James Campbell, 'Clydeside Michaelangelo' (The Guardian, 20/10/2007)

Writer and painter Alasdair Gray kick-started a golden age of Scottish fiction with Lanark. His new novel is called Old Men In Love – a subject that is dominated his recent work. Interview by James Campbell

The publication of Alasdair Gray’s first novel in 1981, when he was approaching 50, was a breakthrough for the author and for Scottish art in general. The liberation of the northern literary muse, which has run riot in the intervening years – Janice Gallway, Ian Rankin, Ali Smith, Irvine Welsh being just a few of its holdouts – may be dated to that event. Lanark came with elaborate plates depicting Creation and Apocalypse, typographical high jinks and distinctive cover art, all designed by the author, who had been previously best known as a painter and muralist. The story is divided into four ‘books’, but Book Three comes first, followed by a prologue, leading to Books One and Two, which at first seem to belong to a different novel altogether (these chapters tell the story, in effect, of the tormented young Gray). An index of plagiarisms cites thefts from authors ranging from William Blake to Liz Lochhead, and in commentary near the end the hero Lanark discusses the book’s likely critical reception with the author. The latter’s contribution attracts a footnote: ‘This remark is too ludicrous to require comment.’

Control over the production process came about, Gray says, ‘because Lanark was taken on by Cannongate, not at that time a very rich firm. When I offered to do the jacket and provide illustrations they were quite pleased, because they wouldn’t have to pay for these.’ He evidently enjoys adding: ‘It won the publishers – not me – a design award.’

His second book, Unlikely Stories, Mostly, has even more illustrations than the first. ‘And it needed them. There is one story that is written in a pastiche of 16th-century speech, the kind of thing that most people won’t bother reading. It was important to have a nicely decorated book, so that when folk came to a bit they found boring, they could skip over it without resentment.’

Lanark was begun in 1954 and occupied the author, in an on-and-off way, throughout the 1960s and 70s. He was always confident it would be published. ‘There was a time when things got a little depressing and, like many people I suppose,’ – his voice modulates into mock-theatricality – ‘I contemplated suicide. Thinking: who shall I leave my papers to!? And no doubt THE WORLD WILL SEE WHAT IT HAS MISSED IN ME – quack-quack-quack! But’ – sliding into exaggerated Glaswegian – ‘I never got round to it. Too busy.’

A conversation with Gray is like a conversation with the Goons – all of them at once. There are voices in three octaves, parenthetical snatches of song – ‘D’ye Ken John Peel?’ – a variety of Scots and other accents, from the posh-indignant to the timid oppressed, and an array of jokes, many directed at Gray and accompanied by the kind of laughter that turns heads at a great distance. ‘A journalist who interviewed me recently seemed to want to talk mainly about my early sex life. It was a very short interview [heads turn at 30 yards]. She wrote that – and I quote – ‘he combines the libido of Lord Byron with the physical attractiveness of Dr Johnson’ [50-yard laughter]. Unfortunatelyeh, unfortunatelyshe did not add, ehAND THE POLITICAL TALENT OF ALEXANDER POPE!’ The diversionary monologue runs into tributaries of extraordinary erudition, helped along by an old-fashioned appetite for afternoon drinking.

The conversation is taking place in Oran Mor, a deconsecrated church transformed into a bar and restaurant in Glasgow’s West End, which Gray the painter has been decorating for the past four years. Oran Mor is owned by Colin Beattie, who has acted as a patron since Gray ran out of funds while completing another complex production, The Book of Prefaces (2000). Visitors are greeted in the foyer by lions rampant, playing the bagpipes (‘oran mor’ is Gaelic for ‘big music’), but it is the church ceiling that takes the breath away. In a procession along the Milky Way, running the length of the church, Gray has depicted the signs of the zodiac in characteristic big-featured style, with an elaborate life-death-life scheme filling the apse. He painted the ceiling himself, lying on his back on precipitous scaffolding, like a Strathclyde Michelangelo. It is the fourth church Gray has decorated. Duncan Thaw, the hero of the autobiographical sections of Lanark, is also engaged in a struggle to complete a set of murals in a Glasgow church.

Gray has kept up his eccentric literary habits in the years since his first novel appeared and has continued to design the books himself, sometimes - as in the case of his second novel, 1982, Janine - employing typography so complex that he insisted on contractual clause permitting six proof revisions. His new novel is called Old Men In Love, which only headlines the topic that has dominated his fiction for several years. In December, he will be 73. He is dressed in a trench coat with paint-spattered shirt and sleeveless pullover underneath. Grey flannels with turn-ups flap above his ankles, clear of the sandals and socks. Hanks of hair protrude at unlikely angles. His eyes are magnified by the spectacles the thickness of Irun-Bru bottles. In his own way, he is as distinctive a figure around the University district of Glasgow as Sean Connery would be.

