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The SRB Interview: Andrew Greig – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Andrew Greig

September 15, 2014 | by SRB

Andrew Greig was born in Stirling in 1951. He spent his adolescence in Fife, before gaining a degree in Philosophy at Edinburgh University in 1975. Growing up in the late 1960s, he played guitar, wrote songs and encountered the Incredible String Band. When he was seventeen he first met Norman MacCaig. He published his first poetry collection White Boats in 1973. His second, Men on Ice, was published in 1977. It became a cult favourite in the climbing world, and led to him joining a series of climbs in the Himalayas in the 1980s. The first of these produced the prose work, Summit Fever (1985). He then tackled ‘The Unclimbed Ridge’ on the Tibet side of Everest, which resulted in Kingdoms of Experience. Both mountaineering works were shortlisted for the Boardman-Tasker award for mountaineering literature. 

The steep ascent into prose continued, and he published his first novel Electric Brae in 1992, following by the first of his two adventure stories written in the vein of John Buchan. The Return of John MacNab arrived in 1996; the second is Romano Bridge  (2008). His other novels include When They Lay Bare, the Second World War love story That Summer, and In Another Light, set in Orkney and Penang, which won the Saltire Book of the Year Award. During his prose excursions he was still publishing poetry, including a return to the frozen territory of Men on Ice with Western Swing (1994), and the short lyric poems of Into You (2001).

In 2010 he published At the Loch of the Green Corrie. Before his death, Norman MacCaig requested that Greig fish for him at the Loch of the Green Corrie – if he could find it. The resulting bookis part memoir, part fishing adventure, and part homage. His most recent prose work is Fair Helen (2013), a novelistic re-imagining of the border ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkonnel Lea’. The oral tradition of the ballads are ideal territory for a writer who still plays music and writes poetry. He is currently working on a co-memoir with founder member of the Incredible String Band, Mike Heron, and a prequel to Fair Helen

As Andrew Greig lives in Orkney through summer, Nick Major corresponded with him from Edinburgh over the course of a week in late August. Their exchange delved into rock of the musical and geological kind, climbed into the dangerous territory of misinterpreted poetry, and swam in the waters of other writers who have made their impact on Greig and the wider Scottish culture.

Scottish Review of Books: What first lured you to Orkney, and what keeps you there?

Andrew Greig: I first came to Orkney in 1979, after a summer doing an archaeological dig in Shetland, so I still think of it as a green, kindly place to the south. I soon knew I needed to be involved in it for the rest of my life: the big sky, the open land, water all round and the inland lochs are very healing and clarifying for me. And some of my dearest friends are here. We play music, sail, fish, and talk. I need mornings alone to work, and after that a degree of company for stimulation, relaxation, normalcy. In Edinburgh I meet friends by arrangement; in Orkney I drop by, they drop in, or we meet in the street. I don’t mind people knowing or guessing my business, and rumour is one of Orkney’s principal industries. My inner world – what Leonard Cohen calls my secret life – remains mine.

Writing from Edinburgh, one thinks of Orkney as a remote place, but also as somewhere that has been inhabited for longer than most of Scotland because it is home to Neolithic settlement Skara Brae.

Rather than think of Orkney as remote, when living here it is Edinburgh, London, and Glasgow that are remote. Orkney is its own centre, as each of us is. Being at a meeting of many sea-roads, it is historically very non-insular. Orcadians have moved all over the world, trading, whaling, sailing, settling, and the world seems to come to it. It is a true mongrel population, a mixter-maxter in George Mackay Brown’s phrase.

Orkney has a distinct literary heritage in authors like George Mackay Brown and Eric Linklater; do you feel a descendant of that?

