George Mackay Brown A Poet's Guide to Britain


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George Mackay Brown

Owen Sheers explores poetry set in the British landscape. He looks at George Mackay Brown's Hamnavoe and visits his home town of Stromness in the Orkneys.


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In this series, I've been lucky enough to travel around Britain,

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visiting the places that inspired some of my favourite landscape poems.

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I suppose all poets write about their environment to an extent,

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but I'm on the trail of poets who've formed an especially intense

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and rewarding relationships with particular corners of the country.

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This programme focuses on a great Scottish poet, George Mackay Brown.

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It's hard to think of a 20th century poet more intimately connected

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with a specific place than George Mackay Brown is with Orkney.

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The past and the present of Orkney is unchallenged subject

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of George Mackay Brown's writing.

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Over novels, short stories and poetry,

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he perfected his brilliant and original vision

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of this place, where the rhythms of land and sea wove

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a pattern and harmony through his imagination.

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"There are places that speak Telling the stories of us and them

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"A village asleep, loaded with dream

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"An ocean flicking its pages over the sand

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"Eventually we reply

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"A conversation of place and page over time

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"Inscribing the map, so that each in turn might hold the line"

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Ever since I first read a poem called Hamnavoe by George Mackay Brown,

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I wanted to make this journey up to Orkney, where that poem is set.

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George Mackay Brown was one of the greatest Scottish poets of the 20th century.

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But unlike many writers of the period, he never belonged to a clique, a club or a style.

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He was an outsider,

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who lived in one of the most remote corners of Britain.

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I'm intrigued to find out how that place

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made George the great poet he would become.

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Orkney is a short ferry ride off the far northern tip of Scotland,

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but it seems a lot further.

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The distinctive huddle of low green islands, the high mountains

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and the astonishing colours of light,

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immediately places you in a new world.

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For George, the island of Orkney was his identity, his home and his subject.

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He wrote prolifically about this place,

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and maybe never better than in the poem Hamnavoe.

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Hamnavoe is the old Norse name for Stromness,

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the small town where George lived and died.

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The poem is a celebration of that town,

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woven with a poignant, personal memory.

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A memory of his father.

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Those opening lines from Hamnavoe

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are unmistakably George Mackay Brown.

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Full of compact, jewel-like, brilliant images.

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He is what I would call a "between-the-eyes" poet.

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It just hits you. It's so concise, so beautifully spare.

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It's a great place to start if you haven't read poetry,

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because you'll get it. And it won't make you feel stupid.

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And one of the reasons is because it actually trusts your intelligence.

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I've come here to find out the story behind Hamnavoe.

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How did this poem make it onto the page?

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And how did George Mackay Brown, a largely uneducated boy

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from a poor island family,

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make the journey to become a poet in the first place?

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I began by visiting his boyhood home.

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It was in this house in the heart of Stromness that George was born,

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the youngest of John and Mary Brown's five children.

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One of George's earliest and vivid memories of his early times in this house,

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is of being told stories by his older sister, Ruby,

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as they sat on the rug in front of the fire.

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I was amazed to learn that he wrote his first full poem at the age of eight.

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Unfortunately, no copies have survived of that poem,

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but we do know what it was about:

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the same subject that would continue to draw George's gaze

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for the rest of his life.

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I remember sitting in a field, one Saturday, I think it must have been,

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I wrote a poem about Stromness.

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I took it home and showed my mother and father.

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And they thought it was wonderful.

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I think it must have been pretty awful, of course!

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I've always thought the scenes and views in early childhood are incredibly influential

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and I'm sure this was the case for George.

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This was the view he would have seen out of his very first house,

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where the close opens up to this wonderful fishermen's pier.

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And it's a view that really contains all of the most important elements of George's writing.

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The farmers' fields, the lobster creels, the sea, the hills,

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these houses clustered around the edge.

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This really was the visual world

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that George would go on to draw all of his poetry and his writing from.

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I began to write again when I was in my mid-teens.

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But they were very morbid sort of poems.

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Melodramatic deaths and all that sort of thing.

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But I was at the age, I think,

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you know, where a kind of darkness comes in the mind,

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but only temporary, thank goodness.

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In 1940, at the age of 18, George left school

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with the minimum of qualifications, and even less in the way of motivation.

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He seemed lethargic and depressed,

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and ended up following his father into the postal service.

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Not as a postman, but sorting mail.

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Although George was still working away at odd poems,

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the chance he might have a literary career was unthinkable.

