A few weeks back I attended several talks at the Oxford Literary Festival, which has grown over the past decade from a very small weekend event at the Oxford Union, to the Sunday Times-sponsored sprawling behemoth it now is. Though it is impressively wide-ranging and well organised I do miss the spontaneity of the original festivals - but then again, this was before festival-fever well and truly hit our land and every town and hamlet worth its salt felt it must put on some sort of Event with Words, Fashionable Topics and Glamorous In-Authors. I have to confess a kind of weariness when I contemplate the bulging programme, with all the Right People being wheeled out to promote their latest books, sometimes collected under PC or trendy themes. Have we not all heard it all before? Writers, once elusive, mysterious creatures who retreated from the world to think deep thoughts and emerge with sybilline wisdom every now and again - writers are now unashamed showmen, practising all sorts of huckster-techniques, giving us the well-honed schmooze, the well-turned anecdote (and I've been to enough of these things to have heard the same worn anecdote or witticism trotted out just that once too often). And yes, I know there were always writers-as-performers (Dickens springs to mind immediately) - but the point is that nowadays, published writers are automatically expected to be performing seals too, whether it's congenial to their nature or not; it's part of the pact with the publishing devil, it's part of what a publishing house considers before they take you on: are you marketable?
All this cynicism serves as a prologue to talking about a writer who was anything but a huckster, and for whom the idea of appearing at a festival like this would have been utter anathema. A writer who, when shortlisted for the Booker, absolutely refused to come south and have anything to do with the shenanigans of rivalry and prize-winning. I went to a talk by Maggie Fergusson about the life of George Mackay Brown, the Orcadian novelist and poet who was renowned for scarcely venturing to the Scottish mainland, far less anywhere else - although he did visit Oxford in 1989 for the centenary of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom he greatly admired and to whose poetry he is clearly indebted. GMB said 'Nothing much happens to me but words' and those words are a blend of the starkness of Norse legend and the ceremonies of celebration, woven with rich alliteration and assonance and the images of nature, tradition, religious awe and time. Maggie Fergusson played a tape of him reading his poem 'Hamnavoe', about his father who was the local postman, his sense of the sanctity of a simple life and the rites of passage of a community both nurtured and threatened by the sea. I found myself enormously moved, partly by the beauty of the poem, partly because it evoked for me memories of my own childhood in a fishing community in northern Scotland.
Here are excerpts - if you like them, go in search of him. And yes, this is one of the things I will do with this blog - if I will inflict my recommendations on you. There's bound to be something you'll like.
On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide
And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
The boats drove furrows homeward, like ploughmen
In blizzards of gulls. Gaelic fisher girls
Flashed knife and dirge
Over drifts of herring.
And because, under equality's sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.