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- Philip Kerr interview
Andrew Greig is the author of six acclaimed books of poetry, two Himalayan mountaineering expedition books, and five novels including That Summer, When They Lay Bare, In Another Light (Scottish Book of the Year) and Romanno Bridge.
His non-fiction book, Preferred Lies, is already seen as a contemporary classic and, earlier this year, At the Loch of the Green Corrie was published to widespread praise.
It is a moving account of a fishing trip to honour a wish made by the celebrated poet Norman MacCaig before his death that becomes a meditation on life, nature and friendship, a literary biography and a celebration of the beauty of the Highlands of Scotland.
Andrew Greig recently featured, along with Billy Connolly and Aly Bain, in ‘Fishing for Poetry’, a BBC documentary paying tribute to MacCaig’s life and work.
Mark Thwaite: I was struck by the difference between your wife’s conception of her Englishness, ‘Lesley accepts that she is English, but that is not a defining fact for her’, and the way that for you, ‘being Scottish is fundamental to who I am’.
Did writing At the Loch of the Green Corrie bring you closer to finding an explanation as to why this should be so?
Andrew Greig: Writing At the Loch of the Green Corrie involved driving across Scotland to spend many days and nights in Assynt – but also prolonged acts of memory of that part of the Highlands, of my father’s deep engagement with all aspects of his country. And of consideration of Norman MacCaig’s ‘dual nationality’ – Edinburgh Scot by birth and upbringing and all his working life, part of Western Highland Gaeldom through his Hebridean-born, Gaelic speaking mother.
These, together with reading into the geology and socio-economic history of the North-West Highlands, seem to have deepened and informed my core identification of myself as someone who belongs to my diverse, large small country.
Assynt is, according to my geologist brother, the most intensively-faulted area of the UK, possibly in Europe. (Its bedrock of Lewisian gneiss, formed near the South Pole, is also the oldest and most-travelled part of the world.) The book became in part an account of fault-lines that run not just through the geology, but also in my own life, in MacCaig’s life, in all our lives, and through the history and cultures of Scotland.
My wife (novelist Lesley Glaister) and my mother are both English, but like many English people I’ve talked with, do not see that as fundamental to who they are. Whereas I, like many other Scots, do feel it as basic. Having written the book, I can now see better why this is so – but also have a broader understanding of what it means.
Also it’s about our profound attachment to place. How places we love, wherever they may be, give us context, perspective, identity.
Anywhere you carry in your heart is your country.
I love being in the hills, fishing the rivers and lochs, walking the shore, and this is what I write about most, and where much of my novels are set. I was born in the country, brought up in villages, still live part of the year in Stromness, Orkney, and though I live most of the time in Edinburgh, it is in those other settings I feel most valid and alive.
Briefly: writing At the Loch of the Green Corrie has deepened my sense both of myself as Scottish and what that might mean, and why.
Mark Thwaite: I loved the accounts of your days as an aspiring musician. Do you still play at all?
Andrew Greig: I probably enjoy playing music – guitar, banjo, piano and basic clarsach – more than writing, though I’m only an adequate musician (I know and remember the words of a great many songs, that’s my principal asset at a session). Playing by myself, or better still with other people, is just more fun than writing. More expressive, more emotional, dynamic, physical, connected.
My head is full of songs, from Lou Reed to Burns to the Incredible String Band, Talking Heads and Lucinda Williams to Dylan to Vic Chesnutt – that’s my basic literacy and most formative influence. Inevitably scraps of them appear, often disguised or mutated, in my writing, and I know readers enjoy spotting them.
I play most with friends in Orkney – good singers, fiddlers, harpists, steel and slide guitars – and when I can in sessions in the Borders. I like music broad and unexpected, evenings that move through Blues, 60s pop, Country, instrumental, Folk, Americana.
One of the highlights for me of filming our fishing expedition at the Green Corrie with Billy Connolly and Aly Bain, for the Norman MacCaig documentary, was playing with them in our Mess Tent by the loch with sleet coming down outside, crouched near the stove with fleeces and woolly hats.
I played guitar to Billy’s banjo and Aly’s unparalleled Shetland fiddle. They played half-remembered songs from the early 60s and the Humblebums, I requested a couple of instrumentals including the stunning slow air ‘Moon On The Water’, then Billy said ‘Do you know this wan?’ and started playing Clive Palmer’s ‘Empty Pocket Blues’ from the first Incredible String Band album. It was one of the first songs I ever learned, so I jumped right in on guitar and second vocal, and Aly picked it up and ran with it.
