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George MacKay Brown: The Wound and the Gift Hardcover – 13 Aug 2011

4.6 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: St Andrew Press; First Edition edition (13 Aug. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0715209353
  • ISBN-13: 978-0715209356
  • Product Dimensions: 3.2 x 16.5 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 337,774 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

'Ron Ferguson has written an extraordinary account of two spiritual jouneys, his own and that of the wonderful poet George Mackay Brown, which interweave with the moving pathos of a Beethoven violin sonata, against the haunting background of the magic of Orkney. This is a courageous and honest book which confronts some of the deepest dilemmas of faith and vocation - priestly and poetic. Beautifully written, Ferguson's highly original story reveals the unique impulses of imagination and character that shape and individual's spiritual story.' (John Cornwell, author and commentator)

'This book is a new Orkney Tapestry. The life and work of GMB are stitched intricately into the islands with deftness and delicacy. It is also crafted with great humility. Despite the personal approach, Ron Ferguson never gets in the way of the telling but lets the tale and the tellers (especially teh main teller) have their say. A line came into my mind, from RLS "Bright is the ring of words when the right man rings them". I often through this applied to George more than any other Scottish writer. But it also applies to the author of this revealing and riveting biography. Quite simply, I came out of this book more human than when I went in, more spiritual (dare I say it) and somehow happier!.' (Christopher Rush, poet and novelist)

Take a close look at the front cover. The fine portrait of George Mackay Brown (GMB) lacks the boyish grace and shy twinkling eyes we associate with Orkney’s prolific poet, novelist and short story writer. Instead we see a face suffused with reflective suffering, a figure who has lived long with sorrow. This striking image sets the direction of travel for Ron Ferguson’s critical but affectionate biography of one of Scotland’s best writers in the second half of the 20th century.

Maggie Ferguson’s award-winning account of GMB began the task of demythologising the life of this elusive character, who was only partially understood by many who thought they knew him well. Ron Ferguson carries it further and in a different direction: he tracks GMB’s journey from Presbyterianism to Catholicism, reflecting on the consequences of this for his life and art. In parallel he explores the spirituality - “the search for meaning in human lives” - of these two Christian faiths which have dominated Scottish society throughout our history as a nation.

Ferguson is well suited to this task: he is a gifted journalist, the author of many books, including fiction, drama and biography, and - not least - was the charismatic minister of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. His back catalogue of postings include Easterhouse in Glasgow and leader of the ecumenical and radical Iona Community.

Ferguson reveals GMB to be a complex character, a conscious wearer of defensive masks: gentle and charming, but at times vicious and hurtful. In the midst of crushing depressions - often fuelled by drink - his salvation is to pick up the cheap Biro and keep on writing. He emerges as a selfish man, emotionally needy and ardent for female love and affection. He finds a reciprocated attraction in women of all ages but is unable to take responsibility for these relationships and absents himself if threatened.

Ferguson has tracked down new letters between GMB and Stella Cartwright that make poignant reading: two vulnerable and sensitive people, both lost in alcohol, seeking and giving solace to one another. We hear a strikingly direct, emotional voice from the poet with the nuanced and crafted mask of the skald removed.

This biographer has cast his net wide, dealing perceptively and persuasively with all aspects of his subject’s life and art. In doing so, he has recruited the views and opinions of many writers, friends of the poet, artists and thinkers from Orkney and Scotland, who reflect upon GMB, religion and art, and their place in Scottish life. This results in an authoritative and exhaustive account of his subject.

If Ferguson is at times over-generous in allowing others to discourse on GMB, it is more than compensated by his own observations that carry their weight lightly in an informal, inclusive style. For example, while GMB and his spiritual mentor Edwin Muir are deeply critical of Calvinism, Ferguson mounts a spirited defence of John Knox as a progressive, well-rounded thinker, dismissing the ahistorical and ill-informed views that have characterised him as a “morose Scottish Orangeman”. This book deepens our understanding of Scottish literature today and illuminates the life and work of one of its central figures. (TES)

'This revalatory account of George Mackay Brown's spiritual journey is wonderfully wise and humane, often unsettling, even distressing, but always affirmative. It illuminates the turmoil and yearning within him, and his tortuous relationship with his "ministering angels" and with Orkney. With its rich patterning of extracts from his prose and poetry and from intimate letters, it promises a deeply rewarding experience.' (Stewart Conn, poet, Edinburgh's first Makar)

