Credit: John Lord via Flickr

Portrait of a Scottish Artist: Alasdair Gray

By Jackson Harvey

Writer Jackson Harvey warmly discusses his experience with the esteemed Glaswegian artist and writer, Alasdair Gray.

I went to get on the subway at Hillhead and held up a queue at the gate. Dead ahead of me was this quote, “ALL KINDS OF FOLK”. It had “Birds of Paradise”, “Lucky Dogs” and “Head Cases”, each with doodles to boot. I was struck by the one that said “Financial Wizards” because the face, planted on the body of a spider, looked startlingly like myself. I didn’t know how to take that, considering my teetering overdraft and ripe student loan status. To the right was a mural of the West End that I was yet to inspect. It was fresh and bold and nothing like the interiors of the transport system I had known previously. I now think Alasdair might be the wee guy in the beanie, at the left foot of the vista (but I’m not entirely sure).

I first caught wind of Alasdair Gray in my first, or maybe second, year at uni. (That’s technically a lie; I first heard of him when my friend was bigging up this book called Lanark, but at that time I was knee-deep in coursework and wasn’t quite willing to tackle that yet.) Anyway, he made an appearance at the University Chapel. I was still in the thrall of an earnest scholarly mindset and thought I might’ve caught enlightenment or something. Alasdair arrived and settled at the foot of the altar. I couldn’t see a thing and sat at the back. I’m not going to lie, I can’t remember for the life of me what his visit was about, and I can’t remember a single thing he said. What I do recall is that he had the most booming, boisterous voice I’d ever heard. Can’t remember what was for sale, but I was sold.

Turns out Alasdair had been a one-time writer in residence at the University and was intrinsically linked to Glasgow culture. In his youth, he developed a knack for mural making at the Glasgow School of Art. He then became an art teacher in several schools in and around the city. Fast-forward a bit and he later worked as a painter, in an array of positions: set design, churches, personal endeavours. His whole life revolved around art, and he lived nearly half a century before bringing out his first book. 

Alasdair’s work cropped up in either my second or third-year course reading list. Poor Things was vivid and bizarre, but that’s by the by. What really grasped me was the caricaturesque artwork on the cover. A giant figure with cheddar-coloured mutton chops, and an electric shock of a mane to match, is pictured sat on an Edwardian sofa, with the characters Bella Caledonia on his lap and Archibald McCandless under his wing. The picture is sincere and grotesque, not to mention the beheaded skeleton to the back and the disembodied head to the front. The scene reads like a cabaret nursery rhyme, hued in primary colours and moral ambiguity. 

Alasdair did all his own artwork, and his artistic faculties drip through the pages of his books. His writing isn’t what you would consider painterly, but then, neither is his art. And yet, his approaches to both are in harmonious correlation. He describes his absurd, misshapen characters exactly as they are presented visually. During an interview with The Rumpus, he once professed that good writing had “as few adjectives and adverbs as possible”. Likewise, there is very little shading in Alasdair’s art. A lot of line work. What you see is what you get, whether it makes sense to the observer or not. 

The BBC aired a documentary titled Alasdair Gray at Eighty a few years ago, which followed the artist during the development of the SPT Subway murals. The programme is interspersed with segments wherein Alasdair conducts a bizarre interview with himself and himself. Characteristic much? The most enjoyable moment is when he wakes up dishevelled and hungover, at an extremely venerable old age, to find out that he has lost several of his artistic manuscripts on a drunken bender the night previous. Later found at Òran Mór.

Despite the unrealistic nature of almost everything revolving around the work and art of Alasdair Gray, the unifying thread is an air of profound, unflinching, levelling humanity. Catch the underground home and have a wee look.


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