Glasgow: Pat's Guide to the West End: Alasdair Gray, Writer and Artist

Alasdair Gray in the Chip

Good to see Alasdair's talent being utilised at Oranmor - due to open June, 2004. (17th April, 2004).

Alasdair Gray has an impressive record or 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'. (The Complete Review)

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 Web site, 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).

Alasdair Gray Mural

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 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 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'.

Alasdair Gray

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 observor - he suggested that I try to get in touch with a young man, Allen 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 McLaverty. 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.

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, 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 prefered 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 dreamt 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 bye. 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.


Alistair Gray is feature in The feature mentions this article.

Pat Byrne, October, 2000.

It's funny people seem to have enjoyed Lanark more through intuition than through conscious understanding. It was crystal clear to me (don't take me wrong, I don't mean I'm right); if I dare pointing out any blemish it'd be the childish style of some parts, as when the creator speaks with Thaw, good trick for an early 20th writer like Unamuno, but a bit of a cheap gimmick for the postmodern reader. Politics, the new world order with its bright image and corrupted insides, the new psychological traumas of the modern human being,... It's all there. Absolutely meaningful to me after a long dive into the most astonishing city, Glasgow. Thaw said Glasgow is as big as your imagination can make it and my imagination made it huge. This book perfectly explains my feelings about the city and, at another level, about the world by that time. I temporarily suffered from dragon hide when I had to come back to sunny Spain.
Love to all Scotish people and land.
--Sara ( saratana at olemail dot com ) from Spain on 28.1.2003; 14:32:06 Uhr

Having just finshed reading 'Lanark' i can honestly say that i both loved and hated it. It is full of so much wisdom and beautifully brilliant insight into the state of cultural affairs (and like the only book which i could possibly compare it to - the Bible - will probably continue to be relevant forever), whilst at the same time spiralling of into worlds where nothing makes sense and probably never would no matter how many times one was to read it.
Like many others, I can't help but view Thaw as Gray, a man too caught up in notions (probably not delusions) of his own brilliance and grandeur to really give a fuck about what anyone else thinks of him or whether that many people understand what on earth (or in Hell i suppose) he is talking about.
I have nothing more concrete to say than that.
--Ian Shine ( ian dot shine at talk21 dot com ) from England on 16.11.2002; 15:37:18 Uhr

I first became aware of Alasdair Grays existence and the book Lanark as a result of a reference to it and a comment made by Gray in a collection of articles by Ian Jack called Before The Oil Ran Out and as a result ordered the book Lanark from McDougall Bros. bookshop in Moss St. Paisley in about 1991.

Finally I got a post card to say it had arrived and could be collected from the shop, and I was soon clutching it and hurrying home in anticipation and almost immediately began reading it (infact I dipped into it on the bus from Paisley) from cover to cover and enjoying it thoroughly though not understanding much of it despite re-reading it determinedly wearing my thinking cap many times, relishing the illustrations, the quirks the hilarious index of plagiarisms and so much more.

There were so may imprecise parallels, was Unthank Glasgow, what the hell was dragonhide, was the institution a lunatic asylum and much more, I doubt if re-reading it today (older but not necessarily wiser) it would make much more sense than it did then.
I believed that Gray himself was the character in the book completely, a hopeless half-mad failure and hoped to meet him one day paint-spattered and shambling along muttering to himself examining the contents of the litter bins in Sauchiehall Street, to buy him a roll 'n square sliced sausage and demand as my price that he explain his infuriatingly complex book to me.

The ultimate fate of that copy of the book was that in the throes of a clearout of several hundred books which threatened to overwhelm me and my living space it cut in two with a saw halfway down at a right angle to the spine to make two mini books and almost contemplated reading each half right through as two separate books to see if it made any more sense, no kidding. Of course I didn't and discarded it mercilessly along with so much more which I now miss.

The point of my adding a comment here is that works such as Grays 'Why Scots Should Rule Scotland', which I have only recently having become aware of and have not read, should most definitely be available in some online textual form (unlike Lanark where the sheer beauty of the typography and style could hardly be reproduced) so that it can find the widest possible audience, or at least for my benefit alone.

It is a widely held belief that devolution is a sham and the new parliament is populated with moronic party non-entities, I think differently I believe the situation is far worse.
--tommy ( stoned dot user dot NOSPAMPLEASE at ntlworld dot com ) from Scotland on 20.6.2002; 0:23:32 Uhr


I think Alisdair your art is very interesting .but unfigured to decipher for me at least .your better at writing! also met classical guitarist and handy drawer (like his last supper drawing) Daniel Heafey at your place .you and him are very lovely people thank you.

Peter Turlin | Thu Jul 21 2011

Dear Alasdair Gray, I used your old email address but it seems it is out of use. Would you please grant me an interview on Lipverpool as a cultural capital - as you see it? I am publishing it in our best world literature reveiw. Best, Lidia

LIDIA VIANU | Mon Jun 09 2008

Hola Mr. Gray, me encantan sus libros y le admiro, yo le conoci a vds. por Geri Tood, que me presento en un Pub de Glasgow y de tal pre4sentaci.on me regalo un libro tiyulado Pobres Criaturas en espa?ol y una copia de una pintura de vds. Mr. Gray. Me dedico el libro: To Jes?s of Madrid el 24 of July 1999,y de lo cual estoy muy orgulloso de tal encuentro, desde entonces sigo leyendo sus libros.Un fuerte abrazo y muchas gracias, Mr. Gray. Atentamente Jes?s of Madrid

Jes?s Borlaf | Thu Aug 02 2007

I was presented a copy of Lanark by my Brother 26 years ago, unfortunatly the bugger gave it to me in paperback format. Fortunatly I purchased the hardback soon after. Brother Peter's inside insription said "Man this is the FUCKIN Bible* Whilst throughout our 50 year history I have rarely agreed with my Brother, He was yet again wrong. Man this is the FUCKIN WORD.

Douglas Gray | Fri Feb 23 2007

I met Alistair Gray while spending a few years in lovely Glasgow. He is, as you've said, a genuine and real man with a pure view of the world. Morag is a great companion for hime and, together, they make an evening in the West End an intellectual treat. I miss them very much and I wish Alistair and Morag long and wonderful lives. Alistair's books are impossible to put down and I only wish that the literati in the US would make him known to the public here. Sometimes I think the US doesn't have a clue as to what good writing is all about. A visit with Alistair could easily remedy that. The next time someone runs into him at The Chip please buy him a pint for me.

Meg Davis | Mon Sep 26 2005

Lanark - which I am still reading - is not that complex. It simply requires a good, stable imagination. It is an experiment in free association, to some extent. A surrealist-realist attack on the mental faculties. A fictional switch-blade. Dull, mute, guttural, amatuer. These are all the things that make it a Great Book, in my tiny, insignificant view. The imagery - makes the book, one has to see the book, in imaginative visual brillance. that's the only bit that I would call complex. The book is a series of painting's. o, i've said too much.

C. McGuire | Wed Sep 08 2004

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