By way of a change from unjustly neglected female writers a justly remembered male writer- George Mackay Brown. In the 13 years since his death this Orkney poet and storytellers reputation has grown to the point where it is possible to find him represented in high street book chains. Not always, but sometimes, beyond the yards of Dan Brown he’s sitting there. I cannot express how comforting I find it when I come across such a book it feels to me like a little beacon of hope for choice and diversity within bookselling – not qualities the high street often encourages, so thank you Birlinn and Scottish Arts Council.
Critically acclaimed, prolific, Booker short listed, winner of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Short Story Prize, winner of the Saltire Book of the Year, and honoured by Dundee and Glasgow universities it shouldn’t be surprising to find GMB on any shelf. I do find it slightly unexpected though because he writes almost exclusively about Orkney and with an obsession for the islands past, and whilst this is what draws me to him, in my case it is in the spirit of an exile desperate for a glimpse of home.
GMB described his task as poet and storyteller “to rescue the centuries’ treasure before it is too late. It is as though the past is a great ship that has gone ashore, and archivist and writer must gather as much of the rich squandered cargo as they can.” Living on a small island in the middle of a vast Sea has a profound effect on every aspect of life. Weather and Tide are inescapable facts, the long summer days of never quite dark, long winter nights lit occasionally by the northern lights, even the possibility of seeing a pod of killer whales roll through town chasing harbour seals; it all contributes to a sense of other, of something more, of something bigger.
In Orkney the past feels like a living thing, it is certainly something that everybody lives with. ‘Beside the Ocean of Time’ is the novel GMB was booker shortlisted for, it’s a gorgeously evocative title, but I have a preference for his short stories. They are perfect, utterly complete, wonderfully economical and efficient evocations of the Islands. Generally about small things, the ordinary events that make up life, there is still a sense of something extraordinary, something more. I think it’s a sense of belonging to a history, a tradition and a place.
I’ve read Mackay Brown for years, but only discovered a few weeks ago when I finally got a copy of ‘Northern Lights’ how narrowly I missed meeting him myself. He describes a boat trip with my father in Shetland, a fortnight before I would have come back home for the summer. My 13 year old self didn’t read his work and clearly didn’t take in this parental anecdote, so reading about it 20 years later is an odd experience. I’m far to middle class for GMB. His words make it clear that my sort are a stain on his Islands history, incapable of understanding or feeling the rhythms he describes. I wish I could have told him he was wrong.
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