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Gray’s anatomy of the bigger picture

As another section of the Oran Mor mural is unveiled, Andrew Davies-Cole speaks to artist and author Alasdair Gray

Alasdair’s the only man in Glasgow who doesn’t have a key to his own home.” So claims Alasdair Gray’s wife and secretarial assistant Morag McAlpine.

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The haste with which she has disembarked from the black cab – and the demeanour of the man himself at the ground-floor bay window – lead me to believe she’s not joking.

Gray’s look of disgruntlement tempered by relief might spark a fair first sketch for a portrait, bordered as it is by a pot of paintbrushes on the artist and author’s table. Any earlier and I would have been met with a closed door and no way to get in; an alarmingly apposite set-up for any would-be interviewer to deal with.

After Morag has rooted out the key, and Gray and I eventually do meet, his bad mood doesn’t last long. He settles into being affable and amenable quickly enough. “I think you could start by mentioning that you find me a fat, rather slovenly, slightly morose man in a very untidy library-living room,” he offers. In fact, this bears little resemblance to the sprightly character before me – short legs raised mischievously in the air by a well-worn reclining chair.

As we talk, Gray’s preoccupation with history becomes clear. He criticises Edinburgh’s summer Clan Gathering, the centrepiece of the year-long Homecoming celebrations (“It’s been worked out by a tourist board”) and makes comments on the demise of Scotland’s clan system (“The clan chief may have a major castle here and there that they visit sometimes, but they have other houses elsewhere”).

He also, as someone whose visual sensibilities are as finely tuned as those verbal, bemoans missed opportunities for both himself and his country in the genre of cinema. “It was Bill Forsyth that showed films could be made in Scotland and that it could work,” he says, “but we still don’t have a Scottish film industry despite his managing to make films here.”

Nevertheless, recent reports have hinted at an upcoming adaptation of Gray’s 1990 novel Something Leather, headed by young British film producer Michelle Eastwood. These do little to quell his disappointment that other similar crossover projects, such as the proposed cinematic versions of his novels Lanark and Whitbread Award winner Poor Things, have fallen on stony ground.

Gray admits that technological advancements should make the visually compelling world of Lanark’s infernal imagination more filmable, but his faith in such schemes being made flesh are far from being resurrected. That said, some of his storyboard for Lanark are featured in the newly published A Gray Play Book, from which he will read excerpts at Oran Mor in Glasgow tonight.

Set for publication next year, though, is A Life in Pictures, a book of collected images that will gather together Gray’s work as an artist. Happily, bringing the magic of his murals to life has been a more solitary venture, and in that, a more productive one.

“It’s chiefly a picture book dealing with the pictures I painted over the years,” he says, “although it starts in childhood with the pictures I enjoyed looking at over the years in other people’s books – the first works that shaped my imagination. The chapters run chronologically and the pictures match that. Earlier on there are murals and smaller paintings, and from 1982 onwards, book illustrations for my own books and the works of others form a part.

“Every 10 years or so a major mural is commissioned, and these are all included. I’ve been drawing people from my school and art school days for some time, and certain symbols have kept recurring and are getting united in the Oran Mor mural.”

At last we come to one of the main reasons for my visit. Begun in 2003, the Oran Mor mural finds its form among the vaults of the Auditorium in the Glasgow venue, a former church, whose name means “great melody of life”.

While the walls of the hall are adorned with harps and thistles, images recognisable from the tradition of heraldry, the ceiling takes “the heavens” as an overarching theme. Huge horoscopic figures bound across a dusk-blue sky, punctuated by various phases of the moon.

A facing wall depicts the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower and a space shuttle; each an example of man’s ingenuity but none far removed from the human remains lying by fossils of other creatures at the base of the busy image. And another of his “certain symbols” is conspicuous too – the cherub held within the skull.

“I’ve always been interested in the beginnings and endings of things, such as intelligence,” Gray has said previously. “Therefore embryos and skulls have always interested me… since one leads to the other, the combination of both has been a kind of logo for me… this winged baby inside a skull, like a kernel inside a nutshell is, I suppose, my private symbol of the resurrection.”

A similar image can be found in Gray’s Horrors of War mural, painted in the Scottish USSR Society headquarters in Glasgow’s Belmont Crescent between 1954 and 1957. With its crucifixion flanked by the grotesque aftermath of a nuclear attack, it is starkly contrasted with the famous Arcadia mural to be found in the city’s Ubiquitous Chip restaurant and bar. Portraits of pub regulars mingle amongst butterflies, peacocks, palm trees and impossible peaches as the invocation at the top of the stairs calls on patrons to “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”.

A Life in Pictures will doubtless enable readers to enjoy his more hidden, if no less major, pieces such as the Jonah and the Whale mural that emerged in Glasgow after years lurking beneath the wallpaper in a room formerly owned by Philip and Rosemary Hobsbaum. Originally painted in 1961, the work has recently been restored by the artist.

Also included in the book will be pieces such as The Thistle of Dunfermline’s History, a mural in the Fife town’s heritage centre that gives a nod to the painted ceilings made popular in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The work presents a sequence of historical portraits which, in the words of curator and historian Elspeth King, provides “a teaching piece, a timeline, a mappa mundi for Dunfermline”.

This, along with the monumental task Gray set himself in The Book of Prefaces, shows the self-belief of an artist fully confident in his power to offer a vision of the broad scope of things – the bigger picture.

As I rise to leave, I ask him how he finds interviews. “I enjoy them at the time,” he says, “but I never learn anything about myself.”

As he says this, I can’t help noticing the uppermost of a pile of books that’s formed a precarious column on the couch I’ve been sitting on in the “untidy library-living room” throughout our meeting. It’s The Road To Oz...

Alasdair Gray will be reading from his newly collected drama anthology A Gray Play Book and unveiling The Bronze Warrior’s Lost Arm, a new stage in the Oran Mor mural, tonight at 7pm. Tickets cost £10,

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