'Of Me And Others' by Alasdair Gray (Canongate Books)
An earlier version of this book seems to have been published in 2014. This revised edition has appeared with the support of Creative Scotland. Has its money been well-spent? I suspect the answer is the jury is still out.
Inevitably much more about 'me' than the 'others', this is an extraordinary ragbag (Gray's own word) of a book. Yet it is a work entirely characteristic of its author and his work. In his foreword, the author tells us that the potential 'ragbag' turned out to have a kind of unity because the story it tells of his entire career mirrors that of Scottish artists in general throughout the period of his lifetime. How true this is, is debatable – after all, few other Scottish writers or painters have gained anything like the success and status of Alasdair Gray. What is true, however, is that in its apparent randomness, range and oddity, the book does reflect major aspects of Gray's artistic career.
For Gray's superfans – and I don't doubt there are many of them – the book will be a treasure-trove over all its 471 pages. For his scholars and critics, there will turn out to be passages and occasional insights which will prove valuable in their analyses of some of Gray's 18 published books. For the general reader, however, this will be at best a tome to dip into rather than read through. In fact, I suspect there will be readers too irritated by its repetitions and tricksiness to go on reading. And whatever the topic he happens to be writing about, Gray's insistence on making the same sweeping generalisations, from a socialist point of view, on Scottish history – religious, social, economic and artistic – may well lead to the same outcome. Only reviewers like me will read every page.
More than once in the book Gray objects to the term 'postmodern' being applied to his work. I share his dislike for much of the language of contemporary academic literary criticism. But on this point he is wrong. Of all contemporary Scottish writers, he is the one most deserving of the description. Postmodernists inherit the modernism of such writers as James Joyce and T S Eliot, but pushing their rejection of more traditional literary forms and subjects in radical new directions, Gray is unquestionably one of them. Even this collection of autobiographical essays, commentaries on his fiction, accounts of his plays for radio and the stage, descriptions of his murals, and a lengthy list of obituaries and tributes to fellow Scottish writers and artists, has something of the postmodern about it.
In the first place, like nearly all of Gray's books, 'Of Me And Others' is a work of art in its own right: its visual and typographical aspects, its illustrations and lino-cuts, its variety of type-faces and its cover, are all carefully designed. The work of writer and painter overlap. A feature of postmodernism is its blurring of the distinction between fiction and reality. Such a blurring lies of course at the heart of Gray's first ground-breaking novel 'Lanark' (1981) with its dramatic juxtaposition of conventional literary naturalism on the one hand, and phantasy or a Kafkaesque surrealism on the other. I still remember discussing the novel in Glasgow, not long after its publication, with the poet Iain Crichton Smith, and discovering that we were on opposite sides – the poet admired the phantasy but found the realism boring, while I was uncomfortable with the purely fictional but admired the realism.
There is nothing so radical about 'Of Me And Others', but it is not always clear what we are to make of some of its contents. Was this obituary ever published? Alasdair can't remember. Why are 21 pages of the so-called epilogue of 'Lanark' reprinted here? Stranger still is the decision to print what Gray tells us is 'a new fictional conclusion' to his novel 'Something Leather' – all 22 pages of it. All I can say is that for someone like me, who decided that 'Something Leather' was not my kind of novel when it appeared, this new epilogue does nothing to make me feel I was wrong.
And finally, there is the inclusion of what is called 'Sidney Workman's Epilogue' to Gray's most recent novel 'Old Men In Love'. Workman is a fictional character who makes a brief appearance in 'Lanark'. Here he is writing from an address in Kirkcaldy – 17 Linoleum Terrace – what quickly becomes a savage, blistering indictment of Alasdair Gray's entire writing career. Gray has previously adopted similar tactics to outfox his critics by getting his own boot in first. This time I do wonder if he has made the correct decision.
Alasdair Gray and I are very much of an (advanced) age. Growing up, we had similar reading habits enjoying boys' weeklies such as the Hotspur, Rover, Adventure and Wizard. We both took full advantage of public libraries. Gray tells us he 'visited Riddrie Public Library four or five times a week, never taking much more than a day to read a whole book'. Likewise, I remember taking a book out of the public library near Kenmure Street in Glasgow, and having finished it, being told I could not return it the same day.
Where we differed was over health: Gray was a sickly child suffering from asthma and eczema. What happened to him as a young man is strikingly revealed in an entry called 'A Report to the Trustees', written in 1959. Having completed his studies at Glasgow's School of Art, he was awarded a scholarship to travel and paint in Spain. Sailing from Liverpool to Gibraltar, his trip soon turned into a nightmare of illness. Recurring asthma kept him in his cabin and then the ship's hospital. Arrival in Gibraltar led to no improvement. The following weeks were spent largely in hospitals and hostels. He eventually returned to Glasgow having seen nothing of Spain, and reading between the lines, lucky to be alive. Perhaps there is more than a hint here of the source of the tenacity with which he went on to pursue his artistic career no matter what.
Readers will have gathered that this is a quirky book so I'm going to end with a postmodern quirkiness of my own. I've mentioned that there is a great deal of repetition here. The stories of two individuals in particular come up again and again. One is about the Glasgow museum curator Elspeth King – and what Gray regards as her disgraceful treatment by Glasgow's cultural bosses. I know nothing of Elspeth King, but the subject of Gray's second recurring story I certainly did know.
When I came down from Aberdeen to take up the Bradley Chair in the Glasgow University English department in 1979, Philip Hobsbaum was already a senior member of the department – but not a professor. Arriving from Belfast in the 1960s, Hobsbaum in a year or two began repeating the striking success he had made in Belfast – and before that in London, and before that in Cambridge. In all these locations he proved able to bring together and encourage groups of young writers – many of whom would go on to become major figures in the contemporary literary world. In Glasgow, that group included James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochead, Aonghas MacNeacail, Agnes Owens, Marcella Evaristi, Jeff Torrington – and, of course, Alasdair Gray.
Over and over again in this book Gray tells the story of Hobsbaum's meetings and how important they were. But there was another side to Hobsbaum. He could be ill-tempered and opinionated to an extraordinary degree. Within months of arriving in Glasgow from Belfast, he gave an interview to a student magazine called Gum in which he launched an unbelievably violent and vitriolic attack on everything about the city – and his new colleagues. (Inexplicably, given his huge admiration for the man, Gray chooses to reprint the entire article here.) One of its consequences was that many of his new colleagues never forgave him.
Soon after arriving in Glasgow I became head of department, and remained in that position for nearly 10 years. I knew that as far as the wider literary and academic world was concerned, Philip Hobsbaum was easily the best- known figure in my department. Yet strangely Glasgow had never promoted him to a professorship. There was still opposition, but I decided 1968 was a long time ago and that it was time to let bygones be bygones. So I made it happen. A few weeks later I was entertained to dinner by the new professor and his brother. Given how much Alasdair clearly enjoyed the title of 'professor' of creative writing, I think he owes me a tiny footnote the next time he tells the Hobsbaum story.