Am Bratach No. 230
December 2010

by Kevin Crowe

Andrew Greig: “At the loch of the Green Corrie”. Quercus. £16.99.

I have long admired the work of Greig. He is among the best contemporary novelists, combining page-turning readability with profound insights into the human psyche. He is an award winning poet, and has written several works of non-fiction.

In this fascinating memoir, Greig describes his last meeting with Norman MacCaig before his death when over a dram the great poet (who spent most of his holidays in Assynt) asked Greig “to fish for me at the Loch of the Green Corrie – only it’s not called that.” MacCaig told him that “a man called Norman MacAskill, if he likes you, may tell you where it is.”

Greig describes his journey to Lochinver, his meeting with Norman MacAskill and his and his two friends’ attempts to catch trout at this remote Assynt lochan, all presented in a day by day journal, including their encounter with a local policeman who tells them to get a fishing license “next time”. He also describes his return to the lochan in 2008, this time alone and with the fishing license.

However, this is far more than an account of his attempts to catch fish. It is a history of the area (and indeed Scotland) from what he calls “deep time” through the Clearances to the successful land buy-outs. It is also a highly poetical, beautiful and at times tragic soliloquy on his own life and on the lives of those around him. In order to achieve this within the narrative, he has divided each chapter into short sections taken from angling terminology: alternating between Cast — in which he describes the progress of the expedition, and Retrieve — in which he looks to the past.

He also describes conversations with people who knew MacCaig, presenting him as a generous man but one who was as capable of irritating people as he was of inspiring them, and who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He apparently got into various scrapes, particularly after a dram or three too many.

The book also contains some previously unpublished poems of MacCaig’s, as well as one of Greig’s own poems.

Although I have never fished, I have spent a considerable amount of time walking hills and moors and I can understand the way that the peace he feels while angling helps him make sense of his own life. It is in these passages — the Retrieves — that this powerful book reaches the heights of its power. He looks back at his attempts to become a musician like his heroes The Incredible String Band, in the process becoming a lifelong friend with “J” — Joe Boyd’s assistant (In the 1960s and 70s, Boyd managed bands like Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd and others). J, who drank too much gin, smoked too much marijuana and was probably anorexic; who had a child few people knew about, a child who was adopted and who she never saw afterwards; who was a confidant of “Bobby” Dylan; who seduced the much younger Andrew Greig; and who was found dead in her bed in 1997 just before hogmanay. Greig says of her “She was a friend I think I neglected and now she is gone.”

He writes of his various mountaineering exploits, and of times he almost died (and of friends who did lose their lives on the mountains); of his attempted suicide and of his recuperation in a mental hospital; of his difficult relationship with his father; of the break up of his first marriage and of finding happiness with fellow writer Lesley Glaister; and lots more.

After he left his first wife, he tells of sharing an Edinburgh flat with an American called Don, who was a gay rights activist who recognised immediately that Greig was straight. He describes later visiting Don in San Francisco, and meeting Don’s partner, Larry, who hadn’t been well, but nobody was sure what was wrong with him. He explains how months later, he got a letter from Don, explaining Larry was ill with a disease that now had a name: Aids. Eventually Don died with the same condition.

All this may seem a long way from fishing among the spectacular hills of Assynt or from the poetical and drinking exploits of MacCaig, but it isn’t. Just as all we experience can be found in great poetry, so can it be found in the beauty of the natural world. Greig’s great achievement is to help us appreciate that.

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