Let me just say that I am not a golfer. The closest I’ve come is a few rounds of putting with the children at the seaside. But I promise you, this book is about a great deal more than hitting a ball around a golf course (though it is very much about that, too). Its author calls it “an odd book about being alive, Scotland, transience, fathers and sons, mediated through the practice of golf.”
Andrew Greig is a Scottish poet and novelist who has also written two books about Himalayan mountaineering expeditions and another book, At the Loch of the Green Corrie, which is about his relationship with the poet, Norman MacCaig, about fishing, about friendship . . . it could be described as a companion piece to this book about golf, and is just as hard to pin down.
What Andrew Greig doesn’t tell you about Preferred Lies is that it is beautifully written and often very moving. After a near-death experience which leaves him lying in a hospital bed ‘drifting in some kind of ante-chamber that I thought of as blue shadowlands’, he slowly emerges from the terrifying uncertainty that follows a brain injury, and it’s golf that offers him a way forward. “But through those long ward nights on the edge of panic, when I could no longer hold Lesley’s face in my mind’s eye, it was to picturing Anstruther golf course that I turned.” Lesley is Greig’s wife.
Preferred Lies, it should be noted, is a book about Scottish golf; not about the kind of golf Donald Trump plays, and assuredly not about the kind of golf courses Trump owns. You can read about them in another great read — Commander-in-Cheat by Rick Reilly – hundred-foot-high waterfalls, anyone? Three of them on one course?
This book opens on the tiny island of North Ronaldsay, outermost of the Orkney islands:
“Pop. C62, plus 3,500 rare-breed North Ronaldsay sheep . . . The ‘clubhouse’ is a battered shed perched on breeze blocks. It is slightly skewed, and faded and tattered as everything is here by wind, salt and light. There is no starter, no tee-off booking, no queue at the first tee. In fact, there is no identifiable tee. There are also no golfers.”
As Greig plays a series of golf courses, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of old friends, sometimes with people he meets along the way, he is also constantly in the company of ghosts. They are with him from the moment he finds himself close to death, floating in those ‘blue shadowlands’ where his father talks to him about playing golf and his friends share stories and laughter. “It didn’t strike me as odd they were all dead.”
And so the book becomes a kind of memoir, too, and Greig’s father is perhaps the most vivid character in it. Not that you won’t meet plenty of other great characters here, some alive, some dead. Greig reflects on his life and on his future, as befits a man who is himself a kind of revenant. He also manages to slip in a considerable amount of information about the history of golf in Scotland.
He is often funny. He speculates at one point that Yeats may have been a golfer: “For surely only a man who has watched a smartly struck long put run across the green, swerve then clatter into the hole, could write: ‘So great a sweetness flows/ I shake from head to foot.’”
I’ve given copies of Preferred Lies to friends several times, partly in order to see the looks on their faces when I recommend them a book about golf. It’s the kind of book you might pick up in a holiday cottage or second-hand bookshop, wonder what it’s about, and find yourself still sitting there, reading, a couple of hours later. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to replace it. I give it to people because it is life-enhancing, funny, entertaining, honest, sometimes sad and always very Scottish.
Preferred Lies is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.