Books - George Mackay Brown's street talk

2021 would have been the 100th birthday of the world-renowned writer George Mackay Brown. To mark the occasion, Edinburgh-based publishers Polygon are bringing out three new editions of his work, and the St Magnus Festival on his native Orkney has commissioned films, plays and more. Here, Malachy Tallack reflects on the influences and experiences that fuelled Brown’s short stories

Simple Fire cover
Simple Fire cover

In George Mackay Brown’s short story "The Eye of the Hurricane”, a young writer, Mr Barclay, has travelled to Orkney to flee a love affair gone wrong, and to complete his novel about Saint Rögnvald Kolson, the 12-century earl of the isles. Once there, however, Barclay becomes embroiled in the tumultuous decline of his landlord, Captain Stevens, a man overcome by alcoholism and by grief. For the captain, there is no escaping from his losses. Towards the end of this story, when the storm of that decline has finally passed over, Barclay reflects on the limitations of his writing. “Love is too deep a subject for prose,” he thinks, “only music and poetry can build bridges between the rage of the seed in the furrow, the coupling of beasts, the passions of man and woman, the saint’s prayer. Seed and beast and saint are touched with simple fire.”

Though the thoughts of a character should not be ascribed to its author, this expression of doubt about what fiction can do seems to me to illuminate something in Brown’s own literary endeavours. George Mackay Brown wrote fiction with the humility and creative latitude of someone who was never completely certain that the form was up to the job. He wrote fiction that, in its rhythms, in its taut, glinting language, aspired towards poetry. He wrote fiction that, again and again, kindled that “simple fire” on the page.

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Brown’s stories could not be mistaken for those of any other author. His prose is so distinctive, in style and in subject matter, that it seems as distant from the work of his late-20th century contemporaries as his Orkney home was distant from the literary centres of the day. Though he read widely, and maintained friendships and correspondences with many other writers, Brown saw himself less a part of any Scottish “scene” or Anglo-American tradition, and more the descendant of one specific – and specifically local – book. The Orkneyinga Saga, written anonymously in Iceland in the 13th century, recounts the history and legends of the Norse earls of Orkney and Shetland over the preceding four hundred years. Brown read this chronicle first as a teenager, and would return to it throughout his life. The story of Earl Magnus, killed on the orders of his cousin Haakon, and later sanctified, provided particular inspiration. The “violent beauty” of that event, Brown wrote, would “form the backdrop to much of the narrative and verse that I have written”.

St Magnus Festival logo 2021

What he found in the pages of the saga – in addition to the stories themselves – was a well of symbols and allusions, a sense of deep narrative time, and a terse musicality that would become the backbone of his own prose. And while that spare, straightforward style was embellished, to varying degrees, with what he called “elaborate decoration”, in their clarity and directness, in the way they welcome mystery, these stories all owe something to the sagas.

Another influence, easily detected, is the rich oral culture of the Northern Isles. But it is not just the myths and folktales of Orkney that are evident – though these do make some explicit appearances, as in “Sealskin.” Rather, it was the language of the pub and the street corner that Brown most cherished. It was the storytelling of gossips and drunks, of sailors on leave and of friends gathered around a hearth. He knew how significant such exchanges could be, how the stories people shared were part of what held a community together, both in the present and over time.

But he understood, too, the darker side of those exchanges. Stories could be used to exclude people, to push them out. They could be their own kind of violence, and could lead, at times, to worse. This is what happens in “Witch”, from his first collection, A Calendar of Love. There, malicious gossip has become a death sentence. It is striking, in fact, reading these stories, that despite Brown’s insistence on Orkney as the absolute centre of his world, despite island communities serving as both the subject and setting of nearly all of his short fiction, the characters on which he focused are as often as not situated on the fringes of those communities. They are ministers, teachers and doctors, arrived from elsewhere; they are children, loners, alcoholics or “tinkers”; they are as much apart from as a part.

