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George Mackay Brown - Poet and Novelist

He was born on 17th October 1921 in Stromness, Orkney, the youngest son of a postman. He was educated at Stromness Academy between 1926 and 1940 but after leaving school illness prevented him from working and he spent a period in hospital suffering from tuberculosis. In 1957 he entered Newbattle Abbey College, a residential adult education college near Edinburgh, where Edwin Muir was Warden. Brown's first poem was published while he was a student and he enjoyed the support and encouragement of Muir, who also contributed an introduction to Brown's first collection of poems. The Storm (1954). Further illness prevented Brown from completing the course at Newbattle, but he returned in 1956 to prepare himself for matriculation at the University of Edinburgh. He graduated in 1960 and returned to Edinburgh between 1962 and 1964 to do post-graduate work on Gerard Manley Hopkins. Since then he has lived at Stromness in Orkney. A second collection of poems, Loaves and Fishes was published in 1959, while Brown was a student at Edinburgh. The book is arranged in three sections, 'The Drowning Wave', 'Crofts along the Shore' and 'The Redeeming Wave', but the collection exists as a unity through its religious perspective, a concern with death and resurrection, themes which are central to his poetry. There is also a fine delineation of the wind-swept Orkney landscape and its people, both real and mythical; in 'Hamnavoe' (which came to be the fictional name of Brown's Stromness) a tribute to his father turns into an evocation of a day in the life of the town of his childhood, in The Year of the Whale (1965), published after Brown's conversion to Catholicism (in 1961), there is a preoccupation with faith and its renewal, by which man is able to overcome death and defeat. Fishermen with Ploughs, was published in 1971, but it is more of a sequence of interdependent poems than a continuous narrative. Many of Brown's favourite images are present in the poem, which follows the history of the valley of Rackwick on the island of Hoy from the time of the early settlers to its final destruction in the name of progress: the happy simplicity of the Viking settlers, the renewal of life through the planting of seed and its harvest, and Christ's passion in counterpoint to the suffering of man. The Christian theme is extended in Winterfold (1976) which begins and ends with a religious sequence, the stories of the nativity and the crucifixion. As in most of his religious and historical poems, Brown uses the technique of weaving together past and present, the mythical with the contemporary. In all his poetry there is a natural fluency, which extends from the directness of the lyric to an ornate form with intricate internal rhymes, which he uses especially in his religious work. Many of Brown's favourite poetic themes recur in his short stories which are firmly rooted in the communal life of Orkney. The tales are told with a simple lyrical intensity; they are concerned both with the matter of everyday life and with the rich heritage of Orkney's history, the two frequently being interwoven. A Calendar of Love (1967) was his first collection and its title story is rich with the symbolism of seed-time and harvest and with the renewal of life through pain and suffering; the collection contains Witch, a horrifying story of witch-hunting in 16th-century Orkney. His second collection, A Time to Keep (1969), contains his two best short stories, Celia, a sensitive study of alcoholism and loneliness, and The Eye of the Hurricane, in which an old sea captain drinks himself to death in despair. Brown's interest in the story of his native islands comes alive in Hawkfall (1974), which ranges from the Bronze Age to the present day, and The Sun's Net (1976), which contains the story of John Gow, the Orkney pirate. There are also two collections of stories for children: The Two Fiddlers (1974) and Pictures in the Cave (1977).

Greenvoe (1972), Brown's first novel, is a sequence of six portraits of the imaginary community of Greenvoe on the island of Hellya. The final destruction of the island by a military technological project, Operation Black Star, is preceded by a series of loving pictures of the island and its people, the action frequently being seen from multiple viewpoints. His second novel, Magnus (1973), re-tells the story of the murder of St Magnus from the Orkneyinga Saga by intertwining past and present and overlaying the action with Catholic doctrine in the martyrdom of Magnus. Brown has written a play for radio, A Spell for Green Corn (1970), and several of his short stories have been dramatized. He has won several literary prizes and was made an Officer, Order of the British Empire in 1974.

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