The poet and storyteller George Mackay Brown was the son of the postman at Stromness, Orkney. His father John had also been an apprentice tailor before becoming the postman. George, in one of his poems, speaks of how ‘not wisdom or wealth can redeem/The green coat, childhood’. In his knowledge of every cranny of the Orkneys, but in particular in his feel for the town of Stromness, George retained some of the postman’s instinctual topographical grasp for the one dear perpetual place in which his genius was rooted. In the exactitude of his meta- phors, the flair of his tragic impulse, there is something of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, the pessimistic tailor ever struggling to say an Eternal Yes to life.
Brown departed the Orkneys to study at Newbattle Abbey under the direction of Edwin Muir, and subsequently, as a mature student, he read English at Edinburgh University, but except for these sorties he hardly ever left his native islands, and a growing agoraphobia determined that even in Orkney, apart from the journey to mass in Kirkwall, life was bounded by the pub, usually the bar of the Stromness Hotel, and a council flat, Mayburn Court, Stromness.
Brown was therefore very much out of the mainstream. His poetry and stories had a cult status almost from the moment that Edwin Muir persuaded the form- idable Norah Smallwood at Chatto & Windus to publish them. (Characterist- ically, Andrew Motion and Carmen Callil, when they took over the controls of that publishing house, ‘let McKay go’, with the admirable Hugo Brunner as editor and patron, to John Murray.) Early admirers included Seamus Heaney, John Betjeman and Ted Hughes who, at the age of 25, read Brown’s extraordinary poem ‘Thorfinn’. ‘It really went into me. I can see all sorts of little hints and suggestions in this piece that I’ve taken myself’ — the words were spoken when Hughes was Poet Laureate and Brown was still on the margins. (Larkin, for example, excluded him from his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse — why?)
For some years now, fans of Brown have known that his biography was being patiently and punctiliously written by Maggie Fergusson. She got to known him towards the end of his in many ways painful pilgrimage. How could a young woman, and a southerner, hope to get inside this scrawny, unmarried and very solitary Viking, with his weirdly hit-and-miss approach to the English language, sometimes writing verse which would be rightly rejected by the average parish magazine, and sometimes hitting the nail on the head with such power that he seems as good as any of his contemporaries? Would there be anything to write about? He had an almost eventless life in Orkney. He suffered from tuberculosis as a teenager, and was sickly all his life. He battled against depression. He had a few intense relationships with women, but these remained on an emotional plane, and he was largely sexless. At some stage along the line he became a Catholic, but this did not seem to help him in his problematic relationship with alcohol. Those were the kind of thoughts anyone might have had upon hearing that this book was in preparation.
And, behold, a miracle! In one of his many letters (and this book makes me long for a big collected edition of his letters) Brown wrote, ‘There must be a secret wisdom inside us all that directs our lives, often against our wills and desires.’ Maggie Fergusson seems to have tapped into this secret wisdom. She has drawn a portrait of this man which is both the perfect companion for a rereading of his works and also a fascinating story in its own right.
She herself writes with a poet’s accuracy. The setting of the Orcadian scene in the opening pages is masterly, but she also has the poet’s knowledge of when to produce the telling detail. I particularly admired the way she held in check, until page 249, the fact that this melancholic, tubercular man read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain three times. I would have spoilt things and have mentioned this on page one, thereby giving the wrong flavour. By holding off, Fergusson has already allowed any readers of Mann’s novel to see that Brown’s life of semi-illness, just like those of the patients in Mann’s novel, is very far from being irrelevant to the concerns of the century. (The wartime in Orkney chapter is especially vivid.)
An unexpected (to me) aspect of George Mackay Brown’s writing life revealed by this book is his career as a journalist. For many years, he was Stromness correspondent of the Orkney Herald, a paper which sadly produced its last issue in January 1961. Brown was a natural reactionary. He saw the arrival of modern conveniences on the island as a Faustian horror-story which would eventually destroy what made Orkney Orkney. The ‘gifts of progress’, as he outlined them in his inspirational book An Orkney Tapestry — ‘rubber boots, primus stoves, novels, religious tracts, lemonade, Tilley lamps, cloth caps, bicycles, fly papers, cough mixture, marmalade’ — were bringing to an end a way of life which for many had remained essentially unchanged since the days of the Vikings. An Orkney Tapestry inspired the music and friendship of Peter Maxwell Davies, that Orcadian by adoption and grace. It is rather sad that the author of some of the splendidly splenetic attacks on the modern age in the Orkney Herald should, in old age, have installed a telephone and a telly in his council flat, and developed a valium-induced fondness for Countdown, the afternoon telly quiz.
As well as being a preternaturally acute exponent of what makes Brown’s poetry work, Maggie Fergusson is wonderfully wise and deep in her explorations of his emotional and religious life. In Edinburgh, he fell in love with a beautiful, laughing girl called Stella Cartwright, who remained his muse, even when he formed other attachments. There is great delicacy in the way Fergusson evokes their painful relationship — Stella exuberant, the lover of several other poets, and George rendered incapable of the act of love, either by tuberculosis or by something else. What this mysterious something else might be, Fergusson sensibly refuses to decide, rejecting the pat explanations that he might have been queer without realising it, for example, or that he was too much under his mother’s thumb. As well as the relationship with Stella and with some later-life muses, Fergusson also traces his relationship with alcohol very tenderly. It was a largely disastrous relationship, though not as horrifying as Stella’s, who was on a Zimmer frame by the time she was in her mid-thirties and who died in squalor.
The central thread of Brown’s life, however, was surely his religious journey. Francis Thompson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven’ and Lytton Strachey’s Life of Cardinal Manning had from an early age lit the candle in his Presbyterian skull. The reading of the Orkneyinga Saga and the martyrdom of St Magnus in April 1117 were inspiring. ‘Magnus was at once a solid, convincing, flesh-and-blood man, from whom pure spirit flashed from time to time.’ Brown came to feel that the sanctity of Magnus was what had ‘made’ the Orkneys and that something had mysteriously left them at the Reformation. His conversion to Catholicism was inevitable, and not especially emotional, though his reactions to heroes of the faith were highly charged. (On a rare journey south, he was profoundly moved by visiting Newman’s bare room and the small chapel where he had been received into the church at Littlemore.) The Catholicism fed the poetry and sharpened his attitudes not only to history but also to nature. (Hopkins was a hero.) But he was a disciplined rather than a fervent Catholic, and this book is in no way holy-holy. What it does show, however, is that operation of a mysterious ‘secret wisdom inside us all’ which most human beings acknowledge, and which Catholics are bold enough to name.
This is altogether a remarkable book. I know it will be unforgettable, and that it will draw me back to many rereadings. It will certainly revive an interest in Brown’s works, but it is that rare thing, a biography which is itself a work of literature, the story not merely of a lonely, weird man in an isolated part of the United Kingdom, but of an inner journey which the reader follows enraptured, every bit as exciting and strange as the life-journeys of men of action.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 29, 2006