The Rumpus Interview with Alasdair Gray

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Writer and artist Alasdair Gray is his own best nightmare. It took the modern Scottish bard twenty-five years to finish Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981), his fat, strangely inspirational novel of urbanism gone awry. Interweaving the story of a young art student in pre- and post-War Glasgow with a parallel, cannibalistic dystopian fantasy set in a city called Unthank, Lanark pulses with an addictive blend of postmodern farce and stunning realism. After reading it, Anthony Burgess said that Gray was the most important Scottish writer since Walter Scott.

Gray paints history so intimately that it is impossible to look away. He has continued to confuse critics and delight readers with a meandering output of books bound together by an interest in how failing at love is connected to everything else. By now there’s a Gray book or artwork for every mood or yearning, including the contemplative sadomasochism of 1982, Janine (1984); a curiously romantic Frankenstein re-imagining, Poor Things (1992), which won the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize; Something Leather (1990), a tale of rambling sexualities; The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985), a high-speed London media parody that began as a theatre play; the schoolteacher politics of Old Men in Love (2007), which includes a diatribe against the War in Iraq and, like Poor Things, centers around invented historical finds; The Book of Prefaces (2000), an illustrated history of English-language literature through prefaces and marginalia; as well as other novels and numerous radio and stage plays and short stories. Last year, his former secretary and student Rodge Glass released Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography. Luath Press just put out a book of Gray’s plays, and sometime next year Canongate will let loose his anticipated volume A Life in Pictures.

Gray’s muralistic storytelling is no accident. Originally trained as an artist, he has commented slyly that he writes to support his art, and he has illustrated and designed his own books (and a smattering of other people’s) from the get-go. His woodblock-like murals, drawings and paintings are gaining increasing recognition in large part thanks to innovative Glasgow gallerist Sorcha Dallas. And he’s spent a lot of time up against the walls. Of Gray’s nine murals in public buildings, four have been destroyed and one is still being painted, at Òran Mór, a cultural center in Glasgow’s West End.

In 2007, Gray collaborated with stellar artist Francesca Lowe, and last October he was invited to speak at the Frieze Art Fair in London. Amid the chaos and sometimes obnoxious art talk of the fair, he spoke giddily about the picture books that formed his early opinions and–though this felt a little revisionist–artistic aspirations. He was interviewed on stage by Tom McCarthy (check out the free podcast here), who was surprised to find out that the harsh criticism of Gray’s work that appears at the end of Old Men in Love was actually written by Gray himself.

“I invented that hostile critic,” Gray squealed. “I thought that I had enough information to do a far better hatchet job on me than anybody else could!” His grand, sardonic sense of humor is in-line with other Scottish writers (whom everyone should read!) such as Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, and Edwin Morgan. The flap copy he created for 1982, Janine sees him at the height of this self-mockery:

This already dated novel is set inside the head of an aging, divorced, alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations who is tippling in the bedroom of a small Scottish hotel. Though full of depressing memories and Conservative propaganda, it is mainly a sadomasochistic fetishistic fantasy. Even the arrival of God in the later chapters fails to elevate the tone. Every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books, Lanark and Unlikely Stories, Mostly, is presented here in concentrated form.

Immediately following Gray’s presentation at the art fair, we headed to a nearby pub to chat. We caught up about mutual acquaintances in Edinburgh, including Chapman editor Joy Hendry, who is still struggling to keep the Scottish arts magazine alive, and the brilliant historian Angus Calder, who died tragically last year. Gray ordered a gin and tonic.

All artwork by Alasdair Gray.

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The Rumpus: Did the conversation after your Frieze slide show go as expected?

Alasdair Gray: Yes. I’m never asked unexpected questions.

Rumpus: Maybe, but suddenly everyone’s interested in your paintings.

