Back in the early summer Scots Whay Hae! went to talk to Alasdair Gray about his latest book, his love of reading, the importance of a Scottish cultural identity and of being carefully taught from an early age. The conversation formed the basis of an article for the NLS magazine, Discovery, a longer and unedited version of which can be read below.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with Alasdair on a couple of projects over the last few years, and the talk was really a result of the completion of one of these, Of Me An Others, his collection of non-fiction prose which he has described as “my life in prose”, but which is more complex and far reaching than that simple summation would suggest.
The discussion starts with Alasdair talking about Of Me And Others before we head back to his childhood and his earliest memories of books. Matters take many twists and turns as he then talks about his father’s reading habits, the importance of libraries, his education, at home and at school, his time at art school, his use of language in his books, and what he plans next.
The quality is not of the highest SWH! standard as Ian couldn’t be there that day to weave his usual magic, and I must thank Simon Cree for helping out and making sure it happened at all. As mentioned above, you can read a tidied written version below, but you don’t get the full majesty of time spent with Alasdair Gray unless you listen to the podcast.
You can listen to the Scots Whay Hae! podcast at iTunesor by RSS. Subscribe and you’ll never miss it. Or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen to it below, accompanied by a few visuals:
The next podcast will be with you next month, with guests yet to be confirmed, but as always it will be worth a listen. In the meantime, should you wish to read it, here is the original version of the article which resulted from the interview:
Interviewing Alasdair Gray is an unforgettable experience, and one which I advise any potential interviewer to come prepared for. He’s someone who will keep you on your toes, and will not suffer weak questions or attempts at ingratiating praise gladly. I visited him at his home in the west end of Glasgow ostensibly to talk about his latest book, ‘Of Me And Others’, and particularly of the importance of reading and writing in his childhood and the role which public libraries played. The plan was to ask him about the book, move on to his early memories of literature and how those early influences have endured, then get him to talk about the Alasdair Gray Archive collection which is housed in the National Library of Scotland. Any thought of structure in the interview soon went out of the window as he jumped from one idea to the next, before returning to the original point just when I thought what had been asked had been forgotten about.
Before we started the interview we had been talking about our shared love of the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein (Alasdair loves to sing, often when you least expect it). We discussed the merits and lessons of ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’ from ‘South Pacific’, and this was to be a theme which ran through our subsequent discussion. Gray admits that he has benefited from being carefully taught from a young age; encouraged by parents who always had books about the house. He claims that, while his education at Whitehill Secondary School was more than acceptable, it was the books read, and the lessons learned, away from the classroom, particularly the time spent in libraries, which reaped the greatest benefit on the young Gray, allowing him to win a bursary, from, as he points out, “the Welfare State” to Glasgow School of Art, something which, while it didn’t start him as an artist (he was already painting before he attended the school) allowed him to dedicate his life to art full time, something for which he is eternally grateful. As should we.
I asked him about those earliest memories, and he began talking about the role of his parents. “I had the luck to have a father and mother who liked books. One of the only books I still have which has a copy of my mother’s signature in it is an edition of Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’. The most important books I ever read, or saw, were the books in our house. My Dad was also a reader, he had the complete plays of Bernard Shaw. I remember he was particularly fond of Shaw’s ‘The Perfect Wagnerite’, and he also read a lot of non-fiction which reflected his own politics as a Fabian socialist.
“My mum remembered her dad reading ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ to the family when she was young, an experience which often reduced her to tears. It is enlightening to think that this means that in the early days of the 20th century Thomas Hardy was not regarded as the property of the academics. I’ve always been astonished at meeting people who regard me as being socially as good as themselves, but who express surprise about the fact that I had been educated so well. When I was writer-in-residence at Glasgow University, an Oxbridge educated professor said that he couldn’t believe someone from my background knew as much about literature as ‘we do’.
