Obituary: Alasdair Gray, writer and artist who gave contemporary Scottish literature its voice
Alasdair Gray was a writer and artist – or, as he had it, a “self-employed verbal and pictorial artist” – from Glasgow whose words came to revitalise and embody Scottish literature at the end of the 20th century. His novels were required reading for anyone who wished to get to the heart of the culture of Gray’s country during his era, while his images became symbolic in particular of his home city.
He published nine novels and wrote a variety of short stories, poems and stage, radio and television plays, yet the work for which he will undoubtedly be longest-remembered is his first long-form novel, Lanark. Published in 1981, Lanark was a love letter to Glasgow which combined a sense of kitchen sink realism with a rich haze of surreal and dystopian magic realism, these seemingly disparate styles melding perfectly through Gray’s unique authorial voice.
Comprising four chapters, a prologue and an epilogue (the order of which is jumbled, in just one example of Gray’s wide-reaching formal experimentalism), Lanark had been in development for almost three decades prior to its publication. As a 17-year-old student, he had begun writing the story of Duncan Thaw, a “tougher and more honest” version of himself, for what was intended to be a Glaswegian equivalent of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
“I was going to make a tragedy of it,” Gray told writer Mark Fisher in The List magazine in 2015, ahead of the Edinburgh International Festival and Royal Lyceum’s acclaimed stage adaptation of Lanark. A year after beginning the Thaw story, he also began planning a very different work set in a hellish alternate Glasgow named Unthank, taking inspiration from Franz Kafka.
In the mid-1960s, inspired by EMW Tillyard’s The English Epic and its Background, he had the idea to unite both novels, a task he finished in 1979 ahead of Lanark’s publication by the publisher Canongate.
“Like Milton, I was trying to write a book that the world would not easily let die and I thought, ‘perhaps after I’m dead, it will make its way’,” Gray told The List. “I didn’t expect it to do so quite so fast. I’m pleased.”
Lanark was an immediate critical hit, named Book of the Year by both the Saltire Society and the Scottish Arts Council the following year, and inspiring the English author Anthony Burgess to describe Gray as “the best Scottish author since Walter Scott”. Will Self later referred to him as “perhaps the greatest living (writer) in this archipelago today”.
In its defiant reclaiming of dialect and place, as well as for its outstanding stylistic approach, Lanark was an influence upon many major Scottish writers who followed him. To some degree or another, Irvine Welsh, AL Kennedy, Iain Banks, Janice Galloway, Ian Rankin, David Greig, Grant Morrison and many others carried some trace of Gray and Lanark into their works.
In true Gray style, however – not quite contrarian, but certainly defiantly set on forging his own opinion – the author preferred his second novel 1982, Janine, published in 1984, which used a similar reality-meets-fantasy technique, albeit with pornography replacing dystopian fantasy. Of his other novels, Poor Things (1992) received the most attention and acclaim after Lanark, winning both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize in the same year.
Trained as a mural painter while he studied at Glasgow School of Art in the mid-1950s, Gray was renowned as a painter, designer of book covers and mural illustrator, whose signature work evoked a blend of sharp art deco lines and organic Celtic style, often with a female figure at its heart.
His grand murals at the Oran Mor music venue in the former Kelvinside Parish Church and a couple of stones’ throws away at Hillhead tube station and the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant are local landmarks, and work which gives the city its strongest visual hallmark since that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Gray’s works are collected both privately and by major museums and galleries.
Alasdair Gray was born in the Glasgow suburb of Riddrie in 1934 to a labourer father and a mother who worked in a clothing warehouse, and had a definitive working class Scottish upbringing on a Glasgow council estate.
Evacuated to Perthshire and Lanarkshire during the Second World War, he attended Whitehill High School in Dennistoun and studied at Glasgow School of Art in his late 20s. Upon graduation, he painted theatrical scenes and portraits, and in his pre-Lanark life – the novel was published as he approached his 50th birthday – was active as an artist and writer. His first plays emerged in 1968, and throughout the following decade he was most prolific as a writer of stage, radio and television plays, as well as for his role as writer-in-residence at the University of Glasgow between 1977 and 1979.
In the early 1970s he took part in a writing group by the celebrated teacher and poet Philip Hobsbaum, whose number also included James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard; in 2001 he, Kelman and Leonard became joint professors of creative writing at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. He was married twice – to Danish nurse Inge Sorensen throughout the 1960s, with whom he had a son, Andrew, before divorcing, and Morag McAlpine from 1991 until her death in 2014 – and was incapacitated by a serious fall at home in 2015. He maintained a public presence, however, before dying after a short illness the day after his 85th birthday.
A committed socialist who was proud to be a child of post-war Britain – and who later bemoaned his youthful enthusiasm that innovations such as the National Health Service might one day lead the way for the world – Gray was also what he described as a civic nationalist and a vocal supporter of Scottish independence, having written two books on the subject in 1992’s Why Scots Should Rule Scotland and 2005’s How We Should Rule Ourselves. His reference in an essay to English people living in Scotland as “settlers” and “colonists” caused controversy, although Gray strongly disputed the implication that he was anti-English.
“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” was a quote which Gray borrowed from a Canadian author, and his use of it inspired both its engraving upon the wall of the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh, and gave the 2014 Scottish independence movement its motto. A mighty author, great thinker and curious chronicler of his postmodern times, Gray was the writer who gave contemporary Scottish literature its voice, and an example for all others who wanted to write of Scotland.