The Complexity of an Ordinary Person
complexity of an 'ordinary person' is amazing
in northern lands, drink is the key inside are treasures and
rags-and-bones all jumbled together.'
from For the Islands I Sing
tells stories about his drinking in many of his writings. From his first
encounters with the creamy frothy nectar in the late 40's [when
Stromness opened it's first bar for a quarter of a century] throughout
his youth and the middle part of his life, drink played an important
In his autobiography, he says beer washed away all cares and sadness and
worries. Remembering the
sensitivities of childhood, the trials of adolescence, his shyness, and
the sense of depression that overcame him from time to time, it is easy
to see how alcohol offered escape to the realms of fantasy where George
saw the poet in everyman. He
flourished in their company. His
'half and half ' [a nip of whisky and a half pint of beer] became a
habit that led to frequent drunkenness.
Often he had to be helped home and left on his doorstep.
As well as releasing him from shyness and anxiety, alcohol sharpened his
sense of the complexity of people, first learned at his father's door
listening to the pacing and the depressed mutterings within. George knew the stoical northerner must never show his
feelings, and he became aware of masks worn to protect and hide what was
considered to be shameful - all emotions.
Alcohol broke down many of these restraints in himself and in his
companions, revealing new levels
of emotion to him. Another
element entered his writing as he discovered surface complexities hiding
a simpler world within, a world where joy and anger lived.
It says a lot for his mother with her Free Presbyterian upbringing, that
she coped and cared for her youngest son despite his frequent state of
drunkenness. One New Year's
Eve, George took the books from the little bookcase at the top of the
stairs and flung them down the stairs.
He tells the story with his usual gentle humour against himself,
how he fell over his feet, down the stairs to join the books.
His mother laughed at the irony of finding her writer-son in what
he called a nest of books. No
laughing for George, though; a rib was broken.
The doctor commented he was lucky not have broken his neck.
He made his own home-brew, a ritual he enjoyed from the first
out-pouring of malt into the bin to the adding of the magical yeast. He poetically describes the light and gaiety of summer locked
in the hops being released in this process, and after stirring seven
times in a clockwise direction, thought it did no harm to speak the
brewer's word, if you knew it.
For a long time, thirty years or so, there was a divided allegiance, to
drink and to writing. In
the end, writing got the upper hand but he says he continued to use the
insights drink had won for him. By
1981, he would have found life meaningless if he didn't have the routine
of sitting at his writing table for three hours each morning.
But he was left with deep regrets about the pain his
over-indulgence caused his mother, so that he frequently dreamed about
her displeasure and anger after she died.
By the time he wrote the first part of his autobiography in 1985,
the thirst had largely left him.
Somewhere in the middle
of those years, George converted to Roman Catholicism.
His mother enjoyed the visits of the priests from Kirkwall, and
offered no overt objection. So
seldom did she veer from her sunny nature, that her comment 'Some
Catholic you are!' when George was deep in the miseries of a hangover,
left him feeling shamed and haunted.
The only Catholics in Stromness when George was growing up were
an Italian ice-cream seller and an Irish barber.
There was no anti-Catholic sentiment in Orkney as there was in
other parts of Scotland at that time.
Mass was celebrated at the Catholic church in Kirkwall.
Still, he observed that there was something sinister in the very
word Catholic and all the words connected with it rosary, pope,
confession, relics, purgatory, monks, penance.
His reading ranged from Francis Thompson and Lytton Strachey to
John Henry Newman and of course the account in the Orkneyinga saga of St
Magnus's martyrdom which made the biggest impression on him.
Yet still he hesitated.
As he read more deeply, his joy in the unfolding mysteries is
unmistakable: 'Except a
seed fall into the ground, and die ...'
was a delight and a revelation.
It was the beauty of the word which finally drew him in
he found the beauty of Christ's parables irresistable.
George's religious feeling was a private matter, and though many
poems and short stories deal with Christmas and Easter, or the struggle
to have faith and accept God, there is no dogma.
Rather he expresses the spiritually-aware side of his nature in
writing about other things which matter to him; Orkney folk, their
connections with each other and their sacred tryst with the earth; his sure touch with seasons, rhythms, cycles, and the spirit
inherent in humanity. Archie
Bevan wrote in his obituary, published in the Independent on Sunday:
'He was a religious poet who achieved some of his finest work in
a non-Religious context.'
