Jason Allardyce and Nicolas Gibson, 'Childhood abuse inspired Gray’s Scottish classic' (The Sunday Times, 24/10/2010)
Alasdair Gray, the writer, playwright and painter, has revealed how traumatic childhood beatings at the hands of his father inspired Lanark, his classic Scottish novel.
The 75-year-old polymath said the book, set partly in Glasgow in the 1940s and 1950s and partly in a nightmarish parallel universe, drew heavily on his own difficult upbringing.
Gray said his father Alex, a hostel manager, frequently spanked him to maintain discipline in their home. It went on until about the age of six, when Gray was evacuated during the war. He said the resentment and anguish it caused inspired his imagination.
In a new autobiography, A Life in Pictures, Gray writes: “Freud says formative early memories become subconscious because we find them too painful to remember clearly.
“Quarrels with Mum, the beatings by Dad they resulted in, are described more fully in Lanark, my first novel, and may have been worse than I recall.”
In an interview with The Sunday Times, he confirmed that the childhood beatings experienced by Lanark’s fictional character, Duncan Thaw, were based on personal experience.
“The Thaw part of Lanark contains practically nothing that I didn’t select from my own childhood. I was almost physically afraid of my father into my later twenties, just because he had spanked me quite hard — only when my mother told him to do it.
“I did realise later he didn’t like doing it because he said he agreed with Bernard Shaw who said never strike a child unless in anger … he had to beat me in cold blood when he came back from work.
“But he felt it was the breadwinner’s duty to support the wife he left at home when he was winning the bread. “Undoubtedly it was a shocking experience and shaped my character somewhat.”
Gray said the beatings helped fuel his artistic quest. “There’s a hell of lot of evidence that many people become highly imaginative, not because they were beaten in infancy but because they were driven to construct imaginative worlds by quite a lot of pain in infancy.
“But it can’t be done purely by that. There needs to be enough love to give them hope and confidence.” Gray said his father was also a tremendous supporter of his work and typed the first chapter of Lanark. A scene late in Lanark, in which his father strikes him, proved his father’s love, he said. In it, Thaw asks his fictional father to punch him to take his mind off the pain of his asthma and eczema.
“That’s an episode that happened.
It made it very clear that my father loved me. It also showed that, in some ways, I was tougher than he was.”