Bookworm: A taste of Cava

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It’s so good to see Andrew Greig’s Found at Sea packing out Edinburgh’s Traverse last week and getting, in David-no-relation-Greig’s production, the kind of plaudits that should guarantee it a long afterlife in touring productions.

To coincide with Greig’s debut as a dramatist, Polygon has just rushed out a lovely little volume of the poems on which it was based. Written in just six weeks, they were inspired by a journey Greig and a Stromness friend made in an open dinghy to Cava, a now uninhabited island in Scapa Flow.

The poems are mainly about friendship and the challenges and pulse-racing excitement of sailing across the open sea, and work so well on that level that it is easy to overlook the amazing true story of Cava’s last inhabitants, whom Greig muses about as he camps there overnight.

They were two women, Miss Woodham and Miss Peckham – inevitably known locally as the Woodpeckers – and had it not been for a schoolgirl writing a project for Kirkwall Grammar School, their lives might have gone unrecorded. Yet their story of friendship and determination makes a fitting centrepiece for Greig’s poems.

The two women – who weren’t hermits, they welcomed visitors – lived on a tiny house on the island, without electricity, for 30 years. English by birth, they had been Land Girls in the war. In the late Fifties they headed north from their home near Bristol, pushing a buggy that contained a tea chest with their belongings and their cat Fanny in a box with a window. The buggy broke down in the Borders, so they put the tea chest on the train, picked up Fanny, and carried on walking.

I don’t know why they chose to live on Cava, only that they did until forced off by illness in the 1980s. I’d love to learn more about them, although in Greig’s warm-hearted poems we may well have as complete (in every sense) a portrait as we are likely to find.

ONLY THE FAX

SOMETIMES writers have too great expectations about what technology can do. When Maggie O’Farrell first met novelist Elspeth Barker, she was an editorial assistant on the Independent newspaper while Barker was one of its star columnists. “It’s a wonderful newspaper,” Barker told a friend. “They’ve got this amazing machine that turns my handwritten fax into print.” “That’s me,” O’Farrell told her. “I am that machine!”

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