Then we moved on to Hank Williams and Americana, played over an hour. Wonderful time.
Next morning we got up to fish the loch of the Green Corrie and found it was snowing.
The book included some memoir of the (apparently) near-mythic ‘Fate & ferret of Pittenweem’, the twosome band that was schoolfriend George Boyter and myself, on our trips to London in the scampi lorry with our guitars in plastic bags and our terrible tapes for Joe Boyd at Witchseason. We got to know the ISB a bit, saw them and Dr Strangely Strange in London, met John Martyn on the street – he was the nephew of our school gym teacher – and he asked us to open at his gig at Les Cousins. Odd, daft, improbable, formative times, part of a different and perhaps more innocent era.
I’ve written some 30-40 songs over the years. There are 10 or so I’d like to record, including some written at Everest Base Camp or the Clacaig Inn in Glencoe, to entertain climbing friends. Yes, that would be good, to have them on a CD next to the books.
Mark Thwaite: How did the TV come about?
Andrew Greig: Because of At the Loch of the Green Corrie I was asked to take part in a proposed TV documentary about the poet Norman MacCaig. Aly Bain, the near-legendary Shetland fiddler, had already signed on as music director of the project. He’d been a close friend of MacCaig’s, and like him was a keen fly fisherman. The request to locate, fish in and hopefully catch trout for Norman at his favourite place in the world, the Loch of the Green Corrie, had become the narrative thread of my book.
I’d met Billy Connolly. just once some twenty years earlier as he waited to meet Norman, and he spoke animatedly then of his admiration for his poetry. I knew Billy was an old friend of Aly, and another very keen fisherman. So, rather diffidently, I sent him my book, then a few weeks later an enquiry if he’d like to fish with myself and Aly, for Norman, at the Loch of the Green Corrie. His reply from New York: I canni wait – count me in – Billy.
The funding was quite quickly forthcoming.
It was a wonderful, hilarious, liberating three days in Assynt with Aly and Billy, climbing to the Loch of the Green Corrie, fishing there, and talking for camera with three of the people I’d come to know in the course of writing the book. Very occasionally you get lucky and get paid a bit for doing something you love and would do for nothing.
I’m a total anorak for stories of the mid-60s, and listened entranced as Billy and Aly swapped stories and memories. So much laughter among the monumental hills.
Mark Thwaite: Male friendship, and the different forms it can take seems to me to be at the very heart of At the Loch. Was it a subject you consciously set out to write about or was it something that grew as a theme as the book developed?
Andrew Greig: Male friendship, I can now see, has been a developing theme in both my non-fiction and novels. I have read few accounts that expressed the possibilities and nuances of such friendships I had. The ways in which men can feel strongly about each other, how we express such friendship. Women tell me they know little of how men behave with each other, and are curious to know more.
On the Scottish hills, on lengthy Himalayan expeditions, on the three day fishing and camping trip to Assynt with two pals at the heart of the book – with these experiences very alive in my memory, it was inevitable the theme of friendship between men, of shared endeavour, emerged as central.
What we say, and what we don’t need to say. What is understood. All three of us on the Assynt trip had women at the centre of our lives – we were not sad cases! – but away from them there is no doubt we behave differently. We relax into a different manner. We tell stories. We give over bits of our lives. We are capable of intimacy.
At readings, or in letters from people who have read my books, I get the message that I am not the only person who finds this interesting, who feels it has scarcely been written about in any non-cliché’d men-can’t-talk-except-about-facts way. So I write it.
Mark Thwaite: You seem equally comfortable writing fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a personal preference?
Andrew Greig: I came to writing poetry through song writing. After ten years or so of publishing poetry and being poor, I was asked to climb on the 1984 Mustagh Tower Expedition by Mal Duff, who had read and loved my book-length narrative poem ‘Men On Ice’, which had been reviewed enthusiastically in climbing magazines. Because the poem felt true to the yearning, fear, intensity, squabbles, exaltation of high-altitude climbing, he assumed I had climbed. I didn’t. And I was – still am – scared of heights.
