Alasdair Gray, Writer and Artist
Pat Byrne, 2002
Alasdair Gray has an impressive record of achievement in the world of literature. Since the arrival of his first novel ‘Lanark’ in 1981 he has been recognised as an important and accomplished writer by the literary world and has continued to produce highly acclaimed works. In 1992 ‘Poor Things’ received both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Whitbread Prize and, the long awaited, ‘The Book of Prefaces’ looks set to be a classic.
‘it is a book that should be on the shelf of anyone interested in English literature, language and history’.
Personally, I am particularly impressed by the fact that the erudite Philip Hobsbaum, the English lecturer, who struck awe into me as a first year student at Glasgow University, is a big fan of Gray and very appreciative of his talents. Paul Currie, John Smith’s Bookshops, whom I mention often on the Website, is Alasdair’s walking buddy and he suggested Alasdair as a prime candidate for inclusion in our West End Characters Section. (Paul’s face can be seen in the book ‘Poor Things’ – he was Alasdair’s model for McCandless).
A graduate of Glasgow School of Art, Alasdair Gray’s books are beautifully illustrated; on the cover of The Book of Prefaces he has drawn the portraits of authors included in the book. His artistic talents can also be seen in the heart of the West End where he is painting a new mural in one of his favourite hostelry’s the Ubiquitous Chip. (Rumour has it that he painted the original mural in the 70’s for a £500 food tab).
Before meeting Alasdair formally to talk about creating this page I had often seen him out and about in the West End accompanied by his partner Morag McAlpine. I’d spotted him often in the Chip – infamous haunt of Glasgow writers, actors, university lecturers and the like. More often than not he was besplattered in paint and looking very much like your archetypal absent minded professor – though maybe more artist than academic.
We first got talking when we were sitting next to each other at the launch of Maggie Graham’s book ‘Sitting Among The Eskimos’ and we arranged to meet at the Chip. However, we did not manage to catch up properly until a couple of weeks ago, although, I kept running into Alasdair at various book launches – where his generous support to other writers was much in evidence.
When his long awaited ‘Book of Prefaces’ was launched at John Smith’s University Bookshop it was standing room only. All the important people were in attendance but it was no staid or serious event – Alasdair’s, almost childlike, exuberance leaves no room for any uptight pomposity. Aided and abetted by Paul Currie, who organised the event, and with generous inclusion of other writers such as Janice Galloway – the event was appropriately joyful and deserving of this long awaited literary tour de force.
When I met Alasdair and Morag in the Chip I was already suitably impressed by his personality and creativity; I had often admired the mural in the Chip and had been enjoying watching the progress of his new work. However, I had not widely read his work – in fact I had only read one of his books ‘Poor Things’, therefore, was not equipped to write critically on his writing. However, I had formed the opinion that he was a sincere and unique man. I was in no way disappointed when we finally had our ‘proper meeting’.
I did not find out a lot more about Alasdair’s work and it is very apparent that his main focus of interest is not himself. We talked in general about the West End and I learned from him and Morag about all sorts of goings on, about local people and plans afoot in the area. Alasdair is a listener and an observer – he suggested that I try to get in touch with a young man, Allan Richardson, who is an artist also earning a crust as a road sweeper, he told me about plans in the pipeline for an Arts Centre in Partick. He had been commissioned to design stained glass windows for the proposed Centre and has featured local writers including Liz Lochead and Bernard MacLaverty. We also chatted about Morag’s work marketing his books and I was fascinated by another role she has – writing the cross word puzzles for a newspaper. (Sadly Morag died in May, 2014. Obituary)
We did talk a bit about his childhood in Riddrie (in the East End of Glasgow) and his stint at Glasgow School of Art. He spoke about his desire to become a writer from an early age, and how impressed he was, when as a wee boy, he met the Aunt of a childhood friend who was a writer: “She had written a book and that was what I wanted to do”. However, in response to his questions, we also spoke about my childhood, my father and all sorts of things.
He does not aim to impress in any way and of course he does not need to – when I asked him whether he preferred writing or painting, and if one had been a priority for him when he started out, his answer was: “it was necessary to do both to make a living”.
I admitted to him that I had only read one of his books ‘Poor Things’ but that I was amazed by the characters in it and could not imagine how he had conjured them up. He replied that it is was no bother and he had got the idea from ‘Frankenstein’. He is modest and matter of fact, when I said that I would have to read more of his books, his response was: “No, you don’t have to do that”.
It was a pleasant way to spend an hour or two, and the time flew by. I am now half way through Lanark and having a great time – I have been sad, scared, scintillated and have had some great laughs – where else does Oor Wullie appear in Science Fiction? The book brought back happy and warm memories of my aunties singing to me: “Wee chooky birdy tol, tol, tol, Laid an egg on the windae sol”.
I’ve borrowed ‘A History Maker” from Hillhead Library and I am now a committed fan. Top of our list for good book purchases will be ‘The ‘Book of Prefaces’ – signed by the author I hope. I just wish I hadn’t kept referring to his ‘Book of Prologues’ while speaking to him. The fact that he did not feel obliged to correct me says something about the fine character of the man.
Pat Byrne, Alasdair Gray October, 2002.
Since this feature was written in 2002, Alasdair Gray has been involved in a range of interesting projects. Making even more of a mark on Glasgow’s West End and much further afield – he has completed the wonderful mural on the ceiling of OranMor and entertained us by interviewing himself on a television programme about his life. The man is quirky, charismatic and unbelievably talented, (2005)
A Bird Is Not A Stone – Anthology of Palestinian writing – launch Project Cafe, Glasgow 2014
Alasdair had a long spell in hospital after a fall, which has affected his mobility, however, neither his spirit nor his work ethic have been subdued and it’s great to see him produce new work and back in circulation. (Sept, 2017)