Holiday Postcards

On Orkney by John Welch
[6.00, Infernal Methods/Thule, Quoybow, Stromness, Orkney KW16 3JU]

Here's a beautifully made large pamphlet. It's unpaginated, printed on 100% cotton paper and has a loose cover made of 'Gunny Rough', one of those lumpy dark cream papers made in India. The title's embossed into it. Embossed
. Oh dear, I've fallen straight into the appearances trap, being a sucker for this sort of thing: I'm talking about what copy number 163 feels like in the hand and not what it says.

So. Here's a pamphlet called On Orkney
. It's not my Orkney, which is an altogether rougher and colder place. Nor is it George Mackay Brown's Orkney, which is more populous and cultured. But I only say that because of the expectations raised by that little word on. This isn't meant to tell you all about Orkney, but simply what John Welch wrote whilst he was there, on the island (though of course it does also tells you some things about Orkney along the way), 'a poem sequence with prose interludes [which] has emerged from a sequence of visits, staying with friends', as the flyer puts it.

That flyer, curiously, flourishes some of the most interesting writing - I wanted to find more of this sort of framing in the pamphlet itself:

     We spent a day there walking its length [Rousay] and coming back I
     remember getting inside the tomb half way along (there was naturally a
     boat to catch) and I looked out through its slit to see what there was of the
     world. As if I lived in that crack, getting inside the story. Meanwhile
     there's the thing I find on the beach, wood, shell or stone and because it
     pleases me I take it home and wonder, did I choose it or did it choose me?

The pamphlet takes lineated excursions on some of the Orkney islands, often returning to the studio of a sculptor friend. Keys recur: in Orkney they're always to hand so a passer-by can open a door. A central prose section is more 'about' Orkney places, beginning with a rather endearing account of Welch's panicky thoughts when he takes a fall coming down Ward Hill ('If they rescue you, do you have to pay?'), and including some tourist information, for instance about the Knap, which he describes as 'a small fortress against the water just beyond it'.

You can see exactly what he means from Gunnie Moberg's aerial photograph of Westray in which the Knap looks like a pair of small boats leaning against each other in a dry harbour. John Welch made me turn again to this book titled simply Orkney
which she made with George Mackay Brown just before he died, putting her prints on an easel by his bed for him to see. Mackay Brown's poem about the Knap ends

     A million bungalows will rot like mushrooms
     And this house be rooted still.

But it's Gunnie Moberg's nearly abstract black and white photograph that really does it for me on this one. That's true of much of this writing 'on' (in the sense of  'about') Orkney though: John Welch's descriptions can sometimes seem anywhere, unremarkable: 'In front of me a sea of restless jewels' or 'Eye moves to a surface / where jellyfish is a splash / of translucent pale purple'. Moberg's photographs are balanced on a tightrope between the very Orcadian particular and the abstract, typifying yet referring beyond themselves.

I'm much more taken with Welch's on-ness of Orkney when he holds his own stance there in focus alongside what he sees. In the last but one section of the pamphlet he sees a body being returned to one island from another:

     These are serious people
     And I feel like an intruder here
     The poet cadging a lift on the hearse.

In the same section he continues with the sort of framing the flyer led me to expect more of:

     The thing about islands is, there are always more,
     Islands outnumbering islands - which one to choose?

and the penultimate page has a short - but superb - evocation of moving from one island to another when 'There's that island moment, a grating of keel on shingle'. In passages like this, the pamphlet widens its angle of vision.

Printed on tracing paper and bound in are two illustrations. This is book designer territory. But I could have done without them; these limit
the angle of vision. One is Amanda Welch's rough sketch of a hill near Rackwick, the other a friend's stark photograph of a bare fuchsia twig. (The penultimate page ends 'The dark red, small-belled fuchsia.') These are very much to do with John Welch's own experience of being 'on' Orkney, and nothing to do with the reader, in fact as a reader they simply annoy me: either I see text though the drawing / photo (it smacks of a designer notion) and read neither, or I have to slip a white sheet under the tracing paper to mask the text. This is veering towards the school of books as objects of design and away from books as objects for reading. It is a lovely booklet though, even if one man's holiday is not mine.


The other book to which I refer here, Orkney
by Gunnie Moberg and George Mackay Brown is large format with a more traditional design, (usually) a poem and an image on facing pages. It seemed to be published with little fanfare in 1996 - perhaps because the publisher was Colin Baxter Photography Ltd, Grantown on Spey, yes, the Colin Baxter of holiday postcards.

             Jane Routh 2005