Lanark 1982
an unofficial Alasdair Gray website
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Alasdair Gray - a short biography

Childhood and Youth: 1934 - 1954
Painting and Plays: 1954 - 1980
Success: 1981 - Present


Childhood and Youth

Alasdair James Gray was born in Riddrie, east Glasgow, on 28 December 1934. His father, Alexander Gray, worked in a cardboard box cutting factory (after being wounded by shrapnel in the belly during WW1), his mother, Amy Fleming, worked in a clothes shop. His parents met while on a rambling outing organised by the Holiday Fellowship and had married in 1931. Alasdair's sister, Mora Jean, was born in 1937. He attended Riddrie primary school until the start of WW2.

In 1940, Alasdair, Mora and their mother were evacuated from the city of Glasgow. Their first new residence was on a farm in Perthshire, where Alasdair's eczema and asthma became a problem - this stay is recounted in book 1 of Lanark - then they moved to the town of Stonehouse in Lanarkshire - an experience used for Jock's childhood in 1982, Janine.

They were reunited with their father in 1942 when he got the job managing a hostel for munitions workers near Wetherby, West Yorkshire. (As an aside, part of the munitions factory itself now houses the British Library's Document Supply Centre, the UK's centre for interlibrary loans.) Alasdair attended the local church school where he sang in the choir and displayed early literary talent by adapting an episode from Homer's Odyssey to perform as a school play.

After the war ended, Alasdair's father could not find a professional job, despite five years experience managing hostels, and got work as a wage clerk for a building firm. In 1946, Alasdair started at Whitehill Senior Secondary School. On Saturday mornings, for several years, he attended Art Appreciation classes at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. At Whitehill, his English and Art teachers were encouraging, but Alasdair was torn by an obligation to his parents to also study for the qualifications that would allow him to enter university should he wish.

In 1952, Alasdair's mother died in the same year he entered Glasgow Art School. In 1954, Alasdair began writing sections of what would eventually be published in 1981 as Lanark. The chapter entitled 'The War Begins' won a prize from the Observer newspaper when entered as a short story into a competition. He also wrote, and published, three of the stories that were eventually collected in Unlikely Stories, Mostly before 1957 - 'The Star', 'The Spread of Ian Nicol' and 'The Cause of Some Recent Changes'. Gray's art school years, and much of his childhood, can be worked out from the Thaw sections of Lanark, which are largely autobiographical.


Painting and Plays

In the decade after leaving art school, Alasdair sometimes worked as a teacher, sometimes as a scenery painter for the Pavillion and Citizen's theatres in Glasgow, and sometimes he drew dole money. But he was always painting and always writing.

Between 1954 and 1957 he worked on a set of murals on 'Horrors of War' in the headquarters of the Scotland-USSR society, at 8 Belmont Crescent, Glasgow. These murals are still extant, but at the unveiling in June 1957 nobody representing Glasgow School of Art felt they could attend because of the link with Soviet Russia. After this, Alasdair painted the mural on 'The Seven Days of Creation' in Greenhead Church of Scotland, in Bridgeton, Glasgow - since demolished. The process of painting this mural features heavily in book 2 of Lanark and a painted version worked from the mural was used as the book's dust jacket in the special twentieth anniversary box set.

In 1960, Alasdair began his long association with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (a cause he still vigorously supports, getting himself arrested in 2001 during a mass demonstration outside the Faslane trident missile base). He decorated, and performed at, a CND nightclub called Festival Late - since demolished. At this time he also meets and quickly marries Inge Sorenson. In 1964 his son, Andrew, is born and Alasdair goes to London to make the television documentary 'Under the Helmet' for Huw Weldon's Monitor series. The film was about the life of an artist/poet called Alasdair Gray but apparently implied (although never actually stated) that the artist was dead. I do not believe that a print of the programme still exists. Alasdair's experiences in London while making this documentary inspired the play (and later the novel) The Fall of Kelvin Walker.

In 1968, Alasdair Gray's first television and radio plays are broadcast. 'The Fall of Kelvin Walker' is shown on BBC2 and 'Quiet People' and 'Dialogue' (both later used as source material for sections of the novel Something Leather) are broadcast by BBC Radio Scotland. The juggling of writing TV and radio plays with selling paintings and murals keeps Alasdair going from now until 1981, and gives him the time and freedom to work on Lanark and hone his writer's craft.

From 1972 to 1974, Alasdair attended an informal writing group organised by Philip Hobsbaum (who had earlier run a similar group in Dublin, attended by a young Seamus Heaney). At this group Alasdair met, for the first time, other writers: James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard and Angela Mullane among others.

In 1973, his father, who now lived in Alderly Edge, Cheshire, died. The following year, Alasdair had his first retrospective exhibition of artwork, at the Collins Gallery of Strathclyde University. It included pieces from right back to his secondary school days, which apparently showed a great and precocious talent, combined with a highly confident brush and pen stroke. It seems obvious to me that the next great Alasdair Gray publication could quite profitably be a comprehensive full-colour catalogue of his artwork outside books.

