‘To begin at the beginning . . .’
The record player had a red fabric covering with yellow piping round the sides – slightly frayed – and shiny brass clasps like a picnic hamper. It sat on the ground, because records were precious, needles were fragile and bumps would be disastrous.
Being an artist’s child, I read pictures long before books, and I loved the shiny HMV covers: the dog, the trumpet, Eartha Kitt’s arms opening wide. I wondered how she kept her dress up. Paul Robeson I confused with an Old Testament patriarch, because he sang about Moses and Joshua. The Under Milk Wood cover was my favourite, garish, 50s-ish, cartoonish I think.
But perhaps I made that up. I was only about 10. The division between life and pretend was fairly fluid. I know for sure that my sort-of-uncle George (known to the wider world as George Mackay
Brown) would come round for tea, they’d build up the fire, he’d have a pipe, Mum would get out the rag rug she was hooking, and Dad would gently lift the arm on to the disc. There’d be a pause and a hiss, and then Richard Burton’s voice would fill the room.
I didn’t know who Burton was; he was just the storyteller. I thought he came from Stromness like everybody else I knew except the dentist, who came from Kirkwall. His voice rose and dipped as Orcadian voices do. I lay on the rug watching Mum’s legs turn mottled red, and waited for the local folk to make their appearance – the folk I knew from the street and the stories George and Dad told the company when they’d had a homebrew or two.
In the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent . . . limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea . . .
Didn’t I run down those very streets to the pier where the Norwegian boats threw us fish fry? Didn’t I see ‘the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher’ ever
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