The Golden Bird – Two Orkney Stories by George Mackay Brown

The Golden Bird cover

The Golden Bird by George Mackay Brown consists of two novellas, the first one called The Golden Bird and the second one The Life and Death of John Voe. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1987. The author is probably better known for his poetry.

I really enjoyed this book although possibly the fact that we were in Orkney in June and so I knew a lot of the places mentioned contributed to my enjoyment. I could picture exactly a certain spot mentioned in Stromness main street and many other locations.

The settings are Orkney in the 19th century, a time when the way of life there was beginning to change. It was a hard and dangerous life and when two of the men who had been fishing partners and shared a boat fell out over the division of their catch, it begins a feud that continues for generations.

The second novella The Life and Death of John Voe is about a man who had left the islands to seek adventures abroad. He hadn’t wanted to knuckle down on the family croft as a youngster, but after years on the sea and in South America and even some time as a gold panner, a failed romance prompts him to turn for his home in Orkney. It’s time to get back to crofting, but all is not as he expects it to be.

These tales are an enjoyable glimpse back to the past.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

The Towers of Trebizond cover

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay was published in 1956 and it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. I’m attempting to work my way through the long list of all the books that have won the prize, it’ll be a long task.

This is a book that some bloggers have been raving about, although I enjoyed it I did find it a bit of a drag at times, it’s definitely curate’s eggish. The thing is though – the good parts are really very good, so funny. I’m not a big fan of organised religions and there are quite a few long passages about Christianity and other religions that were just a bit too long for my liking. It seems it’s all very autobiographical.

Laurie the narrator sets of on a tour of Turkey with her rather eccentric Aunt Dot and a very high anglican priest called Father Chantry-Pigg. Aunt Dot intends to write a book about their journey and Laurie will illustrate it. Dot has an ulterior motive though, she’s a keen supporter of women’s rights and as she regards the Moslem religion as being so controlling of women, she’s on a mission to convert them to Christianity.

Father Chantry-Pigg is Dot’s terrifically intolerant and snooty companion, and Doctor Halide is a female doctor who has been converted to Christianity from the Moslem faith of her upbringing, mainly because she can’t agree with the way Moslem women are treated.

Laurie has been having an affair with a married man for the last ten years, and that has put something of a dampener on her religious life.

Famously this book begins: ‘”Take my camel dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’

The reason why she is having to travel on a camel is because while she had been dining with Prof Gilbert Murray and Archbishop David Mathew, her Morris car had been stolen by an Anglican bishop!

With Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg disappearing over the Russian border and Laurie having to continue her travels on her own with the camel, this is definitely worth reading although I can’t say I liked the ending.

Claudius the God by Robert Graves

Claudius the God cover

Claudius the God by Robert Graves was first published in 1934 and is of course the sequel to I,Claudius. You can read what I thought about that one here.

I think inevitably Claudius the God wasn’t as gripping a read as I, Claudius probably because that one featured so many power crazy emperors, executions, murders and poisonings were constants so it was all go.

The story is of course being told by Claudius and when he reluctantly dons the purple robes of emperor (he wanted to bring back the Roman republic) he tries to put the country on an even keel by melting down all the gold statues that Caligula had had made when he was completely mad. Claudius is very popular amongst soldiers and ordinary people, but the senators aren’t so keen on him and a few of them had already tried to grab power before the army declared him emperor.

This book is Claudius’ account of what he did and why he did it. In some cases he behaved just as badly as previous emperors although he acknowledged his mistakes, the end result was still miscarriages of justice. The worst mistake he made though was to trust his wife Messalina. Despite the fact that he had seen how his grandmother Livia had abused the power given to her by her husband Emperor Augustus, Claudius gave Messalina just as much power as he had, giving her a duplicate of his seal so she could and did do whatever she wanted. As she was just as evil as Livia, she caused mayhem but poor Claudius had no idea of her real character at all.

Herod Agrippa features quite a lot and of course it was Claudius who invaded Britain so that is very interesting although I have no idea how true that account is. Did they use elephants and camels in the invasion terrifying the British who had never seen such animals before?

It seems that Claudius was wise in many ways, or maybe it was just that he was well read and ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’. But in many ways he was completely naive.

