The Write Stuff: My friend the poet, by Joanna Ramsey

The Seed Beneath the Snow - Remembering George Mackay Brown
The Seed Beneath the Snow - Remembering George Mackay Brown
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IN this extract from her new memoir, Joanna Ramsey reflects on her correspondence with George Mackay Brown during her time at Aberdeen Maternity Hospital. While she was there, the poet penned ‘A New Child: ECL – 11 June 1993’, dedicated to her daughter, Emma

In the notebook for 1993 in which I kept a record of thoughts and feelings, rather than merely the dates of appointments and events, there is one brief entry on 26 January and then a blank until 14 May: ‘And I’ve written nothing … Four months of what has perhaps been one of the happiest times of my life. The attention; the fuss; the sudden camaraderie … There have been downs, of course … exhaustion and discomfort.’ During the first few months of the year, I had settled into routines that would be well and truly broken for me in June, when I was due to give birth; in my engagement diary there are brief reminders of visits to George, often on Tuesday or Thursday evenings, or Saturday afternoons, and cups of tea with Dorrie and Donald and Granny. I enjoyed going to a reading by Ron Butlin in February and one by Bernard MacLaverty in March, thankful in some ways that it was no longer my responsibility to organise such events. In April I wrote ‘Valerie’s 3-ish + GMB’, which perhaps meant a visit to Valerie Brajuha in Finstown but I have no memory of it. But between the dates of these outings are notes of a different kind: ‘Got triple blood test results’; ‘Felt baby move’; Midwife came.’ Antenatal classes began, and the surgery staff booked a flight for me to Aberdeen; I was such an ‘elderly’ primigravida at the age of forty that I had little choice about being sent to the mainland two weeks before the birth, to minimise any risk.

At Aberdeen Maternity Hospital there was accommodation for island-dwelling women and their visiting husbands or partners, and their other children. In spite of having dreaded this incarceration, I enjoyed it: I made friends with Meg from Hoy and Kathy from Shetland; sometimes we cooked meals together in the shared kitchen. During the day we caught the bus into town, or wandered around the Botanic Gardens and sat eating cake in the café. In the evenings we occasionally went to the pub across the road for non-alcoholic drinks, and what a sight we must have been – three whale-like women, all within two weeks of giving birth. I noted on 29 May that fog had descended over the city and on 1 June I wrote just one word: ‘Tired.’ Kathy’s father came to visit her, then Meg’s partner arrived, and Jim flew down from Orkney on 4 June to keep me company for the last few days.

I wrote to tell George about my adventures, and in his reply he regaled me with all that I was missing back home:

‘Thinking about you a lot these days …

I phoned Jim one evening and he said you’re feeling OK. I’ll phone him again this weekend. It is good of you to write in this busy exciting time for you, Jo.

(I forgot Jim will be with you now. I’m sure that’s good for you both, and no doubt for the little stranger who’s about to make his/her eagerly-looked-forward-to bow.)

I hope you 3 fruitful ladies from the north had a good drink in the pub …

The Folk Festival went over like a wave (of lager whisky & song) last weekend. I stayed at home. The St Magnus Festival in a fortnight: I’ll have to sally out on 2 or 3 occasions. (There are 2 lavish buffets: Highland Park and ELF – on the same day unfortunately). Now a 3rd buffet invitation has come by post!

My mother’s birthday was yesterday, so I wrote a poem about her: too early to know whether it’s good or not …

Renée’s London family have left now … her grandson, wife, & 5-year-old son …

Surinder has quite recovered. Mrs Moyle his neighbour [in Coventry, where his family lived] has sent yet another pullover, colour mustard or old gold. Plus a banana cake. The cake you gave me was delicious, Jo: and I really enjoyed the mince. I hope that next week brings the good news.

Much love meantime from George.’

The poem about George’s mother was a moving history of her origins in Sutherland, her marriage and her life in Stromness, and included these lines:

Gentleness, poverty, six children

(One died) in stone houses

Along Hamnavoe, at close and pier.

A cupboard sparse but never empty,

Oatcakes and bannocks on a smoking griddle,

The Monday washing

Flaunting, damp flags, in a walled garden,

The paraffin lamp on the winter table,

Jar of bluebells on a sun-touched sill,

And a wordless song moving

Through the house, upstairs, downstairs,

[ … ]

Today, June the fourth, 1993

Mhari – her death month November –

Had been one hundred and two.

