The colourful life of Alasdair Gray

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Alasdair Gray, the author, illustrator, artist and political commentator, died aged 85 at the turn of the last decade on 29 December 2019. He will be remembered for his polymathic talent, the sheer force of his creativity and his life-long commitment to the notion that a better world is possible.

The child of factory and warehouse workers, and brought up on a council estate in the east end of Glasgow, Gray was raised with a strong socialist sensibility.

His mother’s family had moved to Scotland because her father had been blacklisted in England for trade union membership. His father, a First World War veteran, ran a hostel for workers in the 1940s. They were cultured and artistic; his mother loved music, introducing him to opera, and his father encouraged his writing, often typing up the “silly verses” he wrote as a child.

The young Gray visited the local library “at least four times a week”, where he discovered early, literary influences such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1952, at the age of 18, Gray was admitted to the Glasgow School of Art to study design and mural painting, where he flourished. Upon leaving he received a number of commissions to paint murals across the city.

The murals — painted on the walls of churches and subway stations, and featuring smoky cityscapes of Glasgow, colourful flourishes and quirky characters — all share Gray’s distinctive style, and are familiar to many of Glasgow’s residents. A particularly well-loved piece decorates the entrance hall of Hillhead subway station, and depicts humorous illustrations of “all kinds of folk”, including “headcases”, “hard workers” and “queer fishes”. Gray also designed the spectacular ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant and community centre in the city’s west end.

Though Gray’s output of visual art was prolific, he is most well-known for his literature, which influenced a number of Scottish contemporary writers including Irvine Welsh, A L Kennedy and Ali Smith. Gray often combined art forms and illustrated his own novels.

Like George Orwell, Gray’s fiction is marked by what Prospect magazine called in 2019 a “literary socialism”. “Gray always makes work that rewrites the possibility for both art and living”, remarked the writer Ali Smith, just months before his death. “He knows that there’s no divide between them, that they’re umbilically connected.”

Gray’s breakthrough novel Lanark, written while he was still a student at the GSA, contains both realist and dystopian depictions of his home town. The city of Unthank is a strange version of Glasgow, where no light lives and the locals wither away from strange diseases, but the real version is just as cruel, driving its alienated, working class and creative protagonist to suicide.

Daring in form, Lanark marked a watershed in Scottish writing, and has since been considered a landmark in 20th century fiction.

Gray never lost sight of his socialist leanings, and included the epigram “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” in many of his books. He loudly and publicly derided the erosion of the welfare state, and was an early supporter of Scottish independence.

He began voting for the SNP in the 1970s, wrote pamphlets on Scottish independence, and was considered by many to be a key cultural figure during the 2014 referendum. However, while still remaining supportive of Scottish independence, he voted Labour in 2019, stating that the SNP was “not radical enough”, and that the Scottish government was turning out “as Tory as Westminster”.

In 2012 he attracted controversy for referring to English people working in Scotland temporarily, some by name, as “short-term colonists”. Gray defended himself by pointing out that he had also described long-term English residents as “settlers”, whom he approved of, and thought of as contributing to Scotland’s communities.

An energetic, outspoken, heavy-drinking character himself, Gray married twice, is survived by one son, had many friends and was a consistent, rigorous supporter of Scottish arts and culture. He was writer-in-residence at the University of Glasgow from 1977 to 1979, and professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities from 2001 to 2003.

Save for a short spell spent in England as a child during the Second World War, he lived in Glasgow all his life. In 2015, he took a bad fall from which he never completely recovered, although he worked until the end. His literature will continue to provoke and inspire, and his murals, accessible to all, survive as love letters to the city he never left.