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George Mackay Brown
George Mackay Brown
|Born||(1921-10-17)17 October 1921
Stromness, United Kingdom
|Died||13 April 1996(1996-04-13) (aged 74)
|Occupation||poet, author, dramatist|
|Alma mater||University of Edinburgh|
George Mackay Brown (17 October 1921 – 13 April 1996) was a Scottish poet, author and dramatist, whose work has a distinctly Orcadian character. He is considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century.
George Mackay Brown was born on 17 October 1921, the youngest of six children. His parents were John Brown, a tailor and postman, and Mhairi Mackay, who had been brought up in Braal, a hamlet near Strathy, Sutherland as a native Gaelic speaker.
Except for periods as a mature student on mainland Scotland, Brown lived all his life in the town of Stromness in the Orkney islands. One of his Stromness neighbors was his friend, artist Sylvia Wishart. Due to illness his father was restricted in his work and received no pension. The family had a history of depression and it is likely that Mackay's uncle, Jimmy Brown, committed suicide: his body was found in Stromness harbour in 1935.
George Mackay Brown's youth was marked by poverty and it was from this time that he was affected by tuberculosis. This illness kept him from entering the army at the start of World War II and it afflicted him to such an extent that he could not live a normal working life; however, it was because of this that he had the time and space in which to write. He did start work in 1944 with The Orkney Herald, writing on Stromness news, and soon became a prolific journalist. He was encouraged in his writing of poetry by Francis Scarfe, who was billeted in the Browns' house for over a year from April 1944. After this he was helped in his development as a writer by Ernest Marwick, whose criticism he valued, and Robert Rendall.
In 1947, Stromness voted to allow pubs to open again, the town having been 'dry' since the 1920s. When the first bar opened in 1948, Mackay Brown first tasted alcohol, which he found to be "a revelation; they flushed my veins with happiness; they washed away all cares and shyness and worries. I remember thinking to myself 'If I could have two pints of beer every afternoon, life would be a great happiness'". Subsequently, alcohol played a considerable part in his life, although he says, "I never became an alcoholic, mainly because my guts quickly staled".
He was a mature student at Newbattle Abbey College in the 1951–1952 session, where the poet Edwin Muir, who would have a great influence on his life as a writer, was warden. His return for the following session was interrupted by the recurrence of tuberculosis.
Having had poems published in several periodicals, his first volume of poems, The Storm, was published by the Orkney Press in 1954. Muir wrote in the foreword: "Grace is what I find in these poems". Only three hundred copies were printed, and the imprint sold out within a fortnight. It was acclaimed in the local press.
Brown studied English literature at the University of Edinburgh. After publication of poems in a literary magazine, with the help of Muir, Brown had a second volume Loaves and Fishes published by the Hogarth Press in 1959. It was warmly received.
During this period he met, and drank in Rose Street Edinburgh with, many of the Scottish poets of his time: Sydney Goodsir Smith, Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Tom Scott and others. Here he also met Stella Cartwright, described as "The Muse in Rose Street". Brown was briefly engaged to her, and began a correspondence that would continue till her death in 1985.
In late 1960, Brown commenced teacher training at Moray House College of Education, but was unable to remain in Edinburgh because of ill-health. On his recovery in 1961, he found that he was not suited to this type of work and returned late in the year to his mother's house in Stromness, unemployed. It was at this time that he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, being baptised on 23 December and taking communion on the following day. This followed about twenty-five years of pondering his religious beliefs. This conversion was not marked by any change in his daily habits, including his drinking.
After a period of unemployment, and the rejection of a volume of poetry by the Hogarth Press, Brown did post-graduate study on Gerard Manley Hopkins, although academic study was not to his taste. This provided some occupation and income until 1964, when a volume of poetry, The Year of the Whale, was accepted.
Brown now found himself able to support himself financially for the first time, as he received new commissions. He received a bursary from the Scottish Arts Council in December 1965 and he was working on the volume of short stories, A Calendar of Love, which was issued, to critical acclaim, in February 1967. He was still troubled by his excessive drinking, and that of Stella Cartwright. Later that year came the death of his mother, who had supported him, while disapproving of his drinking; she left an estate of £4.
