Alasdair Gray lived – and wrote and drew and painted – in the hope of seeing Scotland once again become an independent nation. There’s a grim symmetry in that he died at the very end of a decade which had come so close to seeing just that, and on the cusp of a new one in which the chances seem ever higher.
Although he didn’t coin the phrase “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” he popularised it, and it captures an attitude that inspired other artists and writers in the grim days of 1980s Scotland. Along with James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and others, Gray was instrumental in shaping a sense of a modern, self-confident – and socialist – Scotland. This self-image became the basis for the independence movement over the last decade.
His signature style – unique and instantly recognisable – can be seen illustrating books and posters and murals throughout Scotland. Hugely prolific, he wrote novels, short story collections and the wonderful Book of Prefaces. Most recently, he’d translated The Divine Comedy.
His greatest fictional work, and the one for which he will most be remembered, is Lanark: A Life in Four Books. Written over a 25-year period, this bildungsroman tells the story of struggling artist Duncan Thaw and his alter-ego Lanark (who lives in a grim, dystopian version of Glasgow). This epic – part fictionalised memoir, part science fiction, and containing the greatest index of footnotes ever – dragged Scottish literature once and for all out of the couthy, parochial kailyard and into the late twentieth century. If you read only one of his books – hell, if you read only one piece of modern Scottish literature – read Lanark.
I read it at University – I had almost no knowledge of Scottish writing at the time: although we’d studied the poetry of Norman MacCaig at school I must have assumed fiction ended with Stevenson – and it was a revelation:
“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”
“Because nobody imagines living here…think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”
Thank you, Alasdair, for imagining our country: what it is, and what it could yet be.
image (c) Alasdair Gray, courtesy National Galleries of Scotland