WORDSWORTH is right to say the younger we are the brighter our world appears. I was born in a pleasant home, a flat in a newly built Glasgow housing scheme with gardens, trees and skies as good as anywhere else, but when these had grown familiar by the age of two I wanted extravagantly different experiences.
My parents satisfied this want. I cannot remember not knowing Cinderella, Aladdin and the adventures of other weak or exploited folk helped to happiness and wealth by magic gifts. I then came to enjoy the cosy fantasy of Pooh Corner with its soft toy inhabitants, and the dangerous, more challenging worlds of Hans Anderson. From him I learned that even in magical lands people like me could come to grief and die, and I felt like the main character in every interesting tale, even “The Little Match Girl”. Fabulous tales free us from immediate, everyday suffering but also prepare us for it.
It is a small step from feeling like heroes or heroines of other peoples’ stories to swaggering through stories of our own imagining. Most children take that step, instinctively editing what they hear, read and enjoy in films and comics into daydreams of the sort Freud called wish-fulfillment dreams. Experience mostly changes our childish daydreams into what we adults hope and fear for our future. My serial daydream of having a magic gift granting extraordinary power is the basic plot of Superman and must have inspired several presidents of the USA.
Most American comics came to Britain at the end of World War Two, fascinating me by their competent outlines, lavish colour and pictures of damsels in distress, but my serial fantasy was active before that war started, and was so satisfying that I sometimes resented its interruption by adults. Mum, Dad, my sister and me were close together most evenings of the year because only our living room usually had a warm fire. Mum had given me fairytales. Dad showed me The Harmsworth Encyclopaedia, The Miracle of Life and other books with pictures proving there were, or had been, or could be, wonderful realities outside our douce housing scheme that also fed my fantasies.
To make these more real I needed an audience and sister Mora became that. I told her my fanciful adventures as we walked to school, then later as we lay in adjacent bedrooms with the doors between open. Like most parents Mum and Dad put us to bed earlier than we thought right because (they said) we needed a good night’s sleep. They may also have wanted more time to themselves. They never interrupted my serial story by shutting the bedroom doors. Mora did not interest me as a person, being two years younger and a girl, but until I was 13 or more I needed her as much as I have since needed a public for my books.
The world outside my fantasies imposed itself. The 1939 war evacuated us from Glasgow. For a few years I enjoyed a privileged childhood in Wetherby, a Yorkshire market town where I explored the countryside, climbed trees and played with other boys. Our main game was finding or making dens – secret places in bushes, up trees or in odd huts or buildings where none suspected us. I recall nothing remarkable done in our dens or even stories associated with them, apart from one. I discovered a den by myself in an isolated outhouse, one of several in the munition workers’ hostel where Dad was manager. It must have been an auxiliary furnace room, to be used if one of the hostel’s other power sources was damaged. I could not open the door or window but found at ground level a low shutter and slid it up far enough to let me crawl under – a hatch through which fuel could be raked from an outside heap of coke. Within was a cement floor, bare brick walls, the cold furnace and a secrecy I much appreciated, for I had a notebook in which I meant to write a story of my own. It was inspired by a booklet in a series, Tales for the Young Folk, each of which cost thruppence, and were often so puerile that I easily imagined improving on them.
Why did I want secrecy to write this one? To discourage exhibitionism my parents never praised my writings and drawings, but I knew they approved of them – Dad had typed silly verses I had written under the inspiration of AA Milne. I suspect my version of this tale gave it a cruel twist Mum and Dad would dislike. I now recall nothing of the story I attempted, but in that outhouse came a glorious conviction that one day I would write a book that many would read. After that I think every interesting story or experience was regarded, often consciously, as potential material for fiction. This happened when I was eight or nine, because for what seemed years after I meant to astonish the world with a book completed when I was 12 – the first of my many failed literary projects.
