Charlene Sweeney, 'The writing’s on the wall for Alasdair Gray' (The Times, 23/10/2009)
Inch by inch, brushstroke by brushstroke, Alasdair Gray is slowly filling in the remaining blank spaces in his mural. This is not just any mural, however. It is one of the largest works of public art in the country, filling two sides of the gallery area in the auditorium of the Oran Mor centre in Glasgow, and it has already been six years in the making. It began with a striking ceiling painting of the night sky, and yesterday the artist proudly unveiled the latest stage of the scheme, The Bronze Warrior’s Lost Arm.
Gray, 74, may be best known as a novelist and polemicist, but he began his career as a mural painter, graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 1957. Most of the murals he completed before moving into writing in the 1970s have since been destroyed, making his work in Oran Mor, a former church converted into a restaurant, bar and entertainment complex, an important record of his contribution to visual art.
The new painting is based on a forgotten episode in Glasgow’s history, when it was the second city of the Empire. In 1914, to celebrate Glasgow’s success, the local authority commissioned bronze statuary to decorate the newly built Kelvin Way Bridge in the city’s affluent West End. Although the onset of the First World War delayed the project by 12 years, in 1926 four pairs of figures representing Philosophy and Inspiration, War and Peace, Commerce and Industry and Navigation and Shipbuilding were finally installed.
Their grandeur did not last for long. Fifteen years later, during the Second World War, a landmine exploded near the bridge, knocking Philosophy and Inspiration and War and Peace into the water. When they were fished out, the bronze warrior representing war had lost his arm and hand, which clutched a spear.
The story should have come to an end when the warrior had a new arm cast for him courtesy of Benno Schotz, the renowned Glasgow sculptor, but in the 1990s a retired shipyard worker, whose hobby was rooting around in the River Kelvin, found the long-lost arm.
Gray takes up the story. “The parks department had no use for it, because it had been replaced, so Colin Beattie, who turned this building into Oran Mor, bought it with idea of setting it up as some kind of anti-war sculpture.
“He approached Sandy Stoddart [the Queen’s Sculptor in Scotland], thinking if he made a marble bas-relief he could mount the bronze arm, but the cost was many thousands of pounds more than Colin could afford. I had started work here and suggested I could do something instead.”
The arm will now be displayed in front of Gray’s painting of War and Peace. A wooden plaque, featuring words written and designed by Gray, will explain the story under an adjacent painting of Philosophy and Inspiration, preserving the unique slice of history for future generations. Even Gray confesses that he was not familiar with the tale until he agreed to incorporate it into his work.
While the latest addition to the mural occupies a significant amount of the remaining space in Oran Mor’s auditorium, Gray, who has maintained a prolific output as a writer since beginning the mural in 2003, has some way to go before he finishes the project.
His attempt to complete it is, he says, becoming a race against time, as he fights severe asthma and old age. “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else had to finish it,” he said.
His determination to press on with the work is driven in part by a need to achieve wider recognition. The author has written a number of plays, not of all of which have been performed. When the latest stage of the mural was unveiled at a charity event last night, Gray also launched his latest publication, A Gray Play Book, which includes scripts he wrote for as-yet unfilmed versions of two of his novels: Lanark, his best-known work, and Poor Things.
It is Gray’s dearest hope that, just like his work in Oran Mor, they are projects that will, one day, reach the end of the line.
“I have a hope that a producer somewhere or other might think they are worth producing. It is just sheer vanity but I want everything I have done to be publicised,” he said.