In the meantime, I was waddling around Aberdeen in the last stages of pregnancy, with an aching back, and feet swollen by the heat. Jim and I went out to dinner in the evenings, wondering when our child would make its appearance; waiters would kindly ask when the baby was due and look alarmed when we told them that it could be any time now. Nothing happened on the appointed day, but Emma was born in the early hours of 11 June and the news duly reached George, who wrote on 13 June:

Now we all hope to see you and the little daughter in Stromness very soon, with all a lovely summer in front of you.

I won’t tire you with too long a letter but just to let you know how pleased we all are. Renée visited last night, and was delighted … Next thing to learn is the baby’s name. Blessings on you both, and Jim too.

Both sets of grandparents came up to Orkney in July to meet their new grandchild, but what should have been a happy time was shadowed by worries about my health. Shortly after Emma’s birth I experienced intense pain in my left side, and Emma and I were readmitted to the Balfour Hospital. A scan revealed a large ovarian tumour, but it wasn’t possible for me to have the operation I needed in Orkney and so just after my birthday in September we flew back to Aberdeen. The previous week, George had written me yet another poem:

Just one person there was to greet

On birthdays four or five Septembers ago

At Faravel.

Next, at Ness Road, there were two round the cake and candles.

Now, a new dweller under that rooftree,

And this and all birthdays to come enriched by Emma’s presence!

I wondered, as the plane took off and the islands fell away below, just how many birthdays I might have left. As I was still feeding Emma myself, my GP had made arrangements for her to come to Aberdeen with me, and although many of the nurses coped brilliantly with this inconvenience, the ward sister did not. After the operation I was at my wits’ end, trying to feed and change Emma and lift her in and out of a high-sided hospital cot while still feeling sore and stiff. The hospital chaplains and other patients rescued me with kindness; someone found a pram and walked Emma along the hospital corridors; an Orkney friend in the maternity hospital visited me; someone I had never met before brought flowers from her garden. I tried to keep cheerful but was privately terrified of what the future might hold for Emma if my tumour proved to be malignant. Fortunately that was not the case, and two weeks later I was back at home again, more or less in one piece.

At some point after Emma’s birth, George gave me a handwritten copy of the poem ‘A New Child: ECL – 11 June 1993’. With all that had been happening, I stopped keeping a diary for a while and so the precise date is lost, but I remember that he asked whether I would be happy for it to be published. He subsequently decided to revise it a little and the new version eventually appeared in Following a Lark, a collection in which Maggie Fergusson detects ‘a powerful nostalgia for infancy’. George gave me a handwritten copy, the words slanting across the page in his inimitable writing, and we put it in a frame and hung it in Emma’s room, where it still is at the time of writing. When George revised the poem he omitted the lines ‘There are “cats” on the pier / There are “gulls”, “fish” ’ from the end of the third stanza, and added a word to the fourth stanza: ‘All scored on the chart’. The final stanzas are quite different in the original:

I Wait awhile, small voyager

On the shore, with seapinks and shells

The boat

Will take a few summers to build

That you must make your voyage in

II You will learn the names.

That golden light is “sun”, “moon”

The silver light

That grows and dwindles.

And the beautiful small splinters

That wet the stones, “rain”

III There is a voyage to make,

A chart to read,

But not yet, not yet.

“Daisies” spill from your fingers.

The night daisies are “stars”

There are “cats” on the pier.

There are “gulls”; “fish”

IV The keel is laid, the strakes

Will be set, in time.

A tree is growing

That will be a tall mast

All about you, meantime

The music of humanity,

The dance of creation:

All scored on the chart of the voyage

V Listen long to stories and songs

of other islands, ports, people

Till your ship is ready

The voyage of Emma to Tir-Nan-Og

You will not miss that landfall

VI May St Magnus be on the shore with you

At the time of crabs and sillocks,

At the time of mid-sea waves,

The horizon music,

And at the helm, a shining friend,

with you

VII And may The Star of The Sea

shine on your voyage.

• Joanna Ramsey’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in Chapman, New Writing Scotland and other magazines and anthologies. Two pamphlet collections of poems have been published by the Galdragon Press, Glasgow: In Memory of George Mackay Brown (1998) and Walking on Hoy (2002). She lives in Orkney and also works as a copy editor for academic publishers. The Seed

Beneath the Snow: Remembering George Mackay Brown by Joanna Ramsey is published by Sandstone Press, £8.99