Wednesday 25 May 2021
On the 2nd of September, 1971, George Mackay Brown’s column in The Orcadian had this reflection on the value of books:
The word has got around that Orkney books are worth a lot of money. So people are tending to hoard them all away in the hope that prices will climb even higher; and even then they will not sell them but pass them on as family heirlooms, with great-grandfather’s harpoon from the Davis Straits and Auntie Jessie’s spinning wheel.
Some Orkney books are valuable right enough . . . Most of them are valuable only in proportion to what a reader gets out of them.’ — Letters from Hamnavoe, 1975
It seems an apt reminder from the writer himself that it is what lies between the covers of a book that matters. Nonetheless, the hunt for the existing copies of The Storm and Other Poems is persuading people to get in touch, who might never have done so otherwise. And that is all good. Here Huw Williams of BBC Radio Orkney reflects on the hunt so far.
It seems an apt reminder from the writer himself that it is what lies between the covers of a book that matters. Nonetheless, the hunt for the existing copies of The Storm and Other Poems is persuading people to get in touch with us, who might never have done so otherwise. And that is all good. Here Huw Williams of BBC Radio Orkney reflects on the hunt so far.
It’s about two weeks since the George Mackay Brown Fellowship and BBC Radio Orkney launched a joint project to try and trace as many copies as possible of George Mackay Brown’s 1954 collection, The Storm and other poems. The radio station plans to broadcast a special programme in the autumn, as close as possible to the centenary of GMB’s birth.
The Storm and other poems is a slim paperback, about the size of an A5 piece of paper, just over thirty pages long, and back in 1954 it sold for four shillings (20 pence). There’s a drawing on the front by George Mackay Brown’s friend, the artist Ian Macinnes.
It matters because it was his first published collection of poetry, and as you look through the poems in the book many of the themes he was return to over and over again are already there — Orkney’s landscape and people, change, mortality, and the life and death of St Magnus. The story is that Edwin Muir persuaded him to publish, and wrote a generous Foreword to the book. In it, he said he was impressed by the ‘fresh and spontaneous beauty’ of the work; that he found ‘grace’ in all the poems; and that ‘this book should be in every Orkney house’.
That might not have happened, but we know that the book sold out within two or three weeks. And copies now are rare. But in just over a week, we’ve been told about 48 copies — many still in Orkney, as you might expect, but some that have travelled to people living in Scotland and southern England, and some that are in the collections of libraries and universities across Europe, and North America.
But this exercise isn’t just about locating copies. What we’re really interested in is the stories of how these books have survived, and what they mean to the people who own them. And we’ve been told some amazing stories. For example, the Stromness Academy pupil who was just fourteen when her English teacher read a poem from this book which had just been published. She was so excited by what she heard, she rushed to try and buy a copy, but they’d all gone. Years later, though, she was a first year at Aberdeen University, and found a copy for sale at a second hand bookstall which she snapped up, and treasures to this day. [See previous blog]
There are also a number of copies with strong associations with George Mackay Brown himself, and with the Orkney Herald where he was working, and who produced the book for him. We’ve found the copy that used to belong to the Orkney poet and naturalist Robert Rendall. We’ve been told of a family who have a handwritten letter from George Mackay Brown, promising that a signed copy was on its way — but there’s no trace of it. And of the family who lent their copy to a researcher, and never got it back. And someone has told us how they were once looking at some books which had been thrown into a skip in South Ronaldsay, and found a 1954 copy of The Storm in amongst them.
And there’ve been a couple of unexpected bonuses.
There has been some doubt about exactly how many copies of the book were ever printed. Some say two hundred, though others, including Maggie Fergusson’s biography say three hundred. [We’ve been in touch with Maggie who is checking the source of her information and will get back to us, ed.] But now Patricia Long has very kindly scanned and sent us a letter from George Mackay Brown to her grandfather Peter Leith senior. It dates from June 1954 — when “The Storm” was published — and in it he says the total was 250.
And Erlend Brown, George’s nephew, got in touch to say that he had inherited the printer’s block, which was used to produce the cover and frontispiece of the book featuring that drawing by Ian MacInnes. A feature on Radio Orkney this morning [25.5.21] followed Erlend successfully making the first print from this block since it was used for the book in 1954.
And our quest has gathered cross party support from politicians. The Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Jamie Halcro Johnston, sent a message of support. And Orkney’s MSP, Liam Macarthur has lodged a motion at Holyrood encouraging people to take part.
And, to be honest, we would still like more. Thanks to that letter we now know there were 250 copies printed. We’ve found just short of 50. Which is amazing. But where are the rest? If you have, or know of, one and would be willing to tell us about it, you can email:
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the radio station on 01856 87 39 39.