I’d read George Mackay Brown (GMB), Edwin Muir and Eric Linklater before coming here. I came to know George enough to chat in the street, and watch television with him on occasion. It is impossible to see Assynt unaffected by MacCaig’s eyes and mind, and the same goes for Orkney and GMB. Each time I return I visit George’s headstone to pay respect. The self-composed epitaph reads: carve the runes then be content with silence. I cannot go along with his near-wholesale rejection of the present in favour of pre-Reformation life, his preference for icons and types over individuals, but his absolute dedication to writing, and prioritizing of the work over worldly ambition, remain inspiring. I have written a number of poems about and set in Orkney, and it appears crucially in Electric Brae, In Another Light and Preferred Lies. That said, I don’t see myself as an Orcadian writer – that would be impudent – or even in an Orcadian tradition.

What is the political mood like in Orkney at present, especially in relation to the referendum?

Orcadians accept they are technically Scottish, but know they are more truly Orcadian. This rather colours both Yes and No takes on the Referendum. Edinburgh and London both seem far away, and not terribly relevant. There is a growing interest in working more closely with both Shetland and the Western Isles, to make common cause when it comes to negotiating with whatever central authority lies Sooth.

In At the Loch of the Green Corrie you wrote that as teenager your ‘inner life was mostly informed by music’, particularly the songs of Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and Leonard Cohen. In 1968 you went backstage at The Lyceum to meet The Incredible String Band (ISB). You obviously had an interest in poetry, but was your main aspiration to live the bohemian life of a folk troubadour?

As a Sixties teenager, I was certainly more excited about music than literature. I liked and was affected by the usual poetry: Keats then Yeats then Dylan Thomas then Eliot; the younger, madder Eliot particularly appealed. But it was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Dylan and Cohen that really mattered to me. They were of me. It’s not coincidental that the first thing I ever made was a song: ‘Summer Isles’, aged 10. It was sung endlessly out the car window (at my family’s insistence) during summer holidays in Assynt.

At seventeen you were also reading Norman MacCaig, and sent him some of your poems. He wrote you a note: ‘come and see me’. Why did you get hooked on his poetry?

I love things I know well: the mile or two around Bannockburn, the brae, the laurels, the trees out back. But I am also lit up by things that are different, like Polish and modern Greek poetry, and poets like Anselm Hollo and Miroslav Holub. The Western Highlands we went to every summer were a revelation: Kintyre, Kishorn, Ullapool, Gigha, Lochinver. But I think I would have loved MacCaig’s poetry anyway. The combination of life-celebration and acute death-awareness were irresistible, but the Assynt connection sealed it. Perhaps that’s what gave me the nerve to send some of my schoolboy poems to him c/o The Scotsman, which led to our first meeting. ‘I quite like some of your poems,’ he said, ‘but then I would, because they’re quite like mine. Perhaps you should write some like your own.’ Funny, acute, waspish, generous. Norman had an ego, and his vanities were as real as his humility, but he wasn’t looking for imitators or disciples. He influenced me by his insistence a poem should make clear sense.

But it was still music that won you over at that age?

The music of the Incredible String Band struck deep. It was utterly strange and, well, incredible. It wasn’t rock ’n’ roll, but it wasn’t earnest folk. It was far out and it was Scottish. It had the effect on me that Lanark would later have on young wannabe Scottish novelists: it is possible to be Scottish and cutting edge. I wanted to make something like it. So me and my school pal George Boyter formed Fate & ferret (the ampersand was important, as was the inconsistent capitalization), and started writing our songs with modal wailing and daft jokes. Essentially, I wrote poetry by default. I wanted to be a singer-songwriter but I wasn’t good enough, and gradually I came to concentrate on what I could do.

MacCaig ‘intensely disliked displays of feeling, particularly in art.’ As opposed to poetry, is one of the distinguishing factors of song writing that it can afford to be flagrant with the emotions?

I still like writing and playing songs. There’s a physical and emotional dynamic in playing music. It opens out the throat, the hands, and the heart. Even poetry is cerebral in comparison. I love it that Pound, the Modernist writer of often impossibly complex works, admitted ‘what lasts is emotion’. MacCaig likewise had both a real and an affected disdain of emotion in poetry – but his greatest poems glow with emotion, with yearning, sorrow, loss, and thankfulness.