Gray: I’ve been answering questions about my work, I suppose, since 1981 when Lanark was first published. I think people have not been generally so interested in my painting as something separate from the books. It was really less than a year ago that a Glasgow dealer, Sorcha Dallas, contacted me and indicated that she would like to sell my work. I grew up in Glasgow but there were no art dealers working there. There had been–in the late 19th century, until the 1920s, there were some quite important Glasgow art dealers just as there were Scottish artists who were exhibiting and selling work on the Continent–but all that disappeared after the Second World War.

So I was quite surprised, in the first place, to get a dealer contacting me, and then to find it was a Glasgow dealer. On the other hand, she exhibits internationally. Frieze is the international art fair she exhibits at in England, but she mentioned others. Holland, Switzerland, an art fair in Germany―is it Munich? I can’t remember. She mentioned three others. Each year she sells work for international art fairs in Europe. Is there one in America? I’m not sure. The thing is that she’s started selling my work from Glasgow and getting portrait commissions that she handles, and she’s been partly instrumental in hanging my paintings in Glasgow Print Studio.

Rumpus: She’s also setting up a foundation to collect and preserve your work. That pic at the slide show was the first picture I’d seen of your mural in the Glasgow synagogue. When you were studying mural painting how did they teach you? Did you go on fieldtrips?

Gray: One or two, not many. It was mainly looking at reproductions of Michelangelo and Giotto. Stanley Spencer I was very fond of, of course, and Diego Rivera, but I saw practically none of these as they were painted. They were just reproductions in books. I was teaching myself, you know, so I was very slow, particularly since I wasn’t being paid money to live on while I was doing it. When I was painting the church mural, “The Six Days of Creation” [Greenhead Church of Scotland, 1959], the Garden of Eden panel, I was working as a part-time teacher, three days a week, which left me four to work on the mural.

Rumpus: Were they giving feedback while you painted? Did you do an outline first and then fill it in?

alasdairgraybw0002Gray: It changed a great deal as it went along. Eventually the job took two or three years and they had hoped it would be done in two or three months. They got rather angry and were finally wanting rid of me. Fortunately, the minister was on my side. He was a quiet and rather gentle old man, but after he’d given me the deadline for when it would be finished, I came down and this particular panel wasn’t finished. I think he saw that I was on the verge of tears. He saw me and he suddenly said [in a big voice], “Finish it in your own time, Alasdair! Don’t worry about them at all!” I was very grateful to him.

Rumpus: Was the mural at the Scotland USSR Friendship Society in Glasgow supposed to be faster too?

Gray: It was never completely finished! I kept revising it, ever efficiently… I had the crucifixion on one wall, presenting it as if it was happening in the bottom of Glasgow. On the wall facing it I had the the triumph of death, the four horsemen of the apocalypse in the form of a thermonuclear warhead coming down into the middle of Glasgow, without being blown up yet. I never finished it in order to get around to doing the delights of peace in the room next door.

Also, at the time I was doing it, you had the Hungarian Uprising, you know, which the Russian tanks put down very brutally. Quite understandably, people were very angry with the Communist Party and the USSR. The director of Glasgow Art School had actually got me the commission, but at the official opening of the mural, none of the governors of the art school came.

Rumpus: Because it was too politically charged?

Gray: Possibly. Though there was very little publicity about it. There was an article about it in the first edition―the early morning edition―of the Glasgow Herald, but something else instead of it for the later edition, so there was no real coverage.

There was a Scottish professor of economics who was an advisor to Her Majesty’s government in the Treasury. Then later I heard that he was in the spy scandal involving the four British spies who turned out to be double agents for the USSR, as well as being in the British Secret Service. There was a fifth man who was never caught. This wasn’t the queen’s cousin, Anthony Blunt, who was let off. Apparently [this professor] was the fifth man, and I didn’t know, but he’d been invited to make a speech at the Scottish USSR.

I have never been a member of the Communist Party. I haven’t been a member of any political party. I tended to take―I still do―the official Communist Party paper, it used to be called The Daily Worker, it changed it’s name to the The Morning Star. The only reason I subscribe is that in political matters, it’s the only newspaper on the side of the trade unions. I would never have voted Communist because a Communist government would have immediately done away with trade unions like they did in Soviet Russia, but I felt it would be right to give a little bit of support to the Communist Party in Britain because it was the only political party that took the side of the trade unions. The Labor Party had actually been set up as an alliance of the trade unions, but the middle class socialists had decided to do without the trade unions and just go for middle class socialists.