1977 saw Alasdair employed (on a Job Creation Scheme wage) as the official Artist Recorder for Glasgow's People's Palace social history museum. He produced about 30 works for an exhibition, detailing all aspects of Glasgow's buildings and people in the late nineteen-seventies. After ten months, however, he left, having been offered the post of 'Writer-in-residence' at Glasgow University. His experience at the university is said to have inspired the story 'Five Letters from an Eastern Empire'. In 1979, 'The Comedy of the White Dog' is published along with 'The Crank who Made the Revolution' in a limited edition pamphlet - this publication is now very rare and very expensive to buy second-hand but is not illustrated by Gray and really only for serious collectors.


Success

In 1981, after 25 years of on-and-off work, Lanark: a life in four books is finally published by Canongate Press, Edinburgh. From this point on, because his needs are modest, Alasdair has mostly been able to live on the income from his books. Following Lanark in the 1980s come:
Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983)
1982, Janine (1984)
The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985)
Lean Tales - with James Kelman and Agnes Owens (1985)
Saltire Self Portrait (1986)
Five Scottish Artists - an exhibition catalogue (1986)
Old Negatives (1989)
In 1982 and 1983 he performed on stage (for the last time?) in two reviews - both shown at the Pleasance Theatre Edinburgh and the Tron Theatre Glasgow. 'Tickly Mince' was written with Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard, and 'The Pie of Damocles' by the same writers plus James Kelman.

Other projects that Alasdair worked on in the 1980s include a screenplay of Lanark between 1983 and 1985. The whole of the Thaw section was storyboarded with Alasdair's drawings and this was published intermittently in Scottish Book Collector over many years.

Then, from 1988 until 1990, he was part of the team that set up Dog and Bone Press, which unfortunately went the way of most small publishers after being unable to make a profit. Alasdair worked as the Art Director, designer and illustrator on almost all of Dog and Bone's publications.

From 1990 onwards there becomes less to tell of Alasdair's life outside of his professional work. In 1991 he married Morag McAlpine and seems to have settled down to a well-deserved routine broken by occasional readings and signings. It goes without saying, however, that a tastefully done film version of Lanark or Poor Things would no doubt help him towards a more comfortable future - so come on Danny Boyle and Ewan MacGregor, get working on Lanark and make the great Scottish film of the great Scottish novel.

Book published since 1990 are:

McGrotty and Ludmilla (1990)
Something Leather (1990)
Why Scots Should Rule Scotland (1992 and 1997)
Poor Things (1992)
Ten Tales Tall and True (1993)
A History Maker (1994)
Mavis Belfrage (1996)
Songs of Scotland (1996)
Working Legs - a play for those without them (1997)
The Book of Prefaces (2000)
Sixteen Occasional Poems (2000)
A Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writing (2001)
In 1996, he finished the grand project of a ceiling painting for Abbots House, Dunfermline. This is a beautiful ceiling mural, open to the public, detailing the history of the town in words and pictures. In 2000, he restored the murals he first painted in the 1970s (in return for free meals, so the story goes) at the restaurant 'The Ubiquitous Chip'. He also worked on a mural on the biblical book of Jonah, painted in a private flat in the early 1960s as a wedding present for a friend. Later occupants had wallpapered over it and it was rediscovered by accident in 2000 when the new owners were redecorating - apparently Alasdair had forgotten it even existed.

In 2001, Alasdair was made professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, along with James Kelman and Tom Leonard.

Alasdair says that he has no new ideas left for fiction. He has said this before, of course, and we can only hope that inspiration strikes him soon and we are treated to yet more from his inimitable imagination. If not, we will have to be thankful for what he has already given us and badger Canongate in the UK and Dalkey Archive Pressin the USA to push forward with their plans to get all of his works back into print.

In the meantime, future projects apparently include:

a) An illustrated book of Scottish political ballads and songs, along the lines of Songs of Scotland
b) A sequel to The Book of Prefaces in which he glosses and comments upon the twentieth century prefaces, for which copyright fees forbade inclusion, but without actually reprinting the prefaces.
c) Design of, and illustrations for, a book of lyrics from the Scottish indie-band Belle and Sebastian.
d) A large retrospective exhibition of his artworks, travelling around Scotland, hopefully accompanied by a full-colour, profusely illustrated and authoritative catalogue.


Sources for the above

Alasdair Gray: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography, edited by Phil Moores (2002) British Library Publishing
The Arts of Alasdair Gray, edited by Robert Crawford and Thom Nairn (1991) Edinburgh University Press

The following books by Alasdair Gray also contain scraps of autobiography:
Lean Tales - the postcript (1985)
Five Scottish Artists - exhibition catalogue (1986)
Alasdair Gray: Saltire Self Portrait (1985)
McGrotty and Ludmilla - acknowledgments (1990)
Something Leather - critic fuel, an epilogue (1990)
Ten Tales Tall and True - Mr Meikly, an epilogue (1993)
Unlikely Stories, Mostly - postscript in the canongate 1997 reissue
Lanark - the tailpiece in twentieth anniversary box set.