Alasdair Gray (courtesy Rodge Glass)
One night in summer 2015, under a vast night sky mural in the Òran Mór Arts Centre auditorium in Glasgow, there was a film showing. In fact, two. The subject of both, Alasdair Gray, once an intense, asthmatic working-class boy from northeast Glasgow and now Scotland’s most celebrated literary artist, was in the audience, fidgeting and scratching as he watched. Above us, I could see his Garden of Eden mural writ large on the ceiling, despite the low light. I was also scratching myself—seeing Alasdair do it always made my eczema worse. I was waiting for the right moment to ask him to sign a picture for my baby daughter. He was eighty, at the time. I was afraid I might not see him again; I was living in England. Now, in the weeks after his death, days after I’ve moved back to Glasgow again, I wonder how to make sense of his loss. Our conversation that night, conducted while watching the pop-up screen, made me re-engage with his work in a new way. And it gives me something to do now he’s gone.
Over the twenty years we knew each other Alasdair was always charitable with me, unfailingly kind and supportive, even though the publication of the biography I’d written about his life, a not entirely uncritical book, was difficult for him. But honesty matters, now: ours was a pretty one-sided relationship. I was forty-five years younger than Alasdair, a young fan when we met in 1999. I was one among so many aspiring writers, keen to learn, dizzied by his achievements, and by the way he seemed both extraordinary and ordinary. Gray referred to himself as “an increasingly fat Glasgow pedestrian”; the novelist Will Self called him “a little grey diety.” Alasdair used Tipp-Ex to write his name onto his rucksack in distinctive capitals—he designed his own font—then carried it around the streets of Glasgow’s West End while locals and tourists whispered about who they’d just spotted on the street. He was the internationally regarded author and illustrator of Lanark, Poor Things, Unlikely Stories, Mostly, and 1982, Janine. He was responsible, along with the likes of Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, Agnes Owens, and Edwin Morgan, for transforming the Scottish literary landscape Morgan had once called “a wasteland” into the rich, varied, diverse, and outward-looking place it is today. He made Glasgow the subject of his life’s work, creating “imagined objects,” as he called his creations, about his disappearing, changing city. In Lanark, the famous line, “not even the people of Glasgow live in it imaginatively” was rendered obsolete by his own achievements. No wonder people whispered when he passed them on Byres Road.
I first met Alasdair when I served him a drink at a pub, then was his tutee at the University of Glasgow when I was working on my debut novel (he once rewrote an entire chapter by hand, sticking bits of paper on with glue to cover over my words). Later, I worked for him as secretary, dogsbody, driver, and much else besides. My writer’s education took place in his bedroom, on a cheap chair at his bulky old computer, while he waved his finger shakily over my shoulder, shuffling words around on the screen, writing his books off the top of his head as I typed. He sang music hall ditties on the toilet. He was free, and maddened, and maddening, too. He was utterly single-minded at times, easily distracted at others. He was disarmingly honest and was often taken advantage of by others. From the day I began work at his home, Alasdair insisted on paying me a “tradesman’s wage,” which was sometimes more than he was earning himself, and certainly more than I’d been paid at the pub. Over the four years I worked with him, Alasdair turned plays into novels, recycled emblems and vignettes, reused and reworded old sentences he felt he hadn’t got quite right decades earlier. He wrote a novel based on rejected radio plays from the seventies and once fell asleep trying to finish off a political book, having got horribly distracted by the Act of Union of 1707. It was not a regular job.