Obituary: George Mackay Brown
Monday 15 April 1996
So strong was Brown's love of Orkney, and dislike of travel, that he only once visited England, in 1989. He studied at Newbattle Abbey, outside Edinburgh, under the poet Edwin Muir in the late 1950s, but while he later claimed this was the happiest time of his life, it was clear to him at the end of it that he must return to Orkney. Offered a travelling scholarhsip in 1968 by the Society of Authors, he refused to go further than Ireland, where he stayed as a guest of his friend and admirer Seamus Heaney. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, he refused to come to London for the prize- winners' dinner.
While Brown stayed put, however, his writing travelled for him, as Muir, introducing Brown's first book of poems, The Storm, in 1954, predicted that it would: "reading these poems," he wrote, "I am impressed . . . by something which I can only call grace. Grace is what breathes warmth into beauty and tenderness into comedy; it is in a sense the crowning gift, for without it beauty would be cold and comedy heartless." Generations of schoolchildren studied, as part of their Highers syllabus, Brown's novel Greenvoe (1972), in which he traces with deep affection and dark foreboding a week in the life of an Orkney fishing community. Greenvoe is shortly to be made into a film. His work has been translated into numerous languages, including Polish, Hebrew and Japanese, and the OBE which followed the publication of Magnus (1973), was succeeded by a stream of literary prizes and honours. Over 20 of Brown's works have been set to music by the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whose move to Orkney was largely inspired by his meeting Brown and reading his collection of essays An Orkney Tapestry (1969).
Far from being a constraint, Brown's stability added to the scope and strength of his work. His rootedness fitted into a set of firmly held beliefs about poets and their true task. ``Writers,'' he once commented, ``should know the people they are writing about over several generations. There are stories attached not only to men and women, but to their grand- parents and great-grandparents: in this way, legends take over from gossip.'' In the Orkney islands, meanwhile, he found what he described as ``a microcosm of all the world. Orkney has been continuously lived in for about 6,000 years and the layers of cultures and races are inescapable and unavoidable wherever you go. There are stories in the air here. If I lived to be 500, there would still be more to write.''
By drawing his boundaries tightly around himself Brown freed his imagination to sweep through time and space, so that he could write as convincingly about the medieval earls of Orkney as the shopkeepers of 20th-century Stromness, and as evocatively about Nazi Germany or first-century Palestine as about Orkney. ``For all his seeming isolation,'' Ted Hughes once commented, ``Brown is as connected to the world as any of us. He has retreated to a point where he can see the world in an internal reflection, a very clear and penetrating simplification that he could never have achieved in the midst of the hurly-burly." ``He transforms everything,'' said Seamus Heaney, ``by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney.''
In his modest former council house in Stromness, Brown worked with quiet, unstinting discipline. Six days a week, he would sit in his kitchen from 9am until 1pm, writing with a ball-point pen on blocks of Basildon Bond paper, leaning on the same Formica surface at which he ate his breakfast, his back to the window to avoid distraction. One whole day each week he set aside for replying to the letters that poured in to him from all over the world. The afternoons he spent in a large rocking chair, beside a coal fire kept burning in all weathers. He read widely, and rather surprisingly - Martin Amis was one of his favourite modern authors - but was equally happy just to sit and think. He defined the poet's true task as the ``interrogation of silence'' and claimed that he had had the most powerful experiences of his life sitting by his fire, alone.
Anything but gregarious, Brown deterred casual visitors by pinning a small note to his front door each morning: "Working all day. GMB''. Those who met him, however, were struck by his courtesy, canny kindness, and deep humility. He had no appetite for fame. A well-made poem, he would often say, was like a well-made chair: writing was a craft. Nothing delighted him more than to be mistaken for a local fisherman. In part, this humility was inherited from his father, the Stromness tailor and postman who taught his six children to beware pretension. ``My father would often say to us children, `Don't get above yourself, whatever happens', and he would quote Bunyan: `He that is down need fear no fall / He that is low no pride.' "
But despite his warm humour, however, one sensed an underlying sadness. Especially in the last few years of his life, Brown suffered from bouts of depression so acute that he sometimes longed for oblivion. At the same time, however, he was sustained by a steadfast religious faith. Brought up a Presbyterian, he became in 1961 - almost uniquely for an Orcadian - a Roman Catholic. In some of his most masterly writing, in a voice that was unmistakably his own, he explores Christianity and the way prehistory prepared its path. In the penultimate chapter of Magnus, as a prelude to St Magnus's martyrdom, he reflects on the role that sacrifice has played in the history of mankind.
"It seemed to even the most primitive people," he writes, "that they and the animals that yielded them food and clothing had not come together by blind accident, but were parts of a three-fold relationship: as god- man-animal." The earliest people honoured their gods by "the broken flesh and spilled bood" of their animals; then came the discovery of bread. "Who first tore long wounds in the earth and sowed in it the seeds of wild corn nobody knows, but it was one of the great discoveries . . . We know the name of the first priest who offered bread and wine on the altar instead of a slain beast: Melchizedek the Israelite. This was a thrilling moment in the spiritual history of mankind. Nor was the pattern altered in the concert of god and man and animals: for the earth had to be wounded in order to contain the seed and the ripening corn drew its sustenance from the same deep sources that nourish-ed the animals." So far, the god had remained "an enigma, a remote unseen mystery", but in the fullness of time he came to the altar-stone, "himself the dei- ty and the priest and the victim".
"That," Brown writes, "was the one, only, central sacrifice of history . . . All previous rituals had been a foreshadowing of this; all subsequent rituals a re-enactment. The fires at the centre of the earth, the sun above, all divine essences and ecstasies came to this silence at last - a circle of bread and a cup of wine on an altar."
Brown practised his faith quietly, but he set out his convictions with increasing authority and certainty as he moved into his old age. In Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), his last novel, he achieved such a magisterial summing-up of the purpose and meaning of man's life that it is difficult to imagine how he could have followed it. His last collection of poetry, Following a Lark, to be published next month, he characterises as poems "written mainly in praise of the light": the light to which Orcadians look forward at the return of each spring, but also, he adds importantly and with characteristic modesty, "to glorify in a small way the Light behind the light". In the final poem, "A Work for Poets", Brown seems to sign his own epitaph, and to hand to a new generation.
To have carved on the days of our
Also a few marks
From an ancient forgotten time
A child may read
That not far from the stone
Might open for wayfarers
Here is a work for poets -
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence
George Mackay Brown, poet and novelist: born Stromness, Orkney 17 October 1921; OBE 1974; books include The Storm 1954, Loaves and Fishes 1959, The Year of the Whale 1965, Fishermen with Ploughs 1971, Greenvoe 1972, Magnus 1973, Winterfold 1976, Time in a Red Coat 1984, The Wreck of the Archangel 1989, Selected Poems 1954-1983 1991, Vinland 1992, Beside the Ocean of Time 1994, Winter Tales 1995; died Kirkwall, Orkney 13 April 1996.
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