The Book Blog – Andrew Greig

In this edition of The Book Blog, we hand over to the acclaimed poet, novelist and nonfiction author (“Scotland’s great poet of action – The Scotsman) Andrew Greig. Andrew splits his time between Edinburgh and Orkney, with his wife Lesley Glaister. He has published over twenty books, including – most recently – You Know What You Could Be, a ‘double-headed memoir’ of making music in the sixties, and the poetry collection Later That Day. A theatrical version of his poem sequence Found at Sea, which he describes as “a micro-Odyssey dingy sail in Scapa Flow to overnight on the abandoned island of Cava” was shown at the Traverse theatre, directed by David Greig and featuring Tam Dean Burn, Lewis Howden, and Rachel Newton as musician. 

In the summer months my wife Lesley and I live walking distance outside Stromness, and drop into Stromness Books & Prints regularly for a chat with whoever is there, to see if any of our books are there and sign them, and to buy and order books. (It is also right opposite the Red Cross charity shop, always good for a browse).

No exaggeration to say it is my favourite small bookshop in the world, with the one at the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool a good second. From the first time I went in some thirty years ago, it remains a treasure trove of books I always wanted to read, have read and loved, and ones I knew nothing about but now want to. I remember the first owner, the eccentric and deeply knowledgeable John L Broom, famous for his many letters in the Scotsman, all brief, pungent, witty and sometimes scandalous. He had been part of the Milne’s Bar set of writers who met there to drink, gossip, exchange opinions and flyting.

Then Tam McPhail, the much-missed and near-legendary Tam who sat behind the counter dispensing (or not dispensing depending on mood), wit, wisdom and book and life knowledge. There seemed little in that intensely crammed small space that he had not read. If asked, he would recommend, suggest, pass succinct verdicts. How often he would put some book, previously unknown or overlooked, my way! His quiet, dry voice blended with the sizzle of wet car tyres going by outside, and the occasional ping and rattle of the door. How many introductions were made there, leading to long conversations and friendships continued elsewhere.

There was a period when my friend writer, playwright and musician Duncan McLean worked there, and brought his own knowledge, conversation and talents to that special place. So many writers found their way there, and Duncan and I never missed an opportunity to plug it in our books.

And seamlessly, it seems, Shenagh has taken over that corner of the shop, a keeper of that flickering flame of books, local news and views, quiet conversation. To go there is to feel home again, in the right place.

My latest poetry collection Later That Day (Birlinn) came out just in time for Covid lockdown. There is something wonderfully post-Modern in seeing it in the window of Stromness Book & Prints, for its covers feature our friend Calum Morrison’s portrait of Tam in that very bookshop, with winged books flitting out the window towards Tam and Gunnie’s cottage below Black Craig, and a shadowy Tam peering out from the back cover. (The painting now hangs in the new library in the Stromness centre, worth a pilgrimage in itself.) And it is fitting because that collection opens and ends with Orkney poems, with several in between: the tidal causeway at Brough of Birsay; big winds, sunset and oncoming night at Warebeth beach; a ship in a bottle in the wee museum in Stromness; an evening with friends at Cairston. 

Had our evenings been more solemn,
they would not have been as true.

Since I was first taken to Orkney at the end of summer 1979 by Kathleen Jamie, I have known I wanted to be connected with it for the rest of my life. I proposed to Lesley there, at Skaill Bay; we married at the Town House in Stromness 2000 (as in the poem An End to Waiting); I’d like my ashes scattered to the winds at Skaill or Warebeth beach. 

You could say Orkney and dear friends there are part of me. Orkney scenes and settings are crucial to my first novel Electric Brae (I took some liberties with the Old Man of Hoy), and even moreso to my fifth, In Another Light.

And my Orkney/This Life poem seems to have lasted. It has been anthologised several times, and I still get emails/notes about it. It expresses what Orkney is to me, its healing, centering nature.

It is big sky and its changes,
the sea all round and the waters within

I first drafted it on a rough crossing from Scrabster, when I lay feeling rough, thinking ‘Why do I live in this ruddy place?’, and then listened as the answer came.

Since Later That Day I have finished my novel Rose Nicolson, set during the Scottish Reformation, a companion piece to Fair Helen, itself imagined from the Border Ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkonnel Lea’. That took three to four years, a lang sair fecht but I feel satisfied. It will be out early summer 2021.

Now my own C.16th historical novel is done, I can allow myself to read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet – I’m a Shakespeare anorak, and love 1599: a year in the life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro. Likewise Hilary Mantel. I had to stay away from these while writing my own.

When writing, research apart, I read for relaxation. I often re-read: Dashiel Hammet, Chandler, Wodehouse (the ideal antidote to Covid days), am currently enjoying Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike crime books. I’m in a mood to re-read Laurence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. I’m surprised how interested I am by A N Wilson’s The Victorians. The last book I was blown away by is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

The books I have most often bought for, and/or pressed into the hands of other people are probably 1599, Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes, and John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Oh, and Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars. I also keep raving about Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. And These Demented Lands by Alan Warner. And Russell Hoban’s masterpiece Riddley Walker.

I remain impressed and informed by Maggie Ferguson’s George Mackay Brown: The Life – it’s an exemplary biography: empathetic, even-handed, a moving portrait of a life redeemed by unswerving dedication to a craft, in the face of many pains, sorrows and obstacles. She gets the calling and the selfishness of the creative life, how it withholds and constricts, expands and enriches a life. And she gets the particular social network of Orkney life. And it makes you turn again to the poems, stories and novels of that remarkable, stubborn, quiet, frail and funny man I stood with gassing outside Tam’s as he clutched his plastic bag of messages. 

In my own work and reading alike, I tend to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Writing a novel, near the end I get tired of making things up; when writing non-fiction or memoir, I get fed up with the letter I, and with the constrictions of ‘reality’. So I tend to alternate between one and the other.

And always, poetry, the core endeavour for me. I often start a writing day with opening at random and reading Berryman, Eliot, Eddie Morgan, MacCaig, Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie. It seems to cleanse the mind’s palette.

Andrew Greig, 2020

PS And I suggest anyone who wants to read an immensely skilled, page-turningly tense, humane, surprisingly funny as well as a bit scary novel, goes into Stromness Book & Prints (failing that, any other proper book shop) and gets my wife Lesley Glaister’s Blasted Things. Her latest novel, it had the misfortune to come out just as Covid lockdown started and bookshops, festivals, readings and reviews all stopped. It is a belter.

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