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
getting inside the tomb half way along (there was naturally a
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
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
bungalows will rot like mushrooms
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:
And I feel
like an intruder here
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:
about islands is, there are always more,
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