The Sea and the Story
The GMB Memorial Lecture 2009, titled The Sea and the Story, was given by writer Morag MacInnes. Her father, Ian MacInnes was an art teacher, then the headmaster of Stromness Academy, and an artist. As she and her sisters grew up, George Mackay Brown was a frequent visitor in the MacInnes household. He and Ian had been friends from primary school.
In her lecture, Morag MacInnes remembered George Mackay Brown – not as the famous writer he became but as a familiar figure in her life, a family friend; a familiar figure in the town of Stromness, known from childhood to everyone around. The generations of those who remember him before fame and knew him separately from his success as a writer are fewer in number now; will gradually slip away, leaving the writer known by the books he wrote and and the books written about him.
She wanted to show the man as she and others around him knew him. She wanted also to give a sense of the influences on him as he developed as a writer in the 1950s. She spoke of the people who knew him; of the religion and literature he absorbed; of the war and the changes it brought; of the character of the town and countryside in which he lived; and the constant presence of the sea. All of these informed his thought and vision and shaped his writing.
You can read the opening of her lecture below.
The Sea and the Story
A kind of holy solemnity can descend upon us when we lecture – and attend lectures – on poets. This is not a good thing for either party, and we will not be going down that road today. George is not some sort of saintly presence. The idea that he might be revered would have sent him straight to the pub in alarm.
You will have seen and enjoyed a vivid filmic evocation of George Mackay Brown’s poetic journey, from Victoria Street via the Flattie Bar to Mayburn Court, childhoold to maturity, bound by the Stromness street. But there will be Orcadians who view such evocations and say – ‘but that’s no wur George at aal! He wis jist – Georgie Broon!’
That phrase – Just George – has been deftly used to headline the little exhibition about him running now in the Museum. Deftly because it defines precisely the slightly bemused relationship islanders have with GMB’s life, works and international renown. Deep down there is a voice muttering ‘but he just went doon the street wi his messages in a bag . . . he jist had a yarn wi the Pierheid Parliament . . . he jist asked after the bairns by name . . . he jist . . .’
And yet. Every morning that note on the door – Do Not Disturb. He said to himself, ‘now Mr Brown, what story shall we tell today?’ Then he entered his own inner Orkney landscape, where time doesn’t always tick forwards but goes in a circle, skips generations; where ancient worlds overlap and interlock with the present, preserved, and sometimes exposed, by the surrounding sea. He excavated our history, as surely as Gordon Childe did Skara Brae. There’s a duality here. He lived with, and through Orkney – yet his writing separated him from us. Paradoxically, however, being separate freed him to see clearly.
In the silence of his kitchen, like his guild-haunted favourite character, Mrs McKee in Greenvoe, he became his own judge and jury, confronting Calvinism, presenting himself for Catholic forgiveness. We all have a parental voice in our ear, reproving, sighing, mocking. George loved his father; but it was his complicated relationship with his mother which caused these silent inquisitions. She was cheerful, selfless, funny, with a lovely laugh – all those things. But her work ethic, and that very selflessness which meant she scrimped to get him his morning egg, nagged at him as he put sentences together and stroked them out with his blue biro.
The morning task finished, where was the ascetic, the anchorite, the reclusive hermit then? Don’t buy into that powerful myth, the poet on a crag musing about eternal verities and throwing rocks at strangers, much as it may play well to tired urban sensibilities. I remember the stories he told me. Lighting his pipe was a ritual, using many Swan Vestas matches. Matches is an Orkney name. As each match burnt out, he’d name it and lay it on the chair arm. ‘This is Wattie, an awful bad boy . . . and this is Grandpa, he’s bent with sciatica.’ I remember his quavering rendition of:
I love a cookie, a Cooperative cookie - ye cannae get near it for the smell! If ye spread it wi butter ye can hear the butter mutter Mary ma Scots bluebell.
That was his party piece on convivial evenings, where he would also ‘take off’ local worthies and characters – he was a great mimic. He loved company and yarning. He loved to participate in the life around him, whether in the pub with the fishermen, in the doctor’s house or in the queue at the paper shop.
What made him separate himself and write an Orkney subtly different from the safe haven he found himself in? Necessity. It’s as simple as that.
Read the full Lecture here:
Morag MacInnes was born and educated in Orkney. She lived in Shetland, Germany and Lincolnshire before returning home to write. She has worked as a community artist, lecturer, WEA tutor and drama worker and has produced community plays, collected oral histories and edited anthologies of writing.
She has contributed to Slightly Foxed magazine, The Tablet, The Island Review, and Times Educational Supplement.
Morag’s short stories and poems have appeared in various publications including the anthologies Riptide (2007) and Cleave (2008) published by Two Ravens Press. Alias Isobel, a poem sequence was published by Hansel Cooperative Press in 2008 and Street Shapes, a poetry collection with images by artist Diana Leslie, in 2013.
She has enjoyed a happy collaboration with Hansel Cooperative Press in whose collections you will find some of her more recent poetry.