GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
A Marvellous Journey
A peedie look at the life and work of GMB
George Mackay Brown loved words. He cherished them, mourned the passing of old good words, understood the magical quality of setting down just the right phrase. He wrote for a living, as he reminded his readers constantly.
But he also wrote for pleasure, relishing the sounds words make, and he had an instinctive feel for the nuances. He wondered if there would come a day when what he called the most tenacious Norn word of all, peedie would also disappear into the silence. He felt that peedie had undertones of joy and affection quite absent in words like little or small.
He worked at the kitchen table; often the table was awash with papers, books, maybe even the remnants from his breakfast the honey pot and butter, crumbs. He never embraced more modern technology than the ball point pen and a pad of paper. He couldn't see the sense in waiting for inspiration as in his opinion there was no such thing. Skills come from experience and practice, trial and error, learning from success and failure. In fact he warns against inspiration in strong terms, saying not to believe anyone who tells you to wait for the spark of inspiration, or you'll end up with a blank page
He was workmanlike in his approach, settling down each day at the same time, writing steadily for three or so hours, and it seemed to matter to him that people appreciate the ordinariness of his labour, the hard graft involved. He wrote several times of people, known and strangers, who asked what inspired him, what impelled him to write. He answers that nothing inspires him, impels him to write, he is driven by the necessity to eat, drink and pay the rent. This may be true to some extent, but he wrote long before he supported himself by his craft.
is a plaintive note [or is it irritation?] about his assertion that
nobody would dream of asking a joiner what inspired him to make that
door, or asking a baker if he only baked when he felt inspired?
Like them, he considered himself a tradesman.
Does he protest too much? There are a few lines in Rockpools which might suggest that, while hard work and practice undoubtedly form the bedrock of writing for a living, other forces are just sometimes at work. Very occasionally he felt that his own will was set aside, that words, images and rhythms appeared which he knew were beyond his own capacities.
Some days his writing flowed, perhaps following on easily from yesterday's stint or perhaps from notes on the backs of envelopes he always found in his pocket along with a stub of pencil.
there were days when he had nothing to say. He had to have patience,
sometimes silence, before anything came.
Maybe an image, maybe a few words; something to build on.
Or it might require a rethink.
A short story that seemed to him to have nothing to commend it
came alive when he tried to fill in a few sketchy parts.
For four or five days, a flood of words came; he had found a way
to release his imagination.
seem to have been an important part of the process of writing for
George. He describes how the Brodgar poem cycle came into being,
swarming images which stimulated his imagination, yet the solidity of
the stones and the precision of their placements prevented extravagant
use of it. So
we are not allowed to think that he got too carried away by his
describes poetry as the occasional thin vein of ore in the solid rock of
verse, so making a distinction between verse and much rarer poetry.
He enjoyed lyricism and depth and insight, rhythm and evidence of
thought and working in a poem. Ever
courteous, he read through reams of verse as a reviewer and found kind
words to say here and there. But
he had little time for some modern poetry/verse where he observed that
obscurity masqueraded as depth.
Strange things happen to break these unproductive cycles. One Yuletide, George sat down late at night to sample his latest batch of home brew. One sip confirmed the brew was good. But he wasn't content to drink up and go to bed, his fingers got the urge to hold a pen, to make marks on a blank sheet. He found a series of small poems falling over themselves to be written, all around the central Christmas theme. This was A Christmas Patchwork [sometimes 'Stars: A Christmas Patchwork'] published in 1983 in Voyages, and later in Selected Poems 1954-83 and 1954-92.
a similar dry season in 1990, George discovered a folder containing an
unfinished story of about 10,000 words.
He had forgotten why he'd discarded it, but with the dearth of
imagination, he took it up again to round out the tale with a few
thousand words. Again
he found the pen filling the paper with images and events.
He knew he had a full-scale novel on his hands Vinland. Even though the story was clamouring to be let loose, and
taking intriguing turns along the way, he only allowed himself
understated delight, saying that he could think of worse ways of passing
the time, worse ways of earning a living.
He felt his best work nearly always came fully formed, requiring little correction, but he often had a hard struggle with a story or poem, Writing in long hand, the manuscript after such a session resembled a battlefield and he sometimes salvaged only a few sentences. He felt that somehow this was how art ought to be created, in sweat and blood. Eventually George accepted that when seemingly insoluble difficulties arose with a piece of work, it was prudent to stop at once, leave the manuscript for weeks or months before trying again.
well as poetry, short stories and novels, George wrote a weekly
newspaper column, what he called his small scraps of journalism.
He confessed he had a weakness for lyricism and wondered if he
might call the best of these weekly essays prose-poems. However
he describes them, they have been popular with readers of The Orcadian
for over quarter of a century, and continue to be popular today, with
recent reprints of two of the three collections of these little essays.
[Under Brinkie's Brae and Letters from Hamnavoe published
by Steve Savage Publishers Ltd]
Plays too formed part of his output, and he wrote the words for The Martyrdom of St Magnus, music by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, which received its first performance at the first St Magnus Festival, midsummer 1977. But he wasn't himself a performer; perhaps his natural diffidence and modesty hindered him. Sometimes he said he would make a recording for the BBC to earn some money, but that was less problematic for him than reading from a platform, something he wouldn't have done for a fortune.
A recording in Stromness Hotel for an Irish record company and a poetry reading at Scarabrae for Norwegian TV both had him feeling like he was going to his execution. But a sup or two of whisky helped, so much so that he delivered the Scarabrae reading with serenity.
One to one interviews were less of an ordeal; when he got over his nervousness at being surrounded by and adorned with various technological paraphernalia, he settled down to a meandering conversation with the interviewer, especially enjoyable when his interviewer was someone he esteemed such as Liz Lochhead.
he didn't enjoy being the star himself, George certainly enjoyed seeing
his works performed. In
1971, The BBC arrived to film three of his stories for the Play for
Today series: A Time to
Keep, The Whaler's Return and Celia, all published in the collection A
Time to Keep. Stromness
Academy's school journal made a project of reporting the filming,
interviewing George in the process.
He said he was flattered that his work had been chosen, was
pleased with the characterisation and script, and attended the filming.
With a hundred extras drawn from the islands, film crew and
actors to be lodged and fed, the filming brought work to Orkney as well
as excitement. Filmed in
colour, the play went out 13 May 1971, ironically before colour TV came
Four TV plays for schools were filmed by the BBC and screened in Autumn 1978. George was invited to see the shoot at Yesnaby. The weather was worsening, the wind freshening so that the long hair of the Viking-actors streamed out. He marvelled at the time it took to shoot a minute's finished scene. For him it was a brief delicious interlude.
George enjoyed writing, but he also enjoyed being out and about, finding it much easier to write in the winter when the wind howled in the chimney or the rain beat against the window.
well as his extraordinary literary output, George diligently answered
letters from all corners of the globe.
Sometimes he felt he lived in a wilderness of paper and it took
the help of friends to get him out from under.
Each Saturday he applied himself, at first with resentment that
having written all week for a living, he should be required to
letter-write on the sixth day. He describes the process as at first mechanical and then in
spite of himself, a few words began to come which pleased him.
If he began letter-writing in a black mood, he ended as if he had
just spent an enjoyable few hours with friends.
enjoyed, when he could, writing his letters in the sun, in a yard next
to the sea, perhaps with a glass of wine, entertained by gulls and cats.
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