'For those who thought they had the measure of George Mackay Brown, this fascinating and compelling book shows we have not higherto grasped his full complexity.' (Alec Webster, Prefessor Emeritus, Universtiy of Bristol)

'Here is an enthralling search for the well-springs of George Mackay Brown's genius. Ron Ferguson's enquiries reveal the poet of beauty, pain and loss as unique yet universal. But Ron Ferguson gives us more than simply an insight into a great poet. This book engages profoundly with the place of tradition in contemporary culture, and with the role of religious and Christiian, ceremony in illuminating life's mystery. A book to cherish.' (Very Reverend John Miller)

'A brilliant evocation of George Mackay Brown, his spiritual journey, his dark nights of the soul, his art, his relationships. This is a book shot through with remarkable insight, humour and pathos, underpinned by a deep, life-affirming humanity.' (Alison Miller, novelist and short-story writer)

'This is at once a vigorous biography of a great poet and a rich celebration of Orkney life. At its heart is a challenging, gut-gripping account of a controversial religious conversion. It's a sympathetic yet clear-sighted book; Ron Ferguson does not shrink from the occasional need to visit some dark places.' (Dr Harry Reid, author, former Editor of The Glasgow Herald)

'This is a remarkable, compelling and I think rather profound book, examining George Mackay Brown's life and art throught he unifying lens of his spiritual beliefs. This approach makes for a fresh and moving study of a great writer and struggling man, This is as absorbing and inspiring a study of an artist's life and work as I have read. It is for anyone who believes the examined life is worth living.' (Andrew Greig, poet and novelist)

'The spiritual journey of any person should be a very intimate account of their journey towards their Maker. I found this book fascinating reading, giving insight into George Mackay Brown's spiritual journey. At times, it was as if I was looking into someone else's soul - and making sense of all I have known about them, while not yet fully understanding my own soul! I am sure many will be encouraged to think more about themseleves and our present world situation, rather than about George Mackay Brown, after reading this enthralling book.' (Cardinal Keith Patrick O'Brien)

'In revealing the inner life of a poet whose work was a form of personal salvation as well as a createive expression of faith, Ron Ferguson has given us a portrait of George Mackay Brown which is not only brave in its candour but profound in its insights.' (Kenneth Roy, Editor, Scottish Review)

'This is not just a voyage around George Mackay Brown, it is a sincere and honest journey into the inner workings of the writer's heart and mind.' (Kenneth Steven, poet and short story writer)

In this fascinating book Ron Ferguson takes us inside George Mackay Brown's rag and bone shop. Ferguson clearly loves and admires Brown, so there is nothing voyeruistic about his research, no great revelation about a newly discovered weakness. And the known wealknesses are dealt with sympathetically. The alcoholism. The sexual anxiety. The sponging off the good will of others. The fussy, puritanical bowdlerising of his own early poetry. The idealisation of the past and the hatred of the present. Yet it is from this unpromising material that Brown made his art.' (Richard Holloway, author and broadcaster)

About the Author

Ron Ferguson is an award-winning journalist, writing for The Herald, the Press & Journal and Life & Work among other publications. Previously, he was leader of the Iona Community and minister of St Magnus Cathedral on Orkney, where he lives.


Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Having been a fan of George Mackay Brown's writing for many years, I was eager to read this latest book. Ron Ferguson's writing is always lively and well researched, and this is no exception. I did wonder how different it would turn out to be from Maggie Fergusson's big biography - and I found no problem here at all. What I particularly appreciated, as well as the insights into GMB's somewhat stumbling journey from rather grim Presbyterianism to what felt like a rather romanticized and idealized Roman Catholicism, were the many fascinating conversations that the author had with a number of personalities from the Scottish literary and artistic community who had known the poet. I was also grateful for being reminded of the work of the Anglican metaphysical poets - John Donne, Thomas Traherne, George Herbert - and the writings of Edwin Muir. This is a broad sweep of a book, as well as a very detailed exploration of the inner life of a very private man.
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Format: Hardcover
In this book, Ron Ferguson has taken an honest and deeply affectionate look at George Mackay Brown's life, his work, his loves, his religious beliefs and his battle with alcoholism and mind-scourging depression. Because he asks searching questions about faith and life and death, RF makes his own spiritual and existential journey alongside the one he brings to life for George Mackay Brown. This makes for a book both livelier and more engaging than ordinary biography. One of its great strengths is the conversations the author has with friends, relatives and neighbours of GMB, with fellow writers and religious thinkers. The book is written with warmth, humanity and passion arising from a need to understand what made GMB the wounded man, the religious believer and the brilliantly gifted writer that he was.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Not surprisingly, given that the author was a Minister in the Church of Scotland, much of this book's focus is on GMB's faith and spirituality. While I enjoyed the book, and it does provide some fresh insights and includes some new information, it doesn't on the whole add a great deal to Maggie Fergusson's excellent biography. In addition there is little in the way of literary criticism. I suspect this book will be of interest mainly to those who are fans of George Mackay Brown, and who have already read his autobiography ("For The Islands I Sing"), Maggie Fergusson's biography ("George Mackay Brown; The Life"), and "Interrogation of Silence" from Brian and Rowena Murray.
My main criticism of this book is its hybrid nature - it's as much a memoir from Mr Ferguson as it is a book about GMB, spends too long on the discussions and conversations that formed part of the research, and I personally found the section defending Knox and Calvin to be tedious and unnecessary.
Having said that, it is well and honestly written; it approaches the subject sympathetically and is more realistic about some of GMB's failings than is sometimes the case.
In summary, those who enjoy GMB's work are likely to enjoy this book.
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Format: Hardcover
I want to thank Ron Ferguson for such a moving book about George Mackay Brown. I felt sad coming to the end of it. I wanted the journey to keep going! But, like George's own life on earth (and ours), of course it had to end.
I have for a long time been moved both by GMB's writing and his life. The overcoming, or enduring through, the darkness of alcoholism, depression and illness, to come out the other side in some sense, and produce such luminous poetry and stories. It is an inspiration for anyone who has struggled to find their way in this strange world.
After you have read this moving and informative book go on to read (or reread) the poetry and stories. They will feed your spirit.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I am more familiar with Ron Ferguson's writings as a columnist in the Glasgow Herald, in such comical yet thought-provoking collections as "Donald Dewar Ate My Hamster", "Hitler was a Vegetarian" and "Fear and Loathing in Lochgelly"; and my favourite - the hilarious tales of "The Reluctant Reformation of Clarence McGonigle"............but I knew that Mr Ferguson also writes some serious stuff.

I started this book about George Mackay Brown uncertain if I'd enjoy it, and found a fascinating account of the life and work of the Orkney writer. The book is full of reflections on GMB from the people who knew him and his family personally. Ron Ferguson's research, empathy and insight give us possible reasons for GMB's difficult personality, his love of alcohol, his self-loathing, his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his personal philosophy on Orkney. The book also shares insights into how the writer developed creatively out of the pain and difficulties that he experienced throughout his life - how the "wound" contributed to the "gift".

I strongly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
For those interested in the work of George Mackay Brown, or for those studying Scottish literature, this is an important part of the archive of Orkney books. It is beautifully written, and filled with gems - at the same time it is conversational and accessible.
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I started reading this book under the assumption it was going to be a `straight' biography of George Mackay Brown, not realising that, while it has biographical elements, it is essentially the story of GMB's spiritual journey. I have read many of GMB's novels and short stories (the poetry, less so) over the years and always found him a mesmerising writer, able to tap into folklore and tradition.

While I'm not a Christian, I come from a catholic family and my brother is actually a catholic priest. Despite my own lack of belief (like the quote from Julian Barnes in the book, I don't believe in God but I do miss him) I found this book to be fascinating and was gripped by Ferguson's writing from beginning to end. The book is written in a conversational and collaborative style with much of the content the result of interviews with other artists and individuals from faith groups.

This is an affectionate portrait of George Mackay Brown's journey from a protestant upbringing to a somewhat idealised Catholic faith. Ferguson doesn't avoid the darker sides of GMB'--'a sponger, prone to depression and alcohol abuse'--'and this is a very rounded portrait of the poet. A fascinating book about a great Scottish writer.
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