Looking towards Orkney from a warm Wiltshire bed

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I was saying yesterday that writers are often a long way from the scene of their books when they get down to writing about them - that they have to withdraw a certain distance from an exotic locale to get it in perspective and feel the full effect of it. And that maybe the same is true of the way we should read books. That is, when you or I go to the West Indies, we shouldn't read a book set in the West Indies, we should read something set in Scandinavia. Which explains why I have recently spent a lot of time in Orkney.

I have never physically been to Orkney; I have never been further north in Britain than Inverness. But for a long time now I have been ambling gently through a book by George Mackay Brown, the story-telling bard of Orkney, all about life in these cold northern isles, and whether I have been reading it by the side of a Mediterranean swimming pool, or in a warm bed in Wiltshire, or on a train lost in the Midlands, my mind has been far away, out on the boisterously blowy roads of the Orkney Isles or bustling down the streets of Stromness.

The book, published in 1975, is called Letters From Hamnavoe and is a collection of journalistic pieces written by Mackay Brown in the Seventies.

'Journalistic' is maybe too high-flown a word for these personal thoughts.

They were written, as he says in his introduction, 'over a period of years for the Orcadian newspaper. They appeared every Thursday at the foot of a column of Stromness news (not written by me) which included obituaries, reports of whist drives, weddings, old folk's outings etc. The intention of the 'Letter From Hamnavoe' was to entertain a small community of 1,600 townsfolk, possibly a scattering of other islanders, and also to kindle home thoughts in the minds of the thousands of Orkney folk who live away from the islands but keep in touch through the pages of the paper.'

Most of the pieces are about the changing weather, the renaming of streets, the coming and going of visitors; very quotidian stuff. A typical item begins: 'I took the bus to Kirkwall the other Thursday afternoon. It was a cold day, dappled with sun and cloud. There is some special pleasure in travelling by bus which the hectic car-drivers miss . . . . I think it was the daffodils that gave a special delight to the Stromness-Kirkwall road that day. I have been told that the WRI ladies have encouraged the growing of daffodils beside the road. If so, all credit to them . . . .' Different in tone from Wordsworth's host of golden daffodils, I think you'll agree.

Or how about this, dated 21 October 1971? 'The other afternoon as I was sitting reading in the rocking-chair, there was an unusual sound - a rattling, stottering, surging, hissing noise sweeping southwards along the street. I should have known what it was by the preceding gloom and coldness.

I looked out of the window, and the steps and doorways were fringed with grey sleet. 'So,' I said to myself, 'here comes winter.' '

Occasionally Mackay Brown has to leave his island and head south to such tropical places as Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and it doesn't seem odd by now that you have to head south to such northern places. The remoteness of Orkney was once brought home to me by the story about Jo Grimond who, when he first arrived at Westminster as MP for Orkney, had to fill in a form which asked, inter alia, which was the nearest railway station to his constituency. He wrote 'Bergen, Norway'. And certainly Mackay Brown's Orkney is not on the way to anywhere, so the occasional visitor is a sensational surprise, such as the tour in 1973 of the '7:84 players' doing The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil.

'Surely that ought to mean something to all Orcadians. For we, too, had our clearances, and we are going to have our oil, and the whole pattern of our life is going to be changed. Yet only about 27 folk turned up to see the play in Stromness and (I'm told) a score in Kirkwall . . . . I share in the shame and blame of non-attendance. I did not go to the production in Stromness, not knowing what to expect (and also wishing to see Cider with Rosie on TV). The enthusiasm of my friends swept me along two nights later, and I'm very glad I went . . . .'

I bought this book second-hand in a country town in the woods outside Toronto in Canada. It was presumably left there by some exiled Orcadian, now cured of homesickness. It's odd that I, a non-Orcadian, bought it simply because I liked the writer, and have now brought it nearly all the way back again. Maybe I will even get to Orkney one day. It's going to seem oddly familiar now.

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