There are many small remote communities on the northern and western fringes of the British Isles which seem to have been in a state of decline for the last hundred years or so, as invasions and disruptions from the modern world set about eroding their integrity. Various age-old ways of life were seen to be unable to stand up in the face of such importations as the bicycle and the motor-powered engine. One question that arose straight away was whether one took the side of progress or tradition. Were the cut-off communities better in their unadulterated state, or was it time the amenities of everyday life were extended to them?
It depended on how you looked at it. Synge, for example, found a lot to revere in the riproaring primitivism he attributed to the West of Ireland. Another Irish writer, Peader O’Donnell, held that socialism had much to offer the inhabitants of certain unworldly townlands in Donegal, along with the rest of the country. In his view, the self-contained community might grow stagnant and pigheaded: ‘Nothing was right with his people ... unless it was what went on always.’ One of his novels, The Big Windows (1955), is set in a crabbed valley in which life takes a turn for the better at the instigation of an incomer, an island woman purveying a brighter outlook: the title phrase stands for enlightenment and clarity of perception. O’Donnell’s socialist purpose made him favour change, judicious change, though he praised the tradition that made his characters hardy, co-operative and upright. Others took an unequivocally preservationist attitude. The more peripheral a society, it was felt in certain circles, the stronger its distillation of a kind of national identity – a quality to be cherished at all costs. In the early 1960s, for example, Irish-language enthusiasts opposed the introduction of television into the Gaedhaltacht areas of Donegal, out of apprehension about its Anglicising effect.
George Mackay Brown’s Orkney is an unfamiliar, off-shore locality in which everything seems a little richer through being both concentrated and chancy. How long can its distinctive character survive? It was endangered as long ago as the last quarter of the 19th century, the period in which The Golden Bird is set. ‘What is it, this “getting on”?’ demands a sarcastic schoolmaster, one of Brown’s crop of characters. ‘Getting on’, perhaps, entails exchanging an ancestral routine for some new-fangled practice: being a servant in a banker’s household instead of a croft wife, perching on a clerk’s stool rather than fishing the North Sea. Better, says the schoolmaster, that his pupils should stick to those homely activities sanctioned by the pastoral poets of antique times; his audience hasn’t the least idea what he is on about. ‘Please, sir, you’ve broke your glasses!’ says one of them, bringing him down to earth.
It isn’t the first time John Fiord has been brought down to earth, if rumour is to be believed. ‘Eagle John’ was his childhood nickname, after the bird that stole him from behind a stook in a cornfield, bore him off to its eyrie and then lost him to the infuriated mother, who climbed the crag to retrieve her child. To Fiord, a crofter’s son, there is no difference between that eagle’s nest and a mare’s nest. His job is to knock such nonsense out of the children’s heads. ‘Eagles, seals, mermaids, trows’: these picturesque figments, as he sees it, have a stupefying effect. The islanders, he thinks, should steer a middle course between darkness and ignorance, on the one hand, and a bogus progressiveness, on the other. Having repudiated both of these, they may acquire a certain soundness of outlook. There is, however, something a little arid about the schoolmaster’s prescription for fulfilment.
In Brown’s sea valley, small events take on an epic significance, like the feud between ‘the crofts of Gorse and Feaquoy’ with which the story begins. Two acrimonious women destroy the friendship between their husbands, and open the way for a kind of vitiation, which is paralleled by the suggested disordering of the community, the breaking of certain continuities. Hearth-fires peter out that had been kept alight for more than a hundred years. Crofter children start looking to the towns or even the mainland for their employment. It’s the usual story of restlessness overtaking the young. ‘There were more deaths than births in the valley.’
Between the time of the old schoolmaster McFarlane and that of John Fiord, a young woman, a Miss Strachan, comes to teach the children of the valley and outrages the laird by speaking out against blood sports and advocating socialism and sea-bathing. A New Woman indeed. When Miss Strachan leaves, she takes with her a gormless islander to be her husband. ‘The Lord help her, poor lass,’ says his mother.
The second of Brown’s Orkney stories is ‘The Life and Death of John Voe’, in which episodes from the hero’s past and present are juxtaposed. John Voe is a one-time whaler who returns to the Orkneys while a Lamas fair is in progress at Hamnavoe: an animated occasion. Drink then gets him in its grip, before marriage to an admirable woman makes a man of him. George Mackay Brown goes in for the decorative incident and the one-or two-line paragraph; it ought to sound portentous, but in the hands of this expert storyteller, it doesn’t. It simply adds a forceful outline to the tales. ‘The Golden Bird’: this is both the eagle of John Fiord’s apocryphal misadventure, standing for the wealth of lore appertaining to the island, and the name of a fishing-boat, a marvel of modern workmanship with an oil-fired engine, that comes to a bad end. If there’s a moral here, it’s that the wonders of the present should not be accepted uncritically.