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John Brown had always urged his children to try to

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get themselves out of the rut, to make something of themselves.

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Btu at this point, George seemed to have little sense of what to do with himself.

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It was at this time that a bleak sequence of events

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began to make that decision for him.

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While George was sorting mail,

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life in the outside world was rapidly changing.

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When the British fleet anchored in Orkney at the start of World War II,

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these remote islands suddenly found themselves at the heart of the action.

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60,000 soldiers poured in

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to protect the strategically important naval base of Scapa Flow.

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The population mushroomed, and within a matter of months

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there were three servicemen in the Orkneys to every one islander.

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During these war years, George's own world was blown apart.

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When he was called up, his army medical revealed he couldn't fight

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because he had TB.

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On top of this, the fear of infecting his colleagues at the sorting office

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meant he lost his job and was confined to his sick bed.

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His family were warned

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that he would never be strong enough to lead a normal life.

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Everybody knew that George had had a troubled time.

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He had wanted to go and fight, but he was unfit.

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All the rest of the people in his class at school had gone to fight,

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and he was left at home. What do you do?

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Someone who helped George answer this question was an army officer

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billeted in the Brown household.

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His name was Francis Scarfe,

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an established poet and university lecturer

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who introduced the convalescing George to a whole raft of writers,

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including D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas,

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as well as the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

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More than this though,

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he encouraged the awkward adolescent to develop his own poetic voice.

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For a brief period, George poured his energies into writing.

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But undoubtedly the greatest impact on George's life during the war years was his father's death.

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The war effort involved the whole of the Orkney community.

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George's father had the gruelling job of spending freezing cold nights

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tending the isolated lookout huts that lined Scapa Flow.

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It was while he was on duty, in July 1940,

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that the 65-year-old John Brown died suddenly of a heart attack.

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It must have been a dark time for George, trying to come to terms

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with his father's death, and finding himself too ill to ever work.

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He was stuck in the rut that his father had always hoped his children would avoid.

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It was seven years before George, by then aged 25,

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felt able to write about his father

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in the poem that eventually became Hamnavoe.

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Hamnavoe is a vividly visual poem that evokes the life

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and the spirit of a small Orkney community.

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In the poem, the town unfolds for us

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as a postman makes his rounds through the streets.

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That postman is John Brown, the poet's father.

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And Hamnavoe, whilst being a poem of tribute to a place,

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is also an elegiac hymn to John Brown.

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A poetic letter written by a son to his father.

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"My father passed with his penny letters

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"Through closes opening & shutting like legends

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"When barbarous with gulls Hamnavoe's morning broke

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"On the salt & tar steps.

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"Herring boats, puffing red sails,

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"the tillers of cold horizons,

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"leaned down the gull-gaunt tide

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"And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.

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"A stallion at the sweet fountain dredged water

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"and touched fire from steel-kissed cobbles.

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"Hard on noon four bearded merchants

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"Past the pipe-spitting pier-head strolled.

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"Holy with greed, chanting their slow grave jargon.

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"A tinker keened like a tartan gull at cuithe-hung doors.

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"A crofter lass trudged through the lavish dung

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"In a dream of cornstalks and milk.

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"Blessings and soup plates circled.

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"Euclidian light ruled the town in segments blue and grey.

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"The school bell yawned and lisped down ignorant closes.

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"In 'The Arctic Whaler' three blue elbows fell

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"Regular as waves from beards spumy with porter.

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"Till the amber day ebbed out to its black dregs."

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In that fantastic first half of Hamnavoe, even though it's set in a long-gone era,

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for me, the townsfolk, not just

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John Brown the postman, but the fishermen, the merchants, seem to be hotwired into life in every line.

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One that I love especially, he's describing the men drinking at the bar.

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He talks about how, "Three blue elbows fell, regular as waves, from beards spumy with porter,"

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which is this stuff.

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And I love that idea of these elbows rising and falling,

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a bit like the waves outside.

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As the postman, John Brown was a popular figure in Stromness,

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and his son, too, became a well-known character about the town.

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Everyone still talks about George as a friend, and his spirit seems tangible in the place.

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Everybody's life is conditioned,

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to a great extent, by the place that they live in.

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Stromness is quite a... Well, it's...

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..a beautiful place to live in, I think. It's a sort of microcosm of

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the whole of life

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in quite a small area.

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You can see things whole and complete from any point of view.

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I don't know whether there's any other place on earth quite like it.

