We were sad to hear of Alasdair Gray's death, as would be just about anyone in Scotland who has read a book in the last 50-odd years. Alasdair was a one-off, a classic eccentric of rare brilliance. We got to know him quite well in the early 1980s, when we lived in a top floor flat in Edinburgh's High Street, one set of stairs down the hill from John Knox's house. Alasdair would occasionally miss the last train back to Glasgow after some event or reading, and turn up at our door. It was a small flat, so we would set him up with a berth on the living room floor.
He was generous to a fault, even though he was almost always fairly broke back then. When we were through in Glasgow he would treat us to the fine food at the Ubiquitous Chip. A lot of people know about Alasdair's art on the walls there, but not everyone knows that he was paid 'in kind' for it. He would save up his 'free' meals and take friends there.
There were many other occasions over the years, even after we had moved back to Canada, for Alasdair had fans out here on Vancouver Island. A few years after we left the Royal Mile, he came to stay in our house at the edge of the woods, overlooking an inlet from the Pacific.
His visit was enabled by a local entrepreneur, a Canadianised American from New York by the name of Gene Miller. Gene owned a local weekly magazine, and was a founder of Open Space, a community arts centre which put on arts and literary events, plays and exhibitions in Victoria's old downtown centre. Gene had read Lanark and was blown away by it. Somewhere around 1984/85 he found out that Alasdair was to appear at the Toronto Book Festival. Then he discovered that we knew Alasdair and went to work. Toronto is barely halfway between Glasgow and Victoria, but Gene put the funding together to get him all the way over to the west coast first, for a gala appearance at Open Space. It was very well attended.
Alasdair found some Christmas wrapping paper while he was staying with us on that visit and drew a magnificent scene of our living room on the back of it, with a beautifully worded diary entry about the previous evening's dinner and company. He had forgotten to include our dog Grainne and because there was little room left on the wrapping paper, he squeezed her in – upside down, floating above the mantelpiece.
We have that crayon sketch still, full of character and personality as it is; a treasure indeed. We also have Alasdair's early reading copy of Lanark – a book my wife says will still be read in 100 years' time and beyond. Heavily annotated, pages of it are filled with notations, measurements about margins and text, a variety of Alasdair's scribbles, and a generous, quirky message to us. It was a gift, brought for us from Alasdair one evening by his friend Liz Lochhead.
Alasdair was not a good traveller when long distances were involved. When his stay with us came to an end, we managed to get him over to Vancouver so he could catch his flight to Toronto for the book festival. Somehow though, he managed to get on a flight to Florida and arrived in Toronto a day late.
As most Scots know, Alasdair's memory is enshrined on the walls of the parliament building in Edinburgh with the quotation Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.
That was, as Ali Smith put it, his aesthetic mantra. The mantra was indeed his, although the lines were not – as Alasdair was always quick to point out. They were written by another writer he knew – a Canadian called Dennis Lee – which he made clear with his attribution when he used them as the epigraph to Unlikely Stories – Mostly.
We hadn't seen Alasdair since his performance in 2011 at the Edinburgh Book Festival. That was when he played God in his play Fleck; his brilliant comedic take-off of Goethe's Faust. We will miss him. Scotland will miss him.
Alasdair Gray died on 29 December 2019, a day after turning 85 years old