Abailart's Reviews > George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown by Maggie Fergusson
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's review
Jan 06, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: biography-autobiography, poetry
Read in January, 2010

This is a fine biography, well written and researched. For me, the brilliance of Brown’s poems, stories and novels has never been in doubt, and I’m not generally interested in a writer’s private life unless it allows a greater engagement with their work. Fergusson’s book stands alone as a ‘good read’ for several reasons which I’ll outline here.
Brown was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the year that James Kelman won it, in 1994. There are similarities, I suppose, in the lives of the two men: a working class origin and lifelong focus upon the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, a deep love of words and stories, a vicious suspicion of “Culture’ (Brown called it Kultur), deep impatience with establishment and provincial bourgeois power structures, and a fierce commitment not only to write about ‘their’ people but also, with a profound generosity, to reach and teach and never lose touch with people. The differences between them too are great. I’d simply suggest that each require generous reading, and that any honest expression of community will involve in part at least a recognition and celebration of the communal bonds that allow for individual vitality.
If I take exception with Fergusson’s book, it is that she unknowingly sympathises with some of the ‘political’ values implicit in Brown’s various outlooks. I merely state this; to demonstrate it would be tedious and require an examination of her phraseology at times. She seems to smile when she describes Brown’s adulation of the Pope’s visit to Britain, one key marker of his conservative vision of individuals in hierarchical status as being the natural arbiters of power (and to an extent this is reflected in his writing which, rooted in a fairly sentimental history, is made of good kings and bad kings, the evil and the virtuous). Yet, Brown was undoubtedly imbued with a core of Keir Hardie type protestant socialism. His implied construction of an ‘organic community’ under threat from ‘progress’ is no more unfamiliar than other sentimental conservative tosh about the good old days. Yet, here is a key: while denouncing the advent of television on the islands so that the ‘folk’ started talking about Vietnam and other things that did not concern them (being away from the natural order of things) he went on to list ‘watching television’ in his Who’s Who entry. (In his odd autobiography, For the Islands I Sing, he wrote that he had to discipline himself away from television).
It’s clear that Brown did indeed form close and lasting friendships with folk whatever their standing. As a regular, sometime drunkard, in the Stromness Hotel, he achieved the great advantage denied to so many on life’s journey of being at home among the targets of condemnation by the righteous and respectable. Yet he was stricken with such a streak of puritanism that towards the end of his life he edited some of his poems to exclude sexual references. It’s not that the Scottish male is peculiarly attributed with a violent oscillation between moral profligacy and moral rectutude, but perhaps that there is something in the cultural history and geography which makes it more manifest in expressive or confessional form. Brown’s depression, for which he was treated with medication, his shyness, and ultimately agrophobia may have been partly a result of his horror at his own thoughts and feelings, a self-loathing and wretchedness measured against his ideals. Nothing so unusual there: in fact. wishing here that I was an ill-read follower of third-rate hand-me-downs of books about Freud, one could say that this biography outlines some of the basic elements of everyman. I can’t speak for women.
There’s his desire for seclusion, a powerful wish sometimes to be monkish. There is his longing for community, for people. Balanced between a fear of condemnation by the gossips, the forces of rectitude, the respectable, and the fear of being vaporised by inclusion into the world is his individuality, his anguish. His deep depressions, his extreme shyness, his dread of social gatherings, fear of new places, dark vision of a world being destroyed by the poisonous clouds of Progress and mechanical register (see Greenvoe), his self-perceived inadequacy measured against others, his extremely confused sexuality (there is a suggestion in the book from one source that he was partly homosexual), his chronic drinking patterns – against these his genuine egalitarianism, sociability, courtesy, concern for others, decency, and that strength noted so often by so many of a deeply private man with a certain vision and strength. George was contradictory in his nature, so one of us.
Now, you have to read between the lines a little but there is a marvellous play waiting to be written at the heart of the book. Stella Cartwright, the Muse of Rose Street, precocious 16 years old entering the Poets’ Pub(s) in Edinburgh. Hers is a tragic tale of a descent into alcoholism, a life wrapped up with a longterm unconsummated but highly sexualised love affair with Brown: yet her actual love affairs with the other poets, reported and yet to be discovered (when archive material may be released) were some sort of rocky dark reality against which, to paraphrase her, she and George seemed to fly ethereal above the world. Not that she was religious or spiritual in assertion, but Brown believed in something like a destiny that carries us. It’s implied that Brown and MacCaig were very wary of each other, though highly respecting each others’ work. One wonders whether among all the poets Stella catalysed, shall we say, a certain chemistry that coloured their relationships with each other.
Of poetry in general, his own in particular, Brown often thought it a fairly worthless pursuit. The scene of poet gatherings he very healthily despised. At a deeper level, he wondered whether his writing was simply playing with shadows or touching on reality itself. He concluded the latter and probably died at peace, a happy Catholic neoplatonist. The question is raised to what extent this barely travelled (even on his beloved Orkneys) man could express the human dimensions of a race, a history, a world; to what extent would some writer who was down in the slums or setting themselves on council estates do it more ‘truthfully’. Personally, I don’t care. Today, Stromness is visted by thousands of tourists each year on the Brown trail, and I dare say all of them will have their own agenda, just as will visitors to any shrine. But less picturesquely located writers have their followers too, and they. like the pilgrims to Stromness, are often less than fully engaged with the writers’ work.
In structuring the book, Fergusson has done a valuable job of giving just enough of the wider social context, particularly involving education, to invite thought and further thinking (which may even include reading). Also valuable are the many insights she gives to some of Brown’s writer friends, most notably Edwin Muir.
It’s strange. I’m reading Samuel Beckett at the moment. whom Brown included among “all the sick writers and the anti-artists; their works are the symptoms of a deep and (it may be) incurable malaise.” Strangely, among Beckett’s darkness and sickness I find constantly just the vaguest hint of light that perhaps, psychologically or it may be spiritually, rescues Brown’s vision from despair and ruin. Both of them are doing what only great writers can do. When they make it through the ice, I have two James Kelman books coming this way from the amazon.

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