In At the Loch of the Green Corrie you wrote: ‘after a certain point life presents itself not so much as a mosaic of lyric moments as the unfolding of one thing after another, that is to say a story’. You published your first prose book, Summit Fever, in 1985. It recounts a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas. Why did you decide to capture this in prose rather than poetry?

Norman would often greet me with ‘not writing prose, I hope Mr Greig?’ For years I had no desire to write prose. My friends and peers like Ron Butlin, Brian McCabe, and Liz Lochhead all wrote poetry. We all met regularly people like MacCaig and Sorley MacLean, Robert Garioch and Hamish Henderson, Iain Crichton Smith and Eddie Morgan. Then Liz wrote a play, and Brian McCabe turned up at a Lost Poets rehearsal and said: ‘I’ve written a story.’ Soon enough Ron, Brian and Alan Spence were publishing short stories. But I was still able to assure MacCaig I wasn’t writing prose. Then in 1983 I met a real Himalayan mountaineer in a pub; he had read my book length poem Men On Ice, assumed I could do what it talked about, and asked me to come and climb the Mustagh Tower in the Karakoram Himalayas. I hadn’t done any technical climbing, I was just interested in it as a bank of imagery and metaphor. I have always been and remain averse to heights, But after some hesitation I had a winter’s training in Glencoe and went on that trip. I wrote Summit Fever about it because a prose account was part of the deal.

In that book you admit you had ‘always hungered after one big adventure’; you also refer to writing in At the Green Loch as a quest.

I am drawn to quests, in writing and in life. They satisfy some basic need for meaning and purpose, and gift us brings heightened experience and new perspectives, unpredicted encounters and consequences. The goal – Ithaca, the Grail, romantic love, to sail to Cava and back, find a loch and land a fish, or climb the Mustagh Tower – is essential, yet the meaning and value reside in the going rather than the getting there.

And you were not put off by that first icy adventure into prose?

I discovered I enjoyed telling a story. Prose allowed a degree of factuality and of discussion and reflection, of thinking, that I tried to keep out of poetry. It’s also good for narrative, and for presenting people. I enjoyed having a bigger readership, and an almost meaningful advance. That expedition led improbably to another, high-profiled, climb: the last remaining unclimbed route on Everest. Kingdoms of Experience had a bigger advance, and a bigger readership. Above all, it got me writing steadily in a way that seemed alien to poetry. As a poet you feel a fraud because most of the time you aren’t writing it. Whereas prose is an occupation, requiring a good sustained five days a week with overtime when it’s going well or deadlines loom.

And did those non-fiction mountaineering books lead to your first novel, Electric Brae, or was the route slightly different?

One climbing off-season, 1986 I think, I noticed I’d started writing my journal in the third person, and wondered if it might be the start of a novel. Electric Brae was powered as a kind of riposte. I had certain beefs at the time: angry, ‘gritty’ urban fiction was all the rage. I couldn’t relate to the cities, or to the anger, or the male characters entirely lacking in emotional self-knowledge and expression, other than anger. I had gay and bi-sexual friends, and close women friends who were neither martyrs nor mothers nor unobtainable objects of desire and none of these appeared in the Glasgow novels. Nor did small towns, villages, islands, the places I related to most. I wanted to get in something of the diversity of Scotland and its languages. Because of my background, I don’t have a stable, set accent, vocabulary, or dialect. What I did have was standard Scottish English, with additional Doric, Lallans, an awareness of Gaelic, and a dose of American from poetry, songs and films, so I consciously explored and used that.

 Your most recent novel, Fair Helen, is a prose reflection on the Border Ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkonnel Lea’. What first interested you about the Border Ballads?