After an intense winter-long initiation in Glencoe, I went on that trip. Part of the deal was that I write a book about it. So I did, Summit Fever. That one-off trip lead promptly to the ‘Unclimbed Ridge’ of Everest, the Tibet side (we were the second expedition into Tibet since the Chinese invasion), and another prose book Kingdoms of Experience. And then another expedition, to Lhotse Shar. To my surprise, I enjoyed writing prose. It satisfies a latent work-ethic. It is good to have a wider readership. It is good to make a living by writing.
I had become accustomed to sitting for long periods writing prose, and one day found myself looking at my own journal, noticing I’d been writing some of it in the 3rd Person, and thought ‘This is pretty lively!’ I ended up writing my first novel ‘Electric Brae’, about Scotland, climbing, men and women, male friendship, passion, loyalty, fixation, delusion and liberation. Against the grain of the times, I wanted to write a non-urban world, of small towns and villages and wild places, all as real as any city. I wanted to write of what I knew, the possibility of friendship between men and women.
Other novels followed. Sometimes I get restless, and inventing people and stories – or having to disguise real ones – seems silly and shallow, and I want to get out more and do interesting things and write about them, and then I turn to non-fiction. And after a non-fiction book, I want the freedom of being able to make up, embellish, imagine – and so, a novel.
Right now, having knackered myself with At the Loch of the Green Corrie and said everything I felt I had to say about anything, I’m back writing poetry, my second love after music.
For me, there’s an energy that comes from the alternation between fiction and non-fiction. Each can bring something to the other, inform the other. And at some level the poetry probably seeps into the prose, like an underground stream refreshing a field.
Mark Thwaite: Do you have an idea in your mind of your ‘ideal’ reader? Did you write specifically for them?
Andrew Greig: Unlike with poetry, which is more akin to tuning a piano in an empty room, when I write fiction or non-fiction it is always in anticipation of someone reading it. I want to engage that person, give them a good time, to intrigue, surprise, move. Invite him or her to re-experience their own lives in response to what they read. This is what I ask of a book: that it entertains, engages, re-awakens, stimulates.
That reader is real to me, but not specific. Just there at the edge of my mind when I write.
Because I often read in bed, or in limited intervals during the day, I write in short chapters, sub-divided into sections, so there are plenty places for a reader to break off. It just seems due consideration, good manners.
Mark Thwaite: How do you write? With pen or pencil? Straight onto a screen? Revision after revision or spontaneously?
Andrew Greig: I write prose – including this – in my garden shed. Mon-Fri mornings, unless there is something takes me away. For several books now I have found – to my surprise – it possible to write straight onto word processor. My handwriting is now so cramped I find it hard to read, and so bad it makes me self-conscious. I can forget myself better on keyboard.
I tend to re-read in the afternoon, make some changes. I then print out a section and read it with a pen in hand. I score out, scribble changes, write tiny additions in margins. I then re-enter these. And then later re-print, then re-draft, and so on. Usually some half dozen drafts.
But when writing goes well, it does tend to come pretty fast and fluent, faster than I can type. Sometimes I have to stop, scrawl brief reminders of all the new lines, themes, connections that are opening up, then go back to typing. That’s the best time, when I stumble out of the shed with no real idea of what has gone on the last thre hours, knowing only that something has. Which I’ll look at again tomorrow.
Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? Do you have a favourite fictional character?
Andrew Greig: Not one favourite writer but several. Into my head today – could be very different tomorrow – come Graham Greene, PG Wodehouse, Mrs Gaskell, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, John le Carre, Robert Louis Stevenson, David Mitchell.
Ditto favourite fictional character. Phillip Marlowe, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, Long John Silver, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennett, foxy Death in The Sandman series, Lamb in Now You See Me.
Mark Thwaite: What is/are your favourite book(s)?
Andrew Greig: Ditto favourite book(s). Richard Holmes’ Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer; any Raymond Chandler, plus Dashiel Hammett, especially Red Harvest. Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars. David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. Alasdair Grey’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Dylan’s Chronicles. Also The Leopard by Lampedusa, and The Great Gatsby.
Oh and most adventures of Richard Hannay. And my wife Lesley Glaister’s Now You See Me, my personal favourite of all her novels.
I re-read a lot. Sometimes for stimulation, sometimes for instruction – how do they do that? – often for relaxation, the familiar, the well-loved.
Frankly, near the end of the day I watch TV. Then play a little music. Then bed and a brief read till I can’t.