Alasdair Gray: a unique view of Scotland

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Best known for his novel Lanark, which lead him to be described as “the greatest Scottish writer since Sir Walter Scott” by Anthony Burgess, Alasdair Gray is one of Scotland's most unique voices in art and literature, both of which have won him critical acclaim.

He describes himself as a civic nationalist (albeit one deeply critical of English immigration into Scotland) and a republican. His novel Poor Things won the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize and all his books include themes such as fantasy, realism and science fiction, detailed by his own illustrations.

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Born in Riddrie in east Glasgow, Gray described his childhood to the Scotsman in his own unique way: “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.”

Picture: Lanark book cover By Alasdair Gray, TSPL

It was as a student at the Glasgow School of Art that he started what would become Lanark, which took almost 30 years to complete. During this time he worked as a portrait painter, artists and, of course, a writer. Participating in a writing group that included James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Jeff Torrington.

As well as writing, Gray's art has also become a part of the fabric of Glasgow with his longest-standing mural on show at the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant in the west end. He also created a huge mural of the city, which can be seen at Hillhead subway station.

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Author, arts writer and journalist, Jan Patience says she has been in thrall to the genius of Alasdair Gray ever since reading Lanark as a schoolgirl in the early 1980s.

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“I had never read anything like Lanark before – and I was a voracious reader in my teens, hoovering up everything from George Elliot to TS Eliot."

"The structure of Lanark is topsy turvy. A Life in Four Books was the subtitle but Gray’s dystopian vision of a hellish Glasgow and one young man’s struggle to make sense of it all (and find love) didn’t take the usual numerical path. It started at Chapter Three and then moved into the Prologue. It did, however, end at Chapter Four. Very Alasdair Gray."

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“His writing was often difficult to penetrate but it was worth persevering with. The other thing which attracted me to his work was its visual impact. All the illustrations were by Gray himself and they were filled with incredible minutiae and in-jokes."

"It was as if a latter-day da Vinci had illustrated a work by a modern Dante. I’ve just dug out my original copy and the front page – in black, white and gold, shows huge king-like figure with sword in one hand and ornate staff in the other. Engraved on the sword is the word ‘Force’ and on the stave, is ‘Persuasion’. He is presiding over a kingdom, which is illustrated in relief. The detail is infinitesimal."

“As an artist and as a writer, Gray sees the world in such an individual way that it is impossible not to feel the shock of the new when you look at his visual art and read his novels and short stories. He is a one-off.”

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