Life seemed more confined when we returned to Glasgow after the war. Riddrie Public Library became my second home, visited at least four times a week as I often read a book in a few hours. Many males graduate to maturer fiction through tales about sportsmen, detectives, cowboys, soldiers or spies licensed to kill. I could not imagine dominating events by violent action so kept to tales of magic most children lose interest in earlier, finding slightly more adult forms in Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Rider Haggard’s She, novels by HG Wells. His early science fiction shows impossible worlds in such intelligently imagined detail that they are excellent social criticism, no more escapist than Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World or 1984. One summer morning when ten or 11 I stood in a shop among a crowd waiting for a delivery of morning papers to Millport on the Firth of Clyde island where my family was on holiday. On the counter I saw a little paperback book with no author’s name or picture on the cover. In 1945 such booklets were the only non-periodical literature sold in newspaper and tobacconist shops, the contents always being highly sensational, popular, out of copyright stuff. Nearly all the tales I had so far enjoyed had been illustrated, so only boredom led me to open this booklet and start reading “The Pit and the Pendulum”. With the first few sentences the surrounding friendly crowd seemed cut off from me. I believe my pulse and skin temperature changed. The adjacent talk seemed a distant hum or buzzing, as the voices of the inquisitors sounded in the ears of the narrator condemned to die by torture.
This was my first experience of being badly frightened by a story, if I ignore a few chilling episodes in Disney’s Snow White and Pinocchio. It was not my last. Back at home in Riddrie I found my parents had a little set of books, one of them Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of them Kipling’s From Sea to Sea and one of them Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Alone in our comfortable home one sunny evening after returning from school I read “The Fall of the House of Usher”, and for a while grew afraid to look behind any familiar article of furniture, from fear of seeing something dreadful.
Which shows I was in tune with Edgar Allan’s weird verbal magic – and was a good reader. Though keen to be an author I gladly submitted to the power of others, which is how best to learn authorship. Milton describes the process in rhyming epitaph to Shakespeare, where he tells the playwright that his impressive lines:
… our fancy of it self bereaving
dost make us Marble with too much conceiving
– meaning Shakespeare’s words can make us briefly more like statues of Hamlet, Falstaff or Cleopatra than like ourselves. This loss of our person in another author’s character strengthens our critical power if we read closely and widely. For years my critical powers stopped me writing every fiction I started after two or three pages. Despite good marks for school essays, despite filling notebooks with details and ideas, I saw that each false start was obviously in the voice of a child or (later) of a self-obsessed adolescent. But before leaving secondary school I started identifying most strongly with potential writers or artists in fictional worlds more like mine – David Copperfield’s Victorian England, Paul Morel’s Nottingham, Stephen Dedalus’s Dublin, and the 1938 Bankside, London, of Gulley Jimson, the disreputable old mural painter in Joyce Carey’s The Horse’s Mouth.
The first story in my first collection of short stories – Unlikely Stories, Mostly – was written in the last summer holiday with both my parents on the island of Arran. For two or three years our holiday home was the last house in Pirnmill, a row of houses with primary school and post office on the quietest side of Arran. In long summer holidays there I often regretted having no friend of my own age and sex, yet enjoyed long walks accompanied by my imagination. On the three or four miles of road between Pirnmill and Lochranza the only houses are a low white terrace nicknamed the Twelve Apostles on Catacol Bay.
Just before Catacol the coast road is pinched between the sea cliff and a boulder bigger than a house, steep sided but easily climbable by any boy who likes feeling king of a castle. The top had bushes and turf where I lay one sunny afternoon feeling elevated and private, and here I imagined “The Star” in a gust of what seemed inspiration.
The critic Leavis suggests that inspiration is unconscious memory, because well-made phrases only come without effort when authors intuitively adapt words by earlier writers. At least 20 years passed before I noticed that “The Star” was inspired by HG Wells’s story “The Crystal Egg”, in which the hen-pecked owner of a grubby curio shop finds consolation in a lens through which he glimpses life on another planet. He dies while hiding it from a potential customer and his rapacious wife. “The Crystal Egg” is about a dozen pages long; my tale of a young boy dying to keep a magic gift is barely two. I did not know the end before describing the teacher demanding the gift, which resembled one of those coloured glass balls Scots children call bools, jorries or jinkies – English children call them marbles. I did not want the reader to think it was just a cheap glass toy made magic by the fancy of a deluded child. I disliked stories equating imaginary worlds with delusion, which the Alice books miraculously avoid, despite their stories being dreams. I was pleased and astonished at finding three last sentences that left the star a reality.
