Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

 Fair Helen cover

Fair Helen by Andrew Greig was published in 2013 and the setting is the Scottish Borders. Elizabeth the First of England is coming to the end of her life and James VI of Scotland is waiting impatiently to inherit the English crown.

The story is written around the Border Ballad Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea which is a Scottish version of Romeo and Juliet and the tale is told by Harry Langton who is Helen’s cousin and a friend of Adam, the young man Helen is in love with. But it’s a time of political turmoil, with Border reiving (raiding) still common practice amongst the families living on each side of the Border. They are all controlled by a ‘heidsman’ really just a gang leader.

Helen’s parents intend to marry her off to Robert Bell, he’s ambitious and very violent, and Harry Langton has to act as a look-out when Adam and Helen have their secret meetings. Harry isn’t exactly a hardman though and he ends up getting duffed up by Bell’s minions, but we know that he has survived to old age as he is narrating the story as an old man. Although not a natural fighter he is taught to fight and does take part in a hot-trod which is what they called legitimate hot pursuit, but of course each family regarded every raid as being legitimate. It was a means of surviving in a harsh environment.

This book reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of King’s although that one is set earlier in Henry VIII time. Greig’s language is earthier but I’m sure that it is more authentic. There is a lot of dialogue in Scots dialect but there is a glossary at the back of the book for those who don’t know the Scots words, it wasn’t a problem for me of course. I read Fair Helen as part of the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Jack recommended that I read this book, he rates Andrew Greig’s writing very highly, I think I’ve read three or four of his books now and they have all been very different but his writing is very good, very Scottish and very literary but not in a dry way. Harry Langton is a devotee of Michel de Montaigne and other philosophers, so I was really pleased that I had recently read a book about Montaigne. You can read Jack’s much more thorough review here.

That Summer by Andrew Greig

That Summer cover

That Summer by Scottish author and poet Andrew Greig was first published in 2000 and it’s the first book which I’ve read by him, it won’t be the last though. Luckily my library has all of his books.

The title refers to the summer of 1940 when World War 2 was just beginning to hot up after a period of unreal quiet, referred to by all as ‘the phoney war’.

The setting is mainly England although at one point the main character Len is posted to Scotland for a short time. There are four main characters: Leonard Westbourne is a young fighter pilot and his friend Tadeusz is a Polish fighter pilot who is much more experienced, in all ways really. Tad is a devil for the women, as apparently the Poles were, according to my dear old friend Marjorie who fell in love with one (the last love of my life she said) who was based in Kelso in those dark days, but I’m wandering off the subject.

Len and Tad team up with the two friends Maddy and radar operator Stella who both must be a bit crazy to be going out with fighter pilots given their life expectancy, but then there was danger everywhere and you had to live for the day.

Jack gave me this book after he had read it saying that he thought I would like it, he thought it was very good and you can read his more professional review of it here.

At first I thought it was a bit slow but I really got into it and my only gripe was that as the story is told in the words of the main characters it wasn’t always instantly obvious who was ‘speaking’.

Otherwise this book is a very good depiction of what it must have been like to be ‘one of the few’ in the Battle of Britain and to be involved with them.

The blurb on the front says, ‘It will be a long time since a book has made you care so much.’ – The Times

In fact during the 1970s I worked with a woman who had been a radio operator in communication with fighter pilots during the war, hearing everything that was going on up there, no fun at all and it makes you wonder how people managed to just get back to normal life after years of listening to such things. But they did and those young women who were stationed near Blackpool only wobbled when London was pasted and they couldn’t get in touch with their families down there. I wonder if my generation would have been as stoical?

This is another one read for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.