Author: Alex Wood

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Wednesday, August 17th, 2011 at 4:41 pm
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Book Reviews

The Wound and the Gift

The Episcopal Church of St John the Evangelist at Edinburgh’s West End is a mass of visual contradictions. The radical murals on the exterior belie a very different, entirely Anglican, interior where early-19th century opulence, rich colour and a massive suspended cross immediately impress the visitor, used perhaps more to either the austerity of Presbyterian architecture or the Gothic magnificence of European Catholic churches. That straddling of two traditions may have made St John’s the perfect setting for the launch of a biography of the Orcadian Catholic poet George Mackay Brown by the Church of Scotland Minister, Ron Ferguson, the whole event chaired by Richard Holloway, the Episcopal Church’s Bishop Emeritus of Edinburgh.

Ferguson, the one-time minister of Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral, a former leader of the socially engaged and ecumenical Iona Community, is a gifted and perceptive journalist and writer. He knew Mackay Brown prior to becoming minister at Kirkwall, but his new book, The Wound and the Gift (St Andrew Press, £19.99) is as unusual a biography as one might hope to read. Ferguson put it that in writing the book he had ‘walked alongside George looking at his spiritual journey’ and that in so doing he had to look carefully and critically at his own spiritual journey. This work is almost as much about Ferguson as about Mackay Brown. Ferguson is uniquely open about that. Of course it is almost a truism that a powerful biography tells the reader as much about the biographer as about the subject but in this case that is transparently so.

Mackay Brown was a melancholy, troubled soul from his childhood, the son of a depressed father and a somewhat indulgent mother, fearful but physically powerful, a robust and athletic youth brought low by tuberculosis. Literature gave him permission to be the inward looking young man whom circumstances had initially steered in precisely that direction.Ferguson projects Mackay Brown’s writing as a spiritual resource for people of all faiths and none. It is extremely taxing for the 21st century mind to enter Mackay Brown’s. He appears mentally and emotionally embedded in a past age. Ferguson describes his writing as a spiritual, almost monk-like, vocation. Yet, amazingly, more than most of the great writers of the twentieth century Scottish renaissance, Mackay Brown can communicate directly and simply to a broad modern readership. There are none of the soaring intellectual flights of the modernists such as MacDiarmid in Mackay Brown’s work. He connects with a simpler past, in particular with Orkney’s past. Above all else he was a story-teller and the power of his narratives, even when delving in pre-history, connect immediately with the reader.

Mackay Brown came to Newbattle College and then to Edinburgh University in the 1950s. He was shy, agoraphobic and insecure. In the metropolitan atmosphere, surrounded by the greats of Scottish literature, drinking in Milne’s Bar, he escaped himself in drink and in a foredoomed relationship. He returned to Orkney, converted to Catholicism, wrote novels, poetry and short-stories of heart-touching simplicity and brilliance and became totally re-rooted in his native island. Ferguson says of Mackay Brown, half jocularly, half seriously, that he was the only writer in the world who had to go on anti-depressants because he had been nominated for the Booker Prize. He recoiled totally from the public side of being a great writer. Ferguson has produced a wonderful work. It explores Brown’s religion and his writing and the connection between these. It looks, but with circumspection and respect, at his personal life, at the pain he had known and the physical and emotional wounds he had suffered, and it offers the reader a rounded picture of one of Scotland’s greatest contemporary writers.

What of Ferguson, who reviewed his own spiritual journey while accounting for Mackay Brown’s? He also emerges with undimmed credit. To see to the core of another despite the other being distant in attitudes, experience and outlook but to identify the common points is a measure of his sensitivity. To express that identification so clearly is a credit to the authenticity of Ferguson’s own voice as a writer.

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