Four years or more passed before I wrote four stories following “The Star”. “The Spread of Ian Nicol” and “The Cause of Recent Changes” were stimulated by a chance of publication in Ygorra, a facetious magazine published annually by Glasgow University students and sold for charity. For two years the editor was Alan Fletcher, a Glasgow School of Art student whose talent and intelligence led him to design the covers, give it cartoons, print articles and work by Frank Bowles, Reid Moffat, Malcolm Hood and me, his fellow art students. I also wrote “The Comedy of the White Dog” at art school, but the climax is bestial sex so could not be published before the permissive 1960s. “A Unique Case” was written for Cleg, an art school magazine of which the only edition was conceived and edited by my friend James Spence.
I was a student supported by my parents and Welfare State education grants when I wrote these early fables. Then came two years of part time uncertificated teaching, as little of it as possible while I tried and failed to earn money by my visual arts. With another education grant I then trained as a full-time teacher; the only short story written in this glum period was “The Answer”, a likely story which, though told in the third person, tells how another trainee teacher, without fuss or harsh words, showed she was tired of me. James Joyce had shown me how everyday happenings could be as much the stuff of fiction as miraculous fables. For many years after that I was too busy combining the familiar and fabulous in a novel to write anything shorter, apart from a spoof lecture, “The Crank that Made the Revolution”. To tell how more unlikely stories came to be written I must speak of that novel, Lanark.
When half-finished in 1970 an excellent English literary agent, Frances Head, showed Lanark to three London publishers who agreed it might become something saleable, but as it would be very long, and eccentric, and the author was unknown, it might be a very expensive flop. Each was willing to publish it as two books of average length, which could easily have been done because it combined two narratives – one of them fabulous, a modern Pilgrim’s Progress greatly influenced by Kafka, one a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set in Glasgow instead of Dublin.
I refused that offer but one of these publishers, Quartet Books, offered £90 for the right to accept or refuse it on completion. I gladly accepted that money from Quartet, which was then worth at least five times what £90 buys now, 42 years later. I continued writing the novel, confident that Frances Head would find a good publisher for it on completion, even if it was finally rejected by Quartet.
But Frances Head died of lung cancer shortly before the novel was completed in 1977, and Quartet Books rejected it because of the length. Without much hope I sent it off to Canongate Books in Edinburgh, a Scottish publishing house so small that I doubted if Lanark would ever be published.
My income had largely come from television plays commissioned through Frances. These stopped. I failed in a miserable effort to teach again. Thoroughly depressed, I decided to waste my talent by writing a book that would make money, a pornographic novel full of fantasies I had been suppressing since the age of four or five. But despite trying to write it for weeks, I was so unlike the Marquis de Sade that I kept losing interest.
Very few authors, even good ones, can live by their writing, a fact that has driven some to suicide. BS Johnson was infuriated by publishers earning good money by selling the work of authors who had to feed themselves by teaching or some other distraction. The British Welfare State tackled that problem by creating Arts Councils, and the councils made life easier for some authors by paying universities to take them as Writers in Residence. University literature departments in those days taught nothing but criticism. For two years a resident author could receive a good salary to help the few students trying to write fiction, poems or plays for themselves. The authors chose their hours for this work and otherwise did as they pleased. I applied to become Glasgow University’s third resident writer, on the basis of my radio and television plays. The selection committee was headed by Professor Peter Butter, a Shelley specialist.
When he asked what I would write if I got the job, I said a modern version of Prometheus Unbound, the lost play by Aeschylus that Shelley had attempted, unsuccessfully, I thought. With time for research I hoped to do better. That my friend Philip Hobsbaum was also on the selection committee may also have helped me get the job.
From 1977 to 1979 I earned my first steady wage for enjoyable work. My office, in the top-floor south-west corner of Glasgow University, had a big desk, two padded chairs, a bookcase and, through the window, a downward view through treetops of the river Kelvin and beyond them the towers of our art galleries and museum beyond. Here for two and a half days a week I easily helped willing people with their writings in one-to-one tutorials, and otherwise was my own master. Prometheus Unbound proved an impossible play to finish. I had no ideas for writing anything else. Deciding to further my education by more reading I bought The Road to Xanadu by Livingston Lowes, and a thick book of all Ezra Pound’s Cantos.
