The tempest revisited
The Life of George Mackay Brown
by Maggie Fergusson
John Murray, 352pp, 25
GEORGE MACKAY BROWN IS NOT A promising subject for a biography. He travelled little outside his native Stromness. He never married, divorced, had children or fought in a war. He never had a job, outside of being a writer. He never gave a public reading or even a book signing (though he was endlessly patient with the many readers who turned up at his door). His outer life was as uneventful as his inner life was occluded.
It is a measure of the quality and worth of Maggie Fergusson's biography that I was utterly absorbed, informed and deeply moved by what it reveals. She believes his life "unusual and brave and fruitful", and I came away seeing why.
She starts from the right position: love of the writing. She talked with him a number of times towards the end of his life, and he gave her his as-yet unpublished autobiography. Further research comes from time well spent with GMB's friends and family - she seems to have interviewed half of Stromness - plus other writers' takes on the man and the art (Heaney is particularly appreciative and insightful). She had his letters - he was a life-long letter-writer, and revealed himself more in them than in conversation. And she found the big surprise every biographer craves: several hundred passionate, pained, tender letters to Stella Cartwright, the "Rose Street Muse", that convincingly disprove his assertion that he'd never been in love.
Like Maggie Fergusson, I knew GMB only towards the end of his life, when he seemed an otherworldly figure, distant and calm, faint and made of smoke, as if the wind would disperse him. Only his pale blue eyes had force, and they seemed focused elsewhere.
It was not always so, however. The great discovery of this biography is exactly how hard-won his art and his late peace were. Both emerge as astonishing and, indeed, moving achievements.
There was a strong streak of morbus orcadiensis in his family, and he had it too. His grandfather had problems with alcohol and melancholy; one uncle had paranoid visions and almost certainly committed suicide; an aunt was diagnosed schizophrenic. The family were among the poor of Stromness, and GMB felt the snobbery and condescension of the authority figures of the town.
Nevertheless, as with his mentor Edwin Muir, the childhood Eden of Orkney haunted his life and art. The town was rich with characters, eccentrics, drunks, exotics. It had town criers and no electricity; lamplighters and only three motor cars; fiddles but no radios. Life revolved almost entirely around fishing and farming and talk (still one of Orkney's principle products).
In early childhood he had a nightmare of being taken from home by tinkers. This fear remained all his life.
Along with his pronounced agoraphobia and fragile health, travelling of any sort was a difficult and nerve-jangling experience. Even trips to Sutherland and Birsay taxed and troubled him. Pain rooted in early and stayed. His father's health collapsed then he died; the mad uncle drowned; his sight was damaged by measles; the Second War disrupted everything. A habitual sweetie-eater, all his teeth were extracted, further elongating his already remarkable jaw.
This addiction was later replaced by tobacco and alcohol. Above all, in 1941 he was diagnosed with TB. This determined the course of his life. Or perhaps it reinforced what was already there - desire for solitude, complete absence of interest in a career, a painful physical self-consciousness. And an overwhelming sense of the presence of death.
His lifelong poor health and finite energies were also, he admitted, his allies - they got him out of all the things he didn't want to do, like travel, engaging in relationships, getting a job, getting up in the morning, leaving his mother.
For a while he wrote extraordinary columns for the Orkney Herald - full of bitterness and bile at all modernity. They were also, following his first visit to Rackwick Bay in Hoy, full of lyricism and joy beyond measure. Yet that Eden was visibly dying, and he blamed everything from commerce to the Reformation to the internal combustion engine.
Of course, he did leave Orkney. His time at Newbattle Abbey College in Midlothian was crucial - Edwin Muir got him there, encouraged his writing, sent out his poems. But he left during his second year when his health collapsed. He was back in Orkney, being looked after by his mother, lying in till noon, sitting by the harbour on good afternoons, drinking himself into a haze as often as he could afford.
His six years at Edinburgh University were full of the provocations and pleasures of the Milne's Bar set, MacCaig, Goodsir Smith, Tom Scott, MacDiarmid et al. His passionate yet unconsummated love affair with Stella Cartwright brought months of delight and years of pain, regret and sorrow as he went home and she descended from a joyous free sprit to a doomed alcoholic.
This biography movingly shows how easily GMB could have been another small-town lost soul - talented but lacking in focus, self-belief, contacts, and with a weakness for drink. Instead, through years of painful self-discipline, devotion to his art and craft, he made himself into one of our most remarkable writers of the 20th century. That process, and what it cost him, is the central narrative of this biography, and it's deeply moving and convincing.
In the mid-1960s, during and after his mother's decline and death, he chose writing and discipline over drink and dreaming, and hit his great decade: A Calendar of Love (stories, 1967); A Time to Keep (stories, 1969); The Year of the Whale (poems, 1964); Fishermen With Ploughs (poems, 1971, probably his definitive collection); his first novel, Greenvoe (1972: improbably, he attended a Champagne reception for this in Edinburgh); Magnus (1973: the novel most close to him, examining the nature of despair, loss and redemption through sacrifice).
This astonishing output was followed by a decade of neurosis, agoraphobia, anguish and loathing of his life and works. Still he kept writing. He also met Nora Kennedy and entered the only (briefly) consummated love affair of his life, which he described as "a curious kind of rack of flowers to be stretched out on, so late in the day". But it too drifted, cooled and failed - probably over his absorption in writing, the inner distance many commented on. In the end he chose writing and solitude over his other needs.
The biography follows his latter years as the depression lifted and he met Kenna Crawford, his third and last muse-love. Forty years younger than him, she was never going to be anything other than a special friend whose presence brought him hope and joy, and a return to writing.
He was very fortunate in his friends and relations who supported and augmented his life: Archie and Elizabeth Bevan, the Dixons, Kulgin Duval (one of a number of gay men whose company GMB enjoyed, and who introduced him to Peter Maxwell Davies with whom he had an inspiring friendship and collaboration), Surinder Punjya, Gunnie Moberg, who managed to get him to go to Shetland (which he loved, setting off more writing), then London and Oxford, then her son's wedding in Nairn where he danced for the first and only time.
His last years were productive (if not resulting in his very best work) and comparatively peaceful, though the Booker Prize shortlisting of Beside the Ocean of Time was a torment. He lived quietly, wrote in the mornings, went out on to the street when it wasn't windy or likely to rain (ie. not very often). The last time I saw him was when he talked with me and Duncan McLean for ten minutes or so in the sunshine outside Tam McPhail's bookshop: he was funny, frail, involved yet distant, remarked on the fine afternoon air. His eyes were still a striking faded blue.
GMB's humility and complete disinterest in money and fame were as genuine as his self-belief and admitted selfishness; his remoteness as real as his lively conviviality and conviction of the connectedness of all humanity; his humour and capacity for joy as potent as his depression, neurosis and self-loathing.
He was not a simple reactionary. His adopted Catholicism was rather Celtic and undoctrinal, focused more on redemption than damnation. He distrusted authority, culture, success; he wanted to go back before the Reformation - if necessary, even to the late Stone Age. He was passionately un-elitist.
I walk regularly to the kirkyard near Warbeth beach, to his modest gravestone, to pay my respects. I think of his art and his life of which I am now much better informed as I read the epitaph he wrote himself: "Carve the runes then be content with silence."
Remarkable man. Remarkable art. Fine book that illuminates them both.
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