Bring out your skeletons

THE FIRST BOOK I READ ON MOVING TO GLAS- gow in 1997 was Lanark, Alasdair Gray's sprawling, ambitious debut - a well-loved copy was lent by a friend, who gently suggested that if I was going to live in Scotland then I might like to learn something about it.

By early last year my role was more involved. Recently, I had spent more time with Alasdair than with many members of my family, and had worked with him closely on several books, as well as becoming involved in his personal life. I had been summoned to the hospital the day after his heart attack (to take notes, actually, which I refused to do... until the following day), seen him first thing in the morning, last thing at night, sober, drunk, excited, depressed, asleep, naked (alas), clothed, and had sought his advice many times. In return he overpaid me for my work and took an interest in many aspects of my life. Apart from his wife Morag, and maybe his painting assistants at the Oran Mor, I saw as much of Alasdair Gray as anyone else.

But you could say I was the worst person in the world to write his biography. I started out as a fan, and even now was partly dependent on him for financial support - when I tentatively raised the subject one day during a coffee-break, I half-expected him to see the idea as a betrayal, but Alasdair was perfectly cheerful. He admitted it appealed to his vanity, and after a brief chat we got back down to the afternoon's work as normal. Between writing paragraphs for his political pamphlet, How We Should Rule Ourselves, he introduced me to Boswell's famously controversial biography of Samuel Johnson, suggesting I use it as a partial template, granted free copyright on his works, and even said he would not read the book until it was published, or criticise the work publicly. From then on we would not discuss the issue but he would always know that I could be taking notes. "Be my Boswell!" he shouted, dancing a jig around the room and raising a finger to the heavens. "Tell the world of my genius!" He then went on to narrate a ten-minute story about Boswell recording Johnson's preoccupation with orange peel.

Hide Ad

You could say I am, as Edmund Wilson described Boswell, "a vain and pushing diarist". Or, as Donald Greene once accused Boswell - of being a minor writer trying to make a name for myself through memorialising a great one. You could say I am taking advantage of a frail old man, crowbarring my way into his life to further my own academic career (I'm doing this book as a PhD), and to please my grandmother. There would be something in that; she's always wanted a doctor in the family. But there is something of the canny Scot about Alasdair Gray. He's acutely aware of his legacy, and would spot if I was trying to trick him; also, he knows I'll want to do the thing properly, which will mean recording the unpleasant. Giving full permission to write his life without his direct input is a calculated risk on his part.

Some may think this will be a fawning, sickeningly sweet book. They are right to be suspicious. Gray was. He has said, "No biographer should have his subject's complete approval." Well, he can be reassured I'll not be too gentle - anyone who has experienced a couple of minutes of conversation with Alasdair or read one of his books will know there's no need. Anyway, there would be no point in producing a Sycophant's Bible. Which is why I must dig for dirt.

No man who has lived for 71 years can have no dirt to dig. Johnson invited Boswell to include himself in a diary commentary of their interactions, making his book personal and more openly subjective. In that case, Boswell was a young Scot on the make, with Johnson the distinguished elder Englishman with nothing to prove. In this case it is the Scot who is the elder, with the young Englishman taking notes, putting up with bad habits and making friends in high places.

I have been, in my time, accused of being the literary socialite in Glasgow. During one work-break in January 2005, discussing this project, Alasdair gleefully condemned me for being "a social climber, even worse, an Englishman!" and of "working on too many projects to court as much favour as possible", as he dealt out the Lemsip for both of us. Some insult coming from a man working on three books and a mural while ill. "But then again," he said, hiking a leg up on to a nearby table to scratch at it, "You're no worse than Defoe or Dickens I suppose. Or Boswell. So on you go." The classic Boswell book will act as a starting point for my experimental search about all things Gray. Though unusual, it's not unheard of to go about writing a biography in this way.

