Alasdair Gray: 'Self-rule for Scotland would make us grow up'

On the eve of the Edinburgh Book Festival, its polymath star refuses to dwell on his back catalogue. Yet Alasdair Gray remains a decidedly retro literary hero. Anna Burnside meets him

Among the things bothering Alasdair Gray, the prolific writer, painter, muralist, playwright and essayist, are: a lack of theatrical interest in his most recent play, Fleck; Donald Trump's plans to turn a swathe of Aberdeenshire into a golf resort; the mental deterioration that comes of being 76; and the paracetamol he has forgotten to buy his bed-ridden wife.

Gray, the polymath, is a man so productive across so many genres that he suspects people think "that we don't know exactly what he is, so he's probably not very good at all these things". He is also capricious, naive and, for those who have to corral him into anything as unforgiving as a publishing schedule, infuriating.

Take his forthcoming appearances at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Gray is opening and closing the event, as befits a Scot of his stature. At the first event he will talk about his book A Life in Pictures. Gray first mooted this to his long-suffering publisher, Canongate, in 1986. It was finally printed last year.

For his second appearance, on closing night, festival director Nick Barley was desperate to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Gray's masterwork, Lanark. Nice try. "Lanark was published in 1981 and I'm very pleased it's still being published but I'm only interested in present or future work," Gray says. Instead, he proposed a reading of his unperformed play, Fleck, his freehand, "very socialist of a very old fashioned kind", adaptation of Faust. The work was published by Two Ravens Press, a spare-bedroom operation run from the Isle of Lewis, in 2009, and was received with indifference by English and Scottish theatres, leaving Gray to read from it at every festival to which he is invited.

This year at Edinburgh he is joined by a stellar literary cast, with his great friend and cheerleader Will Self in the leading role. Liz Lochhead, the Scots Makar, will narrate, Ian Rankin is the Procurator Fiscal and AL Kennedy is the heroine, May.

It is impossible to persuade Gray to do anything he does not want to do. And getting him through the door is only the start. He recently contributed to an ambitious 3D artwork to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Ubiquitous Chip, the Glasgow restaurant where he painted murals in exchange for meals. At the gala launch dinner, when he was asked to make a speech, his main thrust was, oh dear, this has not really worked, but thanks for asking me to try. Hardly the eulogy the organisers were expecting.

Gray's contrarian combination of left-wing Scottish nationalism, genre-hopping and frank-mind-speaking means that, after Lanark, he is most famous for his saying, "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation", which is paraphrased from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies and engraved on the wall of the Scottish Parliament building in Holyrood.

With Alex Salmond's SNP government promising a referendum on independence, does Gray anticipate glorious, productive early days of independence any time soon? What does he think a fully independent Scotland might be like?

"I can't tell, but I know we would be in a position to blame ourselves. Things wouldn't suddenly start to get very much better. They might start to get very much worse. Every time there has been a move towards greater Scottish independence, the opposition has explained, if you get that, there will be a gigantic withdrawal of capital and increased unemployment."

Salmond has done a pretty good job so far, although allowing Donald Trump to build a golf resort in his Banff and Buchan constituency is a disappointment. "He is," says Gray wearily, "only following the example of any other politician."

Self-rule would, he believes, end the infantilising effect of Westminster rule. "It would make us grow up."

"It's only been in the last 20 years that you have an awful lot of Scottish popular detective thrillers with Scottish settings and Scottish detectives and criminals. If you leave aside John Buchan, Scotland just wasn't interesting enough to have that kind of thing for most of the last century.

"Then there's the fact that Jim Kelman and Tom Leonard, the earlier generation went away to England to make better livings. Then they decided they might as well come back to Scotland. Might as well be living where you grew up. Personally I would have gone anywhere where anyone would have paid me steadily to paint. Oh yes." He grins and changes into another funny voice. "But they wouldnae."

His refusal to write and paint "Scottish" subjects are, he suggests, the reason that the establishment don't want his plays. "When Lady Gregory and Yeats started the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, they weren't interested in Shaw and Wilde, who were big West End hits in London. Oh yes, they're Irish, but we want Irish Irish."

With his hand-drawn typefaces, skewiff glasses and comfortable sandals, Gray is a poor fit with the 21st century. He has no mobile phone and does not watch television. Yet there is a drawer on the filing cabinet by the living room door labelled Work To Come. He is far from finished. "Apart from the society of my wife and a few friends, writing and painting are my main pleasures. I don't want anything more than that."

A life in brief

*Born in Glasgow in 1934, the son of a box factory worker. Studied at Glasgow School of Art in the 1950s, where he began writing Lanark.

*Has taught, painted murals, written radio and television plays. Joined Philip Hobsbaum's influential writers' group.

*Published Lanark in 1981, credited with influencing Irvine Welsh, AL Kennedy and others.

*In 1991, Gray, Tom Leonard and James Kelman appointed joint professors of creative writing at Glasgow University.

*Currently married to former bookseller Morag McAlpine. Has one son, Andrew, from first marriage.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower