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Alasdair (James) Gray Biography

Alasdair Gray comments:

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 1934. Education: Whitehill Senior Secondary School, 1946-52; Glasgow Art School (Bellahouston traveling scholarship, 1957), 1952-57, diploma in mural painting and design 1957. Career: Art teacher, Lanarkshire and Glasgow, 1958-61; scene painter, Pavilion and Citizens' theaters, Glasgow, 1961-63; freelance painter and writer, Glasgow, 1963-76; artist recorder, People's Palace Local History Museum, Glasgow, 1976-77; writer-in-residence, Glasgow University, 1977-79. Since 1979 freelance writer and painter.



Lanark: A Life in Four Books. Edinburgh, Canongate, and New York, Harper, 1981.

1982, Janine. London, Cape, and New York, Viking, 1984.

The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1985; New York, Braziller, 1986.

Something Leather. London, Cape, 1990; New York, Random House, 1991.

McGrotty and Ludmilla; or, The Harbinger Report. Glasgow, Dog and Bone, 1990.

Poor Things. London, Bloomsbury, 1992; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1993.

A History Maker. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1994; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1995.

Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Tale, with Five Shorter Tales. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Short Stories

The Comedy of the White Dog. Glasgow, Print Studio Press, 1979.

Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1983; New York, Penguin, 1984.

Lean Tales, with Agnes Owens and James Kelman. London, Cape, 1985.

Ten Tales Tall and True. London, Bloomsbury, 1993; New York, Harcourt Brace, 1994.


Jonah (puppet play; produced Glasgow, 1956).

The Fall of Kelvin Walker (televised 1968; produced on tour, 1972).

Dialogue (produced on tour, 1971).

The Loss of the Golden Silence (produced Edinburgh, 1973).

Homeward Bound (produced Edinburgh, 1973).

Tickly Mince (revue), with Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead (produced Glasgow, 1982).

The Pie of Damocles (revue), with others (produced Glasgow, 1983).

Radio Plays:

Quiet People, 1968; The Night Off, 1969; Thomas Muir of Huntershill (documentary), 1970; The Loss of the Golden Silence, 1974; The Harbinger Report, 1975; McGrotty and Ludmilla, 1976; The Vital Witness (on Joan Ure), 1979.

Television Plays and Documentaries:

Under the Helmet, 1965; The Fall of Kelvin Walker, 1968; Triangles, 1972; The Man Who Knew about Electricity, 1973; Honesty (for children), 1974; Today and Yesterday (3 plays; for children), 1975; Beloved, 1976; The Gadfly, 1977; The Story of a Recluse, 1986.


Old Negatives: Four Verse Sequences. London, Cape, 1989.

The Artist in His World: Prints, 1986-1997 (descriptive poems), byIam McCulloch. Glendaruel, Argyll, Scotland, Argyll Publishing, 1998.


Self-Portrait (autobiography). Edinburgh, Saltire Society, 1988.

Why Scots Should Rule Scotland. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1992.

Editor, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1994.


Manuscript Collections:

Scottish National Library, Edinburgh; Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University.

Critical Studies:

The Arts of Alasdair Gray edited by Crawford and Naion, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1991; Alasdair Gray by Stephen Bernstein. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Theatrical Activities: Actor: TelevisionThe Story of a Recluse, 1986.

Lanark was planned as a whale, 1982, Janine as an electric eel, The Fall of Kelvin Walker as a tasty sprat. Of the short stories I think "A Report to the Trustees" has the most honestly sober prose, "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire" the most inventive fancy, "Prometheus" the greatest scope.

(1995) My stories try to seduce the reader by disguising themselves as sensational entertainment, but are propaganda for democratic welfare—state Socialism and an independent Scottish parliament. My jacket designs and illustrations—especially the erotic ones—are designed with the same high purpose.

