Sunday, 31 March 2013

Figures shimmering with vitality

My favourite television viewer discovered in the course of writing Armchair Nation was George Mackay Brown, the reclusive Orcadian poet and writer who rarely left the islands (or, in fact, his Stromness council flat, except to go to the pub). When Orkney finally got television from the Meldrum transmitter through a sea of static in the mid-1950s, he railed against it as a dark avatar of all that was corrupt about the modern world, but he gradually relented, acquiring a rented black and white ‘stone age’ set, then a colour one, and finally – in the 1970s and 1980s – becoming a virtual addict. He often used his weekly column in the Orcadian newpaper to talk about the programmes he had seen.

Watching Scotland disintegrate in the 1978 world cup in front of a colour TV, he wondered: ‘Is there something strange and perverse in the Scottish character that allows the brimming cup to fall and shatter on a stone?’ He became a fan of the snooker, and marvelled at how a new pair of glasses had transformed watching the sport: ‘Figures shimmering with vitality, with intent vibrant faces, were striking balls of amazing solidity and vivid colours’. He also grew to like the daily quiz show Countdown: ‘Letters is my trade, and so I ought to be good at the word-making, but my mind goes numb and after a few seconds I give up … strangely enough, I can do the numbers better.’

He never missed the science programmes on BBC2. After one Horizon programme, Hello, Universe!, broadcast in March 1981, he wrote this:

‘An astonishing thing transpired. Even supposing our message got through to a very distant planet, its journey there would take 40,000 years. The planet’s reply would take a further 40,000 years. At the end of that time we of 1981 would long have been kirkyard dust, and the earth itself perhaps a cinder … Sitting lonely, late at night, in a council house in Orkney – as one shuts off the TV and, beyond the window, the innumerable star-systems wheel – one realises that one is not lonely at all. However isolated, in a croft above the seashore or on a hillside, we are involved with homo sapiens, we live on a teeming ant-hill of a planet, between skulls and seeds.’ 

Brown’s newspaper column had such a distinctive voice – a mixture of lyricism, naivety, misanthropy and good-heartedness – that when I finally reached the end of them (the last appeared just a few weeks before his death in April 1996) it felt like saying goodbye to a friend.


  1. A wonderful poet. I have almost a complete library of his work, and his diaries make great reading: collected versions of the Orcadian columns.

  2. Norman Lewis had a book of pieces out called 'The Happy Ant Hill.' Perhaps he read Mackay-Brown or V.Woolf at some point. While our Bees suffer from the unspeakable inertia of Parliament in failing to ban Neonicatinoids and worse, the Ant receives little help with it's work. Just look on the shelves of your nearest garden centre. Kill this and kill that......of course 'Bee Killer' would cause outrage and be banned, too economically important, bad for the firm's image etc. However, do you trust the Chief Scientific Officer to the Government to give good advice? Er no actually. We need to stop confusing 'Science' with the 'Search for Truth.' They parted company years ago and now they are not even on speaking terms. Angry? Me?