WHEN I think now of Alasdair Gray, who died a day into his 86th year as 2019 gasped its last, the first thing that comes to mind is the opening sentence of Saul Bellow’s rambunctious novel, The Adventures of Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that sombre city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way...” Replace American with Scot and Chicago with Glasgow and what Bellow wrote could equally apply to Alasdair. He was Glaswegian to his core and lived there all his life, free-style, going at things as best he could and making a record in his inimitable manner.

His was a life dedicated to art. He had no immediate role models but must have known, through his prodigious reading in Riddrie Public Library, that it would not be easy for an artist to survive and thrive in a country like Scotland. Riddrie was where his formative years were spent and to some extent it was his Eden. As a wide-eyed child, he believed that the inhabitants of his estate belonged to the British upper-class. They were, he recalled, “the makers of things”: nurses, postmen, shopkeepers, printers, schoolteachers, doctors and civil servants, who “kept the country going”.

Alex, his father, worked as a clerk in a housing association and, like many of his generation, found release from daily drudgery in the hills. He was a founder member of the Scottish Youth Hostels Association. “When climbing Sgurr Alasdair in Skye,” recalled his son, “he was told the mountain’s name was Gaelic for Alexander, so it was given to me.” His mother Amy was his first audience. While she sewed and knitted Alasdair entertained her with stories he’d written and illustrated. In family photographs, he was often posed with a book in his hands, more often than not placed there by his parents.

Aged 12, Alasdair discovered the Monkland Canal, which to him was like happening on the Coliseum, “proving people here had once done gigantic things, so they might do them again – a wonderful idea.” It is perhaps fanciful to suggest that the seed, the idea, the ambition, of creating something great and memorable in his native city was instilled in Gray that day but I will anyway. As his memoir A Life in Pictures demonstrates, he regarded Glasgow and its inhabitants as his subject. It had everything a curious, introverted, asthmatic boy could dream of: galleries and factories, foundries and museums, libraries and towering tenements, and he made it his vocation to celebrate it in paint and print.

Lanark, published in 1981, was greeted as representing the first time the Empire’s Second City had been given its due in fiction. This is more or less accurate. Until then most folk knew it best from the 1930s potboiler No Mean City, set in the slum underworld where razor gangs ran amok. If any book can be said to sully a place’s reputation it surely did. A huge bestseller, it created an image of Glasgow – sooty, violent, crime-ridden, drink-addled, amoral – that proved hard to shrug off. By the 1960s, however, things were beginning to look up. In 1966, when Beatlemania was at its zenith and England snaffled the World Cup, Archie Hind produced The Dear Green Place, a fine first novel featuring a young man desperately trying to be a writer. Then, a little over a decade later, came Alan Spence’s epiphanic collection of stories, Its Colours They Are Fine, which was greeted with critical hosannas and mentioned in the same breath as James Joyce’s Dubliners. When, subsequently, Lanark was published it was also linked with another of the Irishman’s books, Ulysses, the insinuation being that Gray had done for Glasgow what Joyce had done for Dublin. It is hard to argue otherwise.

Lanark’s gestation was long. Its blurb says it was 10 years in the writing but Alasdair said he started it when he was 18, which means that it took three times that to find its way on to bookshelves. Sections appeared intermittently. One chapter was a runner-up in the 1958 Observer short story competition. Two other chapters turned up in Scottish International magazine in 1969. Its launch, on 26 February, 1981, at the then Third Eye Centre in Sauchiehall Street – now the CCA – was where I first clapped eyes on Alasdair. He was seated towards the rear of a room crowded with liggers and attempting with difficulty to squeeze on a pair of new-looking shoes with Billy Connolly in attendance. Had Alasdair arrived unshod? Or were the shoes a gift to mark a special occasion? Who knows. Over the coming years, every time I met him I meant to ask where the shoes had come from but never did.

Books, as Alasdair knew from his familiarity with illustrated children’s classics, could be beautiful to look at as well as to read. Lanark was joy to behold, thanks in no small part to the indulgence of its publisher, Stephanie Wolfe-Murray of Canongate. My copy has a bookmark in which “Distraught, Islington” tells a “A Doctor of Literature”: “I think I have caught Lanark. What can I do about it?” to which the patient is advised to drink heavily and not to worry. “If you do, see a doctor.”

Such playfulness added to Lanark’s allure if not its comprehension. While fans of the avant garde, such as Anthony Burgess, lauded it others were perplexed by its fusion of naturalism and science fiction, and the author’s obscure allusiveness and rapacious gimmickry. Not without reason were Lewis Carroll, Flann O’Brien, Walt Disney, Tom Leonard, John Milton, Edith Sitwell and many others cited in its “Index of Plagiarisms” among those from whom Alasdair had borrowed.

Having finally completed his magnum opus books began to appear as if from a previously untapped well: Unlikely Stories, Mostly, 1982 Janine, Something Leather, Lean Tales (with James Kelman and Agnes Owens), Poor Things, The Book of Prefaces and many more. He wrote poems, plays and polemics in favour of independence, while continuing always to paint.

I first interviewed him in the 1980s for a London newspaper. We arranged to meet for lunch at The Buttery, situated on what felt like the hard shoulder of the M8. After half an hour twiddling my thumbs I called Alasdair who had completely forgotten about our appointment. He promised to be with me asap. He appeared paint-spattered with his fly at half mast and looking as if he had been dragged through a hedge backwards. When he spoke, it was loudly and in a Babel of accents: Bearsden, pub Glaswegian, German. Sex was a recurring topic, which led to much tut-tutting from besuited diners.

Occasionally, I would receive a letter from Alasdair. He was always keen to support other writers and would offer reviews. One such was in praise of Agnes Owens’ Gentlemen of the West, “the first British novel about a bricklayer in a housing scheme that was thought a great gift to the working classes in the 1950s because each flat had a hot-water bathroom and inside lavatory...” On another occasion he and his co-author Angus Calder sent an outline for a 500-page Home Rule Handbook, which would teach Scots how to govern themselves. Parts of the projected volume appeared in the Scotsman but the rest never materialised.

The last interview I did with Alasdair was seven years ago. He was too busy, he said, for a face-to-face meeting and proposed a dialogue by email. My questions turned out to be much longer than his answers. Had he realised himself? “No, because I have never known what myself is.” Had he read a biography that had been written about him? “Yes." Were he to interview himself what question would he like to ask? “None I could answer.” What might be his legacy? “Whatever people notice that I have left behind.”