I FINISHED MY BIOGRAPHY of Alas-dair Gray on January 1st. The last page was a relief to complete, and in it I quoted the final words of Gray’s Book Of Prefaces: “It is done”, I wrote, giddy with exhaustion. “Ended. Finished. Complete. Thank goodness, for I think goodness is god’s kindest name”. Immersing yourself in the life of another human being can be inspiring but it’s also a sure route to madness. So, though I was nervous about how the book would be received by its subject (who co-operated fully but promised not to read it until after publication), I was pleased to be out of Gray’s world for a while. I set out to write a portrait of the artist as an incredible old man, and once I had attempted that it was best probably to step back. Stop. End. But there is no end when your subject is still alive and very much at work.
My book’s final chapter is called ‘Not Dead Yet! A Happy Ending, Of Sorts’ which is not a traditional conclusion, but instead an account of Alasdair’s ‘publicity binge’ for his latest novel Old Men In Love, precisely because I wanted to avoid an all-too-neat suggestion that the full story had been told. There were so many works-in-progress on the go at the time I finished my book that it was hard to keep up – with age Alasdair was speeding up, not slowing down. He was tying up all loose ends, especially in writing, a quick tot-up of current literary projects bringing an intimidating list: Faust (a modern Scottish take on Goethe’s version), a Gray Collected Poems, Collected Short Stories, Collected Plays, A Life In Pictures (the big auto-pictography promised for many years), and even a bizarre sea shanty called ‘The Ballad of Ann Bonny’, most recently performed to a puzzled teenage audience in London last September.
All that was without counting ongoing work on the Oran Mor Arts Centre, his life’s biggest and most ambitious mural. Not all these projects-in-progress were the standard of his best work, but some were, and I wanted to show Gray as he was on January 1st – full of life and ideas. Little cynicism. Little tiredness. Just too many ideas, and not enough time or money. I thought that was a good point to finish.
This was why I wasn’t sure what to say when Alasdair phoned in mid-March to ask if, after a break of two-and-a-half years, I would become his secretary again. The reason was that, once more, Gray had promised himself into an unrealistic deadline for A Life In Pictures, which Canongate scheduled for release in Autumn 2008. Correspondence on this book goes back to the mid-nineties, so I sympathised with Canongate for wanting to publish, and when Alasdair said he believed that if I did a few secretarial shifts in addition to the ones Helen Lloyd (his secretary since me) was doing he might be able to finish it in April, I agreed.
I had worked for him on this book before, and felt it was an important addition to the Gray catalogue, also important to Alasdair personally. As a child he planned to dazzle the world by publishing six volumes before taking glorious early retirement: one novel, one short story book, one of pictures, plays, essays and poems. This grand plan “cracked up” over the decades but perhaps it wasn’t too late to rescue a version of it. I agreed to return.
Two nights later I found myself back in Alasdair’s bedroom awaiting orders, just like before I began the biography – fingers hovering above the keyboard, waiting for Alasdair to dictate, edit, re-edit, delete, reinsert, lose latest print-out, pick up wrong one, pop kettle on, consult Old Testament for fact, sing favourite opera off by heart, fart loudly, quote Burns and return to work, suitably refreshed. In 2005 he re-ordered the Contents list repeatedly for A Life In Pictures: in 2008 one of my first jobs was to watch him do the same thing. I feared for the project, and for everyone’s sanity. It was like I hadn’t been away.
Alasdair was never close to making the deadline, though he pressed on for weeks, working long hours, painstakingly arranging pages with pictures and filling in the words in the empty spaces between with memories from the period relating to the image. This exhausted him, and finally he had to give up on the idea of a 2008 publication which had already been proudly announced in The Bookseller. Canongate had to reschedule yet again. But once the pressure was off Alasdair’s mood lightened (as Grainne Rice has said, “Gray is renowned for loving the sound of deadlines whooshing by”) and his mind wandered back to other projects. Though initially drafted in for A Life In Pictures I stayed on for a while anyway, and found it interesting to see what held Gray’s imagination. What had changed, what had remained the same. Several notable things have happened since the beginning of the year, two of which I’d like to look at. The first is Faust, which soon became Fleck, and has occupied Alasdair for several months. The second is his growing visual art reputation since Sorcha Dallas became his art agent last year.
