The Last Ballad

Source: George Mackay Brown, ‘The Last Ballad’, The Listener, 20 June 1968, p. 800

Text: In a primitive community what happens circulates as story or ballad. During the Napoleonic Wars an Orkney sailor called Andrew Ross died under the lash. The news came to the islands, carried by other seamen, in many versions. The ballad-maker is not interested in the details, only in the central situation, the skeleton of the story: he allows the corruptible flesh of time and chance to rot. He fits out the story with a mask and dress of his own making, till it has a new life in the word.

Andrew Ross, an Orkney sailor,
Whose sufferings now I will explain,
While on a voyage from Barbados,
On board the vessel Martha Jane.

The mates and captain daily flogged him
With whips and rope, I tell you true,
Then on his mangled bleeding body
Water mixed with salt they threw.

This, though it is a very crude piece of balladry, becomes the story of Andrew Ross for all time. […] It is part of a seamless fabric that has been there from the beginning, where all stories are gathered, a part of a great story. […]

‘Andrew Ross’ was the last ballad. Everything changed when the first newspapers arrived. […] Language was no longer a mystery: it was machine to be exploited for social and utilitarian purposes. […] Wireless, in the 1930s, was another step along the road. […]

The island people, always hungry for new gadgets, bought television sets in the Fifties when they were still out at range of the transmitters. Endless blizzards slanted across the screen. Still they watched.

Several frightening things have happened in the course of a few years. TV personalities like Cliff Michelmore, Inspector Barlow and Fanny Craddock are spoken about more familiarly by islanders now than are the people who live in the outlying farms. The shadows on a screen have become more real than their flesh-and~blood neighbours. The gradual loosening of the sense of community goes on. Families stay at home in front of then TV sets on winter nights; the old social gatherings with fiddle and ale and story are rapidly fading into the past. A third frightening thing is the new tyranny of facts actively fostered by TV programmes (though it began in the islands a century ago with the newspapers). Facts, figures, graphs, statistics, are the important things. What has happened in the past generation, in consequence, is that the story-teller is being pushed out by the frightful bore who will give you his opinions about Vietnam and the colour problem and heart transplants: not really his own opinions at all but some prejudiced odds and ends that have stuck in his mind from a discussion witnessed on Panorama the night before. In the old days, one imagines, such a bore would have been courteously ignored, or otherwise put in his place. Today he is listened to with all reverence.

The crude ballad of ‘Andrew Ross’ was an attempt by a pastoral community to explain a terrible thing that had happened to one of their own press-ganged boys. They experienced it themselves, ritually, in a ballad, and so it became a part of the total experience of the community. There is no attempt to subsume horror into man‘s total experience, in this particular way, in the modern modes of entertainment. Aberfan and Belsen and Agadir remain black, unabsorbed horrors, underlined but in no way illuminated by all the ‘realistic’ treatment they have been given – the intricate columm of statistics, the photographs, the eye-witness accounts. No meaning emerges from all the swathings of fact. It is significant that when a TV dramatist recently attempted to enter imaginatively into the Aberfan situation, in Softly Softly – and I thought he did it very well – there were howls of protest the following week in Talkback. I listen to the wireless and watch television quite a lot, and the BBC pays me an acceptable guinea here and there for work l do. Many of the programmes are of high quality. But what seems to be happening is that small fruitful units of culture are being merged into larger, noisier, cruder units, so that, as T.S. Eliot said,

There is not enough silence
Not on the sea nor on the islands.

There is little we can do about it.

Comments: George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) was a Scottish poet and author, who was born and lived most of his life on the Orkney islands. The above extracts come from an essay written for the BBC’s journal The Listener. The full article goes into greater details about the ballad tradition, the arrival and newspapers (in the 1820s) and radio listening. Cliff Michelmore was a current affairs presenter; Inspector Barlow was a character was a character played by Stratford Johns in the police dramas Z Cars and Softly Softly; Franny Craddock was a TV cook. Panorama is a current affairs series, launched in 1957 and continuing to this day. Talkback was a BBC right-of-reply programme. The T.S. Eliot lines come from his poem ‘Ash Wednesday’.

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