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Buchan With Bells On – Scottish Review of Books
by Douglas Gifford

Buchan With Bells On

October 20, 2009 | by Douglas Gifford

IN 1925 JOHN BUCHAN produced his whimsical adventure story, John Mac-nab. Macnab, you may recall, was a composite of three men, familiar to Buchan lovers from many other adventures – Sir Edward Leithen, former attorney-general; John Palliser Yates, an eminent banker; and Lord Lamancha, a cabinet minister. As so often, Buchan’s protagonists were in mid-life bored with their worldly success, and to get their adrenalin going challenged the owners of three great Scottish estates to a wager, the challenge being that they would poach a salmon or a stag on each of the estates under the hostile noses of the owners.

I confess that it’s not my favourite Buchan. I respect his neglected Scottish historical romances, and especially his too little known Witchwood, his dark religious satire in the tradition of ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, Scott’s Old Mortality and Hogg’s Justified Sinner. But McNab is too heavily weighted with Buchan’s tendency to snobbish love of great men, and their boyishly supportive heroines, with a compensatory Kailyard sentimentality, for my liking, and his heroes trample brogue-shod over more than Highland heather.

Yet this was to provide inspiration for Andrew Greig’s novel The Return Of John Macnab in 1996 – with the inspiration continuing in his latest fiction, a sequel to The Return, Romanno Bridge. These two thriller-romances are very different from Greig’s other writings.

In The Return, Greig clearly had reservations concerning Buchan’s adventure. “There are no women in John Macnab”, one of his adventurers points out; “Well, there are now”, is the answer. And they are not in the least Buchanite boyish, but free spirits, aware and active in their sexuality, in deliberate contrast to Buchan’s conventional and utterly loyal ladies. Central is Kirsty Fowler; thirty-one and buried in the Highlands, escaping from a failed marriage and professional disgrace, yet living on the edge in her new role as local journalist in a remote community. She guesses the secret of the three men who are the new John Macnab – Neil Lindores, recovering from the tragic death of his wife; Alasdair Sutherland, ex-Gordonstoun and SAS; Murray Hamilton, die-hard Kirkintilloch socialist. In a gloriously irreverent up-date of Buchan’s manly challenges of river and mountain, aided by Kirsty’s sexy wiles and the undercover sympathy of apparent foes, the trio succeed in taking salmon, grouse and stag – the last stolen from the Balmoral estate itself.

There’s more going on here than simple adventure. While boredom provided the underlying motivation for Buchan’s escapists, a range of modern – even postmodern – conditions animated Greig’s adventurers: social and political anger (these are the Thatcher years), escape from self, even a kind of desperation, are evident. Dun-can McLean described the novel as a cross between Buchan and Iain Banks. Actually, apart from the basic situation, Buchan is not so evident as an influence as Banks is, with whom Greig shares two qualities. Firstly, he’s superb at drawing relationships between male and female characters, especially when dwelling on subtleties of kinship and class; and secondly, Greig places these relationships in their political and cultural context, effortlessly exploiting contemporary social life from popular music and drinking to casual mating. Both qualities synthesize urban and rural Scotland, denying older Scottish stereotypes.

This isn’t to deny that The Return is chiefly a successful thriller and romance. It is to say, however, that is also a vehicle for more. For Greig is a poet whose poetry has always been concerned with the metaphysics of time, mortality, place, and the ambivalent nature of love, spiritual and sexual, with the dangers that open sexual relationships inevitably bring.

Perhaps this explains why he felt the need to continue the narrative of The Return in his latest, Romanno Bridge. Indeed, the close of the first set the scene for the second, when Kirsty – who abandoned Neil over his fear of commitment – cryptically invites him to meet at Romanno Bridge in the Borders to hear of another adventure. Two questions arise. How well does Romanno Bridge stand on its own, and as sequel? And why did more than a decade pass before the publication of the next adventure?

As a sequel it’s fascinating. As though only yesterday we meet Kirsty, Neil, Alasdair and Murray, and their willing and unwilling allies. The plot is, I believe, as intentionally far-fetched as The Return; this time it’s a hunt for the real Stone of Destiny, playing on all the popular mythology which has surrounded the stone – or stones – since Ian Hamilton and his co-conspirators removed it from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950. Was Edward 1 given a fake? Is the real stone, Jacob’s ancient Pillow, hidden away till Scot-land once more is independent? I suspect Greig of having fun not only with sacred cows of Scotland, but with Da Vinci Code-style mindsets and mythologies. In order to do so he has to exaggerate the significance of the recovery of the true Stone. Prince Charles is desperate to locate it to add gravitas to his claim, while a mystery billionaire is willing to pay £20 million and employ psychopaths to gain the stone. The story is no more far-fetched than many of Buchan’s; the difference is that here it is secondary to the complexity of relationships between the main characters, particularly Neil and Kirsty. Greig being Greig, the mythic quest (as with the later novels of Neil Gunn) is a surface reason for poetic reflection on the many kinds of love and friendship, on human relationship to time, nature and reality, on the meanings of Scotland’s topographies, and ultimately on mortality. In short, it’s a poet’s novel, using myth for a poet’s ends.

It’s also, like The Return, great fun. The Moon Runners are the guardians of the secret of the Stone, passed down through generations; they have their Rings, which together carry the secret of the real Stone. Kirsty and Neil stumble onto its track via assorted murders, and the John Macnab collective become the inheritors of the trust. Their search takes the friends across Scotland to London and to Norway – all the time dodging Adamson, as nasty a psychopath as such a novel could wish.

