BOOK FESTIVAL – Alasdair Gray

By Mark Bolsover

The event with Alasdair Gray was well attended by a perhaps surprisingly broad demographic, and the RBS Main Theatre—a slightly strange space, broader than it is deep and with a stage framed by blue electric lights, inexplicably in the shape of leafless trees—was full, almost to capacity.

The event, ostensibly, focussed on Gray’s forthcoming Collected Stories and his ‘Auto-pictography’. Brian Taylor proved an affable if underused host and, abandoning a more formal interview format, the event was divided between readings by Gray and a brief and slightly lacklustre question and answer session with the audience.

Whilst it took a while for him to warm into his material, Gray proved a very eccentric, humble, honest and extremely likeable performer. Both in his reading and in his response to questions he was frenetic, providing abrupt, animated bursts of energy, which punctuated extended periods of reserved mulling.

His first reading was a short, beautifully written comic piece, concerned with anxiety over the legal and economic fiction of proper names and identity, which revealed itself as the dream sequence of a slightly pathetic and beleaguered male protagonist. The opportunities for absurdity and the pathetic and hysterical desperation of the protagonist were particularly well-suited to Gray’s manic and impulsive energy. The second piece concerned the late dinner meeting of a markedly less sympathetic (again, male) protagonist and his lover. In its portrayal and satire of social, class and economic status and relations and the light these shed on the nature of romantic (or the Gray equivalent) and, more specifically, sexual relations, this latter piece proved an apt companion to the first—both reminiscent of, and sharing common traits with, Gray’s earlier longer fiction (particularly 1982 Janine and Old Men in Love).

The stories were followed by a recital of two short poems, one the meditations on evolution of a strangely eloquent voice/mind in the banal surroundings of a marital bed, the second a lament by an abstract writer on his practical uselessness. The latter, quite cannily, proved a neat segue into the audience’s questions.

The event could easily have been longer and, with the lack of a formal interview structure, Gray’s response to both Taylor’s and the audience’s questions felt cursory, only allowing short, abortive glimpses of the kind of insight attendees crave. Nevertheless, Gray was provided with the opportunity to riff, briefly, on his artistic career, from his early work for the BBC in the early sixties, through to his being commissioned to decorate Oran Mor.

This yielded insight concerning Gray’s view of the creative process, Gray arguing for the necessity of the artist’s constantly surprising themselves during their development of a work (in his example, the evolution from a preparatory ‘sketch’ to the mural at Oran Mor) in order, then, to be able to surprise their viewer.

Perhaps most interesting of all, Gray was asked why, given the consistency of his artistic style during his career, he felt that his ‘discovery’ had been so late on. Taylor interjected that he had been called a ‘genius’ as early as art school. Gray retorted that he had been called ‘genius’ because his art school teachers ‘did not know what to do with him’ (—‘he’s no use to us’…). For him, the term ‘genius’ seems a ‘useless name’. If it means anything at all, he argued, it refers to an artist’s having become the ‘master’ of an art, to the point of producing work from which others (other artists) can learn (by far the most compelling definition I have ever heard). Instead of ‘genius’ and ‘geniuses’, for Gray, it would be more apposite to speak of ‘masters’…

Taylor’s questions also touched on Gray’s politics, especially his nationalism, and the question of the forthcoming referendum on Scottish Independence (including the much maligned ‘second option’ of Devo-max), Gray simply restating his nationalist position and chiding what he characterised as accounts of the end of the concept of ‘nation’ in the perceived triumphing of what he called the ‘Global bosses federation’. In this context, he also voiced his concerns over Scotland’s membership of NATO and the presence of nuclear armaments in Scotland and his opposition to war.

Gray proved a humble and honest artist, possessed of no illusions, answering one questioner who asked if he had ever felt like giving up: ‘nothin’ tae dae but carry on as usual’, because that is just what people do (—‘nothing remarkable about it’). It will always prove dangerous and foolhardy to try to read from the work to the author or to try to read an author into his or her works. Nevertheless, to have some insight into the creative process from an artist of Gray’s calibre is a valuable privilege, but the event proved too brief, cursory and abortive, offering only fleeting if tantalising glimpses of answers to some crucial and fascinating questions.

Alasdair Gray, RBS Main Theatre, Sun. 12th August, 18.30-19.30

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