the GEORGE  MACKAY  BROWN website

A Marvellous Journey
A peedie look at the life and work of GMB  

Life and Work
Part 3

  

Rising and Falling
'two drunk students arrived, rising and falling ...'
'By way of an essay, I showed Dr Kitchen some of my recent poems , and he gave me such high marks that I'm sure it elevated me into second position in the class of about three hundred.'
     from For the Islands I Sing


At 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.    

He 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 more.  

He 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 reading.  

The 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 wall. 

Fortunately 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. 

A 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.

In the immediate aftermath of losing his brother, George became depressed, a condition not unfamiliar to him throughout his life.  But he still had one term's grant from Newbattle, and the new warden of the college accepted him for the summer term. 

During that term, he wrote and recorded a talk on Edwin Muir for the BBC, taking a friend with him for courage.  The recording didn't go well; he froze at the sight of the microphone and technicians.

Afterwards 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 expulsion. 

So too were the other students.  Due to their intervention threats to leave en masse, to involve the press   the warden reconsidered, on condition that George didn't enter a pub as long as he was at the college. He kept to the bargain. 

It was also the time he thought he fell briefly in love with a girl from the North East, although elsewhere in his biography he says that he never fell in love with anybody, man or woman, and nobody ever fell in love with him. 

Again he describes Stromness as the desert and the stimulating life at Newbattle must have been in marked contrast to sitting in bed till dinnertime, living on National Assistance.  Rather than stay there with no purpose or direction, he applied to read English Literature at Edinburgh University.  Orkney Education Committee gave him a grant and he embarked on 4 years of study.  New fields of knowledge opened up.  Once again he was enchanted by the learning process. 

He lodged in Marchmont, ten minutes walk from the University.  Because of the scarring to his lungs, even this walk was onerous and he took a bus to the lecture halls. 
In the beginning, George was homesick for Orkney, and he felt isolated, comparing himself to Bede, sitting alone and cold at his books and papers in his monastic cell.
 

When 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. 

News of his drinking found its way back to Orkney.  He had word that the Orkney Education Committee [who provided his grant] was disturbed by the rumours.  He wrote to tell them of his success, rising to second place out of three hundred students in the English Literature class, and nothing more was said. 

There was a young woman living in Edinburgh at this time, celebrated by George in prose and poetry.  Stella Cartwright was, as women have been through the ages, a Muse to the Rose Street poets.  When they first met, she thought George was a fisherman.  She awoke in George a delight he had never known before, with her beauty and humour.  He was happy just to be with her.  Poems were written for and about her, not just by George; Charles Senior, the Glasgow poet, wrote 'The Muse in Rose Street'.  Revisiting the Rose Street district after 30 years, he found Milne's Bar modernised but still haunted by the ghosts of past poets.
 

During the run-up to the finals in June 1960, George again compares himself to a monk, shut up in a narrow cell, dedicated to books in a disciplined life.  He dare not look out of the window at the spring sunshine.  But in a weak moment he confessed to thinking of his beloved Rackwick, or the water coming up to Stromness piers at high tide.  In the end he felt this wasn't weakness at all, it gave him strength to continue his studies. 

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.

 


Falling on Good Soil
Fifties and Sixties
'Many authors have a heart-breaking heroic time of it hawking their manuscripts from publisher to publisher before they fall on good soil.'
    
from For the Islands I Sing


During his 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.' 

His first small book in print was The Storm in 1954, a 33-page collection of poems with an introduction by Edwin Muir and illustrations by George's old school friend, Ian MacInnes.  Little mention of this is found in his writings, an event that should have been momentous.

In 1958, Edwin Muir sent a selection of George's poems to Norah Smallwood, a director of Hogarth Press.  She wrote to George, saying she would like to publish them.  He had never dreamed that this could happen.  A collection of poems Loaves and Fishes was published in 1959 to a cool reception. 

Edwin 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. 

But he wasn't free of disappointment.  Getting together a new collection of poems, he sent them to the Hogarth Press in 1962.  Cecil Day Lewis, then the poetry editor, returned them, listing among the faults 'outcrops of barren imagery'.  He was spurred on to what he felt were better things, with new poems arriving almost daily for a couple of months.  Cecil Day Lewis accepted this second collection, and The Year of the Whale duly appeared in 1965, to a better reception. 

The 1960's was a productive time, and a cluster of short stories found favour with Norah Smallwood.  In February 1967 A Calendar of Love appeared to extraordinarily good reviews.  Some of these stories were worked on over and over, such as Five Green Waves.  Others appeared to unfold easily: The Seller of Silk Shirts and Jorkel Hayforks coming almost unbidden. 
 

He received an Arts Council Grant for poetry [1965] and the Society of Scottish Authors Travel Award [1968], 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. 

Like 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.

In this period, several small volumes, pamphlets or special editions were published:  The Five Voyages of Arnor, 11 pages in 1966, Twelve Poems and The Wedding in 1968.

A 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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