Alasdair Gray: art, literature should represent ‘the most necessary and typical people’

Alasdair Gray: died aged 85 on 29 December 2019

Writer and artist Alasdair Gray died in December. Here, Andrew Givan offers a tribute and a recollection

· It was a cosy wee pub in Glasgow that was hosting a special event of writers doing readings of their work to raise funds for the SSP, one Saturday afternoon some years ago.

I was sitting there with my pal when an older man, slightly dishevelled with a hole in his jumper, sat down next to me and gave me a wee smile. It was Alasdair Gray. I was in the presence of greatness.

It was friendly and democratic and supportive. I remember Alasdair read his short story Near the Driver a satirical piece set on a train, in the not-too-distant future in which the rail network is completely privatised, (the price of tea and coffee keeps changing based on the latest stock market reports) and the poor passengers make the horrifying discovery that no-one is actually driving the train.

Alasdair threw himself into the reading, he always did the voices of his characters (hilarious) and powered through it sounding slightly unhinged, his delivery perfectly capturing the insanity of a turbo-charged capitalist juggernaut completely out of control.

‘Quiet treasury’
We lost Alasdair on 29 December 2019. He was 85 years old. He grew up in a tenement in Riddrie, Glasgow, one of the first and best-designed council housing estates build under the Wheatley Act, and he remembers it fondly for its green spaces, and amenities including the public library:

“The pinnacle of socialist civilisation… It was a source of wonder and gratitude to me that anybody could enter and browse through this warm, quiet treasury of alternative worlds.”

Riddrie Public Library, and a loving home that encouraged Alasdair’s creativity, gave his creative journey a good start.

He struggled to make a living for many years through his art and his writing. He painted some extraordinary murals including one in a church and one on the horrors of war for the Scotland—USSR Friendship Society, and he worked for a couple of years in the 1970s as the Artist Recorder for the People’s Palace.

His breakthrough was his first book Lanark, published in 1981, a book he had been working on all his adult life. Even though it was his first novel, it feels like his magnum opus, distilling all his lived experience up to that point, and filtering it through his fantastical imagination.

The illustrated cover and title pages were wondrous to behold featuring gods and cityscapes, mythical creatures and scenes from an apocalypse—the typeface, layout and design were all his own too, as in all his subsequent books.

His books are bold, mischievous, dark, experimental, exuberant, truthful tales of flawed people who often find themselves in strange and uncomfortable situations.

His raw material was Glasgow—he said that Glasgow was for him what London was for Dickens—and the city comes vividly alive in his work with its cast of hard men, strong women, artists, workers, people on the margins, and corrupt politicians.

His books are very political—there is a lot of debate, and ideas, and knowledge of history—on one level his novel Poor Things is a Gothic horror set in Victorian times, on another level it is peppered with nuggets of information for students of socialist history including Red Clydeside, Robert Owen, and how Loch Katrine became the main water supply for the city in the interests of public health.

He is brilliant at satirising the twisted logic of free market capitalism: in the same book the lawyer Wedderburn lectures his lover Bella Baxter in how the world works praising the system and justifying the poverty, hunger, disease, infant mortality, workhouses and jails for “weakening the bodies of the desperately poor” and preventing revolution.

“That is how we have organised the world’s richest industrial nation and it works very well.” Needless to say, Bella is not convinced.

I learned a lot from Alasdair. Like the best kind of teacher, his enthusiasm for his subject makes you want to know more. His polemical works on why Scotland should be independent show a deep knowledge of Scottish history, culture and politics.

Alasdair fully acknowledged his debt not only to other writers and artists, but to those that supported him and worked alongside him (just a few months ago, he was working on creating portraits of the tradesmen who helped him create his stunning ceiling mural at the Oran Mor) and also the society that allowed a working class Riddrie boy an education, a decent home, and health care.

Alasdair believed that art and literature should represent “the most necessary and typical people” and should be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone. He wanted his work to speak the truth and help us articulate how we can make the world a better place.

Alasdair, you are no longer with us, and that will take some getting used to. But what a wonderful legacy in words and pictures you have left behind for all of us. Thank you.

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