- Gunnie Moberg
Andrew Greig was born on 23 September 1951 in Bannockburn, Scotland and grew up in Anstruther, Fife.
He was educated at the University of Edinburgh and is a former Glasgow University Writing Fellow and Scottish Arts Council Scottish/Canadian Exchange Fellow.
He won an Eric Gregory Award in 1972, and his first book of poetry, White Boats (with Catherine Lucy Czwerkawska), was published in 1973. It was followed by two collections that reflect his interest in mountaineering: Men on Ice (1977) and The Order of the Day (1990). A selection of his poetry from 1970-2006 - This Life, This Life - was published in 2006.
In 1985 Greig published an account of the successful ascent of the Mustagh Tower, Summit Fever: The Story of an Armchair Climber on the 1984 Mustagh Tower Expedition, which was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Memorial Prize. A second mountaineering book, Kingdoms of Experience: Everest, the Unclimbed Ridge, was published in 1986.
His first novel, Electric Brae: A Modern Romance (1992), was shortlisted for the McVitie's Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year. His next novel, The Return of John McNab (1996) was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists' Association Award and is being filmed for the BBC. That Summer (2000), is set in June 1940 on the eve of the Battle of Britain. His fifth novel, In Another Light (2004), won the 2004 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. His latest novels are Romanno Bridge (2008) and Fair Helen (2013), shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize in 2014.
He has also published two books of memoir - Preferred Lies (2006); and At the Loch of the Green Corrie (2011), a book arising from a fishing quest for Norman MacCaig.
Andrew Greig lives in Orkney and Edinburgh with his wife, novelist Lesley Glaister. His latest books are the poetry collections, As Though We Were Flying (2011), and Getting Higher: The Complete Mountain Poems (2011).
What connects Andrew Greig’s otherwise diverse artistic output to date, which includes occasional travel writing, numerous novels, and wide-ranging collections of poetry, ranging from early love lyrics to the epic quest poems of Men on Ice (1977) and Western Swing: Adventures with the Heretical Buddha (1994), is its sustained attachment to the outdoors, especially the Scottish outdoors.
Greig is described on the National Library of Scotland website as ‘the unofficial Poet Laureate of the mountaineering community’, and if this sounds an unlikely description, it also captures well Greig’s appeal to the poetic conventions of the romantic sublime. Poems such as those on Mustagh Tower (a peak in the Himalayas), or Everest are on one level lyrical meditations on the irrational, awesome and inspiring forces of nature.
Greig once described his writing as 'a deliberate revolt against the gritty, angry urban realism that seemed to pervade Scottish writing'. Both his poetry and fiction seem distant from the inner city tenements, pubs and job centres associated with a writer like James Kelman, and pursue instead the remote, isolated and at times desolate rural landscapes of Scotland. At the same time, Greig’s writing is not necessarily remote from the community, and even his most intransigent poems depend upon human and social contact for their resonance. For example in his powerful meditation on the meeting of sea and sky in ‘Orkney’ (2001), Greig’s analogies involve encounters and intimacy between individuals and communities:
'It is the way sea and sky
Work off each other constantly,
Like people meeting in Alfred Street,
Each face coming away with a hint
Of the other’s face pressed in it.
It is the way a week-long gale
Ends and folk emerge to hear
A single bird cry way high up.
It is the way you lean to me
And the way I lean to you, as if
We are each other’s prevailing;
How we connect along our shores'
Greig currently divides his time between Orkney and Sheffield and his writing is ultimately indebted to both the city and the country. ‘Orkney’ first appeared in the short collection Into You (2001), and is now more readily available in the Bloodaxe edition of Greig’s collected poems, 1970-2006: This Life, This Life (2006). The life-affirming qualities of Greig’s ‘Orkney’ are illuminated by the fact that it was written shortly after the author’s recovery from a near fatal brain illness. A similar tone is struck in Greig’s fictional output of the same period, notably That Summer (2000). A romance novel set against the backdrop of the Second World War, That Summer tells of a love affair between Len Westbourne (a pilot) and Stella Gardman (a radar operator). Its touching and honest depiction of human relationships is delicately counterpointed with the death and inhumanity of war. Published in the same year as Into You, That Summer shares his poetry’s optimistic emphasis on life, which is brought into sharp focus by the looming presence of death in the author’s own life.
Since his recovery, Greig’s output has dramatically accelerated, and it seems his traumatic illness served on one level as an inspiration and impetus. This is most notable in terms of the highly successful string of novels he has produced in rapid succession since 2000. If Greig’s ongoing commitment to verse ensures a small (if loyal) readership for the poetry, the author’s growing body of novels flirts with the popular genres of romance and thriller, exposing him to a mainstream international audience he never had previously.
One of the earliest of Greig’s novels,The Return of John Macnab (1996), describes three young men who set out to reproduce the famous fictional exploits of John Buchan’s classic Scottish tale. In Buchan’s Highland exploits, a barrister, banker and a Tory Cabinet Minister adopt the collective name of poacher ‘John McNab’ in order to relieve their boredom. What the carefully conceived characters do not bargain on, however, is being joined by a young woman with a colourful history. Like all of Greig’s novels, The Return of John Macnab, shows a remarkable confidence and agility with plot, a fact that is all the more impressive when we consider he is perhaps best known as the poet of lyrical, and ‘plotless’ impressionism. The characters of The Return of John Macnab reappear in Greig’s more recent work, Romanno Bridge (2008) which was described in the Scottish Review of Books as ‘Buchan with bells on’.
Beneath the gentle romantic surface of Greig’s novels, we tend to find dark secrets, unresolved mysteries and compelling conundrums. When they lay Bare (1999) centres on the enigma surrounding the arrival of a young woman at an abandoned dwelling in the Scottish Borders. Estate owner Mr Elliot begins to wonder if this stranger is the daughter of his dead mistress, a woman which he either loved, murdered, or both. In Another Light (2004) moves between Orkney and Penang, the 1930s and the 1980s, a father and his son. Retrospectively, and through letters, we learn of the voyage of a young Scotsman who set sail for the East fifty years ago, a voyage of romance, secrecy and scandal that not only changes the father’s life for ever, but the destiny of his son.
Finally, it should not be forgotten that Greig is also a highly successful writer of non-fiction, writing that ranges from his poignant combination of golfing anecdote and autobiography in Preferred Lies (2006) to his much respected volumes on mountaineering: Summit Fever: The story of an Armchair Climber on the 1984 Mustagh Tower Expedition (1985) and Kingdoms of Experience: Everest, the Unclimbed Ridge (1986). When the academy offers a more comprehensive assessment of Andrew Greig’s career, these books will need to be read as an intrinsic dimension of the artist’s output: Preferred Lies reveals as much about the author’s passionate attachments to rural Scotland as any of his poems. Meanwhile his expedition narratives reveal an affinity with the male adventure narrative which matches anything in the novels.
Dr James Procter, 2010