This past year, the SWC has enjoyed the extraordinary privilege of photographing some of the finest writers in Scotland (as well as from further afield). Looking through the lens reveals things one wouldn’t otherwise notice – chiefly, how some people appear to possess a physical grace and poise; a unity of body and soul. Last night’s performance from Alan Spence stands him among the most fascinating of SWC photographic subjects (including Switzerland’s Christoph Simon, who seemed to haunt the room with a feline aloofness last August). Maybe it’s the Zen Buddhism, but Alan’s gestures made for a balletic photo shoot – as you can see.
Alan brought with him an advance copy of his new title, Night Boat (from which he read in mesmerising fashion, despite the irritation of a pneumatic drill being operated in the street outside). Indeed, as if it was a Zen exercise in itself, we found that the drill sound vanished from our heads as he read! A book about an eighteenth century Zen master who makes enigmatic use of the phrase “is that so?” and asks his followers to meditate on the mantra “your everyday mind is the way”, Alan felt driven to write this book without first enquiring whether his publisher would be interested. Certainly, Alan felt as if the book was writing itself. These are clues, of course, to an inspired work – and we can only look forward to Night Boat’s official launch at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, in August.
In terms of life story and influences, Alan intriguingly cited two people whom Aongas MacNeacail also named earlier this year: the great Welsh lyric poet Dylan Thomas, and the Scottish Playwright and key cultural figure of 1970s Glasgow (as well as the founder of the CCA’s predecessor, The Third Eye Centre) – Tom McGrath. McGrath held regular salons at his Bank Street flat, at which Alan rubbed shoulders with such emergent figures as Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, and Alasdair Gray.
Alan spoke warmly of his ‘master’ Sri Chimnoy, and the role that meditation has played in his life and writing. He touched upon the subject of reincarnation, and some experiences related thereto which bordered on that twilight often classed as supernatural. The question “what happens when we die?”, as asked by the protagonist of Alan’s 1998 black comedy Way to Go, is key perhaps to Alan’s lifelong spiritual quest (began when his mother died, while Alan was still a teenager).
Alan treated us to many of his Haikus, notably those from the humorous classic Glasgow Zen, and some from his more recent collaboration with artist Elizabeth Blackadder: Morning Glory (2010) (a small press publication which has sold over 5000 copies).
The night was full of great aphorisms, but we should end on this which Alan quotes from the great American photographer Ansel Adams: “Chance favours the prepared mind”.