Posts Tagged ‘george mackay brown’

Christmas Stories

December 21, 2021

George Mackay Brown, whose centenary it is this year, was a talented poet who wrote six novels, including the James Tait Memorial Prize winning The Golden Bird and the Booker short-listed Beside the Ocean of Time. The majority of his fiction, however, was in the form of the short story, with nine collections published between 1967 and 1998. Now Galileo Publishers have collected all of his Christmas stories in one volume. But how many Christmas stories can one writer produce? Dickens wrote at least five, but Mackay Brown apparently amassed thirty – nine of which go as far as having ‘Christmas’ in the title – many of them originally published in newspapers such as The Scotsman and the Catholic magazine The Tablet.

Mackay Brown’s contributions to The Tablet suggest one reason why he was so prolific: in these stories the presence of Christmas is not mere decoration, and the majority of stories possess a religious, or at least spiritual, core. A number of them are set during the original Christmas. ‘Herman: a Christmas Story’ for example, begins with a young German boy being captured by a Roman Legion. Eventually, a soldier himself, he is sent to Judea during a census, and it is there, left alone on guard duty, that he sees:

“The man and the girl on donkey-back passed through, into the midnight village dappled with candle-flames and lamp-flames and so on along the noisy street towards the inn.”

‘The Lost Traveller’ tells of a man who cannot settle to life as a monk and instead falls in with a group of shepherds. Left to look after the flock at night while the others go to the inn, one of his companions returns talking of meeting “three foreigners” leading “laden camels” and looking for a lamb to take back to the town to exchange for wine. The man joins him:

“So it was that the God-seeker who had lost his way went down at midnight to the inn.”

Other stories, set in Mackay Brown’s native Orkney (where he lived most of his life), echo the Biblical story. In ‘Three Old Men’ a sailor, a shepherd and a miller meet on the road into town, each having set off with no clear purpose. The night is dark and the snow is deep, but, just as it seems they are lost:

“…the snow cloud was riven and in a deep purple chasm of sky a star shown out…”

And so they find their way to the inn.

The influence of A Christmas Carol can also be found, most obviously in the character of Rolf Scroogeson in ‘A Christmas Story’, a rather desultory adaptation that Mackay Brown limits to two pages (“We all know the rest of the story…”). More successfully, Dickens’ influence can be seen in ‘The Children’s Feast’ where, with all the shops closed, the general merchant still seems to be open for business, “the old skinflint.” Mackay Brown soon reveals what is actually happening:

“A boy ran past along the street, and the scoop of his jersey that he held out with both hands was weighted to overflowing with apples, oranges and bananas.”

As a character complains later when he is refused a bottle of whiskey, “only the bairns are getting served today.”

Kindness stands out in many of the stories, not always entirely intended, as in ‘The Box of Fish’ where a group of fishermen send a young boy, Sam, to swap a box of fish for a half bottle of rum. When he doesn’t return, they inquire at his home only for Sam’s mother to tell them, “You needn’t worry…

“Sam’s done exactly what you told him to do. Old Ezra’s had his fish. And blind Annie, and that cripple boy at the end of the village.”

Young boys are often used to represent goodness. In ‘Anna’s Boy’ the title character is judged too frail to go to school and is seen by no-one but the doctor on the island. Yet when a storm traps the children and their teacher during the Christmas party, it is Anna’s boy they find at the door, “who had carried a lighted candle through the storm.” In ‘Miss Tait and Tommy and The Carol Singers’ Miss Tait is feared as a “very severe old lady” and Tommy excluded as “he had a voice like a crow.” Yet when the singers arrive at Miss Tait’s door, they see Tommy sitting in Miss Tait’s armchair eating an apple. In ‘The Old Man in the Snow’ six-year-old James tells his family that Old Josiah has fallen in the snow, but he doesn’t know where. A search party fails to find him, but we later discover James has saved him after all as he lay in a drift happy to stay there:

“He just looked at me for a while, very serious, and went away.”

The look is enough to set Josiah thinking of the future and struggle up and on his way.

Christmas Stories is (slightly more than) an advent calendar of delights. Written with a poet’s voice, with sly humour but a serious heart, these stories are the perfect antidote to seasonal cynicism and fatigue.

