ALASDAIR GRAY IS an extraordinary man, both in his strong points and in his weaknesses. It is rare for anyone to have great ability both in writing and in the visual arts. He has read widely and he seems to have retained most of it in his memory. As Joe Murray, the type-setter who worked on the design-intensive layout of Alasdair’s The Book of Prefaces, said, “He has a brain like a razor blade and can be thinking about three different points of the book at once”. In spite of all of this, and I do not think that Alasdair has any doubt about his own abilities, he is not arrogant or conceited. He is friendly, unpretentious and generous.
If this all sounds like human perfection, Alasdair has also definite weaknesses and he would be the first to admit them. Some, I think follow, from acute shyness. This often makes him behave in public in a strange way. Alasdair remarked on this himself once: “When I notice I am saying something glib, naive, pompous, too erudite, too optimistic, or too insanely grim I try to disarm criticism by switching my midland Scottish accent to a phony form of Cockney, Irish, Oxbridge, German, Ameri-can or even Scottish”.
Sometimes he also indulges in some clowning about, or simply disappears. The first time I met Alasdair was just after such a disappearance. This was at an event which should have been a triumphant celebration. He had worked for decades on his major literary project, the novel Lanark, and struggled to find a publisher. Finally he persuaded Stephanie Wolfe Murray of Canongate Books in Edinburgh to produce a handsome volume of 560 pages, decorated, of course, with Alasdair’s own drawings. When Canongate launched the book at Tweedale Court in Edinburgh on 11 August 1981 (I still have my copy of the invitation), there were speeches about the importance of the book and high praise for the author; but when Alasdair was called upon to speak, he had disappeared. I met him afterwards in a dark corner of the building as I was leaving.
Something similar happened a few years later. He had accepted my invitation to write an autobiographical sketch for the Saltire Society’s Self-Portraits series. When this was published in 1988, we held a launch party in a book-shop in Edinburgh. This time Alasdair did not appear at all. He telephone to apologise next day and said that he had mistaken the date.
I invited him to write another autobiographical essay, along with about thirty of his contemporaries, for a collection called Spirits of the Age: Scottish Self-Portraits, published by the Saltire Society in 2005. This time he added a postscript to his original text. It concluded: “Being born of hardworking people I want to die working. While at work, my time passes unconsciously, is painless, can amount to satisfaction. Alzheimer’s or some form of senile decay is also a possible ending, in which case I hope to accept it as a holiday”. He certainly keeps on working, even when he is in hospital.
His work of course includes not only writing but painting as well. For the last few years this has included his magnificent mural on the ceiling of the Oran Mor in Glasgow, once a church now a café and performance space. Since it involves clambering over scaffolding and lying on his back while he paints, this is work which must be uncomfortable and even painful at times. Once when I telephoned his home while he was engaged in it, his wife, Morag, told me that Alasdair was “doing the Michelangelo again”. Of course Gray’s eccentricities are a triviality in contrast to his great talents. In fact, they make him a better companion and friend than would the opposite quality of arrogant self-confidence.
If Alasdair had any other weaknesses they would almost certainly have been detected by Rodge Glass. His biography, Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biograph is an uninhibited and lively account. Glass decided in 2001 to enrol in a Creative Writing course run jointly by Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities. Alasdair was one of the tutors. Glass had already met him by chance in a pub (where else?) in 1998, and after joining the course he insisted on having Gray as his personal tutor. They grew closer when he became Alasdair’s secretary for several years. The biography includes frequent extracts from Glass’s frank and detailed diary. Once, after his record of a long and intrusive conversation with Alas-dair himself, he adds a footnote: “It was the first time I felt dirty about writing this book”.
Glass has not restricted the scope of his biography to what Alasdair revealed about himself. He has also enquired into his early life with ruthlessness and determination. He gives a fresh account of Alasdair’s childhood and his reticence in speaking about his mother. He tells us about Alasdair’s problems with eczema and asthma and his fondness for the bottle.
The account of his unfortunate first marriage with a young Danish nurse was new to me. Shortly after the wedding she decided that she did not want to sleep with Alasdair, but expected him to leave the house when she wanted to go to bed with another man. Years after they were divorced she turned up in Alasdair’s flat, fond of him at last, as she was dying. She insisted on spending her last days with Alasdair in bed, with his new wife, Morag, exiled to a mattress on the floor. Her acceptance of this is an example of Morag’s steady support of Alasdair. She is the ideal wife for him, patient, tolerant and understanding. Glass himself falls under Alas-dair’s charm. “Not only do I care greatly for Alasdair”, he says towards the end of the book, “but I also want him to care greatly for me”.
