Tuesday 23 March 2021

Just fishin'

Our house is awash with books and one just surfaced which a) I haven't read b) I didn't know we owned. It's only really since I R retire that I've found time to read, like, books, like I did in my 20s. A full time job and a full time Blob sure fills the time. Andrew Grieg is a poet, novelist, climber and rambler from Scotland. As a 17 year old from Anstruther, Fife he sent a sheaf of his poems to Norman MacCaig, a poet whose work he admired. As a 17 year old from rural Essex, I sent a sheaf of my poems to R.S Thomas, a poet whose work I admired. Grieg got a much more positive response; possibly because he's a poet rather than a self-pitying, hormonal mess with long hair and spots. Indeed he received a post-card asking him to drop in when he was next in Edinburgh. MacCaig [L, as ever with whisky and fag] was about 40 years older than the restless young Grieg but treated him with respect and sensitivity and it began a friendship which last for nearly 3 decades until MacCaig died, in the fullness of his years, in 1996. Young Grieg thus got to hang out with the best Scots poets of the previous generation and such peripheral luminaries as, own own, Seamus Heaney.

Sometime, in the mid-90s, Grieg and MacCaig were getting drunk together again and, in his cups, the young fella asked The Master what was his favourite place in all the world. MacCaig replied "Assynt".
"I know it's Assynt, but where in Assynt? what's your favourite place?"
"I think that would have to be the Loch of the Green Corrie. Only it's not called that . . ."

Game on!

The next time they were in the same room, MacCaig was in his coffin, and the book At the Loch of the Green Corrie is the story of Grieg's pilgrimage to catch a fish from that loch [spoiler location R] in honour of the great man, his mentor and friend. He chooses to go camping & fishing with the Dorward brothers whom he'd known since school days and one of the threads in the book is men being comfortable in each other's silence. There is whisky, of course, and lazy evenings of talk after a hard day of thrashing the goddamn loch for fish which are utterly indifferent to their efforts. On the third day of this quixotic quest, Peter Dorward, the luckiest, most skilled and persistent of them, catches and lands a fish. Honour is satisfied and the three middle-aged men return to their day jobs in three different continents.

The book is 300 pages longer than that and those pages are not blank. They are full of poetry and appreciation of the good things in life, with some regrets, some near-death-experience to stop it seeming saccharine. The good things are not Volvos or iPads or even whisky. It is rather the moments of earthy heaven, so right, so brief, so real.

"It is what Norman and [his bestie] AK Macleod, looking down from the place they do not believe in, would give anything for - one more day of catching or not catching fish at any lochan. Fish supper warm in the hand on a cold wet night, heading home hungry - nothing beats this, nothing. This is what the dead envy us, the sweetness at the heart of physical existence".

All day we fished
the loch clasped in the throat
of Canisp, that scrawny mountain,
and caught trout and
invisible treasures.
We walked home, ragged millionaires,
our minds jingling, our fingers
rustling the air
Norman MacCaig (1910-1996)

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