The Border Ballads are part of the DNA of Scottish literature: part song, part recitation, narrative poems. The first song I sang in public was ‘The Twa Corbies’, and I wrote When They Lay Bare after a haunting dream where I lay behind a dry-stone dyke waiting for a young man on a horse whom I knew I would kill. I knew the novel would involve a sense of Fate, the supernatural, and the necessity of revenge – none of which I believe in, but which seem lodged deep in the bone.

Why did you pick ‘Fair Helen’?

A friend drew my attention to that ballad, and said he lived by Kirkconnel Lea. He asked me to visit. He took me round the ruined kirk, the graveyard with the lovers’ stones, and filled me in on the folk tradition that surrounds the ballad. I was struck that these were real people of the late sixteenth century, with specific names, families, places. We explored the peel towers and lands of the Bells, Irvines and Flemings. The English Lakeland hills loomed dimly across the Solway. Horsemen could arrive within an hour, often by night, to take everything you had. The precariousness of the reivers’ existence suddenly seemed very real.

I hesitate to use the phrase, but is a problem when writing a ‘historical novel’ in modern English that you might inadvertently introduce modern, and so incongruous, concepts into a fictional world that is four hundred years old?

The greatest challenge in historical fiction is not research or imagination, but establishing the voice. How to voice the narration? How to present dialogue? I absolutely did not want the archaic ‘Prithee’, ‘my liege’ and ‘God’s a mercy’. To write it in sixteenth century Scots – it really would have been in Latin, with a load of French – would be beyond me, and virtually unreadable. Driving home from Kirkconnel, I realised the Elizabethans did not believe Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet the Dane all spoke English iambic pentameters. All the narration had to do was carry character, and convince, and make the past feel real and happening. Art deals in seems and feels, not verisimilitude (even if we could establish it). Above all, I must remember the past is the present to the people in it – they did not sound archaic to themselves! Then a narrator appeared, Harry Langton, and with the name, his voice, his tone, his background. I wrote his narration, and the dialogue, in ‘normal’ English with a good sprinkling of Scots Doric and Lallans, and the odd bit of French and Latin, like salt on porridge to give it flavor, and remind you of provenance. I tuned Harry’s voice as you would a poem or a piano. He was the key, familiar enough with the Border life to get it, but outside it enough to pass comment, be critical or astounded or amused.

Harry Langton is a sort of factotum. Was part of the allure of writing a novel about a ballad that you could have a fully-formed narrator, and this meant you could investigate the role of the author in the late sixteenth early seventeenth  century?

I’d long wanted to write a novel from the position of a sidekick, an assistant, someone ambiguously a pal and a paid hand. He is narrating the story of Helen Irvine, many years later. He is Leith-born, a cooper’s son. The Guild would have paid for this clever loon to go to the Tounis College (Edinburgh University). He is not gentry, but related to Helen Irvine by marriage. He would have met the hero Adam Fleming, son of a heidsman, at university. Harry is sardonic and sceptical, nursing a secret passion and trying to survive.

I thought the epigram, taken from Michel De Montaigne, was a wonderful choice: ‘I have gathered a garland of other men’s flowers, and nothing is mine but the cord that binds them’. It captures the storyteller’s dilemma in the ballad tradition.

Montaigne’s Essays in John Florio’s translation was a sensation of the time, influencing Shakespeare and many others. Harry would alight on that passage because his voice and history and mind, like mine, is full of other people’s best offerings. In retrospect I can see much of my writing works on existing templates, like The Return of John Macnab, or the core story of The Twa Corbies, or the template of historical events, like the Battle of Britain in That Summer. The originality, if any, is in the cord that binds one’s sources and influences and traditions. The newness is in the selection and incorporation.

What was it about Montaigne that made you want to include him in some form?

