Brown, George Mackay: Beside the Ocean of Time

This book wins my award for the most alluring title of all our books so far. Yes, time is a kind of ocean in which we all drown, metaphorically speaking. Of course, George Mackay Brown is an author who uses metaphors and symbols beautifully, as befits a poet. To quote from one of his poems:

 In the fire of images

Gladly I put my hand.

 The proposer of this book was very familiar with the author’s work through the poems, short stories and novels.  Only one other member of our group had read the book before. George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) spent most of his years on Orkney, in Stromness, suffering poverty in his early life and then illness (tuberculosis, bronchial problems, depression and finally bowel cancer). His poor health barred him from the army at the start of World War II. He worked as a journalist on the Orkney Herald.  He was a student in Edinburgh, frequenting the bars of Rose Street and meeting other writers. There he formed a relationship with a woman, Stella Cartwright, described as “The Muse in Rose Street”.  However, he never married.

He was a troubled soul, as judged from his work, his life and the available photographs. He turned to alcohol but he was never an alcoholic. His fondness of beer is nicely expressed: drink, he said ‘flushed my veins with happiness…washed away all cares and shyness and worries’. Most of us can relate to that. His work was widely recognised in Scotland, and he was awarded the OBE in 1976. Beside the Ocean of Time was the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, and was nominated for the Booker Prize.

 The writing, in one sense (the best sense) is naïve: he seldom uses big words or elaborate sentences, and the plots are never complex. In this book the chapters are for the most part short stories relating the dreams of a child. However, the child becomes a man and a poet; the chapters finally connect to make a coherent tale of a man’s life. Many elements are clearly autobiographical.

 The child is Thorfinn Ragnarson. He lives on an imagined island in Orkney called Norbay. The first sentence is ‘Of all the lazy useless boys who ever went to Norday school, the laziest and most useless was Thorfinn Ragnarson’. He’s a sleepy fellow, and a dreamer.  Most chapters begin with a mundane scene of island life; pretty soon the boy falls asleep and dreams of a historical event in which he is a character. In the first story we are sailing down the Volga to confront the Cossack army, in the second we are at Bannockburn. The boy always wakes and the chapter ends as the real world is brought back. The stories are strung together to make an Orcadian chronology. It’s a simple and effective format, and the book is in a style like no other we could think of although we made comparisons with Under Milk Wood, Silver Darlings, Sunset Song.

 Parts of the book have a magical quality, like the scene of the seal-people dancing, and the beautiful seal-girl crouching at the shore; she has lost her seal skin, having left it on the rock with seven limpets. What can this be all about? He takes her home, he marries her, she’s strangely addicted to sea food; they have children with scaly hands, then she leaves. Then he wakes up. It was another one of those dreams. She was a selkie, the mythical creature in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish and Scottish folklore.

 The wheel of time moves slowly in Norbay, not much happens. Mostly we read of island folk living close to nature and going about their daily lives. But there are intrusions, some in dreams like the Viking Invaders and the Press-Gang; and some real, relating to social change in the years leading to the Second World War.  There is the intrusion of alcohol (the social cleavage between the ‘inn-folk’ and the ‘kirk-folk’); various outsiders come, most notably the lovely young woman who arrives unannounced and stays with the new Minister in the manse, causing the islanders to gossip: should they report the matter as misconduct to the General Assembly? She rides a horse along the tops of the cliffs, wildly. Then, one day the mysterious girl departs, saying to the young Thorfinn ‘You, poet, wait for me. I’ll come back some day. Never forget’. Three strange men, also unannounced, arrive in 1937 and proceed to set up their tripod and instruments in the wheat fields to survey the land. They are attacked by a local woman and their equipment is kicked over. Intrusions are to be resisted.

 Towards the end of the book we are transported to more modern times and the pace quickens: now, Thorfinn is a young man and we are on the brink of World War II. The mood is dark. The island is being requisitioned as a military base, in fact an aerodrome to provide protection for the naval base (a naval base really existed on Hoy from 1945 to 1957 and there were indeed aerodromes). Well, that explains the three men who were conducting the survey. The island has never known such a thing, as people, supplies and materials are brought in. It’s the climax, the final intrusion; we witness the destruction of a primitive island society by massive modern technology.  He cannot stand this cataclysm and he leaves as bulldozers and machinery concrete over the fields to make a mile-long airstrip.  In the final chapter, years later, we return to the island and everything is different; there are unexpected twists and turns that bring closure to the plot. I won’t tell you what happens.

 It was an easy read, light relief after Salman Rushdie! We all enjoyed this book. There is a strong sense of place. We see the shaping of the man by the place and people, and the historical dream-stories remind us that it has always been that way. The final destruction of the land, as the hand of man replaces productive fields with impervious concrete is the ecological metaphor for our time. Amen.

 Having no serious disagreement on the quality and meaning of the book, we finished our discussion rather early. Our host tempted us with oat cakes and there was talk of Orkney Whiskey. The conversation turned to ‘what’s wrong with Scottish rugby’ to which the reply was ‘the same as what’s wrong with Scottish football’. We stepped out into the cold night of Morningside, under a full moon and a sharp frost, and made our way home.