Winter Tales

I read a beautiful story of George Mackay Brown's last night - a Winter Tale - told from three different perspectives - the doctor, the teacher and the minister - it is a story of a community in the 1970s in decline on a fictional Orkney island. It is seen through the eyes of three 'professionals' and 'outsiders', uncertain of their role and place.

It is marked by three deaths, each different: two at full term, one a life of fullness, the other a life of constrained emptiness and a young suicide. 

And a birth: the birth on a winter evening that is sufficiently natural to be acceptable, sufficiently mysterious to bring you to remember another birth, of a child ever young and present.

Mackay Brown has the ability to evoke, in lucid and poetic language, the complexities of a real community, of people in their anxiety and their joy and then carry it over into an atmosphere that is glimpsed with transcendence.

He was what has been described as a 'romantic' Roman Catholic, a convert, and it was a tradition that fitted him admirably, one able to uplift his imagination and accept, and forgive, his shadow. He had a formidable relationship with alcohol that accompanied his potential for depression - in a mutual, reinforcing embrace. Though he was a romantic about his adopted religion, he was emphatically not about his given place.

He was a good man, and one of the most imaginatively gifted poets and short story writers of the post-war world; and, unlike many of his peers, rooted to his place. He rarely left Orkney - the most prolonged period was as a mature student at Newbattle Abbey and Edinburgh University. At the former, he was a student of my beloved, Edwin Muir, who recognised and cultivated his genius, that of a fellow Orcadian.

This poem's captures beautifully many of his elements - the realistic hardships of a life and its consolations, both actual and poetic, caught in the simplest, shorn down language, that sparkles in arresting, very concrete images.

The Beachcomber
Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
Next winter
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.

Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.

Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.

Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.

Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.
What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins. 


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