ALASDAIR Gray is in his living room with a television crew. Occasionally, the crescendo of a rant punctuates the silence in the kitchen where I wait with his wife Morag; me for my turn as interviewer, her for her home to be finally free of journalists.
She shakes her head wearily. “There’s so much going on here, I never know what he’s doing.”
Gray is nearing the end of a day of back-to-back interviews about his new book, Of Me And Others. When he at last emerges, we all hide out in the kitchen until the TV people have gone. Are you fed up of journalists? I ask. “Not as individuals,” he says, carefully.
Once the coast is clear, we settle ourselves in the lounge, which doubles as his studio: an easel near the window, a broad table with brushes, unfinished paintings lining the top of the bookshelves. Art and life merge seamlessly somewhere in the middle.
Of Me And Others is a collection of essays, articles and occasional pieces, published and unpublished, arranged chronologically from an article he wrote for Whitehill School Magazine in 1952 up to the present day. It is, he has said, “the nearest thing to an autobiography I can imagine completing”.
But it is not an autobiography. Like A Life In Pictures, which was published in 2010, it has moments which are disarmingly personal, but they are few. Indeed, he seems to be weary of writing about himself, replacing chunks of biographical information with rows of asterisks on the grounds that he has written about them in other books. Like Gray himself, the book is by turns ebullient, eccentric, generous and shy. “I didn’t deal with my diseases or heartfelt emotional problems or anything of that,” he says. “It was to do with my working life, my public life I suppose. Mainly. Not entirely. An account of my working past.”
What he seems to warm to most in this book are the “others”. There are accounts of his meetings with the famous – Anthony Burgess, RD Laing; those he regards as unsung – playwright Joan Ure and artist Alasdair Taylor; those he believes to have been wronged, such as Elspeth King, whom he feels was passed over for a deserved promotion in Glasgow Museums; and those who were never allowed to flourish, like Alan Fletcher, a gifted student a few years ahead of Gray at Glasgow School of Art who died at the age of 28. “I think other people are a key part of everybody’s lives. Certainly, I’ve been very, very lucky in my friends. And my wives.” He pats Morag’s hand. “Especially the last.”
Gray will be 80 later this year, but remains fresh-faced and bright-eyed. His voice sing-songs up to a high tenor when he gets excited, and his laugh is a big, infectious cackle. His polymath mind is as nimble as ever. He seems to have an encyclopedic recall of all his written works, and regales me with a long description of Near The Driver (“my funniest radio play”) a biting satire on privatisation, technology and the nanny state, written in 1975 and regarded as too subversive for the BBC. “I find it so easy to completely recapitulate everything I’ve written, because it all seems equally relevant.”
Taking an overview of Gray’s professional life is not easy. For one thing, there is so much of it. Apart from milestone books like Lanark, which as good as redefined the terms of fiction writing in Scotland when it was published in 1981, there are rafts of plays for theatre, television and radio, and hundreds of stories. For another thing, it is a career chequered with unfinished schemes, missed deadlines, fallings-out and funding debacles. No sooner have we got him positioned as a national treasure than he upsets the applecart with his comments about settlers and colonists (an essay he says was taken out of context by the press). We can’t take an overview of his public life because he is, vehemently, still living it.
He has a deadline looming for another book, Independence: An Argument For Home Rule, to be published by Canongate in June. “I’m too busy just now,” he admits, quietly. “I have to find a way of resting shortly. One of the difficulties is I need to keep paying helpers, because the older I get, the more I need help to finish the work I do. My bank account keeps approaching zero. Morag finds this horribly alarming.”
The story of Gray’s working life is a story of trying to make ends meet. It is also a story of a man who often did not get the recognition (financial or critical) that he felt he deserved.
When he completed his first major mural for Greenhead Church in Bridgeton – “knocked down 10 years later to make way for a motorway that wasn’t built after all” – he hoped it would establish him as an artist. Instead, it was hardly noticed. “I would love it if there had been a culture which said: ‘My god, we have a man capable of great murals among us. Let us employ him!’” he chuckles.
Nor is the irony lost on him that he’s had more professional recognition in the past 10 years than for much of his working life: major mural commissions for Oran Mor and for Hillhead Underground Station; professional gallery representation and exhibitions in major public spaces. His work was included in contemporary art survey British Art Show 7 alongside the work of Sarah Lucas and Karla Black.
“The curator came to see me. I said I was surprised because I felt my work was deeply unfashionable. She said, ‘Ah yes, but we felt the British Art Show shouldn’t be about fashion but indicating the ways that art should be moving in the future.’ I remember hearing a story about a Victorian lady who said of herself and her sister: ‘We have worn the same clothes for about 60 years, sometimes we have been in fashion and sometimes out.’”
If he had had a private source of income, would his work have been different? “Yes, possibly. I don’t think it would have been worse. William Blake, my favourite artist and author, was used to people admiring his work saying: ‘Ah, it would never have been as great as this if you hadn’t suffered all these tribulations.’ And he said: ‘I’d have produced a lot more if I’d not suffered these tribulations.’”
Of Me And Others begins with a frank essay, Middle Age Self Portrait, written while he was sitting for the artist Michael Knowles in 1987. “What am I for?” he asks. “What does this ordinary looking, eccentric sounding, obviously past-his-best person exist to do apart from eat, drink, publicise himself, get fatter, older and die?” How does he feel about that question now? He becomes quietly businesslike. “Well, I’ve got a lot of paintings to finish.”
He hints at another big mural commission, and then there is the Yes vote which he anticipates as a lifelong supporter of independence. He relishes the potentially bloody aftermath. “When Scotland does get its own government, it will split into a lot of quarrelling parties and individuals. We will be quarrelling with each other about important matters because we think these matters matter!” he laughs gleefully.
Of Me And Others is the story of a cultural life, set against the backdrop of a country gradually finding its cultural confidence. When Gray was growing up in industrial Glasgow, Scotland believed in what it manufactured, not in its artistic endeavours. Now, it’s the opposite. Gray is part of that, I suggest; a book like Lanark is part of that. “I refuse to make important, vainglorious claims for my own work,” he says, formally. Then his eyes twinkle. “But I don’t mind other people making them!”
• Of Me And Others is published by Cargo, £29.99