A Life of Letters: Alasdair Gray Returns

Alasdair Gray is back with a new autobiography, Of Me & Others, and his to-do list is still more impressive than yours

Feature by Adeline Amar | 28 Apr 2014
  • Alasdair Gray

Alasdair Gray is no stranger to autobiography. He has used personal experiences in most of his writing, most famously for the story of Thaw in Lanark where, just like the author, the character studies at the Glasgow School of Art and paints murals. In 2010 Gray also published Autopictography: A Life in Pictures which, as the title suggests, takes the reader through the visual arts-side of his career. Of Me & Others, however, is described by Gray in the Foreword as “the nearest thing to an autobiography I can imagine completing” and the project is something that has been on his mind for quite some time.

“I think when I was 40 or 45 I noticed that I had accumulated a quantity of essays that I would like to have gathered in one book, you know. When Lanark was published in 1981, I knew a book of my short stories was coming out, but I had no ideas for writing any more fiction. So I thought: I’ve got one novel – Lanark – one book of short stories, there will be one book of my poems, one book of my plays and one book of my essays. And I thought of this book, Of Me & Others, as being my one book of essays. Well, things kept being added to it. A couple of years ago I thought that now I could get them all together.”

Of Me & Others is not a conventional autobiography but a multi-format book which pulls together new, previously published and unpublished writing. “This book is all words – no pictures. Only pieces of prose written between 1952 when I was 17, and 2013 when I became 79. There are some reminiscences of my own early days, reminiscences of people I met and introductions to books I’ve written, reviews of books I have read, and reminiscences of friends.”

Texts include prologues and epilogues to major novels such as Lanark, 1982 Janine and Old Men in Love, stories about his childhood and his family, and essays about figures like Ian Hamilton Finlay, Liz Lochhead and Will Self. While Gray is famous for sometimes spending years editing his work, Of Me & Others ‘only’ took him a bit over two years. One would think that selecting only a handful of writing from a career spanning nearly sixty years would be a harrowing process, but Gray quickly shrugs off the assumption. As he puts simply, “It was just a matter of getting the texts together and editing them and cutting out repetitions.”

When talking about his Autopictography in 2010, Gray’s primary concern was that publicly writing about his life might also affect friends and family mentioned in the book. But this time he is not worried: “This particular book does not deal with deep emotions that I have experienced, nor does it describe my marriages. It tells a little about my own infancy, it mentions the infancy of my son, but I don’t go into people’s…” He pauses before adding, with his usual straightforward-ness: “It’s not a book of sexual revelations. Anybody who wants that kind of stuff can get it from my novels.”

Long-time readers will easily recognise Gray’s writing style, especially with aspects like annotations clearly circled by rows of asterisks where Gray suddenly appears in his writing to tell the reader they do not need further details about this specific story. But talk about post-modernism all you will, it is also Gray’s typical self-deprecation that emerges from the book. This begs the question of whether Of Me & Others is perhaps better suited for an audience already familiar with the author’s work, or if it can be easily picked up by new readers. “I would hope it could be picked up by new readers, I just don’t know!” He laughs then becomes serious again. “I don’t think it’s as much fun as my fictional work, and it certainly isn’t as richly illustrated as the Life in Pictures book. It will just be a question of how much people are interested in my work, of whether there’s enough folk interested in my work to buy it.”

Gray is known equally for his writing as for his art, and likes to illustrate his own work. This time however, he stuck to the spine and jacket, with a design of yellow and gold irises and butterflies he calls “rather lovely. I would have liked to have more illustrations in the book, if I’d had more time. But in fact I’ve also undertaken to write a book about politics called Independence, and I’m working hard to get that finished in time. Therefore I had not enough time to choose carefully and select a variety of entertaining illustrations to enrich this book.”

Independence is due to be published in July, but is not the writer’s first venture into political commentary. Over the past few years Gray has become quite vocal about the appointment of non-Scots to senior arts jobs in Scotland, whom he has dubbed “colonists and settlers.” Gray brought up the topic again at a reading in Glasgow just days before this interview, although he then praised the heads of the National Theatre of Scotland and of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It is perhaps worth noting that, a few years ago, the Gallery acquired a major painting by Gray and held a display of his work.

But it is not necessary to know Gray’s political opinions to think of the referendum when reading Of Me & Others, specifically its Foreword. At a time where independence debates clog up papers, radios and Facebook feeds on a daily basis, expressions like “struggle for a confident culture” and “nation” can easily take on a second meaning. Gray however quickly clarifies that this book was not written with a political agenda in mind: “I was quite surprised, when I got all the material together, to find it definitely had a political thirst to it. One of the earliest articles written was when I was commissioned to write a BBC television play, but was advised that I couldn’t give it a Scottish setting because the majority of people in the south of Britain would switch off any play that appeared on television where most people were talking with Scottish accent. I didn’t realise how well that connected in later essays in the book in which I was again finding that BBC censorship was preventing a play of mine being broadcast. There’s a number of references to that and I suddenly realised there was much in the book indicating that Scotland had better get more independence than it had.” He adds after a pause, “Though in fact it was a personal feeling.”

All matters of independence aside, Alasdair Gray remains a busy man – and one who cannot focus on writing over painting for too long. As well as his forthcoming book, he notes he is also finishing up new paintings for a forthcoming retrospective at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, scheduled to coincide for his eightieth birthday in December. For someone who opened up Of Me & Others with the words “I do not know if I will live long enough to write a wholly honest autobiography,” Gray certainly shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Alasdair Gray: Of Me & Others, published by Cargo. Hardback – with plastic screen printed sleeve. RRP £29.99