EIBF2014: Alasdair Gray

On Wednesday, just after lunchtime, the artist, author and veteran Scottish independence campaigner Alasdair Gray took the stage to a full house, a large section of whom, unsurprisingly, sported Yes badges of various hues.

Lanark is often cited as the great Scottish novel of the 20th century and Gray’s influence has been strong and pervasive for decades. The event was hosted by Ryan van Winkle.

The whole first half of the event was taken up with readings from Gray’s new book, a sort of autobiography, Of Me & Others. The first was a poem lamenting, comically, his inability to be practical, compared to artists and writers including say, James Kelman, who “drove an omnibus”, closing with: “No honest toil excuses me.”

There followed a long story (on page 45, a helpful audience member noted after Gray got a little flustered finding it) about his youth, particularly the influence of a teacher, Mr Meikle, at a time when “women and brave actions were what I wanted”. It ranged around, taking in his first poetic triumph and closing with a dream sequence that slightly undermined the quality of the rest. Then again, I suppose it could be apt for a piece that started with a primary school poem should end with an “and then I woke up”.

Van Winkle opened the discussion by addressing just how young Gray was when he started his literary ambitions, specifically the fact that there were clearly seeds to what would become Lanark in his head at an early age.

“Milton said he intended ‘to write a book that the world would not willingly let die’. I’m motivated in that kind of way. To get a wee bit of praise for something you wrote when you were wee.”

How early he focused on the central concern of much of his work, living and working in Scotland, was also addressed. “Most people humiliated by bad education look at the people around them, their parents, the people they know and anyone else – friends and relatives – certainly in Glasgow, the people who read, all the book reviews were in The Times, with practically no Scottish book publications at all that took any account at all of Scottish art. Most matters were happening elsewhere in the world. There was a failure of confidence and nerve in Scotland in the earlier part of the 20th century. But Encyclopaedia Britannica was still published at Edinburgh University…” and then he gave an admission that he had lost his thread.

This is one of the attractions and difficulties of Gray, that his interests are so wide-ranging, his answers so discursive, that although they make  sense in context when he’s speaking, they tend not to reproduce well in print. They’re also often delivered with an arch tone or a silly voice to indicate irony or sarcasm, more often than not delivered through bouts of laughter. To add further to the difficulty of rendering his meaning, it’s hard to tell whether it’s laughter of joy, incredulity, shame or all at once. I’m beginning to understand why he gets in hot water so often should someone be determined to misunderstand him. There was a young man outside the festival gates yesterday with the words “Alasdair Gray, Censor” on a placard, for instance. People weren’t paying him much attention, and I initially thought he was something to do with the chap who turned out to be handing out Creationist tracts in, I assume, a protest against Richard Dawkins.

Gray continued: “I read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and thought, ‘Oh, here’s someone using his experience of Dublin’ … and thought, ‘Why shouldn’t anybody do it, right where they are?’ Other writers in other countries take it for granted that they can … a small unearned income is useful if you’re starting out as an artist and in fact most of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists … Cezanne said ‘my father was the real genius, he left me a million francs!'”

Have things changed since he started out? “Oh, completely, it’s changed hugely, we’ve got a vast industry of Scottish arts administrators! And, of course, you need a few artists … I’ve been accused of hating the English, and I don’t, I don’t hate anybody, but I pointed out that the people in important Scottish committees prefer having English administrators to be in charge of Scottish arts. It’s the Scots who are to blame for the fact that they don’t trust, or dislike Scottish painters or writers in charge of their own institutions … it’s almost as mad as letting teachers be in charge of their schools!”

And then he span off into extending the analogy to doctors and hospitals and cutting costs and closing local law courts and police stations and … again, it was fun to listen to but it’s impossible to capture the essence, the knowingness and self-mockery on the page after the event.

He continued, kicking off with DH Lawrence’s line that “all good art is local art, all bad art is provincial” then moving on to how The Iliad was like a dispute over a plot of land, the fact the Bible was a series of local squabbles that people picked up and ran with for thousands of years. “All very local stuff.”

Van Winkle raised the point that the quote often attributed to Gray, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”, was actually written by someone else, and Gray confirmed it was by Dennis Lee, a Canadian poet.

Has he changed much from that ambition? “The only change would be from growing older, a bit less vital and a bit more stupid… I may end up voting for the Union if I carry on like this!” An answer that was greeted with a big laugh.

An audience question was why, given his obvious leaning towards literature he went to art college. “My parents would have liked me to go to university but I hadn’t got my Highers in Latin and you needed Latin to go to university.” At that time the welfare state had just started, and he eventually found out that a bursary would pay his fees to go to art school. He joked: “I wanted to go into the life classes to see bare, naked ladies!” He had to present a portfolio of painting that showed talent. The five years he spent at Glasgow School of Art was “one of the most useful periods of my life”, and he was also working on Lanark while he was there.

Another question was how optimistic he felt about the big vote next month?

“I’m feeling quite optimistic as I was reading the campaign material for the No campaign! There’s going to be more employment and more investment in business. This is not surely on the Conservative agenda? The No campaign, having been criticised for having no positive ideas is promising a greater degree of powers to the Scottish Parliament if we vote no! Wonderful! A small step forward, but I want a bigger step forward. This will be the third referendum, at each of the past referendums, the vote for Scottish Independence has increased. In 1989 [he meant 1979] a majority of Scots voted for it but didn’t get it because the Labour party decided the people who didn’t vote counted as being against.”

The increase in the vote in 1999, he said, leads him to think that the vote will be even bigger this time. “I hope it’s big enough to carry, but even if it doesn’t, if the present government does carry through its promises it’s still a step nearer.”

The chair asked “do writers and artists have a role in this conversation?”

“Artists have no more a role than labourers, tradesmen, skilled and unskilled … I think writers, well, and journalists who are writers, too. And politicians! Even politicians should be allowed a say in this matter!”

After the coverage of last year’s event, what did it feel like to still shock people… to be turned into an icon?

“I’d rather not be an icon. They can’t move, you know.

“It’s important not to be a very public figure. It’s cheeky saying this on a platform. I can only go on writing and painting things if I’m not asking, ‘Is this in accordance with my usual formula? I don’t want to shock people by departing from my usual formula!”

His winning formula is, of course, not to have one.

EDIT 15/8/14: I should note that I learned tonight that the “better nation” quote is an adaptation. This is not because I care  so much about the substitution of ‘nation’ for ‘world’ as much as the fact that Dennis Lee apparently wrote most of the songs on Fraggle Rock. Now that is what I call an achievement.

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