Alasdair Gray was one of Scotland’s finest. Here, David Manderson, of the Scottish Writers’ Centre, offers this appreciation of Alasdair and his work.
What we all knew had to come but couldn’t really believe in.
Alasdair Gray: born 28 December 1934 – died 29 December 2019.
Those dates will be on the statues, the memorials, in the obituaries, the documentaries and the exhibitions. But nothing any of them can say will come close to summing up the man.
Because Professor Alasdair Gray wasn’t one thing but thousands of them, and just when you thought you’d got a grip of him and all his work, the essential inner meaning of it, off would run half a dozen other versions in all directions, cackling.
Every Glasgow writer (and all sorts of other people) has a story to tell about Alasdair because everybody thinks they knew him. But it’s probably more accurate to say that he knew everybody. After all, only he had the audacity, the determination, the gall and the sheer all-encompassing genius to write an allegory for all existence.
Or ‘a Scottish petit-bourgeois model of the universe’, as he liked to put it. ‘Oh yes, I’m sure of it,’ he answered when quizzed on this. ‘I’ve rehearsed it and cut it back to as few words as possible.’ (The Kevin Cameron documentary on BBC, made in 2012 for Alasdair’s eightieth birthday, where he says this and much else, is well worth a look.)
That all humanity could be found in his city Alasdair the writer had not the slightest doubt, just as it can be found in the vastness of space or the slightest speck of dust.
In honour of this, Alasdair the artist produced a huge amount of art, sketching and painting everything from monsters to God, labourers to First Ministers, rabbits to aqueducts with boundless, joyous energy.
Much of it now decorates the interiors of churches, bars, restaurants, night clubs, tenement sitting rooms, underground stations, galleries, reams of paper, postcards, books, letters, posters, even planks of wood.
Glasgow took Alasdair to its rough, scarred heart. It knew he wasn’t as daft as he was letting on, understood his political edge, his commitment to what he believed in the surfaces and materials he used in his art. Its subjects had always been tuned to his ever-evolving, vigorously radical, outspoken spirit.
An important aspect of his job of self-appointed (and for a time, actual) Glasgow Civic Recorder was to hold up a mirror to us in his art. A second duty was to hold the glass steady when we didn’t like what we saw.
In the same way, every Glaswegian thinks he has a story to tell about Alasdair Gray that gives some insight into him, but it’s really the other way round.
Twenty years ago I wrote an essay about one of his short stories and sent it to him. It came back written all over in his heavy, bold, utterly legible handwriting. He hated it, he said.
Then he said why. In some detail. His words ran around the edge of every page, over onto the back and, finally, onto the envelope I’d sent him.
I was silenced. Humiliated I thought, and then after a while I thought how generous of him that had been. So I changed my essay, rethought it, rewrote it from start to end, sent it off somewhere. It was eventually published: Chapman 91, I think. I sent the finished article back to him.
‘I like your new essay!’ the postcard that came back said.
That was Alasdair. Sunny towards the things he loved, openly critical of what he didn’t. Those two principles, for all his immense output, never wavered.
Farewell Alasdair. I’ll miss you a lot. Like all of us. But we’ll keep your spirit alive.