Reading from his “very bitty piecey” autobiography Of Me And Others. Scottish polymath Alasdair Gray delights a packed Edinburgh Book Festival crowd with poems about his inability to do household chores, his literary relationship with Anthony Burgess and, in the longest piece he reads from, the impact of Mr Meikle, Gray’s English teacher. Slipping seamlessly from fact-based memoir into a dream featuring Scottish literary giants, it best exemplifies this Scottish mythmaker’s unique vision.
Speaking to host Ryan Van Winkle on what motivates writers (“a wee bit of praise for something they wrote when they were wee”), Gray goes on to touch on the “sheer conceit” behind his seminal work Lanark. Inspired by the way Joyce and others who “had faith in themselves” took their local environment as a source of inspiration, Gray asked himself “why shouldn’t I do it here?”, thus going on to use Glasgow both as a real and imagined setting for the novel.
Gray describes the Scottish cultural scene of the mid 20th-century as suffering from a failure of confidence, but believes the landscape has now changed. “There’s a vast industry of Scottish arts administrators,” he says, to much laughter from the audience. “They need a few artists.”
Describing himself as “older, less vital and more stupid”, Gray worries he “may well end up voting for the Union if I carry on like this.” Joking aside, he has a sense of optimism about the upcoming referendum, though impishly claims this is as much influenced from “reading the No campaign publicity” than anything else.
When asked if artists have a particular place in influencing politics, Gray is clear in his response. “Artists are no more important than labourers,” he says. “Writers tend to be loud-mouthed. Even politicians should be allowed a say.”
Answering a question from a school pupil currently studying Lanark in English, Gray has mixed feelings about his work being used in the classroom. “I’ve never been able to learn anything unless I’ve enjoyed it,” he says. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, adds: “I hope you enjoyed it.”
On the creative process, Gray explains how he “can only write or paint when I forget there is an audience”, then goes on to dismiss any claims that he should be held in a loftier position than others.
“I’m glad I’m not regarded as an icon,” he says. “They can’t move, you know.”