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How important do you think the physical geography of the Orkney Isles and Stromness

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was to the voice and the style that George developed?

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Over the years, George has become the Orkney poet.

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He has become the person who has portrayed Orkney.

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Ironically, he hardly visited any of Orkney.

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He lived in Stromness, but apart from that, he didn't even go into Kirkwall very often.

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But his knowledge of historic Orkney was considerable.

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He got his first book of the sagas in the local library, and he didn't return it.

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The sagas are the ancient tales of Orkney's Viking past.

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To try and get a sense of the influence these sagas had on George, I wanted to visit the same

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Viking landmark that first fuelled his interest in Orkney's ancient heritage.

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In the summer of 1941, while George was recovering in a sanatorium, he made several walks into Kirkwall.

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On one of those visits he stepped inside this place, St Magnus Cathedral,

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at that point the largest building he'd ever been inside in his life.

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He was immediately impressed and moved by this inherently

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native church, not just aesthetically, by its structure,

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but also intellectually, by the history that this building held literally within its stones.

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In the early 11th century, the Earldom of Orkney was shared between two cousins, Magnus and Haakon.

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When the two cousins feuded, they met at a peace conference

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at which Haakon treacherously ordered the murder of Magnus.

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Magnus went to his death willingly, apparently as happy as a man on his way

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to a feast, choosing to martyr himself for his cousin's soul and for the peace of the Orkney Islands.

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His bones are immured in this pillar.

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The cathedral represented to George a physical link to Orkney's past, while the Orkney sagas

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gave him the key to unlock the simple yet arresting narratives of his island's heritage.

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"Bow your blank head

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"Offer your innocent vein

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"A red wave broke

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"The bell sang in the tower

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"Hands from the plough carried the broken saint under the arch

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"Below the praying sea

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"Knelt on the stones."

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The Orkney sagas, though, were not just influential upon George's

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subject matter, but also upon his style.

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It was from the sagas, it seems, that he harvested so many of

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the crucial elements in the flavours and the tones of his own writing.

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What would you say are the elements of George's poetry that are the most

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impressive, the most uniquely George Mackay Brown, I suppose?

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I would say the most important thing about George's poetry is compression.

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What George learned is the value of getting rid of words and getting down to simplicity.

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That was because of reading the sagas.

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In fact, he says that in a letter to my dad.

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He says, "It's going to be clean and crisp, and I'm going to get rid of anything that's not needed."

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That is when his poetry took off.

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It's absolutely this crispness and clarity, this pared-down style, that makes Hamnavoe so impressive.

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"The boats drove furrows homeward,

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"like ploughmen in blizzards of gulls

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"Gaelic fishergirls

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"flashed knife and dirge over drifts of herring,

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"And boys with penny wands lured gleams

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"From the tangled veins of the flood.

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"Houses went blind up one steep close,

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"for a grief by the shrouded nets.

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"The kirk, in a gale of psalms,

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"went heaving through a tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven.

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"And lovers unblessed by steeples,

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"lay under the buttered bannock of the moon.

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"He quenched his lantern, leaving the last door.

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"Because of his gay poverty that kept

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"My seapink innocence from the worm and black wind;

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"And because, under equality's sun,

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"All things wear now to a common soiling,

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"in the fire of images gladly I put my hand

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"To save that day for him."

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The award-winning poet Don Paterson is an admirer of this poem,

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and a fan of George Mackay Brown and his lean style.

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What he was doing was incredibly sophisticated.

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That's something that's accurate.

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He started to listen to why things were working.

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It's very strange what he's doing.

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He has a very distinctive music.

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It's all about keeping the vowel sounds big and different.

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It reminds me of Orkney.

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It's almost like things start in their own discreet space

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in relation to one another, because they all sound so different.

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It reminds you of that open, treeless, windswept landscape somehow.

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These standing stones and stuff. Maybe that's just a romantic projection.

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But it's hard not to hear the wind whistling through the words somehow when you read George.

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He's the kind of poet that, when I read his work, he makes you

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want to go back to your own work and be so much harder with it.

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That's exactly right. If nothing else...

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It's not like you're trying to imitate the rhetoric or the style, but it's just that you want

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that economy for your own work, you want it as lean and as powerful.

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I think the rule is "Cut, cut, cut".

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Hamnavoe is a deeply nostalgic poem, a yearning for an Orkney before the invasion of the modern world.

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This nostalgia, which touches much of George's poetry, apparently

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grew out of a journey he made to the nearby island of Hoy just after the war.

