A matter of life and death

Haunted by the Battle of Britain, Andrew Greig faced mortal moments of his own.
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The Independent Culture

Andrew Greig looks mildly out of place in his rumpled T-shirt in the bar of the Groucho Club, where he is trying to negotiate a Danish pastry from the waiter. "I used to come down here from Anstruther for free on the fish lorry when I was 17," he whispers to me. "This was the part of London you came to. Soho was excitingly squalid in those days," he confides wistfully, glancing around, "but now it seems to have gone a bit upmarket."

Andrew Greig looks mildly out of place in his rumpled T-shirt in the bar of the Groucho Club, where he is trying to negotiate a Danish pastry from the waiter. "I used to come down here from Anstruther for free on the fish lorry when I was 17," he whispers to me. "This was the part of London you came to. Soho was excitingly squalid in those days," he confides wistfully, glancing around, "but now it seems to have gone a bit upmarket."

Something similar has happened to Greig's writing style; not sedate gentrification, but a craftsman's smoothing out of rough textures. His first novel, Electric Brae, was written a decade ago when Greig was already an acclaimed poet. He winces to recall it. "Raw," he nods. "Emotionally very raw." But powerful, complex, searching, as young lovers steadily tear themselves apart with their struggles to express desires and comprehend fears. This might be Greig's grandest theme: the overwhelming, shocking experience of love, and the mettle needed to meet it head on.

"Everything that I write is a love story," he agrees. "Essentially what seems to interest me - and this is true for my poetry as well as my novels - is loss and renewal, and fear and courage. I have come to these formulations very simply," he speaks quickly and emphatically, as though his personal calibrations of the soul are as provable as quadratic equations.

"Loss is inevitable, and renewal is possible," he says. "Falling in love with somebody is one of the most common forms of renewal that we know of... Not everybody can relate to renewal through war or ice-climbing or near-death experiences, but everybody seems to be able to relate to renewal through falling in love."

Both ice-climbing and near-death experiences have played their part in the writing of That Summer, (Faber & Faber, £9.99), his new novel based upon an earlier poetry collaboration with fellow-Scot, Kathleen Jamie. Alternate meditations from Len, a Hurricane pilot, and Stella, a radar defence operator watching the skies for enemy planes, tenderly reveal the courageous love between them.

Set in Kent during what became known as the Battle of Britain, That Summer captures the uncertainty of war: the precious laughter as well as the boredom and danger, and the real possibility that either lover might be dead by next day. "The same kind of insecurities that we have in peacetime are heightened," he explains. "I was preoccupied with how one can live and love fully in the knowledge that any day you or the one you love could die."

Greig's Himalayan climbing expeditions in the mid-1980s made him forcibly aware of the heightened sense of being that accompanies severe risk. This translated easily onto the dilemma of Len's existence: flying every day possibly never to return, or returning to find Stella killed in a raid. Greig recalls that "All the sharp-edge Himalayan climbers lived a bit like fighter pilots, staying up late to drink and smoke too much. They were very restless, as though life was just a bit too flat for them."

The intense, sensuous tone of That Summer is the result of a long distillation of personal experiences. As a wee laddie with Airfix Spitfires and Messerschmitts dog-fighting around his bedroom, Greig hankered after flying until his less than 20/20 vision limited his options to being a navigator. "Sod that!" he exclaims, peering jubilantly through his oval glasses. "I mean, who wants to be a navigator?"

He began steeping in the ambience of the Battle of Britain in the 1970s, when he spent six summers hop-picking in Kent. Many war veterans were still around. But it wasn't until he worked on an archaeological dig in Kent in the mid-Eighties that the atmosphere of "that summer" began to close in on him. "I was digging a neolithic henge," Greig remembers, "so my sense of time was already getting a bit slippy. We were next to a private museum airfield where every day a Hurricane would fly in to land. This must have affected me because I began dreaming that I was somebody else: Len... It was like a case of possession. He was younger than me, English, and the uniform, accent, and whole cast of mind was not mine."

He dictated a statement to the dreaming Greig about what it was like to be a fighter pilot, which became the seed poem of A Flame in Your Heart. More dreams followed in Canada, including the nightmare of Len's death. Kathleen Jamie wrote the female voice and the poems were published in 1986. Greig thought no more of it.

Then, 18 months ago, a life-threatening colloid cyst brought him to within 40 minutes of death. By luck, Greig was 15 minutes from one of Britain's two top neurological hospitals and a surgeon was whisked across town with a police escort to operate.

He was overwhelmed with gratitude. "I wanted to fall on the man's neck!" he exclaims. "I came to with a very powerful sense of being alive, but also a sense of fragility. A number of my friends had actually died around this time, and I was terribly aware of my mortality." It was the shock of these experiences that brought him back to the themes of A Flame in Your Heart.

That Summer is also "a general existential book", saturated with the cigarettes and pubs, dances and hedgerow assignations of blacked-out Kent. "I wanted the reader to live through this extreme period imaginatively," Greig explains. "Hopefully it leads to a better understanding of the generation that made postwar society. I realised that, after the sickening dread and enervation of wartime, what that generation wanted was Normal - lots and lots of Normal - and that became the crashingly boring Fifties. Now I see why they wanted it."

Only after he began writing That Summer did Greig's mother casually offer him her journal and some letters from that summer. "I was very moved," he confesses, and "I became more and more aware that what I was writing was really a kind of homage to her, and to all that generation."

That summer is still in the air, both metaphorically, with the sixtieth anniversary, and literally. "Some radio signals, caught between earth and the heavy-side layer, still bounce back and forward like ping-pong balls - and they don't decay!" Greig enthuses.

"Occasionally, radio hams pick up these signals, and listen to the voices of people live as they are flying over Germany or bombing or getting killed." His novel beautifully picks up this delayed zeitgeist, filtering the distant signals from that summer into an aching, insistent love story.

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