Small town attitude
Andrew Greig tells Teddy Jamieson that he doesn’t need big cities to inspire him
On the road to Peebles, a few miles north of the town, there’s a sign pointing off up a B-track that bears the legend “Romanno Bridge”. Andrew Greig first saw it some 20 years ago and decided to follow it. “It was at night,” he recalls, “and I got out of the car and walked to the bridge and that was it. There was nothing [else] there. And I just thought this would be an amazing place to have a rendezvous.”
Two decades later, he has written a book about just such a rendezvous on the bridge in question. Romanno Bridge, the novel, is an adventure story that takes in a quest for the real Stone of Destiny, a psychopath who used to be in a punk band, Buddhist monks, the heir to the throne (though he doesn’t actually make an appearance) and a cast of characters we first met in Greig’s earlier book, The Return of John McNab.
Personally, I’m most interested in the bridge itself. I may be wrong but I suspect this is the first time it’s featured in Scottish literature. But then the whole book is full of places that don’t often turn up in fiction. There are visits to Crieff, Dunstaffnage Castle and the Samye Ling Buddhist monastery near Eskdalemuir. Greig’s fiction has always mapped the kinds of places that most Scottish writers tend to bypass. Indeed, from the beginning of his writing career, he has gone out of his way to write about the out of the way. It’s apparent in the title of his first novel, Electric Brae.
“I think anywhere you are is as real and as contemporary as anywhere else. You don’t have to be in a big city to be real. It’s the unconscious chauvinism of city people. You even find it in Kelman. If it’s not Glasgow, it’s not properly Scotland and it’s not really real and it’s out of date. But that’s nonsense. Everywhere is real.”
And so I’ve come to Peebles – where the writer is currently based, although he’s soon to move to Edinburgh where his wife Lesley Glaister is about to become writer in residence at Edinburgh University – to do some mapping. What follows is a gazetteer of Andrew Greig, an attempt to look at the places – both geographical and emotional – that have influenced who he is and how he writes. It’s a map of small towns – “I see myself as a small-town country boy,” Greig admits – but also of big feelings. And it starts in ... Bannockburn Andrew Greig was born in Stirling on September 23, 1951. He was delivered by his own father, a doctor, and spent the first 10 years of his life in Bannockburn, where town begins to shade into country. On the edge of things from the beginning, then. What does he remember of childhood? “I used to go down on summer evenings into the very overgrown rhododendron bushes beside the river and if you sat there for 30 minutes and didn’t move, things would happen. Small animals would come out. I remember watching animals really, really close up.”
That absorption with the natural landscape has stayed with him. “Now that I think of it, yeah. And t h at ’ s wh at I go t when I started climbing as well. You become present to yourself. And that was an experience I had as a child. It’s a precious experience and sensibility.” One you can see in the way he writes. Anstruther When his father retired, he moved the family back to the east coast where he himself had grown up. Anstruther became
home to Greig. It’s where he spent his adolescence, dreaming about becoming a singer-songwriter. “I was not quite talented enough, not quite pretty enough and not quite determined enough. You need two of these three. That’s what I wanted until my mid-twenties when I accepted that I wasn’t going to make a living out of being a singer.” He became a poet and then a novelist instead. The Himalayas On a boozy night out in South Queensferry, where he was living at the time, Greig met a climber called Mal Duff. This was in the early 1980s when Greig wasn’t really doing much. Next thing he knew he had signed up for a trip to the Himalayas. “Mal Duff offered me an adventure which I was exhilarated by and frightened of in equal measure. I had a week to decide and at this point I had to come clean and say I’ve never climbed and I’m scared of heights.” Duff said he had six months to prepare and he could write a book about the experience.
Greig had never written prose before and he found that he liked it. He also liked climbing. “What I realised when I started climbing with Mal was along with being quite frightened quite a lot of the time you felt just incredibly alive. What I cherish above anything else is when I feel awake to the fact that I’m alive. Presentness. The kind of stuff frankly we used to do with drugs in the early seventies. But the newness of drugs wore off and I wasn’t that interested but that sense of being high, everything being hyper-real, intense, very felt in the body and the mind. I love it in everything I do, I love it in writing when I’m really writing, I love it in playing music, in golf.” Home Peebles hasn’t really stuck with Greig. He’s been here a year and a half, but now the house is sold and Edinburgh beckons. He and his wife have divided much of the last 16 years between Stromness, which Greig loves, and Sheffield, where Glaister stayed before Peebles. Where is home for him now? Until recently he’d have said Anstruther. Now it’s “wherever me and Lesley live. It’s a heart thing.” Love and sex Greig is big on “heart things”. He once said “every story I write is a love story”. And reading them it feels true. The possibility of love is the real adventure in his books. He wrote Electric Brae, he says, as a counterweight to the prevailing emotions in Scottish novels “which essentially were anger, rage, irritation, impatience. There was no love in there and there was almost no joy. I think those books were really important but they had nothing very much to say about what is good, what felt good.”
He knows desire has its downsides but “I rather like desire,” he says. He’s not the only one. “My mum, after I’d written Electric Brae, said a lovely thing. She said ‘Andrew, I think you should have more sex in your novels.’ I was totally taken aback. I said ‘why?’, thinking she’d say you’ll sell more books that way. ‘No, you should have more sex in your novels because you make it clear it’s a good thing. Your father and I ...’” At which Greig raised his hands and said “stop”. “But I thought it was lovely that she said that.” Death In 1999 a blocked brain ventricle almost killed Greig. It made him understandably all too aware of the transience of life, though, his brother once told him “you were aye a morbid bugger”. What, I wonder, does the idea of death mean to him now?
“I wrote part of a new song a couple of weeks ago. It starts ‘the backdrop just gets darker/ it makes the face seem bright.’ And it does. You get older and your grandparents die and then your parents die and there is a line in it ‘everyone I know is dead, dying or demented’. It’s what’s coming.” It’s not to be welcomed, but immortality would be boring. “If I go on about it a lot – the transience of life – I think it’s for the positive purpose and reason to say ‘hey wake up’. That’s what I keep trying to wake up myself to.” Andrew Greig – in person and in his writing – seems very awake. Awake and alive to the detailed cartography of life. On the way home I see the sign to Romanno Bridge again. This time I follow it.
Andrew Greig’s fiction has always gone against fashion, eschewing cityscapes for small towns and anger for “what feels good” and what makes him feel alive, like golf