* * *

Alasdair Gray came late to the novel and was in middle life when Lanark his first and most successful novel was published. Prior to that he had been a painter and a scriptwriter and visual influences bear heavily on all his work: even his book jackets are designed by him. His eye for detail and his taste for color combine especially well in his short stories which were published together under the title Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Some stories in this collection are long, such as "Logopandocy" a pastiche in the writings of Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie whom Gray much admires; others short, and two, "A Likely Story in a Non-Marital Setting" and "A Like Story in a Domestic Setting," only five lines long. Some are set in modern everyday life, others in a fantastic other world; above all, they are rich in imaginative background detail. His story "Five Letters from the Eastern Empire" is set in the time of Marco Polo and the letters are supposedly written by Bohum the Chinese emperor's tragic poet, to his parents and they describe the court—"the evergreen garden"—in all its magnificence and all its cruelty. On the other hand it is an evocative description of the lives led by the divinely justified and the sharp, cinematic cuts and finely observed detail make it seem an exercise in scriptwriting. On another level it is a parable of power that oppresses, of a backsliding emperor whom Bohu discovers to be an "evil little puppet, and all the cunning, straightfaced, pompous men who use him."

Although Gray makes considerable use of myth and parable in his fiction and delights in creating imaginative worlds and societies, the matter of Scotland is never far away from the heart of his fiction. In 1982, Janine, the hero, an aging, divorced alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations tells his story while sitting in the dingy bedroom of a small Scottish hotel: to him, his native country and his fellow countrymen are subjects of disgust. "The truth is that we are a nation of arselickers, though we disguise it with surfaces: a surface of generous, openhanded manliness, a surface of dour practical integrity, a surface of futile, maudlin defiance like when we break goalposts and windows after football matches on foreign soil and commit suicide on Hogmanay by leaping from fountains in Trafalgar." Although this novel is only loosely connected to the reality of present-day Scotland, and more concerned with the general human condition as experienced in the narrator's drunken reverie, 1982, Janine is rich in Scottish literary allusions. In one section the narrator meets a pantheon of Scottish poets in an Edinburgh pub; in another Gray's richly lyrical exploration of time, space, and inebriation is reminiscent of Hugh MacDiarmid's long poem, "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle." That Gray should be so concerned with Scotland and yet repelled by it—a classic theme in Scottish cultural life—should come as little surprise to readers of Lanark. In this phantasmagoric exploration of modern city life Gray has an index of plagiarisms, a recurring literary device in his fiction, and this includes an entry on the Scottish novelist George Douglas Brown (1869-1902): "Books 1 and 2 owe much to the novel The House with the Green Shutters in which heavy paternalism forces a weak-minded youth into dread of existence, hallucination and crime." In Brown's novel, Gourlay, a wealthy self-made man is ruined by his monstrous self-willed nature and his son is castrated both by his malignancy and by the squalid ethics of Barbie, the mean town in which the Gourlays live. Although Duncan Thaw, the narrator of Lanark is not subjected to similar pressures he has to cope with a loveless family and the dreary drudgery of growing to maturity in a far-from-idealized version of the city of Glasgow. To escape from the numbing mindlessness of his life Thaw finds himself in a world which might yet be; this is the afterlife to which he is condemned after a death which is half accidental and half suicidal. Called Unthank it contains echoes of his life on earth in Scotland but is peopled by creatures which have the power of transmogrification.

For all the brilliance of his imaginative inventiveness, Gray showed himself to be on less secure ground in these fantasy sections and was at his best in dealing with the realities of modern life; indeed his descriptions of life in post-war Scotland have a sure and naturalistic touch. This virtue resurfaces in Something Leather, a quirky meandering novel which examines the nature of female sexuality as experienced by three different women, Senga, Donalda and June. As has become de rigueur in Gray's novels there is also a full cast of supporting characters, including the self-deluding and destructive Tom who bears a close resemblance to Duncan Thaw. Gray has spiced the narrative with a number of erotic cameos—the effect is of reading a number of short stories—but the end result is curiously asexual.

Most of Gray's writing leaves an impression of linguistic inventiveness and artistic energy but his later fiction, including the bizarre McGrotty and Ludmilla, has revealed a growing impatience with the confines of the novel's form. In "Critic-Fuel," an epilogue to Something Leather he made the surprising admission that he had run out of interest in his writing, hence the change to female central characters. "Having discovered how my talent worked it was almost certainly defunct. Imagination will not employ whom it cannot surprise." His Mavis, central figure in the title piece of Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Tale, with Five Shorter Tales, is an undeniably strong figure who manipulates the men around her. Much the same is true of the other women in the volume—suggesting that they are pushing their creator forward to explore new frontiers in his own literary consciousness.

—Trevor Royle

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