THE ART OF THE BIOGRAPHY IS IN A CURIOUS state in Britain today. Most successful ones are either about dead people largely unappreciated during their lifetime only to be overly lauded the minute they go in the ground (John Peel's legacy suffered two biographies appearing within weeks of his death - just in time for Christmas) or are preoccupied with the private lives of so-called celebrities - who slept with whom, who's having who's baby, who said what to so-and-so. Like a 300-page edition of Heat magazine. These are usually written by career biographers who jump between subjects and are paid to make things look ugly, fast. In terms of "autobiography", a new species of ghostwriter exists, employed to "assist" topless models, or sportspeople, or reality TV stars, who often can't write at all. Bruce Forsyth lamented recently that if he'd known "writing" his autobiography was going to be so much hard work, he wouldn't have bothered.

Michael Barrymore's ex-wife. Jordan. It seems anyone can write or be the subject of a book. Sometimes that's the same thing. Why wait to have something substantial to write about when there are summer reading catalogues to fill? The lines between novel, biography, memoir and autobiography are becoming increasingly blurred, for the wrong reasons. But blurring the lines can work. Amelie Nothomb rapidly produces superb novellas, featuring a protagonist called Amelie. Charles Bukowski rarely invented characters: he just called his regular hero Henry Chinaski and took it from there. The recent publication of several good books has shown me how inventive a biography can really be.

Hide Ad

HANIF KUREISHI'S EXCELLENT MY EAR AT HIS Heart is partly his own life story and partly that of his father, a frustrated novelist who watched his son's achievements overtake his own, and died unfulfilled. It's personal, political, historical and factual, even quoting from his father's unpublished novels, with the son trying to decipher who his father was through his work; sometimes Hanif even spots himself as a thinly disguised character in his father's books. My Ear at His Heart also includes passages from past conversations, musings on the lives of his English and Indian family, considering while writing how best to treat his own sons. This book is novelistic, poetic, and a page-turner as well. When I first read it, it seemed deeply relevant to what I wanted to do, but hadn't thought was allowed. I wanted to get the spirit of Alasdair Gray down on paper for future generations by mixing these types of elements. Kureishi made me feel it was possible to write as I wished, regardless of rules.

Jonathan Freedland's book, Jacob's Gift, also inspired me. At his son's circumcision, Freedland realised he didn't know why this ritual took place, or even if he approved of it. So he began a family history for his son to read in later life, looking at the Jewish legacy he was passing on, fictionalising events in the lives of three ancestors, taking Jewish experience from Israel to the communist East End of wartime London and comparing it to the modern day. I wanted to use this personal approach, but though I feel close to Alasdair, he's not part of my family. And unlike Freedland, who used memories of surviving family members, I would be interviewing some people who had no idea who I was.

Hide Ad

The third book that helped was Jonathan Coe's biography of BS Johnson, the "one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s" - like Gray, a man whose personality was at least as interesting as his work. Coe is playful from the beginning, labelling his introduction: "The Industrious Biographer: An Exposition Without Which You Might Have Felt Unhappy" - it showed me it's OK to have fun, deconstruct, be affectionate, but also analyse, criticise, mix up art and subject; with Alasdair Gray it would be remiss not to. Coe begins with a chapter about when he first saw Johnson on TV. Perhaps this repeated intrusion of the biographer is a sign of how self-obsessed we are these days - we can't help but include ourselves - but following the author on his journey made the book more meaningful for me.

These three books made me more confident about breaking out - not pretending I or anyone else is qualified to write an objective book of Alasdair Gray's life, but simply writing an honest one in my own style, without concentrating too much on, say, if I have the events of March 1974 in exactly the right order. Biographies should inform but also entertain. They should praise when deserving and attack without mercy. But Kureishi, Freedland and Coe deal mainly with dead people who can't answer back. I still see Alasdair often. What happens when I uncover things he's uncomfortable about? He says he's not nervous about my biography. But will he really not care what I say about his weaker works, relationships, sexual failures?

Many of the best projects in this field of literature have been attempted by people close to their subjects; so have many of the worst. Goethe enjoyed Eckerman taking down his every thought - "Be my Boswell!" he told him, and so Alasdair has me. But you have to be careful. I have started a very personal voyage of Gray discovery. If he's spared, he'll probably do one of his own. If I'm spared, I'll finish this one.

If you think you can help Rodge dig the dirt on Alasdair Gray, please e-mail him at [email protected] or go to