Morag MacInnes on Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood

Around the Fire

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‘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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About the contributor

Morag MacInnes is a writer and lecturer. She was born in Stromness and now lives just up the road in Quoyloo, overlooking Skara Brae and the Scottish hills. Her father Ian MacInnes went to school with George Mackay Brown, illustrated his books and painted him several times.

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