The Lot of the Craftsman


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Portrait of George Mackay Brown by Ian Charles Scott (date unknown) in Stromness Museum

On my recent trip to Orkney to pay my respects to George Mackay Brown on the centenary of his birth, I was given both a warm welcome and a grand send-off. A visiting photographer took the same bus as me from Kirkwall airport, and we quickly established a great rapport. He’d never heard of George Mackay Brown but liked what I could tell of him. And then the taxi-driver who took me from my B&B in Kirkwall back to the airport was from Stromness and knew George personally, describing him in very flattering terms. He was touched at my effort. He could barely believe the passing of time and that George would have been 100 years old. I choked up as I told him of my recent bereavement (the death of my wife, Ann Bilde, last October), and he commiserated in a very tender tone and put his hand on my shoulder. It was like a blessing from the poet himself.

I spent three nights in the Ferry Inn in Stromness.

I’m pretty sure this inn is the setting for GMB’s short story, “The Wheel”, in A Calendar of Love.

My view from the Ferry Inn

I went along to his flat on several occasions.

It’s just across from the Stromness Museum.

The view from the museum

The view from George’s bench at the back of the museum

On the walk back from visiting Mayburn Court for the first time

I bought the three anthologies published this year at Stromness Books & Prints:

I visited George Mackay Brown’s grave on his birthday. Quite a walk, but I was lucky with the weather. From Alfred Street climb up Hellihole Road and carry on along Outertown Road for about a mile. Just after a postbox there’s a sign to Warbeth Beach. Warbeth Kirkyard lies down by the water in a beautiful setting, where the hills of Hoy – an island that was very important to George – cup the departed.

GMB is buried beside his parents at the start of the twelfth row on the left from the entrance to the first kirkyard. Their stones are modest compared to the others.

The last two lines of his poem, “A Work for Poets”, are engraved in golden letters round the edge of this pink sandstone: “Carve the runes/ Then be content with silence”. There are four symbols: a sun, a ship, a star, and a cornstalk. George never liked the idea of the poet or artist being set up on a pedestal. He saw himself as a craftsman, nothing more and nothing less.

On my last day in Kirkwall I visited the Orkney Museum, which had a special exhibition to celebrate GMB’s centenary.

I also had a sea view from my B&B:

If the spirit of GMB is alive anywhere today, then it would be in Kenneth Steven. I read his novel, Glen Lyon, from 2013, on my journey home to Denmark:

It’s a contemporary yet timeless tale told in simple, strong, poetic language. Like GMB, Kenneth Steven has a cohesive, caring vision of Scottish identity, history, myth, and geography (the western isles and Perthshire in his case) as well as a deep curiosity about, and understanding of, the lot of the craftsman. I found it very moving indeed.

The Bard That Sang Stromness #2


Most of my poems and songs are hard-earned. A few, however, fall out of the sky like gentle rain in high summer. Unexpected gifts. One of these is my song for George Mackay Brown. I’d been teaching his poems and short stories for over a decade when one May I was doodling words out on the west coast of Jutland and suddenly found myself completely elsewhere.

I’d been to Stromness. I was 15 and on a school army camp. Being part of the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) was compulsory at the school I went to, as was a trip with it. I was afraid of both heights and water, so the army was an easy choice. And I just went on the trip that was offered generally. It was there I learnt to smoke. There wasn’t much else to do.

George Mackay Brown wasn’t on my radar back then. But after I’d moved to Denmark, I found out that he was a great writer of both poetry and prose, and not too difficult for my students either.

I recorded my song in 2012, and there’s a video on YouTube of me playing it for my students shortly afterwards. There’s also a recording of it a couple of months later in Edinburgh (at 47.45).

I’ve tweaked both lyrics and music since:  

The Bard That Sang Stromness

One afternoon in May I’ve booked my passage on a boat
from Scrabster to the shelter of the place you lived and wrote.
The town is looking pretty in its light-green springtime dress.
The skies are blue in tribute to the bard that sang Stromness.

That’s a very nice wee plaque they’ve pegged up on your old abode.
And not that wee, in fact, as I can read it from the road.
It’s funny they’re allowed to post an accolade like that
for someone who retreated to an unpretentious flat.

The owl’s inclined to hoot before it flies,
the dog intent on barking till it dies,
the bell designed for ringing.
As bows are meant to shoot a thrilling rain,
and arrows find their mark or fall in vain,
so truth is bent on singing.

There’s mist around the hilltops now, a drizzle in the town.
I kid myself I sense your ghost, George Mackay Brown.
You take me down the pier to watch the seagulls wheeling free
then lead me through their yammer to the chuckles of the sea.

The owl’s inclined to hoot before it flies,
the dog intent on barking till it dies,
the bell designed for ringing.
As bows are meant to shoot a thrilling rain,
and arrows find their mark or fall in vain,
so truth is bent on singing.

I’m off to Stromness tomorrow to pay homage to the great writer on the centenary of his birth on Sunday.

The Secrets of IP


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Here’s another essay that looks at a piece by George Mackay Brown, at its outset at least, a poem this time. It is, after all, the centenary of his birth this year. This was originally published in a poetry theme issue of Anglo Files: Journal of English Teaching in Denmark in 2015. I have tweaked it a bit since. What was the last part of it has since become the second part of my essay on cryptic structures in Farjeon and Stallings.

I do like to introduce my students to iambic verse before they tackle Shakespeare in their final year. At times, it’s a struggle, and one that most of my colleagues sidestep. And understandably so. They may well not have been taught it themselves, and many of my students also find the topic difficult. Some of them have never been asked to consider stressed and unstressed syllables before and are slow to even understand the concept. But I have never been someone to avoid a challenge. That’s what makes teaching interesting. Also for the students.