This book was one of my 20 Books of Summer and also counts towards my James Tait Black Memorial Prize Challenge as it won that prize in 1934.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I, Claudius cover

You will probably notice that my copy of this book is the 1977 tie in to the BBC dramatisation of I, Claudius. Shockingly it has taken me 40 years to get around to reading it! The book was originally published in 1934.

I really enjoyed reading I, Claudius although I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed it so much if I hadn’t watched the BBC drama – twice over the years – as there are so many characters thrown at you. Mind you often they didn’t hang around for very long as so many people were poisoned or otherwise given the chop.

It’s a very readable history of Rome, up to A.D. 41 supposedly written by Claudius, a disabled, stammering, twitching grandson of Augustus who was despised by his entire family, but inside his less than perfect body there was a clever and quick witted brain which helped him to survive when all the rest were being murdered or banished to tiny islands.

This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize as did the sequel Claudius the God which was published in the same year. Possibly they were originally published in one volume.

If you want a more in depth review of this book then hop over to She Reads Novels and Helen’s review of I, Claudius.

This is one of my 20 Books of Summer.

For once I think that the TV programme was just as good if not better than the book, Derek Jacobi was brilliant as Claudius and John Hurt as Caligula was unforgettable. Sadly he died earlier this year. Have a look at this excerpt where Caligula who has decided he is the god Jove has taken on his enemy Neptune.

A Ship of the Line by C.S. Forester

 A Ship of the Line cover

A Ship of the Line by C.S. Forester was written in 1938 and I read it because it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize that year, I’m trying to read my way through as many of the winners as I can. Mind you, I can’t find any mention at all in the book’s introduction (by Bernard Cornwell) or on the jacket of the fact that it did win the prize.

It is of course a Horatio Hornblower tale of the sea during The Napoleonic Wars. It begins with Hornblower taking command of a ship called the Sutherland, it was originally captured from the Dutch and it’s design isn’t really suitable as a warship, it’s described as the ugliest and least desirable two-decker in the Navy List. Hornblower is having a hard time getting enough men to man the ship, he’s having to make do with prisoners and even men who have been pressed into service.

The action quickly moves off to the coast of Catalonia in Spain, where Hornblower and his ship’s company engage in sea battles and conduct raids on shore against the French army. It is of course set at a time when Napoleon was rampaging around Europe, particularly Spain.

To begin with I really didn’t think that I was going to enjoy this book, it seemed like it was going to be far too much of a sort of ‘boys’ adventure’ tale, with lots of fighting going on, but I ended up getting really into it, and when Hornblower mentioned that he knew the area well because he had been held captive in Ferrol for two years in the past, I felt quite at home too because of course we sailed into Ferrol just a few months ago.

The only annoying thing is that it would have been better if I had read the previous books in this series first.

I must admit that I had no idea that C.S. Forester had written The African Queen (which I have seen so often I could act all the parts myself, including the leeches!) in fact quite a few of his books were made into films. I’ll probably read some more in this series, apart from anything else, it ended so abruptly that I feel I have to find out what happens next in Hornblower’s life.

James Tait Black Memorial Prize – a personal challenge

I’m sure that like me you will have noticed some books with James Tait Black Memorial Prize in brackets after the title. For a good wee while now I’ve been thinking about trying to work my way through the list of winners of this prize that was set up in 1919. You might be interested in this Edinburgh University link The prizes were founded in 1919 by Mrs Janet Coats Black in memory of her late husband James Tait Black, a partner in the publishing house of A & C Black Ltd.

