Life of the poet and Catholic-convert Mackay Brown steps on sacred ground

George Mackay Brown: The Wound and the Gift

THIS book is a treble biography. It’s the story of George Mackay Brown, Scottish poet and Catholic convert; it’s the story of Ron Ferguson’s response to the theological affront of GMB’s change-of-faith tradition, and it’s the cultural biography of that wonderful landscape, the Orkney islands.

Orkney, windswept, hermetic and isolated, gave birth to the impoverished and tubercular Mackay Brown. It was the Orkney landscape and heroic story tradition that fed GMB’s imagination. At a time when the great Hugh MacDiarmid was proclaiming the primacy of the Communist Party central committee, the poet Mackay Brown was rediscovering a Catholic god in his desolate Kirkwall TB ward. Mackay Brown would disregard the insight that materialism promises us something hardly distinguishable from eternal life. The abiding signature of his work, in poetry and prose, is that distinctive mark made by the Mater Ecclesiae in Rome.

Mackay Brown embraced Catholicism the way others of his generation embraced communism. If he had met Frank O’Connor or Edna O’Brien as they fled Catholic Ireland, their pub conversations would have been interesting. Just as Austin Clarke wrote Too Great a Vine (about excessive Irish Catholic power), Mackay Brown wrote, from his home at Mayburn Court, Stromness:

’For Scotland I sing, the Knox-ruined nationthat poet and saint must rebuild with their passion.’

John Knox, who has never been given credit for his sense of humour and his love of good wine, was John Calvin’s most enthusiastic Geneva disciple. He reformed the Church in Scotland, based on the premise that salvation was a gift for all mankind from a loving God; a gift that required no mediating priesthood except ‘the priesthood of all believers’. Ron Ferguson, former theologian-in-residence at White Memorial Presbyterian church in Raleigh, North Carolina, former leader of the Iona Community and minister at St Magnus cathedral, Kirkwall, has serious issues with GMB’s Catholic conversion.

Ferguson’s admiration for Mackay Brown is tempered by the perplexity of his religious outlook. I feel sorry for this highly-educated biographer, a man of great faith, as he tries to understand his poet. A provincial poet will always choose the most unreasonable position. It is a matter of survival. An unreasonable position is the best vantage point from which a writer can assess the veracity of his critics and the temperature of his nation. Scotland came to Orkney to explain itself to George Mackay Brown; the Scotland that was challenged by his religious nature. Hugh MacDiarmid, that towering Scottish presence, is absent from GMB’s life apart from one framed portrait in an Edinburgh pub. GMB was also following in a great Orkney tradition of contrary men — a fellow Orcadian, George Stewart, had been one of The Bounty mutineers.

Ferguson is still troubled. That’s where George Mackay Brown wants him. Despite his undoubted scholarship, Dr Ferguson underestimates the contrariness at the root of many artistic lives. For a born writer, the world is a pretext, literally. In an Orcadian landscape of herring fleets, martyrs’ skulls, Viking axes, Icelandic sagas, bare rock and Calvinist neighbours, the liturgy and ceremony of Catholicism were a waft of the scented Mediterranean reaching GMB at his writing table in the bleak council terrace at Stromness. It’s not just aesthetic, it’s personal. As Lord Byron taught us, each Scottish poet has to make his protest in his own way; and early in his writing career. GMB knew what he was doing. He wished to make his Calvinist world uncomfortable, in the way James Joyce or John B Keane wished us to shift uncomfortably on our well-padded Irish behinds:

’Our Lady of WinnowingOur Lady of QuernsOur Lady of the OvenBlue TabernacleOur Lady of the Five LoavesTake the ploughman home from the ale-house sober.’

In literary Edinburgh and winter Orkney, the nights were long and faith was hardly enough for a man who had faced death from TB and slipped back to his mother’s council house to write books as immortal as The Year of the Whale, Hawkfall and Beside the Ocean of Time. At the age of 46, GMB was close to an alcoholic’s grave — “Living on his own, afflicted by self-loathing and guilt, spooked by his dead mother, in turmoil over a relationship with a suicidal woman whose actions he could not control, and drinking in ways that seriously damaged his physical and mental health, he was facing a defining moment in his life,” Ferguson writes. Then GMB met Nora Kennedy, in the bar of the Royal Hotel, Stromness. Nora interrupted his slide into self-pity. They had an intense sexual relationship, a love that he characterised as “a curious kind of rack of flowers to be stretched out on so late in the day.”

The suicidal woman, the beautiful Stella Cartwright, was set aside, as adroitly as others had been set aside. Stella would die from alcoholism a few years later. Her error in life, for which her father was chiefly responsible, was to have become, at 17, the “muse” of a number of alcoholic Scottish poets. Her painful correspondence with Mackay Brown, published here for the first time, is heart-rending. Nora would also go — having failed to get commitment from a poet who was an Orkney loner. A surprising number of women would climb into GMB’s quiet bed, most uninvited; all found him as stubborn and unmoved as Saint Magnus cathedral.

This biography attempts to find a secure landing-place in the poet’s mind, without reaching the inner harbour. Ferguson tries to access the quayside of GMB’s welfare-cheque youth, inquires into the sources of GMB’s spirituality, traces the pattern of his unsatisfactory relationships with women and theologians, and builds a picture of his successful publishing career. The poet Edwin Muir is the true hero of this book. The only sour note for the biographer, here, is the refusal of the Catholic celebrants to share the Eucharist with a Presbyterian at Mackay Brown’s Orkney funeral mass. It was a telling gesture; and proof that GMB had failed “to purify the sources, to unblock the wells that poison the tribe.” This book is a reminder that the purpose of poetry is not to save the world, but to save the poet.

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