Gray is known for his long gestation periods, but the origins of his Fleck make the 30 years he spent on Lanark seem speedy by comparison. As a child he heard Louis MacNeice’s translation of Faust from Goethe’s German as part of BBC Radio’s Third Programme and was impressed, but felt it could probably be improved, especially the ending. Over half a century later he is finally getting round to improving it. In iambic pentameter. Mostly. The writing of Fleck has excited him because, as he has said, “Like my 1982, Janine and Poor Things, it swole up unexpected!” That is, instead of being driven by money and the need to earn some, Fleck has evolved naturally and been written for fun, especially as Alasdair now feels his new drama might be staged. After nearly a decade’s silence on that front bothGoodbye Jimmy and Midgieburgers ran in Glasgow and Edinburgh in 2006/7, appearing to reverse a previous negative attitude. (Alas-dair believes his drama career was ended in 1976 when he complained about changes made to a TV script which later became part of Old Men In Love.) Also, Luath Press has agreed to publish A Gray Play Book, a completist history starting with the first piece little Alasdair performed in class in 1949, taking in his 1956 Jonah play written for puppets, and going right up to the present.
All this context has given Fleck an energy lacking in some other works: this has increased in recent months as Alasdair has been road testing his script-in-progress at public events, some of which his publishers arranged to promote Old Men In Love. (He now feels no duty to do anything but exactly what he pleases on stage – which is what most of his fans want to see anyway.) So he has been performing Fleck, often working out as he goes along which bits work, which don’t, what needs tweaking. Alasdair asked me to join him at some of these events, playing the part of a posh, English-sounding God (this may be a joke at my expense) while he got all the best lines as the Devil. So I got to see how the play was coming together first hand, both on stage and at the computer. Recently I have spent hours at Alasdair’s side counting syllables on my fingers, and he has spent the same period saying things like “Er…is that nine or ten? I think that line may have to be irregular, R-R-Rodgerrr. And does it rhyme? It WILL, by thunder! It MUST!”
It makes sense that Gray should still be attracted to this story, even after all these years, as it is primarily the tale of a socially awkward intellectual making a deal he cannot keep to, falling in love with virtually the first female who shows an interest, being thrust into the political limelight and making a terrible hash of it: this is the plot of Lanark, The Fall Of Kelvin Walker, several other Gray plays and to an extent also the story of the author’s life. It’s no surprise that a writer in his seventies may sometimes retread old ground, and Alasdair has happily made a habit of it. Like Old Men In Love, this play includes several favourite old Gray themes, steals character names used in previous novels, and includes disguised cameos for the author himself, who certainly makes up part of Old Nick’s personality and definitely makes up most of Fleck’s. In Alasdair’s Saltire Self-Portrait, published in 1987, he admitted that in conversation he often slips into various different accents as a defence mechanism – Carter does the same thing in this play, slipping between Yankee, Cockney, Aussie voices and occasionally a firm, penetrating baritone – all Gray favourites to this day, particularly when saying something he believes but thinks may not be taken seriously.
As in The Fall Of Kelvin Walker, the denouement in this play happens live on television, with the heads of the evil Global Employers Federation exposed by a rebellious, suicidal Fleck, who is intoxicated by his sudden position of responsibility. Though the dialogue has been generally wild and often joyful so far, the mask slips here, and as so many times before Gray’s serious aim is displayed at the crucial moment. Much of his creative work is a series of different ways of saying the same things, and he makes no excuse for it. As he has claimed in his public CV, “I know that Socialism can improve life, that the work we like best is not done for money, and that books and art are liberating”. Fleck’s big speech to the people focuses on the first of these, being a glorified excuse for advertising Gray’s favoured type of Socialism yet again – the kind he grew up believing in Riddrie. Knowing he will soon be silenced, Fleck says: “the only true/Government should be the people! You! /don’t wait for bosses and politicians/ to reform your state. Make where you work your/parliament. In farm, shop, factory, school,/office, garage, hospital, police station,/and church! And regiment! Let it be you/whose decisions shape our nation”.
Gray’s drama has been widely criticised for being didactic and for not leaving enough to the imagination. His characters say exactly what they think, leaving little space for theatregoers to wonder what’s going on underneath the surface. Fleck is unlike Gray’s previous dramas; they told everyday stories of relationships breaking down (Dialogue, The Loss Of The Golden Silence, Homeward Bound). In Fleck, Gray has greater freedom to make his characters speak in a grand, unnatural way. After all, one of the characters is the Lord of the Universe.
Another is the Prince of Darkness. There’s little need to attempt ‘realism’.
Alasdair is currently making the final small alterations to the text of this play and writing an introduction. It will be published by Two Ravens Press this Autumn, this in itself being a sign of confidence and growing ability to publish what he likes: he has only ever produced one playbook before, for the appalling rushed farce Working Legs in 1997. Now Fleck will appear as one volume, re-appear in A Gray Play Book, perhaps next year, and the interest in it so far suggests it may be produced on a much bigger scale than previous efforts.
