Christmas travels … from cover to cover

Art & CultureCOVID-19

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The loss of freedom to travel has brought frustration and anxiety to many. Leonard Franchi suggests ‘travelling’ with the imagination until the restrictions are eased.

I have spent the last month enjoying life in the Orkney Islands. With joy I have gazed upon the rolling waves and crofts of that remote archipelago. I have been introduced to some of the inhabitants, and feel as though I have supped with many others.

I have watched open-mouthed as the stars wheel round the northern hemisphere. Orkney ale, home-made bannocks and hand-churned butter have been my staples and the paraffin lamp a welcome friend through the dark days and nights of an Orcadian winter.

You might be wondering how this was possible. Did I creep stealthily out of my beloved Alexandria, the little town north of Glasgow where I live, to travel like a carefree politician through Scotland’s tiers (and it might yet end in tears) to reach this island paradise? Did I travel back in time?

Of course not. 

There was no need to move from home as my fully-paid return ticket was The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown

This unmissable collection helped me once again to imbibe slowly the gentle stream of words which emerge from Mackay Brown’s keen eye and soulful imagination.

Yet poetry was not my ‘thing’ when I was at university back in the day. For the 18-year-old me, poetry was not the Burns staple of the ‘Red Red Rose’ but the soaring of a white Dunlop 65 golf ball against the backdrop of the blue-grey sky and green hills of the Vale of Leven course. 

I was more Tommy than Rabbie Burns, to be honest. (For the uninitiated, Tommy Burns was one of Glasgow Celtic’s greatest-ever midfielders.) A man might be a man ‘for a’ that’ but I got much more joy from the sound of a birdie putt clinking against the bottom of the cup. It did happen more than once!

Yet something stirred in Gilmourhill (the site of the University of Glasgow). Petrarch’s Canzoniere became as much a friend as my monthly edition of Golf World. As for the great Dante and his terza rima (the interlocking three line rhymes he used) – how could anyone not enjoy his acerbic observations on Florentine civic society?

This journey through the literature of Italy and Spain (St John of the Cross – now there’s a poet!) gave me the desire to learn more about the literature of Scotland, which, sadly and perhaps shamefully, had never featured in my secondary education English curriculum. We never ventured beyond Shakespeare, Orwell and Greene. 

Moving through my undergraduate years, I alighted upon the novels of Robin Jenkins which, for some unknown reason, appealed to me. These often-dark stories kept me company on the train journey home in the evenings. At the same time, George Mackay Brown’s short stories entered my orbit. I re-read them frequently even now.

Why is Mackay Brown so special as a writer? For me it is the sense of place that is woven through his work. He hardly ever left his island yet still managed to see beyond the ties that so often bind us fast to earthly things. 

Small things offer joy, solace and consolation, whether they be the ales and cheeses of Orkney or the wine and oil of Italy.

Mackay Brown’s poetic ear welcomed the sounds he heard in his walks arounds the pubs (‘the chorus of voices’) and crofts of Orkney. His poetic soul embraced the universal music which those local rhythms make.

In our COVID-restricted days, let us not feel that remaining in one place is a limitation on our freedom. Perhaps the opposite is true: the desire to travel, which so often means a Gadarene rush through tomb-like airports with a trolley bag in our wake, might just be a chain that binds us to a false sense of reality (I am therefore I travel.). 

There is a better way. 

To learn from Mackay Brown (and all great literature) is to let ourselves be transported interiorly, soaring above the omnipresent mundanities and returning afresh to make our world a warmer, gentler place. Then we will, like the bard from Orkney, find solace and meaning in the ‘interrogation of silence’.

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