GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
A Marvellous Journey
A peedie look at the life and work of GMB
Newbattle he chose to study English and History, and quickly became part
of a small devoted literary group.
The classes were friendly and informal, rather than relying on
excessive note-taking. Socially
too, he enjoyed evenings in the crypt of the Abbey, where they all
gathered round a log fire. Students
throughout the ages have discussed with passion religion and politics;
this set was no different. They
also read their favourite poems to each other.
has no doubt that his four fellow-students [Bill Drysdale, Bob Fletcher,
Ian MacArthur and Tom Wilson] as well as Edwin Muir helped to make him a
writer. There is a
delightful passage in his autobiography where he tells of Edward kindly
offering to try to place some of his poems, and of his joy when his poem
The Exile was accepted by the New Statesman. The Listener declined an offered poem but asked to see
left Newbattle in the summer of 1952, feeling he'd never know such pure
happiness again. But what he'd experienced there was absorbed into him,
becoming part of his fabric and of his writing.
After this idyll, George describes his life back in Stromness as
returning to the desert, living on National Assistance.
He stayed in bed until noon, maybe writing a little, maybe
following year, tuberculosis came back.
This time, George spent more than a year in the sanatorium,
Eastbank. The noisy
atmosphere – the other
patients were mostly young men, having been diagnosed early and not so
seriously ill – wasn't conducive to writing and reading, and in the confined
spaces, tempers frayed easily. George
remembers his companion in a two-man room playing his transistor radio
constantly, whether or not he was there.
When George could stand it no longer, he beat it against the
the medical officer was a man with insight who decided to start a
hospital magazine, appointing
George editor. He asked for
a single room in order to do the job properly, and produced half a dozen
editions, mostly written by himself, but with contributions from other
patients. It must have given him a sense of purpose in those bleak
surroundings where time hung heavy.
few months after George's discharge from the sanatorium in the summer of
1954, his eldest brother Hughie suffered the first in a series of heart
attacks; he died in March 1956. It
was a shock to them all, the whole community, to lose such a seemingly
fit and active man.
they drank the proceeds, £9, returning to Newbattle so drunk that they
fell about and had to climb to their feet just as a visiting party of
colonial students were leaving. The
following morning, the warden expelled George as the main culprit in
ruining the students' visit, letting off his friend with a reprimand.
George admitted his responsibility, but was still shaken by his
Stromness had opened its first bar after the temperance years, George
had embraced bar-life with its camaraderie, story telling and of course,
ale and whisky. In
Edinburgh, he got deeper into this culture, ale and writers in his
opinion being necessary companions, having a unique almost mystical
bond. He gravitated for warmth and company, towards the favoured
Abbotsford and Milne's Bar in Rose Street, where poets gathered –
Sydney Goodsir Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Tom Scott –
and in time shyly drifted into their circle.
He was awarded second class honours, his mother came down for the degree ceremony and they celebrated with his brother Norrie and his wife Hazel. George wasn't impressed by the reverence for learning exhibited that day. He felt other moments in his life surpassed it, the day he wrote his first sonnet, the day he first laughed with Stella.
He applied to do a year's post-graduate work on Gerard Manley Hopkins. With great honesty he reports choosing Hopkins not only because he loved the poetry, but because the Collected Poems are smaller in number than most poets. He loved the language Hopkins used, a language full of song. With his background firmly rooted in the Gaelic George ably continued in the Hopkins tradition.
Edinburgh made a deep impression on George. He found it particularly enchanting in Spring and early Summer, and returned again and again over the years, in memory and in writing, and with the occasional visit. He enjoyed bumping into old friends from his student days, like John Durkin with whom he spent happy hours going over old times. And certainly his time there rounded out his literary skills. The raw gemstone of his writing was faceted and polished by his broader knowledge and appreciation of Literature.
on Good Soil
time at both Newbattle College and Edinburgh University, George was having
some publishing success, in regional publications such as The New
Shetlander, as well as writing his occasional column in the Orkney
Herald under his byline Islander.
He reveals his early enjoyment of writing: 'one of the favourite
subjects handed out for composition was 'The Day in the Life of ....'
It was pleasant to spend half an hour imagining that one was a farmer,
or a doctor, or a dog ... I must say that I invariably enjoyed these brief
holidays out of myself.'
Muir, after leaving Newbattle, spent a year as Professor of Poetry at Harvard.
While there, he showed some of George's poems to the literary editor of
Harper's Bazaar. In due
course George received the magazines and cheques that took his breath away
with their extravagance. He was on his way, lucky he felt to have been spared
the heart-breaking task of hawking his work round different publishers.
received an Arts Council Grant for poetry  and the Society of Scottish
Authors Travel Award , recognition of his developing literary presence
and a welcome addition to the coffers. The
travel award stipulated that he visit a foreign country.
He and a friend drove to Stranraer, crossed to Larne and on to Donegal,
Galway, and reached Connemara before the car broke down.
They had to abandon plans to see the rest of the Irish coastline,
making instead for Dublin where they spent the last ten days.
Two vaguely literary lines of enquiry ensued:
they looked in vain for James Joyce's Martello tower, and the night
before leaving Ireland, they had a marvellous evening with a group of Irish
poets and singers in Belfast.
giving birth, his offerings appeared in print every couple of years.
In 1969 An Orkney Tapestry appeared, a series of essays, plays,
poems all combined with the history and life of Orkney.
It was illustrated by Sylvia Wishart, an old friend and the daughter of
his mother's neighbour. It nearly
caused an upset with Norah Smallwood of Hogarth Press.
Victor Gollancz commissioned the book, seemingly giving George free
reign to write about Orkney and a persuasively good fee for doing so.
Whether there was any exclusive agreement with Hogarth isn't clear; it
seems more likely that George had simply not appreciated the unwritten rules
in publishing. But the ruffle was
smoothed over and George enjoyed Norah's friendship, and her
guiding, cherishing hand until her death in 1984. An Orkney Tapestry
was well received.
new collection of stories, A Time to Keep, also came out in 1969 to
what he felt was even warmer applause. It
seemed to him as if his days in the desert were nearly over.
It won the Scottish Arts Council Literature Prize, and he received the
Katherine Mansfield Menton Short Story prize for the title story.
Satisfying accolades with which to end the decade.
George was firmly established on the literary scene.
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