Alasdair Gray was born in Riddrie, Glasgow, on 28 December 1934, the son of Alexander and Amy Gray (née Fleming). He was evacuated during the war, then moved to Yorkshire where his father was working. He suffered his first asthma attack at this time and began writing. The family returned to Glasgow in 1946 and he attended Whitehill School where he won prizes for art and English. In 1952 he entered Glasgow School of Art and in 1954 began writing what would become the novel Lanark, the ‘big fantastical Glasgow story’ he had first thought about in 1951. He graduated from art school in 1957 with a diploma in Design and Mural painting. Over the next years he made his living from a combination of teaching, painting murals and writing plays for radio (many of them produced by Stewart Conn) and television.
In 1961 he met and married a Danish nurse, Inge Sorenson, with whom he had a son, born in 1963. In 1972 he joined the writing group run by Glasgow academic and critic Philip Hobsbaum, where he met Tom Leonard and James Kelman. The following year Edwin Morgan helped him get an Arts Council grant to continue writing Lanark, and by 1976 the book was more or less finished.
The next two years were crucial: the Edinburgh publishers Canongate showed an interest in his novel and he signed a contract with them in 1978; and he was appointed Artist Recorder at the People’s Palace museum and Creative Writing Fellow at Glasgow University – so that he was able to work as both artist and writer. Lanark was finally published in 1981 to great critical acclaim; it won the Frederick Niven Prize (often reported as the David Niven Prize!) for the year’s ‘most outstanding contribution to literature by a Scotsman or Scotswoman’. Thus began a life of constant writing; a stream of short stories and novels (including 1982, Janine in 1984, which many – including Gray himself – regard as his finest novel) and a book of poems followed and he began work on his huge project The Book of Prefaces (not published until 2000), with drawing and painting when he could fit them in. His novel Poor Things won the both Whitbread Award and Guardian Prize for fiction in 1992.
Gray had separated from his wife in 1969 and subsequently divorced. He married again in 1991. His new wife, Morag McAlpine, who had had long experience in the book world, published some of his poems in 2000 under her own imprint. In 2001 he was appointed, with James Kelman and Tom Leonard, Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University – they were known as the 3 Profs – though he gave up the position after a few years.
His work began to be collected: his plays, published in 2009; his poems, in 2010; and also in 2010 Gray produced a monumental ‘autopictography’, A Life in Pictures, bringing writing and art together to illustrate his own story. A retrospective of his writing life was the subject of an exhibition at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow in 2011.
Alasdair Gray was the nearest Scotland has to a Leonardo da Vinci. He was a polymath: an artist, a novelist, a polemicist – and a poet. He was best known for fiction, especially Lanark, a novel which depicts both a Glasgow of the imagination (though still recognisable) and the personal journey of an artist through it. At one point the artist hero, Thaw, is asked whether he paints to give Glasgow a more imaginative life and he answers, ‘No. That’s my excuse. I paint because I feel cheap and purposeless when I don’t.’ Substitute ‘write’ for ‘paint’ and you had Gray’s raison d’être as an author. He had always written poems as well as stories and although it can be argued that his fiction is very personal and painfully honest, the essence of Gray’s wrestling with his demons – whether of love, lust, loss, illness, the politics of power – is laid bare in his poetry.
Gray’s poetry is not as well known as the fiction and artwork, but can be seen as a kind of distillation of all that concerns him: an ongoing commentary on life and art, his own and in general. The poems might be considered ‘difficult’; they are not immediately accessible in the way his fiction is, they are often more abstract. Indeed, one is grateful for the occasional reference to something tangible and recognisable, such as a tram in the street, or real people – his wife or son, for example. They deal with big ideas: God, love, power, art. But whether we ‘get’ them or not, they are obviously a personal working out of concerns and problems and it is this very personal element, this honesty, this laying bare of his soul (perhaps more so than with any other Scottish writer) that gives the poems their special quality, their charge. Gray has said in an interview that he only writes poems ‘when suffering a strong feeling of personal loss’.
His poems were published sporadically in magazines over many years and only first collected in 1989 in Old Negatives. This gathering of over forty years’ worth of poems allows us to see a development, ‘even a narrative’, as Stuart Kelly says in what is the best account of his verse (in Alasdair Gray: Critical Appreciations, 2002), where he makes the case for treating the poetry as seriously as the fiction, a narrative ‘that can not be fully comprehended through sampling the work in magazines’.
The poems here deal with love, faith and language. Gray has called them negatives because he says ‘they describe love mainly by its absences and reverses.’ They are mostly not cheery. The failed encounters read like compressed versions of episodes from Lanark (e.g. ‘Loneliness’). There is the same painful honesty about love and lust to be found in the novels Lanark, 1982, Janine and Something Leather. There is an abstract quality about many of the poems that makes them speak less directly to the reader, although you feel they are speaking directly to the author – he at least knows what they mean. Others are so direct as to make the reader gasp. And Gray’s irrepressible sense of humour does much to lighten things, as in the parody of a brief biography, ‘Awaiting’.
With Sixteen Occasional Poems 1990-2000 there is a change from what Kelly calls ‘the taut, interconected and inter-textual universe of Old Negatives’. There is still the personal (almost diary-like) detail – ‘am 55 my best work done’ – and the regrets. Kelly describes the poems as a series of chance encounters rather than an extended narrative. Subjects are more various and the language less stiff. There are pieces on postmoderism, a visually interesting diary from a trip to Berlin, poems written to accompany the artist Ian McCulloch’s prints, a poem to Tom Leonard, but still the same themes: love, god, language – themes dealt with in his vast Book of Prefaces, on which he was working in the 1990s.
Gray continued to write poems until the end of his career; his last decade saw him embark on a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. And continues to write as truthfully, even when painfully, as ever. One of his last poems has the line, ‘My son dislikes me now, is a real stranger.’ Stuart Kelly sums up his achievement as a poet: ‘a dispassionate, confessional voice; technical accomplishment utilised to convey meaning rather than for its own sake and a hard-won sense of the complexity of the universe…. His poetic work, especially when dealing with the relationship, or lack thereof, between the sexes, is memorable and disconcerting in the way only good poetry is.’
Gray died on 29 December, 2019.