I love Montaigne for his wit and insight, but above all his humanity, his absence of shame, self-puffery and conviction. The Essays are truly explorations, open-ended, and not aimed at a pre-determined conclusion. I love his Mais que sais-je? I respond to art that comes not from fixed belief but its joyful, openly-admitted absence. Montaigne and Lucretius were both highly current in Harry’s time, and allowed me to prefigure elements of the Enlightenment. Scepticism, the distrust of accepted narratives and authorities, even of Reason itself, the call for evidence, was germinating in his time, amidst the darkness of religious fundamentalisms and vicious power struggles. It later flowered in the Enlightenment, one Scottish movement of which I am unambiguously proud.

Geology is also a product of the Enlightenment in Scotland. You were familiar with the Lewisian gneiss of Assynt from an early age, and have returned again and again to that region. How do you think your understanding of landscape and geology has informed your work?

My father was very interested in Hugh Miller, the Moine Thrust, and the controversies of Creationism versus geological time. He was an atheist/agnostic who believed strongly in the Enlightenment and in the nobility of the project of Science, the submission of authorities, traditions and theories to evidence. This is something I share. I studied and enjoyed physics, chemistry, maths and biology at school, and only in my final year dropped them all to do more English, French and learn typing. My father gave me the outlook that processes are the key to understanding what you are looking at, and where you stand now. I explored some of this in Loch of the Green Corrie. I also enjoy the language and metaphors geology offers, of layers and shifts, drifts and above all dynamic change, endless process of deposit, upthrust, breakdown, and reformation. It embodies materially my quasi-Buddhist, part Lucretian, outlook on transience.

The idea of transience and that drip-feed sense of time reminds me of your poem ‘Down by the Riverside’: ‘the bank, the branches bead/ and something stops./ It comes clear: time/ doesn’t flow, it drips/ And here’s eternities between the drips’. It is meditative and expansive. Your earlier poems, like those in Men on Ice, also have a Zen aspect to them, although perhaps adopt more of a comic approach to Buddhism.

I have read around Buddhism and Mindfulness, and practised simple meditation on and off for the last forty years. I distrust anything that presents itself as The Way, or asks me to follow a guru without question, or that costs money. (The word secret is usually a give-away. If it’s for sale it’s not a secret.) I’d not call myself a Buddhist. I think reincarnation is incoherent and wishful thinking as anything other than metaphor. I’m neither vegetarian nor a complete pacifist. But the core teachings boil down to a psychology that suggests a great proportion of our suffering is self-created and self-perpetuated, and its core aims are Mindfulness and Compassion. I won’t argue with that. I tend to avoid the B word, because it may well put people off or mislead them. But those concerns and contexts are probably the one thread that runs through all my different writings.

When you were at university you dropped out of studying English Literature and took up Philosophy. Why?

Pulling wings off butterflies was killing my writing and reading. Fortunately my years of studying Philosophy gave me enough critical faculties to stop me signing up to any one belief system. My true instincts and interests are existential rather than political. I mean aspects of being alive, being conscious, being mortal, that are universal. No matter what kind of society one lives in, it’s the same stuff we have to deal with: the arising and passing of everything and everyone we know and love; knowing we will die but not when; how we create meaning in what I view as a meaning-neutral universe, and then often lose it again; the reality and the insubstantiality of who we think we are; how we suffer from desire, yet know it powers our life; how separate we are, and how conjoined. That’s my stuff.

But you wrote that ‘MacCaig’s anti-politics, his stress on the reality and value of individual life, as against abstract ideas and causes, may be his one big political idea’. This suggests that literature, however hard it tries, cannot be apolitical. How do you square you own political views with what you write?

Of course I have political values and emotions. I have notions of the kind of society I would like, and the kind of society we actually live in, and even some ideas about why it is as it is. I vote, always. So far, so political. However, there is nothing original or of value or interest in my political ideas. They don’t much interest even me. They are shared by many, and disagreed with by many. I resist and resent being lectured by novels and poems, so I try not to do it in my own. In essays it’s okay, because then they’re not masquerading as something else, and I can choose to read it or otherwise.

