Monday, August 30, 2021

Simple Fire; Selected Short Stories - George Mackay Brown, edited by Malachy Tallack

This is George Mackay Brown's centenary year and amongst the general celebrations (Orkney Libraries A Hat For George project seems a particularly apt way to remember him and meditate on his work) are the release of two new edited collections of his work from Polygon - Simple Fire, a collection of hos short stories selected by Malachy Tallack, and Carve the Runes, a selection of his poetry chosen by Kathleen Jamie. I've always been on the fence about Mackay Brown's poetry and novels, but I'm starting to think I really should get a copy of Carve the Runes, partly just to see what Jamie has chosen. 

However ambivalent I might be about his novels (I failed to read Greenvoe a couple of times and then Beside the Ocean of Time), and whatever doubts I might have about the appeal of his poetry for me I love his short stories. The combination of his style and subject matter with the format is hard to beat.

When I got this collection I had only intended to skim through it, I've read all the short story anthologies before and I thought it would be mostly interesting to see what Malachy Tallack had selected. I forgot that as soon as I started reading, becoming totally absorbed in George's world again, only remembering towards the end of the book to consider the difference between a GMB selection and somebody else's choice of his work. 

George Mackay Brown revisited the same themes over and again throughout his writing career. He deals with Orkney, his contemporary world, the past of his childhood, and a deeper past - with occasional forays into an imagined future. Orkney and his catholic faith give him everything he needs to write about - as well it might and these stories have aged well. As an introduction to his work, this is an excellent place to start.

Several of the stories here have an autobiographical edge - men who suffer from bronchial problems (as Brown would throughout his life after an early bout of TB), a vein of depression, religious and mystical elements, and issues around alcoholism. Although Brown claims he was never an alcoholic he certainly had a complicated relationship with alcohol, as did Stella Cartwright, the woman he was briefly engaged to. (You don't need to read a biography to know this - a quick look at Wikipedia fills in the main details). 

Choosing those stories with autobiographical elements changes the emphasis here slightly from the original collections. It centers the past that Mackay Brown writes about - the pre-war, pre-oil world that changed slowly so that the childhood he remembers wouldn't have been very different to his parents or grandparents in its rhythms and expectations retains its nostalgia and gains something else here. Maybe that's the result of the last couple of Covid years and our own re-centering of values - we've all had the chance to appreciate community again, and question the worth of city life when so much has been closed. 

It's maybe that another decade has passed since I last read these stories and in that time I've come to have more of the same sort of nostalgia for the world that GMB describes as he had. This isn't the world that I knew precisely, but it's in line with the one my grandparent's generation described, and collectively we're definitely reaching a point where we're wondering how much damage progress has done - James Rebanks English Pastoral has something of the same mood about it as some of these stories despite being an in an entirely different genre. 

I also love the way that GMB loved Orkney and its stories and the way he shares the richness he found in the place. If you believe in this sort of thing you could consider it a thin place - certainly where time is concerned. The past feels very close to the surface in Orkney, it's not much of a stretch of the imagination to feel that its stories are in the air just waiting to be breathed in and written out

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