This week’s Recommended Read comes from Angela Macmillan, editor of our A Little, Aloud anthologies and co-editor of The Reader, who found herself surprisingly drawn to Andrew Grieg’s book about fishing, poetry, and life, At the Loch of the Green Corrie.
Sometimes it happens that we stumble across a good book purely by chance, or serendipity. I love that. It so happened that I was reading a review of Robert McFarlane’s recent book The Old Ways, in the Literary Review. The thing that impressed me was not so much the book under review as the voice of the reviewer – original and vital. Fortunately The Literary Review publish very short biogs of their reviewers, in this case Andrew Greig. It simply gave the title of his latest book, At the Loch of the Green Corrie. Google told me Greig was a poet, mountaineer and novelist. I looked up LOTGC and discovered it was a non-fiction book about fishing in the very north of Scotland and his friendship with the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig. Now, I confess I hardly know MacCaig’s work, I have never been fishing (except for crabs in Salcombe) and the last time I went to Scotland was to Glasgow in 1989. What could I possible want with this book? Yet the thought of that special voice led me to press on. It seemed the idea of the book came from something MacCaig said to Greig shortly before MacCaig’s death in 1996.
“I should like you to go and fish for me at The Loch of the Green Corrie”… “Only it’s not called that. But if you go to Lochinver and ask for a man called Norman MacAskill, if he likes you he may tell you where it is. If you catch a trout, I shall be delighted. And if you fail, then looking down from a place in which I do not believe, I shall be most amused.’
I was becoming more and more drawn in. A book with maps and photographs and poems didn’t seem suited to reading on a Kindle so I left it there but the following day took me into Birkenhead and as I was just passing Waterstones (not true, I never ‘just pass’ a bookshop) I asked, without hope, if they had this book in stock. After scratching around for a bit, the assistant finally came back looking triumphant and I knew that this was one of those books I was meant to read.
And after all that, did I love it? Yes I did. And would I recommend it? Definitely, though I would not be surprised if some say they could not get on with it. There is quite a lot of fishing, and quite a lot of unstructured wandering about in time and place and a good helping of MacCaig’s poetry. I can’t say I took to MacCaig as a person, but I enjoyed Greig’s love for him and I was interested in the poems. Several years after MacCaig’s final request, Greig went to Scotland in search of the Loch in the company of two of his oldest and best friends. Their days in Assynt are filled with the emotive landscape, their shared past, their affection for each other and their plans for the future. There is nothing trivial here. Greig reflects on the history and geology of Scotland, the meaning of whisky, the importance of kinship; and recovering from serious illness – on what it means to be alive.
Did they find the Loch of the Green Corrie that was not even called that? Did they catch the trout? Read the book and find out, but read it slowly. Here is Greig setting out:
‘There are places and times on this Earth when the ground as it were grows thin, and the dead arise of themselves. Gone days, dead parents, lost friends, old loves, rise round us as an escort, an entourage, to provoke, counsel and console. As we drive, or lie with a book at the day’s end, we may glimpse them at the edge of vision. They must be spoken with, if we are to remain honest.
Without digging or summoning, absences rise quivering like midges over bracken, like heat-haze over a Highland road – the A 835, for instance, west of Altguish, as I drive it in late May. They move along with me as I turn the wheel, and lift my eyes to see again Suilven’s sandstone dome raise, above the village of Lochinver, its monumental correlative of Norman MacCaig’s forehead.
It is not nostalgia, this feeding on air as certain plants do. It seems our roots are in the invisible.’