Fleck has been in the foreground in recent months, but there has been something else going on quietly at the same time that is potentially significant: a possible change in perceptions about Gray’s art. As Susannah Thompson, of Edinburgh College of Art has noted in a recent essay reevaluating his artistic legacy, Alasdair has “become known, primarily, as a writer – a role he initially undertook ‘to subsidise picture-making’”. He has repeatedly tried to readdress this imbalance himself, most notably in 1986 when he sold 30 years’ worth of diaries to the National Library of Scotland (who value him mostly as a writer) to finance ‘Five Scottish Artists’, an exhibition he organised personally, also featuring four old allies: Alasdair Taylor, Alan Fletcher, Car-ole Gibbons and John Connelly. The little attention this exhibition received was not all positive. Not much has changed since. Thompson continues: “The public profile of his [Gray’s] artwork in this country, for example, has suffered an almost Unthankian level of neglect (a fate once shared by Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Gray’s artwork, in terms of lack of acquisitions in national and public collections, or the absence of any major retrospectives (the last major retrospective was in 1974), seem almost conspiratorial. Gray’s artwork, save for a few longstanding champions and collectors…has been marginalised in a way that would surely be unthinkable for a figure of his reputation elsewhere”.
Researching this, I was surprised by how hard it was to find Gray’s work on public display, or trace serious criticism of it from anyone who was not already sympathetic to the literature, an ex-colleague, or a pal. In response to this I wrote a chapter called ‘Yes Yes But Is It Any Good?’ It was written out of frustration: I wanted to know, was this marginalisation for political reasons? Was it because he was lumped in with inferior artists of his generation that he has repeatedly insisted on exhibiting with? Was it because his work was at its best when a public statement, a political act, when it adorned the wall of a pub and was surrounded by words he was already famous for producing? Maybe the art was just bad and no-one who respected Alasdair had the courage to say so. From what I found Gray seemed merely to be a footnote in even Scottish Art books, and the only person commenting on his work was the man himself, in A Life In Pictures. Which, Gray has suggested, is because he is one of “those interesting second-raters”. At the age of 73, that view of him may finally be out of fashion.
Sorcha Dallas is a high-profile art agent with a list of distinguished clients who has spent much of the last year trying to gather together hundreds of images of Gray’s works – portraits, murals, landscapes, book covers – and presenting hundreds of them on her website. She believes he has been a constant influence on generations of younger Scottish artists but that this has rarely been seen: “The problem with his visual practice”, she says, “is that he never had someone devoted to taking care of this and steering it in the right direction”. The combination of this being finally rectified and the fact that several good artists are now referencing him has meant attitudes seem to be changing. Susannah Thompson also points to this influence on the current generation of Scottish artists, and says Gray now has “an increasing cult status”.
His influence can been seen in the work of artists such as Lucy McKenzie, who (despite being a renowned artist in her own right and having worked with the Saatchi Gallery) will soon join the ever-growing list of Gray’s secretaries, assistants and pro-tégés by working for him at Oran Mor. She describes Alasdair’s work as coming from “the tradition of socialist art that legitimately decorated the world from the 1930s to the late 1950s”, and her own painting often focuses on propaganda from a similar era. Patricia Ellis has said McKenzie’s work deals with a time “when culture was a political tool”, often distorting twentieth century ‘legitimised art’ controlled by governments. McKenzie also, like Gray, has a “pluralistic practice” (is an artistic jack-of-all-trades) and says she counts herself as being part of a generation “rediscovering illustrative, figurative and allegorical imagery”.
Alasdair has recently collaborated with Lucy McKenzie, and other young artists too. Last year he was interviewed in Dazed And Confused and The Independent alongside Francesca Lowe, a successful Royal Academy graduate who has exhibited in New York and was inspired by illustrations in Lanark. This May Henry Coombes, another Sorcha Dallas client, even invited Alasdair to act in The Bed-fords, a short film he is making about the Victorian painter Landseer. Many of these connections have come about very recently, and for the first time his paintings are actually selling. For money. After years of being disorganised, unfashionable, ignored and doubted, is this is the beginning of a burgeoning of interest in Gray’s art that is not reliant on his writers’ reputation? Sorcha Dallas believes it: “I really want to give him and his work, within his lifetime, the international recognition it deserves”. She thinks it’s not just Gray’s style that is influencing others, particularly in Scotland – it’s also his politics. “He has also had a real influence on a range of artists, which maybe doesn’t directly manifest it in their physical artwork but more in their ideas, the idea of what an artist is, how he can operate and how ambitious he can be in his ideas and still be based in Glasgow”. Like the Oran Mor walls, where the local and the modern-day are juxtaposed with the international and the ancient, Gray’s statement could not be more clear: the here and now is as important as anywhere, anytime.
I have enjoyed following what has happened since I finished my Gray book, and returning to work with Alasdair in recent months. Now I have stopped again, returning to my own writing. My Gray book is a portrait, a to-be-continued, a critical investigation of the man and his work, a celebration too – I hope someone else will take the story from here – I’d like to concentrate on other things for a while. But then, I’ve said that before.
Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography
BLOOMSBURY, £20 pp352, ISBN 074759015X