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Gray, Glass and Glasgow

Aerial view of Glasgow city centre and River Clyde

“The world sometimes seems a chessboard where the pieces move themselves. I'm never sure what square to go to. Yet it can't be a difficult game, most folk play it instinctively.”

Lanark, Alasdair Gray

“It’s hard to think of an artist more closely connected to their cultural landscape than Alasdair Gray is to Glasgow,” says Dr Rodge Glass. “Study of Alasdair Gray is study of Glasgow.”

Alasdair Gray, who died in December 2019, was arguably the most acclaimed and most influential writer in post-war Scotland. His 1981 debut novel, Lanark, is widely seen as ushering in a fertile period not only for Scotland’s literature but for its arts as a whole.

A lengthy and structurally unconventional work, with concurrent realist and fantastical plots, it was followed by a sequence of similarly complex, inventive works including: 1982, Janine; Poor Things; A History Maker and Old Men In Love, as well as collections of short stories and poetry.

There were also works of non-fiction, most notably political writings and the Book of Prefaces, and he held a Joint Professorship in Creative Writing at Strathclyde and the University of Glasgow.

In addition, he was a highly accomplished painter and illustrator, producing the cover art for all his books and, in later years, creating murals in Glasgow locations including Hillhead underground station and the Òran Mór cultural centre in the city’s West End.

His final work, Purgatory, a translation of the second book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, was published shortly before his death in December 2019.

Dr Glass worked for a number of years as his secretary and ultimately wrote his biography, a work which won a Somerset Maugham Award in 2009.

Writer and artist

Gray’s stature as a writer and artist took some time to be acknowledged – particularly the latter. Dr Glass is organising a conference on Gray’s work to be co-hosted by Strathclyde in 2021 and sees it as an opportunity to put both aspects on a more equal footing.

“Earlier in his career, he was repeatedly told that Glasgow wasn’t an interesting enough place to be written about,” says Dr Glass. “He was told this when he submitted Book One of Lanark to a publisher in 1964, yet he would be responsible for transforming all that, with writers such as Liz Lochhead, James Kelman and Tom Leonard. I interviewed Edwin Morgan for the biography and he said that Glasgow had previously been like a wasteland in terms of opportunities for writers and artists.

“In one of the most famous quotations from Lanark, the question: ‘Glasgow is a magnificent city…why do we hardly ever notice that?’ is asked. The reply given is: “Because nobody imagines living here.’ Yet now a lot of international students come to Glasgow who may not know of this past but who come for the opportunities that are now here.

“His artistic reputation has taken many years to be equal to his literary reputation; at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery exhibition held to mark his 80th birthday, more people saw his works in two or three months than in the previous 30 years.

“He approved the proposal for the conference and was keen for people to concentrate on work rather than him as person. It’s important that we also encourage scholarly discussion of his art and analysis of his visual artwork, while seeing it in the context of his writing.

“I think we will continue to see his influence grow over the next few decades and we will see more artists taking lead from Alasdair. He was someone who felt he would have had to go to London to make an artist’s life but who used his own city, his own country, for his material.”

First-hand experience

For Dr Glass, who has published five novels of his own, the experience of working first-hand with Alasdair Gray was an education like no other.

“His biggest influence on me was possibly in how a word or phrase is chosen and where they are placed,” Dr Glass says. “He would stand alongside me at the screen when he was dictating and he might say: ‘delete that’ or ‘move that to the beginning of the sentence’ or ‘put those three words in the introduction.’ It was a massive help in thinking about how you put sentences together and was one of the most valuable experiences I have had as a writer.

“He believed that writing was a craft and that, in many ways, it could be learned. The analogy he gave was that, if you want to be a brain surgeon, you need steady hands but there are many other things you need to learn to do it.

“At school, he hated doing anything which had been made compulsory. Apart from a couple of teachers, he found school quite restrictive but, as a child and a teenager, he learned a great deal by listening to the BBC’s Third Programme – the forerunner of Radio 3.”

Dr Glass is director of the Strathclyde’s MLitt in Creative Writing. The University also offers Scotland’s only undergraduate creative writing course.