Scotland’s Imagineer

Published in Fest; July 24, 2011

Interviewing Alisdair Gray, the scion of the Scottish arts, is almost more challenging than getting to the end of one of his famously dense works. His answers are predictably fascinating but often long-winded, meandering on and off the point, and making sense of them is like interpreting one of his mythical paintings. One has to work for a while to piece together the fragments of meaning and even at the end you’re not sure whether you have the complete picture, or indeed whether he was ever telling you the whole story in the first place. Another difficulty is the way he flits between different personas: he has an endless repertoire of voices that change every few minutes, leaving you wondering whether you’ve been talking to one person, or several.

Gray acknowledges that Lanark, his first and most acclaimed novel, has been highly influential: “I was very ambitious and suspected that if I managed to finish Lanark it would be eventually be one of the books that the world would not willingly let die”, but he’s evasive on the precise nature of this influence. Readers, he says, can and should take from his work whatever they wish: “if you’ve written a book or painted a picture, there it is: it’s in the hands of other people now.

“My job as a writer…and as a painter, is to interest and entertain by telling stories interestingly and inventively. The best stories, even those that on the surface appear to be sheer fantasies, are telling us important truths about how people live and what they take for granted. I’d be a very unconvincing writer and a poor painter if people didn’t encounter things that struck them as being true.” Further questions about the power of his work are met with the warning “I’m not going to give answers on an examination of myself,” but then immediately followed with a mischievous smile and one of the deep, rasping laughs he is so famous for.

Gray’s laugh is unique: at regular intervals, almost regardless of the subject matter, it booms out of his chest and echoes around the room before dissipating into a breathless wheeze, a manifestation of the asthma that he has lived with for decades. It’s as if in searching the recesses of his mind for the answer to your question, he has briefly encountered some other humorous thought dredged up from his memory. Not feeling the need to make you privy to the joke, he simply chuckles away to himself as you wait for him to get his breath back and move on to a new topic.

A lifelong socialist and Scottish nationalist, Gray is far more forthcoming about discussing the link between politics and the arts. At the start of what becomes a grand tour through the history of 20th century British socialism, he reminds me in forceful terms that nationalism is, and always should be, a means to an end—democratic socialism in his opinion—not an end in itself.  The constitutional change of Scottish withdrawal from the rest of the UK is merely, he says, a step towards a much deeper form of independence in which people are freer to live their lives: “It’s only when people have control over their own lives that they will act independently.”

Echoing one of Lanark’s most famous lines—”It is plain that the vaster the social unit, the less possible is true democracy”—he sees promise in Scotland being a small social democratic country along the lines of Sweden or Denmark, concluding that the best world would be “one in which there were no very big nations.”

He spends much of our time together launching into what he freely acknowledges are rants. Straying to topics as diverse as nuclear weapons, university tuition fees and conceptual art, he only returns to earth with a loud “fuck” when the realisation that he is getting off the point finally hits home.  Unwittingly, though, these tangents do offer some answers to questions dodged in the first part of the interview: he reveals, for instance, that his motivations for writing and painting are driven by a feeling of dissatisfaction with the state of the world, the feeling that “this won’t do, this shouldn’t be happening – we must write, we must say something!”.

It is easy to forget how long Gray spent as an artistic outsider. Lanark was thirty years in writing—some of that time spent as a “social security scrounger”—and he was in his late forties when his first novel was finally published. Although his murals adorn walls across Glasgow and his illustrations the covers of countless books, his early paintings were branded “ugly and repulsive”, he tells me with another chuckle. Indeed, it is only recently that Gray has had gallery exhibitions, and he tells me with a note of incredulity in his voice about finally getting an art dealer who has been able to find buyers for his work.

Even Fleck—the star-studded performance billed as the centrepiece of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival—was rejected by a dozen theatres before being taken on by the EIBF.  “I thought it was my best play, but I haven’t been able to get any theatre company to take it seriously“, he says. In the end though, he’s pleased by the way Fleck has come together and the fact that he has managed to gather together a rich cross-section of the Scottish arts scene to play many of the parts – particularly younger artists like writer Alan Bissett and Gray’s biographer Rodge Glass.

In Lanark, a friend of main character Duncan Thaw asks: “Glasgow is a magnificent city. Why do we hardly ever notice that?”, to which Thaw replies: “Because nobody imagines living here. If a city has not been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.” That, it seems, is a neat summary of Gray’s contribution over the past 60 years: he has helped  Scotland re-imagine itself, giving it the confidence that being a junior partner in the Union has sometimes sapped it of.

In many ways, the programme of Gray-themed events at the EIBF seems almost like a premature eulogy – friends and colleagues gathering for a mass thanksgiving for an extraordinary life. Seeing it this way, though, is a mistake. Even approaching the age of eighty, Gray exhibits a boundless energy that contradicts his tongue-in-cheek description of himself as “a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian”. There is, it seems, much more to come from the Strathclyde Michaelangelo.

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