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I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Thursday, 8 September 2011

All Good Gifts... George Mackay Brown biography review

I studied English and Scottish Literature at Aberdeen University and one of the stand-out books for me in recent Scottish literature is George Mackay Brown's Greenvoe. It's a beautiful mix of storytelling and poetry in a voice so genuine, it trips you up.

As I recently discovered, Edinburgh-based artist, Joyce Gunn Cairns also studied literature at Aberdeen University and in her art, she often creates portraits of writers, several of which are in the soon-to-be-reopened National Portrait Gallery.

Although I have interviewed her on the phone and she is my facebook friend, I'd never met in person her until recently when I bumped into her on the steps of Bourne Fine Art in Edinburgh. We both recognised each other from out profile pic. Such is modern life.

Anyway, Joyce emailed me the other day to say she had written a review of a new biography of George Mackay Brown by her friend, the journalist and minister, Ron Ferguson and attached a copy.

I read it and instantly wanted to go and re-read Greenvoe - as well as other Mackay Brown work, not to mention Ron's biography! It may take me time, but I'll get there...

The original cover of Greenvoe  published  in 1972 by Hogarth Press

An exhibition of Joyce's portraits of writers has just closed at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh.

Here is the blurb from that as it sums her up better than I could:

Performing Heads – Portraits by Joyce Gunn Cairns 
Exhibition Joyce Gunn Cairns is a hard-working artist and dedicated reader, but also a frustrated writer and actor. The latter frustrations are reflected in her obsession – over the last quarter century – with drawing heads of writers and poets and, in recent times, performers. The initial inspiration for this exhibition of playwrights, actors, storytellers and musicians was the upward- spiralling career of Joyce's son Michael Shand, a prolific playwright. The exhibition includes a drawing of Michael, alongside drawings of many gifted and notable performers and playwrights – Alasdair Gray and Edith MacArthur being only two of the illustrious names! The drawings pay tribute to the prodigious talent of all Cairns' sitters, and to the pleasure and privilege of time shared with them in her studio.

Joyce in her studio


If George Mackay Brown’s lyrically beautiful writings have touched your consciousness at all, after reading Ron Ferguson’s new biography, The Wound and the Gift, you will like myself be eager to reach for more volumes of GMB’s work.    

Ron Ferguson’s account of the life and work of George Mackay Brown, as someone who knew him personally as friend and admirer, is vigorously researched,  warm and deeply engaging ,  and always it is touched with gentle humour.    

He neither sanitises the person of GMB nor is there the merest hint of voyeurism; on the contrary he approaches him in the complexity of his humanity with compassion and self-knowledge.    

Ron presents a deeply researched and many-faceted account of the poet, conversing as he does throughout the entire book with those who knew George as family and friends, those who loved his work, and those who like myself  knew his work only marginally but who could identify with his lifelong battle with depression, guilt  and periods of creative self doubt.     

As a result of this approach, we as readers are allowed the space to feel with George in all the complexity of what it is to be human, to struggle as we all do with conflicting feelings of meanness and gratitude, hatred and love, joy and grief, fear and hope – and tormented as most of us are at times with guilt for ways in which we have failed others.

In this celebrity driven society it is interesting to note that although George Mackay Brown longed in the early years of his commitment to his vocation as writer and poet for public recognition – and as an artist I can identify with this longing – when he did in fact gain international acclaim, the gloss soon dimmed and the torment of uncertainty in relation to his gifts was in no way alleviated by such acclaim.  

In one of the very last letters quoted by Ferguson, GMB wrote to a friend , “I delve like a miner in the darkness of the year, hoping every day that my pen will turn up something good”.    

As with all poets, writers, artists and musicians of integrity , he would have echoed Julian Barnes who said of himself that he enjoyed “no accumulative sense of accomplishment”.

This is a truly lovely and moving book in which Ron Ferguson has opened us up holistically  and with warmth, humour and  compassion to the world of this unassuming and prodigiously gifted poet.    I heartily recommend it.   
Joyce Gunn Cairns, Artist

George Mackay Brown: The Wound and the Gift  (Saint Andrew Press, 450 pp, £19.99)

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