B. 1934 D. 2019
Work as if you live in the early days of a better world -- Alasdair Gray via Dennis Lee
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About Alasdair Gray
Writing in his 1990s study of Alasdair Gray’s novels, Stephen Bernstein identifies Gray as “one of the most important living writers in English. His satirical blend of realism and fantasy and his compassionate use of humor and sorrow distinguish his novels, short stories, plays, and poems in the crowded field of contemporary literature.” Gray’s creative talents stretched beyond writing, however, and he has been equally celebrated for his design, illustration, painting and murals.
Outside of Scotland, Gray was probably best known for his striking first novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981), which garnered numerous accolades, including the Saltire Society Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year in 1982. Located somewhere between science fiction, memoir, surrealism and realism, the Guardian describes its influence as “opening up the imaginative territory inhabited today by writers such as AL Kennedy, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”.
Despite its bleak setting in a city named Unthank, Lanark presents the reader with a strange sense of optimism, as if a utopia lurks somewhere in the near future, a society characterised by equality, insight and art. Writing twenty years after its publication, Janice Galloway reflects on how “Alasdair Gray’s writing... made me feel acknowledged, spoken to, listened for. Twenty years after the initial gratitude for this book’s having been written at all, that alone is worth re-saying.” The novel suggests we might reach this utopia, if we only work hard enough to bring it about.
Importantly, Gray practiced the utopianism he preached, in a manner characterised by humility as well as hard graft. Speaking of both his visual and written works, Skye Sherwin remarks, “his artworks transformed his immediate surrounds into something fantastical – full of both personal and mythic symbolism.” This thematic concern serves as the driving force for a creative vision which celebrates the everyday as a kind of magic, and a source for hope.
In Glasgow, where he lived for most of his life, his public artworks can be found on the walls and ceilings of restaurants, arts centres, museums and galleries. For a while, a giant poster of the phrase, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better world,” created with long-time collaborator Nichol Wheatley, graced the walls of Hillhead station on the Glasgow subway. A similar phrase (using “nation” instead of “world”) is etched in stone on the Scottish Parliament’s Canongate Wall. Despite repeated misattribution, Gray always modestly reminded people that he took the phrase from Canadian poet Dennis Lee.
Born in Glasgow in 1934, Gray’s working class upbringing and mostly state-funded schooling eventually led him to the Glasgow School of Art. Immersed in socialist and nationalist politics, he became a celebrator and producer of local culture, interpreting and remaking the city through his unique creative vision. Yet despite his strong attachment to Glasgow, he drew his inspiration from a broad, autodidactic immersion in others’ writing and art. In an interview for the Paris Review, Gray claimed, “All my notions for poems and things or new works come generally through reading.”
In recent years, substantial collected editions of Gray’s plays, short stories and poetry have appeared, alongside an autobiography, Of Me & Others (Cargo, 2014). The Collected Verse, published in 2010, might sound like the work of a writer winding down into their twilight years. However, presented with typical modesty on his blog, Gray described his project, a ‘prosaic verse’ retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “I began writing my paraphrase, probably because I had written over 20 books, mostly fiction, had no ideas for more, and could imagine no better exercise for my verbal imagination.”
The selection of readings Gray provided for the Poetry Archive suggest a mix of deeply personal poems jostling for space with philosophical, often playful, observational pieces. As in all his work, memoir and imagination blend into wonderful insights, yet in his poetry those elements often stand side by side, mirrored in separate poems.
The delightfully half-finished thoughts of ‘Biography,’ which Gray’s introduction notes could be “any man’s biography,” jostles against concrete invocations drawing on photographs of his childhood (‘Photograph 1956’), or recollections of past, sometimes difficult, relationships. Listeners will find themselves delighted by Gray’s ability to sound surprised by his own poetry, even decades after their composition. Above all, his reading brings to life the sense of an artist whose work is play.
The short, lyrical nature of the majority of Gray’s verse belies the playfulness of the forms he used. Some of the poems are idiosyncratic monologues, framed by speech marks; others have been lifted from their original contexts in his novels and plays. Numerous translations and versions (‘paraphrases’, as he calls his version of Dante) pervade his Collected Verse, such as the ones recorded for the Poetry Archive by Jules Laforgue, Saeb Tabrizi and Gerard de Nerval.
As if to disrupt any easy sense of his poetry, there is one longer poem, ‘The Naming of Britain’, among the recordings Gray made for the Poetry Archive. Originally published in Independence: An Argument for Home Rule, the piece adopts a mock epic mode, beginning in 330BC with the first use of the name ‘Britania’ by a Greek merchant, and arriving at the British Postmaster’s attempt to “make folk think the British Isles were one”. The poem avoids taking a stance on Scottish independence, or on any nationalist sentiments, but still celebrates “the irregular archipelago / to which Pytheas came.”
And it is this that might serve as a good entry point to Gray’s creativity: they are celebrations of life—his own, captured in autobiographical moments, or that of the many people mentioned in his work, from Glasgow’s bankers and postmen to an international cast of poets and painters. Gray’s poetry, as with all his creative work, stands in testament to his status as an incredibly prolific creative polymath, a living treasure to be celebrated not just by Scotland, or any single nation, but by everyone.
Alasdair Gray recorded his reading on Nov 17th 2016 at his home in Glasgow with Richard Carrington as producer.