Book review: George Mackay Brown: The Wound and the Gift by Ron Ferguson
George Mackay Brown: The Wound and the Gift by Ron Ferguson Saint Andrews Press, 400pp, £25
Someone once spoke of TE Lawrence's habit of "backing into the limelight". The same might have been said of George Mackay Brown. He lived all his life in Orkney, with only rare excursions after his years as a mature student at Newbattle Abbey and Edinburgh University, and not even in Kirkwall, but in Orkney's second town, Stromness. He never married, but lived with his mother, and, after her death, alone in a council house. Tubercular in youth, he was never robust, yet survived to be 74 despite having problems, much of his life, with alcohol. He belonged to no literary set and took no part in public affairs. His journalism was confined almost entirely to local papers. He was in many ways at odds with the modern world. His poetry and short stories were widely acclaimed and made him famous. The world was eager to make a path to his door, and this lonely, frequently depressed and in many respects incompetent man always found people eager to help and protect him.
He has already been the subject of an outstanding biography by Maggie Fergusson. This new book by an unrelated (single s) Ferguson complements that biography rather than competing with it. Its author, who is both a Church of Scotland minister and a journalist, describes it as "part biography, part memoir, part personal quest, part reflection, part conversation". The one thing missing is literary criticism, even though Ron Ferguson deals at length with GMB's work, and quotes extensively from it. He doesn't inquire how it was that the man who so often wrote so exquisitely could also write so feebly, how Mackay Brown himself seemed not to distinguish between writings which were beautiful and true and others that were banal.
Ferguson is interested first in Mackay Brown's spiritual journey from Calvinism to Roman Catholicism. GMB came to believe that the Reformation had been a disaster. The individualism of Protestantism destroyed the organic community and deprived the people of the ceremony that he came to believe was an essential ingredient of spiritual life. Ferguson has little difficulty in showing that GMB really knew very little about John Knox, whom he held responsible for this, and was too lazy, or too averse to research, to learn more. Yet Ferguson is himself too honest to deny that something of value was broken and cast aside by the Reformers, and has too much sympathy for his subject's position to condemn him.
He recognises that GMB used Knox as a symbol for what he disliked.
GMB rejected the modern world, in which "the heraldic vision that holds a people together is shattered". He thought that in Orkney - and by extension Scotland and the western world - "with prosperity and education and communications, the quality of life has grown progressively poorer. Whereas the mediaeval Orkney peasant lived among treasures of legend and faith, we stand like exiles among accumulations of expensive trash" - "exiles from Eden", as his mentor Edwin Muir had put it. He might have conceded that the life of that mediaeval peasant had been harsh and poor; nevertheless in his view it was richer. This rejection of the modern world may be romantic escapism. Nevertheless in his best writing he makes us feel that there is at least some truth in his vision. Ferguson writes that the novel Greenvoe "warns about the power of technological forces to destroy the very foundations of communal life". Doubtless there is truth in this, but not even GMB rejected all that technology made possible; he used to watch a lot of television, albeit on a black-and-white set.
GMB's intellectual position was weak, not surprisingly, because he did not engage argumentatively with these questions as Ferguson sympathetically and persuasively does. Yet, paradoxical as it may be, it was this weakness which gave his work its wholly individual strength and purity. Readers found a deep layer of truth in his writings; they crystallised the doubts we may all have, from time to time, about the way we live now. They expressed our suspicion that something essential has been lost, and that our lives suffer and are damaged as a result of its absence. If much of his work is repetitive, so that at times he seems to be dealing his characteristic symbols - the seed, the cornstalk, the harvest, the sea and the loaves and fishes etc - from a well-thumbed pack of cards, only the most complacent materialist can deny that he spoke certain elemental truths. He is a poet of loss who, by the magic of art, brings comfort.
Everyone who has read Mackay Brown with pleasure, everyone who is interested in the problems presented by his life and work, will find this book compelling. Ron Ferguson, who himself came to know George Mackay Brown well in his time as minister of St Magnus's Cathedral in Kirkwall, has discussed both life and work with many who knew him, and with others interested in the questions GMB invites. Consequently he is able to give us a rounded picture of a remarkable man and writer. He does not conceal his weaknesses - not even what might be judged faults of character, some major, others minor (such as his reluctance to stand his round in the pub). He recognises that Mackay Brown's Orkney is a place of the imagination, which may be remote from the lives actually lived by Orcadians, both now and in the past; but he also shows us why his unique vision strikes a chord with so many readers.
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