Tributes as Glasgow giant dies aged 85
We revisit our interview with Alasdair Gray earlier this month ... including unpublished excerpts
SCOTLAND’S First Minister led tributes to “literary giant” Alasdair Gray, who died just one day after his 85th birthday in his native Glasgow.
The author and artist, who was born in Riddrie, passed away yesterday morning at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, surrounded by family.
Nicola Sturgeon said Gray had “helped create the Glasgow of our imagination” and spoke of her love for the novel Poor Things, which was published in 1992, 11 years after his most celebrated work, Lanark.
She said: “Such sad news. Alasdair Gray was one of Scotland’s literary giants, and a decent, principled human being.
“He’ll be remembered best for the masterpiece that is Lanark, but everything he wrote reflected his brilliance. Today, we mourn the loss of a genius, and think of his family.”
Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh tweeted: “Alasdair Gray was a unique talent. In Lanark, and 1982 Janine especially, he wrote two of the greatest Scottish novels and influenced a creative generation. #RIP.”
Glasgow School of Art (GSA), where Gray studied design and mural painting from 195257, said Scotland had lost a “cultural legend”.
In a statement it said: “The Glasgow School of Art is saddened to hear of the death of writer, artist and GSA alumnus Alasdair Gray just one day after his 85th birthday.
“His contribution to Scottish literature and art was remarkable. We have lost a cultural legend.”
“Our thoughts are with his family at this sad time.”
In a statement shared by publisher Canongate, his family, including son Andrew, said: “Alasdair was an extraordinary person; very talented and, even more importantly, very humane.
“He was unique and irreplaceable and we will miss him greatly. We would like to thank Alasdair’s many friends for their love and support, especially in recent years, together with the staff of the Queen Elizabeth hospital, Glasgow, who treated him and us with such care and sensitivity during his short illness. In keeping with his principles Alasdair wanted his body donated to medical science, so there will be no funeral.”
Alex Kapranos, frontman of Glasgow band Franz Ferdinand, said: “I can’t truly communicate how huge an inspiration he was.
“From the Glasgow of Lanark which was simultaneously familiar and fantastical to his powerful and distinctive murals.
“If you haven’t already, go and read him now.”
Author Ian Rankin also paid tribute on Twitter, posting: “Remembering Alasdair Gray by reading his words and looking at his art. He’s gone; they remain.”
Born on December 28, 1934, to Alexander and Amy, Gray was evacuated to a farm in Auchterarder, Perth and Kinross, during the Second World War along with his mother and younger sister, and then to Stonehouse in Lanarkshire.
From 1942 to 1945 the family lived in Yorkshire, where his father was working, before they returned to Glasgow where the young Gray attended Whitehill Secondary School, receiving prizes for art and English.
He attended Glasgow School of Art from 1952-57 and went on to make his living from writing, painting and teaching.
It was in the 1950s that he began writing what would become the novel Lanark, which was published in 1981 to great critical acclaim, winning a Scottish Arts Council book award and the Scottish Book of the Year award.
He worked as a theatrical scene painter for the Glasgow Pavilion and Citizens theatres in 1962-63.
In 1977 he was Glasgow’s official artist-recorder for the People’s Palace local history museum, painting portraits of contemporaries and `streetscapes of the city.
More recently he painted a huge mural on the ceiling of the Auditorium at the Oran Mor, in the city’s West End.
The owners of the venue said they were “deeply saddened” by his passing and added: “Glasgow has lost a little of its sparkle today.”
He was an extraordinary person; very talented and very humane
AT the General Election, Alasdair Gray voted Labour.
“In the past,
I wrote a number of pamphlets supporting the Scottish National Party, and if I were to write a pamphlet now, which I thought of doing, it would be highly critical of the Scottish National Party. I am a big supporter of independence but I rather regret the fact that the party in Holyrood is not taking what strikes me as a properly independent line.”
Later that day, his predictions of a “continuation of a Tory Prime Minister in Westminster” – described as a “depressing thought” – turned out to be very much true.
Gray had seen a few elections in his time – he was 84 when we spoke to him, and died aged 85. He had just been awarded a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to Scottish literature by the Saltire Society.