Gray was brought up in the east of Glasgow, in Riddie, “one of the earliest and most posh of the municipal housing schemes: schoolteachers, printers and local civil servants lived up our close. I knew that somewhere there was an aristocracy, but I didn’t think they had anything to do with running the country.” His father worked in a cardboard box factory and his mother, who had English parents, was a shop assistant. He was trained in painting at Glasgow School of Art, and educated himself in classical literature, the Renaissance, Enlightenment Scotland, Victorian Society - his 1992 novel Poor Things is “an up-to-date-nineteenth-century novel” - and Modernism in general. Even a few years ago, he says, when he occupied the post of professor of creative writing at Glasgow University, some people seemed surprised by the degree of his learning. But autodictatism of the kind of which Gray is a supreme example is not uncommon in Glasgow, where the benefits of book-learning, and technical ability are widely held to be self-evident. In his case, word and image “were never separated. My parents gave me paper, pencil and crayons before I could read. And the books they read me stories from had pictures in them. Up to the age of 12, I was only interested in magical tales. I read all the folk tale I could find. Billy Bunter or wild west stories were all very well, but I thought, och, this is just about confused adults.” A child -like wail rings through Oran Mor: ‘I want ma-a-A-A-A-GIC.” Some of the pictures in the creation part of the Oran Mor murals, of mammals, reties, plants etc, were copied from a book called The Miracle of Life, which engrossed him as a boy. “The pictures of constellations were borrowed from a Ladybird book.”

Gray’s earlier career as a television playwright was hindered by an implicit prohibition on setting the drama in Scotland. The network bosses wouldn’t tolerate it. “But Yorkshire was possible - Room At the Top, Billy Liar, This Sporting Life, had made it visible on the map.”

Seated beneath the benign countenance of Sagittarius in Oran Mor, Gray raises the possibility that Old Men In Love could be his last novel. “I’ve been working some time on a book called A Life in Pictures, which is about my pictorial art. And I also have plans for a book of my plays, so I’m looking forward to that. But the older I get, the more my books are about old people.” A recent collection of short stories, The Ends of Their Tethers, was described in the Scotsman by the novelist and critic Alan Massie as “a collection of scraps from a tired writer’s bottom drawer”. The review is quoted in Old Men In Love, and for his pains the critic has his name misspelled. “However, I don’t rule out the idea of something else turning up. After all, my first novel was meant to be my last, too. My best-laid plans are inclined to gang agley. And I’m quite pleased about that.”

Old Men in Love contains a critical epilogue by Sidney Workman, who also features in Lanark. According to the text, Gray sends manuscripts to Workman with the injunction: “The severer the better!” There is perhaps more reason to be severe with Old Men in Love. Workman (who, for the benefit for those who haven’t twigged, is Gray himself) calls it a ‘ragbag’ stitched together by artificial means, and Gray does not contradict him. The self-confessed plagiarist admits that his new novel borrows from his own past work ‘hugely’. It adapts the scripts of two plays written for television in the 1970s: one about the trial of Socrates (produced as The Gadfly in 1977, with the poet Christopher Logue as the philosopher), and the other about a 19th-century clergyman and apostle of free love. These are combined with a Florentine drama about the Renaissance painter Fra Filippo Lippi. ‘Old Men in Love also has extracts from my commentaries in The Book of Prefaces, some passages from my political pamphlets, as well as some recent journalism. Oh yes! I cannot claim to originality in any form as far as this book is concerned.’ Previous novels, including The Fall of Kevin Walker (1985) and Something Leather (1990), similarly plundered earlier works written for the stage. ‘If somebody thinks they are second-rate fiction, I wouldn’t quarrel with them. I would say this is because the plays were second-rate drama.’

In the introduction to a new edition of Lanark, William Boyd explores the comparison frequently made between Gray’s novel and James Joyce’s Ulysses. But the parallel is less useful than another, more obvious one: Gray occupies the place in the last quarter of 20th-century Scottish literature that Hugh MacDiarmid commanded in its first two quarters (the years between 1950 and 1975 were relatively hungry ones). Like MacDiarmid, Gray is a lifelong socialist, and the narrator of Old Men in Love hopes to present ‘a vision of self-governing Scotland becoming a unique example of good socialism’. The spirit of influence is correspondingly cooperative: as MacDiarmid opened up the avenues of Scottish poetry and criticism, so Gray has cleared the path for succeeding generations in other fields.

‘There’s more of it,’ he says of the difference in Scottish creativity, pre- and post- Lanark. ‘There’s more self-confidence. What’s important is that anybody, anywhere, feels that their country is the centre of attention, or is known elsewhere, and not just as a quaint outpost. Anyone in Paris is aware that this is the city of Balzac. People need their own art to keep themselves alive, conscious and confident.’

The most-quoted lines in Lanark come in a scene in which Duncan Thaw looks over Glasgow city centre in the company of a friend. ‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ the latter says. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that?’ Thaw replies: ‘Because nobody imagines living here. If a city has not been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.’ The big music of the lion rampant has drowned him out.