Writing about writing

Orkney Nature Festival banner
Orkney Nature Festival banner (image: RSPB Scotland/Orkney Nature Festival)

Orkney is big on festivals. You name it, and we seem to have a festival for it. Some are big, well-established events in the diary – notably Orkney Folk Festival, which starts tomorrow (25 May), and the St Magnus International Festival, an arts event in June. Both of these bring many visitors to the county each year.

But we also have festivals for wine, jazz, blues, rock, storytelling, drama and science – and I am sure I will have missed at least one out – plus numerous events which, while not called festivals, might loosely come under that category.

Then there is the Orkney Nature Festival, established in 2013, co-ordinated by RSPB Scotland in conjunction with a number of local groups, partners and volunteers.

Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I attend some of the nature festival events each year and so last week I found myself helping to write a collaborative poem. This confirmed me in an early career choice. Let me explain.

The event was billed as “Poetry and pilgrimage: exploring the St Magnus Way with the George Mackay Brown Fellowship and Orkney Pilgrimage”.

Writing this blog reminds me of the number of aspects of Orkney life we can take for granted and that might need explaining to a wider audience. So, St Magnus is Orkney’s patron saint and this year the 900th anniversary of his death is being commemorated by, among other events, the creation of a pilgrimage route, the St Magnus Way. George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, is one of Orkney’s best known and favourite writers. Wikipedia says: “He is considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century.”

Leading the poetry and pilgrimage event were writer Yvonne Gray, of the George Mackay Brown Fellowship, and Rev David McNeish, Chair of Orkney Pilgrimage, and our local minister.

Now, I cannot give you a detailed explanation without getting it wrong but we were there to write a renga, a Japanese form of collaborative poem. The event was fun and fascinating – and, I felt, good for my brain cells to be stretched in a different way.

Yvonne wrote the first verse and then we all came up with suggestions for the following lines and development. We started with spring and then worked through the seasons until our five-verse poem concluded back in spring.

brough of birsay graham brown
Brough of Birsay seen from Birsay Bay (image: Graham Brown)

We worked over the course of a day spent in Birsay, starting with a walk from the village past St Magnus Kirk to the coastline at the bottom of the graveyard, where David talked about Magnus’ life and example. Then we walked round Birsay Bay towards the Brough of Birsay, completed the first section sitting outside, before retiring out of the wind back in the kirk to complete our work.

When we had finished I noticed that very few of my suggestions had been incorporated, even though we were a small group of eight. This is not a complaint or a criticism – I thought Yvonne was thoughtful, inclusive and inspiring – but an observation. I think I am literal rather than artistic.

It reminded me of another event I attended in Orkney a few years ago, where each of us in the group went to the coast, found a place to sit down with our sketch pad, and were asked to “draw what we hear”. So, I heard a gull, for example, and drew a simple gull. I heard a tractor, and drew an outline of that.

Afterwards I discovered others in the group had interpreted this task in an artistic, not a literal, way, and come up with rather interesting abstract paintings.

So my decision back in 1977, after an abortive flirtation with town planning, to become a journalist was the correct one. Getting some words down in roughly the right order, reflecting accurately what people have to say, and often working against the clock, this was what I did – but artistic flair was not required, thank you.

My first job as a reporter was with the Lynn News and Advertiser, a twice-weekly newspaper based in King’s Lynn and covering West Norfolk. It was an ideal start to my career – friendly, helpful and knowledgeable colleagues and, because it was not a weekly, a greater sense of urgency with more deadlines to meet.

I recall that on more than one occasion I was at an important court case which was in progress, or had concluded, as the newspaper was approaching its final deadlines. So I had to go to a phone box – remember those? – and, with only my shorthand notes in front of me, dictate the story down the line to a colleague sat at a typewriter – remember those?

Of course, the sub-editors in the office could tidy up my hastily assembled words but I had to get the salient facts in place first time. It certainly concentrated the mind.

All that said, I think a few of the lines I came up with at the nature festival event are worth repeating, though they may not make much sense out of context. Remember, we were writing about the seasons in Orkney…

“Sand martins dart along the coast
Building home and new lives”

“Visitors – flying, swimming, walking –
Feathered, blubbered, backpacked,
Congregate at the home shore we love”

“The birds depart
The visitors dwindle
The days shorten”

“Books with many-coloured jackets
Sit on shelves, ready to tell tales of Orkney
Inspiring schoolchildren, visitors – and me”

Graham Brown

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Published by Graham Brown

I am Graham Brown, author of this blog, an Englishman living in Orkney since St Magnus Day 2010. I’m married to musician, singer and songwriter Kathie Touin. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council and a Manager (committee member) of Quoyloo Old School (community centre). I volunteer with the RSPB. I was on the committee which restored Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and created the HMS Hampshire wall. I belong to the Radio Caroline Support Group, Orkney Field Club and Orkney Heritage Society. I spent nearly 24 years at the BBC in London. Remember: One planet, don’t trash it.

One thought on “Writing about writing

  1. Graham, good piece. I can understand how you felt as like you I don’t always get the ‘artistic’ bit – maybe because my father was also a journalist. Peter

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