The Life of George Mackay Brown

listerm18pic1.jpg The ‘Bard of Hamnavoe’ rarely gave interviews and seldom left his island home. For him, ‘Orkney was a microcosm of the whole world, and the material it offered him was inexhaustible.’ His single, slim volume of autobiography, For the Islands I Sing, he wrote in 1985, but did not want it published during his lifetime, and when it appeared in 1997, it was described by his publisher as being ‘as deft as it is ultimately uninformative.’ For such a private and intensely shy man as George Mackay Brown, who experienced periods of agoraphobia, it is a wonder in itself that he should have responded at all to the suggestion to allow Maggie Fergusson to write his life. ‘So long as nothing was published in his lifetime’, she writes, he would be prepared to ‘help in any way he could.’ This he did, and generously so, and he was ‘content that some of his secrets should eventually be known.’

While there is no end to the number of stories and anecdotes and apocryphal tales told about each and every one of the other poets of the second wave of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, literary gossip about GMB has always been very thin on the ground. Many people can regale with tales about MacCaig and Sidney Goodsir Smith and Robert Garioch. Surrounding MacDiarmid, progenitor of the first wave and patron of the second, there is, of course, an entire industry. But about GMB, one of the most diffident of poets and the most reclusive of men, any stories are few. This again makes Maggie Fergusson’s revealing and compassionate biography all the more remarkable and all the more welcome.

Fergusson’s book has been many years in the making and has been carefully researched (though when she writes about the Royal Academy in Edinburgh, she obviously means the Royal Scottish Academy). It is also sensitively written. About some of GMB’s less attractive characteristics – his weaknesses and failings – she is not uncritical, but for the greater part, Fergusson writes most warmly and very affectionately. And on or two occasions one feels that Fergusson is perhaps just a little too close to her subject to be the dispassionate and critical biographer. But this is a very minor criticism, if it is a criticism at all.

The Life here is exactly that. It is a biographical study of the life of the man, with any discussion of his literary work kept to a minimum. And this is perhaps one of the strengths of Fergusson’s book: she does not attempt to assume the role of literary critic along with that of biographer. There is already a sufficient number of critical studies of GMB’s work available, and while Fergusson charts the genesis and development of GMB’s career as a writer, she chooses to avoid critical discussion of his literary work.

Because we know so very little about the life of so private a man, save for the few details that feature on the insides of the dust-jackets of his books, the little information he revealed about himself in the handful of interviews he gave, and what he was prepared to say in his volume of autobiography, much of the material that makes up Fergusson’s biography will be, for most readers, entirely new.

And because many will doubtless have imagined GMB to have possessed all the qualities of a saint, some of Maggie Fergusson’s revelations about him will come as a great surprise, if not as something of a shock. Though this hardly damages her subject’s reputation. Quite the reverse. By writing about the more painful aspects of GMB’s life and his experiences of intense sadness, his frustrations, his struggles, his contradictions, his vulnerability, his ‘desperate feelings of solitude’, Maggie Fergusson shows the man in all his states, sorrowful and joyful.

Here we learn about the good and the bad and all that went to the making of the man: his relationship with his environment and his acute sense of place and history; his earliest passion for football and his youthful writings, including his own magazine, called The Celt, after his favourite football team and which must surely qualify as a very early example of a ‘fanzine’. About his early journalism in The Orkney Herald, we are told about his tendency to snipe and ‘sneer at people in print’ and become pompous, though his attraction towards Catholicism, his subsequent conversion, and his growth as a poet all evidently rescued him from these deeply unpleasant tendencies. We learn about his ‘divided allegiance between drinking and writing’ and how his precarious health was made worse not only by drink but by poverty. We also learn about his depressions; and something – though really very little indeed – about his sexuality; as well as about his relationships with women, particularly with his mother, and with his muses Sylvia, Nora, Stella and Kenna.

While Fergusson is undoubtedly close to her subject, she does not sanitise or even attempt to make more palatable certain difficult or unpleasant episodes. Her chapter on GMB’s Edinburgh years is genuinely revealing, and she does not stint in her discussion of the dynamic of the ‘Rose Street Poets’. Other literary biographers and critics have never discussed this period or the group as frankly as Fergusson has, and this is the first time, to my knowledge, that such un-apologetic treatment of this group has been made in print, so publicly and so fully. It has always puzzled me why there should have been no full-length biography of any of the ‘Rose Street Poets’, save for Alan Bold’s weighty life of MacDiarmid, but in her honest and pioneering undertaking to write about her own subject, Maggie Fergusson has made available new information about some of these other poets too, and in so doing she has, I believe, removed the need for any future literary biographers to maintain the embarrassed silence surrounding this group and the far from salutary behaviour of some of its disciples in relation to one particular young woman, who was their muse.

Fergusson’s book is full of revelations and fascinating details: one of these many details is that while at Newbattle Abbey College in1951, GMB and his comrades who ‘kept truth with beer and poetry’, each submitted entries for The Observer Christmas Story Competition. But so did more than 6000 other aspiring writers. And of course it was another Scottish writer who was to win this prize – Muriel Spark, then exiled in London.

And it is helpful to see some loose ends tied up, for example, the story behind the end of GMB’s long association with Chatto & Windus and the beginning of his dealings with John Murray, who have been as good to his memory as they were to him in life. His association with Chatto & Windus began in 1959, when they published, under its Hogarth Press imprint, his second volume of poetry Loaves and Fishes, after Edwin Muir had sent a sheaf of his student poems to Norah Smallwood. GMB stayed with Chatto & Windus until 1984, when, following Norah Smallwood’s death, there was a change of editorial policy and Hugo Brunner, ‘out of step with the new regime left to join John Murray. GMB was content to follow.’ It was Hugo Brunner who first suggested that someone should write his life, and the writer proposed was Maggie Fergusson.

In The Life of George Mackay Brown, Maggie Fergusson has paid a great tribute to her subject, as well as a huge service, I believe, to future Scottish literary biographies.

The Life of George Mackay Brown by Maggie Fergusson is published by John Murray (ISBN 0719556597 HBK £25)

© Michael Lister 2006


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