Magazine article The Spectator

Et in Orcadia Ego

Magazine article The Spectator

Et in Orcadia Ego

Article excerpt

FOR THE ISLANDS I SING by George Mackay Brown John Murray, 16, ep.192

When he died last year at the age of 74, the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown left behind a remarkably homogeneous body of work -over 50 books, including plays, poetry, novels and stories that had earned him an international reputation, though the man himself rarely crossed the Pentland Firth. There was also a brief autobiography, written in 1985, which he wanted published posthumously. Especially for those familiar with his journalism, this book offers few revelations, but there is one crucial episode that shows his private life in a different light.

Brown was born in 1921 in Stromness (the Viking 'Hamnavoe') where his father was an arthritic postman who had married his mother - a mainland Mackay - when she came to work at the local hotel in her teens. Their fifth child, he endured enervating schooldays and seems to have been dogged by lassitude throughout his youth; also - and here, as elsewhere in this partial account, one has to read between the lines - he suffered from intermittent depressions that were more severe than the legendary morbus orcadensis. At 20, his lungs already weakened by measles and Woodbines, Brown contracted pulmonary tuberculosis (then the scourge of the Scottish islands) and there followed several spells in sanatoriums. During this time he wrote for local papers and began to explore books, the Orkneyinga and other sagas deeply impressing him with their spare, unsentimental prose.

About another formative experience his conversion to Catholicism - he is frustratingly vague; it seems to have involved supporting Glasgow Celtic, and reading up the miracles, but this period is awkwardly treated and peters out into a little anthology of devotional quotations. So much for one of the major influences on his life.

For about a decade years that the locusts ate' - he was a layabout, living alone with his mother in a council house, writing the odd story, consorting in bars with his 'Stromness chorus of drinking friends'. There is hardly a glint of the bard to come. He is surprisingly frank about the ambivalent role of John Barleycorn in his life, which seems to have led to some close scrapes. But in the later fiction it is often alcohol's positive aspect which appears: `For Jock the whisky made beautiful the mystery of life and death' (The Woodcarver). …

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