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22nd January 2020

Alasdair Gray, Scottish avant-garde provocateur, dies aged 85

Will Stonier pays tribute to Alisdair Gray, who we lost at the end of 2019. Will discusses how his literature was recieved in the world, and how his literature can continue to inspire readers today.
Alasdair Gray, Scottish avant-garde provocateur, dies aged 85
Alisdair Gray Photo: DimSummer @Wikimediacommons

Alasdair Gray, one of Glasgow’s most celebrated artists and writers — ever the eccentric and unafraid of the avant garde — died, on December 29, at the age of 85 years old.

Alasdair’s first novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books — published in 1981, when Gray was 46 years old — was praised by Manchester’s own Anthony Burgess, with Burgess calling Gray ‘the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott’. It is a text that oscillates between parallel universes, between the ordinary and the extraordinary, and is a narrative that is spliced alongside illustrations by Alisdair himself in his own trademark style. With his work — such as 1982, Janine — Gray demanded full artistic control over the publication of the text as, for Alasdair, a book is not just a place for words, but a domain for typographic and graphic experimentation. He never worked within two dimensions. 

Whilst undertaking my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow I first encountered Alasdair Gray through his novel Poor Things, a Victorian parody that engages with experimental narrative techniques; a text that is as much of a game as it is a novel. It was a novel that I loved. During my time in Glasgow, it seemed that everyone had an anecdote about Alasdair.

They ranged from hearing him read at poetry nights, bumping into him on Byres Road, or one particular story where after being told by his wife he was only permitted one glass of wine, he filled said glass to the very top, with the wine spilling down the lip of the glass. His presence could be felt all across Glasgow; he was a conduit through which his readers could access worlds and terrestrial domains that exist outside of our own. He not only allowed for Scottish literature to flourish — Alasdair imbued experimental fiction with a new sense of direction, with authors such as Irvine Welsh and Janice Galloway to follow in his footsteps. 

I myself saw Alasdair speak at one of the University of Glasgow’s Creative Conversation sessions. Alasdair, now wheelchair bound following a fall outside of his home answered questions from the crowd about his novels. He responded to questions on James Joyce, Franz Kafka whilst reciting lines of poetry fusillading the audience with his love and passion for literature and art. 

Alasdair was born in Riddrie, Glasgow into a working-class family to Amy and Alexander Gray. In 1957 he graduated from the Glasgow School of Art and began to paint murals around Glasgow, each an individual love letter to the city that raised him. (They can be found at Hillhead subway station — though the most famous being the ceiling of the venue Oran Mor, his greatest artistic achievement.) He was also a staunch Scottish nationalist — he published his manifesto for an independent Scotland, Why Scots Should Rule Scotland, in 1992. 

Writing for The Guardian, Janice Galloway said:Alasdair Gray’s writing offered me something freeing. He made me feel acknowledged, spoken to, listened for. Twenty years after the initial gratitude for this book having been written at all, that alone is worth re-saying. These days, Scottish confidence – a regained parliament of sorts, a more admissible literary, musical and artistic culture – is in notionally better shape, and that partly in direct response to this book.’ 

As Alasdair’s character Lanark says: ‘But I do enjoy words—some words—for their own sake! Words like river, and daw, and daylight, and time. These words seem much richer than our expectations of things they represent—’. What Alasdair’s writing did and still does, then, is constantly entrap his readers in the worlds — and words — that his fiction creates.

Guidbye, Alasdair.

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