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Naming Britain

Alasdair Gray, 27 May 2010

... In three hundred and thirty B.C. when ships always tried to sail within sight of land, at the west exit from earth’s middle sea DON’T GO THROUGH was carved. That small strait led to the ocean that keeps moving its bed, drowning beaches twice between noon and noon and twice uncovering them, pulled by the moon. It was hard to sail by such coasts without splitting keel on reef or running aground, but possible, as traders from Carthage found who sailed out with bolts of cloth, returned with tin, carved DON’T GO THROUGH to keep competitors in and stationed warships to make their command obeyed ...

Under the Sphinx

Alasdair Gray, 11 March 1993

Places of the Mind: The Life and Work of James Thomson (‘B.V.’) 
by Tom Leonard.
Cape, 407 pp., £25, February 1993, 9780224031189
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... This is the first full-length study of James Thomson’s life and work since Henry Salt’s in 1889. Thomson’s poem The City of Dreadful Night is known by name to many but has seldom been reprinted or discussed. Histories of literature say more about an earlier James Thomson (1700-48) who wrote The Seasons and ‘Rule Britannia’ and got into Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, though Johnson says his diction was ‘florid and luxuriant ...

Nae new ideas, nae worries!

Jonathan Coe: Alasdair Gray, 20 November 2008

Old Men in Love: John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers 
by Alasdair Gray.
Bloomsbury, 311 pp., £20, October 2007, 978 0 7475 9353 9
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Alasdair GrayA Secretary’s Biography 
by Rodge Glass.
Bloomsbury, 341 pp., £25, September 2008, 978 0 7475 9015 6
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... to impose a form, in other words, on the chaos of the work and the life. In the case of Alasdair Gray (who is, in any case, already his own critic and his own biographer), the extent of that chaos is daunting. As Rodge Glass’s book reminds us, besides writing the novels for which he is famous, Gray has been ...

Gray’s Elegy

Jonathan Coe, 8 October 1992

Poor Things 
by Alasdair Gray.
Bloomsbury, 317 pp., £14.99, September 1992, 0 7475 1246 9
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... This is Alasdair Gray’s funniest novel, his most high-spirited, and his least uneven. All of which does not necessarily make it his best, but certainly means that we have a nice surprise on our hands when you consider that Gray has spent much of the last few years publicly and gloomily announcing the death of his fictional imagination ...

Unnecessary People

Daniel Eilon, 3 May 1984

Unlikely Stories, Mostly 
by Alasdair Gray.
Penguin, 296 pp., £4.95, April 1984, 0 14 006925 9
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1982, Janine 
by Alasdair Gray.
Cape, 347 pp., £8.95, April 1984, 0 224 02094 3
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by Snoo Wilson.
Chatto, 160 pp., £7.95, February 1984, 0 7011 2785 6
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Scorched Earth 
by Edward Fenton.
Sinclair Browne, 216 pp., £7.95, April 1984, 0 86300 044 4
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... Two original and accomplished works by Alasdair Gray, self-styled ‘Caledonian promover of intelligible sapience’, are published this month. Unlikely Stories, Mostly is copiously illustrated in a style which sometimes descends to coy greeting-card formalism – inanely grinning dogs, twinkling stars, nymphs with perfectly rounded breasts and perfectly circular nipples, muscular workers, a conquistador complete with Spanish moustache, an eastern scene composed of pointy pagodas ...

Flattery and Whining

William Gass: Prologomania, 5 October 2000

The Book of Prefaces 
edited by Alasdair Gray.
Bloomsbury, 639 pp., £35, May 2000, 0 7475 4443 3
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... Alasdair Gray has opened his Book of Prefaces with what he calls an Advertisement and followed that with an essay ‘On What Led to English Literature’. Since he deliberately does not distinguish between the various sorts of front matter a volume may contain, both might be characterised as prefaces. I encountered this laxity with some dismay, although I understand it ...


Hugh Barnes, 2 May 1985

Towards the End of the Morning 
by Michael Frayn.
Harvill, 255 pp., £9.95, April 1985, 0 00 221822 4
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Sweet Dreams 
by Michael Frayn.
Harvill, 223 pp., £9.95, April 1985, 0 00 221884 4
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The Fall of Kelvin Walker 
by Alasdair Gray.
Canongate, 144 pp., £7.95, March 1985, 9780862410728
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Lean Tales 
by James Kelman, Agnes Owens and Alasdair Gray.
Cape, 286 pp., £8.95, May 1985, 0 224 02262 8
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Stones for Ibarra 
by Harriet Doerr.
Deutsch, 214 pp., £8.95, April 1985, 9780233977522
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Family Dancing 
by David Leavitt.
Viking, 206 pp., £8.95, March 1985, 0 670 80263 8
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The Whitbread Stories: One 
by Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson.
Hamish Hamilton, 184 pp., £4.95, April 1985, 0 241 11544 2
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... to nostalgia for ‘this prosperous decade between two disastrous economic depressions’ (as Alasdair Gray recalls it in The Fall of Kelvin Walker, subtitled ‘A Fable of the Sixties’). It occurs to John Dyson, Frayn’s downtrodden hero, that ‘failure was the secular equivalent of sin.’ But even his failure now seems like success. He and Bob ...