Meanwhile, he had been working on An Orkney Tapestry, which includes essays about Orkney and some more imaginative pieces, illustrated by Syvia Wishart. 1968 also saw his only visit to Ireland, on a bursary from the Society of Authors. He met Seamus Heaney there, although his nervous condition reduced his ability to enjoy his time there.
In 1969, A Time to Keep, a collection of short stories, was published, and it received a very positive welcome. The poet Charles Causley said, "I don't know anyone writing in this particular genre today who comes within a thousand miles of him". This was also the year in which he finished working on a six-part cycle of poems about Rackwick, published in 1971 as 'Fishermen with Ploughs'. Meanwhile, An Orkney Tapestry was proving to be a commercial success.
Brown met the musician Peter Maxwell Davies in Rackwick during the summer of 1970. Subsequently, Davies – who came to live in Rackwick – based a number of his works on the poetry and prose of George Mackay Brown.
Brown was now working on his first novel Greenvoe, the story of an imaginary Orkney community menaced by an undefined project called 'Operation Black Star'. The characters, with one exception, are not portrayed in any psychological depths. The exception is Mrs Mckee, mother of the (alcoholic) minister; he had intended her to be a minor character but he said of her, "I grew to love her more and more as the novel unfolded". The 'Dictionary of Literary Biography' says that Greenvoe "ranks ... among the great prose poems of this century". When the novel was published in May 1972 it appeared somewhat prophetic because of the oil exploration beginning in the Orkney area. But the resultant degree of celebrity was a trial to him.
The story of the life of Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney was one to which Brown frequently turned, and it was the theme of his next novel, Magnus, published in 1973. The story of Magnus's life is told in the Orkneyinga saga. The novel examined the themes of sanctity and self-sacrifice. Brown takes the theme of sacrifice into the twentieth century by inserting, in journalistic language, an account of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While some critics see the work as "disjointed", Peter Maxwell Davies, for example, regarded it as Brown's greatest achievement. Davies used it as the basis of his opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus.
Brown was awarded an OBE in the 1974 New Year Honours List. But the period after the completion of Magnus was marked by one of Brown's more acute periods of mental distress. Nevertheless, he maintained a stream of writing: poetry, children's stories and a weekly column in the local newspaper. His columns in The Orcadian continued from 1971 to the end of his life; a first collection of these columns was published as Letter from Hamnavoe in 1975.
In mid-1976, Brown met Nora Kennedy, a Viennese jeweller and silversmith, who was moving to South Ronaldsay. They had a brief affair, and remained friends for the rest of his life. He said in early 1977 that this had been his most productive winter as a writer. By early 1977, he was entering a period of depression which lasted intermittently for almost a decade, but he maintained his working routine throughout. He also suffered from severe bronchial problems, with his condition so serious that in early 1981 he was given the Last Sacraments.
These years saw his work on Time in a Red Coat, a novel which Brown called "more a sombre fable", a meditation on the passage of time. It has been described as "a novel in which the poet" – Brown as poet – "assumes an undoubted authority".
Two of the more important women in Brown's life died at about this time. One was Norah Smallwood who worked for his publishers Chatto & Windus, and who had helped and encouraged them over the years. She died in 1984. The other, who died the next year, was Stella Cartwright. It was in the period after her death that Brown began For the Islands I Sing, the autobiography which was not published until after his death. It devotes more space to Stella than to any other individual, although he did not attend her funeral.
Brown subsequently formed an intense, platonic, attachment to Kenna Crawford, to whom he dedicated both The Golden Bird: Two Orkney Stories and some poems in The wreck of the Archangel, a volume of poetry. She bore a remarkable resemblance to Stella Cartwright. The Golden Bird won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Between 1987 and 1989, Brown travelled to Nairn, including a visit to Pluscarden Abbey, and to Shetland and Oxford, the most that he left Orkney apart from his earlier studies in Edinburgh. The Oxford visit coincided with the centenary of the death of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Shortly afterwards Brown was diagnosed with bowel cancer, which required two major operations during 1990, and a lengthy stay in Foresterhill Hospital, Aberdeen. But in his final years Brown wrote two further novels, Vinland and Beside the Ocean of Time. Vinland, for which Brown won a £1,000 award from the Scottish Arts Council, traces the life of Ranald Sigmundson, a fictional character from the Viking era. Beside the Ocean of Time covers over eight hundred years of Orkney history through the dreams of an Orkney schoolboy. It is a meditation on the nature of time. It won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award for 1994; and was listed for the Booker prize for fiction. But this Booker listing caused him acute anxiety.