The Road to Xanadu surveys the old travel and history books that inspired Coleridge’s fragmentary “Kubla Khan” poem and his “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”. It excited me by recalling every book about lost or hidden worlds I had enjoyed in adolescence. Ezra Pound’s verses about good and bad monetary states confused me with their far-fetched, detailed quotations until an unexpected line from his Chinese Cantos made excellent sense:
Moping around the Emperor’s court, waiting for the order-to-write.
Order-to-write was hyphenated because (I thought) it translated one ideogram – one Chinese letter that was also one word. I suddenly imagined a man being trained from infancy to be a great poet, yet prevented from writing anything until the government told him what it wanted.
Thinking this travesty of my university job might fill an amusing page or two I wrote –
Dear mother, dear father, I like the new palace. It is all squares like a chessboard. The red squares are buildings, the white squares are gardens …
– and started inventing a world of my own. Livingston Lowes’ account of what went into Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – the artificial paradise of assassins in the Atlas Mountains, the happy valley where Abyssinian kings grew up, a source of the Nile described by the Scots explorer James Bruce – went into “Five Letters from an Eastern Empire”, my best and longest short story, quickly written in two or three weeks.
Years later an Irish friend told me he had heard a Chinese and a Japanese scholar discuss which of their nations my empire most resembled. Some hints of the real Orient may have come from my early reading of a Chinese anthology and the comic Monkey epic in Arthur Waley translations, but I think my empire resembles Britain today as much as any other land.
Several months had passed since I posted my novel to Canongate. Shortly after writing “Five Letters from an Eastern Empire” a letter came from Canongate’s reader, Charles Wilde, saying he was only partly through reading Lanark but was already determined to see it published, despite its great length. He thought the Scottish Arts Council would help Canongate by subsidising the printing.
This greatly revived my confidence and an old plan for a second book containing all the short prose I had written, both fabulous and realistic. Apart from the “Five Letters” my fables were short and few, but for years I had scribbled down ideas for others and now had time to write them.
The “Axletree” tales were inspired by a reproduction of Bruegel’s great Tower of Babel painting in the head art teacher’s room of Whitehill School 25 years earlier. It had looked so capable of reaching heaven that God’s desire to prevent that by disuniting the human race seemed quite natural. Like other trainee teachers at Jordanhill College I had been told to deliver a monologue, and gave a spoof lecture suggesting the Tower of Babel provoked the Deluge.
I had also imagined inventing the diary of an aristocratic scholar who never doubts the eccentric theories he promotes, and which might be made entertaining for their own sake, like de Selby’s theories in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. In Glasgow University Library I found Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty’s pamphlets reprinted by the Roxburgh Society and knew HE was the aristocrat I wanted. I invented his diary by rewriting much of the story in his own words, edited with additions of my own.
I used my failure to write a modern Prometheus Unbound by giving the poetic fragments I had achieved to a highly intellectual French dwarf. He too (I imagined) could not complete them, being frustrated by his inability to seduce a woman activist during the 1968 failure of the student revolt. This story drew much from my own failure to seduce (by letter!! by letter!) a feminist met only once through my friend Joan Ure. Lanark was printed in 1981 after a four-year delay enabling me to enlarge the Epilogue, add a verse to the end, and design the book jacket and five interior title pages. It sold so well that Canongate gladly agreed to publish my second book, Unlikely Stories, Mostly.
This would also contain: “A Report to the Trustees”, a true account of how I had used a travelling scholarship between the years 1957 and 1958; “Portrait of a Painter”, about my friend Alasdair Taylor; “Portrait of a Playwright”, about my friend Joan Ure; and “The Story of a Recluse”, a speculative completion of a story Robert Louis Stevenson left unfinished. In 1982 all these had been written.
I had only one more story to add, a realistic one inspired by Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground which grew into 1982 Janine. Meanwhile we worked to complete Unlikely Stories, Mostly, which turned out to be as successful a book as Lanark, having been translated into almost as many foreign languages.
• Alasdair Gray from his book Every Short Story 1951-2012, published this week by Canongate, £30.