Saturday, 23 October 2010

Alasdair Gray

There was a good piece on Alasdair Gray in this week’s Culture Show. This coincides with the publication of A Life in Pictures (illustrations from which you can see accompanying this weekend's Guardian article on the book), an overdue overview of his art, and with two exhibitions of his work in Edinburgh. The Talbot Rice Gallery has a display of his designs for books and posters, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art a selection of portraits as well as the beautiful symbol strewn panorama of Eden and After. Gray was an instantly engaging presence, amusing and amused (and occasionally acting charmingly bemused). He amuses himself a lot of the time, and lets loose a high-pitched, Michael Bentine-esque chuckle which is very infectious. His voice is the voice of his books, wryly sardonic and speaking in precisely wrought and articulated sentences, with an underlying foundation of moral seriousness and attempted self-honesty. He exhibits a genuinely funny sense of self-deprecation which never descends into self-negation. His preference for the public display of art is at first described as an expression of his socialism, before he catches the note of pomposity which this assertion might imply and quickly revises his motives as being those of a typical egotistical artist (although the first self-censored statement is undoubtedly equally true). This kind of self-mockery is his guard against falling into the kind of self-importance often found in the literary world. It’s the sense which can be found in his back cover blurbs and inside jacket biographical sketches for his own books. I like the blurb on the back of Unlikely Stories, Mostly in which a Col. Sebastian Moran of the Simla Times declares the book to be ‘too clever for its own good in parts, but otherwise a damn good read’. He enjoys inventing extremely negative comments with which he anticpates critical approbation, such as the one on the back cover of the hardback of 1982: Janine, in which he notes that ‘every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books, Lanark and Unlikely Stories, Mostly, is to be found here in concentrated form’. His review of his own biography, which he authorised Rodge Glass to write, is a model of modest correction, as he points out several details whose accuracy he disputes. He goes on to generously recommend the book anyway.

Gray’s portraits of his fellow Glaswegian friends, poets and artists are relaxed and informal, and often include glimpses of the city in the background. One of his subjects, the poet and dramatist Liz Lochhead, is on hand to share her affectionate impressions. Iain Banks and Alex Kapranos also share their enthusiasm for his work. Kapranos sits in Oran Mor, a deconsecrated church in the West End of Glasgow which has been converted into a cultural centre. This affords us glimpses of Gray’s ceiling mural, a beautiful celestial expanse of deep blue which you feel float off into, full of neck-craning detail. It’s a work which is ongoing, according to Gray. The implication is that it could take up a lifetime. It almost makes me want to get on the train and go to see it right now, if it weren’t for the certain knowledge that the 10 hour journey would leave me a gibbering wreck. Gray is now also designing a mural for the subway station at Hillhead, which will join many other murals to be found in Glasgow, such as those he painted for the Ubiquitous Chip Shop in Ashton Lane. One of the pictures in the book looks particularly striking. The Beast in the Pit is an early work from 1952, when he was an 18 year old student at the Glasgow School of Art. It is a bit of Glasgow gothic in which the deep brick walled pit containing the tentacled roots which reach up to the surface is simply part of the everyday setting, echoed in the winding drainpipes which crawl up the surrounding houses. People go about their daily business, hanging out the washing and going off to work, not giving a second glance to this Lovecraftian abyss in their midst. The Gray segment can be found about 40 minutes into the Culture Show, just before Alain de Botton’s rather annoying attempt to present knowledge in commodifiable, utilitarian terms, of worth only insofar as it can be put to work to enrich the life of the individual, financially and emotionally. So much for the great and eternal collective human endeavour of building up an understanding of the universe and our place within it, with each generation adding its own cumulative layers to the existing edifice (and sometimes knocking others down). It’s philosophy for the age of self-obsession. The School of Life to which he refers can be found in Marchmont Street in London, a road which faces Russell Square tube station. It's just north of the Brunswick Centre in an interestingly diverse row of modest shopfronts. The idea of a shop offering everyday learning which you can just walk into off the street is an attractive one. Such places have been around for quite a while, mind you. They’re known as bookshops. A little further up Marchmont Street there’s a particularly good one called Judd Books. It has a good stock of reduced price books, with a particular emphasis on literature, cinema and the arts. I’ve found some lesser known titles by Samuel Delany and Philip K Dick on previous occasions. And if it’s still there, you can pick up the copy of the Critical Appreciation and Bibliography of Alasdair Gray which they had on their shelves. Gray naturally has the last word in his Culture Show profile. Remarking on his sometimes precarious financial state, he switches to tones of mock rhetorical bombast to declare his assurance that his supporters ‘will make sure that Scotland is not disgraced by bringing me to a miserable, penurious end’.


Anonymous said...

My only 'ARTS' intake on a regular basis, blasted at us from the mass media, is the Culture Show. It's my lifeline to helping me stay abreast of what the BBC believe I should, erm, be aware of & Andy G Dixon is excellent.

Alasdair Gray is, for me, an undiscovered national treasure...THANK YOU Alasdair & the BBC.

Book ordered I can't wait to discover more about his life, his art & him.

Jez Winship said...

Yes, Andrew G-D is excellent, as is Mark Kermode. Lanark is definitely the place to start as far as Alasdair Gray's fiction is concerned. Poor Things is also very good, and Unlikely Stories, Mostly combines fables with his illustrations to beautiful effect. Rodge Glass' Alasdair Gray: A Secretary's Biography is a good informal portrait, affectionate and irreverant.