The search brings about regeneration – not of Scotland, although the novel’s ambience suggests that the country’s spiritual and political tectonic plates are shifting – but of Kirsty, Neil, and the many other unsettled relationships of The Return. The title page quote from Huckleberry Finn (“There ain’t no journey what don’t change you some”) gives the mythic game away, in that we realise the briefness of the previous adventure was too short for individual and group self-realisation; their journey was incomplete. Although twelve years lie between publications, there is only a gap of months between Kirsty’s leaving Neil and their rendezvous at Romanno Bridge. The two novels can be seen as one, taking Neil and Kirsty – and many of their friends – into new and more permanent relationships.

I have a few reservations. As with The Da Vinci Code, one does tend to ask whether the grail/stone, as reality or symbol, really matters that much, and why anyone would really be willing to pay such money and take such trouble to have it. There is a looseness of structure compared to that of The Return, with an awful lot of relationships going through an awful lot of changes. And as title-place, Romanno Bridge (the crossing of Lyne Water near Peebles) doesn’t quite hold the book together, since its sole role is to allow Kirsty and Neil to meet, and to find there a fake tone. In Electric Brae Greig names Romanno Bridge as one of his five favourite place-names in Scotland, so maybe there’s a personal tie; but it doesn’t resonate throughout.

Beyond the Macnab pair, Greig’s novels are strikingly different in setting and theme. Electric Brae (1992) takes its place in the line of novels that includes Docherty, Lanark, The Bridge, The Crow Road, Looking for the Possible Dance, and The Trick is to Keep Breathing, the defining Scottish novels of the last quarter century, which shared a common theme. Together with McIlvanney, Gray, Banks, Kennedy and Galloway, Greig presented protagonists of post-1945 Scotland determined to re-assess themselves, their values and their country, abandoning urban and rural clichés. Recognising the spiritual and physical bleakness of contemporary Scotland, these novels nevertheless suggested a kind of individual and national emergence from a post-Calvinist trauma brought about by social and sexual inhibitions, a pervasive lack of confidence, and a sense of personal and social powerlessness. Greig’s novel, like the others, is set during Thatcher’s Eighties, with its events and places speaking metaphorically for Scotland as a whole.

The Return in 1996 was his second novel. His third was a dark Border Ballad tale of revenge and the supernatural, Where They Lay Bare (1999). In the same year he produced the second of his fine mountaineering books, Kingdoms of Experience (the account of the Pilkington expedition attempt on Everest, in which he went up to 24,000 feet). The following year saw the publication of That Summer, the novelized version of the long poem of love and the Battle of Britain, A Flame in Your Heart, which he co-wrote with Kathleen Jamie as early as 1986. He had, moreover, written six volumes of poetry by 1994.

Around the turn of the century things went terribly wrong. He tells the story in his moving account of recovery, a unique spiritual autobiography-cum-golfing adventure, Preferred Lies (2006). The nearest comparison I can think of would be Neil Gunn’s Atom of Delight; as with Gunn, Greig combines what seems ordinary enough physical activity with a spiritual search. He tells how he was saved from death by the guess of a clever neurosurgeon, who realised that a colloid cyst was crushing Greig’s brain. A drain which he implanted to take off the fluid killing the writer saved him; nonetheless, throughout Preferred Lies Greig feels the slight bulge in his head as reminder of time and death. He also fictionalised the story in his novel of 2004, the Saltire Book of the Year Award-winning In Another Light – his most ambitious novel so far. It traces his protagonist’s recovery, intertwining it with the discovery of the story behind his father’s lost years as a doctor in the Far East.

Yet it would be wrong, I think, to discover new and darker preoccupations in Greig’s recent poetry and fiction. These concerns have been there since his days as an outstanding philosophy student in Edinburgh (the central character of Electric Brae would seem to speak for Greig when he jocularly identifies with “agnostic Scoto-Pantheism”), and, as a serious mountain climber, personal experience, theory and practice have given a permanent metaphysical cast to his work. Whether writing about climbing, poetry, golf, or near-death experiences, a consistent concern emerges. Fundamentally, his work is about the mystery, confusion, and brevity of human relations. The darkness of existentialism is always hovering, yet paradoxically evaded. Sometimes the evasion comes through moments of epiphany, of personal or sexual sweetness; sometimes in the capturing of such a moment in a poem or a passage, in a human or natural landscape; sometimes in a challenge or risk, on Everest or The Old Man of Hoy, which reveals the vividness of life – and perhaps the possibility of its meaning. So whether in narratives or poems of imagined adventure, of difficult humanity, of extreme places – or even of golf on obscure Scottish courses – this quest for meaning is consistent.

Preferred Lies holds the key. At one level the title refers to the golfing term for legitimately improving the position of the ball on the course; at another, Greig presents another meaning. We can’t help ageing or death, but we can picture it better. “The world is a given, but we live in it through metaphors, images and games –‘lies’, if you will…. We can take a sad song and make it better…. We can prefer our lie”. Whether challenging a golf course or an uncaring mountain, exploring human relations in poetry and fiction, or escaping into romance and adventure, Greig makes the human vision paramount.

Andrew Greig
Quercus, £14.99
pp352, ISBN 1847243150

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