The furore over his essay ‘Settlers and Colonists’ was the pretext for Alasdair Gray’s appearance in this year’s programme, which also promised a consideration of his non-fiction. But if the author did clarify some his views on the former there was no in-depth discussion of the latter. This event seemed hotchpotch and more of an attempt to capitalise on Gray’s fame than anything else.
The essay in question was published last year in Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. Afterwards Gray was accused of fomenting racism and of being anti-English. In his discussion with festival director Nick Barley, Gray did clarify some ambiguities. He aimed his anger at Scottish arts organisations who have appointed English directors with little knowledge of Scottish culture. Gray’s position is not about hating the English or fostering a Scottish inclusivity, it is about recognising how colonial values function in the cultural sphere. But most of what Gray said could be understood by carefully reading the essay itself.
After the ‘Settlers and Colonists’ debate subsided the discussion lacked structure and purpose. Barley started with an open-ended question: ‘Since we last spoke, on stage, a couple of years ago, what have you been up to?’ After Gray told of his subway mural project at Hillhead in Glasgow, Barley talked about Gray’s collected short stories, Every Short Story: 1952-2012. But as this publication was why Gray appeared at last year’s festival it was a puzzling tangent, unless of course there was time to fill.
Was Gray aware of a trend in his work that moved from an early interest in magic realism to a later preoccupation with conventional realism? ‘I couldn’t help but notice,’ he replied dismissively. Gray then read a short extract from an ongoing project, a translation of Dante. After that came the big surprise that he will release two books next year, one on Scottish independence and a collection of previously published essays and memoir entitled Of Me and Others. Questions from the audience did re-address the ‘Settlers and Colonists’ essay but none of Gray’s answers gave any more clarity and he apologised for appearing evasive.
The one saving grace was the occasional comedy. For instance, Gray claimed he was offered a knighthood by Gordon Brown but rejected it, not because of his republicanism, but because there was no money attached. Nevertheless the hour could have been better spent simply reading his books, which, unlike attending this event, would have been worth the effort.