Towards the end of ‘The Golden Bird’ a circular from a local shopkeeper is distributed throughout the island. The shopkeeper’s name, not at all a common one, is Mr Halcro. A Mr Halcro also features in Stuart Hood’s novel The Upper Hand – in fact, two Mr Halcros, one of them a cat. The first of these, after whom the cat is named, recruits the narrator as a casual Intelligence agent during his university days in the Thirties. John Melville is a minister’s son from the North-East coast of Scotland. He and his grammar-school associates – we are told straight away – belong ‘firmly to the lower to middle reaches of town society’. As a foil to Melville’s slight dourness and impassivity, we have the Boy’s Own Paper charm of a character a couple of rungs up the social ladder: Colin Elphinstone, who first appears wearing the shabby, striped blazer of a public school.
This is a novel about spying, from which virtually all suspense is excluded: it doesn’t depend for its effects on labyrinthine dealings, or an exhilarating coup. One of his mistresses, says John Melville, ‘thought of intelligence in terms of spy-catching and cloak-and-dagger work; she had no conception of that side of war which deals in card-indexes.’ Melville is a card-index man, while Colin Elphinstone, among other things, has behind him the experience of being parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1941, and surviving against the odds. A natural verve informs his approach to life. The paths of these two, the one deadpan and the other debonair, are for ever converging. Colin turns up at Edinburgh University in John’s second year there, having left Oxford after some unspecified escapade. At this point, we get a marvellous evocation of the romantic-political temper of the decade: socialism, Spain, agitators’ slogans and left-wing bookshops. There is plenty going on for Melville to keep his noncommittal eye on, to report to Mr Halcro – and Colin Elphinstone, an upperclass CP member, is in the thick of it.
John Melville is nearly (but not quite) as self-effacing a narrator as Anthony Powell’s Nick Jenkins, and Colin Elphinstone keeps reappearing in his narrative in accordance with a pattern not unlike the advance-and-retreat movements of A Dance to the Music of Time. Cairo, Brussels, Hamburg, Berlin, the BBC: we find him in all these settings, introducing John to one politically-suspect acquaintance after another. (Blunt comes into the picture, though he isn’t named.) It all mounts up, in the mind of someone who early on in life acquired the habit of betrayal – though John himself has a betrayal or two to thole, or thinks he has. The novel deals mainly with the intermittent interaction of these two characters, with a slight, almost unconscious rancour on the one side, and insouciance on the other. A steady, unexcited tone is maintained throughout. Among the author’s assets is an ability to put his finger on the flavour of successive eras – the ramshackle busyness of post-war London, the unsettled atmosphere of Sixties publishing.
The women characters of Shena Mackay are apt to get into an overwrought state: domestic annoyances and shortcomings conspire to agitate them until they lash out with the nearest weapon to hand – in one instance, a vegetable marrow. The unsatisfactoriness of life is something they all know well and resent. One spends her days in an out-of-season hotel full of society’s rejects; another regrets her dwindled celebrity as a writer, and acts in a way to cause retrospective embarrassment to herself at a literary party. The heroine of the title story, also a writer (of detective fiction), has a difficult time on a train, where her overnight bag keeps getting mixed up with the bag of a woman in a synthetic fur coat who orders her gin and tonic by the double. We learn a little about the writer’s past, and the accident that befell her parents on a clifftop. Did she cause it, or was the whole thing a dream? In any case, there remains the theatrical image of a handbag falling after its owner down the side of a cliff. ‘The black bivalve emitted a silent howl of despair.’ Shena Mackay needs to tone down her trimmings. At one point, we find a pier striding on shivery legs into a sea of gunmetal silk edged with flounces of creamy lace. Nevertheless, Dead Women’s Handbags contains some gems, including two stories about children, ‘Cardboard City’ and ‘All the Pubs in Soho’. In the first, two stepdaughters of a despised stepfather, 12 and 14, wangle a day in London on their own; in ‘Soho’, a girl who would rather be a boy attaches herself to an ostracised twosome (a pair of bloody pansies, say the locals) in a Kentish village. ‘Perpetual Spinach’ has a workers’ row of houses, an up-and-coming couple, and their edgy relations with two of the workers next door; when the latter are killed in a road accident, there’s a comic implication that the couple’s cats have taken over their role. Shena Mackay is a sharp and often funny observer of the deficiencies in ordinary lives.