Blank verse, i.e. non-rhyming iambic pentameter (IP), is the basic pattern of Shakespeare’s plays. If students don’t understand how it works, how are they going to appreciate them? I was taught Shakespeare for O-level (in Scotland) without any mention of IP. I found it dull (although my fascination with language meant that it was not intolerably so) because I was unable to appreciate the craft that had gone into creating the text. Sidestepping the whole issue of prosody does students a disservice. They should have some experience working with IP before being introduced to Shakespeare, whose language is difficult enough in itself.

Some people might say that English prosody is too difficult for Danish teenagers. I tell my students that it’s quite an advanced approach, and they shouldn’t worry too much if they are unable to grasp too much of it. But I do have some bright students who rise to the challenge of writing rhyming iambic verse themselves, as this essay shows.

With Ida on board


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It’s Friday, 12th March 2021.

I’ve got two classes with my third-year class, and a teacher candidate is observing the classes. It’s the students’ first week back in school this year because of the pandemic lockdown. I’ve shown them Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film of The Great Gatsby earlier in the week, and in our first class we’re discussing the film vis-à-vis the book, which they’re meant to have read. I’m hoping the students have read a review of the film, but they’re well-known for skimping their homework, and during lockdown they haven’t been asked to prepare for classes.

Not normally a very talkative class, they exceed my expectations, galvanised no doubt by the combination of being observed by a teacher candidate, their recent return to school, the knowledge that the weekend beckons, me moving energetically among them, and the fact that the film genre is something they generally like. They’ve seen Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet at the end of last year, and they’ve noticed Leonardo DiCaprio was in both films. And that’s not all. They can see other similarities. So far so good.

With ten minutes left of the first class, I turn my attention to the other text they’re meant to have read, a short excerpt from A Farewell to Arms, where the narrator, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, is lying on the floor in a train after deserting from the army. I ask them casually whether they’ve actually read it, and the usual five and a half hands go up.

I tell them that I’ll give them the first ten minutes of the next class to read it and finish the class with an improvised lecture (very much my style) on the similarities between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the linchpin of which is how they used their own experience in their fiction and how that gives their work authenticity.

While they’re reading the excerpt I write “stream of consciousness” on the whiteboard. It’s a concept they should be familiar with by now.

It’s time to look at the text together. I point to what I’ve written on the whiteboard and ask them to define the term. It ain’t perfect, but it ain’t too bad. The next question is a cinch, to ask at least: How do we see stream of consciousness in this text?

The student whose hand goes up quotes the most remarkable sentence in this context. It goes like this: “The head was mine, but not to use, not to think with, only to remember and not too much remember.” Unfortunately, he is unable to explain why it is so.

I’ve very recently studied this text with another class, which is often quite a help. This time round I don’t remember to mention the (fairly obvious) syntactical anomaly of “not too much remember”. This is because I make a mind-blowing discovery when I read the sentence aloud.

Before I do so, I reveal to them the significance of the COMMAS for the structure of the sentence, how it makes the fragmentary nature of thoughts apparent. I then point to the monosyllables, with the glaring exception of the double instance of the trisyllabic “remember”. And, with unrestrained delight, I inform them that the word count has a pleasing accumulative structure: 4, 4, 4, 8.

Then I read it aloud and realise… the words match the rhythm of the train he is riding on.

When I tell this to the class, they are no doubt unaware that it is a discovery I’ve just made. But, just for once, I’m not acting as if it is a discovery I’ve just made.

When I was teaching this last time, I thought of a great line in a Dire Straits song, “Telegraph Road”: “’Cause I’ve run every red light on memory lane”. I use it again now. The narrator’s trying to avoid running these red lights on memory lane because he can’t afford to be self-indulgent in his situation. A good example of this comes when he says: “I wondered what they would hear in the States. Dead from wounds and other causes. Good Christ, I was hungry.” The final sentence here shows him censoring his thoughts about his loved ones.

The writer, Hemingway, is concerned with revealing how our thought processes work. In order to do this, he is baring his soul for all to see, the noblest endeavour of any writer.

Ten sonnets in print


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I have recently had ten sonnets printed in an anthology of sonnets called Extreme Sonnets, edited and published by Beth Houston. The point with the epithet is that the sonnets are extremely formal. They all employ iambic pentameter, full rhymes and traditional rhyming schemes.

There are 42 poets in the anthology, 37 from the USA, and five from the UK. And I’m one of five that have the maximum of ten sonnets. There are 194 sonnets in all

It’s been done very well. And there’s a foreword by an acclaimed formal poet, Rhina P. Espaillat, who will be 90 next year. She mentions one of my sonnets. If you click on the “look inside” function on the top left of the Amazon page, you can see the Foreword, the Preface, the Contents, the first six sonnets, and the back cover.

My ten sonnets are, in the order that I wrote them:

2007 Shades of Venice & Dunderhead
2008 On Esperance Bay
2009 Just Rain
2010 Regret, Lisa Leaving, No Bloody Way! & The Big Smoke
2013 The End & Chess with Monsieur Joffroy

They can be found in my collection of sonnets, which is online.

The years 2007-2013 were ones of great crisis for me personally. In 2007 my wife and I fled from our home on Fanø because of a stalker. Both my wife and I became ill, in my case mentally (PTSD) and in my wife’s case physically (Graves’ disease). But I stood firm on the rock of my poetry and songs and received encouragement from other poets on the online poetry forum, Eratosphere, which I’d joined in 2005. It gets a shout-out in the Preface.

There are some reviews on Amazon’s American page.

Now just waiting for the good reviews in various literary magazines…

Beth Houston is doing two more anthologies this year. Check out the submission guidelines here.