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I knew that Hoy was enormously important for George and his poetry, but I was amazed to discover George

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was 25 before he took the short boat trip across the bay

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to visit the island and its hidden valley of Rackwick.

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When George came here, he said that the beauty of Rackwick struck him

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like a blow, and you can really understand what he means.

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It's a landscape of rare and quite astounding grandeur.

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This green valley was a crucial physical place of escape for George.

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He would come here in the summer when it was warm and

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sit around the peat fires and tell stories and drink with his friends.

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"Let no tongue idly whisper here

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"Between those strong red cliffs, Under that great mild sky

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"Lies Orkney's last enchantment, The hidden valley of light

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"Sweetness from the clouds pouring Songs from the surging sea

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"Fenceless fields, Fishermen with ploughs and old heroes

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"Endlessly sleeping in Rackwick's compassionate hills."

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But to George, Rackwick also seemed to be a melancholy place.

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The derelict croft houses, the slow fires of rust devouring the ploughs, and all the remnants of Rackwick's

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once-populous past were stark evidence for George

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of how the rigours of progress could leave a community to die.

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George had a very idealised picture of communities in one sense.

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When he went to Rackwick, what he discovered was a dying community that he wanted to mineralise.

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In a poem to my father, he called it Orkney's last enchantment.

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He saw it as the last gasp of fishermen, crofters, working together

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in a simple kind of way, without the mechanism of capitalism and all of that.

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George's expeditions to Rackwick presented him with a new perspective on his own community

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back in Stromness, and a sense of the role he could play in preserving its past.

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As George later wrote, "I see my task as the poet and storyteller

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"to rescue the century's treasure before it is too late.

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"It is as though the past is a great ship that has gone ashore,

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"and archivist and writer must gather as much of the rich, squandered cargo as they can."

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Through the late 1940s, George began to find his voice as a poet,

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and in 1947 he wrote his first draft of Hamnavoe.

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But George was both personally and artistically a late developer.

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Although he was always writing something, it's fair to say

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he spent much of his 20s staring into the bottom of a beer glass.

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George's poetry may never have left Orkney

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had it not been for a fortuitous meeting in the summer of 1950, by which time George was nearly 30.

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The significance of this bar

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is that it's in the Stromness Hotel, which is where George got to meet one of his great heroes of poetry,

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the wonderful Scottish poet, who was also an Orkney man, Edwin Muir.

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He found Edwin Muir to be a warm and gentle and incredibly... quietly intelligent man,

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who encouraged George to come to the college where he was warden,

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a college called Newbattle, just outside of Edinburgh.

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George eagerly took up Muir's invitation, and his time

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at Newbattle was vital in helping him to mature as a poet,

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by introducing him to a world beyond Orkney.

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And, really, this marks not just the beginning of a new chapter in George's life, but,

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for me, the most important chapter in his writing life, in that those years that he spent in that college

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would inform and influence his poetry for the rest of his life.

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From Newbattle, George went on to Edinburgh University.

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In the pubs of Rose Street, he met some of the leading literary figures

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of Scottish poetry at that time, and grew to be respected as a contemporary.

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But George was always an island man, and soon returned home to Orkney.

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The friends he'd made on the mainland, though, were still looking out for him.

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In fact, it was Edwin Muir who smoothed the path for me.

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I would never have dared to send

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a bunch of poems to any publisher.

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I got a letter from the Hogarth Press, which was a marvellous

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surprise for me, because I didn't even know they had been submitted!

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By 1959, at the age of 38, George's literary career was finally under way,

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spearheaded by Hamnavoe and the other remarkable poems published in Loaves And Fishes.

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George went on to become one of the most prolifically-published poets.

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23 books of poetry, six novels, as well as journalism, short stories and plays.

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He received a host of awards and honours for his unique writing,

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and was even nominated for the Booker Prize.

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His work was perhaps less widely read than

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it might have been, though, owing to George's reclusive nature.

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He only ever made two journeys out of Scotland in his lifetime.

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What would you say George Mackay Brown's influence has been upon

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-the poetry that has been written since, in Scotland and in Britain?

-It's hard to quantify.

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I just think it sometimes takes the quieter voices a long time to be heard clearly.

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It's really only in the last... maybe 15, 20 years that we've

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really started to hear his influence come through.

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Maybe largely by the poets of my generation.

