The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Have just seen the Artworks Scotland progamme on George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies - a simple, touching blend of poetry, literature, music and marvellous photography. I proposed to my wife at the top of Brinkie's Brae, overlooking Hoy, and I did consider Magnus (Orkney's saint) as a name for our son, but was forced to reject it on two grounds - total resistance on my wife's part, and the knowledge that I had no right to claim for him a name so thoroughly associated with a country I admire but don't belong to.

I feel the same way about GMB - I've read two of his novels (Magnus, Beside the Ocean of Time), his autobiography For the Islands I Sing, and a smattering of journalism and poems, and yes, he's good, very very good, and I read him with real pleasure...and yet. All of his work is set on and inspired by Orkney, and it's this tight focus which has made him a writer known the world over - the particular made universal - and therein lies the problem. I see it, I appreciate it, I admire the artistry, but I cannot respond to it, which is not the case with the Englishman Alan Garner. The irony is not lost on me. Despite Orkney being culturally, historically and linguistically distinct from mainland Scotland, the ties are still pretty close, much closer than those between, say, the Moray Firth and Cheshire.

Perhaps the key lies in this anecdote - I went into a cafe in Kirkwall to ask directions from a waitress who couldn't have been out of her teens. I like to think that I'm usually pretty good with accents, and I enjoy them, my own included, but from the first word she'd lost me completely, and we were both embarrassed when I was forced to ask her to repeat what she'd said. It's the only time this has ever happened to me, and it's like suddenly being dunked out of your depth in cold water (which has never happened to me, but the comparison stands).

The fact remains that, thus far, it's Edwin Muir who speaks more to me - but then Muir left Orkney for Glasgow when he was in his teens, and went on to work within an English and European mainstream.

* * *

The signal to noise ratio on the Web is unfavourable most of the time, but I came across this site completely by chance: a selection of Horace's Odes, with multiple translations. Their range is wonderful, like a theme and variations. I'm not sure that the site's author does much more than work, read and post, given that it seems unnervingly comprehensive in places, but it's well, well worth a look.


At 26 September 2005 at 00:05 , Blogger starbender said...

I found your site, and his, interesting.

At 28 September 2005 at 23:10 , Blogger Joe said...

One of my favourite things about George Mackay Brown is the fact that my 25 year old bottle of Highland Park (Orkney's single malt distillery for those who don't know) comes complete with an enclosed poem by the Orcadian bard himself. And I still think Beside the Ocean of Time is one of the most beautiful titles for a book I've ever heard.

Muir I love too, but on the Eddy front I have to say I'm more of an Edwing Morgan reader myself (and how great that he took part in the recent Nova Scotia anthology despite his age and illness).


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home