“This was an attitude I encountered quite often in academic circles; the disbelief that someone who had been to a state secondary school would have read Hemingway, or the like, and that it would only have been those from their social circle who had access to what they thought as ‘worthwhile literature’. This seems to deny not only the importance of public libraries, but their very existence, and fails to recognise just how popular they were. I can only imagine such people are of the sort who professes that nobody needs libraries, and that they should be turned into places that sell things, or where money is made.”
Talk then moved onto Gray’s archive collection at the National Library, and he was as candid about how this relationship began as you would expect him to be; “I am aware of leaving a legacy. I had, and still have, lots of books and things, such as diaries and notes about early drafts of work I do, which couldn’t all be stored at home. Some time in the 1980s I needed money to pay for and organise a major exhibition of paintings by me, but also by friends whose work I thought was not being properly noticed. I suddenly found that I could sell diaries and other things to the Scottish National Library. That gave me the money I needed. Unfortunately, the exhibition did not make us as famous painters as we hoped…not at all. Never mind, we did our best. But, having found that I could get money from the National Library of Scotland I have since sold original manuscripts, documents, diaries and things to them ever since, and will continue to do so.
“It’s true that it is a very wide collection of artifacts, such as hand written notes on the backs of envelopes or scraps of paper. As for the books on my shelves, hardly any of them are rarities, I usually buy books second hand and in paperback, but I have written in margins things which may be of interest in the future. I have often thought that if I become an academic industry, as so many writers do…” (the heartiest of Gray’s regular laughs interrupts this thought) “..that these could add to any study. It would be nice to think so.”
Although Gray is thinking about his past, he hasn’t stopped working in the present for the future, and the interview concluded with his talking about the project he is currently obsessed with, something which, if you know Gray’s famous novel ‘Lanark’ may not come as that big a surprise.
“I’m working on… Well, I don’t call it a translation…but, it’s of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. It is a rhymed paraphrase. I feel the urgency of rhyme is very important to it. The problem is, I can’t read Italian! There are five translations that I move between, and if, as I hope, people will buy and read my version, they should do so beside a translation. I would strongly recommend John Ciardi’s from the 1950s. This is to see how far I depart from it. However, I do not believe I depart a fraction from Dante’s moral message.
“One of the first things I read about Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ was concerning Wilhelm van Loon, the Dutch/American writer. Between the wars, he wrote the books ‘The Story of Mankind’ and ‘The Home of Mankind’, where he tried to explain an idea of the growth development of humanity from an earlier age; which included a geographical survey of the world’s countries. His views came out about the same time as H.G. Wells’ ‘Study of History’, and many academics complained about these amateurs coming in and discussing a very complex and detailed specialisation. But both had a vision of human history – old fashioned now – that humanity should be united to make a happier place for all of us, something which can also be found in Dante.
“I wouldn’t like to say that my version will be translated into Scots, rather into my own voice and dialect. Many will believe my voice and dialect is simply another accent of English, in fact they may not think it different at all. I don’t complain about that, but I do use phrases and words, such as ‘smir’ – a very thin descending of rain, which is quite different, I think, from ‘drizzle’. But the truth is, I can’t be bothered thinking about how different my speech is from English; I don’t think it is very different, and I don’t care. I think it does have a Scottish ‘twang’ to it, but that twang isn’t something I work to emphasise.”
Alasdair Gray working on Dante seems a perfect combination, as both have given us very personal, yet identifiable world views, and as the discussion ended it was gratifying to hear him talking about other future projects with the same gusto. Gray may make light of the legacy which he leaves, but, the seriousness with which he considers the NLS archive, married to the recent collection of all of his short stories, his 2010 illustrated biography ‘A Life In Pictures’, and the publication of ‘Of Me And Others’,which he says could be described as ‘his life in prose’, suggest otherwise, and we should be glad that this is the case. These collections when taken together tell the story, not only of a life lived in art, but of a time and place where Alasdair Gray has been, and continues to be, one of its most interesting chroniclers. It may be Alasdair’s world, but we can all pay it a visit.
*(A version of this article first appeared in Discovery magazine for the National Library of Scotland)
The podcast and the above article are dedicated to the memory of Morag McAlpine.