George merged his understanding of the Word [capitalised] and the word
[lower case] in his short story The Seven Poets, [from The
Sun's Net] expressed in the story by a poet:
'I think often of the boundless power of words. A Word made everything in the beginning.
The uttering of that Word took six days.
What is this poetry that I busy myself with?
A futile yearning towards a realisation of that marvellous Word.
What is all poetry but a quest for the meaning and beauty and
majesty of the original Word? Poets
all over the world since time began have been busy at the task of
re-creation, each with his own little pen and parchment ... I think that
Shakespeare in his lifetime made perhaps the millionth part of a single
letter of the Word. Will
the complete Word ever be spoken for the second time?
... This is my contribution to the Word - such a sound as a speck
of dust might make falling on grass no more.
insight into his own quest for meaning, for how could a man so
interested in the heroic deeds portrayed in the Orkneyinga saga not have
an heroic quest of his own.
Perhaps it was in part this religious quality in George's work which
appealed to Peter Maxwell Davies, the Manchester-born composer, when
they met for the first time at Rackwick in 1970.
It was evidently an afternoon full of atmosphere in his favourite
valley with sea-haar drifting in. The night before they met
coincidentally, Maxwell Davies had been spellbound reading An Orkney
Maxwell Davies was looking for a cottage where he might live and work,
his great sensitivity to Orkney, its people and landscape matching
George's. Even through the
haar and rain, the spell of Rackwick enchanted the composer and
eventually he settled at Bunertoon [above the township] in Rackwick,
living and working in solitude for six months of the year.
This was the beginning of a lasting friendship and collaboration.
Maxwell Davies set more than thirty of George's works to music,
including The Martyrdom of St Magnus which had its premiθre at the
first St Magnus Festival in Kirkwall in 1977. George, Maxwell Davies and Archie Bevan, among others,
birthed the idea for the Festival, nurtured and midwifed the event.
Now it is an important annual feature of the Orkney arts
Outside of writing and
drinking, George made lasting friends.
School pals like Ian MacInnes who shared the sixpenny sports
prizes and later taught art at Stromness Academy, Archie and Elizabeth
Bevan Archie being perhaps the first teacher to introduce George's
work in the classroom, and the photographer Gunnie Moberg.
He became honorary members of these families, reading bedtime
stories to their children, writing poems and stories for them.
There were many others who extended a warm welcome, and there was
talk and laughter.
Although George loved to embark on Ginger Brown's ferry and make the
crossing to Hoy, or take trips to near places such as Wyre and Sanday,
he was not in general a good traveller.
He admits to stabs of anxiety and spasms of panic, nervous about
being on the wrong train, having to be reassured perhaps more than once
by fellow travellers. The
hypnotic effect of the train rhythm left him drowsing and then jolting
into wakefulness time after time. The
uncertainty of where he might find himself at journey's end took away
his peace of mind. Yet the one time he was truly lost drunk in Edinburgh he
slept on a bus way past his stop he managed with a little luck to
get himself home again.
He was happy enough travelling about by car, driven by friends to places
like Pluscarden Abbey in Invernesshire or around the Perthshire
and safety in someone else's navigation perhaps.
Gunnie Moberg was one who inspired confidence, taking him on
journeys north to Shetland, to the north-west of Scotland and south to
London. The Shetland trip
reminded him of his previous visit to Shetland to cover a
Shetland/Orkney football match for The Orkney Herald in 1950.
There is a well known gently teasing story from that trip
George managed to leave behind his scarf - at home
in Stromness, he was known as much for his scarf as for his byline,
Islander. A year later,
the scarf managed to find its way to Wick in Caithness, and then sailed
at the head of the mast of the St Ola back to Stromness where it was
hauled down and ceremonially handed over to its owner. Cartoons in
the Herald commented on the scarf's
absence and return. [see foot of page].
The later trip to Shetland was rich in writing for George.
Gunnie's extensive friends and acquaintances on the islands led
to stimulating meetings and conversations. And
George, still weak after bronchial trouble prior to setting out for
Shetland, spent hours alone while the others went walking, giving him
ample time to let the stirrings of his imagination take shape.
The trip provided material for poems, newspaper columns
and a large diary section in Northern Lights.
In June 1989, he travelled by sleeper to London, and although the
journey was nightmarish for him, he saw for the first time Buckingham
Palace and Hyde Park, an obvious source of enjoyment. This was not quite
his first trip to England.