Six Scottish Novellas

November 12, 2021

The Marionette (1927)

Edwin Muir is best known as a poet, and as the translator (alongside his wife Willa) of Franz Kafka, but his repertoire extended to autobiography, travel (Scottish Journey), literary criticism, and fiction. His first venture into the latter was a novella, The Marionette, inspired by time spent living in Salzburg and published in 1927. It is, it has to be said, a rather strange book. It tells the story of a boy, Hans, whose mother dies giving birth to him, whose father, Martin, largely ignores him, and who is regarded as “feeble-minded”. Only when he turns fourteen does his father show any interest in him, taking him into the city for the first time. (That the journey unsettles him may be related to Muir’s own journey from Orkney to Glasgow as a child). Seeing his son’s love of a doll he possesses, Martin takes him to a puppet theatre, and their visits soon become regular, with Hans transfixed by what he sees on stage until an accident leads to one of the marionettes (Gretchen from Faust) being damaged in front of him. Martin asks for the puppet to be repaired and given to Hans as the theatre closes for the summer. Though symbolism is clearly in use, the novella is not schematic, and both Martin and Hans (and perhaps Muir) seem to feeling their way to some resolution which will allow them to bond, and Hans to live his life more fully. The work itself feels east European rather than Scottish and the border between Hans’ dreams and reality is not always visible.

(The Marionette was last published by Hogarth Press in 1987)

Travel Light (1952)

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific writer who refused to be confined to any genre, writing a series of autobiographies alongside essays, journalism, three biographies, a history of Africa, and numerous novels. Her fiction, too, was restless – her most famous books ranging from historical novels to science fiction. Travel Light is perhaps best described as fantasy (Mitchison was a friend of Tolkien) – the Virago edition from 1985 has a unicorn on the cover and the main character, Halla, is brought up by bears before being adopted by dragons. For Halla, ‘heroes’ are the enemy, and she repeatedly turns down an invitation to join the Valkyries. In the novel’s second part we enter a more recognisable historical setting and a more political plotline as Halla joins a group of men who have travelled from their home to plead with the Emperor to remove the cruel governor of their province. When, in need of money, they take to betting, it helps that Hallla can talk to the horses. As with much of Mitchison’s work, she showcases strong female characters, and Halla is able to ‘travel light’ because she has no need of men: this is not a romance, and better for it. Mitchison is also able to tap into older stories to give her tale a mythic resonance (as she does in much greater depth in what is often regarded as her bets novel, The Corn King and the Spring Queen) creating an entertaining and illuminating fable.

(Travel Light was published in Kennedy & Boyd’s Naomi Mitchison Library in 2009)

The Hermit (1977)

Iain Crichton Smith’s novella The Hermit can be found in his collection The Hermit and Other Stories but was originally published in Gaelic the year before. Written from the point of view of a retired Headteacher (like Smith) on a Scottish island (presumably Lewis where Smith lived much of his life), it tells of the arrival of a hermit who settles in an abandoned RAF hut. The hermit unsettles the villagers, refusing to talk to anyone even when he is buying groceries. The narrator feels a kind of kinship for him, having lived alone since his wife died. (He confesses to having taken up fishing in the past simply as a way to enjoy some isolation). At the same time, he becomes infatuated by an eighteen-year-old girl, Janet, who passes his house every morning and arranges for her to bring fresh milk to him from her family’s farm, forcing him to face the fact he is becoming old. He is not alone in being affected by the hermit’s arrival: an elderly neighbour leaves his wife intending to return to the life at sea he knew as a young man; even the Minister finds himself unable to speak his sermon. What begins as a light-hearted tale of small-minded, suspicious villagers, takes a darker tone, though without ever losing the dry humour typical of Smith’s work. The narrator decides he must “save the village” by making the hermit leave. Beyond the story of the hermit, however, Smith populates the village with a rich cast of characters and brings depth to the narrator through his relationships (with his wife and his parents) and regrets, his dreams and desires. A master of the short story and author of classic novel Consider the Lilies, The Hermit demonstrates Smith’s skills in both genres combined.