Rumpus: There are parallels in your books between what happened under Thatcher here in Britain and what happened under Reagan in the States. In The Fall of Kelvin Walker, in 1982, Janine, in all of your work where politics comes to play directly in people’s lives, it’s often as if the stories could be taking place in America, in spite of the cultural details about Scottish and British life.

Gray: Yes, it was an interesting thing that with the British press, we didn’t know, for instance, that there were campaigns against nuclear armaments in America. Then I met some Americans and realized that they’d been demonstrating, were anti-war, and so on. In Britain we never heard that. We were supposed to see America as one solid Conservative bloc.

That’s the thing with Kurt Vonnegut and, what’s his name, Gore Vidal. Vidal talks about the United States of Amnesia, how in the USA so much of the the political past is ignored or forgotten―the fact that there was the International Workers of the World and there was a strong left wing movement operating at the populist level in America. And there’s Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which he thought should be the American national anthem, and quite a good one, too.

Rumpus: Those political attitudes play out most directly in our attitudes toward sex and sexuality. That’s part of why I think that 1982, Janine might be your best book.

Gray: Oh, it’s my favorite, too. It’s better than Lanark and the other ones.

Rumpus: It seems that many of the reviewers didn’t read more than the first 20 or 30 pages.

Gray: Aye, aye.

Rumpus: Even in your first mural, we see that things get crazier and crazier, but they always come back down to reality. And that’s the salvation in much of your work–it’s not something far away.

Gray: Yes, one review I once read was talking about Orwell’s 1984 and how no matter how dystopian a government may be, it can’t push beyond a certain point without becoming terribly incompetent.

The fact is that the Soviet Union was presented in fiction as being a terribly effective totalitarian machine, particularly their spying and policing. But it was pointed out that people spying for the Soviet Union were overseen. They had to do reports and everything. In applying for a miniature secret camera, it took weeks and weeks to get through the administration and get the funding. The only efficient spies the Soviet Union had were dedicated crypto-communists in Britain and other countries, and they were initially doing it because they believed that the future had to be communist. They were therefore spying for nothing and coming up with good results, but it was very inefficient because they weren’t believed. They were considered untrustworthy. Then suddenly it didn’t matter any more. You had Americans sending information to Russia because they could get money that way. They weren’t ideological at all. “It’s a financial arrangement, isn’t it, after all.”

Rumpus: Americans are sometimes still weirdly protectionist. In your short stories, even when politics isn’t actually there, it acts in people’s lives and affects the way they relate to each other.

Gray: It has to do with what money you have and what freedom you have to, you know, get on. My first wife was Danish. She comes through very badly in Rodge’s biography because my friends think she behaved very badly to me, and she did, she tended to have affairs with my friends, though not with my closest friends. Her basic attitude was that she didn’t enjoy sex with me and she had to do it with somebody. And I’m afraid I couldn’t take the line of, you will have sex with nobody but me! I thought, well, it’s not your fault. Just don’t tell me who it’s with, I don’t want to meet them socially.

Rumpus: Did that situation stimulate new trends in your writing?

Gray: My first marriage lasted nine years. I was writing various chapters of Lanark throughout that time and what I can remember is that near the end of the marriage, I could only relax by describing the horrible state of the city of Unthank and the institution under it. Because what I suffered…

We would have separated much earlier had we not had a son. I didn’t want to leave my son. Eventually I did because I was in danger of becoming violent. I could be friends with her again as soon as we weren’t living together.

Rumpus: Were you writing at home or did you have a separate studio?

Gray: At home. I could never have afforded two houses. We’ve always rented accommodation. Eventually we did make some money by subletting rooms. It became quite a helpful source of income.

Rumpus: Did you get to know the renters?