This distance serves a narrative purpose, of course. It allows these characters certain perspectives that might not be available to those closer to the heart of the community. But it reflects also, I think, a certain outsiderness in Brown himself, a sense that – as a writer, as a Catholic convert, as the son of a mother from mainland Scotland – he was always just slightly towards the edge of the place he loved so much. Exacerbated perhaps by a lifetime of poor health, which kept him from a job and from any kind of physical exertion, Brown was an embedded observer, alert always to the tensions between community and individual.

George Mackay Brown (Picture: Gunnie Moberg)

The stories in this selection are set across a period of well over 2,000 years, from a reimagining of the Nativity in “The Christmas Dove”, to a post-apocalyptic future in “The Seven Poets”. Few writers drift so easily across the ages, and few, surely, are so conscious of the past as an ongoing presence, of the weight that what-has-been still bears on what-is-now. Yet, while the bulk of these stories take place in the past – most of them in the century or so leading up to the time of Brown’s writing – they could not accurately be labelled “historical fiction”. That genre deals in specificity, in the evocation of a particular time, while these tales are more concerned with summoning essence. The past they inhabit, most often, is identifiable only approximately, as it is in legends or fables. Brown usually resists the kind of details that anchor a story precisely in a particular period; and when they do occur, these anchors can seem jarring. They can land the reader somewhere unexpected.

“Celia”, for instance, from the 1969 collection A Time to Keep, may seem, at first, to be set in the late 19th century, or perhaps the early 20th. There is a darkness to it, a lamplit gloom that belongs to a previous age. But then, in an extraordinary outpouring of anguish that comes halfway through the story, Celia situates herself not in the past at all, but as Brown’s own contemporary. As she justifies her drinking and her atheism to Mr Blackie, the minister, she summons grief at her own losses, and a generalised horror at life’s injustice. But she also expresses rage at what is happening elsewhere, at the war then under way across the world. “The country folk in Viet Nam,” [sic] she shouts, “what kind of vice is it they’re gripped in, guns and lies and anger on both sides of them, a slow tightening agony? Is your God looking after them?” It is a startling moment, exceptional in Brown’s fiction for a number of reasons (including, it has to be said, the fact that female characters are rarely given centre stage in this way).

Brown found the expansiveness he required through time rather than through space. Orkney, for him, was never restrictive. “There are stories in the air here,” he wrote in his memoir, For the Islands I Sing. “If I lived to be five hundred, there would still be more to write.” Reaching back as he did he found “rhythms of land and sea” that brought “a pattern and a harmony” to all of his work. He identified threads of continuity that held the islands together through the ages, and he wove them into his words. It was an unending attunement and fidelity to place. For Brown, I think, that fidelity was hardly a choice at all. He felt no particular urge to travel, and indeed for much of his life seems to have been positively repelled by the idea of leaving home. But for his readers, the devotion to Orkney as inspiration offers a depth of focus rarely found in literature.

The islands are revealed and reimagined, over and over. Layers of time are peeled back and lifted to the light. The effect is cumulative: the place expands, gradually, beneath his gaze. This is truly a body of work, a lifetime’s project. In “The Eye of the Hurricane”, the writer Mr Barclay imagines the loves of those around him, in his memory and his imagination, “caught up in their true order, and simplified and reconciled”. To me, these stories, too, seem caught in the orbit of something bigger than themselves, some point of gravity from which their energy and order derives. They turn, each of them, and “move about it forever like the quiet stars”.

Simple Fire: Selected Short Stories by George Mackay Brown, edited by Malachy Tallack, is published by Polygon (£12.99, paperback) www.polygonbooks.co.uk

The St Magnus Festival runs from 18-23 June, in venues across Orkney and online. Events planned to mark George Mackay Brown’s centenary include a series of new commissions from local fiddlers inspired by his poem Fiddlers at the Harvest Home; a series of his poems read by Orcadians and filmed in locations all over the islands; and a film of his 1976 drama The Storm Watchers, which has been directed remotely during lockdown by Gerda Stevenson. For details, visit https://www.stmagnusfestival.com/