Man is the pie

Jenny Turner: Alasdair Gray, 21 February 2013

Every Short Story 1951-2012 
by Alasdair Gray.
Canongate, 933 pp., £30, November 2012, 978 0 85786 560 1
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... In 1951, Alasdair Gray went on holiday with his family to the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. He was 16, a pupil at Whitehill Senior Secondary School in Glasgow, brilliant at art and English but also an awkward boy, asthmatic and eczematous, happier in his head: ‘Had there been television I would have become an addict ...

Glasgow über Alles

Julian Loose, 8 July 1993

Swing Hammer Swing! 
by Jeff Torrington.
Secker, 416 pp., £8.99, August 1992, 0 436 53120 8
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Looking for the Possible Dance 
by A.L. Kennedy.
Secker, 254 pp., £7.99, February 1993, 0 436 23321 5
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The Lights Below 
by Carl MacDougall.
Secker, 254 pp., £7.99, February 1993, 9780436270796
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... With the initial support of small publishers such as Polygon and Canongate, writers like Alasdair Gray, Agnes Owens, Thomas Healy, Tom Leonard, James Kelman and Janice Galloway have found the city a congenial location for their life and work, and their success is encouraging others. Of course, Glasgow has always had its writers. Torrington’s ...

Scottish Men and Scottish Women

Jenny Turner, 27 June 1991

The Burn 
by James Kelman.
Secker, 244 pp., £13.99, April 1991, 0 436 23286 3
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by Janice Galloway.
Secker, 179 pp., £12.99, March 1991, 0 436 20027 9
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... when discussing ‘the new Glasgow writing’, a movement taken to involve man of pairts Alasdair Gray and poet Tom Leonard as well as Kelman and Galloway, to open on a sort of pen-Polaroid of the city of Glasgow itself. But nothing could be more inappropriate to the spirit of the writing. Turn to the stories collected in The Burn and in ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘Poor Things’, 25 January 2024

... The great​ Alasdair Gray novel on which Yorgos Lanthimos’s film Poor Things is based is clearly dated and located: the 1880s, Glasgow. The film is more oblique, offering a guessing game made up of costumes, travel by coach and horse, and a reference to Oscar Wilde. The last item is more informative than it sounds, more attentive to cinema and refraction, and a nice touch on the part of the screenwriter, Tony McNamara ...


Francis Spufford, 2 April 1987

Greyhound for Breakfast 
by James Kelman.
Secker, 230 pp., £10.95, March 1987, 0 436 23283 9
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Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer 
by Amos Tutuola.
Faber, 156 pp., £9.95, March 1987, 0 571 14714 3
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... Sadly, the reason ‘why there are few good fictions about folk with low incomes’ put forward by Alasdair Gray recently in his Postscript to Agnes Owens’s Gentlemen of the West is also the reason why folk with low incomes are less likely to read what fictions there are about ‘ordinary’ lives: ‘It is a horribly ordinary truth that our ...

The Paranoid Sublime

Andrew O’Hagan, 26 May 1994

How late it was, how late 
by James Kelman.
Secker, 374 pp., £14.99, March 1994, 0 436 23292 8
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... and infuriating it was that the better writers – whom we may as well call James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard among others – wouldn’t join in on the song. ‘It’s their loss,’ she said. ‘I mean, what do they want?’ A fairly good idea of what they wanted could be gleaned at that time from a visit to the Scotia Bar in ...

My Wife

Jonathan Coe, 21 December 1989

Soho Square II 
edited by Ian Hamilton.
Bloomsbury, 287 pp., £12.95, November 1989, 0 7475 0506 3
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... between sport and politics are based on C.L.R. James but are more convincing than James’s: like Alasdair Gray, he has inherited that disposition to view everyday life in political terms which English writers can only strain after. Another Scottish writer, Candia McWilliam, has already acquired a reputation for her way with abstruse words, but ...

On the highway

Jonathan Coe, 24 March 1994

by Joseph O’Connor.
Flamingo, 426 pp., £14.99, March 1994, 0 00 224301 6
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Resurrection Man 
by Eoin McNamee.
Picador, 233 pp., £14.99, March 1994, 0 330 33274 0
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by Emma Donoghue.
Hamish Hamilton, 232 pp., £9.99, January 1994, 0 241 13442 0
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... and formal ingenuity, of wrenching the national literature back onto the Modernist highway, as Alasdair Gray was able to do for the Scottish novel with Lanark. Whether this theory holds water or not, Bolger argues convincingly that the build-up to the recent explosion of Irish writing is literary-historical and has nothing to do with politics. Hence ...

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