Alasdair Gray: An Introduction

[This essay appears in the British Library edition of Essays on Alasdair Gray, edited by Phil Moores. Reproduced by kind permission of the British Library. © The British Library 2002]

A letter arrives from Phil Moores whose address is listed as follows: British Library, Customer Services, Document Supply Centre, Boston Spa, Wetherby, West Yorkshire. He encloses a selection of essays about the work of the Scottish novelist, artist, poet and politico-philosophic eminence grise, Alasdair Gray. You are holding this book in your hand so you know what those essays are, but picture to yourself (and let it be a Gray illustration, all firm, flowing pen-and-ink lines, precise adumbration, colour – if at all – in smooth, monochrome blocks), my own investigation of these enclosures.

Detail 1: I sit, islanded in light from a globular steel reading lamp of fifties vintage. Around me on the purple-black floorboards are sheaves of paper, my brow is furrowed, my chin is tripled, my fingers play a chord upon my cheek.

Detail 2: I go to my spare bedroom and retrieve the copy of Gray’s novel ‘Something Leather’, that the author gave me himself. (At that time, the early nineties, Gray carried a small rucksack full of his own titles, which he offered for sale at readings. Mine is inscribed; ‘To Will Self, in memory of our outing to Cardiff’. We went to Wales by train from London, with an American performance poet called Peter Plate. My wife tells me that Plate usually likes to pack a gun, but alas, in Cardiff this was not possible. The hotel was glutinously rendered and fusty in the extreme. There may well have been diamond patterned mullions. After the three of us had given a reading – of which I remember little, saving that a Welsh poet gave me a copy of his self-published collection ‘The Stuff of Love’, good title that – Plate, Gray and I retired to the hotel and drank a lot of whisky. The bar was tiny, the hotelier obese. Either Gray, Plate and I carried the hotelier to bed, or Gray, the hotelier and I carried Plate to bed, or there was some further variation of this, or, just possibly, we all dossed down together on the floor of the bar. At any rate, we were all also up bright and early the following morning, Gray his usual self, shy, gentle, yet strident and immensely talkative. Mm.), and begin to reread it.

Detail 3: In the hallway, where the larger hardbacks are kept, I retrieve my copy of Gray’s ‘The Book of Prefaces’, sent to me by Gray’s erstwhile English publisher, Liz Calder (for reasons of Scottishness and Loyalty, Gray has been subject to publishing books alternately with Calder’s house, Bloomsbury, and Canongate. Liz Calder worships Gray as if he is a small, bespectacled, grey bearded deity. It could be that Gray is the God in Liz’s narrative. God is in all Gray’s narratives. Somewhere.)

Detail 4: In mine and my wife’s bedroom I face a wall of books and intone ‘I wonder where that copy of Lan – ‘ but then see it.

Detail 5: I have retreated, together with books and papers, to my study at the top of the house, where I write this introduction (‘introduction’ in the loosest sense, what could be more otiose than to gloss a collection of critical essays with one more?) on a flat screen monitor I bought a month ago in the Tottenham Court Road. (Toby, who used to ‘do’ my computers for me, said that it was pointless replacing the old monitor when it packed in, and that I should upgrade the whole system. Contrarily, I decided to downgrade Toby instead.)

Gray does not type himself. All these vignettes of me-writing-the-introduction are linked together by tendrils of vines, or stalks of thistles, or organs of the body, or lobes of the brain, or are poised in conch shells and skulls, alembics and crucibles, mortars and other vessels of that sort. Moores feels that: ‘It’s sad that there is still a gap for this book for a writer/artist of Alasdair’s importance: perhaps it’s because he’s Scottish, perhaps because he wasn’t young enough to grab the media’s attention like others of the 80s “Granta Young Novelists”, but whatever the reason his profile is still too low. Perhaps this book will help (but probably not).’

Hmm. Such pessimism and cynicism in one so young (and I envision Moores as young, although a Document Supply Centre is not where you would expect to find anyone who was not – at least psychically – a valetudinarian.)

Personally, I find it very easy to imagine Gray as a svelte, highly photogenic, metropolitan novelist. In the mid-nineties, when I went often up to Orkney to write, on a couple of occasions, when I was passing through Glasgow, I took Gray and his partner Morag MacAlpine out to dinner at the Ubiquitous Chip, a restaurant where Gray himself – some years before – had done murals on the walls of the staircase leading to the lavatories. Gray would strike attitudes over his Troon-landed cod, reminding me of no one much besides Anthony Blanche in Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’.

Anyway, who gives a fuck about his profile? Literary art is not a competition of any kind at all, what could it be like to win? Suffice to say, Gray is in my estimation a great writer, perhaps the greatest living in this archipelago today. Others agree. I’ve only just now looked up ‘Lanark’, his magnum opus, on the Amazon.com website (this dumb, digital, obsolete computer multi-tasks, as do Gray’s analogue fictions), the sales were respectable, the reader reviews fulsome. One said: ‘I owe my life to this book. In 1984 I was marooned in the Roehampton Limb- fitting Centre, the victim of a bizarre hit-and-run accident, whereby an out of control invalid carriage ran me over several times. The specialists all concurred that I would never walk again, even with the most advanced prostheses they had on offer. After reading ‘Lanark’ by Alasdair Gray, such was my Apprehension of a New Jerusalem, arrived at by the author’s Fulsome Humanity, tempered by the Judiciousness of his Despair, and the Percipience of his Neo-Marxist Critique of the Established Authorities, that seemingly in response to one of the novel’s own Fantastical Conceits, I found myself growing, in a matter of days, two superb, reptilian nether limbs. These have not only served me better than my own human legs as a form of locomotion, they have also made me a Sexual Commodity much in demand on the burgeoning fetish scene of the South West London suburbs.’ Any encomium I could add to this would be worse than pathetic.

Gray’s friends and collaborators are represented in this collection, as are his fans. Some essays deal with Gray’s fiction, some with his political; writing, others with his exegetical labours, and others still with his visual art. I have attempted, through this fantastical schema – part reverie, part parody, part fantasy – to suggest to you quite how important I view Gray to be. In Scotland, where the fruits of the Enlightenment are still to be found rotting on the concrete floors of deracinated orchards, Gray represents quite as much of a phenomenon as he does to those of us south of the border. However, to the Scottish, Gray is at least imaginable, whereas to the English he is barely conceivable. A creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophic vision is not something to be sought in the native land of the hypocrite. Although, that being noted, much documentation concerning Gray’s work now reposes in Wetherby, and you have this fine volume in your hand. Treasure it. Grip it tightly.

Will Self 2002