Monday 11 April 2021
This week, Tuesday 13th April to be exact, is the 25th anniversary of the death of George Mackay Brown. A good moment for everyone – even a shopkeeper busy with cheese and Chablis – to pause and give a thought to Orkney’s most important writer.
Many thoughts will be revolving around George this year, as 2021 is the centenary of his birth, in Stromness, on 17th October. The George Mackay Brown Fellowship is organising a number of events to mark the centenary, starting next Monday with an online discussion of arguably his finest novel, Magnus, by Ron Ferguson and Alison Miller.
Anyone writing a column for The Orcadian can’t help but feel they’re walking in George’s shadow. He contributed ‘Under Brinkie’s Brae’ weekly from 1971 till shortly before his death. Like many folk, I suspect, it was always the first thing I turned to on paper day.
George had favourite themes that he reworked again and again over the years. And he had favourite images that he turned over repeatedly, like a jeweller with a precious gem, looking for new glints of light. He only had to mention a jar of daffodils to let his readers know spring had arrived in the West Mainland. A bubbling bucket and brown tongues of malt meant that homebrew was on the go, and convivial winter evenings were not too far away.
George was always very generous with his homebrew when I visited. Though by that last half-decade of his life, I think it was made by a friend like Dr Johnstone or Archie Bevan, skilled brewers both, rather than the poet himself.
As an avid reader of his work, I was of course aware of George’s presence a few hundred yards west of where I lived in Dundas Street. But I also knew about his desire for privacy, and every writer’s need for peace and solitude. So I didn’t climb those steps at Mayburn Court to knock on his door for quite some time. It wasn’t till a mutual friend, Surinder Punjya, invited me to come along with him one evening that I stepped into that small, cosy living room.
There was a fire in the grate, and football on the TV, but if George was annoyed at his match being interrupted he didn’t show it. He disappeared into his kitchen, half-humming, half-singing some mysterious wavery tune to himself. And when he returned, he was holding out two tankards of ale for us.
He switched off the telly, settled down in his rocking chair by the fire. “Well boys … ”
And there followed an hour or so of witty, warm, free-flowing conversation, the first of many I was fortunate to share with him. Often I visited in the company of Surinder, who was devoted to George, and carried out many household chores for him. Occasionally I would call in with another friend, Gunnie Moberg. Or I might meet him at Gunnie and Tam’s house, or in the porch of the Braes Hotel, looking out across the Flow on a fine summer’s evening.
We rarely if ever spoke about literature – it was well known that George was allergic to such talk. On one occasion he pointed at two black-spined Penguin Classics on his windowsill. ‘I was sent those, but please take them away. I’ll never read them: far too REALISTIC for me.’
The books were by renowned 19th century French novelist Émile Zola. In saying century-old classics were too realistic for him, I think George was partly being honest about his own tastes, but also mocking the image of himself as an unworldly bard. He had a sense of humour that often disguised its jokes under deadpan irony.
On one occasion he entrusted me with delivering that week’s ‘Under Brinkie’s Brae’ to The Orcadian when he had missed his deadline – and the post. That was a small but significant honour, and one that I’ve thought of several times over the past year of writing this Shopkeeper’s Diary.
One of the great lessons of ‘Under Brinkie’s Brae’ is its brevity. Many fiction writers – Hemingway comes to mind – say they learned how to be concise and direct in their creative writing from early years in journalism. You could say that George learned lessons about brevity from his years of writing poetry, and brought those poetic skills to bear on his newspaper column.
Which seems like a very good point to draw this one to a close.
Duncan McLean runs Kirkness & Gorie, a deli and wine shop in Kirkwall town centre. Since early 2020 he has been writing a weekly ‘Diary of a Shopkeeper’ for The Orcadian. All columns are available online at www.kirknessandgorie.com/blog