(The Hermit can be found in The Black Halo: The Complete English Stories 1977-98 published by Birlinn in 2001)

Gentlemen of the West (1984)

As well as numerous short stories, Agnes Owens wrote six novellas (they are definitely novellas as they can all be found in her Collected Novellas) beginning with Gentlemen of the West in1984. Originally written as a series of short stories it is rather episodic for a novella, but is united by its narrator, a young bricklayer called Mac who lives with his mother (the “auld wife”) and a recurring cast of drunken ne-er-do-wells who gather in the local pub. Paddy MacDonald, who lives in a rundown bothy with rabbits in the oven and pigeons in a cage in the bedroom, makes frequent appearances. A typical story involves Paddy being found stone cold on the ground and presumed dead and Mac attempting to pay his respects at the local Catholic church (“For the next half hour we were up and down like yo-yos”) only to bump into Paddy immediately afterwards (annoyed at being “carted off tae hospital.”). For all the humour, Owens gives us an unapologetic insight into the lives of the ‘gentlemen of the west’, not only the drunkenness and violence but life on the building site, a chapter where we return to Mac’s childhood, and another where he escapes to the countryside and (grudgingly) befriends a German tourist. And in the final story Owens provides the progression we might expected from the longer form in a genuinely moving manner. Rightly described by Alasdair Gray as “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”.

(Gentlemen of the West can be found in The Complete Novellas reissued by Birlinn in 2020)

The Golden Bird (1987)

George Mackay Brown famously lived in Stromness on Orkney for most of his life – only leaving for a ten-year spell in the 1950s and early 60s – and from there he wrote his poetry, novels, short stories and, of course, novellas. The Golden Bird is one of two novellas in the book of the same name (the other is The Life and Death of John Voe), a book which won the James Tait Memorial Prize for fiction. The Golden Bird begins with a quarrel between two women whose husbands fish together. The quarrel is about very little but escalates quickly and irreparably, creating a rift between the families which will last many years. It is those years which are Mackay Brown’s real subject – time itself: “The years gathered and fell, like waves, like cut corn.” The story carries us through three generations, as three schoolteachers, the third being a contemporary of the feuding families’ sons rumoured to have been carried off by an eagle as a baby, and, just as surprisingly, having left the island to go to Aberdeen University. Despite its relative brevity, we meet numerous characters among the inhabitants of the valley, but Mackay Brown needs only a few words to sketch their personalities and relationships. His wide lens has the contradictory effect of making humanity’s concerns (such as the quarrel) seem trivial but humanity itself feel important and profound.

(The Golden Bird was reissued by Polygon in 2019)

Mavis Belfrage (1996)

Alasdair Gray’s most famous novel may be almost six hundred pages long, but the novella has been a form he has returned to again and again (though largely as a result of adapting his radio plays into prose) with The Fall of Kelvin Walker in 1985 and McGrotty and Ludmilla in 1990. The book jacket of Mavis Belfrage (likely written by the author) describes the titular novella as Gray’s “only straight novel about love” (it is accompanied by five other stories, each shorter than the one before, until we reach the accurately named ‘The Shortest Tale’). Like Gray’s preceding novellas, Mavis Belfrage might be described as a comedy of manners. Colin Kerr, like Kelvin Walker the son of a shopkeeper, returns to Glasgow with a degree from Cambridge to train teachers; he is, as his student Mavis tells him, an “uninspiring individ- … -lecturer” as he has neither an opinion nor an original idea, which is why he fails Mavis for not memorising the chapters he has assigned but rather thinking about her answers. A dinner date, however, soon leads to her (and her eight-year-old son, Bill) moving in with Colin and his father despite the fact she warns Colin she is “a bad bitch”. What follows is a love story between a weak man and strong woman, told with Gray’s usual wit and pinpoint phrasing, culminating in a disastrous dinner party. An enormous fortress Colin has been building out of Lego is also put to symbolic use. Like all his novellas, Mavis Belfrage is minor Gray, but minor Gray can be the most fun.

(Mavis Belfrage can be found in Every Short Story published by Canongate in paperback in 2014)