Review: The Wound and the Gift, by Ron Ferguson

With The Wound and the Gift (St Andrew Press, £19.99), Ron Ferguson, journalist, minister, writer, has produced a stunning, insightful and unorthodox biography of the Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown. 

Ferguson knew Mackay Brown.  When he was minister of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall he became close to Mackay Brown and to the landscape which nourished Mackay Brown’s art.  He also gained a wide set of contacts who knew Brown well and have informed this work.

Ferguson states at the outset that in walking the spiritual path Brown trod he must also re-examine his own theological and personal roots.  Part of the strength of the book is that although Ferguson labours onerously over Mackay Brown’s conversion to Catholicism and the religious roots of much of Mackay Brown’s personality and writing (and these are utterly vital) he avoids, as Mackay Brown himself succeeded in avoiding, a didactic or proselytising style or approach.

It is 15 years since Mackay Brown died.  His work and his personality have been picked over but the judgements remain essentially unaltered.  He was the one writer who emerged from the Scottish renaissance who sought, not to create a contemporary Scottish art, but to safeguard and pass on, but also to reshape and reassemble, older traditions and virtues.

His immediate appeal, at the time of his earliest work, remains largely unchanged.  Despite his public persona as a simple, almost primitive artist, recreating old forms and re-establishing old values, he was firstly a word-smith of huge skill.

Mackay Brown was not the untutored crofter whom he portrayed in his characters but a writer who had honed his skills with care.  He saw writing as both a vocation and a skilled trade and practiced, literally practiced his skill daily.  What emerged has been described as limpid and clear writing. His prose style was rhythmic and lyrical, rooted in his discipline as a poet. It articulated complex ideas in highly accessible forms.

Above all however, Mackay Brown retained, exalted in, the power of narrative.  His were archetypal, psychologically charged stories of fear, rejection, temptation, sin and death.  Such are the themes to which great literature will always ultimately return.

Mackay Brown made his name as a writer in the 60s, an era of romantic individualism and escapism.  At one level no writer could be further from the archetype of the hippy 60s than the stubbornly shy and introverted Brown.  His idealised rural idyll, his rejection of contemporary materialism and his reverence for a mythic past however all make some sense of his initial success.

His exaltation of farmers and fishermen as rooted human characters, preferable to the products of industrial society, puts him on-side with the idealism of the 60s and, for all his appeal to a certain conservatism, that rejection of technology and consumerism continue to make his work accessible to those without sympathy for his theology.  Indeed, as Ferguson suggests at one point, Brown’s Catholicism is almost a form of collectivism.

Mackay Brown however also appealed to the radicalism of the 60s, and indeed of readers in subsequent eras, with his sympathy with those who were on the outside, to those wounded and broken by life.  He sided with innocence and hope.  Although he was emphatically not a political writer, in the way of MacDiarmid and others of the Scottish renaissance, he could rail equally against Orkney lairds or Maggie Thatcher and he hated poverty with the best of them.

Ferguson also however examines the purpose of Brown’s writing, not merely for its world-wide audience, but for Brown himself.  His Catholicism was balm to his psychological wounds, but so also was his writing, a spiritual exercise to banish or metamorphose the devils which plagued his darkest nights.  Despite the fact that he understands that religion based purely on the word can never satisfy the human need for ritual, Brown’s conversion to Catholicism partially puzzles Ferguson.

Ferguson quotes the radical Presbyterian theologist, Kathy Galloway, who suggests that ‘what Catholicism did for Mackay Brown was to give him space to be a pagan’.  Ferguson understands that archetypal  identification with ceremony and ritual as the means to make bearable the terrors and ecstasies of life.  He suggests however that Mackay Brown’s appreciation of Catholicism was always more aesthetic and intuitive than intellectual and he questions this lack of rigour.  (Mackay Brown, had he been so inclined, might equally have questioned Ferguson’s highly selective adherence to the intellectual tradition of Calvinism.)

Ferguson is a brave theological apologist and navigates tricky waters.  He sympathises totally, at a human level, with Brown’s Catholic conversion although he criticises Mackay Brown for a harsh and not necessarily historically-founded critique of the Reformation.  Ferguson poses a position which most contemporary thinkers, outwith the ranks of Catholicism or extreme conservatism, would share, namely that the Reformation, whatever its negative aspects, opened the world to learning, literacy and some form of liberation, and that Mackay Brown’s blanket condemnation is unbalanced.

He recognises however that Catholicism gave Mackay Brown, a troubled, wounded and unworldly soul, spiritual and personal sustenance.  ‘He ransacked the jewellery boxes of Christian spirituality and represented some of the contents in ways which made personal anguish bearable.’  And so it seems it was, almost miraculously, at a personal level for the shy, sexually inhibited, alcohol-abusing Mackay Brown.

Perhaps the massive gift which Mackay Brown gave the world (as distinct from the therapy he took from his religion) was precisely a body of work suffused with elemental human stories of suffering and anguish but also with awe and wonder, with celebrations of small human triumphs and courage.  That body of work speaks to an audience far wider than Orkney or Catholicism and it is to Ferguson’s enormous credit that he has shone so illuminating a light on Mackay Brown the writer and the man.

 

The above article was first published in The Caledonian Mercury on 23 August 2011: http://entertainment.caledonianmercury.com/2011/08/23/review-the-wound-and-the-gift-by-ron-ferguson/002143

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