An Orkney Tapestry sits quietly at the heart of George Mackay Brown’s prolific output as a writer of poetry, stories, novels and plays, created over a life that was longer and richer than he or anyone else expected. (Following a diagnosis of TB as a young man, before the introduction of penicillin, he must have felt he was living on borrowed time for almost all his adult life.) For those who have never read him, this small book about his native Orkney serves as a wonderful introduction. For those who have already fallen under his spell, it is something they return to and quote from, and love like an old friend.
My copy is tatty, well-thumbed and browning, and full of torn strips of paper marking certain passages. With its drawings by GMB’s friend the Orkney artist Sylvia Wishart, the book has an evocative magic; just to hold it conjures up George and his Orkney, more than anything else he wrote. Somehow, Orkney and George are fused, and while Stromness, his home town, seems to have absorbed him in its stone walls, piers and crow-steps, his absence is still noticeable, a gap in the town, which has changed over the years but also stayed essentially the same. Last year it was twenty years since he died, but I still miss him. (My first ten years in Stromness overlapped with George’s last, during which we had a quiet but strong bond to do with poetry, shy on my part.) Picking up An Orkney Tapestry is like hearing his voice again.
It’s a hard book to sum up because it’s a bit of a mishmash of history, description, essay, poetry and even a short play. It shouldn’t hold together at all, but it does, wonderfully, and in fact the pure essence of GMB as a writer is here, set down in his characteristically distilled, poetic prose. The book started out as a commission, and the assumption is that the publishers had in mind a kind of contemporary guidebook to the islands as seen through his eyes. But that kind of writing, involving facts,
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