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

Monday 08 August 2011 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


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.

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