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.

From the beginning, Lanark was a piece of prophecy, though not in the sense that it tried to see the future. The author, you felt, had observed the life he writes about so closely, cared about it so deeply and thought about its cosmic place so hard that the absurd conceit of the project – the idea that one man can claim to speak for a whole city – came to make the strangest sense. And thirty years on it still does. A couple of months ago, the news was full of what epidemiologists call ‘the Glasgow effect’: more deaths from drugs and alcohol, strokes and cancer and heart disease, violence and suicide than you find even in the poorest parts of English cities, or other parts of Scotland (though a more diluted ‘Scottish effect’ also seems to exist).

‘The links between deprivation and mortality are well researched and uncontroversial,’ the authors of a report published by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health wrote in 2011. ‘Although there remains uncertainty … [about] how deprivation gets “under the skin”.’ Well, Lanark made the link quite clear. A joyless life in the sunless city of Unthank triggers a disease called dragonhide, which progresses to ‘going salamander’ – the sufferers explode, releasing energy used by the mysterious Institute to power its work. ‘Man is the pie that bakes and eats himself,’ in the words of a refrain, ‘and the recipe is separation.’ This cunning use of renewables also explains why the Institute’s food is so disgusting and yet sustaining. If you’ve ever eaten a Scotch pie, Lorne sausage or Aberdeen rowie, you will find nothing far-fetched in this schtick about food that has unspeakable origins but which everybody eats anyway, because it fills a hole and it’s tasty and, if you don’t want it, there isn’t anything else.

*

Two years after Lanark, Gray published a collection called Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Like Lanark, it was the fruit of a long gestation, and illustrated inside and out with Gray’s strange, flat line embellishments and illuminations – nudes, masks, mouldings, manicules, vignettes. The ambition was towering, monstrous: three vast historico-political allegories; two densely ironic creation fables; some easier pieces about topics such as a bifurcated riveter, a mechanised duck with paddles, a woman enjoying sex with an ugly dog. The first piece in the book was ‘The Star’, published unaltered from its original conception, thirty years before.

‘At least twenty years passed,’ Gray writes in the endnotes to Every Short Story, ‘before I noticed that “The Star” was inspired by H.G. Wells’s story “The Crystal Egg”’ – ‘difplag’, he called this sort of thing in Lanark’s ‘Index of Plagiarisms’, and it’s true, the similarities are striking. The story has much of Gray’s subsequent work furled up inside it, in ovum: the tenement kitchen with its pulley; the communal staircase, ‘cold and coldly lit’. New worlds coexisting in the cracks of this one. The bitter, autocratic teacher, ‘the mouth opening and shutting under a clipped moustache’.

There’s a lot of recycling in the endnotes to Every Short Story, and a lot of it in the stories themselves. Ideas and tropes appear and reappear: demiurges, deities, speculative universes, mild bondage and romantic humiliation. And there are a lot of discursive bits about the better moments in Glasgow’s history and how they might be developed to make a better future: steam engines, the Milngavie reservoirs, Red Clydeside, the Scottish Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party, under the governance of which – a particular passion – ‘were the first and best local housing schemes created’, such as Gray’s own childhood home of Riddrie, which appears a lot in his work, both as place and idea. As a place, it’s ‘a Glasgow housing scheme of three-storey tenements fronted with red sandstone’, as he explains in his essay ‘Why Scots Should Rule Scotland’ (1997), with shops and schools and a park and ‘the pinnacle of socialist civilisation’, the local lending library. As an idea: when Gray was a young man he ‘expected the world to become a mosaic of Riddries, each with a strong local flavour, of course’.

It can be a source of strength and weakness for a writer to identify so much with his childhood home, as responses to his ‘Settlers and Colonists’ essay have shown. In his political essays, Gray makes an argument for Scottish independence that is neither essentialist nor particularly nationalist – he just thinks it’s more democratic for countries to be small and self-governing, and the geography of Scotland makes a ‘national container’ of a handy size. And Scotland doesn’t even make for a self-identical container, such as a bowl: it’s a ‘cluster of islands’ – or city states, perhaps – ‘most of them not separated by water’. The simplicity of this picture is appealing, and its radicalism, and its use of plain and friendly words. Elsewhere, Gray has described his ideal future as a ‘Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Republic’, in which ‘everyone lives by making and doing good things for each other,’ ‘the basic wage of the poorest is never less than half the wage of the richest employer’ and ‘all profits are spent on four kinds of public work: excellent public housing; an education service whose largest classes are ten pupils per teacher; a health service whose nurses have the same wage as the doctors; and electricity generated by wind, water, sun and the earth’s internal heat.’ This is noble and stirring, but it’s also cuddly and crowd-pleasing – Gray knows that talk of the Scottish Co-operative brings a cosy feeling to older readers. As a voice, a discourse, the political writing looks simple and straightforward, but it’s rhetorically complex, rent from inside and outside by all sorts of forces. No wonder it wobbles sometimes, and sometimes comes close to collapse.

On the original edition of Unlikely Stories, Mostly the boards were metalled with a pattern of Charles Rennie Mackintosh-type thistles, with the motto – from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee – WORK AS IF YOU WERE LIVING IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER NATION at the top, and under them, SCOTLAND 1983. In 2007, Alex Salmond used the line in his first speech as first minister to the Scottish Parliament – although, as Gray observed in a Glasgow Herald op-ed, only about 50 per cent had even bothered to vote. Every Short Story has been branded with WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER WORLD. Is this an expression of confident expansiveness or a bland version of the earlier tag?

*

In his endnotes to Every Short Story, Gray explains how the terrifying fables at the heart of Unlikely Stories, Mostly came about. In the late 1970s, Lanark was finished but unpublished, and Gray got his job, via the Scottish Arts Council, as writer in residence at Glasgow University. In his application, Gray said he would spend the time writing a modern-verse version of Prometheus Unbound, but he didn’t. He got ‘excited’ thinking about Shelley and Coleridge – all those ‘lost or hidden worlds’. He was ‘confused’ by Pound and the Cantos, then fixated on one line: ‘Moping around the Emperor’s court, waiting for the order-to-write’. And so, ‘Five Letters from an Eastern Empire’, ‘my best and longest short story’. Bohu and Tohu were plucked from their families at the age of five to be forced like rhubarb in the ‘closed literature wing’ of the civil service academy. Of lowly origin themselves, as poets they are elevated to ‘the honoured-guest class’, and must keep aloof from society, walking guided by ‘janitors’ on towering platform shoes. Bohu, who’s writing the letters, has been ‘educated to feel serenely superior to everyone’ in preparation for writing ‘with high feelings’. Tohu is to ‘mix with the crowds of low, bustling people’ so he can become a comic poet, ‘learn their quips and catchphrases. Try not to notice they stink.’ Everything in the empire is under renovation. The palace is new, the etiquette is new and the role of the poets is new too. In his first letter, Bohu writes to his beloved parents about ‘this building which … has given the empire this calm and solemn heart’. By the third, he has noticed ‘cracks in the nation splitting [his] individual heart’. His aesthetic poise never falters in its exquisite stunned blankness: ‘the garden of irrevocable justice where disobedient people have things removed which cannot be returned, like eardrums, eyes, limbs and heads’.

After Unlikely Stories, Mostly Gray’s works are notably less dense. Many could be called Glasgow folk-tales – sour, elegant concoctions of intelligent self-loathing, political disappointment and sexual failure, ‘depressed working-class realist’ in discipline but with fabular elements, deftly framed. Several are structured on subtle but mortifying shifts in social power, sudden, comically depressing reframings of situations, as the narrator explains in ‘Sinkings’, from The Ends of Our Tethers (2003):

The moments I remember with most interest are not my happiest ones, but those times when the ordinary ground under my feet seemed suddenly to sink, leaving me several yards lower than I thought normal or possible. This lower level did not prevent pleasures I had enjoyed at higher ones, but the pleasure never seemed to raise me up again.

The pages of the book are formatted in line with this sinking structure, with final paragraphs indented, step by step, along both margins, so the story doesn’t so much end as fade away.

I’m particularly fond of ‘Lack of Money’, originally part of Mavis Belfrage (1996). ‘In Britain only snobs, perverts and the wholly despairing want friendship with richer or poorer folk,’ the narrator asserts, though his friend Mackay disagrees: ‘He says the Scots have democratic traditions which let them forget social differences. He says his father was gardener to a big house in the north and the owner was his dad’s best friend. On rainy days they sat in the gardener’s shed and drank a bottle of whisky together.’ The narrator claims this is not proper friendship. Would they sit in the shed if there wasn’t drink involved?

Every Short Story finishes with 16 ‘Tales Droll and Plausible’, published here for the first time. These tales are short, plain and unembellished, preoccupied with endings, dwindling powers, untravelled roads and common fantasies of life lived towards the end of days – survivalism, cryogenics, ecological disaster. A gentrified Glasgow pub is drowning in floodwater, the Highlands have long since been bought up by the English (‘I admire them. They’re always a jump or two ahead’). God is a Glasgow dominie with plans for a miles-better new universe, but his son Jimmy is begging him to save the planet Earth. A character not unlike the author has somehow missed his chance to be an artist, and must dedicate himself to ‘the maintenance of intellectual freedom through work needing no intelligent initiative’ – so he works as a teacher. This gives him time to pursue the counterfactual historical fantasies that are his real passion – eliminating the Atlantic slave trade, producing clean hydroelectric power etc.

