Alasdair Gray, '‘Be my Boswell’' (The Guardian, 20/09/2008)
I am interested in this biography, being both subject of it and the author’s friend. I believe he will remain a friend after reading this review, though it is written to correct his biggest mistake.
We first knew each other well in 2000AD when I tutored him in creative writing at Glasgow University. Never having mastered a keyboard, I need secretaries to put my words into type. Working on books frequently and erratically, I employ computer-literate folk for long spells under temporary conditions, so few secretaries can put up with them; but for nearly two years and several periods afterwards Roger helped me finish a book of short stories and start my most recent novel, and put my early plays on to a website.
The blurb of his biography quotes an extract saying that, when he proposed writing it, I shouted “Be my Boswell”, danced a jig around the room, raised a finger to the heavens and cried: “Tell the world of my genius.” I am liable to facetious outbursts when relaxing with friends, so maybe that happened. I recall my first, more cautious reaction. I have sometimes thought of writing my own life story when short of better things, so suggested that Roger write a book called Working with Gray, dealing solely with his experience of me as teacher, secretary and friend. That was certainly an invitation to Boswellise me. Boswell’s Life of Johnson is chiefly enjoyed for his personal reminiscences of an unusually wise, good, eccentric man, thus leading Macaulay to think Boswell was a poor soul fortunate in a great subject.
In the best part of Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, Roger took my advice, drawing on a diary he kept. The result is a good portrait of the artist as a hard-working, happily married, sometimes short of money, occasionally drunk old writer, and as such it will amuse some readers and disgust others. These reminiscences are less entertaining than Boswell’s because I am less interesting than Johnson and my conversation less witty. Boswell, supported by an unearned income, took 21 years to gather his materials and published his Life after Johnson’s death. Roger lives by his writing, had known me six years before writing it, and had to earn a publisher’s advance by completing it in not much more than a year. It still strikes me as true and even touching. Roger comes across as more worried by my poor health than ever I was.
But his reminiscences are interspersed with accounts of my life since birth, accounts collated from my writings, interviews with friends and relations, and from my occasional remarks. I did not want to read this biography before it was published because 1) it would distract me from my own work and 2) critics must not think I had a hand in it. The Arts of Alasdair Gray (1991) and Alasdair Gray: Critical Appreciations (2002) contained essays written by friends or by folk who sounded like friends. I had supplied both with pictorial illustrations so appeared to have given them (Roger says) my “stamp of approval”; though Robert Crawford and Thomas Nairn had complete editorial control and neither consulted me about the texts, some critics thought them frontmen for manipulative Gray. So it was important that this biography be written by someone free of me. It certainly is, which explains the many mistakes I could easily have corrected.
Examples: when cellulitis lamed me in 2005 I was on holiday with my son and his family in Iona, not Skye. In 1999 my preface to the Book of Jonah, published by Canongate, was not denounced by Jewish and Christian fundamentalists but by Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists. Such wee errors will not annoy most readers. But Roger is seriously mistaken in saying that in 1991 I married Morag, my second wife, having given up hope of my first wife, Inge, returning to me after a 20-year separation.
Having invited Roger to Boswellise me I should never have casually gossiped about my first marriage when depressed by the funerals of friends. I was grateful to Inge for marrying me when she was 17 and I was a 26-year-old eczemic asthmatic who kept giving up gainful employment as a school teacher to paint pictures I could not sell. I was and am grateful to her for bearing my son, Andrew. I left her in 1970 when love between us grew impossible, and lived nearby as a friend so that my Andrew still thought of me as his dad. For 21 years after separating our marriage stayed legal, a useful arrangement that made marrying other partners impossible - I am glad I never mentioned these to Roger. We at last divorced when she wanted to marry again, and a while later I married Morag in whose home I now lived, knowing I would never want to live with anyone else. It is daft to say I married her on the rebound from a wife I left 20 years earlier. Had Inge invited me to cohabit again with her in those years I would have refused.
Having said that, please enjoy Roger’s book. I will not authorise another biography.