Around 1969/70 he was travelling by car with friends in the Borders,
near Berwick. With
apologies to Scottish Nationalists, he wrote that to make quite sure he
set foot on English soil, his friends drove over the Tweed so he could
get out on the south bank. Berwick
has a history of changing borders, between England and Scotland.
his life, George had recurring flares of turberculosis and associated
conditions such as bronchitis.
In Edinburgh in the early 1960's, he was admitted, after a huge
drunken spree involving wild train journeys between Edinburgh and
Glasgow, to the City Hospital with a shadow on his lung.
His recuperative powers were strong, and perhaps incentive played
its part as one of his visitors was Stella Cartwright, the young woman
beloved by so many poets in the city at that time.
After a winter recuperating in a sanatorium near Aberdeen, he was
writing verse again, by his own admission, dense tortured stuff.
Ironically, George looked on the tubercle that caused his suffering as
an ally. This particular
flare-up occurred when he had just started teacher training.
Hands-on experience in the classroom left him horrified.
Children who were angels and doves in the care of other teachers
became demons in his. When
he had recovered sufficiently to return, he wrote to the principal of
Moray House saying it would be better if he gave up all ambition to
1981, after years of mixed health, George was having trouble breathing
yet again. Trying to get
out of bed in the morning was he felt an act of small heroism.
He spent three pleasant weeks in the Piper Ward of the Balfour in
Kirkwall, luxuriating in being looked after, receiving visitors bearing
gifts [but it was the visitors themselves who mattered to him], the
rhythm of his days broken for a while.
On his return to Mayburn Court, he threw away his collection of
pipes that he had liked to smoke late in the evening, with a drink, in
his rocking chair, pouring over the manuscripts of the day.
He hadn't missed smoking in hospital, even becoming a little
disgusted with it. But still, late at night with a mug of ale on the mantlepiece
and sheets of manuscripts on his knees, he felt a slight ache of desire.
were other hospital visits, eye operations, bronchitis, but in 1989 came
a skirmish with cancer. He
spent six weeks in the summer undergoing radiotherapy in a hospital in
Aberdeen. In his writings
he underplays this except for heaping praise on doctors and nurses, and
the quiet bravery of other cancer patients. He spent the time between
the five minute radiotherapy treatments working on a sequence of poems,
Foresterhill, in which he imagined a medieval monastic beginning for the
hospital. It was in part, he said, an attempt to express some gratitude
to the staff there. Little
gems shine among the narrative poems, Homily and the final Returns.
More awards came during these years.
Apart from grants for poetry and a travel award, he won
literature prizes for A Time to Keep, and The Golden Bird, and
was awarded the OBE in 1974. In
the 1970's he received honorary degrees from the Open University [MA],
Dundee University [LL.D] and Glasgow University [D.Litt].
was not an immensely practical person; when his mother died he could
make toast and tea, and boil an egg, fry a kipper.
He loved food, it's another of his marvellous things, and he
delighted in the stews and broths he learned to make in quantities
sufficient to last several days. When
someone showed him how to make an omelette stuffed with mushrooms and
cheese, he added it to his repertoire with relish. What he loved most though was a boiling of Orkney
tatties with a golden coat of butter and an accompaniment of a piece of
good haddock, or a few slices of corned beef, or lamb chops.
He mentions with appreciation those kind friends who included him
in their mealtimes, picnics, outings: they fed him the roasts and
curries and gammons he couldn't manage for himself.
is perhaps something primitive in his relationship with fire, as it
features variously in his writings; celebratory bonfires, cleansing with
a fiery torch carried round croft land, and the hearth fire. He often
wrote of the hearth fire going cold after perhaps generations, as in the
case of his Mackay family's croft, as if the heart of the house had
There are numerous pieces in his newspaper columns about recalcitrant
gadgets such as toasters which had to be befriended before they worked
efficiently, fires that would not be lit, or friends who saved the day
by appearing with such new commodities as a fridge, or even did his
decorating. He was not a
natural with electrical goods. On
one of his rare occasions away from home, his host showed him to his
bedroom full of electrical appliances to wake him, make tea and so on.
George thought his host might as well have tried to teach him
But in his home, having defected for a time, for practical reasons, to
the electric fire, he returned to having encounters with the hearth
every morning. His stories
of fire-lighting are funny and self-deprecating.
He would try cunning or offerings to appease the fire, a pan full
of sausage fat on one occasion, while imagining the mess if the fire
didn't like it.
calling for the scarf's return
footballers 'mascot' returned