Gray: Oh, yes. Most of them became friends. Taught you a lot about life. Somebody once introduced me to a young artist or a young writer, I forget which, it didn’t matter which, and asked if I had advise to give. I said, try and get a house with more rooms than you need and then sublet. It will be a small income, and you’ll find that a lot of people who you trust most don’t pay you, and many people who you don’t find to be particularly trustworthy pay you quite regularly. Of course, they thought I was making fun of them, but it was the only piece of advice I could give to anybody. If someone tries to show you their writing and says, do you think I should stick to this, do you think I could become a real writer? Say to them, If you have to ask that question, no, you can’t.

Rumpus: You went back and taught writing for a few years. Did you find that your writing students were taking on similar themes to yours―Scotland, sex, politics?

Gray: Folk were admitted to the program based on something they’d written already. They were admitted because we felt that we could help them to become better at it. But we did not see it at all about telling them what to write about, just to tell them where their writing worked well and where it didn’t work well. If somebody had the basic drive to become a writer, I thought we could save them two or three years by showing them things they would find out for themselves eventually, but make it faster. It might be something as simple as to use as few adjectives and adverbs as possible, or things like sentence length. I have the bad habit in my writing of writing almost interminable sentences, joined up quite logically, then thinking, wait a minute, somebody needs time, we need a pause. Punctuation is necessary to regulate the pace at which this stuff is being taken in.

Rumpus: Has reading poetry helped you? Like maybe Hugh MacDiarmid? He’s very focused, refined.

Gray: Yes! I have, for example, studied Gerald Manley Hopkins as well as MacDiarmid, who I came to slightly later on. I began by thinking that MacDiarmid was more a poet of sound than sense. Then, having read some of his earlier lyrics, I found to my amazement that I couldn’t forget them. If it had been mere sound, I wouldn’t have remembered them. Gradually, saying “The Watergaw,” I started to think, wait, I know what he’s talking about! [Quotes from MacDiarmid's “The Watergaw”]:

Ae weet forenicht i’ the yow-trummle

I saw yon antrin thing,

A watergaw wi’ its chitterin’ licht…

[Gray interupts himself: "Or is it “glimmering" licht?"]

Ayont the on-ding.

And I’m thinking, I know what he means! It took a wee bit. The “on-ding” is a word for an on-blast of weather coming into your face. So if you’re seeing something beyond the on-ding, it’s beyond a snow storm or water. “Watergaw” is the name for a water rainbow, the kind of rainbow that forms in a mist of falling water.

Then [the narrator] thinks of this look that was given to him by somebody dying. I used to think it was by a woman, but it was actually his father. “An’ I thocht o’ the last wild look ye gied/ Afore ye deed!” The thought is of a dying person looking at you and meaning something, and not knowing what the meaning is, but knowing that there’s meaning.

Somebody is going out, like a light bulb, out, and they’re looking at me, and they know I know it, but they’re away and there’s nothing to be said. Then there’s this feeling, in bad weather, of suddenly seeing this water rainbow and thinking that it means the same thing that was meant by the dying father’s glance, or a dying anybody’s glance.

The other thing you’re finding is that there was an old Scottish speech, which I use myself. He grew up in a community where there was much old Scottish speech used. But he also mined the dictionaries of the older Scottish speech. “Aye, that’s a good one.” “Yes, use that!” He has actually restored quite a lot of meaning to Scottish words that people had forgotten.

Rumpus: Before I lived in Edinburgh, I hadn’t realized how much contemporary writing there is in Scots and in blends of Scots and other Englishes. Yet it didn’t take very long for it to start making sense, even when I didn’t know the words.

Gray: Well, the poetry of Burns was always very popular in America. His earliest book was extensively pirated in England, Ireland, and the States. Somebody worked out that there are more monuments to Burns in the USA than in Scotland. Of course, MacDiarmid was rather sarcastic about Burns Day because he felt that a lot of folk who had never read Burns found it a great occasion to be very “Scottish.” That’s why he said in “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle,” something like nobody’s name has been worse abused, or misused, except Christ and Liberty.

