Small town at­ti­tude

Andrew Greig tells Teddy Jamieson that he doesn’t need big cities to in­spire him

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

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 If it’s not Glas­gow, it’s not prop­erly Scot­land and it’s not re­ally real and it’s out of date.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.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: SI­MON MUR­PHY

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

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