Orkney, [George] saw himself as an outsider and he revelled in the role of a lonely prophet. He gave voice to this in a poem, simply called 'Orkney':
There are no forests in Orkney;
Only, blossoming in storms,
the dark swaying boughs of the sea.
There are no trains in Orkney;
Only great winds roaring through the land
From the beginning to the end of eternity.
There is no respectability in Orkney;
Only what the blood dictates
Is done. Spirit and mind are free.
And there are no poets in Orkney;
Stirred by breeze and blood and ocean
I set the trumpet to my lips. I only.
This astonishing, unpublished, poem was written in August 1944. It carries intimations of the stylistic gifts that would mark the poet’s mature writing. At the age of 22, this weakened, defiant, sometimes depressed man-child was making the bold claim that he was the only poet in Orkney. 'I only'. In case you didn't know. He may have been 'trenched with wounds', as he would later describe his physical and mental sufferings, but he knows deep down that he possesses a gift. Not only that, he knows that he has a vocation. The talent that will not let one rest. Although he is not known outside Orkney, he is already convinced that his calling – from life? From God? – is both his burden and his glory. Nursed by a doting mother, and believing that he is not long for this earth, he takes his stand with the Romantic, tubercular poets of legend. The trumpet is set to his lips. It shall make no uncertain sound. He is special. He is called.
Despite his apparent confidence, he is no happy prophet, no Dr Pangloss. Quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, he writes, I am gall, I am heartburn. He then goes on to say: I look on the lean earth, and loathe it; on the dirty sky, and loathe it; on the ill-natured sea, and loathe it. I hate reading, writing, but sitting with my own unquiet thoughts is worst of all. I hate humanity and the things that the spiteful gods make them do. But above and beyond everything I hate myself; everything about me revolts me beyond belief. (March 8, 1949)
It is worth pausing here to read these sentences again, preferably aloud, to get the full impact of what George is saying. In these searing words, the pain of this 27-year-old awkward, self-hating man is shrieking. He is uncharacteristically exposing his wounds to his own community.
What is he looking for? Understanding? Pity? Acceptance? I don't know. I don't know if he knows. The image which comes to my mind is that of Edvard Munch’s celebrated painting, 'The Scream'. Munch provides a background to the painting in these terms: 'I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature'.
He was to write later: 'For several years I was almost mad…I was stretched to the limit – as if nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again'. (Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, Sue Prideaux,Yale University Press, New Haven, 2005)
George Brown certainly knew what it was to have days of unspeakable tiredness. He had his own tongues of fire and blood, when he painfully coughed up poisonous phlegm. He could read the red runes, and the message was not good. He had made it past the age of 23, but he did not expect to see his 30th birthday. All this at a heady time when he was learning, in weekly instalments, to release a gift for writing which had the potential to justify his existence – not only to what he regarded as his culturally dysfunctional community, but also to the lurking Jehovah of the Warbeth tombs. And, just as important, to his inwardly hating self.
No wonder he felt frustrated rage, as he considered the probability that the trumpet which he alone in Orkney had picked up solemnly and ceremonially would be snatched from his lips before he had found his own grace notes.
II A visit to Milne's bar
Down in Edinburgh, doing research for the book, I go into Milne's bar. Memorabilia cover its walls. A portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid accompanies his poem 'Old Wife in High Spirits in an Edinburgh Pub'. Sydney Goodsir Smith is pictured, sitting, cigar in mouth. Norman MacCaig's poem, 'November Night', is beside his portrait.
There is also a painting of the outside of Milne’s Bar. 'Ten o'clock was chuck-out time in the mid-50s,' says the accompanying text, 'but it didn't stop the arguments spilling out into Rose Street'. The characters emerging into Rose Street are Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig and a rather shadowy George Mackay Brown.
I move over to the snug and sit and sip my beer. The room is called The Little Kremlin. The inscription says: 'So many writers and students wanted to sup at Milne's Pub in the late 1950s it was decided that the poets' circle were to be given their own room at the far side of the bar. The left-wing politics discussed inside earned it the nickname The Little Kremlin'.
As I sip my pint, while revellers clink glasses and shout, a film about Milne's Bar in the late 1950s starts in my head. I hear the passionate arguments, dominated by a piercing Hugh MacDiarmid and a loud Tom Scott, while a smiling Norman MacCaig slips in brilliant, sometimes savage, interjections. George Mackay Brown and Sydney Goodsir Smith are engaged in close conversation. Stella Cartwright, whisky glass in hand, watches them both. All of the poets, at some stage, fix their gaze on Stella.
I am more and more repelled by all this 'Muse' talk. It strikes me as both sexist and exploitative. The romanticising of a vulnerable young woman who is increasingly dependent on alcohol and who can never live up to the drink-fuelled fantasies of the poets, is beyond distasteful. Or am I just too Presbyterian and judgemental for my own good?
Put together Stella's youthful, teasing beauty with sexually-frustrated, middle-aged, sometimes self-obsessed writers; add breathless, impossibly idealised, accounts of an adoring and adored 'Muse'; then throw in liberal quantities of alcohol: all the elements are there for an emotional crash, with Stella Cartwright as the principal casualty. Our already physically and emotionally damaged man from Orkney will crawl out from the wreckage, bearing wounds that will never heal.
I think of the haunting verdict of Stanley Roger Green, spoken to me in Waterstones' tea room: 'It was tragic. They were both lonely. George and Stella clutched each other in order to save each other, and they went down all the quicker'.
I feel sad. I slip out, through the 'chuck-out' door of the painting, into Rose Street, accompanied by Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig and George Mackay Brown. I wish I could ask them questions.
Ron Ferguson is an author and journalist, former leader of the Iona
Community, former minister of St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, and
a Cowdenbeath supporter
'George Mackay Brown: The Wound and The Gift' (St Andrew's Press, £19.99) is published on 12 August