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George has become a touchstone point in terms of how you deal with the image,

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how you talk about nature in a way that doesn't seem to appropriate it,

0:24:050:24:08

and how you tune your ear. He has become a real touchstone point.

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A lot of people write about St Kilda, which is the outermost

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of the Outer Hebrides, but no-one much writes about Luing,

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which is one of the innermost of the Inner Hebrides, because it's so easy to get to.

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But it's an even stranger place.

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"Luing

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"When the day comes, as the day surely must,

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"When it is asked of you

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"and you refuse to take that lover's wound again,

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"that cup of emptiness that is our one completion,

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"I'd say go here maybe, to our unsung innermost isle:

0:24:430:24:47

"Kilda's antithesis, yet still with its own tiny stubborn anthem,

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"its yellow milkwort and its stunted kye.

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"Leaving the motherland by a two car raft, the littlest of the fleet,

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"you cross the minch to find yourself, if anything,

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"now deeper in her arms than ever, sharing her breath.

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"Watching the red vans sliding silently between her hills.

0:25:070:25:12

"In such intimate exile, who'd believe the burn behind the house

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"the straitened ocean written on the map?

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"Here, beside the fordable Atlantic, reborn into a secret candidacy,

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"the fontanelles reopen one by one in the palms

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"then the breastbone and the brow

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"Aching at the shearwater's wail, the rowan that falls beyond all seasons.

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"One morning you hover on the threshold,

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"knowing for certain the first touch of the light will finish you."

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Pamela Beasant was a friend of George's during the last years of his life.

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Nobody will ever write about Stromness or maybe even think about Stromness in the way he did.

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It's odd, but when he died, it was like a physical absence,

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there was a hole in the town, it was very noticeable.

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Even now, it's still noticeable when you walk past his house and look up.

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He often had daffodils at the window.

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And his absence is almost palpable,

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and I found that, for quite a long time after he died, somehow or other

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Stromness had shed a skin in some way, and was just Stromness again.

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George died in 1996 in the same town that he was born.

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Stromness gave so much to George, the subject matter for his writing

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and a community which nurtured him as a poet.

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In return, he's left Stromness with an extraordinary body of work

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which captures and preserves the character of his town, his Hamnavoe.

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For schoolchildren, it's now the poem they always have to do.

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It becomes the one, "Oh, no, another George poem, good grief!"

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But in the long term it's given Stromness a kind of history that it didn't ever think it would have.

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Stromness never expected to be a place where people from all over

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the world were coming to see the kind of imagery George was talking about.

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What George did for the community was make it feel more aware of the specialness of things.

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After a few days here, you realise what a great poetic guidebook Hamnavoe is to this town.

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It conjures up the history, the land, the skies, the people,

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and in a very subtle way it conjures up George, too.

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My favourite image in the whole poem, though, comes right at the end.

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"In the fire of images gladly I put my hand

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"To save that day for him."

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In writing this poem, George is saving that day for his father,

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but he's also trying to save that day for himself,

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by capturing the spirit of this town, through which John Brown walked every day on his rounds.

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Most importantly, though, I think this is why the poem has such power.

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In those last lines, George Mackay Brown is voicing a shared wish of every grown-up child towards every

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parent, to freeze-frame them in the landscape in which they are most alive to us, wherever that may be.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:350:28:37

E-mail [email protected]

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Poet and author Owen Sheers presents a series in which he explores six great works of poetry set in the British landscape. Each poem explores a sense of place and identity across Britain and opens the doors to captivating stories about the places and the lives of the poets themselves.

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was the great poetic voice of the Orkneys and one of the foremost Scottish poets of the 20th century. Sheers travels to the place the locals call the Venice of the North, the Orkney town of Stromness, which was Mackay Brown's home and the backdrop for much of his work, including his great poem Hamnavoe.

In Hamnavoe, the Viking name for Stromness, Mackay Brown takes the reader on a nostalgic and blustery tour of the town in the footsteps of his father, the local postman. Sheers uses the poem as a tour guide to Mackay Brown's Orkney life and work, exploring the narrow streets where George was born and wrote his first poems and taking diversions to the great cathedral of St Magnus, the Norse patron saint of the islands, and the remote island of Rackwick.

The poem opens up a moving story of a father and son and showcases Mackay Brown's exquisite, concise, gem-like writing. With ravishing views of the islands in the distinctive Orcadian light, the programme is a hymn to a unique corner of Britain. It also features, among other friends and fans of Mackay Brown, the contemporary Scottish poet Don Patterson.