Do you think an independent Scotland would be able to nurture its own culture more so than it does at the moment?

It is probably more accurate to say ‘self-governing’, for surely independence is a chimera? The failure of the ’79 Devolution vote, and the Thatcher years, were tremendous stimulants for creativity in my country. It gave us a point, a position, and a role. A self-governing Scotland might give rise to further creative outpourings and explorations. Or not. I’d like to find out!

So you do not fear a ‘no’ vote?

I will vote Yes. It will not be for tribal or ‘patriotic’ reasons but because it gives us a chance of resisting the neo-liberal economic agenda, which I loathe. It is also more grown up to be responsible for yourself rather than blame others – ‘the English’ – for our difficulties. I intensely dislike that reflex anti-Englishness we still carry. I hope we outgrow it. I have a strong sense that whatever the outcome of the Referendum, we are at the early stage of a process. It will not stop here. We are part-way round a long blind corner. Lately we are asking ourselves who we are and how we want to live, and that is good. We have managed to get to this point without an armed struggle, without blood on the streets, and that is something to be proud of.

In At the Loch of the Green Corrie you wrote: ‘For MacCaig and his peers…poetry was not a career’. Can you map out more fully this change in an approach to writing you detect?

Writing has perhaps become more professionalized, something like a career – which is what I wanted to avoid! When the writers I have known much of my life meet up we toast dead friends and mentors, then celebrate that we are still here, still writing and still being published. Not bored, nor sold out (as if that were an option!) Through the crucial first decade our writing lives were made possible by the Scottish Arts Council, plus signing on fairly unmolested, and doing casual money-in-hand jobs. Though I do not have the solid pension of my geologist brother or my Forestry Commission brother, through more than forty years and twenty books, I have got off with it, and for that I am deeply grateful. Though writing is deeply self-communing, I have always felt part of some unspoken collective endeavour. My wife who has never felt herself to be an English writer, or part of anything, says she envies my sense of belonging and connection. When times are tough and you write nothing or write badly, it helps to have something other than personal neurosis, ego and financial necessity to keep you going

So you identify strongly with the Scottish community?

I strongly self-identify as a Scot, though my mother was from Newcastle, which is a different kind of England. But I have never had the kind of roots and consistency and loyalty to any one part, language, dialect or culture of my country. I was born in Bannockburn, suffered in Dollar, had my teenage years in Anster, went to Edinburgh for some ten years, then lived in South Queensferry, then Stromness, then Sheffield, then Peebles and I’m now back in Edinburgh and Orkney. That diversity, that sense of multiplicity of countries and cultures that make up this one small and large country, affects me still and is reflected in my writings

And of the current community of Scottish writers, who most appeals?

Among younger Scottish poets I respond to Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, Jen Hadfield, John Glenday and John Burnside. All of these make writing poetry seem both possible and utterly desirable. Like most writers, I read selfishly, in hope of being prompted to write. My current most inspirational Scottish novelists are probably Alan Warner and Ali Smith. I will never tire of These Demented Lands or The Sopranos. And I love Ali Smith’s writing, especially the latter, increasingly experimental books that play with essay and novel forms. They are experimental yet direct, subtle and simple, honest and sly. I love their humanity and wit. Still, I cannot write like her, nor like any of the many writers I enjoy and admire. So I return to Norman MacCaig’s 1969 suggestion that I write some like my own. It’s the only thing I’m any good at.

And you have recently been performing poems from your new collection Found at Sea, which concerns a sailing trip from Stromness to the Isle of Cava out in Scapa Flow?

I have come to play guitar and banjo with this narrative poem sequence, and/or do performance readings with what I regard as proper musicians, as well as doing shows with Mike Heron, where I get to play and sing with him, and do my own stuff. It feels like some full and utterly improbable circle back to my origins.

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