Glass’s biography follows Alasdair’s literary career step by step and naturally concentrates on the first and most ambitious book, the partly autobiographical, Lanark. He describes its enthusiastic reception. William Boyd reviewed it in the Times Literary Supplement in which he said that it was “undoubtedly the best work of fiction written by a Scottish author for decades”. Anthony Burgess said, “It was about time
Scotland produced a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom. This is it”. In Scotland the young generation of novelists praised it. Ron Butlin said: “Lanark made things seem possible…. The novel is not dead”. It was just at this time that I had arranged with the Saltire Society to start a new literary award for the Scottish Book of the Year. We were delighted to have such a book as its first winner.
Twenty years later Alasdair published in 2001 A Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writings. In his introduction he describes Lanark as “a grossly over-rated novel”. Perhaps that was one of his jokes, but there is a sense in which the first reaction to it was over-rated. That is, it was over-rated in the sense that it was hailed as a book which reawakened Scottish literature from a long period of decline. In fact, the previous fifty years had been a period of achievement. To prove the point, one need only mention a few of the names who spearheaded a revival of Scottish literature in this period: in poetry, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch, Sorley MacLean, Edwin Morgan, and Norman MacCaig; in fiction, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Neil Gunn, Eric Linklater, and Naomi Mitchison; in the theatre, Hector Macmillan, Robert Kemp, Robert McLellan, and Ena Lamont Stewart.
With such a history it is absurd to suggest that in 1981 Scottish literature was in such a state of decline and inactivity that it needed Lanark to provoke it into life. There is, I think, a clue in a well-known passage in the novel itself, which Glass quotes in the biography:
“Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and the library. And when our imagination needs to exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the Ameri-can West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as music hall songs and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world. That’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”
Glass then adds the comment: “It is testament to the effect of the book that this, one of Lanark’s most famous passages, may seem out of date to readers familiar with modern Glasgow. If that is true, it is partly because Lanark was written, received and understood”.
In other words, it is not Scottish literature which needed the stimulus of Lanark, but Glasgow itself. Since it has lost its role as one of the great capitals of engineering, building a large part of the ships and locomotives in the world, Glasgow has sought a new reputation. It has found it in music, and the other arts. Gray and his literary friends and colleagues, including Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard and James Kel-man, have put Glasgow on the literary map. Of course, in spite of the remark in Lanark Glasgow had several good novels, well before the new brigade.
The affection and support which Alas-dair commands from the Scottish literary community as a whole was evident when he came to write The Book of Prefaces . This could be described as a guide to the literary and intellectual history of the world from the seventh to the twentieth century. It consisted of prefaces or other statements of their ideas and objectives by writers and thinkers from Caedmon and Bede to Shaw, Synge and Owen, accompanied by an essay on each of them. Finally published in 2000, it was a handsome volume illustrated and embellished by Alasdair himself. His Author’s Blurb said that anyone could read nothing else but newspaper supplements and still seem educated. “Do not let smart children handle this work. It will help them to pass examinations without reading anything else”.
So bold a project was too large a task even for Alasdair to complete in time to meet the demands of the publisher. So he asked for help from about thirty friends. All did as they were told, and without payment, although Alasdair gave them the original of their portrait sketch which formed part of the décor of the book. My own contribution was to write the essays on Adam Smith, Walter Scott and John Galt. Alasdair amended all such contributions to accord with his own views and style; but no one, as far as I know, complained. The launch of the book in Edin-burgh was a grand occasion if only because it was held in the capacious and magnificent ballroom of the Assembly Rooms on George Street. Alasdair was on the platform, of course, along with five of the helpers, Angus Calder, Alan Spence, Robert Crawford, Bruce Leeming and myself.
Glass tells us that when he first mentioned his intention to write this biography, Alasdair danced around the room and shouted, “Be my Boswell. Tell the world of my genius”. Alasdair later denied saying any such thing, but the comparison with Boswell is not inappropriate, even if the style of the two biographers is different. The great strength of Boswell’s Johnson is that both had spent hours together in probing conversation. So have Glass and Gray. The result in both cases is a book in which the reader feels that he too is in company with the two men involved. Boswell did not always agree with Johnson but both were endlessly ready to talk together. So too with Glass and Gray. They do not always agree (Glass is impatient with Gray’s desire for Scottish independence, for instance); but they both evidently inspire the other to talk freely.
No doubt there will be other biographies of Gray in the future, but it is unlikely that another will have the essential ingredient, the feeling that you can listen in to real people who are very much alive.
Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography
Bloomsbury, £25.00 pp352, ISBN 074759015X