1919 Hugh Walpole, The Secret City
1920 D. H. Lawrence, The Lost Girl
1921 Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget
1922 David Garnett, Lady into Fox
1923 Arnold Bennett, Riceyman Steps
1924 E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
1925 Liam O’Flaherty, The Informer
1926 Radclyffe Hall, Adam’s Breed
1927 Francis Brett Young, Portrait of Clare
1928 Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man
1929 J. B. Priestley, The Good Companions
1930 E. H. Young, Miss Mole
1931 Kate O’Brien, Without My Cloak
1932 Helen de Guerry Simpson, Boomerang
1933 A. G. Macdonell, England, Their England
1934 Robert Graves, I, Claudius and Claudius the God
1935 L. H. Myers, The Root and the Flower
1936 Winifred Holtby, South Riding
1937 Neil M. Gunn, Highland River
1938 C. S. Forester, A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours
1939 Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan
1940 Charles Morgan, The Voyage
1941 Joyce Cary, A House of Children
1942 Arthur Waley, Translation of Monkey by Wu Cheng’en
1943 Mary Lavin, Tales from Bective Bridge
1944 Forrest Reid, Young Tom
1945 L. A. G. Strong, Travellers
1946 Oliver Onions, Poor Man’s Tapestry
1947 L. P. Hartley, Eustace and Hilda
1948 Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
1949 Emma Smith, The Far Cry
1950 Robert Henriques, Through the Valley
1951 Chapman Mortimer, Father Goose
1952 Evelyn Waugh, Men at Arms
1953 Margaret Kennedy, Troy Chimneys
1954 C. P. Snow, The New Men and The Masters
1955 Ivy Compton-Burnett, Mother and Son
1956 Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond
1957 Anthony Powell, At Lady Molly’s
1958 Angus Wilson, The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot
1959 Morris West, The Devil’s Advocate
1960 Rex Warner, Imperial Caesar
1961 Jennifer Dawson, The Ha-Ha
1962 Ronald Hardy, Act of Destruction
1963 Gerda Charles, A Slanting Light
1964 Frank Tuohy, The Ice Saints
1965 Muriel Spark, The Mandelbaum Gate
1966 Christine Brooke-Rose, Such/Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down
1967 Margaret Drabble, Jerusalem the Golden
1968 Maggie Ross, The Gasteropod
1969 Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout
1970 Lily Powell, The Bird of Paradise
1971 Nadine Gordimer, A Guest of Honour
1972 John Berger, G
1973 Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince
1974 Lawrence Durrell, Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness
1975 Brian Moore, The Great Victorian Collection
1976 John Banville, Doctor Copernicus
1977 John le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy
1978 Maurice Gee, Plumb
1979 William Golding, Darkness Visible
1980 J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
1981 Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Paul Theroux, The Mosquito Coast
1982 Bruce Chatwin, On The Black Hill
1983 Jonathan Keates, Allegro Postillions
1984 J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun/Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
1985 Robert Edric, Winter Garden
1986 Jenny Joseph, Persephone
1987 George Mackay Brown, The Golden Bird: Two Orkney Stories
1988 Piers Paul Read, A Season in the West
1989 James Kelman, A Disaffection
1990 William Boyd, Brazzaville Beach
1991 Iain Sinclair, Downriver
1992 Rose Tremain, Sacred Country
1993 Caryl Phillips, Crossing the River
1994 Alan Hollinghurst, The Folding Star
1995 Christopher Priest, The Prestige
1996 Graham Swift, Last Orders/
Alice Thompson, Justine
1997 Andrew Miller, Ingenious Pain
1998 Beryl Bainbridge, Master Georgie
1999 Timothy Mo, Renegade, or Halo2
2000 Zadie Smith, White Teeth
2001 Sid Smith, Something Like a House
2002 Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
2003 Andrew O’Hagan, Personality
2004 David Peace, GB84
2005 Ian McEwan, Saturday
2006 Cormac McCarthy, The Road
2007 Rosalind Belben, Our Horses in Egypt
2008 Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
2009 A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book
2010 Tatjana Soli, The Lotus Eaters
2011 Padgett Powell, You and I
2012 Alan Warner, The Deadman’s Pedal
2013 Jim Crace, Harvest
2014 Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know
2015 Benjamin Markovits, You Don’t Have to Live Like This

I’ve only read seven of them so I have a long way to go before completing this challenge. The winner is selected by the Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh University, assisted by PhD students. The absence of critics or any so called ‘celebrity’ judges, and the fact that this is the oldest literary prize in Britain make them among the most respected awards in publishing. There is a prize each year for fiction and also biography but I’m going to be concentrating on the fiction, although I am interested in reading some of the biographies – sometime.

The books that I’ve already read are in bold, so as you can see I have a lot to get stuck into, I may just have bitten off more than I can chew, especially as there are some authors there that I’ve tried before and not liked, but I’m going to have a good go at it. It’s a long term reading plan obviously!