During his latter years Brown remained in his home but was cared for by a network of friends, including Surinder Punjya (later the principal of The Nesbitt Centre, Hong Kong), Gunnie Moberg, and Renée Simm.
Brown continued working, writing the poems of Following a Lark, and preparing the book for publication. The first copies were delivered to his home on the day that he died.
He died on 13 April 1996 after a short illness and was buried on 16 April, the feast day of Saint Magnus, with his funeral service held at the Church of Scotland St Magnus Cathedral. The service was presided over by Rev. Mario Conti, Father Michael Spencer and his later biographer Ron Ferguson. Peter Maxwell Davies played Farewell to Stromness. George Mackay Brown's gravestone bears an inscription from the last two lines of his 1996 poem, "A work for poets" :
His autobiography, For the Islands I Sing, was published shortly after his death. A literary biography Interrogation of Silence, by Rowena Murray and Brian Murray, was published in 2004; George Mackay Brown: The Life, a more personal biography, by Maggie Fergusson in 2006; and George Mackay Brown:The Wound and the Gift, a study of GMB's spiritual journey – including his controversial move from Presbyterianism to Roman Catholicism – by Ron Ferguson, in 2011.
Brown's poetry and prose have been described as characterised by "the absence of frills and decoration; the lean simplicity of description, colour shape and action reduced to essentials, which heightens the reality of the thing observed. While "his poems became informed by a unique voice that was his alone, controlled and dispassionate, which allowed every word to play its part in the narrative scheme of the unfolding poem".
Mackay Brown gained most of his inspiration from his native islands, in poems, stories and novels which ranged through time. He drew on the Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga, especially in his novel Magnus. Seamus Heaney said that he passed everything "through the eye of the needle of Orkney".
- The Storm (1954)
- Loaves and Fishes (1959)
- The Year of the Whale (1965)
- Fishermen with Ploughs (1971)
- Poems New and Selected (1971)
- Winterfold (1976)
- Voyages (1983)
- The Wreck of the Archangel (1989)
- Tryst on Egilsay (1989)
- Brodgar Poems (1992)
- Foresterhill (1992)
- Following a Lark (1996)
- Water (1996)
- Travellers: poems (2001)
- Collected Poems (2005)
Short story collections
- A Calendar of Love (1967)
- A Time to Keep (1969)
- Hawkfall (1974)
- The Sun's Net (1976)
- Andrina and Other Stories (1983)
- The Masked Fisherman and Other Stories (1989)
- The Sea-King's Daughter (1991)
- Winter Tales (1995)
- The Island of the Women and Other Stories (1998)
- A Spell for Green Corn (1970)
- Three Plays: The Loom of Light, The Well and The Voyage of Saint Brandon (1984)
- Greenvoe (1972)
- Magnus (1973)
- Time in a Red Coat (1984)
- The Golden Bird: Two Orkney Stories (1987) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.
- Vinland (1992)
- Beside the Ocean of Time (1994) shortlisted for Booker Prize and judged Scottish Book of the Year by the Saltire Society
Essays collections and autobiography
- An Orkney Tapestry (1969)
- Letters from Hamnavoe (1975)
- Under Brinkie's Brae (1979)
- Portrait of Orkney (1981)
- Rockpools and Daffodils: An Orcadian Diary, 1979–91 (1992)
- For the Islands I Sing: An Autobiography (1997)
- Stained Glass Windows (1998)
- Northern Lights (1999) (Includes Poetry)
- The First Wash of Spring (2006)
Children's story collection
- The Two Fiddlers (1974)
- Pictures in the Cave (1977)
- Six Lives of Fankle the Cat (1980)
- For the Islands I Sing
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