“I feel very pleased about the award,” Alasdair said, “because I am not likely to be writing another novel, or work of fiction, or even play. My next book will be a translation of Dante’s Paradise, out next year.
“All I’ve to do is to design the cover of it. I was surprised that Canongate were interested in publishing the first translation. My wife thought it was a waste of time.”
Born in Riddrie, east Glasgow, Gray studied at the Glasgow School of Art. Between 1972 and 1974, he belonged to a writing group organised by Philip Hobsbaum alongside James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard among others.
“When Elsbeth King was the curator of the People’s Palace of Glasgow, the Labour government brought in a job creation scheme and Elspeth had the idea of employing me to do paintings for the local history museum,” he said.
“This was a steady wage, although not big. I had to give it up when I had a chance to get a job as writer in residence at the university. My son needed speech therapy. I sent him to a private school. We were getting behind with the fees for it, otherwise I would have kept on doing it.”
He was the University of Glasgow’s writer in residence from 1977 to 1979, alongside Tom Leonard and James Kelman.
According to the Livelihoods of Visual Artists data report, published this year, artists earn an annual salary average of £16,150, of which £6020 comes from their art practice. Two thirds earn less than £5,000 from their art and seven in 10 artists take on additional jobs to make ends meet. I ask what he thinks about the fact that only already wealthy people could work as artists, based on those salaries. “That’s largely always been the case,” he said. “Most notable artists came from families that could support them initially.”
Gray was not from a wealthy family. “Most of my portraits were from sittings. It was good to preserve the things that we lost,” he said,
“I wanted to create an even picture that was equal to everyone, so I painted a figure from all the political parties,” turning a page to a picture of Jimmy Reid surrounded by his daughters. “He was very nice. His family were also.”
In this year, Gray captured many angles of an old Glasgow; typists on their break, buskers, his son Andrew lazing in a park – alongside bigger figures, like prominent politicians, clergymen and celebrities.
“I couldn’t bring myself to paint my old school and I had to get a friend of mine to do it.” Gray pointed to a red brick building. “I don’t know why I couldn’t paint it. I liked a lot of that school.”
Gray’s murals are still dotted around Glasgow. His work in the Oran Mor on Byres Road is one of the largest works of art in Scotland.
Rather than winding down, Gray appeared in his last weeks to be doing the opposite. As we spoke, a pile of hand designed Christmas cards – his “literary squirrels” – were waiting to be signed.
“If I were working more, I’d be painting more. I have such a lot of works to finish,” he said.
“I’m afraid I spend such a long time over things. In the past, it was easy not to rush since not many people bought pictures from me. I wasn’t well known.”
It is a statement that could be disputed. Gray started writing Lanark, his most famous book, in 1954 whilst a student. Eventually published in 1981 by Canongate, Lanark was an immediate hit. It is now regarded as both Glasgow’s epic and a literary classic.
I tell him that I believe him to be one of the first people to render Glasgow and its inhabitants in romantic art. “I am glad that you think so,” he said. “I certainly wanted to.” We both agree that it is a working city, but a beautiful place. If he lived in somewhere like
Living here most of my life has made it special – like London for Dickens
Manchester, would that artistic relationship stay the same?
“I’m sure it would, yes,” he said. “The fact I’ve lived here most of my life has made it special, like London was for Dickens.”
Gray has spent the last years amidst translations of Dante, but it is not his first foray into the translator’s remit. Illustrations of his version of T S Eliot’s The Hippopotamus adorned his bedroom walls. After a lengthy battle with the copyright from the Eliot estate, he translated the poem into Scots. “No one would think to look,” he laughed.
I asked why he was no longer writing original prose. Was he suffering writer’s block?
“A writer’s block is one in which, like constipation, a writer feels there is something in them that they can’t get out.
“I don’t feel that at all. I have nothing in me that I can get out.”
My final question was to ask him, after all his decades creating, what he has learned. He is a little stumped.
“It’s a funny question to answer.” In an American accent he laughed, “to thine own self be true – and never wrestle with heavy machinery”.
“I hope, after everything, that I’ve learned how to be an artist. Honestly, that’s all.”
Glasgow’s Alasdair Gray passed away at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital a day after turning 85
Alasdair Gray reflected on his life when we spoke to him at the start of December