Man is the pie

Jenny Turner

  • Every Short Story 1951-2012 by Alasdair Gray
    Canongate, 933 pp, £30.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 85786 560 1

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. In those days my greed for extravagant existences brought me to the local library, where I ate up all the existing stories and illustrations I could find.’ He was sitting on a rock brooding when he thought up ‘my first story which did not seem silly’, where a boy finds a star ‘the size of a glass marble’ on the midden behind the tenement where he lives. His teacher demands he hand it over, but the boy swallows it: ‘Teacher, classroom, world receded like a rocket into a warm, easy blackness leaving behind a trail of glorious stars.’ ‘The Star’ was published later that year in the Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls, encouraging the teenage author to begin planning his first novel, to feature ‘an asthmatic glum hero whose heroism and asthma derive from his being an extra-terrestrial agent sent down by a higher authority to save the world’. The name of the hero was to be Boreas Brown.

Gray worked on this novel, off and on, for the next three decades, Boreas Brown turning into Obbly-Pobbly, Obbly-Pobbly into Gowan Cumbernauld. From Whitehill he went to Glasgow School of Art, then worked reluctantly as a teacher and, more happily, as a playwright, portrait-painter and muralist. By 1981, when his first book was finally published, his ‘portrait of the artist as a young Scot’ was called Lanark, as was its wheezy, skin-shedding hero. The book was a critical and popular sensation and changed the place of Glasgow in the world for ever.

Not that Glasgow in the 1980s wasn’t changing anyway. In 1983, Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Happy moved in as the mascot of the Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign. The aim was to rebrand Glasgow from ‘a dark, dangerous and dismal conglomeration of slum housing, religious bigotry and urban decay’ – in the words of the lord provost of the time – to a place of gleaming post-industrial glamour. Gray’s fame and Glasgow’s upgrade came about at the same time, and are in lots of ways connected: Gray had a brief stint as professor of creative writing at Glasgow University, a position shared with Tom Leonard and James Kelman; and nice gigs as a celebrity designer of murals at Hillhead subway station and at the Oran Mór arts centre.

In terms of politics, however, Gray and the new Glasgow are at loggerheads. In 1990 he lampooned the European City of Culture festivities in his novel Something Leather: ‘Many intelligent people still think Glasgow is a bolshie slum full of drunks who slash each otha with rayzas because nobody wants the ships they used to build,’ a caricature arts administrator says in phonetically approximated posh English. ‘Well we a taking the curse off the place. Wia employing Saatchi and Saatchi!’ This elision between English people and arts administrators came up again quite recently in the upset over Gray’s essay ‘Settlers and Colonists’ – which was ‘horrible’ in its ‘resentment against the English’, according to the Guardian columnist Deborah Orr. Though actually Gray’s beef is not with particular ethnic or socioeconomic groups, but with people who take top jobs in Scotland without really wanting to be there, killing time until they can get the job in London they were really after all along. By ‘colonists’ Gray means carpetbaggers, and he’s against them in the arts in particular because they’re not that bothered about supporting local work. This matters, Gray thinks, because local audiences respond to local work in a particular way. Lanark was written to be above all a novel of Glasgow, by Glaswegians for other Glaswegians, and it’s loved as such by local readers, such as the Motherwell-born Orr, who when she first read it in the 1980s, felt it soothe ‘a worry that had nagged at me since I was quite young’. What’s wrong with the place we come from, that nobody sticks around long enough to write great books? Is the defect in the people, the city, the country, and is it catching? Can you escape it by running off somewhere warmer? Can you sort it by sticking a yellow smiley face over it?

Before Lanark, the things that really make Glasgow Glasgow – the high flats and bridges to nowhere, the dark and drunkenness and all the coughing – were seen as blots, deficiencies, things to be got rid of. But in Lanark even the eczema becomes wonderful and terrible, an essential element in a mighty fisheye vision, beautiful and bonkers, naff yet full of glory. ‘What is Glasgow to most of us?’ Gray’s avatar asks. ‘Imaginatively, Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world. That’s all we’ve given to ourselves.’ So that’s one important reason for Lanark’s length and elaboration and its opulent illustrations – the sun held up by the nymph on the jacket, the Renaissance frontispieces adapted from Vesalius and Bacon and Hobbes and Raleigh. It’s a restitution, a tribute, a golden egg wrapped in splendour.

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