Peter John Meiklem, 'Pearls of Gray' (The Big Issue Scotland, 652, 11/10/2007)
Peter John Meiklem dives into a loquacious ocean with Scotland’s iconic man of many letters, words, stories, images and opinions, Alasdair Gray. It’s a search for the secrets of new novel, Old Men In Love, and Gray’s diverse passions.
An afternoon in conversation with Alasdair Gray, for many Scotland’s greatest living writer, is like drowning in a vast ocean. An endless sea of words that, only occasionally, is broken by an image, idea of quotation that – like the dream of a lifeboat – is gone before you can ever get hold of it.
Interviews, Gray reflects, are ‘easy.’ At 72 years old, he’s done enough of them not to worry too much anymore. His appearance seems designed to drive home the point: he answers the door in his dressing gown and pyjamas, he has one sock on; his hair is a tousled refugee home for abandoned combs.
He’s doing interviews to promote his new book Old Men In Love, his first novel in 13 years, and a weird mish-mash of history, politics and sepulchral sex with teenage girls. Gray fans will know all about this – various ladies are spanked, tied up or otherwise chastised throughout his fictions – but many (especially those who know him for his pretty pictures) won’t and there’s a boyish delight when the author mentions his earlier ‘sado-masochistic lesbian sex fantasy’ book Something Leather.
His latest book isn’t made from such adult orientated stuff. But Gray’s new book does, like some jittery jazz musician, riff scattily away on the theme of love and what that might mean today, yesterday, and right back to the time of ancient Athens when they were executing the famous philosopher Socrates for being too clever by half.
After listening to Gray (who Anthony Burgess called the ‘best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott’) spent 20 minutes partially answering one question, you begin to know how the ancient Athenians must have felt. But these are more civilised times and it’s worth wading through 101 digressions to discover what Gray makes of that overexposed of emotions.
‘The highest form of love to anybody, I would assume, is to live amicably with them. Not to be bossing them and not depriving them of anything. In fact, to allow other people the same degree of freedom I would want myself.’
Gray, perhaps a man from a disappearing era, walks it like he talks it. The first thing you notice in the famous writer’s kitchen are the white knickers – presumably his wife’s (Morag McAlpine, a second hand book dealer) – hung out to dry on the handles of the kitchen cupboards. Gray has to remove a pair of pants to make us a cup of tea. Now if that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.
‘I’m a married man,’ he laughs heartily. ‘If it is impossible for a married men to be in love with their wives then I’m afraid I’ve give it [marriage] up entirely. I believe my wife and I still love each other.’
Gray, who has written stories and painted pictures since he was small, first appeared on the literary scene in 1981 with the publication of his book Lanark. Taking at least 25 years to write it was hailed as Scotland’s first ‘post modern classic’, often mentioned in the same breath as James Joyce’s Ulysses. He followed it up with a book on politics, alienation, society, spanking and a rip roaring trip around the Frankenstein myth called Poor Things. These days he’s just as well known for his art, having in the last few years painted trendy Glasgow pub Oran Mor, the cover of a Scottish themed album ‘Ballads of the Book’ and even designed the cover for the Big Issue’s Scotland special.
Today, sitting by the electric fire in his cluttered west end of Glasgow flat, Gray remembers the first time he got an inkling of what love could mean for him.
‘It was 1940, which put me into my second year at primary school, I noticed there was a girl on the other side of the passageway who filled me with very strong feelings. I hadn’t the faintest notion of sexual intercourse or how it was played or performed. I knew kissing was supposed to be a rare adult activity. Indeed, there were party games that involved kissing but I found they didn’t give a great deal of pleasure at all. Nevertheless, there was this girl and she fascinated me. I can still remember her name. It was Christine Gracey.’
That particular tale is, though altered around the edges, recycled in his new book as the memory of his central character John Tunnock. Gray does this a lot. Most of Lanark is semi-autobiographical but, he chuckles, ‘with the-happy bits cut out and made far more miserable.’ When he answers a question he often drops in a story you recognise from one book or another. The habit, an almost enduring one, begs a burning question: is there anything too reuse for a book?
Gray goes completely silent for the first time since we were introduced. ‘No.’ His voice changes, losing a little of the theatricality he’s so fond of. ‘The most sacred thing was my mother’s death and I’m afraid I used that in Lanark, getting as near to it as I could, because I felt I owed her truth. I mean, in many ways, the way her life had been sad and unsatisfied.’
Gray brightens suddenly, an actor on stage again. ‘But as any feminist will tell you most women’s lives are like that.’ He shrieks and hoots like a goose with a fox at its backside.
The writer has already revealed his mother ‘came from a working class who believed the highest expression of personal love’ was providing the young Gray with three square meals a day. The writer often talks about family. He’s got a son – to his first wife – who lives in the United States and a 12 year old granddaughter, Alexandra. The new book is dedicated to her. He’s drawn her pictures inside the dust jacket and ‘hopes very much indeed that she’ll like it.’
When pressed on whether or not he’d like his granddaughter to read his novels Gray shakes his head, looking at me like I’ve just suggested that Santa’s been killed in a three car pile up with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.
‘If she were living with me I’d surround her with other people’s books,’ he says. ‘Alice in Wonderland, Hans Andersen’s fairy tales, and other stuff. Since she’d be a modern kid, and thus very fond of television, I’d let her read anything she enjoyed.’
Mid question, the telephone rings and Gray answers it organising some work to come. He asks me to scoot through to the bedroom and get his calendar, which I do taking a quick nosy. The whole flat, even the bedroom, seems colonised by Gray’s work. Strange half completed faces watch from the walls, and there are, predictably enough, books everywhere. Sometimes Gray’s paintings and books have told their audience to work as if they were in the early days of a better nation. Does Gray believe that this time has come?
‘I don’t know. I think there are signs that we can be. Then again, Britain, which I think of as a good nation, isn’t as good as it used to be. After the second world war we were showing the way to the future because, unlike America, we were inhibiting monopoly capitalism and taxing millionaires out of existence. Today, everything that was social and municipal has been privatised or is being privatised.
A stinging left wing polemic, and no mistake. When asked personal questions, Gray manufactures lengthy linguistic side steps and second hand stories, but get the writer on politics and Scotland’s future and if the blood of an old man does not race, then it certainly heads off at a good canter.
‘These days I vote SNP but I think it would be good if people voted for a candidate that didn’t automatically vote with the party machine, but took an independent view. Though I do think the Scots should rule Scotland.’
Speaking to Alasdair Gray is like drowning in a vast ocean. Just before leaving his house he quips: ‘You can say that my defence mechanism against questions is to answer with completeness that leaves the interviewer wishing he was dead.’ That’s taking it a bit far. On leaving it’s good to remember the only way anybody can discover if they can really swim is to be found by diving into the depths.