Rumpus: “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” was an influence on 1982, Janine its portrayal of someone getting increasingly plastered, wasted, drunk, or whatever, and thinking about Scotland.

Gray: Yes, and themselves.

Rumpus: Ron Butlin‘s The Sound of My Voice, which is a very pointed alcoholic “fantasy,” is like that too. It’s ethereally serious.

Gray: I haven’t read that one, though I know about it.

Rumpus: Sorcha Dallas has resurrected your early-70s project “Now and Then,” a short film with art by you and poems by Liz Lochhead. It’s a story about a couple breaking up―one poem ends with “New Love. New War.”―but it’s entirely fictional, right?

Gray: At that time, I had written some things for television. The only company in Scotland that commissioned things then was children’s school television. I’d written some plays for this producer in Glasgow, Malcolm Hossick of BBC Scotland, and he was interested in my art. He wanted to make a picture that would combine filmmaking with my art. He got this idea of using a room in his own flat. It wasn’t actually a Glasgow tenement, it was quite a posh terrace house, but the idea was that this room, a bedsit, had been rented by a woman art student. The film would would show her in the present tense, getting up and having a lonely breakfast, then performing various things throughout the day, but while doing it, remembering episodes. Her past memories would be shown through my pictures.

The actress who played her was a friend of mine and Liz Lochhead‘s. She was no longer an art student. She was filmed in the present, in my house. When it moved into flashback you would see her with her lover. The bloke who played her lover was actually her boyfriend. They’ve been married for years now.

Rumpus: So for once art didn’t destroy the relationship. Though I guess the film was never made.

Gray: No it wasn’t. As usual, I was operating on too big a scale, too all-over-it. By the time I finished the pictures, Malcolm Hossick had left and wanted to live somewhere else. Nobody was paid anything. Liz Lochhead wasn’t commissioned, we just asked her to write a set of poems about the course of the love affair. [Indicates "The Rainbow" (1972), a picture with three versions of the same couple and a metalic-looking rainbow outside the window.] “The Rainbow” was to be recited over this picture. It was devised so the camera would be traveling up it until the end of the poem: “Our rainbow arched and spread, grew/ more and more vibrant until/ it came to earth with a shock.”

Rumpus: A book of your plays is coming out in 2009.

Gray: From Luath Press in Edinburgh. I just finished a play based on Goethe’s Faust. It’s called Fleck. He’s presented as being a modern university professor and scientist. He has discovered an interface between physics, plant growth, and psychology.

Rumpus: Does it have to do with drugs?

Gray: No, it’s presented as occurring after Nick―Mephistopheles, whom I call Nick―has become his laboratory assistant, and he wins the Nobel Prize. It starts with a prologue in heaven, like Goethe’s, in which Nick is like Satan in the Book of Job―certainly not the Christian Devil, more like God’s spy, the Chief of Police. It begins by describing Job, who is righteous but not tremendously rich. And he has a large family. God says, “Do you know my servant Job?” “Oh yes.” “Very rich isn’t he?” “Oh yes, he does everything you want.”

At the end of it, God relents. It’s not a very convincing ending, but it tackles the problem of evil. It makes it very plain that there is only one God in heaven and the Devil is to do what he is told.

Rumpus: And we’re being “tested” all the time.

Gray: The point is that unlike Goethe’s Faust, who rejects and neglects the woman who bears his child so that she commits infanticide, my Faust marries the woman he loves and they have a baby. The play happens in a universe where the souls of man are not immortal. God, the angels, the Devil, Nick, they are immortal. They go on forever. But I’m glad to say that my play ends with the Devil thoroughly cheated: “I hope this entertainment pleased you well. It has no moral. See you all in Hell!”

In my version, God says, “How’s the world getting on?” The response is that the world might be, perhaps, “a tremendous joke that pleases you.” Fleck is unhappy, like all decent folk who could not find the thing they strove for hard and long.


Rumpus contributing editor Ari Messer was a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian from 2006-2010. Here is his web life. More from this author →