Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Masked Fisherman – George Mackay Brown

(And other things)

It’s been a long week, and with more training in the offing next week is likely to feel longer. This time I’m off to a golf course somewhere outside of Reading for three nights. Days will be spent incarcerated indoors learning the professional equivalent of sucking eggs. Nights I can at least read, unless I’m forced to socialise with colleagues (small talk with strangers or reading? It’s a choice that will bring out my inner misanthrope every time.)

Three nights is longer than expected so I’m wondering exactly what to take to read – I have a pile of tempting things and a pile of things I feel I should read but which will require more effort. Still I have twenty four hours to decide, a possible trip to the book farm tomorrow - so plenty of potential for impulse purchases, and will have to walk past (into) Foyle’s at St Pancras on my way to the course...

So: ‘The Masked Fisherman’. I was reading this whilst waiting for ‘The Chapel at the End of the World’ to arrive partly to get me in the mood, partly because I find myself drawn to Mackay Brown as the seasons turn, and by the by in direct contradiction to my assertion that Orkney isn’t always grey, the cover of this book is exceptionally monotone, also a lot of the stories take place in the dark of winter –and yet I still find it somehow uplifting. I’m going to quote the back cover blurb at this point as its apt and in Mackay Brown’s own words: “Many of the stories in this book are set in winter, round about the solstice and Christmas and New Year. In the north, winter has always been the time for storytelling... Winter, season of storm and dearth, is still a might quickener of the imagination.”

In the past I’ve struggled with Mackay Brown’s novels, but I can’t think of a better short story writer (plenty that are as good, but no one to beat him). ‘The Masked Fisherman’ has encouraged me to try again (I my well take him away with me to see what he makes of the Reading golf course) but there’s a magic in these short stories that I think comes partly from their brevity. This was a grand collection to get me in the mood for ‘The Chapel at the End of the World’; they share many of the same themes – patience, acceptance, endurance, hope, faith, timelessness – the sort of thing I feel in need of to get me through the last few weeks of winter.

There is always a cycle of tide and season in Mackay Brown’s writing, never more than in this collection which is what makes the dead of winter seem so hopeful – winter means spring is on its way; the light of a single candle is a forecast of the sun to come. I have to slow down to read these and feel my way into his sense of time; ease myself into a rhythm controlled by light, dark, storm and calm.

I’m aware that I’m not expressing myself very well here – the charm with Mackay Brown is that he does – the images he creates on the page, with really astonishing economy, are vivid before me as I read them. I don’t consider any bookshelf well dressed without at least one volume of his stories up there. Even if the subject isn’t your cup of tea he should be read for the style, and if I manage to convince at least one person of that I’ll be very happy.

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