The final story, ‘Billy Semple’, recounts a sad meeting with the former Rangers winger, whom Gray thinks he met once in a pub. ‘I described that meeting soon after it happened because (a) it reminded me that nobody can be sure of their end and (b) it mentioned social changes for the worse that surprised me when they happened, and which many younger folk take for granted. This I now see is the theme of all my later tales.’ The elegy and sense of diminishment are real, but the stories are also funny and self-aware. ‘Gumbler’s Sheaf’ seems to be a real-life list of moany-old-man letters of complaint, addressed to Visa, the Co-op Bank, the Rates Department of Glasgow City Council and the manufacturers of a reading lamp, on the plug of which ‘the prongs are far too large, and instead of being metallic, seem composed of a thick white plastic.’ But then the old man’s secretary shows him how to take the packaging off.

*

Rereading Gray, I’m struck by a sense of astonishing historical luck. From ‘The Star’ in the early 1950s to Lanark in the early 1980s; from the failure of devolution and the coming of Mrs Thatcher to the independence referendum due next year. The Glasgow population health study also follows the two halves of that timeline, with a hinge around 1980, just as Lanark came out. Between 1950 and 1980, health improved everywhere in Britain, thanks to the NHS, but less in Glasgow than elsewhere. Then after 1980 the old scourges were joined by ‘alcohol-related deaths, drug-related deaths, suicides, violent deaths and road-traffic accidents in young adults’, with ‘neoliberal political attack and the consequent hopelessness and community disruption’ posited as the cause. From Gray and friends, such as Kelman and Agnes Owens, to Trainspotting and the Children of Albion Rovers; from split-shift hauf-and-a-hauf philosophising to just needing to get completely out of it, all the time. ‘Had there been television then I would have become an addict.’ If Gray had been a generation younger he might never have made it to the library.

Sometimes, in his more journalistic writings, Gray seems to see this story as one of decline, pure and simple, from the paradise of Riddrie in the postwar welfare state. But the reality is more ambiguous, and in what D.H. Lawrence would call Gray’s ‘art-speech’, that truth is always there. The clever boys, taken from their parents and people by academic selection in ‘Five Letters from an Eastern Empire’ – as Gray was himself. The place of schools and schoolteachers throughout his work – agents, supposedly, of a gifted child’s rise and liberation, but who mainly thwart and flatten, from the moustachioed meanie in ‘The Star’ to the box-ticking fantasist in ‘Tales Droll and Plausible’. ‘The parents and educators of this damned country teach cowardice,’ Gray wrote in his second novel, 1982, Janine (1984). ‘Herding us towards the safest cages with the cleanest straw.’

‘Five Letters’ makes more clearly than ‘Settlers and Colonists’ the important parts of Gray’s carpetbagger point. English people in top Scottish arts jobs aren’t the problem – it’s not individuals at all. It’s the attitude everywhere that if clever and energetic people want to get on, they can only do so by cutting their ties to the people and places around them, shuffling from one centre of capital to another, serviced by low-paid drudges on the towering platforms of the global elite. There’s nothing inherently Scottish v. English about this. It’s about power and economics, and has to do with every scheme and city and province and region in the world. But it’s true that it appears more intense in Scotland at the moment. And, what with next year’s looming independence referendum, there seems a chance of the discussion for once going somewhere concrete, though whether to the early days of something better or to a more vigorous culture of blaming, nobody can be sure.

Towards the end of Lanark, our asthmatic hero is sent by Unthank, as a delegate to the council, to save his city and make alliances with the other wretched of the earth. Mainly, though, he gets pissed on the free drink. ‘You suffer from the oldest delusion in politics,’ the council leader tells him. ‘You think you can change the world by talking to a leader. [But] leaders are the effects, not the causes, of changes.’ A little later, he finds himself back in the dying city, an old, sick man with tubes in his arm, in a care home or hospital that is about to cave in. His son, Sandy, is now a soldier, and comes to save him. ‘I did no good, Sandy. I changed nothing,’ Lanark says. ‘Of course you changed nothing. The world is only improved by people who do ordinary jobs and refuse to be bullied. Nobody can persuade owners to share with makers when makers won’t shift for themselves.’

Lanark’s aporia is of course that of Gray’s Scotland too. Leaders and intellectuals, writers and politicians, can contort themselves all they like, but the world won’t change much for the better unless makers shift for themselves, except most of the makers don’t even make any more, and need to shift for themselves about that too. It’s a terrible hole that not even Scotland’s greatest contemporary imaginations often manage to look at squarely. Hence the habit, in Gray and Kelman, of idealising old-fashioned working-class solidarity. Hence the habit, in Irvine Welsh, of going on and on about getting off your face. People need to shift for themselves and refuse to be bullied. Like the boy who ate the star rather than hand it over, leaving a trail of glorious stars behind.