Following publicity about our joint project with BBC Radio Orkney for the GMB Centenary to find where copies of the 1954 printing of George Mackay Brown’s first collection of poems, The Storm, are now, Elizabeth Copp got in touch with her story. In it she tells of the delightful unexpectedness of her recent discovery of one of the original copies on her bookshelves:
“I wish I could tell you for sure how The Storm came into my family but I can’t – I can only surmise. When I read your post on Facebook, I went upstairs to look through my collection of Orkney books and there it was, in very good condition too. I felt slightly shocked, for I admit that I didn’t know for sure that it was there. My collection of older Orkney books came from my parents’ home, with some coming from my aunt and uncle’s. At the time of publication, my uncle Magnus didn’t live in Orkney so I presume the book belonged to my parents – though Magnus’s mother lived at Craigiefield at the time and was a great reader, so it could have belonged to her. This is the problem with the past – you can’t be certain of events unless they are written down or you have a memory of a story being told. However, I’m going to opt for the book belonging to my dad, for he was born in the same year as George – August 1921 – and wrote poetry too. I have a book of his handwritten poems which he started writing before the war. So I wonder if, when George’s book was published, he bought a copy for inspiration, for my dad was a great reader and loved Orkney. I have been thinking for some time that it might be good to have my dad’s poems put into book form to pass on to my children and grandchildren. I cannot tell if they are ‘good’ poems but they are personal and mean a lot to me. How could I do this? George’s legacy lives on, for he has encouraged me to talk about this little project to someone outwith the family!”
Well, George’s legacy was perhaps still greater. Because Elizabeth went on to write the story of her discovery for Scottish Book Trust’s Your Stories project which this year has ‘celebration’ as its theme.
The day began in an ordinary enough way. I read the newspaper over breakfast and managed to complete the sudoko. Glancing at the kitchen clock, I saw that I had time to flick through Facebook before meeting a friend for a walk. Up popped a post from Alison, an Orcadian friend, who is involved with the George Mackay Brown Fellowship. ‘Storm Chasers Try to Track Down George Mackay Brown’s First Book’, was the heading on her post. Intrigued, I opened the link to the BBC website and skimmed quickly through the article, for by now I realised that I was running late. I saw a photo of Alison holding a copy of The Storm, presumably the book that was being sought, but the book’s cover didn’t mean anything to me, so I closed my tablet and went out.
It was only later that evening, when I was thinking of having an early night after a day outdoors, that something niggled in my brain. What exactly was Alison’s post about? I opened up my tablet again and hunted out her link. This time I read it slowly. 2021 is the centenary of George Mackay Brown’s birth, I read, and there are celebrations throughout Scotland to mark it. The Storm, George’s first book of poetry, had a print run of only 300 copies and sold out within 2 weeks. Copies are rare and expensive now, said the writer, and the GMB Fellowship is keen to trace owners of these original copies to find out how far the book has travelled.
I have quite a few Orkney books but was pretty sure I didn’t have this one. Nonetheless, I went upstairs to look through my bookshelves and there, slipped between A Calendar of Love and An Orkney Tapestry, was a copy of The Storm. I pulled it out and stared at the cover in surprise. Yes, this was indeed the book which the GMB Fellowship wanted to find. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, gobsmacked. I had found a book I didn’t remember owning, a book which cost 4 shillings in 1954, and which was now sought on the internet. I went slowly back downstairs, holding my copy carefully.
I messaged Alison.
I have a copy, I wrote, still feeling stunned.
Brilliant! She replied. Do you have a story about it you could tell me? How did you come by it? What does it mean to you?
How could I create a story about a book I didn’t remember owning? How do you give an object meaning when you didn’t think it belonged to you? I needed time to think and went to bed.
The next day, I decided to work out how The Storm had come into the family. I had bought my Orkney books over the years, but some came also from my parents’ home, with others from my aunt and uncle’s. Books played a big part in my parents’ lives, and in mine as a child. Happy memories of trips to the library to find another Just William book, or of my dad absorbed in a book in his armchair after work, came into my head. However, The Storm could also have been owned by my uncle Magnus, an equally keen reader. Although Magnus didn’t live in Orkney in 1954, his mother could have bought a copy and posted it to him. She too read a lot. I remember Magnus telling me that she was still reading French novels into her nineties.
Then I remembered my dad’s poems. In a hard-cover notebook are poems which he wrote over the years in his distinctive, looped handwriting, my favourite being a poem he wrote for me when I was a baby. I had long meant to turn these handwritten poems into a book for the family, but hadn’t got round to it. So, I decided that my dad had bought The Storm as he enjoyed poetry.
My mind made up, I messaged Alison with my decision. Then I mentioned my little project, wanting to turn my dad’s poems into a proper book for the family.
I might be able to help you, replied Alison. I know someone who can do small print runs.
I was over the moon! Celebrations were called for on two fronts! I decided to phone my sister Eileen the next day to discuss the way forward.
The following morning, I made a coffee and sat by the front window in sunshine. On the small table beside my chair is a photo of my husband, Andy, who died three years ago. It’s a favourite photo of mine and reminds me of happy times, when he was well. I put my coffee mug beside the photo and called Eileen.
‘I’m puzzled by this find,’ she said. ‘I don’t remember The Storm in the bookcase. I used to look at these books a lot and I can’t place it in there.’
Eileen has a photographic memory, so I had no reason to doubt her.
‘So do you think it might have belonged to Magnus?’ I asked.
‘I seem to remember all his books were quite old with hard covers,’ she replied.
I picked up my coffee, glanced at Andy’s photo and then paused. I could feel tears pricking my eyes.
‘I think Andy bought it,’ I said, in sudden realisation. ‘He loved books and second hand bookshops, and would look for first editions.’
I had found a present to me from my late husband.
What am I celebrating in this story? Is it finding a rare first edition by George Mackay Brown in the year of his centenary celebrations? Or is it knowing that my dad’s poems will at last be turned into book form as a legacy for my family? Or is it holding an unexpected present in my hand?
I think I might let you decide.
‘Memories’ was originally written for Scottish Book Trust’s annual project, Your Stories. This year the theme was Celebration. Elizabeth Copp’s story about her discovery of a rare volume from the first printing of George Mackay Brown’s first collection, The Storm and Other Poems, in 1954 is printed here with permission from SBT.
Click here to read more Stories of The Storm.
Click here to read about the search for The Storm and Other Poems.
Click here to read more about GMB Centenary 2021.