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Alan Spence Biography

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Nationality: British. Born: Glasgow, 1947. Education: Glasgow University, 1966-69, and 1973-74. Career: Writer-in-residence, Glasgow University, 1975-77, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 1982, Edinburgh District Council, 1986-87, and since 1990 Edinburgh University.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Magic Flute. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1990.

Way to Go. London, Phoenix House, 1998.

Short Stories

Its Colours They Are Fine. London, Collins, 1977.

Stone Garden and Other Stories. London, Phoenix House, 1995.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Sailmaker," in Modern Scottish Short Stories, edited by FredUrquhart and Giles Gordon. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1978; revised edition, London, Faber, 1982.

"The Rain Dance" and "Tinsel," in Street of Stone, edited by MoiraBurgess and Hamish Whyte. Edinburgh, Salamander Press, 1985.

Plays

Sailmaker. Edinburgh, Salamander Press, 1982.

Space Invaders. Edinburgh, Salamander Press, 1983.

Change Days. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1991.

Poetry

Plop! 15 Haiku. Glasgow, No Name Press, 1970.

Glasgow Zen. Glasgow, Print Studio Press, 1981.

Other

Crab and Lobster Fishing. N.p., Fishing News, 1989.

* * *

Alan Spence's reputation as a novelist and writer of short stories is much stronger in his native Scotland than elsewhere, but he deserves to be brought into greater prominence. His published output is not extensive, but his work as a writer-in-residence at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh has given him a much wider following than that for more prolific authors.

His first book, Its Colours They Are Fine, is a very intense and carefully crafted collection of short stories. Dealing powerfully with childhood and early adulthood in Glasgow through the 1950s and 1960s, it is a volume on which the author's own formative experiences seem to exert creative pressure. Its central concerns are made local by the emphasis on male, Protestant, working-class characters, but Spence's work is always illuminated and broadened by his perception of the spiritual dimension to everyday experience. To talk of influences may inevitably be belittling, but Spence in this book seems very much in the tradition of James Joyce, looking for the magical revealing moments in the lives of ordinary urban citizens. However, where the lives of Joyce's Dubliners are full of disappointment and disillusion, the lives of Spence's creations are more richly nuanced. In "Tinsel," for example, a boy's excitement at putting up Christmas decorations is turned into a glimpse of a mysterious world of beauty and light which seems to overlap with the more mundane surroundings of a tenement flat in Govan. In "Sheaves," the tensions between boyish rough and tumble and a dimly intuited holiness are worked out without pretention. The collection is consistently impressive for its willingness to take on a reverent mystical suggestiveness, influenced no doubt by the author's developed interest in the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy. The recurring theme in the book is that at moments of ceremony, however local or fleeting, we may gain insight into greater cosmic forces. The best story is without any doubt "The Rain Dance," which gives a beautifully modulated account of a Glasgow registry office wedding and all its attendant festivities, at once culturally specific and universal. Other stories deal with the lives of dispossessed and lonely characters, but Spence cannot manage the controlled outrage and vehemence of James Kelman, and occasionally his humane tolerance falls into sentimentality. Nonetheless, there are some truly exceptional pieces in this volume, and its sensibility is invigoratingly dignified and humane.

After an interval of thirteen years, in which Spence concentrated mostly on poetry and occasional radio pieces, his first novel, The Magic Flute, appeared. It returns to the concern with childhood which distinguished the earlier short stories, and revisits some of the episodes to construct a complex tale of the different paths various people take through their lives. It follows four Glasgow boys through more than twenty years, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, and to some extent it could be seen alongside the more popular saga novels of, say, Margaret Drabble. But that would be a distortion of the book's main enterprise, as well as of its unmistakable seriousness of purpose. Spence is highly ambitious and intricate in this work, as he tries to weave a very elaborate pattern of divergence and convergence around his characters. Each one is taken to represent a plausible journey through difficult times, conducted with different degrees of sensitivity, integrity, and success. The narrative is sustained by a deft allusiveness, touching upon identifiable cultural and historical references, and encompassing other literary archetypes, like Mozart's opera and a wide range of "quest" stories. The novel is certainly a very impressive piece of design, its architecture skillfully created and maintained. Furthermore, it contains wonderfully evocative sketches of times and places, which readers of a certain age will find acute and haunting. However, it is unevenly imagined, with much greater care being taken in the presentation of the more sensitive figures of Tam and Brian, and rather less in the sketching of the violent Eddie and the spiritless George. And it has to be said that Spence's female characters remain too lifeless. Overall, The Magic Flute is an intermittently powerful and searching book, serious and humane in its treatment of its participants, with a high sense of purpose and intelligence, which also sprawls and drifts too much.

Spence is a writer whose continuing development should be closely followed. If he can find a way of integrating his exceptional perceptiveness and reverence for experience in a compelling extended narrative, he could be one of the most interesting and individual novelists in Britain. How many other writers would choose as their subject the undertaking industry of Glasgow, as he did in Way to Go? Added to the mix is an East-West theme, with a protagonist who returns from the Orient following the death of his father, and who takes over the family funeral parlor business with the intention of adding a certain Eastern flair to it.

—Ian A. Bell,

updated by Judson Knight

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